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Low Down Dirty Vote: A Crime Fiction Anthology
Mysti Berry, Editor
The 22 stories in Berry’s politically charged second Low Down Dirty Vote crime fiction anthology all revolve around the premise that “every stolen vote is a crime.” The anthology opens with Faye Snowden’s “One Bullet. One Vote,” which sets the tone as 85-year-old Willie Mae Brown becomes the first black person in her small town to vote despite threats to the safety of her family. The stories that follow highlight similar issues, including the voting rights of convicted felons (in Tim O’Mara’s “Voting Block” and S.B. White’s “The Sentencing Conundrum), the Equal Rights Amendment (in David Hagerty’s “An ERA of Inequality”), and the purging of voter registration lists (Ann Parker’s “Purged”).

The potentially depressing effect of such stories is buoyed by an array of vivid and dynamic characters, such as the cantankerous septuagenarian in Sarah M. Chen’s “Unit 805” who blackmails the board members of his retirement home; the stubborn, old-fashioned grandfather in Camille Minichino’s “Three Funny Things Happened on the Way to Vote” and the granddaughter who cares for him; and two assassins (one each from Frank Rankin’s “A Moral Assassin” and Terry Sanville’s “Pro Bono”) who try to do the right thing.

The depictions of election-rigging occur across time periods both historic (a 1910 sheriff’s election in Jackie Ross Flaum’s “Two Dead, Two Wounded”) and modern (a congressman’s campaign jeopardized by Photoshop and Facebook in Bev Vincent’s “Kane and the Candidate”), in communities both small (a nonprofit theatre organization in Robert Lopresti’s “Shanks Gets Out the Vote”) and large (a state governor’s race in James McCrone’s “Numbers Don’t Lie”). Neither side of the political divide is immune: Madeline McEwen’s “Benevolent Dictatorship” features a proud Democrat who forges the signatures on her family’s ballots, while Travis Richardson’s “The Cost of Ethics” sees a GOP volunteer lament that he’d “love to have an ethical Republican Party.” Regardless of affiliation, readers will find these stories give color and life to a relevant and often controversial issue.

Takeaway: Social studies teachers, history buffs, and anyone curious about politics will appreciate this anthology of crime stories about fighting, scheming, and taking action for the right to vote.

Great for fans of Michael Dobbs’s House of Cards, Tom Clancy.

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

Deep Time Is in the Garden
William Felker
This wonderful collection of thoughtful, lyrical essays entwines Felker (Home Is the Prime Meridian) and his readers with the patterns of nature. Each of the nearly 40 essays, including many first published in the Yellow Springs News of Yellow Springs, Ohio, connects daily observations to “a kind of radial time,” blurring the line between singular moments and longer movements, one garden and all gardens. For Felker, the natural world helps dispel the lingering anxieties of a sleepless night and offers the sort of comfort that Roman Catholic rituals used to provide for him and no longer do. He explores memory at length, and just as memories mix together to form a narrative, so too does observing nature for familiar patterns.

Felker balances the concrete details of the things he sees—the different species of birds, flowers, and trees he comes across, daily temperatures, astronomical events—with the meanings he ascribes to them. He’s aware that existential musings about why a finch appears at a particular time have little to do with the finch and everything to do with his own thoughts. Felker tries to follow what he calls “the easiest law,” which states that “when one thing is happening, something else is happening too.” He asserts that by recording data, such as the number of leaves that fall, he can also record his feelings without focusing too much on his interior world.

Within these pages, the world of nature is one of simultaneity where “nothing is ever out of place. Everything fits.” Felker’s concluding essay, “Repetition Is the Way Home,” meditates on the comfort and wonder of cycles and routine, how walking the same paths every day and through every season is a walk back in time that alleviates some of his anxiety about the future. That insight is just one of many poignant observations scattered through this marvelous book. Felker’s brevity, beautiful detail, and philosophical punch make this fluid collection a true pleasure to read.

