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We Planned a Murder: One Murder. Five Suspects. And One of Them is Next.
Derek D. Wheeless
Wheeless’s thrilling whodunit debut offers a vintage edge to a contemporary YA mystery. Ignacio “Nacho” Blanco is a teenage sleuth and self-appointed Problem Solver Investigator (PSI) with dreams of ditching his small town for the glamor of the big city. Enter Zadie Abernathy, a schoolmate accused of murdering a local psychiatrist. Nacho decides to take on the case–“Everyone is capable of murder in the right circumstance, but Zadie didn’t fit the bill,” he notes in his role as narrator–and prove Zadie’s innocence, but nothing is as straightforward as it seems. With cunning detective work and a little help from his friends, Nacho must track down the truth before he becomes the next target.

Wheeless masterfully weaves mature themes and an old-fashioned noir atmosphere into this playful premise, complete with a smooth-talking detective who has a soft spot for the damsel in distress. Nacho’s dialogue mirrors hard boiled mysteries and classic Dick Tracy comics, and the crime-solving teenager even has a signature cocktail of choice—an 1885, which is Dr. Pepper with a splash of chocolate syrup. His character shines, but Zadie also proves to be more than a blonde in need: she’s a complex character with a poignant backstory who matches Nacho’s gusto and enthusiasm for finding the truth. Along with a friend who provides him with the latest tech gadgets, a retired FBI agent, and a few of his fellow classmates, Nacho faces life-threatening obstacles and confirms that bravery is ageless.

The action, characters, and mystery quickly prove gripping and don’t let go until the harrowing conclusion. Stakes are continuously raised as Nacho dives into the disturbing underbelly of the murder victim’s personal life, and Wheeless doesn’t shy away from mature content such as self-harm and sexual assault. With a fast-moving plot and plenty of twists, Wheeless's polished story will leave readers craving more adventures with his dynamic teenage sleuth.

Takeaway: Perfect for mystery lovers craving a YA thriller with mature themes and a noir vibe.

Great for fans of: Maureen Johnson’s The Box in the Woods, Brittany Cavallaro’s A Study in Charlotte.

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

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The Sacrificial Deal
Teri Harmon
In her literary debut, financial planner Harmon delivers a fast-paced, character-driven thriller centered on a pediatrician who witnesses a mob hit and then must descend into the FBI’s Witness Protection Program. As Dr. Sarah Stevens works late at night in her Santa Barbara-based office, she witnesses three hitmen slaying a pharmaceutical rep across the hall. Forced into hiding after her high-profile testimony, Sarah is forced to fake her own death and leave her family—including her beloved architect husband, Nicholas, and children Sophie, Susan, and Jackson—behind to save all of their lives. Living in exile in Boise, Idaho, for several years, Sarah becomes Sandra and covertly observes her family from a distance—until someone catches on that the beloved pediatrician might not be dead after all.

Readers will easily empathize with Sarah’s moral dilemma: do the right thing and testify against members of the Russian Mafia, who immediately put a million dollar bounty on her head, or let the killers (one of whom is still at large) get away with murder. As Sarah’s lawyer observes, she might be marked for death no matter which option she chooses. Harmon deftly conveys the disorientation inherent with losing one’s lifelong identity and being forced to take on a stranger’s. The title refers to an elaborate coverup scheme and new life plan Sarah negotiates with the FBI.

Sarah’s emotional angst at not being able to celebrate major milestones with her family–including a grandchild’s birth, a child’s high school graduation, and another’s engagement–comes across with clarity. Sometimes, Harmon summarizes rather than fully dramatizes key moments, and some scenes of Sarah observing her family, even in heavy disguise, without being detected strain credulity. Still, Sarah’s strong desire to be with her family at all costs rings true. Readers fond of hair-raising plots and strong heroines will find promise in Harmon’s debut.

Takeaway: An inventive plot, a conflicted heroine, and high emotional stakes stand out in this thriller debut.

Great for fans of: Kate White’s The Wrong Man; Nicci French’s The Other Side of the Door.

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

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The Light after the Orange
Beverley Hall
The first installment in Hall’s Tundra Stone series blends near-future dystopia, elements of magic, and alternate worlds for a story that fully merges science fiction with fantasy. Alex Chegasa has led a sheltered childhood after the Orange destroyed the world. Outside her school, survivors scavenge abandoned homes while fending each other off for a small corner of existence. When tragedy strikes for Alex, she’s forced to join a group of people in search of a new home. Running on a parallel timeline is Billey, who doesn’t quite fit in with her community either. Soon the two find their destiny—and the fate of the world as they know it—inextricably joined.

