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Proliferation
Erik Otto
Otto deftly weaves together the details of a post-apocalyptic world, the ethics of artificial intelligence, and a pair of redemption stories for two vastly different characters. A loose stand-alone sequel to Detonation, Otto quickly establishes the key characters and the stakes of the story. The first chapter introduces the pirate mercenary Lexie, who is kidnapped by a bizarre monastic order known as Observers after she delivers a crucial piece of information. The second introduces Dryden, an alcoholic anthropologist whose obscure expertise in “awakening” cities suddenly brings him to the attention of the powers that be. Otto alternates their narratives in a manner that keeps the narrative moving at a steady clip.

The stakes are high, as the sentient super-city Haplopol mysteriously reappears after disappearing for centuries. One of several cities that once caused an apocalyptic event, designed to promote the well-being of its citizens but given limits to its geographical expansion, Haplopol and its larger sister-city Diplopol use hallucinogenic technology to turn humans into obedient tools dedicated to its expansion. Otto quickly establishes the ethical problems surrounding the cities as Dryden's knowledge makes him an asset for a power-hungry general and Lexi is chosen to help the Observers oppose a potential new apocalypse.

There are various side-quests along the way as the opposition seeks to awaken other lost super-cities to help them and Proliferation offers up betrayals, surprising twists, and thoughtfully articulated moral conundrums. Otto builds tension as his protagonists cross paths, resolving both of their personal story arcs while leaving room for future adventures. He does assume readers come to the novel with a certain familiarity with his world, as he introduces details like the technology-devouring creatures called retchers without much explanation, but Otto's empathy for his flawed characters grounds the technical details of this world. The result is a multi-layered narrative that doesn't skimp on action and intrigue while introducing a series of complex, relevant ethical problems.

Takeaway:Vivid post-apocalyptic world-building and engaging ethical dilemmas set this thoughtful science-fiction epic apart.

Great for fans of: Thomas Harlen, Alastair Reynolds.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: B

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The Job: Keep your enemies close and your target closer.
M.E. Saleh
Saleh (Facade) gracefully moves from contemporary romances to thrillers with her first in the genre, an appropriately high-octane tale that will reel readers in from the first page. Florida-based cancer research physician Leigh Harris is on the cusp of curing the deadly disease—and judging from the continuing attempts on her life, someone with power wants to prevent her from doing so. Or do they? And all signs seem to suggest that her businessman husband Andrew Donovan (if that’s really his name) isn’t who he says he is. Although Leigh is surrounded by a security detail—including her former SEAL brother—it’s tough to know who to trust, and if she trusts the wrong person, her life, as well as the lives of her family and millions of future cancer patients, could be on the line.

Saleh skillfully mines that fruitful “who can you trust?” hook from beginning to end, dazzling readers with twists, turns, and an ending they won’t see coming. Along the way, she creates a heroine worth rooting for and a host of supporting characters in various shades of gray, a nod to the fact that few people are completely perfect or completely evil (especially Andrew and Sam, the hired assassin.) By depicting these shades, and crafting full characters rather than stock types, Saleh makes readers truly care what happens to her cast.

Saleh also proves adept at keeping the red herrings coming, which keep the story engaging and surprising until the last page. A few editing clunkers distract, as do the uninspired scene-setting photographs that open each chapter, but the author’s deft plotting, perfect pacing, and shrewd sense of people will help readers overlook those issues. Readers who love thrillers will devour Saleh’s irresistible, multi-layered tale and hope for more—which the author seems to tease in her afterword.

Takeaway: Saleh’s initial foray into thrillers will delight readers who enjoy suspenseful, twisty stories.

Great for fans of: Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, Gillian Flynn.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: B
Illustrations: C+
Editing: B
Marketing copy: A

Powerballs: Be careful what you wish for.
Jimmy Clifton
A satiric comedy-adventure that arrives just in time for a midlife crisis, Clifton’s debut novel follows Henry Ball, an aging accountant who hates his boss, and his restless wife, Rose Ball, who hates her life, when the couple wins a billion-dollar lottery––just when Rose finally resolves to leave him after 20 years. Henry had lost his will to live but now insists their problems are fixed, but money, of course, doesn’t make everything right. So, they embark on their own adventures and explore their––now, unlimited––options. Henry ends up on a Russian oligarch’s yacht for a year, while Rose ends up traveling the world with a Colombian polo star (half her age). But not everything is as it seems. Just when they start to realize they miss each other and their home, they both face danger to their lives, to their relationship, and maybe to their fortune.

