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The Desolate Homestead: The Montana Series: Book I
Donnie Vakarian
Vakarian’s auspicious debut novel — the first in his Montana Series — is set in the late 19th century and largely on the two square miles of western land owned by widower Tom Dowdy, a loner who has trouble with Daly, the local sheriff. When he discovers Abe Cooper, a wounded former ranch hand, hiding out on his property, Tom is initially wary. But he’s attracted to Abe, who is also “interested in men.” Abe is wanted by Daly for killing a man, but he claims it was self-defense. As Tom provides risky sanctuary and tends to Abe’s wounds, a romance develops. Tom dreams of building a life with Abe, but a bounty on Abe’s head and Tom’s need to bring on workers may jeopardize their happiness.

Vakarian makes Tom a smart, endearing protagonist who proves perceptive sizing up Abe — and judicious when talking with homophobic Sheriff Daly, who suspects Abe is on his property. Tom is comfortable with his sexuality, longing for a past lover, Matthew, and uninhibited when coupling up with Abe. The author persuasively depicts the realities of farm and frontier life, and Western terms (yannigan, sawbones, picket pin) create a sense of authenticity. The sheriff may be hissable, one-note villain, but Vakarian makes some shrewd observations about queer life, and allows for engaging ambiguity in Abe’s character.

The plot is compelling enough that readers may feel short changed when it ends abruptly. The abundant erotic passages certainly flesh out the same-sex relationship, a pairing that readers will hope survives, but the lengthy, frequent and explicit sex scenes threaten to overwhelm this thin Western. Vakarian’s effort to appeal at once to readers of historical fiction, m/m romance, and erotica will likely disappoint one of those audiences. Otherwise, this is a terrific start to a series that will have readers craving more.

Takeaway: This explicit gay frontier romance is stimulating, likable, and certain to leave its audience wanting more.

Great for fans of: Cowboys: Gay Erotic Tales, edited by Tom Graham.

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

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Enemy of Humanity
Jubei Raziel
Filmmaker and photographer Raziel eviscerates organized religion. With a laser focus on the fundamentals of Christianity and the contents of the Bible, Raziel promises to “make the most authoritative case against the world’s greatest religion, Christianity” and then strives to persuade readers of the faith’s misconceptions, contradictions, “arrogance,” and “delusional superiority.” He argues that the majority of Christian scripture is blatantly fictional, a collection of myths pirated from more ancient texts. In plentiful asides he skewers a capitalist bent in Christianity today and even presents the hypothesis that “following and practicing Christianity likely increases the probability of becoming diagnosed with a mental disorder.”

The caustic tone will be off-putting to many readers, particularly devout ones, though this intense criticism of faith will resonate with the religiously disenchanted. Raziel holds nothing back in his zealous disparagement, lobbing accusations of bullying, deception, and propaganda at Christian leaders while also labeling Christian beliefs “barbaric and cultish.” Despite Raziel’s claims that he will adhere strictly to scientific evidence, his treatise disappoints with its over-reliance on Encyclopedia Britannica, nearly word-for-word rewritings of Wikipedia, and exuberant jeering statements of personal opinion presented as established fact. Enemy of Humanity also gets sidetracked with withering, evidence-free digressions, such as a vague and hard-to-follow condemnation of David Barton, a Christian activist responsible for manufacturing what believers claim as “historic research.”

The strength of this scathing exposé lies in its clever demonstration of similarities between world religions and Raziel’s inclusion of useful suggestions for readers who find themselves at a religious crossroads. He offers concrete recommendations for other spiritual activities, including meditation, prayer and adaptation of religious rituals for everyday practice, to assist disillusioned Christians in their transition from organized faith. Equal parts derogatory and enthusiastic, this acerbic confrontation of religious beliefs is sure to spark animated dialogue and prompt intense speculation.

Takeaway: Anti-religious readers and dissatisfied believers will find an abundance of fuel for their fires in this blistering attack on organized religion.

Great for fans of: Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God is not Great.

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

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Rip Saw: A detective Jericho novel
walter marks
In this pulse-pounding police procedural, the eighth entry in Marks’ series set in East Hampton, New York, Detective Neil Jericho must outsmart a cunning serial killer who always seems one step ahead of the cops. When police officers are found executed in gruesome ways suggested by the novel’s title, the detectives’ suspicions turn to ISIS -- or even one of their own. Dogged Jericho eventually begins to think of these angles as red herrings as glimmers of more complex motives emerge. He's hampered by colleagues who keep their own secrets, and he underestimates his quarry with near-tragic results. In the end, this case will push him to summon resources he didn't know he had.