Takeaway: Readers moved by the intersection of natural history and philosophy will love these meditative, poetic essays by a suburban naturalist.

Great for fans of John Harvey’s The Stillness of the Listening Forest.

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

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When Kingdom Come
D.H. Blake
Touched with elements of horror and utopianism, Blake’s sprawling, thoughtful debut science fiction novel turns on a tricky question: would humans listen to an urgent plea to accept alien refugees with amazing technological advances if those aliens occasionally fed on human blood? A New York City bartender, Juan, is abducted by Alizerin aliens on a hunting weekend in the Adirondacks. After finding out that he’s an Alizerin left behind on a previous mission, Juan learns new ways of living in harmony with nature and accesses a part of his mind that humans never touch. Still, he’s reluctant to imbibe the Alizerins’ miracle elixir, Azika, once he learns it’s derived from human blood, including that of his hunting buddies. As his fiancée, his family, and officials try to track down Juan and his missing friends, the Alizerins are pursued by the U.S. government.

Blake’s prose and dialogue are occasionally stiff or stilted: “After watching his extraordinarily athletic leader leap from the chopper, Sahan promptly detached his harness from the landing gear, and deftly flew out of the way.” These wordy passages can slow down otherwise well-written scenes. The pacing is also stymied by the investigation tracking Juan in the book’s first half, as the team is far behind what readers already know and never faced with challenging decisions, so suspense is diminished.

Despite these disruptions, Blake balances moral quandaries with mysteries and exciting action sequences, including memorable scenes involving helicopters, fighter jets, and flying Alizerins. This debut recalls classic sci-fi with a blockbuster plot and a strong moral center, and is updated for modern readers with earnest multiethnicity (including among the Alizerins, whose culture “is predicated on diversity and open, multiracial and gender interaction”). This story will find a home with readers of space fantasies full of beautiful aliens and dramatic action.

Takeaway: This character-driven tale of aliens landing on Earth will please readers of classic space fantasies.

Great for fans of Frederik Pohl’s Gateway, Whitley Strieber’s The Greys

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

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The Sikh Heritage
Dalvir S Pannu
In this painstaking heritage guide, Pannu displays the fruits of long research about Sikh history and religion. In 1947, two days after India’s independence was declared from Britain, a decree ordered the creation of Pakistan as a country separate from India. All non-Muslim people living in what was now a Muslim country, including the author’s great-grandparents, had to immediately vacate their home region, while all Muslims in India likewise had to march to the other side of the border. Due to partition, Sikhs were suddenly denied access to dozens of holy and historic sites related to their religion and its founder, Guru Nanak. This book is the culmination of a decade’s worth of research into those sites; it includes pages of beautiful photographs along with studies of religious texts put in historical context.

Pannu details 84 gurdwaras (sacred sites) in six different regions of Pakistan. Some of the shrines are well maintained, which he notes with approval, while others have been left to decay; one is now used as a cricket field. Telling the story of the shrines also means telling the story of Guru Nanak, connecting his miracles told in hagiographies to historical events and actual locations. While this is an admirable goal, it results in a choppy and somewhat disorganized structure.

This book is a labor of love, and Pannu’s passion shines through. It’s dedicated to a future time when peace between India and Pakistan will allow all Sikhs free access to their holy places. Though well-written and informative, this work is definitely targeted to audiences doing research about Sikh religion and cultural heritage rather than casual readers. This reference guide is well crafted, beautifully laid out, educational, and rewarding.

Takeaway: Scholars researching Sikh history and traditions will cherish this lavishly illustrated tour of dozens of sacred sites in Pakistan.

Great for fans of Amardeep Singh’s Lost Heritage: The Sikh Heritage in Pakistan, Ranjodh Singh’s Nankana Sahib and Sikh Shrines in Pakistan.