Clifton delivers a fast-paced comedy in a chipper, sometimes sarcastic tone about engaging characters, complete with a grounded ending that has nothing to do with the billion-dollar lottery ticket. Even when the stakes are high, Clifton never neglects the story’s wit or warmth, though it’s disappointing that the climax finds the “emasculated” Henry’s masculinity restored at the expense of Rose, who becomes (uncharacteristically) a damsel in distress. Still, though Henry and Rose have their flaws, they remain mostly likeable, especially Rose, who takes time on her own to seize a new independence and figure out what she really wants.

The plot gets wilder as it goes, with Clifton pulling off a feat of plate-spinning: He includes blackmail, diamonds, foreign prisons, motorcycle gangs, unlikely alliances, and an undercover sting operation, all without losing sight of the human story at the novel’s heart. A lively beach or commute read, this quick, cheerful parody of aging, capitalism, and marriage offers a little bit of everything––comedy, suspense, romance––and even some insights into the meaning of life.

Takeaway: The sunny comic adventure of a middle-aged couple who wins the lottery in the thick of their midlife crises.

Great for fans of: Tim Dorsey’s The Pope of Palm Beach, Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, Carl Hiaasen’s Lucky You.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: B

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Mountain Dream: Feel Inspired. Embark on Your Journey
Wei San Tang
Eager to inspire others to follow their own dreams, Tang shares her personal journey to building up the courage to fulfill her own wildest dream: a trek to Everest Base Camp, a 13-day trip ascending about 2,500 meters. Beginning with her childhood, Tang shares stories of travel with her family, including summiting Mount Kinabalu Malaysia’s tallest mountain, with her father. She relates life lessons he taught her along the way that helped her in going away to college and traveling to other countries for volunteer work. Ultimately, her never-give-up attitude and strength led her to climb to Everest Base Camp as a fundraiser for UNICEF, despite not being an expert climber. Tang relives every harrowing moment and what kept her going.

Broken into two parts, the book covers life experiences that Tang experienced that led up to her trek as well as the adventure itself. The closeness she has with her family, and the impact of her dad’s words are clear; he reminded her on their first climb that going up is only half the journey, and that taking care when going back down is just as important. Tang also describes how she overcame her resistance to do some things she wasn’t comfortable with, as well as what she learned from the experience.

The second part picks up speed, telling the detailed story of the trip to Everest Base Camp. Tang takes readers along for every triumph and every near defeat: “I remembered repeating these sentences in my brain, over and over again, ‘We can do this. One step at a time.’” Details of the places her group stops along, the people they meet, the gorgeous views they experience, and the freezing cold and high altitude of the mountain are palpable. Although the first half is a bit slow, and readers will want more details on some of her earlier experiences, Tang’s tale is inviting.

Takeaway: Adventure-minded readers looking for inspiration to follow their dreams will find inspiration in Tang’s journey to Everest Base Camp.

Great for fans of: Janet Patkowa’s The Impossible Long Run: My Journey to Becoming Ultra, David Clark’s Broken Open: Mountains, Demons, Treadmills And a Search for Nirvana.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A

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K-666: BRUTUS — The Mongolian Virus: War through biological weapons
Alessandro Boccaletti
Boccaletti’s globe-trotting followup to the sweeping Codex: The Origin of Thought offers a compact examination of what it would take for a nation to unleash and manipulate a global pandemic, with an emphasis on the why and how that’s rare in contemporary thrillers. In this case, it’s the president of China, in league with a group of investors, that’s plotting to release a virus discovered in a melting Mongolian glacier. The goal: forcing “the weak European and African economies into submitting to the Chinese will and a Chinese-controlled cure or therapy.” In the brief novel’s final third, the Russian and American governments take cooperative steps to counter the plot, but not before billions are infected.

Boccaletti considers himself a “science novelist,” and K-666 is certainly more attentive to the proteins and molecular structure of its titular virus than it is to the hearts and minds of its characters. The mode here is that of speculative, invented reportage, with briefings and accounts of strategic plotting taking the place of conventional scenecraft. Boccaletti is fascinated by global systems, by planning and logistics. Expect pages of slide-show presentations rather than two-fisted heroics or scheming stereotypes.

