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Bone Necklace
Julia Sullivan
Set amidst the Nez Perce War of 1877, between the U.S. Army and the Nez Perce tribe, Sullivan’s debut novel finds near-alcoholic Jack Peniel joining up with the militia after failing to protect his stepmother in a conflict between settlers and Native Americans. Jack, who suspects his deceased mother is a member of the Nez Perce tribe, is at odds with his sheriff father and heartbroken that his former girlfriend has married a doctor. Meanwhile, Nez Perce warrior Running Bird—who believes it is better to die fighting—is battling for his tribe’s existence, refusing to accept the dishonest terms of a government deal to move them onto reserved lands. He’d rather die fighting.

The story is narrated from the perspectives of Jack, Running Bird, and Nicole Lowsley, a London tourist visiting Yellowstone and caught between these worlds. Sullivan doesn’t hesitate to reveal the futility of war, exposing brutality and kindness on both sides, alongside the shocking racism of the press, making clear the role that the media has played in wars throughout history. Sullivan skillfully blends fictionalized versions of real people into the story, including General Oliver O. Howard and the Naz Perce Chief Joseph, whose epochal “I will fight no more forever” speech beats at the novel’s heart.

Sullivan’s extensive research illuminates the past and helps flesh out the cast with intriguing backstories while not diminishing narrative momentum. The language is evocative, the pacing well-controlled, and the dialogue sharp and lively (“My father is an eel-skinned liar”). Epistolary passages suggest the official language of the day, and Sullivan takes care to suggest the rhythms and cadences of the Nez Perce tongue. Sullivan has effectively captured the beauty of the mountainous terrain through which the pursuer and pursued pass, and this brings out the tragedy of the conflict in sharp relief.

Takeaway: An evocative, well-researched novel of the U.S. war against the Nez Perce.

Great for fans of: Joseph M. Marshall III’s The Long Knives Are Crying, William T. Vollmann’s The Dying Grass.

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

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The Roar of the Lost Horizon
K.N. Salustro
Salustro (author of the Star Hunters series) launches her seafaring Southern Echo fantasy series with the polished story of an underdog hero embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. In the Solkyrian Empire, people with magical Skills are considered dangerous and are kept alive only to serve the Empire. Eighteen-year-old Nate has a powerful Skill for sensing the wind, but his inability to call forth even the smallest breeze has earned him the nickname “Nate Nowind.” When Nate’s given the chance to join the crew of pirate captain Iris Arani—who seems to want a skill exactly like his—or face a grim future in the mines, he throws in his lot with the pirates on board the Southern Echo.

Nate’s world is a well thought out, functional, and fully flawed society. The crew of the Echo is made up of a variety of magical misfits, whose skills range from illusions to animal speech. As Nate finds his place among the crew, facing down sirens, dragons, and dangers beyond imagining, he begins to feel like he truly belongs. But when the captain risks everything for a mad treasure hunt, Nate—and the rest of the crew—are forced to reckon with where their true loyalties lie. Although the story stays solidly focused on Nate, through the crew readers are granted a microcosm of an expansive and varied Empire.

Despite the immense cast of main players to track, each crew member comes with a singular background and has a valid reason for abandoning the Empire—and Salustro delivers a cast rich with diversity of gender and sexuality, including a proud and driven female pirate captain, and several queer supporting characters. The story isn’t nonstop action and swashbuckling, but the slow journey of watching this world unfold is excitement enough. Fans of expansive worlds with intricate magic will devour this series, and the plot of a young magic-user discovering his place among it all will satisfy fantasy fans looking for exploration and adventure.

Takeaway: The polished, thrilling first entry in a character-rich seafaring fantasy series.

Great for fans of: Benjamin Mester’s The Banished Lands series; Lina C. Amarego’s Daughter of the Deep.

