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Of Epidemic Proportions, Expanded Edition, 2019
Sylvia R. Karasu, MD
In this expanded edition of her 2018 essay collection, Karasu (The Gravity of Weight: A Clinical Guide to Weight Loss and Maintenance), a clinical professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine, authoritatively examines the fraught topic of body weight. In 100 concise and meticulously researched essays drawn from her blog, The Gravity of Weight, she exhaustively tackles topics related to every aspect of weight, including bariatric surgery, cellulite, the famed “freshman 15,” and the relationship between depression and binge eating.

Sometimes Karasu overreaches on social issues—as when she lists a number of situations in which obese people face discrimination but then says voters assessing candidates for higher office “certainly should [take obesity] into consideration” (though “the situation is clearly a complex one”)—but her grasp of the latest science is strong, and she explains factual findings well. Readers will be intrigued by her writing on discoveries such as irisin, a hormone found in skeletal muscle that may benefit those with conditions that preclude exercise. Her examinations of how circadian rhythms and sleep deprivation affect weight are especially fascinating. She often refers to publications by year alone, or even with vague phrases such as “several years ago”; full citations would be helpful for those who want to use her brief overviews as jumping-off points for further research.

Karasu adds visual appeal with lavish illustrations (most from before the 20th century, going back to illuminations from medieval manuscripts). Her expertly crafted writing is ideal for academics already grounded in the topic (language such as “epigenetic modifications can be reversible or stable, as well as occur randomly or induced by changes in the environment” is ubiquitous) and the book is well suited to classroom and library use.

Takeaway: This scrupulously researched collection of essays on the latest science around obesity is perfect for an academic audience.

Great for fans of Perri Klass, Morgan Spurlock.

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

Water is Wider
Marie Green McKeon
In McKeon’s thoughtful but sometimes implausible second novel (after A Balm in Gilead), a runaway in search of her missing father forms a tight bond with a meek middle-aged woman whose life is slowly imploding. Though the two don’t meet until nearly halfway through, their stories move in restless tandem until Sidney O’Neill discovers 11-year-old Phoebe Locke hiding in her suburban Pennsylvania home. Sidney, a proofreader and self-described spinster, is stuck in a rut; she wears ill-fitting 20-year-old pants and eats lunch with women she doesn’t like. Her mother, Agatha, called all the shots, and after Agatha dies, her voice remains in Sidney’s head. Cowed even by young Phoebe, Sidney decides to let the girl stay with her. Meanwhile, Phoebe’s stepmother, Adele, is shaken by fear and self-recrimination over Phoebe’s absence.

McKeon creates strong empathy for Phoebe, Sidney, and Adele, powerfully exploring mother-daughter dynamics at varying stages of life. The characters aren’t entirely believable, though: Phoebe is preternaturally quick on her feet, while Sidney hasn’t noticed that pay phones have all but disappeared. Sidney’s behavior with J.T., her increasingly paranoid and disturbed colleague at the failing Poppy Press, exhibits such poor judgment as to fail the credibility test. McKeon provides some backstory for J.T.’s downward mental spiral and rants about the IRS and terrorists, but that doesn’t explain why Sidney finds him “mesmerizing” and is willing to tolerate his uninvited, unwanted intrusions into her life even after realizing he might be genuinely dangerous.

Some of the story’s pivotal moments hinge on obvious contrivances: Sidney’s decision not to call Adele and send Phoebe home, Adele’s unwillingness to tell Phoebe why her father abandoned the family, and the menacing reappearance after 50 years of Sidney’s father. These flaws aren’t fatal, but they reduce the story’s emotional impact. McKeon’s novel is at its strongest when it puts chosen and blood families under the microscope.

Takeaway: This exploration of mother-daughter relationships, biological and otherwise, will resonate with readers of women’s fiction.

Great for fans of Jodi Picoult, Kristin Hannah, Luanne Rice.