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

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A View From the Borderline
Charles Souby
This eclectic short story collection by Souby (A Shot of Malaria) mixes the macabre and the sweetly romantic while considering the push and pull of relationships in flux. A man's attraction to a woman at the track leads him to drunkenly lose his money in “Silver Slumdog,” and a young woman revels in her burgeoning adulthood in “Godot Meets Guffman.” A couple navigate intellectual and sexual attraction during their second date in “Geese & Ganders.” A woman's desire to have children proves a breaking point for her boyfriend in “Thornchild.” Situations spin out of control and into absurd conflict in “Silencium,” in which a camp director forces two boys to resolve a dispute about nonviolence by fighting, and in “The Plaid Golf Pants,” in which a hostage negotiator is called in to parley with a woman holding a dry cleaner’s clothes hostage. Souby’s narratives take a darker turn in several stories: in “Monkey Business,” monkeys in India bludgeon young baseball players to death, and in “Eloi Reduction,” young people are lured to a rave where they are brutally butchered and processed for cannibalistic consumption.

Souby’s characters are expertly drawn. All are driven by clear emotions and desires, motivating them to act out in ways that range from tender to violent. The story lines that focus on how people navigate relationships with one another are believable and intimate, especially in stories such as “Nymphs, Woods & Cottages,” in which a man meets his future wife while she’s camping out in the woods after leaving her abusive home.

The contrast between the study of relationships and the darkness in some of the stories adds depth to the collection. While the violence of “Monkey Business” examines the retribution of the monkeys against the minister who harmed them, the cannibalism of “Eloi Reduction” as perpetrated by Hollywood moguls is more darkly disturbing than anything else in the book. While some elements may shock some readers, literary audiences with wide-ranging tastes will be drawn to the collection’s variety and depth.

Takeaway: Fans of eclectic short stories will appreciate these intimate, tender, sometimes disturbing narratives.

Great for fans of Alice Munro’s Dear Life, Richard Russo’s Trajectory.

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

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NAKED TRUTH or Equality, the Forbidden Fruit
Carrie M Hayes
Hayes fleshes out the scandalous lives of sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin in this debut dramatization of Gilded Age history. Victoria and Tennie, born into a family of con artists, work as mediums and spiritualists to ingratiate themselves with wealthy clients, using those connections to become publishers and stockbrokers. Jealous family members threaten them with blackmail, and their activism for women’s suffrage and muckraking earns them the ire of powerful people, leading to their arrests for criminal libel and sending pornography through the mail.

Hayes’s fertile imagination transforms the historical truths at the heart of this story, enlivening the clash of emerging feminism against the oppressive moral politics of the late-19th-century United States. As the first female presidential candidate, Victoria is the more recognizable name, but Hayes focuses on Tennie’s doomed romances with business magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt and newspaperman James Gordon Bennett. Vanderbilt’s son William alternately lusts after and despises Tennie, while moralist Anthony Comstock practically twirls his mustache as he plans to arrest the siblings for publishing a story about the adulterous behavior of revered preacher Henry Ward Beecher. They also clash with Beecher’s sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was diagnosed with hysteria and takes umbrage when Victoria questions her decision to have her daughter’s clitoris removed to prevent the condition.

As the sisters gain and lose their fortunes, Hayes illuminates the casual corruption and cronyism that marked the early Gilded Age. She has found a fascinating chapter in history to explore, and Victoria and Tennie are compelling protagonists: fiercely determined, morally ambiguous, and deeply complicated. Readers with an interest in first-wave feminism, New York history, and detailed storytelling will enjoy mining this debut, which nicely sets up a sequel.

Takeaway: Fans of historical fiction featuring morally ambiguous women will eat up this tale of sisters determined to make their own way in Victorian New York.

Great for fans of Marge Piercy’s Sex Wars, Barbara Goldsmith’s Other Powers, Lois Beachy Underhill’s The Woman Who Ran for President.

