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Unfathomable
Thomas Pryce
Ocean conservationists wrestle with greedy extraterrestrials in Pryce’s sharp, mind-altering expedition to the middle of the Pacific. On a secret mission, hesitant eco-defender Jake Chee boards a trawler suspected of illegal fishing activities that’s heading for the outskirts of Hawaii. Posing as a fisherman, Jake is immediately perplexed by the oddball crew, the purple Gatorade-like liquid they’re required to drink, and the enormous black tube on deck that reaches into the sky. Soon Jake’s body undergoes distressing transformations: hair falling out, appetite for raw fish increasing, and an earlier amputated toe growing back. When the tube is turned on, a gigantic worm creature materializes to siphon off millions of gallons of sea water and disgorge fish onto the deck. After a spindly alien called an Eproxx appears and declares its plan to steal all of Earth’s water, Jake channels his newly evolved courage to save the planet.

Pryce (Unnatural Selection) employs unconventional storytelling to keep the surprises coming and maintain an ominous tone with jabs of terror. Occasional diversions, such as a parallel story in which Jake’s ex-girlfriend Ellie and her crew chase a rogue whaling vessel using sonic harpoons, always veer back to the action. The narrative is wordy in places, but Pryce smoothly blends subtle humor with quick, hip writing and references to popular culture, and respectfully draws on Jake’s Hopi and Irish heritage. Readers will eagerly follow Jake’s journey into the weird and feel sympathy for his cause.

Pryce packs the story with meticulous descriptions of mutated fish, trapped sea turtles, and the tragic raft of plastic and garbage circling in the ocean, contrasted with the valiant efforts of those who strive to make a difference. The abrupt cliff-hanger ending is frustrating, but readers will eagerly look for sequels. With unexpected turns and plenty of trippy strangeness, this escapade will chill readers to the bone.

Takeaway: Conservationists and SF fans will relish the detailed science and fast-paced adventure of this quest to save the planet.

Great for fans of Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean, Jack Vance’s The Blue World.

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

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Eve of Snows
L. James Rice
It’s been centuries since the gods were sundered from the world, but now a sect of priests plans to bring them back in Rice’s gripping epic fantasy debut. When violent shadows escape from a hidden shrine, warrior monk Tokodin flees toward Istinjoln Monastery, only to be captured by the primitive, bearlike Colok people. Eliles, a postulant with a secret, faces her final trial before achieving priesthood. Ivin, pious nephew of Clan Choerkin’s lord, seeks aid after a mine collapse. Meris, a 95-year-old oracular priestess, is sent on a baffling errand. Sailor Solineus washes ashore with holes in his memory. All their paths lead to Istinjoln, where time is running out. In 17 days, the stars will align and the sect will summon the gods.

Rice handles a large cast of characters with the skill and flair of a fire juggler. The romance between Eliles and Ivin feels a little obligatory and contrived, but notes such as Eliles’s tender relationship with her mentor, Tokodin’s jealousy of his betters, and Ivin’s commanding officer occasionally feeding him jerky to politely silence him all round out the characters with believable personalities and motivations. There’s a fun element of tension through the middle as the characters first meet one another or narrowly miss introductions.

Gripping action scenes, evocative writing, and steady story momentum make the pages fly. The shadows bring a genuine chill with every appearance. The mystery surrounding the banished gods sparks curiosity, and Rice draws a fine line between feral magic and answered prayers. The plot is marked with plenty of surprising twists as Eliles and Ivin confront shadows and the conspiracy within Istinjoln. There is a solid conclusion, but Rice leaves enough unanswered questions and ambiguity to have readers theorizing possibilities and itching for the next installment. This extremely impressive series launch is guaranteed to earn die-hard fans.

Takeaway: The high-stakes plot, fast pacing, and convincing characters will hook epic fantasy readers on this impressive debut.

Great for fans of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing series.

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

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Disappeared and Found
Kerry Reis
Reis’s languorous second novel (after 2013’s Legacy Discovered) opens with college student Dorothy Samuels testing her blood type and consequently discovering that her affluent, nurturing parents are not her blood relatives. After her father confirms she was adopted, she secretly contacts Finding Family, a television series that specializes in reuniting adopted children with their biological families. The producers have Dorothy submit a DNA sample, which leads to a sibling match with Scott Bradley. Finding Family host Rory Mason calls Scott, who’s being interviewed for Gone Without a Trace, a true crime show about missing persons. Scott reveals that his mother and baby sister mysteriously disappeared 19 years earlier—and that missing sister is Dorothy.