Marks has the procedural down pat, right down to interdepartmental tensions, the laconic detective’s differences with his ex-wife, and much snappy "cop speak": When Jericho points out that public beheadings still occur in some countries, his partner comes back with "That's entertainment." Marks also deftly addresses law enforcement racism, which helps make even some unlikable characters fully dimensional. His cool understatement makes the killings even more chilling than if they’d been graphic. Occasionally, he slips: A sex scene is gratuitously vulgar, and a description of a female character's looks as "cosmetic surgery miscalculations" falls flat. But those are exceptions in a disciplined novel that rarely falters.

While taut, Rip Saw doesn't neglect characterization. Jericho awkwardly balances fatherhood duty, and his relationship with his partner Vangie comes across as smooth and natural. Unlike Jericho, Vangie is in a happy marriage, and Marks writes warm and believable exchanges between her and her wife, Ingrid. Even the culprit has a complex backstory that elevates their humanity. Reader investment in these characters makes the masterfully plotted denouement all the more tense. With plot turns that surprise and a continual series of cliffhangers, readers will be breathless—and eager for the next installment.

Takeaway: Appealing sleuths, snappy dialog, and a tense plot that moves at light speed make this mystery a must for fans of the classic police procedural.

Great for fans of: Joseph Wambaugh, Ed McBain

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

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LEE AND LIMBO: Friends Come and Go, But Life Continues and Gets Better
Uzoma (Uzo) Rita Ezekwudo
Themes of friendship, loss, and healing permeate Ezekwudo's picture book tale of two country cats, Lee and Limbo. Limbo visits Lee every day at 7 Lamar Lane, and together they stretch on the grass, play hide and seek, chase butterflies in the garden, and drink water from the birdbath. When Lee's owner moves away, taking Lee along, Limbo is devastated, unable to muster the enthusiasm for much besides meowing sadly and pawing at the windows of Lee's old house, hoping for Lee’s return. One day she finds a new family of two children, a cat, Eli, and a Poodle, Sugar, has moved in. Soon enough, the children grow fond of Limbo. And, so do Eli and Sugar. But with Lee still on Limbo's mind, will Limbo ever move past the grief of losing an old, dear friend and start making new ones?

Ezekwudo and illustrator Zulfikar Rachman depict Limbo’s loneliness with grace and feeling, offering young readers an uncomplicated examination of themes of loss, change, and acceptance. Rachman's digital and hand paintings enliven the cat’s lush world with affecting nuances and evocative settings. Employing bright tones for cheerful sequences, Rachman ably contrasts Limbo's despair and loneliness with darker tones.

Diverse human characters and sensitive narration amplify the plot's welcoming warmth, and, together, Ezekwudo and Rachman infuse this ultimately hopeful and engaging tale with a poignant delicacy. The pacing, however, occasionally loses steam owing to verbosity. Nonetheless, this picture book makes for a wholesome bedtime read complete with notation for a cheerful song, “Make New Friends.” Also present is a helpful questionnaire inviting readers to contemplate the tale’s themes. Casting a steady and perceptive light at the loneliness and devastation that comes with losing a friendship, Lee and Limbo stands as memorable juvenile fiction replete with accessible wisdom.

Takeaway: Readers aged 4-8 will find much to appreciate in this pleasing tale of friendship between cats.

Great for fans of: Elisha Cooper’s Big Cat, Little Cat, Caron Lewis and Charles Santoso’s Ida, Always

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

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Craving Stardust
Morgan E Toll
Drawing from diary entries and letter excerpts, Toll (The Daydreamers) crafts an urgent collection of poetry around a striking comparison: She likens the essence of a lost love, the "you" her lines directly address, to that of the “galaxies and the stars” in a universe that’s not “grand enough to hold the extent of your wonder.” These are poems of effusive, ecstatic symbolism, as Toll likens her lover to stardust or declares “You're beautiful in a way that is/ dangerous.../that haunts and teases.” Rabuñal's striking illustrations bring additional life to Toll’s cosmic imagery while playfully interacting with the verse on the page. Craving Stardust also courses with darker feeling, as readers discover that the poet’s beloved is with someone else, and Toll laments “...I'll never/ have the privilege to tire of your/ morning eyes.” Much of the book captures the poet coping with the lost love’s absence -- not with regret, but with gratitude.