Friendship, danger, deception, and the power of communing with nature power the narrative. Hall’s characters are engaging, and the story diverges from typical dystopia, imbuing several main players with supernatural skills that give them an advantage in the wasteland. Iggy, one of Alex’s fellow travelers, has magical abilities similar to her own, and he takes on the task of convincing Alex to hide her magic from people who may exploit it–notably the charismatic Jericho, founder of a utopian-like island. When Billey begins to question her identity, and experiences a brutal attack on her foster parents, she discovers her hidden life and returns home to assume responsibilities, including ensuring Alex’s survival.

Hall strikes a believable, chillingly familiar chord with the Orange event that poisons the land, kills many people, and forces those who survive to fight for dwindling resources. The plotting can get tricky, especially as Hall incorporates a variety of elements from multiple genres, and the complex, worlds-crossing mysteries of Billey’s past and Alex’s future at times diminish the narrative momentum. For those fans seeking a fresh interpretation of a dystopian future, with a touch of magic and a sense of the power of nature, this story hits the spot.

Takeaway: This kickoff to a genre-mixing post-apocalyptic saga emphasizes friendship, danger, and the power of nature.

Great for fans of: Kameron Hurley’s Worldbreaker Saga, Mike Carey’s Book of Koli.

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

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No Such Thing as Goodbye
Karmen Spiljak
Špiljak’s striking crime thriller, which was shortlisted for the Black Spring Crime Fiction Prize 2020, follows Antonia Morretti, the daughter of a Dutch mobster, as she attempts to escape her past (and probable death) to start a new life across the Atlantic in Mexico City. However, it’s not long before Moretti finds herself face to face with the very world she has been trying to escape: a world spilling over with spies, criminals, and worst of all, violence–the lethal kind.

From the arresting first line (“Tomorrow, I’ll be dead”), Špiljak, author of the “culinary noir” collection Add Cyanide to Taste, explores the futility of trying to escape who you are and where you come from, suggesting that the past will always come back to haunt you, making the novel’s title fittingly appropriate. Špiljak writes with persuasive power about the ins and outs of both the criminal world and those who police it, and the narrative is interspersed with piquant details of how things are done, details readers might expect only an insider could divulge, while Antonia training in disguise, tailing, and other tricks of the trade in the novel’s middle makes clear how much work it takes to develop the skills this milieu demands. As striking as the verisimilitude is Špiljak’s prose, which is as poetic as it is fast-paced; plot points are punctuated with philosophical musings that lend the narrative welcome depth and resonance.

There are times when this action-packed novel can seem too frantic, straining reader credulity about how many things can go wrong at any given time. But Špiljak exercises impressive narrative command, carrying readers along the entire way, delivering skillful setpieces of suspense and action that despite their headlong momentum never sacrifice surprise or impact. Lovers of swift-moving crime thrillers will enjoy this book, which packs a punch while delving deep into the human psyche.

Takeaway: Packed with action and thematically rich, this globe-crossing crime thriller stands out.

Great for fans of: Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger, Alex Michaelides’s The Silent Patient.

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

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Psyker: A Hiveworlds Novel
Rory Surtain
Surtain (Storm Sister: Demon in Exile) adds alien psychic powers to a rigid society in an underground city in this twisting tale of freedoms lost and found. In the distant future, the Imperium of Mankind has spread throughout the galaxy. Societies live under inflexible laws in vast, densely populated hiveworld cities that extend for miles into the earth, while a few noble Houses oversee the functioning and protection of the cities. When sixteen-year-old Paric, son of General Kilhaven and cadet with the Planetary Defense Force, suffers a life-threatening injury during a training session, he begins a dangerous journey that pits him against the worst of his world.

This novel practically buzzes with rich sci-fi elements and elaborate worldbuilding. Paric is put in suspended animation for a year to heal, and while he remains fully conscious, he deals with the curse of being a psyker–a person who can tap into the psychic powers of alien parasites living in the Warp trails of space. Trouble is, the aliens tormenting his mind are at odds with each other and with Paric. After he’s revived, Paric uses his ethereal as well as his physical form to hide from the religious leaders of the Ecclesiarchy who have outlawed psykers, and from the underhive gangs that want to recruit him to exploit his power.