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

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Climbing Higher: Answering the Big Questions
Robert Wheeler
Wheeler’s engrossing book is part mountain-climbing memoir and part philosophical treatise. In simple prose and with an ebullient sense of curiosity about the world, Wheeler describes his experiences climbing mountains in minute detail, pairing these recollections with broad, sweeping attempts at synthesizing thousands of years of ontology, religion, psychology, and neurological studies. The book centers on what Wheeler identifies as the “ontological imperative,” which he defines as the human need to strive for difficult goals and face the unknown—an urge for which mountain-climbing is the perfect metaphor, as it tests the climber physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Starting with his climb of Japan’s Mount Fuji, a narrative of each climb (illustrated with Wheeler’s own lovely photos) ties into one of the philosophical concepts he introduces, such as awe, a sublime appreciation of beauty that he feels surveying the view from Mount Aconcagua in Argentina. Wheeler is especially interested in mountains that are considered to be sacred spaces and maintains a strong awareness of the mystical experience that can accompany the physical experience of climbing. He doesn’t preach; rather, this is an undogmatic exploration of ideas that have drawn and driven him for over 80 years.

The history of human consciousness and motivation is a huge topic, but Wheeler successfully breaks down these complex ideas with clear summaries, sometimes slightly oversimplifying. If his mountain-climbing memories ramble a bit at times, his writing style is so pleasant and inviting that it doesn’t matter much, and readers here for the joy and musings can easily skip the dry appendices of psychology research. The alternation between Wheeler’s personal experiences and his philosophical theories keeps the book lively and readable. This book is a conversation, both with himself and the reader, and through a willingness to reach out and ask questions he is able to come to a few tentative conclusions while bringing the reader on a purely delightful journey.

Takeaway: Readers interested in both physicality and philosophy will savor Wheeler’s blend of climbing memoir and quest for the meaning of life.

Great for fans of Climbing: Philosophy for Everyone, edited by Stephen E. Schmid; John Kaag’s Hiking with Nietzsche: Becoming Who You Are.

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

Alycat and the Tournament Tuesday
Alysson Foti Bourque
In Bourque’s charming fourth picture book featuring anthropomorphic cat Alycat (after Alycat and the Friendship Friday), Bugsy, Alycat’s brother, learns a lesson about relying on himself rather than on luck. As the feline family is leaving for Bugsy’s golf tournament, he realizes he forgot his lucky golf ball, one with a star on it. His sister nearly stepped on it earlier, but she’s nice enough to run back into the house and get it for him. It isn’t until they reach the tournament green that Alycat realizes she brought the wrong ball. Hoping to teach Bugsy that he can succeed with or without the real lucky ball, she quickly draws a star on the new ball and hands it over. Naturally, he plays well even after he discovers the deception.

Civati’s clear, evocative digital illustrations underscore a lovingly written but slightly too earnest story. Poor Bugsy seems a bit harried; his parents repeatedly remind him that his skill comes from hard work and practice, and Alycat scolds him for leaving his ball where it could trip her. However, when Alycat manipulates her brother (with the best of intentions) and lies to him, she faces no repercussions—not even a stern look from their parents. Bugsy’s distress when he learns about the swap is waved away, as is a friend’s suggestion that Alycat simply fess up about having made a mistake.

The story is about Bugsy and his accomplishments, but it’s told from Alycat’s perspective, which makes it a little harder to give Bugsy full credit for playing well and overcoming his anxiety, and underscores the absence of any consequences for Alycat’s poor behavior. However, returning Alycat fans will be happy to see more of their favorite heroine and her visually diverse cast of feline family and friends. The book is also a beginner’s introduction to the sport of golf, with a helpful glossary in the back. Cat fans will be won over by the whimsical artwork and Bugsy’s triumph.

Takeaway: This sweet and beautifully illustrated story will captivate young cat fanciers and parents who want to teach their children about self-reliance.

Great for fans of Stan and Jan Berenstain, Janette Sebring Lowrey.