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

The Arab Business Code
Judith Hornok
Hornok’s workbook offers practical guidance for non-Arab businesspeople seeking opportunity in the Arabian Gulf, one of the world’s most booming emerging markets. Drawing upon many everyday examples and case studies, and displaying acute sensitivity to the assumptions and beliefs of all parties in cross-cultural communication, Hornok lays out crucial, general rules: develop chemistry with potential business partners, acknowledge the importance of family ties, honor and understand culturally specific rules of respect and face-saving. She also highlights some specific circumstances non-Arab business leaders might encounter, giving advice on eye contact, handshaking, saying “no,” and apologizing after one party causes another to lose face.

The material is strong and likely to prove helpful to its intended audience, but the book suffers from its lack of an index and chapter summaries, and its structure is haphazard. In the extended fourth chapter, for example, a scheme of nested, numbered sections with vague names (“Golden Rules,” “Key Codes,” “Strategic Codes,” “Tools,” “Building Blocks”) does little to lead readers to specific topics. A reader eager to learn about how a non-Arab businesswoman should handle feeling ignored by Arab businessmen in a meeting is unlikely to intuit that this gets covered under “Cultural no-go ABC 3: Eye contact” under “Key Code 4” of “Golden Rule 3: Respect.” Case studies are visually set aside in gray boxes but then referred to as though they’re part of the main text.

Hornok packs her six chapters with vivid examples, illuminating original quotes from Arab and non-Arab businesspeople, and lists of precepts and tools. Readers who take the time to highlight and organize their own favorite tips from her book will find them well worth returning to. She’s an engaging, informed coach, and business-minded readers will find much here that’s worth considering when it comes to avoiding pitfalls and managing expectations in cross-cultural deal-making.

Takeaway: Non-Arab businesspeople interested in deal-making in the Arabian Gulf will appreciate this sensitive, thorough guide to cross-cultural business interactions.

Great for fans of Great for fans of Rana Nejem’s When in the Arab World, Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map.

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

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Hate's Recompense
Joseph H Gibson
Gibson’s gripping debut, which launches the Athena technothriller series, is a chilling tale of Machiavellian political factions pitting emerging tech against one another, threatening millions of lives. California Sen. Alejandra Trujillo, a member of the Resistance party, has organized against President Kahn’s executive order to implement Sentinel, security tech that will install implants in everyone and use artificial intelligence to prevent terrorist attacks. When Alejandra is the victim of an anthrax attack in Los Angeles, Kahn claims it was orchestrated by Iran along with a cyberattack, and he issues an executive order to roll out Sentinel. Before the Senate and its Resistance members, including Alejandra, can vote to block it, Kahn makes an emotional plea and they relent. But Sen. Henry Little Hawk is suspicious of Kahn’s motives and enlists the help of Jenks Kennard, who—along with Bur McAnter, a member of the Nationalist party—created the technology that spawned Sentinel. Bur discovers that Kahn orchestrated the attacks, and Alejandra and Jenks roll out their own AI, Athena, hoping it can usurp Sentinel’s domination and prevent Kahn’s next move.

Some of Gibson’s characters can seem over the top, particularly in light of his well-meaning attempts to diversify his cast. Henry undertakes a vision quest in which the spirit of Crazy Horse warns him about a coming race war; Bur’s children are overly precocious and sometimes a little precious. However, those character choices don’t mar the overall story, which is a fast-paced, immersive, and riveting exploration of the uses of and misuses of surveillance technology and artificial intelligence.

Gibson, whose professional life includes work with machine learning and artificial intelligence, poses tough questions about the role of such technology in civic society, providing enough context for the average reader to understand how it can be used for good or evil. This thriller is an exciting ride from a promising new author, infused with questions about politics, power, and technology.

Takeaway: Fans of technothrillers that comment on current events will love this fast-paced novel and eagerly await the author’s next installment.