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

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Chew On This!: Arctic Food for Thought and Lessons for Success
Benjamin L. Vidmar
Chef and creator of Polar Permaculture, a company developing sustainable, regenerative ways to grow food in the Arctic, Vidmar offers a practical-minded but inspirational take on starting a business in this encouraging business guide. Using his personal journey growing food in the “northernmost” city in the world, Vidmar shares intimate insight into accountability, integrity, self-doubt and other issues with the goal of showing readers how to make “the impossible possible,” always emphasizing the nuts-and-bolts of goal-setting, decision making, and setting up a venture for success.

Writing with the positivity you’d expect from an innovator with his background, Vidmar addresses issues that can prevent or stall entrepreneurs and their businesses from reaching their potential. Much of the guide reads as a self-development checklist. Short chapters tackling concepts like responsibility, leadership, and decision-making are filled with compact, concise tidbits of practical advice: “Optimism is necessary for success in life, and possible for everyone to reach.” Although he explicitly highlights the many benefits of positive thinking, he warns against trying to make everyone around them happy, a critical mistake common amongst optimists. Instead, Vidmar urges readers to make their own goals the primary focus, to take accountability, and to accept negative responses and consequences as constructive criticism.

Vidmar’s engaging personal accounts of growing food near the North Pole offer ample opportunity to showcase his advice in action. As the guide progresses, readers are given a detailed breakdown of Polar Permaculture and the multitude of obstacles Vidmar faced throughout his journey to turn the arctic city of Longyearbyen, Norway, green. Culminating with a list of ten principles to hold to to achieve success, Vidmar’s unique guide provides a refreshing perspective to self-improvement. Although targeted at “fledgling” entrepreneurs, Chew on This provides solid tips for success in all walks of life, intertwined with an inspirational story that general readers, especially those with an interest in sustainable food, will enjoy.

Takeaway: This entrepreneurial guide makes the case that anything’s possible, even growing food in the Arctic.

Great for fans of: David J. Schwartz’s The Magic of Thinking Big, Brianna Wiest’s The Mountain is You.

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

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A Puppy Named Paws Makes a New Friend
Tiffany R. Rich
Paws is the smallest puppy on the farm, and teased by the other animals, but he desperately wants to make a friend—someone who “cares about others as much as I do.” Just when he thinks all is lost, Paws meets Boon, a fellow puppy who struggles with being too tall, and the two join forces to explore the farm together. Their friendship quickly leads to a new game that’s the envy of the other dogs, who they promptly invite to join in the fun, despite how “mean, unfriendly, and surly” they’ve been in the past.

An encouraging story that celebrates differences, A Puppy Named Paws announces its message clearly: “We are all made special and created with purpose by God above.” Rich illuminates Paws and Boon’s characters and commitment to celebrating each other’s strengths through cheery, sometimes funny dialogue—“You may not be strong, but you sure can smell!” The story is told in rhyming text that’s often somewhat stiff, and the shifting meter and rhyme scheme at times make reading aloud a challenge, especially with a layout that occasionally puts the rhyming words in the middle rather than the ends of lines. Still, young readers will appreciate this take on an underdog’s triumph thanks to the help of a friend.

Adult readers will welcome the story’s encouragement to branch out and make connections, even in the face of potential rejection, while young fans will be comforted by Paws and Boon’s cheerful, can-do attitudes. Rich includes entertaining facts about dogs at the end of the book, a sure hit for dog lovers, and Ellen Marie Feldt’s digital illustrations lend personality and color to the expressive dogs’ adventures. The end result is a story with heartfelt intentions, albeit shaky in execution, that will give those readers who struggle with friendships a reason to branch out.

Takeaway: A message of friendship and celebrating differences perfect for shy readers.

Great for fans of: Jenn Bailey’s A Friend for Henry, Shamirrah Hill’s The Shy Monster.

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

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Hell Spring
Isaac Thorne
Set in Middle Tennessee during the early spring of 1955, Thorne’s tangled web of horror drops a small cast of characters into a stormy nightmare. A group of locals find themselves stranded at the local general store as flood waters overtake their small town. Enter a mysterious blonde bombshell with devilish intentions. Not only are their lives in danger, but their very souls—their tasty, demon-sating souls—may be feasted upon as the night draws on. It’s time to fight back, come Hell or high water, but can they resist temptation, or will they succumb to sin before salvation arrives?

