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The Elk in the Glade: The World of Pioneer and Painter Jennie Hicks
Bruce E Whitacre
In this richly descriptive book of poetry, Whitacre examines the life of landscape painter Jennie Hicks, who sold her work out of her home for more than 30 years. He starts with some background on Hicks—she and her family lived in southwest Nebraska for most of the twentieth century, giving them a chronologically broad yet distinctly Midwestern perspective on U.S. history. Hicks was also Whitacre’s great-grandmother, and his poems serve as artful retellings of the stories he heard growing up. “She loves to tell,” he writes in “Jennie at Thanksgiving.” “She grows younger in telling / about blizzards, sod houses, wagons fording the river, / until we are called to the long table in the narrow room.”

That sense of place, history, and domesticity glows throughout these absorbing verses, as Whitacre captures the bittersweet essence of Hicks’ challenging and at times traumatic life. As a child, her pioneer father dragged her mostly unwilling family from Ohio to the Nebraska prairie, and a sense of longing for home and family would follow her for the rest of her life. What stands out most are the little scenes that bring Hicks’ heartache and simple pleasures colorfully to life. In “Christmas Oranges,” she is delighted when her father gives the family a bowl of citrus fruit: “the only ones any of them would eat that year.” The poems follow Hicks as she learns to paint, marries—and later buries—her husband, and eventually grows old.

The book also includes several of Hicks’ oil paintings, which depict the mountains she left behind as a child along with various types of wildlife and forests of evergreen trees jutting toward the sky. Side by side with the paintings, Whitacre’s book serves as a deeply personal yet relatable account of one woman’s life and turn-of-the-century lifestyle—and clearly demonstrates why this talented painter and pioneer stands as someone to remember.

Takeaway: These richly descriptive and affecting poems examine the life of Midwestern landscape painter Jennie Hicks.

Great for fans of: Laura Donnelly, New Poetry from the Midwest.

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

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Eye of the Ocelot
Volta Rose
Centered on the illicit international trade in endangered animals, Rose’s debut mystery, the first in the Abigail Fiorelli series, is a pleasing read. Former cop Roger Lemieux finds the grisly remains of an ocelot in a canal and reports it to Abigail Fiorelli, who immediately starts an investigation. The evidence points towards a wealthy and powerful cult, the Artemisians, worshippers of the Greek goddess Artemis. Abby is assisted by retired cop Roger and forensics expert Andrew Coleman, who as a Black, gay officer feels somewhat alienated from the force. After dangerous encounters with the cult, she comes to know of an important meeting scheduled and makes elaborate plans to apprehend the shadowy culprits.

Rose’s prose adapts wonderfully to the setting. It is tense and terse in encounters and chase sequences, but also languid and evocative describing Abby’s birding treks. The clues are also nicely detailed and placed, though Rose splits the focus, especially later in the novel, between this engaging, upsetting mystery and Abby’s coping with grief and loss. The cult rituals—lit candles, exotic meat, flowing tunics, rhythmic dance as backdrop to sex on an altar—are familiar but still creepy, and the interplay between Abby and her cohort often thoughtful, even tender, building the reader engagement in the team and their lives that it takes to build a series upon.

The steps of the investigation balance the everyday mundanity of policework and the tense anticipation of more active steps. “Don’t be a hero,” Abby’s police chief warns her, in the buildup to one confrontation with the Artemisians, and the question of what she’ll do feels as pressing as what to expect from her targets. Readers who prefer swift pacing should be aware that Rose digs deep into Abby’s relationships during this buildup, though even this at-times touching material ultimately feeds the suspense: “One distracted moment,” she muses, “could mean someone getting hurt or even killed.” This promising series starter offers detection and character depth.

Takeaway: A character-rich mystery series starter taking on the illegal trade in endangered animals.

Great for fans of: Will Staples’s Animals, Brian Klingborg’s Wild Prey.