Great for fans of Lee Child’s Blue Moon and Mike Maden’s Tom Clancy: Point of Contact.

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

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Dharma, A Rekha RaoMystery
Vee Kumari
A professor of art history is reluctantly drawn into the investigation of her mentor’s murder, while navigating mental health challenges and possible romantic feelings, in Kumari’s strong debut. Rekha Rao, an Indian-American professor of art history at Occidental College, is called in by the Pasadena, Calif., police to identify a statue found on the body of Joseph Faust, Rekha’s father figure and an archaeology professor. The statue depicts Durga, a powerful incarnation of a Hindu goddess, who killed a terribly destructive demon. When Rekha hears that Bill McGraw, one of her students, is a suspect in Faust’s murder, she reluctantly decides to try to find the killer and clear Bill’s name. Her father was murdered a few years prior, investigating his case cost her tenure, and the PTSD brought on by her father’s murder was exacerbated by her ex-boyfriend’s abuse. Rekha’s recovery complicates her investigation into Faust’s early life, as do her mother’s attempt to matchmake and her growing attraction to Al Newton, a detective working on Faust’s case.

Kumari’s experience as both a professor and a first-generation Indian-American imbues Rekha with a layered realism. Kumari weaves in Rekha’s cultural roots, discussing the art, myths, and traditions of the Indian diaspora, and considers the difficulties Rekha could face in a relationship with Al, who is an outsider to her culture. These considerations add richness to the story, drawing the reader into Rekha’s complex interior world as she navigates the academy, her family, and the law.

The novel’s swift pacing continues unabated through its final scenes. With plenty of twists and turns, Kumari’s plot will keep the reader guessing until the conclusion. This intense update to the cozy genre, with richly drawn characters and a well-constructed mystery, will have readers eagerly anticipating future installments.

Takeaway: This fast-paced cozy mystery with layered characters is sure to please readers drawn to protagonists with strong cultural roots.

Great for fans of Leena Clover’s Christmas with the Franks, Mary Angela’s Coming Up Murder.

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

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Zizzle Selects
Zizzle Literary
This anthology of 15 short stories by popular and emerging writers unites the assorted stories under the theme of “making choices when faced with something strange.” As might be expected in a book for teens, several stories center on the ups and downs of everyday education, such as David Galef’s “No-School Day,” Amy Aves Challenger’s “I’m Not Going to School,” and Melissa Ostrom’s “Dead Mudge.” Others explore family dynamics: a quirky uncle in Kate Felix’s “Serbian Dracula Mysteries,” a protective dad in Sudha Balagopal’s “Nuclear Missiles Are Coming Our Way.” Perhaps the most interesting stories are those that blur the line between ordinary and extraordinary, whether through Norse mythology in Blake Johnson’s “The Road to Valhalla” or by imagining dreams as living creatures in Kimberly Huebner’s standout “The Shelter of Abandoned Dreams.”

Each piece is accompanied by a photograph of the author as a child or a spare, gorgeous ink and watercolor illustration by Janas Lau. The visual media don’t always correspond with the fiction, but Lau’s paintings, whether they show jungle creatures or city buildings, tell stories of their own. What makes this anthology really worthwhile is what comes after the flash fiction: author biographies and discussions of the authors’ favorite childhood books and the inspirations behind their stories, all of which will encourage teen writers.

Teachers, parents, and students can use the discussion guide to think and talk about a disobedient girl’s refusal to be cursed in Karen Heuler’s “A Reluctant Fairy Tale” or explore the second-person perspective in Gargi Mehra’s “Sticks and Stones.” As readers dig in, they’ll be pleasantly surprised by the depth of the moral lessons packed into these bite-size tales. Though intended for teens, this anthology can be enjoyed by anyone who wants a handful of brief, rich stories to savor one at a time or consume all at once.

Takeaway: Engaging flash fiction, rich visual media, and a robust discussion guide make this anthology a great resource for English teachers and teen students.

