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THE GREAT BEING
Bill Harvey
Blending spiritual philosophy, alternate history, pre-historic adventure, and brisk life-after-life storytelling, The Great Being is above all a beginning. First comes creation itself, which gets started with the knockout opening line (“The Nothingness felt surprise upon realizing itself.”), and then, in just a few pages, of the known universe, of what we might call gods, angels, and souls, and soon of homo sapiens, evolving past Neanderthals with the guidance of two Agents of Cosmic Intelligence, Melchizedek and Layla. Harvey (Mind Magic) follows that duo’s births and rebirths from the era when fire was new up to the dawn of the Abrahamic religions. The Great Being also begins Harvey’s Agents of Cosmic Intelligence series, which imagines the history of the universe itself and the agents’ efforts to connect humanity to higher consciousness.

This is the fourth entry published but the first chronological chapter. It shares the swift pacing, spiritual seeking, twisty plotting, and sharply human dialogue of the earlier books, though its focus feels tighter. This time, Harvey surveys the act of creation, narrated by a well-meaning creator variously called The Great Being, The One Self, and—slightly apologetically—He. (“He had He and She inside of Him,” Harvey notes.) Despite surprises like Him creating Venus the Lovebringer and warning against the power of the ego, the cosmology of Harvey’s series draws heavily on Milton, with Lucifer endowed with free will as an experiment and leading a rebellion against the Great Being.

Here, that rebellion is fought on Earth, as Melchizedek and Layla are born time and again among the people, attempting to guide them forward. As the heroes nudge humanity forward (with cave paintings and other surprises) they face Earthly wars, Barbary Macaques, and Lucifer’s minions. They also must not become too human and forget their connection to the One Self. That’s dramatic and resonant, rich with spiritual implication. Seekers and lovers of mind-bending pre-histories will relish this.

Takeaway: Vital novel of creation, ancient people, and Agents nudging humanity forward.

Comparable Titles: William Bramley’s The Gods of Eden, Michael Flynn’s Eifelheim.

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

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What a Wonderful World: A look at life without the open hand of God
Dennis Bailey
Bailey (author of Army of God) prods the limits of science, faith, and spirituality with a "plague of anomalies" that sets in motion a biological maelstrom on Earth. When ecologist Brandon Foxworth notices something strange happening around his rural home—the fireflies stop illuminating, the birds disappear, and the animals go silent—he teams up with Taylor Grant, a reporter for the Richmond Herald, to get to the bottom of the mystery. Together, they search for a scientific explanation, but after multiple tests, they still can’t prove any physical causes to the wildlife’s decay. The government blames global warming, but Grant and Foxworth suspect that’s not the whole truth.

Foxworth, a self-proclaimed atheist, and Grant, who "hadn't made up his mind about God yet," connect with Bible scholar Marcy Cambridge, who shares some convincing scripture aligning with the recent events, but neither are sold on the spiritual side to the phenomenon. Still, the three team up to investigate, eventually landing them in the sights of a group that offers bribe money to skew their findings, then later threats of violence, putting their lives and the lives of their loved ones at risk. Bailey delivers a slow burn as this layered science fiction unravels more devastating changes on Earth: the sky and the ocean lose their blue pigmentation, plants die, and a drought threatens mass hysteria. As panic sets in worldwide, the three central characters must each rely on their areas of expertise to find answers.

This heart-pounding, "end of days" thrill ride takes readers on a speculative journey rich with scientific theories and evidence, paired with the unexplainable, unforeseen presence of a higher power. Bailey contrasts the factual position of science with faith’s perplexing beliefs, spinning an intricately complex tale that resonates as it delivers real world suspense. Readers who crave a cataclysmic race against the clock will be riveted by Bailey’s tension building.

Takeaway: Science and faith are at odds in this apocalyptic thrill ride.

Comparable Titles: James Rollins's The Seventh Plague, Demitria Lunetta’s In the After.