A work of intimate intensity, of joy and sorrow and “the gravity of knowing” someone now gone, Craving Stardust holds little back. It’s hard to imagine anyone living up to the praise Toll heaps on her lost love, but readers will find the book less about this specific person than the universal feelings she inspired, feelings Toll is compelled to celebrate and examine in verse. “I am/ passionately compelled to do everything/ in my power to share your light with the/ world,” Toll writes.

Toll continually finds surprising new variations on her theme and her astronomical imagery (“the lightning in her veins”), while Rabuñal makes the dreamy, mystical qualities of her text concrete with richly evocative images. Readers will perceive a sense of joyous wonder in the author’s voice throughout this stirring testament to the power of love and the courage it takes to share one’s loss, passion, and vulnerability with the world.

Takeaway: This intensely personal and emotional work of poetry will be relatable to anyone who's ever loved and lost.

Great for fans of: Marilyn Hacker's Love, Death, And The Changing Of The Seasons, Adrienne Rich's The Dream Of a Common Language

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

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The Magdalene Reliquary
Gary McAvoy
McAvoy’s second danger-filled adventure in his Magdalene Chronicles series carries readers up and down Europe as a Vatican archivist and company pursue an ancient reliquary hidden, according to ancient documents, deep within a French cave. While searching archives for Templar records, Father Michael Dominic stumbles across a medieval puzzle that, when solved, could possibly reveal the location of a reliquary containing the bones of Jesus Christ. Dominic enlists the help of Karl Dengler and Lukas Bischoff, cavers and members of the Vatican Swiss Guard, to hunt and retrieve the reliquary -- but finding the holy remains is only the first step, and hazards lurk around every corner.

McAvoy’s plot moves at a steady clip, with enough thrills and turns to keep the reader’s attention, despite occasionally awkward dialogue (“Unfortunately, though, there is another odor I’ve discovered here which you may not find as pleasing.”) The puzzle of the reliquary gets quickly resolved, but when a man bent on revenge against Father Dominic steals the artifact and traps the cavers, thinking he’s sealed their fate, McAvoy launches readers into a wild ride of action, intrigue, and biblical secrets. The sprawling mystery will entangle Russian oligarchs, Italian secret agents, and even a Romani commune working to recover the reliquary. A background scheme to unseat the Vatican’s Secretariat of State adds a shadowy element of conspiracy without distracting from the momentum of the chase.

McAvoy’s narrative structure is sound, and, true to his genre, he populates his thriller with characters engaging or villainous enough to serve the purposes of the plot, even if they lack complexity. Still, a habit of over explaining technical processes and indulging in irrelevant detail at times stalls the story. Readers looking for an exciting biblical relic hunt colored by historical intrigue will be satisfied with this appealing chase.

Takeaway: This thriller’s hunt for a biblical relic will appeal to readers who crave a sense of history with their intrigue and danger

Great for fans of: Dan Brown, Raymond Khoury

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

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Branches: A Novel
Adam P Johnson
In this introspective, time-crossed debut, an unnamed family man gets invited, in the wake of a particularly controversial president’s re-election, to participate in a unique medical experiment to treat his recurring seizures. A shock awaits: He’s Informed that his condition is caused by a quantum parasite that has set him adrift amidst myriad timelines. The narrator undergoes a drug treatment aimed at returning him to his proper reality. With each pill and each passing day, he travels through innumerable alternate timelines, struggling to make sense of both major and minor changes to his career, his family life, and his surroundings. He’s inspired to question the nature of reality, his real purpose in life, and the cause of his trauma.

The nameless protagonist has in recent years felt broken by his country’s circumstances, and Johnson skillfully captures the grief and trauma of life in a society racked by chaos, brutality, intolerance, and anger. While Branches steers clear of specifics, readers will pick up on references to events, political viewpoints, and major figures, though that vagueness defangs some of Johnson’s outrages, such as a subplot regarding systemic racism and police brutality that never quite gels. Moreover, as the protagonist shifts between timelines, encountering ever more authoritarian excess and problematic policies, the narrative never slows down to unpack these moments’ full significance.