Surtain has a gift for describing the dank, dark underhive world and its stratified life—the rich and powerful at the top, and the desperate and criminal living in the hundreds of layers in the depths. Paric uses these dark corners to his advantage, declaring “In my ethereal form, I could travel the usual alleys and avenues, checking the watchers, guards, and enforcers...” The nuances of this complex world would be clearer with more descriptive anchoring, and a map and glossary would help orient readers in a story that's at times a challenge to keep up with, but Surtain’s creative worldbuilding will dazzle fans of the genre.

Takeaway: An ambitious far-future adventure with elaborate worldbuilding and a labyrinthine plot.

Great for fans of: Jim Meeks-Johnson’s Enemy Immortal, Micaiah Johnson’s The Space Between Worlds.

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

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The Petrus Prophecy
Gary McAvoy with Ronald L. Moore
The swift, suspenseful third entry in McAvoy’s Vatican Secret Archives series again digs into sinister secrets, conspiracies, and prophecies—and the powerful men who will kill to protect them. At the heart of the mystery is “The Third Secret of Fatima,” the last in a string of proven prophecies, “a sacred mystery, tucked away in that most secure of papal vaults.” If phrasing like that, from the opening pages, seizes your imagination, then The Petrus Prophecy (like McAvoy’s Magdalene Chronicles series) will prove irresistible, especially as popes faint when reading the secret—and, in the novel’s present, a Jesuit scholar in Chicago dies as he’s writing a book that would disclose the Third Secret. The manuscript goes missing, and the investigation that follows will find Chicago police detective Rebecca Lancaster and co. crossing the globe, visiting abbeys and corpses, encountering zealots, riddles, and terrorist plots—and possibly facing a world-ending cataclysm from the heavens themselves.

McAvoy, working with Ronald L. Moore, hits the ground running in this propulsive thriller, which adeptly blends ancient mysteries and secret societies with contemporary procedural storytelling. The clues and surprises come quickly as Lancaster and her counterpart in Rome, the Carabinieri’s captain Sabrina Felici, race about in an old Ferrari that, as Felici puts it, “handles Rome’s chaotic traffic like a dominatrix.” Such character touches and a sense of playful fun keep the material from getting bleak or self-serious, even as the stakes prove biblical in scale.

Devotees of religious-secrets thrillers will find much here that’s engaging, if not exactly novel, as the heroes and their allies attempt not just to solve a murder but to learn the truth of the Third Secret—and eventually face the schemes of the Knights of the Apocalypse, a secret society of immense power who stirs a public frenzy with its revelations. The authors have revelations of their own, the welcome jolts and secrets that distinguish this series.

Takeaway: This superior Vatican conspiracy thriller puts a Chicago cop on the trail of an apocalyptic prophecy.

Great for fans of: Ray Keating, Peter Hogankamp.

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

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The Adventures of Clive & Sydney, the Dancing Armadillos: Nanushka Is Missing!
Mallory J. Stevens
In Stevens’s lively picture book, the dancing armadillos Clive and Sydney are established performers but lack confidence, and their search for a missing partner reveals ingrained doubts–and reminds them what they value most. Siamese cat Nanushka always danced with them at Pine Tree Forest Theater, but one Saturday night, she was nowhere to be found. Clive and Sydney didn’t believe they could perform without her, until the stage manager bear calmly declares, “The show must go on”–and it does. The dancing duo are rightly proud, but their joy is dampened by Nanushka’s disappearance. The armadillos head into unfamiliar terrain.

Stevens credits her collaborator Jesús García with the creation of the armadillos and their feline choreographer, as well as the appealing overall design of her debut picture book. Stevens’s story quickly pulls Clive and Sydney out of their comfort zone, putting the lighthearted dancers on a journey that forces them to confront fears of inadequacy and abandonment. With more text than usual for young readers (ages 4-7), she describes their mindset in detail, as potential predators become unexpected allies. Clive and Sydney have taken much for granted, and their impetuous adventure makes them realize just how much they value Nanushka.

Illustrator Tamara Campeau works digitally but expertly employs texture and fluid colors so that images of a lush forest appear to be watercolors soaked in thick, fibrous paper. Sydney is a squat Southern three-banded armadillo who can roll up into a ball, while Clive’s long snout and tail are typical nine-banded armadillo traits, and Campeau uses these characteristics to emphasize their different personalities. There’s expressive movement in their armored bodies,and their faces contain the gradations–from pathos to exhilaration–of a Laurel and Hardy comedy team. Clive and Sydney’s search for Nanushka is both a tactile adventure and an emotional journey of friendship that gives young readers a reassuring vision of mutual support.