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

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Cooperative Co-Parenting for Secure Kids: The Attachment Theory Guide to Raising Kids in Two Homes
Aurisha Smolarski, MA, LMFT
Making the case that “a good divorce is better than a bad marriage” and that, for children, growing up “with the support and care of both parents” matters more than living arrangements, this supportive parenting resource explores co-parenting, attachment styles, and family dynamics with clarity, empathy, and a wealth of fresh, practical advice. Author Smolarski also gets personal: after the emotional wake-up call of her young daughter expressing her concern and emotions when adjusting to her parents’ recent separation, Smolarski knew she had to put her own feelings of loss, grief, and hurt to the side and focus on providing a secure and stable parenting relationship with her ex for their daughter's sake. Cooperative Co-Parenting for Secure Kids lays out a path for “collaboratively communicating and coordinating routines and scheduling and other concerns, in the interest of “providing a secure environment for your child.”

In clear, inviting prose, Smolarski breaks down how different attachment styles—ambivalent, avoidant, and secure—affect the way individuals parent, love, and handle their emotions, and how understanding these can shape a healthy co-parenting partnership committed to a child or children’s needs. "Co-parents create certainty in the midst of change by committing to show up and be present for your child," Smolarski writes. Personal anecdotes, hard-won experience, and illuminating research demonstrate this, while the author provides tips, advice, and original tools like the six Cs of cooperative co-parenting (commitment, collaboration, clarity, and more) to help readers strengthen relationships and provide stability, safety, and clarity.

Smolarski also answers potential questions that may arise on the co-parenting journey at the end of each chapter. Touching smartly on the evolution of family foundations, Smolarski’s book is a valuable resource that faces all the sadness, fear, shame and anger that "can manifest" when household and family dynamics change and offers support and ways to move forward, such as making a clean romantic break and cooperating to become the "supporting base” for children.

Takeaway: Heartening, original guide for co-parents creating stability for children.

Comparable Titles: Mashonda Tifrere's Blend, Christina McGhee's Parenting Apart.

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

Untethered Grounds: A Collection of Poems
Billie Bioku
Bioku (author of We Ponder) creates a charming collection of 70 poems separated into four parts that examine, with wit and feeling, humans' grounding in society, self, and, in the first section, “elements.” Chock-full of Bioku's observations on nature, adventure, natural calamities, and love, “Grounded in Elements” finds Bioku taking satisfaction in appreciating not only individual existence but the lives of other living beings as the poems’ speaker revels in her soul's sensitivity to vital parts of life that we too often let languish: "I wonder about what it would be like to take camp in the woods. / For more than awhile. / Where the trees meet the water across from the mountains. / Loveliness undisturbed by human development." Collectively, these verses echo the dream of detaching from everyday responsibilities in favor of a richer form of living.

The urgency of such reveries is emphasized in later sections that find the speaker caught back up in practical, desperate, and consumerist ways of living. In "Grinds & Flows," from a section titled "Suffering & Smiling," the speaker faces the competitiveness that motivates society: "They say work hard and play harder". She’s candid about refusing full conformity—"But I'm not fond of games," she adds—but of course must work despite inner turmoil at the pressure and disdain for expectations. “Summer Days” offers consolations: rind, birds, “the smell of fresh pasta,” dogs tussling at play.

Through such casually observant poems, Bioku skillfully ties personal crises such as health and body issues to the broader battlefield of capitalism and racism, linking individual experiences and issues of identity to societal and systemic constraints. The collection's strength lies in Bioku’s ability to capture the dichotomy of human existence—balancing the appreciation of life’s richness with its harsh realities and complexities. At the collection’s best, Bioku invites readers to feel their way through the tribulations people face each day–and toward relief from them as well.

Takeaway: Observational and pointed poems of facing society and wanting more.

Comparable Titles: Rupi Kaur's The Sun and Her Flowers, Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric.