Despite the speculative premise, Johnson’s emphasis lies on the narrator’s personal life, examining his relationship to wife and son, his lingering grief over his recently deceased mother, and his hatred of that unspecified President. The constant shifting scenarios, however, make it hard to get a good feel for the protagonist’s original status quo, for what he’s lost and what he hopes to gain. That lack of specifics diminishes the emotional power of this bold experiment in timelines and trauma, though lovers of alternate histories will find much that fascinates.

Takeaway: This journey through a thousand possible presents will appeal to fans of alternate histories looking for a cerebral adventure.

Great for fans of: Ken Grimwood’s Replay, Dexter Palmer’s Version Control

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

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Luray
Dennis Haupt
In Haupt’s intriguing science fiction debut, the first book of the Behind the Last Gate series, Luray, a hard-nosed risk assessment agent, travels to a space colony to investigate the arrival of an unmanned fleet of alien ships from the Aurigan Empire. Along with her high-tech artificial intelligence implant, Bin (which displays a remarkable ability for logical reasoning), Luray must assess the severity of the alien threat. While working with the United Earth Military, Luray discovers a vast conspiracy: humans wanting to join the Aurigans, willing to sacrifice the lives of others for their own safety. With another fleet of ships arriving in a few days, and the Earth itself on the line, Luray must figure out exactly what the Aurigans want—even if that means observing their empire from the inside.

Haupt is an adept builder of intrigue and suspense. Luray is kept in the dark, constantly wondering whom she can and cannot trust. Her primary colony guide, an adept pilot named Kailoon, hides secrets of his own, creating a dynamic and compelling partnership. The inner machinations of the colony—the power struggles between generals, the presence of Aurigan traitors—creates a vast web of conspiracy that readers will enjoy piecing through. Haupt is great at introducing mysteries, and many of them are still unsolved at the end of this series opener.

The novel covers an immense amount of ground, moving from earth to the colony to an Aurigan habitat, and uses both third- and first-person narrative. Luray and Bin are the only consistent characters. The changes in cast and environment keep the reader turning pages, and the plot never lags. Action is interspersed with relevant philosophical discussions between Luray and Bin, mixing up the pacing nicely. This fast-paced, highly entertaining book introduces a mystery on every page and keeps the reader guessing throughout. Sci-fi fans will be eager to get their hands on the next installment.

Takeaway: This intrigue-laden sci-fi novel, replete with action, philosophy, and conspiracy, offers something for everyone.

Great for fans of: Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, Dan Simmons's Hyperion Cantos.

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

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THE ILJJOCK YOKE
Anita Vaani
A high-tension, wildly inventive science fantasy that weaves religious themes into a quest for survival crossing time and space, Vaani’s The Iljjock Yoke marks a dynamic start to her Yadduk and The Gods of Seabor series. Young cowherd Yadduk finds himself transported to Seabor, a planet where the gods reside with their creations, the iljjocks. A fascinating creation, this loving species possesses animal heads and the ability to read each other’s souls by touching phalluses. Upon marriage, iljjocks connect to the iljjock yoke, which links their souls to those of all other married illjocks and facilitates the exchange of divine powers. Evil God Aakaa schemes to acquire those powers, and soon it’s up to Yadduk to stop him.

Yadduk is a bold and courageous hero charged with saving the universe from evil. Vaani’s many vibrant characters mirror his charisma, including his soul mate Elli and his stout, short bodied iljjock friends, and imaginative world building keeps the novel engaging, even as the tension sometimes unravels. Vaani paints an enchanting and unique universe (one goddess resides in a wooden abode at the bottom of the ocean), though some of her inventions edge into the eccentric, as when Yadduk, newly arrived to Seabor, is granted three phalluses, or the revelation that iljjocks excrete waste by having tiny creatures suck it out of them.

Religious themes are delicately woven into the action -- dead human souls transported to a hellish black hole called Norrs, where God Aakaa torments the souls -- but the action remains rooted in science fantasy. Vaani’s excessive in her usage of exclamation marks, but it’s easy to be excited about these characters and ideas. Science fiction lovers looking for a good versus evil tale with high stakes and religious undertones will find much to enjoy.

Takeaway: This dynamic story wins science fantasy fans over with inventive aliens, religious undertones, and a courageous hero on a mission to save the universe.