Takeaway: On an adventure, armadillos explore their own insecurities and re-commit to longstanding friendships.

Great for fans of: Bill Martin Jr. and Michael Sampson’s Armadillo Antics, Thomas Amoriello Jr.’s A Journey to Guitarland with Maestro Armadillo, and Jan Brett’s Armadillo Rodeo.

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

DAVID'S SLING
ANDREW CERONI
Ceroni (Meridian) offers a meat--and-potatoes spy thriller with a plot that focuses on personal vengeance more than international intrigue. The hero, CIA agent Dave McClure, is a nearly superhuman force of nature. He's faster, stronger, and smarter than his opponents. Tasked with assisting the FBI in tracking down a German terrorist group aided by Russia, he is forced to take on a rogue Russian agent who blames McClure for his brother's death. McClure and a team first have to deal with the German terrorists, who are plotting to kill a number of Olympic athletes in Colorado Springs. Then McClure has to go after the rogue Russian agent who kidnaps and threatens to behead someone the hero loves. It all builds to a gripping chase in unforgiving terrain, with an unconventional final battle scene.

McClure is a Jack Ryan-style superspy in that he's a guy just trying to do a job who gets pressed into more and more difficult situations. He's also not unlike an 80s action movie hero in that he's slow to anger but quick to gain revenge for violence visited on his family. The good guys in this thriller are unambiguously square-jawed heroes who shout exhortations like “Let’s be ready to kick some ass for the US of A,” while the bad guys are for the most part sneering, swearing avatars of international menace.

Ceroni does provide some nuance in the CIA chief who is more concerned with the rules than rescuing McClure's wife. There's also a Russian agent who accepts McClure's explanation as to why and how another Russian was killed, and backs off from trying to assassinate him. Settings like Colorado Springs and upstate New York were clearly well-researched, with vivid detail that enhanced the action in each scene they appeared in. This well-paced spy/action-adventure is a no-frills experience designed for fans of the genre.

Takeaway: Fans of action-driven spy thrillers with square-jawed heroes and sinister villains will enjoy this adventure.

Great for fans of: Andrew Grant, Adam Hamdy.

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

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Resolve to Rise: Become Greater than Your Circumstances
Lilli R Correll
Making the case that suffering can be a rite of passage as we all continually learn and heal over the course of our lives, this inviting guide to facing, understanding, and overcoming trauma draws from counselor and healthcare executive Correll’s professional expertise and personal trauma experiences. Underlying her advice is an emphasis on trauma recovery as a long-term process and not a quick fix: “By taking small steps, you have time for learning and adjusting on the journey.” Demonstrating the importance of acknowledging rather than suppressing trauma, Correll candidly shares her past with readers–including abuse, the unexpected death of her husband, losing both parents in a short period of time, and being diagnosed with autoimmune diseases–and examines its impact on her behavior, feelings, and habits.

Leading by example, Correll links facing that past to her resolve “to rise, to become a better version of myself, and to claim my own destiny and not the destiny that seemed unavoidable.” Correll emphasizes that readers need to understand how widespread trauma is, and stop giving in to feelings of shame or unrealistic social expectations, such as rushing through painful emotions to avoid making others feel uncomfortable. Her decades of counseling experience add persuasive weight when she assures readers that facing trauma is a viable and worthwhile process despite the challenges: “But with slow and steady effort and renewed focus and learning from the journey, we can create momentum and ascend out of suffering,” she writes.

To make that ascent easier, Correll lays this all out in a concise and easy-to-digest manner, and reminds readers that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution–everyone is unique. He includes illuminating data and exercises, such as journal prompts and a “practical planning framework” to guide purposeful behavior change that readers can adopt while working through their own trauma. This sincere, clear-eyed guide offers readers hope.

Takeaway: This thoughtful guide argues that overcoming trauma is a long, continual–but achievable–process.

Great for fans of: Sarah Woodhouse's You're Not Broken: Break Free From Trauma & Reclaim Your Life, Bessel Van Der Kolk's The Body Keeps the Score.