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

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The Excursion: A gripping suspense thriller with heart
Tony Freeburg
Paine (The Resentment) shines in this dark thriller of hunters, class war, and remote mountain terror. Charly Highsmith has led a challenging life: due to her mother’s years of spending the rent money on drugs and alcohol, Charly and her autistic brother Jacob at times lived on the streets in Denver. But on her deathbed, Joan Highsmith tells her daughter that her long-missing father has died and left his Rocky Mountain cabin, along with his estate, to Charly and Jacob. Charly’s family last used the cabin the summer her parents divorced and her father abandoned the family. Excited to visit the cabin, Charly organizes a reunion with her annoyingly perfect cousins Amanda and Cam for nostalgia’s sake.

Not for the faint of heart, Paine’s perfectly paced, diabolically clever plot delivers effective twists and turns—including a truly shocking, gasp-worthy surprise at the story’s end. The suspense starts with Charly and Jacob’s arrival. Turns out the cabin’s already in use by a mysterious man named Randall Thorne, who claims that his company owns the property. Randall organizes private excursions for hunters, and has planned one for a smarmy millionaire, Barry Rockwell, who has arrived at the cabin with his social-media influencer girlfriend Kennedy McCallister. Horrifyingly, it soon becomes clear that Rockwell (and author Paine, for that matter) are capable of much darker schemes than Charly and Jacob expect: that these hunting trips aren’t targeting animal prey—they’re after a more dangerous game, and all hell breaks loose when Charly discovers the jolting truth.

Paine does a masterful job of creating characters who evoke strong emotional responses, whether that’s to love them or hate them, all while ramping up the tension and the body count while maintaining plausibility. This devious, horrific tale will stay with lovers of suspense long after the final page is turned.

Takeaway: This dark thriller delivers heart-pounding twists that will grip readers.

Great for fans of: John Saul, Patrick Lestewka’s The Preserve.

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

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Mickey Collins
Kevin Forde
Forde (The Leaving Cert) serves up a mix of crime and punishment with this voice-driven, stream-of-consciousness tale set in Ireland and penned in the tradition of that island’s great novelists. Mickey Collins, the son of pregnant drug dealer Tanya Collins, lives on the outskirts of society, viewing as simply part of everyday life things such as shoplifting, random violence, suicide, dropping out of school, and jail sentences where cellmates smoke heroin, inmates are beaten merely for sport, and an elaborate caste system reigns. Forde leads readers through two decades of Mickey’s life, recounting a hardscrabble existence that shows how a disadvantaged life evolves.

Mickey’s hard-edged, offhandedly lyric, richly Irish voice powers the novel, the sentences like something you might overhear from the best storyteller in the pub. The prose steeps readers in Mickey’s mind, moments, and milieu—and demands, over dense monologuing paragraphs of “I tell ya”s and idiomatic expression, that they either sink or swim. A vital comic spirit brightens the material, especially as Mickey recounts youthful dustups and scrapes, like getting caught “​​thrun the chicken nuggets deliberately” out a hotel window, or pretending to sell The Big Issue and then hitting up pedestrians for fifty pence for making them smile. His character portraits, quick and cutting, delight throughout, full people captured in a minimum of words.

Forde offers striking insight into the realities of addiction and how easy it is for a user to need more and more: “every hit of heroin was like a tiny bit smaller than the last one,” Mickey tells us, adding “usually, after a while it wouldn’t barely get you into the sky.” Forde also adds depth and nuance to Mickey’s character as he muses about his exploits with his baby sister, Jordan SueAnne—tellingly, our protagonist has no problem with selling and consuming drugs during their outings, but he draws the line at changing nappies. Forde’s style requires a close reading to keep up, but its authenticity and deep humanity shine through every word.

Takeaway: Readers who enjoy voice-driven Irish literary storytelling will devour this account of a wild life.

Great for fans of: Mike McCormack, Rob Doyle.