The small-town setting might conjures a quaint picturesque image, but Thorne makes it clear that secrets run amok behind closed doors, just as his opening page, with its reference to the acidic fluid emerging from an “enormous crimson glans,” should alert readers to the tenor of the horror to come. Still, despite such infernal flourishes, the scope here is personal. The local pastor struggles with finances, causing him to take matters into his own hands. The church’s pianist lives a double life, and a young mother is forced to hide her scars and put on a happy face despite the terror going on in her home. Each character is given ample page time to invite readers into their personal hells. This allows for meticulously developed backstories, though some readers may find it challenging to connect to so many points-of-view. Still, the mix of sorrow and shame powering these stories lends substance to the scenes of horror. The shocking moments deliver serious jolts.

Horror fans looking to dive into sin, morality, and forgiveness will enjoy Thorne’s twisty storytelling and Hell Spring’s accompanied eclectic cast of God-fearing characters. Themes of guilt, redemption, and forgiveness abound, while morality and sin are often centerpieces of debates. Readers interested in a twisted tale revolving around virtue will soak up this dread-laced thrill ride.

Takeaway: Horror fans looking to dive into sin and morality will enjoy this small town’s night of hell.

Great for fans of: Brian Kirk’s We Are Monsters, Tim Waggoner.

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

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Prelude to Extinction: Xenophobia Series - Book 1
Andreas Karpf
The epic kickoff to Karpf’s Xenophobia series digs deep into a classic science-fiction puzzle: in the 2120s, the crew of the Magellan has been tasked with determining whether there is intelligent life on the most promising planet close enough for humanity to visit, Epsilon Eri-D, ten light years away from Earth. Spectral evidence suggests an advanced alien civilization, yet the planet is dead silent. An asteroid offers confounding, tantalizing clues, and a gravitational anomaly from a mystery cylinder “hundreds of times denser than a white dwarf” only deepens the mystery. All that, plus a wounded crew member, means the tension is mounting as the crew prepares for a trip to Eri-D’s surface, with only the captain, Jack, aware of a warning from the chief science officer that will thrill lovers of SF mysteries: the only structures they’ve glimpsed appear to be ruins.

“We’ve got to consider all possible scenarios,” Jack says early on, during one of many thorough, speculative discussions. Author Karpf, an experimental physicist, shares that impulse, and fans of thoughtful, science-minded hard SF will relish this in-depth consideration of every parameter of a potential first-contact scenario—and a host of other big ideas, too. The mysteries entice, and the answers don’t disappoint, though the target audience for this long (and at times exhaustively detailed) novel is not readers who prefer swift-paced action. Prelude to Extinction introduces an author eager to show the work behind SF wonders

Those mysteries—and the crew’s surprising trips to further-flung realms of space-time—prove rich enough that it would be churlish to reveal more of the plot. What sets this engrossing odyssey apart is Karpf’s careful attention to tech, science, and philosophy, from the time-bending complexity of interstellar flight, to myriad logistics, to the hard choices Jack faces involving the dead planet and wormholes, to how to send a simple, intelligible message back to Earth. Readers eager to immerse themselves in all that—and to have the SF science check out—will find this mission irresistible.

Takeaway: A crew explores a seemingly dead planet for intelligent life in this smart hard SF epic.

Great for fans of: Alastair Reynolds’s Pushing Ice, Frederik Pohl’s Gateway.