Great for fans of: Ted Dekker’s Circle series, Clive Barker’s Abarat

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

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Spirit of the King
Amy Hay
The spirited first instalment of a forthcoming trilogy, Hay’s fantasy blends high-stakes adventure, a coming of age, and an intriguing and original mythology all rooted, as the title suggests, in themes of spiritual belief. In the world of Spirit of the King, allegiance to one of two ruling spirits, the good King Eli or the dark spirit Keriggor, can change the course of one’s life. Eighteen-year-old Aria has been a devoted servant of the dark spirit Keriggor since childhood, even bearing his mark on her forehead. Such allegiance comes at an immense physical and spiritual cost for most of his adherents, but Aria has proven to be Keriggor’s favourite -- a believer so prized that she becomes the target of King Eli, too. Desperate to form a new spiritual covenant with her, the good spirit king’s attentions release Aria from Keriggor’s power, but also making her vulnerable to all manner of spiritual possession. Now, as both spirits war for her loyalty and promise her great power, Aria must decide who to ally with.

Hay’s detailed prose and sympathetic young heroine will keep fantasy readers intrigued. Spirits may crave her, but Aria’s dark past and connection to Keriggor have made her an outcast among her own kind, and the author’s nuanced portrayal of a young woman’s self-discovery will resonate with readers. Likewise, Hay’s accomplished worldbuilding -- crowded village squares, ethereal palaces, and host of well-defined secondary characters -- gives vivid life to Aria’s complex world, though the pacing at times makes the narrative seem episodic.

Aria spends much of the novel adrift in the wilderness, and her uncertainty over which spirit deserves her allegiance grows repetitious, even in this relatively short novel. These slight drawbacks do not diminish the story’s originality, and readers keen on fantasy that touches on issues of faith will find much to love in this engaging tale.

Takeaway: Fantasy readers will be taken in by the fable-like quality of the story of this story of choosing between good and evil.

Great for fans of: Robin McKinley, Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series

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

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Chateau Laux
David Loux
This intricate novel of Colonial America by short story author David Loux blends compelling family drama with engaging historical detail. On a hunting trip up the Delaware river, Lawrence Kraymer, a Philadelphia brewer eager to build a name, encounters an aristocratic French family living on the edges of the frontier. Eager to court patriarch Pierre Laux’s daughter, Catharine, Lawrence elects to buy land and build a chateau near the Laux home, an attempt to prove himself worthy of her hand. Doing so, he sets in motion events that will fray the fabric of a tightly knit community.

Loux writes with panache. His characters are lively and well-developed, and his alternating of point of view chapters allows for nuanced portraits of Lawrence and the Laux family. Intimate historical details concerning Pierre’s upbringing in France and Lawrence’s life as a brewer lend the story immersive credibility. The courtship between Lawrence and Catharine is sweet and poetic, weaving hope through a narrative that depicts the at-times harsh reality of its era. Highlights include heartfelt moments of introspection as the young Jean Laux comes of age and finds his place in the world, as well as clear-eyed accounts of how “horrendously difficult” life can be. Laux persuasively steeps readers in 18th century minds, always attentive to the opportunities and dangers colonists faced.

For all the tender power of the prose, and the flashes of inspired character-driven drama, Loux’s story at times lacks a sense of urgency. The initial thrust of the narrative — Lawrence’s bid to build a chateau — pays off in the novel’s middle, and momentum then stalls, despite the appeal of each character’s personal quests. Still, Loux’s adept handling of Colonial place and detail, and the squalls of fate that waylay the protagonists, offers readers of serious historical fiction a striking journey into the past.

Takeaway: Colonial America comes to vivid life in this nuanced, engaging historical novel.

Great for fans of: Willa Cather, Amy Belding Brown’s Flight of the Sparrow.

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

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A Grim Light Rising: Book One of the Illuminariad
Joseph Burgo
Burgo (Grim) ambitiously juggles dozens of players in this epic fantasy tale coursing with psychological undercurrents. In the world of Messano, in the aftermath of a magical plague that robs people of their capacity for empathy (or “fellow-feeling”), the rich and powerful are consumed by their ambitions. Immortal king Nical chooses to conquer the world, a mysterious woman named Silvana builds a personal army with disturbing methods, and dark secrets threaten death and destruction. Yet it is a humble village boy who is sometimes a girl, known as Devian and Devianna, who will change the course of nations, all while forming an earnest, sisterly friendship with a runaway princess.