That means the novel reads more like a report of a thought experiment than a suspense novel. Still, the implications of a Chinese conspiracy, one suggestive of real-world conspiracy theorizing, will alienate many potential readers. Boccaletti’s villains, like the American and Russian leaders who counter them, are presented as actors in a game, their actions reported in the detached style of an official report. “Dr. Li and General Lou were duly informed,” he simply notes, after a brief summary of the kidnapping, questioning, and killing of some researchers, events most thrillers would milk for pages. Rather than linger on individuals, Boccaletti focuses on the big picture: How might this war game and far-fetched conspiracy actually play out?

Takeaway: This speculative novel imagines, from the perspective of science and systems, an engineered pandemic.

Great for fans of: Adam Kucharski’s The Rules of Contagion, A.G. Riddle’s Pandemic.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: B+
Editing: B+
Marketing copy: A-

Awakening Your Soul's Truth: A Powerful Guide for Transformation, Healing, and Consciousness Growth
Anya Goode
Reiki Master Teacher Goode offers an unusually clear, inviting, and practical guide to achieving a deeper understanding of the self through spiritual practice and techniques. Goode calls for the shedding of the “cloaks” that most people bear and have allowed to define us, and she avoids making grand promises for what her book can accomplish. For her, a “spiritual awakening” does not involve the universe unveiling its secret truths; instead, it’s simply “something lost and something revealed … a revealing of the self, no more and no less.” To that end, the lessons, exercises, and techniques laid out in Awakening Your Soul's Truth have been crafted to reveal and heal the self—and to lead it toward a more fulfilling way of living.

Drawing on her experience as a teacher, healer, and spiritual mentor, as well as occasional excursions into autobiography, Goode plays the role of upbeat coach, frankly acknowledging the challenges of achieving a spiritual awakening in a world where millions sleep beside their cell phones while also offering tools to “fast-track” that shedding of cloaks and individuals readers’ journeys down their own “healing and awakening path”s. She urges readers to examine the “taught beliefs” they may have learned, arguing that “Many of the people that carry [hateful beliefs] have never been exposed to anything outside of their cultural bubble.” She makes clear, though, that she wants readers to discover their own authentic beliefs rather than to become inculcated with hers.

That refusal to preach sets Goode’s book apart from the pack, as does the warmth and clarity of her guidance. Whether breaking down the “anatomy” of emotion (“Guilt is a control mechanism”) or the “dark night” of a difficult spiritual awakening, Goode emphasizes forgiveness, gratitude, boundary setting, and above all else that revealing and healing the self is a challenging, ongoing process. Rather than tell readers what to think and believe, Goode strives to unveil what’s already in us.

Takeaway: A warm, incisive guide to the spiritual awakening that comes revealing and healing the self.

Great for fans of: Martha Beck’s The Way of Integrity, Don Jose Ruiz’s The Medicine Bag.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A

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My Cat Is Blue
Sarah Sommer
One day a little girl notices that her previously playful cat has suddenly become listless and uninterested in doing the things he used to do. My Cat Is Blue, Sommer’s (The Goose on the Roof) evocative tribute to the loss of a pet, features not only Sommer’s signature rhyming prose but also well-considered and beautiful digital illustrations that help to tell the touching story: The cat, the narrator learns, is blue because of its loneliness after the death of the family dog. Younger readers will be able to “read” the story solely through the illustrations of the cat, watching him transform from blue all the way back to full color. Full of heart and compassion, the book successfully shows the traits of grief, feline or otherwise, giving kids a framework for their feelings.

Sommer’s rhyming can edge toward the gimmicky, with some forced pairings that don’t actually rhyme (“checkup/close-up,” “family/actually”). While rhyme is often employed in picture books to help smooth out reading, inviting readers to feel it’s easy to falter and stumble on those awkward pairings, possibly diminishing reader engagement. The choice to have the story focused on the cat’s emotions after a loss, rather than the human narrator’s, is interesting and unique, perhaps operating on the assumption that the feelings of animals will register more with young readers.

Focusing the story on the cat, however, still allows opportunity to look at the entire family’s grieving process (everyone slowly turns blue, too). This emphasizes that loss and healing both are often shared, a topic worth discussing. Ultimately a heartfelt tribute to the furry friends we lose along the way, My Cat Is Blue offers children an opportunity to identify what sadness can look like in pets, adults, and themselves and how we always move forward with happier days in mind.

Takeaway: Readers young and old will be moved by the rhyming prose and evocative digital illustrations as a cat and family grieves.