Great for fans of Rosey Lee’s Beautiful, Complicated Family; James Thomas, Robert Shapard, and Christopher Merrill’s Flash Fiction International.

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

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Merlin Raj and the Santa Algorithm
D. G. Priya
Priya’s heartwarming and informative debut chapter book introduces young readers to a sweet service dog and also to the concept of algorithms. Merlin’s primary job is to help his “best friend and furless brother,” Matthew Raj, get around, but he works hard at making the entire Raj family happy. When Matthew’s mom is away for work over winter break and the family is sad that she can’t be there for picking out a tree or making their traditional Christmas cake, Merlin tries to use what he learned about algorithms at Matthew’s school to come up with the most successful step-by-step ways to turn the family’s sadness into happiness.

Writing from Merlin’s point of view, Priya employs a fun, youthful voice with the occasional dose of mischievous dog. Hampe’s dynamic, slightly cartoonish pencil drawings capture Merlin’s energy and eagerness. While Matthew’s teacher uses the process of dyeing a sock to explain what an algorithm is, Merlin, a sock aficionado, is thoroughly distracted by the mouthwatering garment being dangled in the air “like juicy meat,” but the humor helps the lesson sneak into the minds of both the dog and the reader. Throughout the story, as Merlin tries to analyze whether his decisions will help the family and what actions he should take, Priya seamlessly teaches young readers how algorithms are used to find the best outcome.

Priya includes useful resources for young readers who want to learn about algorithms, as well as two helpful glossaries that make terms such as “fault tolerance” and “improvise” accessible. The book concludes with the recipe (“a yummy way to follow a set of steps to accomplish a task”) for an important part of the story, the cake, which is both fun and easy for kids to make with an adult. This delightful story has a winning mix of problem-solving, Christmas cheer, and a very cute, very helpful pup.

Takeaway: Parents who want to give their kids a head start with computer science will love this tale of a service dog learning to use algorithms.

Great for fans of Linda Liukas’s Hello Ruby: Adventures in Coding, Josh Funk’s How to Code a Sandcastle.

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

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A Peculiar Peace
Lori Hart Beninger
Beninger’s marvelous third Embracing the Elephant historical novel (after A Veil of Fog and Flames), set in 1856, depicts a budding romance against the backdrop of a fracturing nation. Jack Moylan works for shipping agent Somersworth and Walker and is looking forward to his latest management assignment in Boston, home of his childhood friend Guine Walker. Guine, who’s studying to be a doctor, meets attorney Virgil Staves while embracing the abolitionist cause. Though Guine’s father doesn’t think the son of an Irish immigrant is good enough to court his daughter, Jack continues to call on her. He hopes to ask her to marry him but fears competition from Virgil. When Guine is attacked and injured near Washington City, Jack rushes to her side, hopeful for her recovery and the possibility of their future together.

Beninger’s lyrical writing expertly captures the essence of the pre–Civil War U.S., emphasizing the tension between slaveholders and abolitionists. She highlights the dangers faced by enslaved people as well as their free counterparts in the North, who face frequent discrimination. Beninger creatively juxtaposes the prejudice against African-Americans with the social struggles of the Irish, especially Jack, who is determined to move past the obstacles Guine’s father has put in the way of his courtship.

The attention to historical detail is evident in all elements of the narrative. Beninger’s knowledge of the day’s politics sweeps the entire country, from California to the deep South. She highlights the infighting within the Democratic Party and the rise of the Republican Party, dryly noting that the primary appeal of Abraham Lincoln is that he “offends no one.” The political maneuvering between members of Congress and President James Buchanan may feel all too familiar to present-day readers. This rich and vivid novel captivates with an evocative blend of passion and politics.

Takeaway: This novel’s engaging characters, subtle romance, and vivid politics will delight any fan of Civil War–era historical fiction.

Great for fans of Diane C. McPhail’s The Abolitionist’s Daughter, Boston Teran’s A Child Went Forth.