Dorothy gradually becomes acquainted with loving, supportive Scott and the other Bradleys, which is a pleasure to read. Scott and Dorothy are both determined to learn about Dorothy’s kidnapping and their mother’s disappearance, and they share their suspicions and discoveries with law enforcement. Unfortunately, the interesting premise is bogged down by repetition (for instance, readers are constantly reminded that Dorothy’s adoptive mother died of cancer, which inspired Dorothy to pursue medical school) and long paragraphs about mundane events such as rearranging furniture. Reis’s expertise in television is evident in the meticulous details of producing and filming the two reality shows, but this also slows the pace.

As secrets are revealed, the plot becomes a bit confusing. It doesn’t help that several characters have similar names: Stephen is Dorothy’s biological father, but Steve is her love interest; Dorothy’s last name is Samuels, her birth name was Samantha (nicknamed Sammy), and Sam is a television producer. Readers will wish for more development for Dorothy, who is amiable but somewhat banal. Despite a lack of depth, the central mystery will keep readers engaged.

Takeaway: Contemporary mystery fans will enjoy unburying family secrets alongside Reis’s capable protagonists.

Great for fans of Kate Hamer’s The Doll Funeral, Mary Higgins Clark.

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

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Innocence Waning: Part I
David Mitchell
Mitchell’s striking debut novel—the first of two volumes set in Melbourne, Australia—dives into the psyche of a reckless gay teen. One afternoon, 16-year-old Chezdon Morrison and his mates Jayden, Bryce, and Austin get drunk and experiment with drugs. Chezdon invites James, a 25-year-old store clerk, to come over; fielding puzzled inquiries from his friends, Chezdon admits he’s gay. Austin responds by also coming out. After Chezdon rejects James, Chezdon and Austin agree to date. Drama ensues as Chezdon finds romance, cheats, has sex, consumes various intoxicants, and gets involved in both an assault and a schoolyard fight. The installment abruptly cuts off after another episode of violence.

Mitchell gives Chezdon a strong voice and a stronger personality that take a little while to get comfortable with, but soon readers will be hooked. He does not shy away from depravity—the debauched afternoon among the boys is a virtuoso sequence—but it is the sweet relationship that develops between Chezdon and Austin that appeals most. It’s frustrating to watch Chezdon actively jeopardize that relationship while trying to get what he thinks he wants. Chezdon is highly impulsive, and the plot mostly consists of him careening from one bad decision to another.

Mitchell is best with ambiguities, such as Chezdon’s relationship with Jayden, which varies from intimate to antagonistic. The starker elements get too hectic for Chezdon (and the reader) to process. The dialogue and narration are also uneven, encompassing both accurate teen speak and highly didactic exchanges. Some awkward word choices (“drink from the ejaculating showerhead”) and vivid descriptions of bodily functions disrupt the narrative, but one erotic sex scene proves Mitchell can write effectively. Readers will likely see where Chezdon’s downward slide is going, but will be eager to see whether he can put himself back together in part two.

Takeaway: Older queer teens will enjoy living vicariously through the sex, drugs, and drama of Mitchell’s gay coming-of-age novel.

Great for fans of Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin, Bret Easton Ellis.

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

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The Ghosts of Notchey Creek
Liz S. Andrews
Andrews’s delightful second Harley Henrickson cozy mystery (after The Mist Rises over Notchey Creek) is packed with thoroughly believable red herrings that will keep even the cleverest readers guessing throughout. Harley Henrickson operates a whiskey-distilling business in tiny Notchey Creek, Tenn., that was left to her by her grandfather. Her childhood friend Beau Arson, raised in foster care, just learned his birth parents were immensely wealthy and left him a mansion in Notchey Creek. Beau moves from Los Angeles to Notchey Creek and settles into his new home. Then he starts seeing ghosts—and amateur sleuth Harley starts finding bodies. The two feverishly try to solve the crimes and out the murderer in their midst. Meanwhile, the townspeople are getting a little too excited about the upcoming Christmas festival.