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

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Latent Flaw: Xenophobia Series - Book 2
Andreas Karpf
The second sweeping installment in Karpf’s Xenophobia series continues the dazzling, thoughtful adventures of the first, as Jack Harrison, now Earth’s Director of Alien Technology, faces the fallout from bold choices in Prelude to Extinction that saved the Earth itself—and, more controversially, democratized access to alien intelligence and technology he and the crew of the Magellan had discovered. Karpf picks right back up: just two pages in, Jack’s right back to thinking through fascinating science-fiction puzzles and problems that center on making sense of alien tech through its interactions with our own, and our understanding of the laws of physics. Soon, he’s facing new dangers (politics!)while caught between a suspicious humanity and an ancient alien species who expects the worst of us—and is considering preemptive action.

Between the talk of quantum fluctuations and matter-antimatter annihilation engines, Karpf again quickly establishes problems that will seize hold of fans of hard SF. This time, Jack is tasked with investigating the “perturbed” behavior of Kuiper belt objects (ie, asteroids), some seemingly headed in the direction of Earth, thrown out of their regular orbits by Jack’s use, in the previous book, of an advanced alien engine still being experimented on by the crew.

While less epic in scope than its predecessor, Latent Flaw again skillfully blends tense, science-minded storytelling with big ideas, fascinating dilemmas, cosmic mysteries, and bursts of explosive combat. Readers of Prelude to Extinction will rightly suspect that Karpf’s story will blast into unexpected directions, with the likable, capable crew finding bold scientific solutions to seemingly impossible problems—and, again, Karpf persuasively shows the work. The prose is tighter this time, driven by dialogue and action, and the momentum stronger as the story builds to both a satisfying conclusion and an epochal cliffhanger. Readers of serious science fiction will love it, but they’re advised to start with the first book.

Takeaway: This superior hard SF sequel pits a starship crew and alien intelligence against the impossible.

Great for fans of: Greg Bear’s Eon, Jack McDevitt.

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

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Better Gnomes & Gardens
Casey Cardel
Debut author Cardel kicks off her cozy Mysty Haven Mystery urban fantasy/mystery series with this charmer following good-natured investigative reporter (and Bigfoot believer) Bob McLarney as he explores the remote Wisconsin village where he’s just lost his job. When a wealthy widower hires him to investigate his prize garden gnome’s kidnapping, Bob discovers that gnomes are more than just figurines—they’re alive, as are fairies, giants, leprechauns, and a powerful flower called the Queen of Night that blooms annually in an enchanting ceremony. But if the Queen of Night fails to blossom, a cave portal to Faeland might open, and the prince of the dark fairies threatens to break into Mysty Haven and take control. Bob and his new friends must outwit the evil fairy determined to unleash chaos.

Cardel infuses the story with coziness thanks to descriptions of a warm community, as embodied by the local coffee shop Bob regularly visits, along with Mysty Haven’s diverse denizens. Bob proves himself open-minded from the first scene when his newspaper boss fires him for penning an article about a Bigfoot sighting by an unreliable Elvis impersonator. His affable reactions to shocking discoveries of magic, even in the aftermath of a near-fatal car crash, charm Mysty Haven’s populace and readers alike. The tone consistently amuses with no angst in the suspense—Bob even takes it well when townspeople assume journalists publish “fake news."

Whether rescuing saucy gnomes or strolling through a garden with a half-moth half-human, Bob remains unfazed by magic and welcomes the idyllic town’s surprises. In fact, for the first time in his life, he feels like he belongs. Flirtation with winking beauties and an accidental encounter with a nude werewolf hint at romance. Cardel offers a classic cozy mystery that will make fantasy readers yearn for Mysty Haven’s magical coffee and for Bob’s next adventure.

Takeaway: Paranormal fantasy readers in search of a pleasant mystery will adore Mysty Haven.

Great for fans of: K.M. Waller’s All’s Fairy in Love and Murder, Debora Geary’s A Modern Witch.