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

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Connecting Obsessions
Neil Mavrick
Mavrick’s heartwarming debut neatly combines time travel and romance. Environmentalist Richard Stevenson decided to travel from the 22nd century to 2010 after seeing a picture of Rachel Starr, a beautiful actress who committed suicide in 2017 due to trauma from being raped in 2012. Richard, who takes the name of Paul Lander, interrupts the rape and helps Rachel launch a successful acting career. They begin dating, get married, and enjoy an idyllic life with their twin girls while Paul works tirelessly to protect the environment. After Paul disappears in Australia, Rachel is devastated. Then she meets journalist Allan Dupre, who reminds her of Paul, and is happy with him until he too seems to vanish into thin air. Though Rachel suffers significantly from these losses, she finds the strength to go on with her life and enjoys the support of her daughters until Richard’s secrets are finally revealed.

Readers who love tales of grand passion will be drawn to the romantic concept of a man abandoning his life to travel back in time for a woman he’s infatuated with. The tender romance between Rachel and Paul is enhanced by Mavrick’s clear, concise writing and even pacing, continually holding the reader’s interest. The characters are solid, though Mavrick focuses on their actions, leaving their thoughts and feelings more obscure. Paul’s quest to save the environment from destruction, and Rachel’s determination to survive Hollywood with her spirit intact, help to round out both their personalities and the story.

Though the novel is set primarily in California with American characters, Mavrick sprinkles the dialogue with British vernacular such as “I reckon” and “Hollywood mums.” Readers will easily overlook this small flaw as they get to know the warm, affable protagonists and hope for them to finally find happiness. Richard’s impulsiveness and Rachel’s steadiness are perfectly complementary; they are truly a couple for the ages.

Takeaway: Romance fans will quickly become immersed in this tale of time travel, Hollywood fame, environmental activism, and profound love.

Great for fans of Great for fans of Audrey Niffenegger, Diana Gabaldon.

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

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When Angels Play Poker
Maura O'Leary
A cocky con man must prove his worth as a spirit guide in O’Leary’s uplifting debut. Jimmy, a sarcastic, self-serving, womanizing 64-year-old, has a heart attack while he is getting ready for a hot date and thinking about his brother Bob’s girlfriend, Maura. When he awakes in Heaven, Jimmy is annoyed that he missed out on his date, but he gets no sympathy from Master Norm, his jocular elder guide. After chastising Jimmy for being selfish during his time on earth, Norm introduces Jimmy to the workings of Heaven and assigns him the task of being a spiritual guide to Maura, since she was the last person on his mind when he died.

Though parts of the narrative are weighed down by limited character development, vague descriptions, and repetition, O’Leary’s story of a flawed but likable man is enticing. Jimmy works to overcome his faults and become a worthy guardian angel, while Maura navigates her inconsistent and confusing relationship with Bob and struggles with her self-esteem. She’s always felt connections with Heaven, and finds Jimmy’s presence in her life—creating dreams for her, playing oldies on her car radio—both awe-inspiring and unsettling. Jimmy’s rapport with those around him is entertaining, and O’Leary skillfully weaves in dramatic moments.

There is a delightful playfulness in O’Leary’s depiction of Heaven, where the residents communicate telepathically, live within marshmallow-like clouds (including “cloud cubes” for work), and play poker while they watch over their earthly charges on television-like display screens. The story clearly conveys a message about making the most of one’s life and trusting in angelic intervention as well as human intuition. The effective cliffhanger epilogue shifts the focus of the story to Maura and will leave romantics and angel lovers anticipating a sequel to this winsome novella.

Takeaway: This simple, sweet tale about trust and transformation will touch the hearts of those who believe in angels on Earth and in heaven.

Great for fans of Mitch Albom’s Five People You Meet in Heaven, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.