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

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Six Feet Apart: An Anthology
Marvin Mason
This compelling anthology by four Black male authors features stories about love, relationships, Black Lives Matter, and racial issues, offering in-depth insight into the daily lives of Black men in America during the Covid-19 era. While fictionalized, each story draws from contemporary news to speak to the deaths of real-life Black men and women, with powerful interstitial essays from J. Brinkley exploring the stories of Atatiana Jefferson, Tamir Rice, and Stephon Clark, whose lives were cut short due to gun violence and police brutality.

The results convey rich emotional turmoil while also, in their depiction of everyday living in troubled times, brimming with unspoken meaning. In “2 Miles” Brandon C. Brown pens a tense story of a middle-class Black man trying to make it home safely from his evening jog, when he makes the almost fatal mistake of crossing into an unfamiliar neighborhood, where he’s confronted by the police. Marvin Mason offers readers a glimpse into the complicated messiness of relationships in blended families in “Six Feet Away,” when a high school teacher falls for the mother of two of his students, and Mark T. Sneed compares the pandemic to a different kind of outbreak in “The Zombie Apocalypse is Nothing Like I Expected,” a story rich with metaphors and masterful wordplay.

J. Brinkley’s exploration into real-life deaths drive home the resonant parallels between art and life while crying out for justice: “This is grossly unacceptable and should never – NEVER happen again. That should be the police oath to us.” Readers looking for an inviting, thought-provoking read will find much to enjoy here; although the subject matter features heavy topics, each of the stories strikes engaging, sometimes humorous, tones as the authors skillfully contemplate and bring awareness to racial inequality, police brutality, and other urgent concerns, all while illuminating the daily struggles and lives of Black men in America.

Takeaway: A powerful anthology focusing on themes of race relations, police brutality, and love during the age of Covid.

Great for fans of: Tarana Burke and Brené Brown’s You are Your Best Thing; Margaret Busby’s New Daughters of Africa.

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

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Niah's Magic
Nina Waldman
Wishing to spend more time with friends and animals, young Niah dreams of a colorful magical land “where animals roamed free” and “every flower imaginable grew.” There she meets her fairy godmother, who gives her a rainbow-staired treehouse and a bag of fairy dust, and new friend Mayson, another young girl who shares Niah’s enthusiasm for dance, song, and butterflies. But one day, after months of spending time together in this dream land, Mayson doesn’t appear, leading Niah on a journey to discover not only the whereabouts of her friend but also the magic of friendship. Inspired by her own daughter’s experience with the power of story, Waldman’s debut is a vividly colored heartfelt and whimsical ode to love and magic.

Full of heart and positivity, this is an uplifting and enchanting book about the power of friendship set in a dream world that’s sure to delight anyone looking to add a bit of magic to their own life– there’s plenty in the striking illustrations from Marion Strunck. Still, while the book centers on friendship, most of the bonding between Niah and Mayson happens in text descriptions on a couple pages, which diminishes the impact of Niah’s absence, since readers don’t actually see the friendship in action all that much, outside of a charming illustration of the two girls astride Niah’s unicorn, Squigs. (The marvelous Squigs exemplifies Strunck's skill at designing characters.)

Nonetheless, the combination of the vibrant colors and characters, including animals and diverse young girls, the playful font choice (though the denser passages sometimes demand some squinting), and an earnest message makes Niah’s Magic an engaging read, especially for those looking for a reminder of the simple magic all around us. Niah’s vividly rendered dream land is worth returning to over and over again for a chance to see the beaming, pink-winged Squigs and the delightful treehouse that has four entrances.

Takeaway: This colorful, whimsical adventure about the power of friendship will enchant young and old readers.

Great for fans of: Roisin Swales’s Big Hid, Samantha Berger’s What If….

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

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The Humbling and Other Poems
Robert J. Tiess
Tiess’s striking debut may prioritize insights on humility, but don’t mistake it for a humble affair. In inviting, wide-ranging poems, kicking off with a celebration of “the paradox of Socrates” and a promise “to understand I do not know, / and yet enlighten as I go,” The Humbling probes at the world in gently insistent verse, contemplating the life cycle of a raindrop (“Descending to evaporate / I rise again, embrace my fate”), the pleasures of a reprieve from urban sprawl (“a lake to clear my weary head / and keep my soul from going dead”), and the urgency of nonviolent political resistance (“May tolerance, in time, persuade / as old agendas bend and fade.”)