From the first page, Andrews demonstrates a gift for setting vivid scenes, opening with Beau in his bed reading Great Expectations. It’s never quite clear how Beau ended up in foster care or learned of his origins; this was presumably explained in the first installment, but a quick recap would be helpful to newcomers. However, readers will readily overlook those small distractions as they chase the killers along with clever Harley.

Colorful supporting characters—particularly Harley’s famous pig, Matilda; muumuu-wearing Opha Mae Shaw and her pink Ford Pinto; Great-Aunt Wilma with her day-of-the-week wigs; and Great-Uncle Tater and his unfortunately flammable gingerbread shed—add hilarious touches readers will love. Andrews’s wry observations (“A pharmaceutical commercial advertised its latest drug, two of the side effects being uncontrollable laughter and projectile diarrhea”) also add considerable levity. This expertly characterized story will appeal to cozy mystery fans of all ages, and those of drinking age can indulge in the delicious-sounding cocktail recipes that conclude the book.

Takeaway: This funny and well-plotted cozy mystery, which boasts sharp wit and a clever heroine, will delight readers of all ages.

Great for fans of Joanne Fluke’s Christmas Cake Murder, Mary Maxwell’s Murder & Marmalade.

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

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Mostly True: Short Stories
Arlene N. Cohen
Cohen’s nuanced debut collection compiles 13 stories about people on intimate quests. “The Livin’ Doll” features an aging actress who coaches a five-year-old girl to tell her flattering things. Other older protagonists seeking relationships, recapturing past memories, or dealing with the difficulties of life are the mainstays of “Déjà Vu,” “The Almond Cookie,” “Time Lapse,” and “Card on the Loose.” The past comes to life in “Like Clara, the ‘It Girl,’ ” in which 1920s flapper Clara drags her husband to Las Vegas to get away from his controlling mother, and “The Free Spirit,” a story about a woman’s search for happiness in the hippie counterculture of 1973 Maui. The Aloha State is also the setting for “Hawaiian Girl,” “Depth Perception,” and several other stories in which women get vividly creative in their pursuit of better lives.

Cohen has crafted each story as a complete narrative, drawing on her experience as a dancer to add elements of theatricality and often centering the experiences of women who demand more than life readily offers them. Many of the stories also feature Jewish characters drawn with sympathy and humor. The plotting throughout is clear and concise, holding the reader’s attention. Some conclusions feel a little precipitous, as in “The Free Spirit,” but this doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the writing.

The character development is thorough and introspective, providing each character with a backstory sufficient to explain their motivation. In few words, Cohen draws her protagonists believably and realistically explores everyday events, such as Jane’s drug-induced haze in “The High Road” and Joe’s frustrations with debit card fraud in “Card on the Loose.” It’s a pleasure to read along as these characters trust their intuitions and seek their joy.

Takeaway: Any fan of short literary fiction will appreciate Cohen’s collection of thought-provoking, richly drawn narratives.

Great for fans of Alice Munro’s Runaway, Lauren Groff’s Florida.

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

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My Epidemic
ANDREW M. FAULK M.D.
Faulk’s debut is a reflective memoir of life as a gay, HIV-positive doctor in the early part of the AIDS epidemic, working with HIV-positive patients in Los Angeles and tending several through their last moments. He gently lifts up a piece of 1980s gay history from a middle-class demographic that has gotten less recent attention than the ballroom and activist communities. Chronological vignettes touch on the vagaries of working in the medical environment, personal and professional relationships, survivor’s guilt, and Faulk’s “certain amount of regret” about his choice to stay closeted and hide his infection for the sake of his career.

Faulk recounts the “individual histories... rich in solace and hope” of patients and friends. His portraits shine with unmitigated warmth and a savvy encapsulation of personalities. His writing pulls together most strongly in its externally focused recurring threads: dinner party friends returning as partners in shared grief; sweet reminiscences of his first husband, Jack; and stories of lavish “goodbye parties” for those choosing self-euthanasia. Faulk’s detailed but measured narratives about caring for the dying never lean in to the sensational or voyeuristic urge. The chapters can be choppy, but the prose is meticulous even as Faulk writes about the emotional and cognitive problems caused by his HIV encephalopathy.