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

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West of Sin
Wesley S. Lewis
Lewis’s nonstop debut thriller careens from a dangerous sting against the Russian mob to a deadly battle aboard a skydiving plane as two unlikely heroes fall in love. Jennifer Williams, a real estate agent in her 40s, is driving through the Nevada desert to escape a broken heart. She stops at a convenience store just as a robbery is going down. Another customer, Matt Crocker, a firearms instructor grieving the line-of-duty death of his SWAT officer fiancée, manages to gun down the three armed robbers. The robbers worked for mob boss Vladimir Dudka, who’s furious that the cops now have the money his thugs were carrying. In revenge, he kills Jennifer’s boss and kidnaps her colleague Ashley. Jennifer and Matt concoct a scheme to retrieve Ashley that leads to a dramatic parachute dive off the Stratosphere Tower, a double-cross, and a lot more gunfire.

Lewis makes good use of his past as both a real estate agent and skydiving instructor. The parachute scenes are believable and informative. His depiction of Las Vegas is rich with detail, from Jennifer’s glitzy hotel to Matt’s grimy trailer, and the cast is well-drawn. Readers will love quick-thinking Jennifer, though some will be dismayed that she and others sometimes make deprecating remarks about her age.

Crocker comes across as a modern, more sensitive Jack Reacher, one who faints after killing the robbers (which the sheriff’s deputies tease him about) and is quick to swoon for Jennifer. While listening to mobsters speak Russian, he takes a moment to regret having studied Latin in college instead. Witty dialogue (the sheriff tells Jennifer, “You couldn’t’ve been any luckier if you’d been choking and found yourself seated next to Dr. Heimlich”) lightens the mood amid violence and tension. This highly entertaining novel will keep readers hooked.

Takeaway: Fans of zippy, high-tension thrillers with romantic and humorous elements will be enthralled by this fresh and original novel.

Great for fans of Ocean’s 11, Lisa Jackson’s Liar, Liar.

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

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Rescue the Teacher, Save the Child!
Paula Baack
Forced to retire after 46 years as a choir teacher, Baack embarks on a fervent effort to show readers the difficulties teachers experience and agitate for better treatment. Baack chronicles her experiences, both good and bad, with students, parents, fellow teachers, and administrators. She writes fondly about the fulfillment of watching each student progress and the joy of being a positive influence. She also records a few positive interactions with parents and administrators, but she mostly views them as unsupportive. After she spearheads a fundraiser for a student living in a shelter, she is accused of financial mismanagement and given negative evaluations, leading to the end of her career.

Clearly still hurt by this experience—she acknowledges that she’s “reluctant to let go, move on”—Baack details many situations in which she feels she was unjustly targeted and denied support. “The admin would say anything to rid themselves of me,” she declares, blaming ageism and entitlement. With only her perspective presented, it’s sometimes hard to know what really happened, though her pain is obviously real. She recounts leaning heavily on her Christian faith to get through these difficult situations, sometimes digressing into concerns about “a society devoid of God.”

Baack ends each chapter with questions (“If you disrespect a teacher, why?”) for students, parents, teachers, and administrators. She urges teachers to document every request, parent interaction, and expenditure; address parents’ concerns quickly; and demonstrate and enforce respectful behavior. Struggling teachers will be glad to learn that they aren’t alone and will appreciate Baack’s insights into managing a teaching career.

Takeaway: A teacher’s recollections of angry parents and unsupportive administrators make this memoir cathartic for educators who feel ground down by the system.

Great for fans of Jane Morris’s Teacher Misery, Melinda Ehrlich’s Take Off Your Hat and Spit Out Your Gum.

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

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Broken Pieces Behind the Mask
Ethel Mae
Mae’s short debut memoir, which recounts three decades of enduring abuse, neglect, and hardship, is painfully honest and leavened with sharp-edged humor. Raquel (the name Mae uses for herself) is a child of rape, born when her mother is only 20. In her childhood and teens, she is assaulted by boys and men and often beaten by her mother; at a school where she’s the only black girl, she endures racist aggression. Bouncing back and forth between England and Jamaica, she tries her best to make connections and protect herself, but the authorities refuse to help her, her friends abandon her, and her family is unsupportive. As Raquel reaches adulthood, she grows tired of being used by men and vows to use them instead, but all she really wants is to be loved.