Many of the selections are composed in rhyming couplets, often conversational and even playful, though Tiess does not limit himself to this simple form when aspiring for more elusive effect: “With one glove off, you trace the heavens, / fingers full of reverence,” reads a celebration of winter stargazing. Still, Tiess admires most what’s clear and what’s enduring, relishing how deer “face elements with fortitude,” or marveling at how “marble hands / ten fingers firmly interlocked” persist after centuries in a ruin. With the uncommon directness that is the hallmark of his work, he urges humanity itself to take steps to persist as well, calling for the crafting of “an ark of love to save / our good world from an open grave.”

Endmatter including essays and a glossary of poetic terms makes explicit what readers will infer throughout: The accessibility of Tiess’s poems is the result of careful craft, a zeal to express complex thoughts that sing yet also communicate. “On the yards of my poems,” he writes in one essay, “I did not want any ‘Keep Out’ or ‘No Trespassers’ signs posted.” Instead, The Humbling is an open house, one whose tributes to Whitman and Tolkien suggest the author’s un-humble intentions: approachable yet resonant literature to move, inspire, and even instruct: “Your dreams must not be mere bouquets / which prettify but whither soon.”

Takeaway: These inviting, incisive poems don’t sacrifice resonance as they strive for accessibility.

Great for fans of: Richard Wilbur, Evan Mantyk.

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

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Return to Canyon Creek
John Layne
The third installment of Layne’s Luxton Danner trilogy will please western fans. Arriving in the town of Canyon Creek in the summer of 1878, Luxton Danner and Weston Payne, the former lawmen Layne introduced in Gunslingers, A Story of the Old West, find themselves caught up in the struggle to resist a tyrannical takeover by Gilford Knox, a businessman trying to buy up all the property to turn the town into his own moneymaking paradise, and anyone who gets in his way finds how quick and ferocious his fury can be. It’s up to the gunslinging duo to protect the town and its humble way of life.

Layne honors the tried-and-true archetypes of the western genre while breathing fresh life into the rich conflicts that emerge when wilderness, civilization, and commerce all meet–and he doesn’t skimp on action and humor. The introduction of the Buffalo Soldiers, the all Black regiment formed as a peacekeeping regiment by Congress during the 1860s, adds welcome diversity and interest to the story, and Layne challenges expectations in other ways, as well: While Westerns have a reputation for damsels in distress, the women here are anything but helpless and in need of rescuing.

Still, Return to Canyon Creek’s scenes of gunslingers and confrontations–like the confrontation with a horse thief that re-introduces Danner–play out like favorite movie moments, with the dustups and showdowns crisply described, right down to sound effects and dialogue: “‘I told you I wasn’t done with you yet!’ he snarled before a lightning bolt of pain shot through his skull.” In fact, the dust has little time to settle between the big moments, though Layne layers in welcome mystery, subterfuge, and romance. Layne has penned a polished tale that celebrates the legacy of the western, checking all the boxes but adding some special touches.

Takeaway: This rousing western offers spirited shootouts, dustups, and storytelling.

Great for fans of: Cameron Judd, A.W. Hart.

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

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Defective
Susan L Sofayov
A realistic story centered on mental illness but distinguished by hope and positivity, Sofayov’s debut novel opens with Maggie Hovis struggling to come to terms with her fiancé leaving her. Maggie’s brain seems to house two of her, both a poised and ambitious law student and the screaming, sobbing, shoe-throwing other, who has zero self-confidence and spends days in bed recovering from “episodes.” Called a drama queen by her own brother Mark, and responding to sister-in-law/ best friend Amy’s suggestion, Maggie begins seeing a therapist who, suspecting bipolar disorder, refers her to a psychiatrist. Though apprehensive about being labeled with this diagnosis, Maggie is relieved to discover that her uncontrollable thoughts are not due to some weakness–and now she hopes to win back her fiancé.

Narrated in straightforward, matter-of-fact language, Sofayov skillfully intersperses Maggie’s fight with her own brain with memories from the past which reveal a family history of mental illness complete with a hidden, institutionalized great aunt, Ella, now dead. Maggie’s decision to buy a tombstone for Ella’s unmarked grave touchingly symbolizes her struggle not just to forestall her own “episodes” but also with the belief that a normal life is impossible for people with mental illness. When the family gathers at the graveyard for her little ceremony, Maggie has traversed the arc, accepted her brain as it is, and arrived at some hard-won hope.