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

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Healing America's Narratives : The Feminine, the Masculine, & Our Collective National Shadow
Reggie Marra
Outraged yet hopeful, sweeping in its conclusions but always characterized by humility, Marra’s impassioned treatise calls for a national effort to face and “integrate” the collective “shadow” of the United States, elements of which include “ignorance, arrogance, fear, bigotry, violence, greed, excess” and more. Marra, a poet and author of Enough with the Talking Points, draws from the Jungian concept of “shadow,” which describes “that which we do not recognize or own in ourselves, and which we often project onto others.” He posits that former President Trump embodies the American shadow—"those undesirable beliefs and traits that we … see ‘out there’ in others and deny in ourselves”—but also that Trump represents an opportunity for national healing and growth if we can bring ourselves to the discomfiting collective work of “uncovering, recognizing, owning, and integrating Shadow.”

In short, Marra calls for Americans to face themselves and our past, acknowledging the darkness and daring to do better, in both personal and political spheres. To lay out a path, Marra offers pained, unstinting examinations of historical American failings (the ongoing subjugation of women and Black Americans; the betrayal of Native Americans; the last half century’s worth of elective wars), all times and tendencies in which Shadow has prevailed. Resonant threads include consideration of the nation’s tightly constrained ideals of masculinity as well as the contradictory nature of what, collectively, outrages us:, such as why we accept as normal “103 gunshot deaths a day, but we’re shocked and engaged when one entertainer slaps another entertainer.”

In precise, inviting prose, Marra urges readers to look with clear eyes at ourselves. He makes clear throughout that he’s one of us rather than some presumed authority, putting in the work to understand himself and his nation; while he’s shrewd and persuasive at making a case, his conclusions (“one manifestation of fundamentalism is bullying”) will challenge or offend some readers. He knows that, of course. Key to his argument is the truth that no system run by individuals can change unless individuals dare to change first.

Takeaway: This call for Americans to face their “collective shadow” will thrill readers eager for compassionate change.

Great for fans of: Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America, Seth David Radwell’s American Schism.

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

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Aiken in Check: A Spy Game Novel: The Aiken Trilogy, Book 3
Michael Frost Beckner
The climactic installment in Beckner’s Aiken Trilogy, which springboards from the Beckner-penned 2001 film Spy Game, pits the restless, free-associating mind of its CIA narrator, Russell Aiken, against the agency itself as he strives to save the life of agent Nina Estrada from torture and death in Castro’s Cuba. Aiken muses early on “Nina or America. To save one, I lose them both.” The novel that follows tests his loyalty, his sanity, and even—in a bold technological twist that edges Aiken in Check beyond the expectations of most late-Cold War espionage thrillers—his understanding of space, time, and even the soul. Haunted by Spy Game’s espionage grandmasters Nathan Muir and Tom Bishop, and long-ago CIA failures and betrayals, Beckner’s grand finale finds Aiken coming into his own—but at what price?

Each entry in the trilogy has proven increasingly daring, ambitious, and thematically rich, while holding true to its spy-game roots. For all its confrontations and double-crosses—the best of which go down as bitterly as cyanide capsules—Aiken in Check deepens its predecessors’ voice-driven, existential-minded inquiry into the spy life itself. Beckner’s plotting is deft, as you’d expect from a screenwriter and TV producer who made a career in military and espionage thrillers, never predictable; his infectious fascination with real-world snoop tech and tradecraft, meanwhile, ensures the suspense and surprises always feel convincing and human scaled.

Two crucial elements set Beckner’s series apart even from the top of the thriller heap. First, as a stylist he’s a showman, a razzle-dazzle sentence crafter adept (like his academic mentor, T.C. Boyle) at catching readers up in the minds of protagonists whose lives seem to be spinning out of control. Second is Aiken himself, an epileptic hero whose mind moves faster than his body, and whose disorientation about his place in the games mastered by the likes of Muir and Bishop is only compounded by the possibilities of this entry’s technological marvel. That invention exemplifies the trilogy: an entirely plausible device freighted with moral, philosophical weight, demanding reconceptualization of not just how spycraft is done but what it means and costs.

Takeaway: The epic climax of this trilogy rooted in the film Spy Game thrills as it digs deep.

Great for fans of: Charles McCarry, Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost.