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

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Joint Venture
Carol Rhees
Rhees’s debut pits the fraught debates of dispensing legalized marijuana against the backdrop of small-town dynamics. Alice and Helen, both raised in Poplar Point, have led two very different lives: Alice, every bit a freethinker, stayed in town, content to live a quiet, provincial life, while the more popular and worldly Helen moved away, until a cheating spouse and her adult daughter, Kim, bring her back to town. When Alice’s son, Bear, wants to open a marijuana dispensary in his father’s old store, Helen quickly seizes on the idea as a way to be financially successful without her husband.

Despite the premise and punning title, Joint Venture shouldn’t be classified as a work only of interest to readers fascinated by debates over legalization, as the end result is a comic but emotionally complex story with well-developed characters readers will enjoy laughing with and rooting for. The relationship between Alice and Helen, acrimonious to begin with, is immediately tested when they form an uneasy truce to start a business together. Both bring valuable insight to the project, but their plans also whip the small community of Poplar Point into a frenzy. Many people stand to benefit from the store, but the local Reverend Larson rallies supporters of his own to squash the initiative. Despite these roadblocks, the two forge ahead—until an unknown danger knocks on the door, putting their lives—and those of their loved ones—at risk.

Rhees chooses a timely and unconventional focus, but the evolving relationship between Alice and Helen proves to be the true heart of the story. The exploration of how two very different women work to find a common ground is an important one, and Rhees shows how close and contentious small town communities can be—both fighting against each other and rallying around beloved members in need.

Takeaway: Opening a small-town marijuana shop brings longtime enemies together while driving the community apart.

Great for fans of: T.C. Boyle’s Budding Prospects: A Pastoral , Fiona Mozley’s Hot Stew.

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

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A Bounty of Bone: A novel inspired by real events
PG Lengsfelder
Lengsfelder (Beautiful To The Bone) crafts a thrilling story about a woman haunted by her past who undertakes an incredible journey in order to save a young woman's life. Eunis’s albinism draws many looks from strangers, and she also has an uncanny connection with the weather—and to rain in particular. That curious skill informs her work at the Weather One TV channel, who dispatches her to South Africa on an assignment that, for Eunis, is soon overshadowed by her discovery that the niece of her surrogate mother has been kidnapped and maimed in Tanzania. Circumstances separate Eunis from her workmates, so she decides to try and find the girl and help her.

What follows is a crisply told seat-of-the-pants adventure with welcome environmental and humanitarian concerns. Eunis gets mixed up in the ramifications of the illegal timber trade flowing out of Tanzania and becomes reluctant allies with an enigmatic man named Mr. Ngowa. Though viewed as bad luck in most places, in Tanzania, she learns the shocking truth, ripped from real-world headlines, that people with albinism have been butchered for supernatural reasons. Lengsfelder introduces a host of inventive dangers (plane crash, sharks, deprivation, disease, and much more) as Eunis pursues the thinnest of threads in her search for the girl—and discovers her own power.

A Bounty of Bone keeps the reader off-balance with a series of jolting events, riding the edge between coincidence and the supernatural. The climax, which builds to near-Biblical proportions, is astonishing in its audacity and daring. While kept off-balance for most of the story, Eunis is far from a victim, and her ultimate triumph against a mysterious hunter called the Hyena is cleverly written. The result is an intense journey for both Eunis and the reader, as she sheds her reticence and fully embraces her true self for the first time, and the reader is treated to a visceral adventure.

Takeaway: Intricate mystery plotting and supernatural surprises make this Tanzanian adventure stand out.

Great for fans of: Minka Kent’s The Stillwater Girls, Christine Pride and Jo Piazza’s We Are Not Like Them.