Negative, isolated chapters calling out an embezzling receptionist, lamenting ACT UP’s angry tactics, or disparaging the philosophy of Louise Hay detour distractingly away from the larger message. Retrospective passages that unburden the author of guilt and self-reproach are heavy and awkwardly distancing, as if Faulk is unsure how to invite readers into that emotional space. Notwithstanding the personal framing, the book serves best as an insider’s cultural history of the insular middle-class, urban gay community taking care of itself through a devastating crisis.

Takeaway: Readers curious about the experience of living through the 1980s AIDS crisis will find this memoir enlightening and affecting.

Great for fans of Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On, Larry Kramer’s Reports from the Holocaust.

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

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Okinawa
FX Holden
Holden’s intense second Future War novel (after Bering Strait) is a riveting take on the near future of warfare and global politics, peopled by a large cast of well-written characters. In 1942, Chinese-American soldier John Chen interrogates captured Japanese pilot Tadao Kato. In 2033, Japan and China sign a landmark treaty, and Chen and Kato’s great-grandchildren, Li Chen and Takuya Kato, are both pilots ordered to participate in the first-ever Sino-Japanese joint military exercises. But the supposedly peaceful Operation Red Dove turns deadly when a secret government-funded Chinese hacking group takes control of a DARPA drone and targets American Navy assets on Okinawa. Takuya’s friend Mitsuko, a political radical, may be the only person who can stave off a global war—because the death of her father has just made her Japan’s first empress.

This page-turner is filled with extensive cultural, interpersonal, and tactical detail, from the unspoken meaning in a cup of tea to the military decisions that move battleships. Holden (a pen name for Australian journalist Tim Slee) dispenses with stereotypes and crafts well-defined characters from multiple countries. Particularly memorable are the many richly characterized women, including outspoken, driven Mitsuko; brassy Australian drone pilot Karen “Bunny” O’Hare; conflicted hotshot Li Chen; brilliant hacker Frangipani; and big-hearted 103-year-old gardener Noriko Fukada. The human face they put on the conflict makes each development feel real and evoke powerful emotions.

The crisp dialogue is a pleasure to read and balances the tension with genuine laughs. (“Don’t lose those,” Bunny tells a sonar tech taking custody of her facial piercing jewelry. “I’m both sentimental and violent.”) Readers will be on the edges of their seats as Holden ratchets up the danger to civilians as well as sailors and pilots. This military thriller, which honors servicepeople while strongly questioning the value of war, is both highly enjoyable and deeply thought-provoking.

Takeaway: Any fan of military thrillers will be riveted by this near-future novel that sets Japan, China, and the U.S. at the brink of war.

Great for fans of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need Is Kill, Clive Cussler’s Oregon Files.

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

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Perfect iSland
Sanjay Perera
A political showdown quickly veers into surreal supernatural horror in this gore-tinged political satire. Singapore’s cartoonishly corrupt ruling party (known only as the Party) signs a deal with Satanic forces to zombify citizens through their smartphones. The Party plots to use the screen-addicted “smombies” to create “disturbance and tumult” sufficient to cancel an upcoming general election. Toni, a member of the fledgling opposition Justice Party, and her fiancé, Ben, struggle to survive this conspiracy to turn Singapore into a dictatorship, complete with cloned politicians taking office and an evil corporation pulling the strings.

This uneven novel straddles comedy, horror, and suspense in a way that neatly encapsulates the disorienting experience of living under an authoritarian regime, but the genres aren’t fully integrated. The gore will jar readers who are primarily invested in Ben and Toni’s sweet, faltering relationship, while horror fans will be less than enthralled by a lengthy scene of an undead Dr. Caligari discussing economic theory. More action-oriented readers will be frustrated by the frequent philosophical ruminations on Singaporean history; circular, tangential arguments; an unnecessary digression about Ben’s Jewish heritage and Caligari’s link to the Third Reich; and complaints about smartphones.

Perera has a skilled hand with imagery—a smoker’s ceiling is stained “as if spiders had run into a vat of nicotine and wriggled in a dance of death,” and there are loving descriptions of juicy oranges and tapered fingers—but sometimes he defaults to the deeply obvious: “He read the sign that welcomed all visitors to Singapore. ‘Welcome to Singapore’, it said, in large black letters.” His moments of true eloquence may keep readers going through the detours that gradually subsume the central plot.

Takeaway: Readers familiar with Singaporean daily life and politics will get the most from this gore-splashed yet philosophical satire.

Great for fans of Tony Burgess’s People Live Still in Cashtown Corners, Gretchen McNeil’s #Murdertrending.