Fantasy fans will wallow in Burgo’s gritty and bleak world filled with unsettling attitudes—particularly around sexuality and gender— where consent is dubious and intimacy is callous. The story boasts a multitude of characters but a tightly woven plot, as the many narrative arcs regularly intersect, with the backstories of the many attention-grabbing personalities taking precedence over personal quests. The sprawling narrative’s occasional redundancy, and the lengthy monologues on medieval technology, are offset by plenty of sex and intense character passages, although discomfort tinges the sensuality more often than joy. With not one, but two, instances of magical gender change, the author quietly endeavors for gender inclusivity while shying away from directly acknowledging queer identities.

Burgo’s background as a psychologist informs his nuanced treatment of the ways magic would affect people. Narcissists (“Narsicans”), for example, literally drain away the life force of those around them. A Grim Light Rising plays rough as its cast vies ruthlessly for power, with brutal consequences facing those who fall prey to King Nical’s desires. But classic themes of courage and heroism leaven the darker elements in a satisfyingly unresolved ending, setting the stage for the follow up to this an appealing (albeit disquieting) epic.

Takeaway: Lovers of dark, character-driven fantasy will enjoy this epic’s intricate plotting and unique magic system.

Great for fans of: Brent Weeks's Night Angel Trilogy, Lois McMaster Bujold's World of the Five Gods series.

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

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Booked for Murder
R.J. Blain
In the first installment of R.J. Blain’s Booked For Murder urban fantasy series, the very bloody murder of Senator Godrin via exsanguination tingles the Spidey sense of bodyguard-turned-librarian Janette Asurellaworks for a number of reasons. He’s one of a half dozen high profile politicians to die in such a bloody manner, while she’s one of a handful of beings that possess the power to kill in that manner. Also pressing: His corpse lies on the stairs of her own library. She worries that her kind are being targeted, especially since the senator spearheads a broader effort to silence voices like hers. He had been pushing a bill crafted to severely compromise the magical population. Despite Janette’s efforts to trade her dangerous past for a more mundane present, she, like Michael Corleone, keeps getting pulled back in. Further complicating matters is that her former boss, the handsome bachelor Bradley Hampton, is brought in to sniff out who might behind the murder. Throw in much unresolved sexual tension and Blain kicks off a sequence of events that puts Janette’s life back in the fast lane.

A magical being with a penchant for fast cars, a background as a bodyguard, and the power to manipulate blood, Janette’s not your typical librarian. Blain’s treatment of her exsanguination abilities rivals any procedural’s blood-splatter talk. She’s also crafted an engaging, compelling protagonist, giving her a promisingly layered relationship with Hampton, who technically owns her as part of a for-life contract he insists she once signed despite her claims of amnesia.

Blain’s carefully detailed world abounds with twists and turns, all tightly and vividly drawn, all set inside a singular magical world. Her cast’s motivations prove compelling and even relatable, for all their magical prowess. For readers excited about magic librarians cracking a case, this will hit the spot.

Takeaway: A magic librarian sleuth takes on a compelling murder mystery in the first entry in the Booked for Murder series.

Great for fans of: Ilona Andrews’ Magic Bites, Shelly Laurenston’s The Unleashing

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

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Adventures of a Serial Entrepreneur: Achievements over Adversity
Fred Duffy
Duffy (Want to be an Entrepreneur?), a determined Irish entrepreneur, shares his attempts to make a name for himself in business while contending with ongoing tumult in his native country. With enthusiasm and warmth, he details his upbringing in Ireland during World War II, his early life as a radio operator, and his sales career at Shell. But Duffy’s high-paying job and occasional misadventure couldn’t satisfy his entrepreneurial spirit, and the narrative soon finds him embarking on a number of business endeavors — house flipping, tomato farming, oil recycling and health care — in search of existential meaning. In the background, the tense political situation in Ireland comes to a head, causing mounting impediments to Duffy’s business growth. After losing a large chunk of money on unwise investments, he must prove that his early success was not a fluke, as he builds another business from the ground up.

Although this is the memoir of a serial entrepreneur, entrepreneurship only gets thoroughly explored about halfway through, and the delicate balance between personal narrative, historical exploration, and business how-to is never perfectly struck. However, Duffy is a natural storyteller with plenty of material, and the wide-ranging anecdotes peppered throughout are the most intriguing parts of the book: a case of mistaken identity in a Liverpool police station, a competitor engaging in scare tactics, and pro-bono stints as an on-call scuba diver.