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

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Impossible To Be Human: A Novel
Robert Kalich
The pandemic, political chaos, and questions of what it takes to do good in the world dominate Kalich’s second followup to The Handicapper, his vivid 1981 novel about a cantor’s gambler son who puts together a winning sports handicapping system that makes him rich and a public figure. Now, in this exciting and wholly unpredictable second sequel (after 2019’s David Lazar), the one-time handicapper is back, a wealthy octogenarian facing aging, his latter-years zeal to make sure his life meant something, and the moral quandary of his friendship with the novel’s unexpected guest star: “Duck,” the impeachment-facing businessman president of the United States, an old acquaintance and ranting, Lear-like crank.

Kalich deftly illuminates the drift of mind of a regretful millionaire reflecting back, a man who marched in the Civil Rights efforts of the 1960s but who recognizes little has changed … and whose family is disappointed by his relationship with a president whose policies he hates. (He’d rather spend his time thinking about baseball and reading Clarice Lispector than talking to Duck.) As before, Kalich’s storytelling is sharp-elbowed but thoughtful, committed to exposing persuasive real-life details and ethical quandaries. The air is more rarified than in the grubby world of The Handicapper—but still rank. As Covid deaths accumulate, the president wants Lazar’s help in connecting with a Global Health startup that stands as one of Lazar’s great investments. But Duck’s not looking for international cooperation on Covid treatment; instead, it’s all business opportunities.

That business will profit Lazar of course, though he’s increasingly disgusted by it. He knew Duck when he “was receiving a million-dollar-a-year allowance from his racist father” and proving to be a “liar and cheat” in real estate— and as he becomes the president’s sounding board, in scenes that read like real-life eavesdropping on the nation’s most powerful men, Lazar find Duck’s worst qualities have not abated. The tension rises from whether Lazar will—or even can—try to change things. The ending is a surprising jolt, hopeful and cutting at once, compelling literary comedy laced with truth and outrage.

Takeaway: This surprising novel finds a sports handicapper, 40 years later, as the confidante of the pandemic-era president.

Great for fans of: Curtis Sittenfeld, Carl Hiaasen’s Squeeze Me.

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

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Speak This Not That: Positive Affirmations to Have a Better Day
Lynn Lok-Payne
“The greatest influence on our daily lives is our internal dialogue,” opens Lok-Payne (Wake up! Change Up! Rise Up!, Practical Tools for Personal Transformation) in this accessible guide to replacing self-defeating thought patterns. Reminding readers that negative thinking can become an automatic process, Lok-Payne teaches thought awareness and offers bite-sized affirmations to reframe that inner dialogue, spotlighting each individual’s power to create a different reality by changing up their thoughts and emotions: “focus on the life you want to create,” she writes. Above all, Lok-Payne underscores acceptance as the basic building block to a peaceful existence.

Readers seeking inviting, transformative guidance will appreciate the practical design and easy-to-grasp techniques here, as Lok-Payne divides the affirmations into convenient sections, including “self-love,” “gratitude,” and more. For each reframe she identifies a negative thought, followed by a handful of alternative phrases readers can use to transform their thinking from defeatist to empowered. Instead of “I can’t control my circumstances” she suggests “I can control my reaction and attitude toward the situation”; instead of “I can’t do it” she advocates the reminder “I just haven’t done it yet.” Throughout, Lok-Payne offers insights that both appeal and inspire, like “happiness is the road trip, not the destination” or “my past does not predict my future.”

It’s clear Lok-Payne crafted this work as a collection of moments to savor, and readers should plan time for deep reflection and study. She offers suggestions to boost that meditation, such as taking quiet walks and mastering deep breathing when responding to stress—or using the journal pages included at the end to contemplate the book’s lessons. Readers struggling with self-doubt will relish her emphasis on “lov[ing] myself just as I am in this very moment,” as well as her advice to view failure as a springboard instead of a wall—an uplifting and refreshing message.

Takeaway: This uplifting guide demonstrates overcoming negative thoughts through affirmations.