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

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Runes for Writers: Boost Your Creativity and Destroy Writer's Block
Marc Graham
Novelist Graham (Of Ashes and Dust) empowers stuck writers with this eclectic cross between a collection of story prompts and a New Age self-help book. Invoking the author as “a shaman, a wizard, a mage,” Graham focuses on breaking writer’s block and developing and fixing works of fiction through divination with Elder Futhark runes, which have their origins in second-century CE Scandinavia. Graham, observing that intuition is central to both writing and divination, suggests that the latter can inspire the former. After explaining the meanings of the symbols and how to apply them to storytelling, he ably leads readers through several rune-casting layouts (similar to tarot card spreads).

Graham counsels that this method is only for experienced writers, but anyone with an open mind can experiment with it, and Graham’s detailed layouts are well illustrated and easy to follow. He provides layouts designed for character development and story challenges, plot, theme, and escaping from writer’s block, among others. Each rune is given an open-ended interpretation (e.g., “Thurisaz reversed may also suggest that your character is not respecting boundaries of others”) that will easily get creative juices flowing. Graham also includes a short story that shows the process in action.

Graham maintains a sincere, empathetic tone throughout, treating the reader as a fellow traveler on the sometimes harrowing road of the creative process and encouraging a playful, flexible approach to rune-casting. At times he goes a bit overboard with his love of all things Norse (he’s unable to mention the concept of karma without calling it “an Indo-European cousin to the Norse mindset”) but his enthusiasm is endearing. This quirky and intriguing work will appeal to open-minded writers willing to look at their craft in a New Age light.

Takeaway: Fiction writers looking to engage their intuition will enjoy exploring this guide to story development through divination with runes.

Great for fans of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, Corrine Kenner’s Astrology for Writers.

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

Embracing the Abyss
John Smith
Smith’s first-person account of his involvement in the savings and loan (S&L) scandal of the 1980s is a fascinating look at the how and why of the crisis. Smith started his career at Dondi Group, a Texas start-up real estate company run by Don Dixon. The company acquired Vernon Savings and Loan, and Smith worked his way up to COO. Encouraged by deregulation and a corrupt environment, Dixon used fraudulent loans to fund a lavish lifestyle. Vernon was a house of cards, and when it started to fall in 1986, Smith resigned. The Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. soon sued Smith and seven other Vernon officers. Smith pleaded guilty to a felony charge, cooperated with investigators, and was later pardoned by President George W. Bush.

The book wavers between navel-gazing memoir and true-crime account without successfully meshing the two. With laconic prose, Smith paints a vivid picture of Texas in the 1980s, recalling, “Dixon remarked that the three of us had mustaches, so I should fit in well.” He occasionally overindulges in recounting his own problems, shortcomings, and insecurities. “I was stricken with a total lack of vision about what was going to happen,” he writes. His earnest claims of having been only a bean counter are supported when an FBI agent tells him he should never have been prosecuted and encourages him to apply for a presidential pardon.

The topic is enthralling and Smith thoroughly explains the S&L business. He uses appendices as extended endnotes; readers who wish the narrative spent more time on the details of Vernon’s malfeasance will be glad to find the nitty-gritty in the back of the book. The wealth of information in this short work will be fascinating and educational for anyone interested in the S&L crisis and the culture that made it possible.

Takeaway: Readers looking for a memorable white-collar true crime tale will relish this enlightening memoir of the 1980s S&L scandal.

Great for fans of Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker, Richard Stratton’s Smuggler’s Blues.

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

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Zero Percenters
Scott T. Grusky
Grusky’s mystical novel dreams of technological liberation from the flesh. In 2024, while Anja Lapin is on a solo wilderness trip, her father, the CEO of technology company 5s2, is murdered along with a research team that’s working on digitizing consciousness. The 5s2 board publishes the team’s discoveries to spite the assassins, and within five weeks, all eight million humans have uploaded themselves into solar-powered artificial bodies that can take any form. Anja is stunned to return from her trip and find a changed world. She grieves for her father and is disconcerted and intrigued by digitization. Guided by her AI personal assistant, Vicia, she interviews people about the benefits of transcending corporeality while debating whether to abandon her own body.