After the exploration of childhood misery, the turn to gossipy romantic anecdotes is abrupt. The stream-of-consciousness narrative reads as though Raquel is talking to a best friend who will nod sympathetically even as she describes cheating on a boyfriend (who is himself cheating on his wife). She unapologetically puts her whole self on the page. “Circumstances had made her who she was,” she says as she forgives her mother, challenging readers to similarly empathize with and forgive Raquel.

The book ends with Raquel clawing her way out of suicidal depression and still struggling to build real connections. Some readers will be inspired by her grim persistence; others might prefer a more hopeful ending. A teaser for a sequel promises more romantic angst and fierce self-determination; it’s not clear whether Raquel will ever find peace or genuine love. Mae’s jokes and sarcasm (“Did he just lie there and, poof, a pregnancy materialized? Please!”) can be cathartic but may put off readers who find them too flippant. There’s much in her story that will resonate with those who are willing to accept Raquel as flawed but not unredeemable.

Takeaway: Readers looking for an inspirational story about surviving a painful and challenging life will sympathize with Mae’s tale.

Great for fans of Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, Kristina Jones’s Escaping the Cult.

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

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King Of The Blind
Caiseal Mór
In Ireland of 1788, young rebel Edward Sutler assassinates a British officer. Desperate to avoid pursuit, he hides in the cottage of illegal whiskey distiller Hugh Connor, whose offer of shelter comes at a price. Hugh insists that Edward compensate him for the trouble he’s caused, including the accidental death of Hugh’s treasured cow, Philomena. As Hugh considers Edward’s fate, he decides to educate him by telling the life story of his late master, renowned harper Turlough O’Carolan, a real historical figure about whom little is known. At first reluctant, Edward nonetheless finds himself absorbed in the tale of O’Carolan’s fortune and its origins in a pact made with the otherworldly Good People.

The legend of O’Carolan and the much more mundane reality Edward inhabits are equally entertaining. O’Carolan engages in a wild, lawless hurling match and elaborate pranks; Hugh plies Edward with whiskey and tries to set him up in an implausible romance with his granddaughter, Cait. Hugh’s account of O’Carolan’s life leaves room for readers to draw their own conclusions about whether his encounters with the Good People (“a fearsome warlike race of immortal beings,” not like “twee” English fairies) were real or dreams induced by a smallpox-related fever.

Although Hugh is presented as a knowledgeable narrator of O’Carolan’s life, this novel is clearly intended more as a celebration of music, adventure, and Irish culture than an attempt to peel away the many mysteries surrounding the real-life O’Carolan’s travels and compositions. References to events such as the Battle of the Boyne provide a clear grounding point, but the heart of the story is a celebration of of the traditional Irish harpist’s role and grief over its decline, which Hugh blames on the exile of the Irish aristocracy, poverty, and the rising popularity of European musical forms and artists. Mór’s tale is as whimsical as it is rich in historical detail.

Takeaway: This uproarious interweaving of harper Turlough O’Carolan’s life and compositions with late-18th-century plotting and shenanigans will delight anyone interested in Irish history, music, and lore.

Great for fans of Frank Delaney’s Ireland, Declan Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland.

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

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Driven by Conscience
Rachel Goss
Goss’s inspiring debut historical novel follows a young man on a fraught journey through many dangers. In 1942 Berlin, young Uwe Johannes, son of political dissidents and protégé of physics professor Werner Heisenberg, is drafted into Hitler’s army. Before departing for North Africa, he devises a plan to hide Heisenberg’s research for a powerful new bomb inside his father’s old military cross. After his capture and subsequent internment in a POW camp in rural Arkansas, Uwe is ambushed and beaten by violent prisoners who despise his sympathy for the Allies. While recovering in the hospital, he’s recruited by the camp’s director to use his math skills for a top-secret assignment in a local family’s home. Uwe agrees and hides his cross in their home, but it’s soon stolen in a burglary. He goes searching for the cross with the family housekeeper’s daughter, Fredericka—but, as a mixed-race duo in a segregated Southern state, the two friends face additional dangers.