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

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BE TRANSCENDENT TO SUSTAIN HAPPINESS : Ethics Philosophical Essays Reduce Miseries and Stresses
Yvon Milien
Haitian engineer and teacher Milien (The Rhythm of My Life) instructs readers in the simple but significant mechanics of achieving happiness, with a unique blend of mindfulness, mysticism, meditation, and Christian teachings, in this concise yet packed tome. Declaring that he hopes to teach something valuable about life, contribute to people’s self-realization, increase their inner light, and diminish their inner darkness, he exhorts readers to make the best of every second as they make their way through their days. He acknowledges the challenge of that, noting that “evil” people may try to steal your smile or worse “due to their ignorance, boredom, or having difficulty making sense of their life.” But with concentrated effort, he argues, it’s possible to hold to the spiritual high road. “We should use our knowledge to unite hope ceaselessly with our faith no matter how painful the suffering caused by the fools of this world,” he observes.

Milien lays out a blueprint for bringing this vision to life in a world that he sees as teeming with evil, counseling readers how to strengthen and enhance their lives. He encourages eschewing a focus on the material aspects of life in preference of spiritual pursuits that honor more timeless principles of worth. He calls for readers to be resilient diamonds rather than easily destroyed graphite, a metaphor for his broader view of strengths. He evokes teachers like Viktor Frankl and Aristotle, whose view of happiness as the end goal of life Milien bolsters. A well-lived and intellectually rooted life, he argues, is “unconditionally complete.”

The author’s accessible and straightforward language shines on his crystal-clear vision, and a robust list of references will pique the interest of readers who want to dig deeper into Milien’s mix of influences. Those exploring spiritual journeys rooted in the Bible but open to cosmic principles will find reassurance and intriguing paths in Milien’s heartfelt guide.

Takeaway: This compact guide to finding happiness blends the mystic with Christian teachings.

Great for fans of: Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land, Paramahansa Yogananda’s To Be Victorious in Life.

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

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Baking Is Messy and So Is Life
Steven Roberts
For generations, the Duright family’s mothers have baked alongside their daughters, and in this inspirational middle-grade debut, Roberts presents baking as a powerful bonding experience. Whenever eight-year-old JJ (for Janie-Janie) asks her mother about the mysterious muffin-shaped building next to the Duright farmhouse in the Friendly Forest, CC (aka Connie-Connie) tells her, “It’s been locked up for years and we don’t talk about it.” But JJ has found a key, and discovers an abandoned bakery (complete with a magical talking oven), prompting CC to reveal the joys and sorrows it represents.

There’s no crying over spilled flour in this celebration of baking as a family activity that also allows mothers and daughters to connect as peers. The Muffin House was built for CC’s mother, Joy-Marie, who founded nearby Bakerstown, where specialty bakers each had their own shop. Roberts presents it not as an utopian cooperative, but an idyllic vision of rural self-sufficiency, one reliant on Joy-Marie’s generous nature. Because she idolized Joy-Marie (there’s no generational strife here), the collapse of Bakerstown made CC bitter enough to completely stop baking after her mother’s death. JJ’s enthusiastic embrace of her family history not only revives their baking tradition, but also brings much-needed healing to the community.

Baking is Messy and So is Life is structured as a parable, so the prophetic dreams that guide the Duright women are more in line with Roberts’s moral message than a sentient oven that sings and cajoles while baking everything perfectly. Still, what Roberts captures best is the bond that grows between mothers and daughters when they bake together, an environment that’s both instructive and equalizing, showing young readers how participating in shared activities helps them appreciate their parents beyond family roles. The mission of these gifted bakers isn’t profit, but providing comfort food to family, friends and anyone who needs a little love kneaded into the dough.

Takeaway: Love, baking, and a whimsical secret history bring mothers and daughters together in this charmer.

Great for fans of: Vanessa Curtis’s The Baking Life of Amelie Day, Diane Zahler’s Baker’s Magic, and Sheryl Berk and Carrie Berk’s Cupcake Series.