Readers will get the most from approaching this story as a parable of how the physical realm can inhibit the quest for enlightenment, rather than as a science fiction novel about the social ramifications of technological advances. Grusky doesn’t explore the challenging ethical edge cases of digitization, examine why AIs are content to be servants, or describe how religious objections or international conflicts were overcome in five weeks. Instead, he crafts a fanciful vision of human society without physical needs or limitations: no money, no pollution, no borders, frequent self-reinvention, universal participation in hours-long chanting circles, spiritual and psychological freedom.

Characterization is scant; Anja, Vicia, and other characters primarily exist to generate musings about consciousness and explicate this posthuman utopia. The story is leisurely, with many scenes taking place in peaceful natural settings and exploring metaphysical concepts. “Only consciousness was real,” Anja thinks as she meditates on a mountaintop. This is the ultimate fantasy for those who cherish the hope of no-cost universal interconnectedness and peace.

Takeaway: Transcendence-seekers will sink blissfully into this fable of how technological liberation from the flesh might lead to mass enlightenment.

Great for fans of Richard Bach, Herman Hesse.

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

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Ivory Tower
Grant Matthew Jenkins
Jenkins’s enjoyable debut follows a film professor as she uncovers a sex scandal within a Southern university’s football program. Margolis Santos (“It’s pronounced Margo-lee,” she tells Ford, the naive community college student she’s sleeping with) teaches television and film at Athens University, where her estranged husband, Frank Sinoro, is the head football coach. When Stephanie, a Delta Delta Theta sorority member, is gang-raped by football players, Theta sister Emma begs Margolis to collaborate with her on a film about how the Thetas were paid to have sex with football recruits. At first Margolis refuses to rock the boat, but after she is fired over her relationship with Ford and her marriage ends, she has little to lose. As she and Emma work on the film, they discover that the corruption at Athens is linked to the highest levels of the university administration, and those seeking to stop Margolis’s investigation won’t hesitate to threaten her.

The author expertly develops Margolis’s character and shows her evolution from a self-absorbed snob into a sympathetic crusader for traumatized young women. Readers will appreciate Jenkins’s insightful view of the feelings experienced by the women in the sorority house as they come to terms with their reasons for accepting payment for sex (including unreasonably high tuition and sorority fees) and realize they have been victimized. The chilling rape scene is not overly explicit, but it clearly reveals the brutality of the assault and its devastating effects.

Jenkins frames scenes with film terms such as “fade in” and “we open on,” a gimmick that detracts from the flow of the story. Nuanced characterizations do much more to keep the reader hooked, including Emma’s conflicting feelings about her sexuality, Margolis’s determination to keep her teen daughter safe, and assistant coach Eggy chasing her ambition even when it comes at the expense of her morals. This is an engrossing, evenly paced drama about how a woman lost in her own world discovers a real sense of purpose in helping other women.

Takeaway: Suspense fans with an interest in current events will thrill to this riveting, insightful deep dive into corruption at an elite university.

Great for fans of Jodi Picoult, Chris Bohjalian.

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

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Daughters of Nyx
Diane Bonavist
Bonavist (Purged by Fire) sets her brisk historical murder mystery at a tense moment in the Peloponnesian Wars. When Athenian citizen Timarcus learns that his father has died, he asks his childhood sweetheart, Kore—a priestess of Artemis and “a fawn, yet a warrior”—to marry him now that his father can’t stop them. She refuses, citing her obligation to the goddess. Timarcus is devastated to learn, days later, of her death. When he journeys to her temple in Brauron to recover a trinket he gave her, he learns there are suspicions she was poisoned. His lonely, secretive quest to discover the motive and culprit brings him into fierce conflict with his loyal slave, Zeno, who is about to earn freedom; his uptight sister, Lachesis; and the powerful general Cleon, whom Lachesis once loved.

Bonavist immerses readers in ancient Greece with cultural and historical tidbits that are subtly woven in without feeling stilted. Her inclusion of genuine belief in Greek gods and Timarcus’s fear of a painful afterlife for Kore are especially welcome motivators of character action. She also captures Timarcus’s grief in delicate complexity as he veers from total dejection and disbelief to violent rage. Other emotions, including Zeno’s complex feelings for Timarcus, add more layers to the story.