Goss sprinkles the story with maps, photographs, and handwritten notes that bring the era to life. Small-town North Little Rock and its close-knit neighbors—including socialite Imogene, legless veteran Charlie, and the indefatigable Fredericka—breathe life into the sometimes pallid prose. Young paperboy George and his faithful dog, Porter, steal the few scenes they’re in. But as the characters proliferate and FBI agents, Russian spies, and teen thugs mix with choir directors, victory girls, and well-meaning parishioners, the story becomes too convoluted.

Uwe is an almost too-impressive protagonist who’s saved from a lofty pedestal by his naiveté around women. His most powerful moment comes when American strangers bring cups of ice water to the hot train carrying prisoners to the camp, and he’s moved to dedicate himself to the Allied cause. Goss’s theme of the value of kindness and shared humanity will resonate with fans of uplifting historical fiction.

Takeaway: Readers looking for an uplifting story of kindness and valor amid WWII’s dangers will enjoy Goss’s tale of a conscripted German physicist who devotes himself to the Allied cause.

Great for fans of Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Georgia Hunter’s We Were the Lucky Ones.

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

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The American Way of Empire
James Kurth
In this impressive and accessible work of scholarship, Kurth, professor emeritus of political science at Swarthmore, collects enlightening essays arguing that historic empire-building decisions—both successful and disastrous—shaped American foreign policy from the Revolutionary War to the present. A theoretical overview of imperialist structures leads to analysis demonstrating how Protestant beliefs created an “American creed.” Kurth then analyzes past military strategies and geopolitical events, examines how current strategies may affect the U.S.’s ability to accomplish its foreign policy goals, and thoughtfully extrapolates into the future.

The meticulously organized text helps the reader follow Kurth’s lines of reasoning. He makes connections that even dedicated readers of history will find both illuminating and applicable to current events, and novice readers can easily parse his ideas with the help of his strongly articulated theoretical framework. Kurth writes that the year 2001 ushered in “a long and trying period of descent and disintegration” from the peak of the triumph of the U.S. and its allies over Soviet Russia, and now sees that alliance system fracturing, suggesting “impending breakdown” both within the individual countries and in their alliances. He considers what might replace this geopolitical system and how the declining powers of the “Free World” will influence their successors. His essays provide an exceptional grounding in the whys and wherefores of American actions in relation to major powers such as Russia and China.

General readers will find some aspects difficult. Because the chapters were originally separate articles, primary concepts such as “the American way of war” are revisited in detail, which is an advantage for someone dipping into the book on different occasions but could prove irksome for some reading it straight through. The absence of maps is a challenge to readers interested in historical changes in boundary lines and areas of hegemonic influence. While not strictly necessary, such maps would be a bonus, particularly for a wider audience. Considered in terms of its arguments, however, this book has few flaws, and it would be a splendid gift for anyone seeking an in-depth look at the causes of current world tensions.

Takeaway: This deep dive into American imperial urges and their consequences will enlighten anyone interested in historical or present-day geopolitics.

Great for fans of Andrew Bacevich, Alfred McCoy.

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

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Embodying Soul: A Return to Wholeness
Keri Mangis
Yoga instructor Mangis’s whimsical but ultimately serious teaching memoir focuses on “embodiment”—seeing each person as an eternal soul taking on incarnation in a human skin for experiential learning—rather than on a more distant and rarefied “enlightenment.” She alternates between narrating a challenge-centered version of her life story and an imaginative fantasy of her soul packing its bags for this visit to the Earth Realm, accompanied by endless curiosity in the form of a wolf and strong emotions in the forms of snakes, which she must learn to see as flawed companions rather than as antagonists.