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

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The Emergence: Book I of the Robochurch Trilogy
Lee J. Keller
Keller’s ambitious full-length debut, the kickoff to a thoughtful hard science-fiction trilogy, imagines life, both human and ‘bot, in a dystopian 2142 where women have been eliminated from the population, and everyone else can be arrested at any time “because their government had calculated the strong probability they were up to no good.” The Emergence follows just what its title promises: the ascent of a revolutionary/messianic figure, Maia Stone, “the last and the first of all women,” whose followers are hunted by the government. In the vivid opening pages, Maia appears in a VR vision before recently retired post office employee Luis Ramirez, beseeching him in biblical language to deliver a speech to humanity announcing that “humans, AI, and robots, and all other sentient beings … are already one.”

That won’t go over well with the powers that be, and Luis faces issues of faith, free speech, whether AI (including his robot wife) can think and feel, and other heady matters as he must choose whether his belief in Maia and the “robochurch” justifies the risk of defying authority. Zealotry and terrorism play a role in this complex tale, and the mystery of Maia—a disembodied intelligence experiencing the “data-enriched birth of something machine becoming merged with the human”—looms over a narrative that finds Luis on the run.

Keller’s storytelling is bold, head-spinning, richly thematic, and philosophically probing—readers expecting escapist adventure should look elsewhere, and the epic length and some awkward sentences further diminish the story’s momentum. Even as the government’s “String Police” hunts Luis for what he might do, the Pentagon prepares for battle against “conscious” robots, and a jailbreak plays out like a miracle from Exodus, Keller’s focus is on ideas, especially the possibilities of sentience beyond our own—and what the fearful will do to staunch them.

Takeaway: This heady kickoff to a trilogy interrogates rich themes of AI, faith, and free will.

Great for fans of: Lauren DeStefano’s Wither, Charles Stross’s Accelerando.

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

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Muir's Gambit: A Spy Game Novel: The Aiken Trilogy, Book 1
Michael Frost Beckner
This superior end-of-the-Cold-War cat-and-mouse espionage thriller from screenwriter/novelist Beckner, the creator of the CIA drama The Agency among other projects, kicks off a book trilogy that’s actually a cross-media (and cross-decades) quartet. Set in the “kinder, gentler America” of 1991, Muir’s Gambit opens as a prequel to the 2001 film Spy Game, written by Beckner, with the subsequent books in Beckner’s Aiken Trilogy picking up after the events of the movie, following the deadly, morally murky adventures of CIA characters originally played by Robert Redford and Brad Pitt into the 21st century. Fans of the film will relish the return of compromised, world-weary Company men facing past sins and playing long games within longer games, the stakes less about national security than their own souls.

This entry is named for ambiguous spymaster Nathan Muir (Redford’s character, described with enticing precision as “the coolest version of handsome with a smile that spoke an entire language of its own”). But the trilogy’s heart is CIA lawyer Russell Aiken, who harbors a personal grudge against Muir, his one-time mentor. Muir seems connected to the murder of a CIA “hero,” and Aiken is dispatched to the Florida Keys to get Muir’s confession and resignation—and to make sure the agency’s dark secrets stay submerged. Early on, Muir, a lover of show-stopping monologues, makes “hero” sound like a “vulgarity,” only the first indication of the case’s wrenching complexity.

As in the film, Beckner demonstrates a deft hand at the thinking and tradecraft of spies, tying tangled backstories to in-the-moment surprises that don’t just jolt the plot—they upend perceived reality while demonstrating the toll this work exacts. Liberated from the demands of tight screenplays, Beckner lets the story expand deep into these men’s shared history without losing narrative urgency. Charged, vivid prose, electric dialogue, and an encyclopedic command of 20th century espionage and culture keep the pages turning until a pained, satisfying ending. This prequel enriches the earlier work.

Takeaway: A chilling, inspired espionage thriller and prequel to the film Spy Game.

Great for fans of: Paul Vidich, John Le Carré.