Great for fans of: Todd Barr’s The Goodbye Book, Judith Viorst and Erik Blegvad’s The Tenth Good Thing About Barney.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A-
Illustrations: A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A

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Human Rising: The Prohibitionist Psychosis and its Constitutional Implications
Roar Alexander Mikalsen
Mikalsen (Reason Is) takes on government corruption and its relationship to the war on drugs in this exhaustive analysis. Arguing in favor of legalizing all drugs, Mikalsen deconstructs “prohibitionist psychosis,” his term for what he identifies as the phenomenon of individuals and societies continuing to believe drugs are a problem in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. He argues that individual rights and modern government directly oppose each other, while marshaling anecdotal and scientific support to demonstrate why and how it’s imperative to “normalize relations between drug users and society.”

Mikalsen skewers politicians and the administrators of the “Drug Control Complex” alike, pointing out connections between world leaders and drug smuggling operations. In firm defense of drug dealers and users, he censures society’s criminalization of substances that “have been a central part of human experience and tradition for millennia” and delves into the signs of governmental shifts toward tyranny, all largely influenced by the power and wealth generated from the war on drugs. Mikalsen alleges that drug laws were initially methods of social control, portraying “prohibitionists” as individuals who rely on “fear, ignorance, and propaganda” to ensure compliance with their demands—and to protect Big Pharma’s profit margins.

Fans of complex, far-reaching conspiracy theories will be mesmerized by Mikalsen’s look at secretive organizations such as Yale’s Skull and Bones society (he contends Bonesmen “[hide] in the shade while continuing the age-old plot to control populations”), and his insistence on an “unholy alliance” between the Vatican, the CIA, and the Mafia. But such sweeping accusations diminish his argument that economic and political forces collude to keep the drug war active. He briefly addresses the usefulness of certain substances for tapping into mystical experiences and developing a new consciousness, but devotes few pages to the potential benefits of drug use, a point many readers who potentially agree with his conclusions will likely want to see further addressed.

Takeaway: A sweeping argument for drug legalization paired with a jeremiad against government propaganda.

Great for fans of: Colleen Cowles’s War On Us; Paula Mallea’s The War on Drugs: A Failed Experiment.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B-
Marketing copy: C

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Becoming Soul: Seven Steps to Heaven
El Alma
“We are souls,” El Alma declares in the introduction to this succinct, searching guide to what she sometimes calls the “seven steps to heaven,” the steps that, in her conception, we must pass through so that our individual, eternal souls find and fulfill their purpose in our lifetimes. Inspired by stages from the life of Jesus in the Gospels, the seven steps (beginning with “Silence” and ending with “Heaven”) correspond, in El Alma’s lyric narrative, to the birth and growth of a woman named Asina, born during World War II and developing, as a person and a soul, over the years that follow.

Rather than a didactic guide to reincarnation and to achieving harmony with the soul and creation, Becoming Soul leads by example, depicting Asina’s journey from child to grandmother, parallel to her soul’s journey, on this go-round through life, from “silence” to “hope” to “loss” and at last to Heaven. Aiding Asina is the literal Goddess, a “being of light” with the “essence of roses” who tells Asina, as she’s being born, “You’re not finished.” From there, El Alma tracks Asina’s ordinary but extraordinary life, a child who feeds the chickens and goes to school and mass wrapped “in the comfort of her Goddess.” Asina eventually chooses marriage and motherhood over the convent, a choice she doubts until Mary herself manifests and reveals her approval.

Such moments typify the brief narrative. Asina, as human as any of us, faces uncertainty and loss, but she’s urged through the seventh steps by a dazzling assortment of messages and revelations—and her own firm belief. Within the story, Asina inspires generations to believe in and persevere in their own paths through the seven steps, and to love, accept, and be resilient and courageous. El Alma has crafted the book to do the same, joining the human and the sacred in a warm, inviting text, ideal for Christian readers open to fresh spiritual ideas.

Takeaway: A welcoming account of a reincarnated soul’s sacred journey.