Great for fans of: Pauline Ronan’s The Pocketbook of Positivity and Reframing, Shad Helmstetter’s What to Say When You Talk to Your Self.

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

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The Tyranny of Desire
Morton L Shallman
Puchy Mushkin, the hero of this ribald and incisive provocation from author/musician Shallman, has a problem: his overwhelming desire can only be matched by his enormous penis. Being endowed with that “Rubirosan love muscle,” it turns out, is “a double-edge sword.” Believing that all his many travails—among them a failed marriage, an ex-lover who literally crucifies him, and his recent exile from polite society—stem from his unquenchable hedonism, Puchy vows to start living life devoid of want, believing, “...desire is a dangerous thing. The source of all suffering and pain.” This seemingly noble pursuit backfires for Puchy, though Shallman has a ball conjuring up the wildest situations and transgressions in a carnivalesque Los Angeles, including a mayoral campaign, an odd irredeemable love, and involvement with a woman who sells her feces to the highest bidder.

The story may sound at first blush like the world’s biggest penis joke, but readers who relish irreverent literary play will be rewarded with insight and challenges to convention, especially when Puchy falls into his more introspective moments. By trying to live for want of nothing, Puchy finds out that being the anti-yes-man also has its cons. From one extreme to another, the fine line between being in control and being controlled sends Puchy into a host of extreme—and often uproarious—setpieces in the spirit of the norm-shattering, can-you-top-this? sexually frank comic novels of a generation ago, with a welcome queer edge. One of Puchy’s breakthroughs finds him thinking, “...when you murder desire, desire doesn’t suffer, only you and everyone around you.”

Jolts of such wisdom offer relief from the darkness and depravity. Much of the humor stems from its cast of politically incorrect characters, most of whom reveal surprising depths in what at first might seem the shallow swamps of their personas. Still, the comedy is proudly over-the-top, edging into the realm of bawdy vaudeville, destructive not just of what used to be called "decency" but niceties like narrative momentum and clarity. Puchy's just too much for this world.

Takeaway: The riotously bawdy story of a man finding it harder than it looks to live without a care.

Great for fans of: Arthur Nersesian, Gary Reilly’s The Asphalt Warrior.

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

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Abroad: A Novel of Cross-Cultural Encounters
Greyson Bryan
In this literary novel centered on travel and the lessons we can learn from crossing borders with an open heart, Bryan, author of the Big thriller series, weaves an ambitious, globe-crossing narrative of interconnected lives and loves. At its heart is Skip Burton, prompted to reflect on his earlier life and the role that travel played in shaping him. At a young age, Skip proved an extremely reluctant traveler. As he grows and matures, spending time in Asia and Mexico, travel becomes a more permanent fixture in Skip’s life, helping him to build confidence as he opens up to new cultural experiences—and new people.

Bryan’s story springboards from a grabber of a question. Jenny, Skip’s late wife, had told Jen, their daughter, that, despite her years married to a traveler, she herself had never left the United States. A year after Jenny’s death, daughter Jen presents Skip with a photo of Jenny and Skip in Japan in 1974. Like Jen, readers will wonder why this was kept secret; the bulk of the novel, covering the journeys and connections made by Skip and his friend Maddie in the long-gone 1960s and 1970s, builds to the urgent, touching answer. Bryan charts his adventures abroad, eventually in the Volunteer Service in Asia, plus those of Skip’s Kansan-by-birth but Californian-by-choice VSA rival Rex, whose romantic travails eventually involve death threats in Indonesia. The final chapters, meanwhile, return to the bumptious circumstances of Skip’s early relationship to Jenny.

The result is a rich, often finely detailed mosaic of lives and longings, with multiple point-of-view characters and a recurring message of understanding. Some shifts in perspective and place can occasionally jar readers’ sense of where they are in the story, but throughout Bryan dramatizes the ways that cultural capital can help build lifelong connections that teach us how we deal with ourselves and those outside our experience.