Mangis’s vision of the Soul Realm, which evokes the candy-colored aesthetic of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory or the Land of Oz with features such as the River of Forgetting, the Museum of Universal Truth and Cosmic Knowledge, and a teddy bear–embellished travel suitcase of memories, appeals to the senses but can feel off-puttingly pat and childish. It’s sometimes unclear whether she intends to communicate allegorically or to share literal gnosis. On the memoir side, Mangis falls into a residual pettiness about her issues with traditional Christianity and her departure (under a cloud) from the yoga studio she co-founded, sharing her point of view more than serving the reader’s need to connect.

Mangis shines brightest when she brings herself into dialogue with the serpentine embodiments of her emotions, giving voice to fear, guilt, depression, anger, shame, anxiety, and joy. She relatably describes her growing ability to see the emotions’ value as protectors while resisting their urgings toward inaction and despair. Her depiction of curiosity as a wise and playful pup can seem a bit hackneyed, but it appealingly lifts up learning about the world and resisting authority as core values. Her teachings in this realm are practical as well as metaphysical, and they will lead readers to engage in satisfying self-explorations via their own meaningful metaphors. This neatly tied-up philosophy doesn’t rely on difficult metaphysical concepts and will win readers over with playful visual imagery and language.

Takeaway: Readers who want their spiritual guidance personable but not edgy will find Mangis a gentle companion on their paths toward self-understanding.

Great for fans of Sture Lonnerstrand’s I Have Lived Before: The True Story of the Reincarnation of Shanti Devi, Rachel Brathen’s Yoga Girl.

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

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Valentine act I of II
Elliott Morreau
Morreau’s debut, the first half of a duology, is a frequently self-indulgent and deliberately provocative novel. Set in the 1990s, initially in Canada and then in a work camp in the U.S., it follows teen lovers Jack and Lia as they flee after murdering Lia’s abusive father. Within the first 75 pages, there’s murder, pedophilia, mob activity, hard-boiled detectives, racist and homophobic language, and frequent interjections by the author (“As I write this very observation, I feel as if she knows everything”). The bulk of the book consists of Lia trying to get past her dead father’s caustic, corrosive voice in her head while attempting to build a life with Jack, who makes some bad decisions in order to make money. Lies and deceptions divide them while detectives try to track them down.

Morreau veers between troweling on shocking events and creating an epic, sweeping, and ultimately doomed romance. The characters casually and frequently use violent language from “Belly, we get it your boyfriend’s a bitch. A fucking cuck!” to racist slurs. Violence against and abuse of women, including incestuous abuse, are constantly implied threats. Lia is stubborn but not especially smart; Jack is passionate but brutish. Everyone in the book behaves unkindly and dehumanizes others, and readers will struggle to find them sympathetic or worth spending time with. In the midst of this misery, the flowery language used around Jack and Lia’s relationship is jarring. The breaking of the fourth wall serves little narrative purpose.

This installment comes to a climax of sorts but is clearly half of a larger work. The biggest problem is that Morreau can’t seem to decide what kind of story to tell. The characters are too unsympathetic to appeal to romance readers; the plot is too sparse for mystery fans; there isn’t enough drama for a pulp novel. Without direction, Morreau’s book will struggle to find an audience.

Takeaway: This mix of romance, suspense, and grit is most likely to find a home with truly omnivorous readers.

Great for fans of V.C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic.