Great for fans of: Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s Reincarnation: The Missing Link In Christianity, Pieter J. Elsen’s When Souls Awaken.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A-

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THE HUMAN CONDITION: A PATHWAY TO PEACE AND FULFILLMENT
Bob Yari
This stimulating, straight-to-the-point guide offers ways for readers to "modify our own propensities, moving beyond our natural programming and instincts to better enjoy our lives.” Yari proposes that it’s urgent for humanity to open our minds, expand our patterns of thinking, and become receptive to truths and imperatives from outside the constraints of our established belief systems, organized religions, and traditional schools of thought. Yari argues that many of our ingrained assumptions and beliefs come from influences like our environment and social norms, and that actively seeking out ideologies or beliefs that might truly lead to happiness and fulfillment demands that we “stand outside our bubble of perception and look at ourselves from the outside.” In the compact The Human Condition he explores ways to navigate a new pathway toward a balanced lifestyle, a positive outlook, and a feeling of gratitude for all that this world has to offer.

With plainspoken precision, Yari delves into the human consciousness, our emotions, and the self-awareness that allows us to strive to understand what’s unknown in our "known" beliefs. Modifying one's thinking is a major theme throughout this book. Yari urges readers to step outside their beliefs, free of emotion or prior influence, and align with the base level functions of our minds, our bodies, and the universe. While he’s frank about the fact that any overhaul of years of ingrained thoughts and beliefs will be daunting, Yari writes with the persuasive and inviting—yet at times challenging—voice of a coach or guide.

This is an accessible, stirring, and thought-provoking (though occasionally familiar) consideration of the human condition that is brief enough to be read in one sitting, but heavy enough to reward time spent in contemplation.This book will resonate with any reader who is actively ready to explore their understanding of themselves with an open mind and take active responsibility for their path to happiness and wholeness within themselves.

Takeaway: A comprehensive self-help guide to reprogramming one’s assumptions and forging a path toward fulfillment.

Great for fans of: Napoleon Hill’s How to Own Your Own Mind, David J. Goleman’s Rewire Your Brain.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A

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Nostalgia Is Heartless: Book Two: The Heartless Series
Sarah Lahey
The second installment of Lahey's blessedly weird near-future sci fi series picks up with Quinn Buyers, an unemployed climate scientist now pregnant and living with her doomsday-prepper father. All she wants is some peace and quiet to try to figure out her life—and to search for her mother, who may have discovered the secret to time travel before disappearing. That peace is shattered by a shadowy organization run by Quinn’s ex-fiance, intent on using her mother's research to power a way off the dying planet. Accompanied by a pair of slightly paranormal teens, an existential AI in the shape of a meerkat, and her cyborg boyfriend, Quinn travels to Antarctica to find the truth—about her mother, about time travel, and about herself.

Despite the grim premise, the quirky characters lend a whimsical feel to the story, and Lahey is clever and inventive in imagining new technology while still dealing with relatable problems—the self-driving car won't let you leave without giving it a rating, and a hologram call still has trouble connecting. Some cultural aspects of this engaging story’s future may strike readers as discordant (three decades into the future, the movie Frozen still has cultural relevance, but people must explain the name "Einstein”), and the urgency of climate change see-saws: the planet’s lost clouds and the Antarctic ice shelf, but the main characters’ lives seem insulated from the consequences. The final revelation of who has been using the time portal, while not out of place thematically, is somewhat abrupt.

Lahey does, however, compellingly showcase 2050s technology, from homemade telekinesis machines to antigravity trucks. The plot builds slowly but deliberately, ratcheting up the interpersonal stakes before escalating sharply into a gunfight and an exciting high-tech chase that all culminates in a wilderness survival trek. Alternately funny and philosophical, this story paints a vivid, high-tech world while still packing an emotional punch.

Takeaway: This near-future story of a world ravaged by climate change will delight lovers of both romance and action sci-fi.

Great for fans of: Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B+
Marketing copy: A

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The Destiny and Signs of God: Spiritual Psychoanalysis
Ionel Rotaru
Promising nothing less than “specific solutions save yourself and our civilization from the nightmare of the material life,” Rotaru’s debut offers an epic-length account of his “first steps to a spiritual psychoanalysis” paired with teachings about communication with God, all rooted in a revelatory vision that Rotaru reports experiencing soon after immigrating to Canada from Romania. A psychiatrist and psychologist, Rotaru writes that “spiritual psychoanalysis” involves “techniques of communication with God, relationships between the spirit and the matter.” To re-orient our selves and our society from a focus on the material, he argues we must find the answers to questions like “What should we do to live in harmony with [God]?”

In practice, Rotaru’s spiritual psychoanalysis is related to meditation, an effort to “detect manifestations of negative energies in our lives and eliminate them through practical methods.” His teaching draws on established studies of chakras and negative energies, though Rotaru also presents much unique material, such as his conception of the “family law theory of the universe,” which posits that the relationships between God and matter, body and soul, and husband and wife reflect each other. “God commissioned me to deliver His spiritual message,” Rotaru declares, a claim that readers not on his wavelength may balk at. The same goes for his characterization of homosexuals and transgender individuals as “lost souls.”