Takeaway: This reflective, globe-crossing novel will please armchair travelers.

Great for fans of: Living on the Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Writers, Greg Baxter’s The Apartment.

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

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The Fifth Daughter of Thorn Ranch: A Modern Ranch with an Ancient Secret
Julia Brewer Daily
Emma Rosales recognizes the significance of her heritage as the last in a long line of Rosales women to inherit her family’s sprawling Texas Thorn ranch. But, facing some daunting challenges, Emma starts wondering whether she’s cut out for the job, never expecting the change she’s dreaming about is just around the corner: on a routine ranch ride, a series of mishaps leads her to discover “The People,” a group in animal skins and leather boots secreted away from the world in caves and deeply committed to staying that way. When Emma stumbles into their lives, they interpret her arrival as a sign from the ancestors that she was meant to join them.

Daily portrays the stunning Texas landscape with a practiced eye in this compelling debut, evoking her love for her home state in striking language while illuminating a fierce and volatile land that confounds even those most familiar with it. Emma, awed by their caverns “as spectacular as the Grand Canyon,” is fascinated by The People’s natural way of living and fearful of their refusal to let her leave. Despite the strong bonds she forms, especially with Kai, the grandson of The People’s eldest leader, Emma won’t succumb to this fate, though another arrival from the modern world changes everything.

Daily’s narrative jumps between viewpoints and times, but the romantic underpinnings eventually lead Emma, Kai, and her family to the realization that the land they claim to own holds more mystery and power than they could have guessed. At the same time, the characters are forced to acknowledge the enormity of what they didn't know about themselves and their loved ones—and those revelations are not always pleasant. Blending the realistic and the lightly fantastic in a mature and original mix, The Fifth Daughter considers what’s most important and what it means, in the end, to weigh the price of that love.

Takeaway: An unexpected encounter on a Texas ranch forces a young woman and man to reevaluate all they hold dear.

Great for fans of: Charles Stross’s The Family Trade, Glendy Vanderah’s Where the Forest Meets the Stars.

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

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How to Be Awkward
Amanda Turner
Playfully ruminating on the foibles of what it means to be human, Turner (This Little Piggy Went to the Liquor Store, as AK Turner) writes in chuckle-worthy essay form, exploring the perpetual struggle of functioning with anxiety, shame, and shortcomings—and how to cope with people who feel it necessary to point out those failings—in a society defined by rules and expectations. As Turner explains in “I’m What Smells Bad,” a story of her smelly egg salad sandwich in first grade that causes the whole school to stink, “Welcome to awkwardness, I want to say to the younger me. It’s with you for life.”

Turner’s genius lies in her anecdotal storytelling cloaked in universally relatable fears and public displays of embarrassment. In “True Love Story,” Turner declares that the ultimate in awkwardness is shopping for a mattress with your boyfriend and your mother at the same time, while she dedicates nearly the entirety of one chapter to bullet points detailing “How to Be Chubby,” with winning tips like be sure to eat your children’s leftovers, fantasize about exercise without actually doing it, and learn to be content with your size as long as you’re happy and healthy. She turns to the serious, too, in “Sorry About the Plague,” as she muses on the human need for connection amid isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Readers can expect plenty of laughs, at others and themselves, as Turner reflects on familiar themes like acceptance—“Cool people simply fail to admit things about which the rest of us are more forthcoming”—and parenting: when waiting in the school pick-up line, Turner routinely embarrasses her daughter by rebuking other children’s bad habits, justifying her actions with “I promise they had it coming.” Throughout, her unconditional self-acceptance is refreshing, and readers with a soft spot for humor mixed with candor will be thoroughly entertained.

Takeaway: An entertaining read that makes being awkward cool.

Great for fans of: Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me?; Laurie Notaro’s The Idiot Girls’ Action-Adventure Club.