Duffy’s account spans decades, jumping back and forth in time with occasional repetition and confusion, as he doesn’t always specify years. Readers may struggle to keep track of his personal life, but for the most part this in-depth look at starting a business in a challenging environment is a story of perseverance, cunning, and ingenuity. Filled with the day-to-day realities of entrepreneurship, and interspersed with historical events, personal failures, and bits of advice, Adventures stands as an exciting, fast-paced memoir.

Takeaway: This adventurous memoir of an Irish businessman is perfect for young entrepreneurs or history buffs.

Great for fans of: Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog, Richard Branson’s Losing My Virginity

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

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All Things That Deserve To Perish: A Novel of Wilhelmine Germany
Dana Prinz
Mack’s (The Assault on Parenthood) vivid and incisive historical novel, set in Germany and Austria in the 1890s, finds a Jewish pianist and heiress, Elisabeth von Schwabacher, caught between the promise of new freedoms for women in the coming century and the persistent expectations of her class, all as a socially acceptable anti-Semitism simmers around her. A pair of noble suitors vie for Elisabeth’s hand in marriage , yet she’s not eager to wed, fearing the loss of her freedom or the men’s intentions. Still, she’s not immune to passion, and amid a glittering milieu of balls and royalty, Elisabeth surprises herself—and a paramour—with a bold request: “Would you make me your mistress?”

The fallout comes quickly, though Mack proves more invested in examining the characters’ milieu and attitudes than in dramatizing each beat of this promising melodrama. A vicious postcoital eruption between the lovers gets rapidly summarized, without inviting readers too far into Elisabeth’s head or heart, and much of the subsequent storytelling is epistolary, as Elisabeth and company pen artful, engaging letters. Those circumspect missives invite readers to guess at the width of the gulf between Elisabeth’s written words and actual feelings, especially once this defiantly independent woman, a musician invited to perform for Otto von Bismark himself, elects to marry.

Mack’s prose often soars, and her scenes and letters pulse with witty remarks and jolts of hard truth. Elisabeth’s promise, so brilliant in the opening pages, gets dulled away by the novel’s ending, which poses resonant questions about the limited choices that talented women have faced throughout history. The story’s power is diminished by a lack of scenes in the final third—and a lack of Elisabeth’s arresting presence—though there is some thematic weight in the choice. It’s as if, in the end, as she’s swallowed by a conventional life, Elisabeth’s lost to the reader, too. But readers invested in the milieu or in historic domestic tragedy will find much to relish.

Takeaway: Lovers of historic fiction may savor this evocative novel of a woman’s romances and ambitions in 19th century Germany

Great for fans of: Irmgard Keun’s The Artificial Silk Girl, Miklós Bánffy’s The Transylvanian Trilogy, George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

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

The Gorge
Ronald M. Berger
This sharply crafted outdoor suspense debut introduces smart, no-nonsense criminology professor Richard Carlyle, who keeps a toe in his beloved central New York river rafting community by guiding the occasional guide trip for a friend’s outfitter company. When two seasoned guides meet fatal accidents within the same week of flood season, Carlyle takes on the role of investigator to discover who is sabotaging his friend’s outfitter operation. Carlyle brings to the case his specialized knowledge of how perpetrators think, the river gorge’s geography, and his own intuition, as well as his hard-earned credibility among the rafting community and the toughness it takes to face wilderness tracking work himself.

Carlyle is an appealing hero, with convincing and engaging relationships with the outfitters and guides who join him on the rafting trips his investigation entails. The antagonist, motivated by the outfitter’s overreach in developing the area, also proves compelling, taking actions that, though extreme, make enough internal sense to stir in readers an uncomfortable frisson of relatability, even as they root for Carlyle’s crew to end his schemes. Carlyle’s relationship with his wife, though, strains plausibility, as he mostly leaves in the dark about the details of this dangerous work.

Berger’s love of nature and deep knowledge of river rafting shines throughout the novel. His prose is invitingly rich without being overwrought, and readers drawn to the theme of rafting will be satisfied by his arresting and accurate description and action. Berger also eschews jargon and extraneous technical detail, offering a story that’s inviting to readers without a rafting background as well. Devotees of police procedurals may find the dynamics on the law enforcement side in this story somewhat vague, though the climactic scene in which Carlyle gets to negotiate is in classic style for the genre.

Takeaway: Fans of backwoods suspense will find this thriller strikes the perfect balance of tense excitement and opportunities for testing their deductive skills.

Great for fans of: Peter Heller’s The River, Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter

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

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