A dense, lengthy mix of spiritual autobiography and prophetic screed, studded with bible quotes and summaries of conversations, this is not an inviting book. Readers curious about spiritual psychoanalysis first face over a hundred pages of family and personal history. Rather than lay out practical steps to aid in communicating with God, Rotaru considers a host of topics (tips for marriage; how the economic structure of a country shapes its citizenry; theories about souls) between passages about his life. This volume may appeal to believers open to spiritualism from outside traditional religion.

Takeaway: A provocative autobiography and spiritual journey that makes the case for a “spiritual psychoanalysis.”

Great for fans of: Sri Aurobindo, Neale Donald Walsch’s The Complete Conversations With God.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: B-
Illustrations: A-
Editing: C+
Marketing copy: C+

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What Is Ethics?: A Brief Guide to Better Understand Ourselves, Our Interactions with Others, and the Major Issues Facing Society
John Christopher Schoales
Schoales examines ethics from first principles by using evolutionary psychology to outline basic ethical motives and imperatives. While brief, 49 pages in total, What Is Ethics? covers a lot of ground, addressing core moral principles as well as specific contemporary problems and examples, with particular attention paid to income inequality. He views moral principles as existing in a kind of “moral hierarchy,” similar to that proposed by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which posits that the evolution of ethical thinking over millennia is echoed in each individual’s motivations toward strict self-interest, promoting the interest of the group of which an individual is a part, and promoting the good of others impartially. We tend, under stress, to revert to lower motivations, although ultimate satisfaction, Schoales contends, may be found on the higher planes.

Schoales hopes to increase readers’ understanding of their own motivations and make them better able to make decisions and cooperate with others. Schoales includes some diagrams which relate these various motivations to each other – some of which are enlightening but others of which fail to shed light on his point. His thinking is fairly original, though he makes good use of the thinking of classic ethicists such as Rawls, Hobbes, and Mill among others. Considering the sweep of the book’s title, though, readers may wonder how his analysis relates to the work of more modern and contemporary ethicists.

While some may find fault with elements of his analysis, his dispassionate view of human behavior gives food for thought as we make the innumerable ethical decisions we each face every day. With thought toward motives, as Schoales argues, we can consider the actions of others more impartially and without bias in order to better understand them rather than simply bless our ethical instincts with “legitimacy and objectivity.” Through this brief introduction to ethics, the reader can learn a flexible yet powerful system of moral motivations to understand decision-making.

Takeaway: Students of ethics and human behavior will find this brief guide to ethical motives thought provoking.

Great for fans of: Russ Shafer-Landau’s A Concise Introduction to Ethics, Simon Blackburn’s Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: C
Illustrations: B-
Editing: B
Marketing copy: A-

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The Redemption of the Damned
Jonathan Arnowitz Taylor
Set in Detroit during the dawn of the 1980s, the second volume of Taylor’s striking “Goldberg Variations” finds now college-aged Jamie Goldberg coming out to his liberal parents in the hopes of acceptance. Instead, he’s thrown out and told not to return until he is “cured” of his condition. With nowhere else to go and his college classmates becoming more and more hostile by the day, Jamie switches his major from law to theater before embarking on a self-destructive journey: beating Don Giovanni’s record of having over 2,000 different sexual partners. “I now needed daily proof that I was not ‘damaged goods,” Jamie confesses, heartbreakingly.

His real path forward is to learn to love himself despite the viciousness of society. Readers will be put through the ringer as Jamie strives to find and be himself in an era where even discussions of homosexuality were often still taboo. Jamie’s anxiety is infectious as he faces rejection of his confessions of love, plus psychology articles on “the homosexual panic,” tales of a gay cousin who embarrassed his family only to commit suicide, and vicious campus gossip regarding his sexuality. Only by recognizing and examining suppressed childhood trauma does Jamie come to understand his persistent need for acceptance … and begin to provide that same love for himself without outside support.