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

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Bishop's Endgame: A Spy Game Novel
Michael Frost Beckner
This electric second entry of Beckner’s Aiken Trilogy picks up not just after the dazzling spy games of the first book, Muir’s Gambit, but also after Spy Game, the 2001 film, written by Beckner, that introduced CIA agent/spymaster/enigma Nathan Muir. Bishop’s Endgame opens a decade after the 1990s-set events of the film, and in just a couple crisp, inventive pages, the somewhat manic narrator, on-the-wagon CIA lawyer-turned-officer Russell Aiken, is impressed into a Muir-adjacent mission. That job: handling “our Malaysia problem,” which Aiken explains in typically playful prose: “a spymaster’s murder, the loss of seven agent networks, and a coded message out of Malaysia from a longforgotten agent ooh-gahed our klaxon.” As for Muir himself: he seems to have been murdered by Tom Bishop, the spy he rescued from China in the film.

Ooh-gahing the klaxons of espionage lovers is Beckner’s specialty, and this mission doesn’t disappoint, offering a twisty, convincingly rendered spy story alive with smart prose, incisive attention to Company tradecraft and thinking, a keen sense of Cold War history, and deep, nourishing dives into the pasts of the agency and these wounded leads. That’s in addition to stellar suspense and action that alternates between rousing and harrowing. “She saw Bishop pump two rounds into the man’s chest without a thought more than tossing a napkin after a boring meal,” Beckner writes, the ambivalence chilling.

Bishop is working on that Malaysia problem, facing local terrorists, long-buried CIA sins, and the dangers of exfiltration. The plotting is complex rather than complicated, rich rather than dense, though readers preferring streamlined action may prefer the tidy film to the maximalist approach here. The length is epic and the telling boldly eccentric as Beckner immerses readers in Aiken’s romping narration, which is happy to pause for, say, a two-page consideration of whether George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life is the movies’ greatest conman.

Takeaway: Lovers of epic, complex espionage thrillers will devour this sprawling Spy Game sequel.

Great for fans of: Paul Vidich, Robert Littell.

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

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The 1st Assassin: A Unit 22 Thriller
Mainak Dhar
The prolific Dhar (Sniper’s Eye) sweeps readers into a breathtaking tale of espionage and conspiracy set against the rich background of India in the first installment of his Unit 22 series. Popularly called “the most decorated officer alive,” Major Aaditya Sen of the Special Frontier Force of the Indian government’s Research and Analysis Wing has lost his friends in an operation in the Kashmir region. He finds himself trying to cope with a desk job, a crippling post trauma syndrome, and his mother's cancer relapse, for which he blames himself. Following a breakthrough in his treatment, he’s assigned to a joint task force with American representatives to investigate a plot to assassinate the U.S. President in his upcoming visit to India. But as events unfold, it seems that an even deadlier and more far-reaching conspiracy may be in the works.

This propulsive spy-thriller is a wild ride into India's complicated, and sometimes bloody, inner and outer affairs, and it comes wrapped in a mixture of high action, deep intrigues, dark humor, and loads of cultural tidbits that will delight thriller lovers and anyone fascinated by the world’s largest democracy. Dhar gives thoughtful attention to dealing with emotional and psychological problems, allowing readers a glimpse through the first-person narrative into the mindset of a decorated but broken soldier, who is paying a high price for being good at his job. “I could live with that,” Sen, the narrator, tells us. “I’d learned to live with a lot worse. For example, I had learned to live with myself.”

Readers will be absorbed as Sen searches for the truth while fighting against enemies from within his own company as well as outside forces—and his own demons. Dhar mindfully stirs his protagonist from brutal moments to tender ones, including the time he spends with his mother. Though the execution of individual moments varies in success, the crisp action, thought-provoking plot, and compelling protagonist will leave readers hungry for more.

Takeaway: A gripping India-set thriller about a jaded soldier facing an assassination plot.

Great for fans of: Sean McFate’s Shadow War, Mukul Deva.

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

Click here for more about The 1st Assassin

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