The side plots, including worries over the safety of Timarcus’s nephew on the politically unstable isle of Lesbos, and minor characters, such as the grumpy cook and her jittery son, make for some confusing digressions, but most of these threads combine in the shocking conclusion. Even with these bumps, the propulsive story holds the reader’s interest all the way to the end. Readers will enjoy following Timarcus through the puzzles in this deeply researched historical.

Takeaway: Fans of classical settings and amateur investigators will savor this fully realized ancient Greek mystery and its resonant portrayal of grief.

Great for fans of Madeline Miller, Margaret Doody, Gary Corby.

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

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Staying In The Game
melih akkurt
Red’s confusing espionage novella largely focuses on Galina, a spy from a Russian agency known as SVR, and her damaged relationships. After a baffling and discomfiting beginning in which Galina uses sex to infect an American senator’s son with a mysterious illness, the direction of the story changes several times. Galina wants to quit SVR and have a baby, so she tricks disgraced politician Denis into getting her pregnant, later marrying him. Then she uses her pregnancy in a scheme against another man, Doruk, for whom she harbors complicated feelings (“Her love was as big as her hatred. She loved him as much as she hated him”) for unclear reasons. Doruk didn’t want a child with Galina, but when she tells him he’s the father of her baby, his reactions range from wanting her to end the pregnancy to being jealous of Denis for marrying her.

The meandering story, which is full of flashbacks and digressions, makes it difficult to get attached to the characters, though it does give a hint of how disorienting it is to work for SVR. Adding to the confusion, many conversational scenes consist solely of choppy dialogue without attribution, emotion, or context: “Care for some coffee?” “Wait, let’s get it together.” “I’ll bring you right away with my phone.” “With your phone?” “I’m going to explain.” (No explanation follows.) A subplot about Denis being accused of molesting a child involves so many double-crosses that readers may be uncertain of the truth, even after Denis is publicly exonerated.

Scenes from Galina’s perspective are sprinkled with literary quotes that have little connection to the story; Galina also speaks in quotations, to the annoyance of other characters. The pace is slowed by pages of detail about purchasing guns and the personal history of an unimportant side character, Inga. The already disjointed storyline is increasingly lost under the extra words, and it never reaches a conclusion. Though billed as a thriller, this labyrinthine story is primarily a window into an unusual woman’s difficult life.

Takeaway: Red’s labyrinthine novella tangles the reader in a woman’s attempts to escape her life in a Russian spy agency.

Great for fans of Charles Cumming’s A Divided Spy.

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

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Fearsome Destiny: Brothers and Sisters
Joseph Amiel
Amiel’s creative Fearsome Destiny young adult series launch is a grab bag of history, dimensional travel, teen drama, and suspense. Gallin and Alexine, two modern-day 17-year-olds, are stalked and trapped by an assassin. Then a device given to Gallin by his guardian (previously slain by the same assassin) whisks them to 1776 London on the planet Eratha, a 1984-style dystopia where members of the Noblic class secretly fly in stealth aircraft and manipulate the populace through television while medievalesque peasants farm with oxen. Gallin and Alexine discover they are the identical twins of Prince Ro-Gall and his fiancée, Ra-Alex, and were sent to Earth as newborns because of a law requiring Noblic younger twins to be killed. The clever teens, recalling what they learned about medieval law, claim to be the older twins and demand a trial by combat to prove that they are in the right. They manipulate the evil King Groghor into holding the event in Eratha’s Philadelphia, where revolution is brewing and the Noblics hold little sway.

Science fiction combines with a juiced-up history lesson in this peculiar but charming novel. Students of history will enjoy rummaging through the pile of cultural references and spotting differences between Earth and Eratha: on the latter, the Venus de Milo’s arms remain intact, and, instead of the mad king George, the even more tyrannical Groghor rules an England threatened by global warming and wealth inequality.

It’s fun to cheer on Gallin and Alexine as they snipe at their obnoxious siblings (“You may be marrying the prince someday,” Alexine says to Ra-Alex, “but I’m willing to bet you’re about as popular around here as head lice”) and embark on intensive combat training while discovering psychic powers, though characterization is limited to what will drive the plot. The book’s clunky elements are balanced by combat in anti-gravity belts, the wacky machinations of the king and his enablers, and the leads’ interactions with Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.

Takeaway: A spoonful of suspenseful science fiction makes this YA American Revolution history lesson go down smoothly.

Great for fans of Jasper Fforde, Gail Carriger.

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

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