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

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Goat Song
Thomas Drago
This intricate horror novel, Drago’s fourth (after Winter) set in Crow Creek, N.C., incorporates elements of character-driven drama and small-town mystery as well as the eerie supernatural. Gabriela Rossi is an Italian expat who’s taken a job as a stage manager at the local Orpheum Theatre. Almost two years after arriving in America, she still struggles to make friends but is comforted by being close to her only relative this side of the Atlantic, her cousin Deborah. When her show’s producer is murdered, Gabriela is pulled into the labyrinthine subterranean spaces of Crow Creek. After Gabriela discovers a sinister plot to raise the dead, she must find allies fast, before an ancient evil is unearthed from below the town.

Drago writes with a keen eye for detail, and his characters are immediately appealing and multi-faceted. Gabriela’s struggles with leaving her home country and fitting into a small town are rendered sympathetically. Brad Gleason, the beleaguered but competent Crow Creek sheriff, is equally likable. The two have an undeniable chemistry that’s refreshing and doesn’t feel forced, and Drago balances the development of their relationship with the increasingly desperate paranormal situation. It’s clear that Brad is older than mid-20s Gabriela—he served in the military, was married, and had a child before Gabriela was born—but she’s not unworldly; she reminisces about a previous sexual relationship in which she was the more experienced partner. Their May-December romance is plausibly handled and sweetly affectionate.

Drago breathes new life into the common tropes of a small town holding awful secrets, town residents not being what they seem, and the local medical facility testing drugs on an unassuming population. Seasoned horror readers will appreciate how familiar concepts end up serving the larger narrative in a satisfying way. This novel stands alone, but new readers will eagerly pick up the earlier installments to learn more about the strange goings-on in Crow Creek.

Takeaway: This intricate novel’s believable small-town setting and likable protagonists will draw in readers of supernatural horror.

Great for fans of Stephen King’s ’Salem’s Lot, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

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

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Giacomo's Daughter
Diana Savone
Diana and Rosanna Savone, writing as the Savone Sisters, embrace female empowerment in a setting with hardly any—1924 Detroit—in their richly detailed debut novel. Beautiful and sheltered Sofia Denaro, the 18-year-old wife of mobster Max Denaro, is no Mafia princess. Max uses violence, threats, and access to corrupt police to force Sofia to marry him; though she loves to sing and wants to be a performer, she resigns herself to her fate, believing her only options are “to become a nun, a wife, or a prostitute.” But a month after the wedding, Sofia has had enough of being battered into submission. She lures her husband onto a secluded houseboat for a romantic evening and sets in motion a plan to secure her freedom.

After some heavy foreshadowing of the eventual showdown between Sofia and Max, the novel flashes back to the night they met and explores the events that lead to their rendezvous, including double-crosses, jealousy and conflict with Sofia’s friend Irene, and a secret pregnancy. The drama, wreathed in the smoke from guns and cigarettes, feels straight out of a classic film. So does the dialogue, which sometimes incorporates awkward eye dialect for lower-class Italian-Americans (“Butta the missus is-a beautiful”). The conceit of the Denaros telling each other their recollections leads to sections of summary and intrusive narration (“Sofia explained what she meant by her seething retort to Max with a new story”), and Sofia’s naïveté can feel at odds with her thoughtful feminist analyses of cultural issues.

The Savones effectively show the challenges facing women of the era, and their depiction of Sofia’s innocence and fear makes her eventual claiming of her power all the more effective. This is a vivid portrayal of a world “built around man’s convenience and on the backs of women’s free labor” and the women determined to make their own way within it.

Takeaway: This Prohibition-era story will satisfy noir fans who want to cheer on a woman’s quest to escape abuse and claim her power.

Great for fans of Renee Rosen’s Dollface, Judith Mackrell’s Flappers.