Sofayov succeeds in sketching the complex emotions that course through Maggie’s brain, her visceral need for love, her doubts whether a normal life is possible for "defective" people like her, and her determination to succeed at law school. The characters are all believable and relatable except for smoky hot, green eyed Nick DeCarlo, who is unbearably perfect. The novel also effectively portrays the spectrum of reactions to mental illness ranging from total support to outright rejection.

Takeaway: This smart novel about mental illness and finding love is warm and life-affirming.

Great for fans of: Marya Hornbacher’s Madness: A Bipolar Life, John Neufeld’s Lisa, Bright and Dark.

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

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Catching the Wind
Steve Physioc
In his gripping follow-up to last year’s Walks with the Wind, Physioc continues the story of Sam Cloud-Carson, a promising pitcher fighting to overcome personal challenges and achieve stardom. After a disastrous stint working as a reconnaissance tracker at Diamond Bar, a corrupt American security firm based in Afghanistan, Sam decides to pursue baseball full force by moving to Nicaragua and trying out for the Diriamba Dukes. But as Sam’s talent takes him to the majors and his team heads to the World Series, he also must contend with Diamond Bar’s dangerous and power-hungry owner, Drake Dixon, who refuses to let Sam walk away from the past unscathed.

As a character, Sam is well rounded and complex, often consumed with grief over the loss of his parents and his sister, Jenny, who died of kidney disease as a teenager. Jenny’s tragic story adds even more weight to Sam’s past–he initially joined Diamond Bar after Dixon falsely promised he would secure her a kidney transplant. Also strongly developed is Sam’s relationship with Sydney, who is struggling with infertility and stuck in an abusive marriage. Physioc deftly acknowledges each character’s trauma and the role it plays in their budding connection.

A longtime play-by-play announcer for the Kansas City Royals, Physioc is intimately familiar with the quirks and mythology of baseball, which gives this book welcome depth. Everything from Sam’s first professional loss to his time in South America is depicted with the insight and clarity of an insider, which baseball fans will appreciate; he’s adept at explaining the tactics of pitch selection or the effect of afternoon shadows on a ballgame. But even readers who simply enjoy smooth, descriptive prose and a good character-driven story will find something to like here, as Physioc’s tale offers a riveting look at one man’s journey to reclaim his life and discover his destiny.

Takeaway: Physioc’s gripping, touching baseball novel continues the story of a burgeoning pitcher struggling to achieve stardom.

Great for fans of: Eliot Asinof’s Man on Spikes, Paul Hemphill’s Long Gone.

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

Click here for more about Catching the Wind
Westbound
K. Patrick Conner
Conner draws on his experience as a long-time reporter/editor to imbue welcome authenticity into this polished story of a reckoning with the past. Elliott Madison, retired after three decades at a daily paper himself, is writing a book about his illustrious great-grandfather, William Henry Madison, a Gold Rush-er and global traveler who never struck it rich in the Sierra-Nevada gold fields but, with his wife, Amelia Snyder Madison, built a California homestead into a successful sheep ranch. Elliott is surprised when Phoebe Crighton, a stranger, contacts him seeking information for a genealogical inquiry of her own: her great-grandmother’s uncle, Benjamin Harrigan, worked at the Madison ranch, and Phoebe wants to know more. Phoebe visits Elliott in California, and his worshipful image of his family’s past is challenged by the suggestion that Benjamin and Amelia might have been lovers.

Conner’s unusual plotline will resonate with readers fascinated by genealogy research, especially as Phoebe and Elliott uncover more information, and their friendship blossoms. Elliott’s somewhat myopic view of William’s life, with a focus on heroic endeavors like a ship journey around Cape Horn, makes Elliott believable and relatable. But Conner hints at Elliott’s greater depth and his capacity to be open to new ideas. Elliott gradually seems willing to embrace her positive, inquisitive nature, enabling him to explore the greater truths of his family’s heritage and write about their remarkable lives along with their human frailties.

Conner’s novel is a moving consideration of how art imitates life, as artist/author Elliott expands his world to include Phoebe and all she’s discovered about how her own ancestor’s impact on his great-grandmother’s life. With his engagingly detailed depictions of Amelia’s harrowing trip west on a wagon train as well as Benjamin’s traumatic days as a Union soldier, Conner offers both a riveting glimpse of the past and what it takes to face it honestly today.

Takeaway: A compelling novel centered on a retiree facing the surprising truth of his California ancestors’ lives.

Great for fans of: Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds, William Martin’s Bound for Gold.

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

Click here for more about Westbound

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