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

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The Lake Effect: A Lake Michigan Mosaic
Fred Carlisle
“I remain transfixed by Lake Michigan, and like one of Melville’s people, I seek water and the lake,” Carlisle writes in this slim compact, compelling book of essays, a love letter to one of the greatest of the Great Lakes. The author spotlights his memories of and love for Lake Michigan—it’s “captivating presence and emotional force”—while exploring wider perspectives and themes that include the aesthetic, psychic, historic, economic, social, and cultural effects of the lake, plus some theoretical concerns like water in general or the challenges of representing, in words or visual art, ”the many faces of the lake and water.” Fond recollections of twentieth-century Lake Michigan dominate, viewed at times through a nostalgic lens, touched with Carlisle’s family history, though Carlisle also offers a clear-eyed look at shipping, tourism, agriculture, conservation efforts, and more.

Carlisle’s affinity for this iconic body of water shines through on every page. However, The Lake Effect plunges darker depths, too. Carlisle addresses the unpredictability and capricious whims of Mother Nature, even in a lake “compromised and ‘controlled’” by humanity, particularly the fatal sinking of the SS Carl D. Bradley in 1958. Aquatic Armageddon is also explored thoroughly, with Carlisle examining in fascinating depth invasive species like lampreys, zebra mussels, Quagga mussels, Asian carp, and goby fish and their catastrophic effects on the Great Lakes. Lately, changes in climate have eroded dunes, intensified weather, and ushered in a “new normal” in changes of water level, with some disastrous results, like houses crashing into the lake.

Meticulous research, source notations, and first-hand accounts of travels around the massive lake back up his opinions and musings, and black-and-white illustrations and photos provide welcome visuals ranging from a lamprey’s maw to “the most beautiful day” Carlisle and family ever spent at the lake. Evocative prose and a willingness to face the complex and ambiguous will engage readers fascinated by America’s waterways while enriching their understanding, appreciation, and concern for the future.

Takeaway: This in-depth love letter to Lake Michigan will captivate readers with a passion for the Great Lakes.

Great for fans of: Jerry Dennis’s The Living Great Lakes, Dana Thomas Bowen’s Memories of the Lakes.

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

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After Claire: In Search of a Habitable Life
John R. Wallis
Wallis draws on his professional experience to imbue the protagonist of this thoughtful literary thriller, Florida psychotherapist Paul Mason, with authenticity as Mason copes with the untimely death of his wife—and a threat to his daughter. Mason is riddled with guilt after his inattentive driving and running a red light results in the death of his wife, Claire. Not only is his relationship with his nine-year-old daughter Allie fractured when he reveals his role in the accident that led to Claire’s death, but he and Allie also become the target of Ricardo Raphael, a powerful attorney who defends drug dealers. Pressuring Mason to stop his therapy sessions with Angela Morales, Raphael’s lover, Raphael indicates that he knows where Allie goes to school, an “expertly ambiguous” threat.

While Wallis’ ability to grab the reader’s attention from the very first page deftly propels the story forward, it is the simmering question that Mason wrestles with that keeps the reader guessing. What did his wife mean when she said, just before the accident, “I can’t do this anymore…I’m seeing someone”? Mason’s quest for answers becomes complicated by his everyday struggles connecting with Allie and trying to make the best professional decisions that will keep his daughter safe while meeting his ethical standards.

Some of the most compelling material in Wallis’ debut digs, with illuminating insight, into Mason’s skills and conflicts as a therapist, plus Mason’s need to seek therapy himself, which of course causes more compelling complications: Mason understands his own potential therapist’s reluctance to treat him because of Raphael’s threats, but he also realizes the impact on his life without being able to address his difficulties with another mental health professional. The result is an ambitious novel that’s perceptive and persuasive in its depiction of Mason’s profession, all while finding suspense in thuggish lawyers and ethical quandaries but never losing sight of the Mason’s most crucial relationship.

Takeaway: The thoughtful story of a psychotherapist coping with guilt, grief, and the threats of a dangerous attorney.