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

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Repo Girl: A Fun Action Adventure Romance (Repo Girl Series Book 1)
Jane Fenton
In Fenton’s funny debut, which launches the Repo Girl series set in contemporary Roanoke, Va., Andrea “Andi” Sloan copes with money woes, a complex love life, and murder. Feisty, junk food–loving Andi, who has recently taken up a job as a car repossession agent, meets charming, flirtatious Cooper Barnett, v-p of his father’s financial planning company by day and a rock star by night, at a local bar where he’s playing with his band. There is obvious attraction, but Cooper is shocked when Andi, who has sworn off love, rejects his advances even after further chance meetings. Curious to learn more about Andi’s job, Cooper convinces her to let him ride along on one of her gigs. The job goes awry when Andi slams the repoed car into a deer—and a dead, naked body from the back seat lands on her lap. When all evidence points to Andi as the prime suspect, she’s determined to prove her innocence and begins her own off-the-books search for the killer.

Andi’s fearlessness and independence make her very enjoyable to read about. She does some amateur sleuthing by disguising herself and attending the murder victim’s memorial service, and when the police repeatedly warn her to stay out of the investigation, she doesn’t even flinch. Fenton smoothly balances this mystery plot with a sweet, playful romance. Cooper is protective of Andi and persuades her to stay at his condo after her home is raided. Although they don’t have sex, the flirty moments the two share are fun and leave much to the reader’s imagination (“He’d like nothing more than to... toss her back on his bed to kiss away that sassy expression”).

Fenton’s eclectic ensemble of secondary characters adds humor and depth to the story. All the characters are well developed and integral to the plot, including the handsome and stern Detective Kendricks, who jails Andi for the murder but is also attracted to her; Liz, Andi’s fierce but friendly cellmate, whose background as a tattoo artist helps Andi make a break in the case; and Ben, Andi’s supportive and slightly stereotypical gay best friend, who helps designs her sleuthing disguise and facilitates her relationship with Cooper. This thoughtfully crafted, complex story strikes a perfect balance between mystery and romance.

Takeaway: Fans of PG-rated contemporary romances with suspenseful subplots will enjoy this well-constructed mystery, which boasts memorable characters and a brave, sassy heroine.

Great for fans of Meg Cabot’s Size 12 Is Not Fat, J.D. Robb’s Eve Dallas series.

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

Things They Buried
Amanda K. King & Michael R. Swanson
King and Swanson pack their absorbing debut horror fantasy with brisk action, acute tension, and detailed worldbuilding in a land full of various humanoids. Aliara Rift and her mate, Duke Sylandair Imythedralin, both members of the gray-skinned chivori species, spent their childhoods enslaved by the abusive karju Kluuta Orono. After two decades, they escaped, and Orono was thought to have died in an explosion. Twenty years later, rumors of missing children lead Aliara and Syl to wonder whether Orono actually survived. When their reconnaissance (aided by their skittish, greedy sidekick, Schmalch, a small, hairless puka) turns up disturbing evidence, they explore Orono’s mansion for more clues. This unearths understandably painful, unresolved memories for Syl and Aliara, who call in a hired hand to expel the hideous monsters lurking in the building. The revelation that they are nightmarish genetically modified creatures sets the stage for a gruesome, violent endgame.

Readers who appreciate dense worldbuilding will be gratified by the complexity of King and Swanson’s work. This novel boasts a dizzying number of species, a unique calendar system, guns that rely on magnets, and unusual slang (cool things are “gloss”; a drunk man is “high-seas”). The authors deploy these details naturally and leave readers wanting to know more.

King and Swanson have a real skill for describing and deploying psychology. The horrors Aliara and Syl endured are slowly revealed and the contrast between the polished, heartless personas they project and their lingering internal trauma feels genuine. The point of view shifts between chapters increase tension by delaying the revelation of threats, especially during fight scenes, though the sections narrated by minor characters occasionally distract. The plot sometimes flags as characters struggle to understand what is happening, but these slower passages add real emotion and stakes, and the conclusion nicely sets up a sequel without feeling unfinished. Horror elements and surprise twists will propel readers through this smooth, diverting fantasy.

Takeaway: The creepy threats and fierce fights in this densely imagined novel will gratify fans of dark fantasy, especially those who want real depth in between thrills.

Great for fans of Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains, C.S. Friedman, Joe Abercrombie.

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

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