With rare power and disarming frankness, Taylor hones in on Jamie’s pain and struggle for acceptance, challenging readers to experience vicariously the ordeals he endures in a time not too far removed from our own. A sobering examination of recent LGBTQ history, Jamie’s wrenching trials and tribulations—and some revelations that will leave readers reeling—offer much to learn from. ’While this is the second book in the series, The Redemption of the Damned stands alone, though new readers on its wavelength will likely seek out its predecessor. Taylor has penned an unstinting portrait of doubt, fear, and self-hatred—and of finding a way out.

Takeaway: A wrenching, potent novel of coming-of-age gay in Detroit in the Reagan era, and one young man’s discovery that he’s worthy of love.

Great for fans of: Tom Spanbauer’s In the City of Shy Hunters, Edmund White’s A Boy's Own Story.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: B

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War Bunny
Christopher St. John
A bunny decides she’s had enough and dares to shake up the natural order in St. John’s unusual and thought-provoking post-apocalyptic debut. In a far-future world where humans are gone and animals thrive, Anastasia the bunny is different from the other rabbits—she asks questions about their god, Yah, and why, if he loves the rabbits, Yah would expect them to be “Glorified” by the “Blessed”–which means eaten by predators. Considered mentally ill and dangerous to the warren, she’s kicked out. After successfully repulsing a fox on the prowl, Anastasia has an awakening that leads to a revolution: maybe Yah’s on board with bunnies fighting back.

Going beyond simply telling a story, St. John dives into the dangers of blind faith and how societies react when someone questions shared beliefs. Anastasia’s internal turmoil is palpable as she tries to find a balance between Yah’s love and his apparent intent that rabbits be eaten. Gathering information from the “Readers” and “Rememberers” in charge of interpreting books and history from the Dead Gods (humans), along with Yah’s writings, Anastasia makes her own interpretation, concluding that defense should be acceptable as long as none of the Blessed are killed. The other rabbits’ responses range from fear of heresy to the conviction that she’s their savior.

St. John also spotlights the treatment of those who are different. Once Anastasia is kicked out, her only goal is survival and to dig a safe burrow for herself, but when word about her actions gets out, other ostracized bunnies come searching for safety. Although building a new warren is not her intention, she never turns anyone away–including mice and squirrels– and draws out the strength in each to help defend the warren as a new family. Although readers will be left with questions at the end, the journey and lessons getting there will be worth it.

Takeaway: This post-apocalyptic rabbit tale of daring to question society is tougher and more creative than most animal fiction.

Great for fans of: Richard Adams’s Watership Down, David Petersen’s Mouse Guard.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: C

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Tied With Twine
Pam Records
This intimate historical epic, set among the Polish community on Chicago’s South Side during the days of Prohibition, finds then old world crashing into the roaring 20s, as the immigrant residents of Hegewisch see their lives of stubborn tradition upended by bootleggers, scandal, and the whiskey wars. At the center of it all is young Halina, a whipsmart young dreamer who has been funding an escape from the neighborhood by working odd jobs and trouncing the locals at poker. Her plan: buy a train ticket someplace, anyplace, and study nursing. But as gang violence spills into the streets, and she’s visited by disorienting visions, Halina finds herself embroiled in her hometown’s escalating dramas, including the theft of her stash, the mysterious plans of Romani healer Baba, a crisis involving her sister Pactriz, and the gangsters’ discovery that Halina’s quite good at patching up wounds.

Halina’s the novel’s heart, but Records is admirably attentive to her milieu, persuasively summoning up a lost world of potato soap, healing teas, bootleg rotgut, and Old Country curses. The richly detailed narrative has been crafted to immerse readers rather than rush them through the adventures of Halina; expect to get to know Hegewisch’s grocer, barber, and newstand proprietor, as well as how its people think, talk, love, drink, pray, and fight.

“How did she get sucked into her sister’s problem?” Halina wonders, late in the book. “And Augie’s problem? And Joey’s? She didn’t even like Joey, the big, boastful blowhard.” In Tied With Twine, being from a place—of a place—brings with it responsibility. Halina yearns to escape Hegewisch, yet she treasures an amulet of Baba’s and can’t help but help everyone she cares for and even some she doesn’t. Compassion overwhelms her even when confronting a man who terrorized her as a child. This tender, sweeping novel has its share of Chicago gangsters and crime-scene brutality, but it’s no crime story—instead, it’s a moving story of protecting what matters most.

Takeaway: This riveting historical novel of Prohibition-era Chicago finds a Polish woman doing all she can for her neighborhood.

Great for fans of: Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls, Dominic A. Pacyga’s American Warsaw.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A

Click here for more about Tied With Twine

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