Great for fans of: B.A. Paris’s The Therapist, and Suzanne Steele’s The Club: Colombian Cartel.

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

Running Toward Life: Finding Community and Wisdom in the Distances We Run
Broad Book Group
“Who we are and what we determine to be important is always magnified by the great distances we run,” ultramarathoner Trent writes in this energizing debut. Dedicated to endurance runs, he recounts a lifetime dream of completing a 100-mile distance run, sharing the ups and downs that led to his accomplishment of that dream as well as his injuries and setbacks along the way. Trent’s appraisal of the immense physical challenges of ultrarunning is just the start: he also shares the spotlight with his mentors and running companions who motivated him to go the distance during the journey.

Trent’s love affair with ultrarunning blossomed during adolescence, when he chose to run cross country during school, and continued into adulthood, exploding after his discovery of the 1995 Western States Endurance Run, one of the world’s first 100-mile runs across rugged mountain territory. Just two years after being inspired to run his own Western States, Trent achieved that goal, barely missing his 24-hour completion benchmark (and the coveted “100 miles in one day” silver buckle award). Despite many such setbacks over the years, Trent’s perseverance is inspiring, as is his continued passion for running that he now shares with his family.

Readers will find Trent’s profiles of mentors and fellow runners heartening. He recalls past Western States’ president Tony Rossmann’s well-timed advice to “remember there are no enemies, only adversaries,” and shares how the trail provided familiarity and comfort during a friend’s cancer battle. Trent’s fondness for anecdotal reminiscing, and his almost-lyrical descriptions of the wildlife and natural environments of his marathons, is alluring, although he sacrifices narrative structure for aesthetics at times. Ultimately, Trent aims to help readers understand “who they are and what is important to them,” and even the most unathletic will want to double-knot their shoelaces and hit the trails.

Takeaway: A passionate celebration of ultrarunning.

Great for fans of: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami; Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home by Heather “Anish” Anderson.

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

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I'll Be Seeing You
Joanne Kukanza Easley
Lauren Eaton doesn’t quite fit in on her family’s Texas ranch—she yearns for a different future than a ranch wife, dreams of stylish dresses and posh makeup, and, to top it all off, her mother insists on using her birth name, Ruby, despite Lauren’s preference for her more mature middle name. When her glamorous aunt Imogene drops in for a surprise visit, Lauren’s swept away by her panache and eagerly agrees to join her on a trip to New York City, where she’s certain her dreams will come true. Her big break eventually comes, after a win in a local beauty contest catches the eye of a talent scout at a high-fashion magazine.

Readers will quickly fall in love with the charismatic Lauren, a compelling mix of innocence and pizzazz, who parties too much and falls too hard for the wrong men in the big city. As she’s caught up in the world of male callers, nightclubs, and fashion, Lauren’s unpolished exterior melts away, and a grown-up version, embodied with style and finesse, materializes. Her lifestyle eventually rivals that of her extravagant aunt, but the glamour comes with a cost, and soon Lauren spirals into alcoholism and self-destructive encounters with men, culminating in an unwed pregnancy and more than one marriage—scandals in the 1940s. Lauren eventually emerges resilient, but her evolution is equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring.

Throughout Lauren’s high-flying moments, Black housekeeper Vandine and gay friend Harold are loyal constants, offsetting her painful experiences with loving kindness and adding refreshing diversity to Easley’s storyline, while tackling crucial issues of equality in the mid-20th century. Easley manages to evoke both the glitzy nightlife of the ‘40s and the passion of an ever-evolving blues scene, and fans of her earlier novel, Sweet Jane, will be pleased to recognize some continued characters.

Takeaway: Historical fiction fans craving glamour and depth will relish this mid-20th century read.

Great for fans of: Camille Di Maio’s Until We Meet; Fiona Davis’s The Dollhouse.

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

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