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

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STAZR The World Of Z: The Dawn Of Athir
Dr. Anay Ayarovu
With this debut, a richly imagined epic fantasy tinged with science fiction, Ayarovu dives into the curious world of Stazr by blending picaresque travelogue with a traditional heroic quest narrative. Ayarovu catalogues Stazr’s customs, languages, creatures, and deepest history. The amusing, discursive tour guide on this journey is the naive Lael, a noble-born fiction writer who receives a summons to the ancient tree city of Trabarad, where the ruling families have determined that he is “the Chozen One.” Instead of hurrying in his quest, he chooses to draw the reader’s attention to Stazr’s many wonders: its dust volcanoes, its extraordinary flora and fauna, its ancient societies, and its myths and legends.

Lael’s digressive journey is far from the usual high fantasy fare. For all its comic incidents and occasional dangers, his story focuses on Ayarovu’s worldbuilding—the many invented nouns are helpfully footnoted—and her protagonist's discovery of his place in that world. Accompanied by a chatty not-quite-pig called a “shwine,” Lael traverses the Worthless Lands, marveling at every strange encounter or feature of Ayarovu’s fantastical landscape: a reeking bird woman, the dancing rituals of one of Stazr’s “middling species.” The greater purpose of Lael’s quest, to reopen lost gates between worlds, is not revealed until deep in the book. For more answers, readers are invited to investigate the author’s multimedia tie-ins online.

Ayarovu’s eagerness to share her love of her world’s languages and cultures comes at the cost of narrative momentum. Readers eager only for adventure may find the trek arduous, especially when Lael narrates his dreams, recounts tall tales, or engages in philosophical inquiry about the nature of freedom. Those interested in a meandering journey through the imaginative wilds will relish Ayarovu’s immersive storytelling.

Takeaway: This ambitious fantasy travelogue will reward readers who favor thoughtful inventiveness over high-tension adventure.

Great for fans of Sofia Samatar, Mervyn Peake.

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

Click here for more about STAZR The World Of Z: The Dawn Of Athir
Child Bride
Jennifer Smith Turner
This enticing debut novel from poet Turner (Lost and Found: Rhyming Verse Honoring African-American Heroes) chronicles a young black woman’s coming of age amid the turbulent racism of Louisiana and Boston just prior to the civil rights era. Nell Jones, born in 1941, grew up on a farm in Louisiana, basking in the support of her family and enjoying the comfort of books. At 16, she agrees to marry Henry Bight, a man 10 years her senior, and they move to Boston after being wed. Nell’s attraction to Henry wanes as he exerts total control over her life, barely letting her leave their apartment. After giving birth to two children, Nell demands that Henry allow her to attend church. There she meets Charles Johnson, a college-educated man who shares her love of books and learning. When their brief affair results in a child, Nell faces Henry’s wrath. But Turner eschews the traditional “fallen woman” plot, and Nell finds she has more resources and support than she expects.

The parts of the novel set in segregated Louisiana illuminate the socioeconomic and educational discrimination experienced by African-Americans. Turner alludes to the omnipresent undercurrent of fear, referencing the brutal hanging of Emmett Till and Nell’s startled awareness of overt discrimination when she visits her family after living in Boston.

Turner’s character work is excellent, establishing Nell, Henry, and Charles as real people, complete with imperfections. Nell in particular is a complex young woman, whose desire for love, family, and learning make her easy to connect with. Turner’s secondary characters are equally fleshed out and complex: Phyllis Leonard, a minister’s wife, is generous and but strict in her morals, accepting Nell into the church fold but masterminding Henry’s plan to evict Nell from their home after her infidelity. Turner has crafted an accessible and absorbing historical drama about one woman’s path to creating the life and home she wants.

Takeaway: This historical drama about surviving racism and abuse will move any reader interested in African-American lives in the early 20th century.

Great for fans of Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone, Toni Morrison’s Sula.

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

Click here for more about Child Bride

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