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

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ENLIGHTENED MANAGEMENT : Insights on Creating a Respectful, Dignified, and Successful Work Environment
Alejandro Diaz
Drawing from his own professional experience, Diaz breaks managerial styles down into two main styles—“enlightened” and “unenlightened”—in this smart debut. From both an employee and management perspective, he focuses on “how respect, dignity, empathy, and humanity will always make for a better work world,” beginning with one simple, but thought-provoking, question: “If one of your employees suddenly passed away, would that person’s family welcome you to the funeral as someone who’d had a positive impact on their loved one’s life?” From there, Diaz takes on every facet of the workforce, from hiring and training managers to desirable leadership assets to building trust within professional teams.

That trust is the key, Diaz claims, as a team built on trust will be more cohesive, productive, and will quash the need for “difficult conversations”: “If changes need to be made or issues arise, these will merely be conversations among human beings'' he writes. With firsthand anecdotes from his own experience, and that of former colleagues, Diaz outlines what separates the bad from the great in leadership. “Real leaders don’t get bogged down and stuck on minute details,” he claims, opining that “you can hold all the team building and professional training events in the world, but if your managers are not decent people, this will just be a huge waste of time and money.”

Of particular note, Diaz is adamant that everyone, managers included, must be held accountable, citing that immense amounts of time, energy, and morale are wasted when inadequate managers are given a free pass. Though some of the concepts may feel basic to experienced managers, Diaz offers foundational building blocks that will make life more productive—inside the office and out. That, combined with the light, engaging tone, makes this compact guide a valuable tool for leaders in any profession.

Takeaway: Foundational management principles for leaders in any profession.

Comparable Titles: William Gentry’s Be the Boss Everyone Wants to Work For, Scott Mautz’s Leading from the Middle.

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

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Footprints on the Heart: a novel
Jean Naggar
In a stunning echo of contemporary events, Naggar (author of Sipping from the Nile) immerses readers in this elaborate tale of resilience and resolve. In 1956, young Salwa, a girl from a village just outside of Cairo, Egypt, is stunned at the opulence of the mansions near her home—a far cry from her family’s “small cluster of mud huts.” When she inadvertently meets Sol, a Jewish boy whose parents own one of those mansions, the two are quickly caught up in the moment, on the cusp of Sol’s family being forced out of Egypt amid the country’s political unrest. From that thread, Naggar weaves a complicated tapestry of emotion, circumstance, and glamor.

The story jumps timelines quickly to 1969, introducing Salwa’s daughter, Jamil, who later changes her name to Jasmine. As time flows, in a mostly linear fashion, Jasmine rises from a “barefoot girl in a remote village” in Egypt to the 1970’s New York City modeling scene. Jasmine’s appeal is undeniable—“She was like a very subtle perfume, tangy and lingering, but light as a butterfly's kiss” —but the glamor of her new world can’t quite hide the lingering political turmoil of her birthplace. Sol, too, undergoes his own transformation over the years, as his family makes the trek from Egypt to the United States in search of safe harbor.

Sumptuous details, occasionally overly rich, treat readers to a feast for the senses, from the crowded, noisy bustle of Cairo to the cozy warmth of homes old and new, as Naggar both introduces and celebrates the fabric of culture in this character-driven story. The panoply of characters lends the work a vibrant flair, and each voice is unique, though the sheer quantity of names and relationships can become confusing. Jasmine’s development will resonate—both as a reflection of contemporary events and for the sweet, powerful story of human tenacity and family bonds.

Takeaway: A powerful reflection on politics, family, and human resilience in the wake of exile.

Comparable Titles: Abraham Verghese’s The Covenant of Water, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.

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

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The Half-Caste: A Novel
Jason Zeitler
In Zeitler’s debut historical fiction, Vernon Price, a “half-caste” (he’s half Dutch and half Ceylonese) navigates growing fascism in England and imperialism in Ceylon. Living in a vividly evoked 1930s London, Vernon’s a college student working on his thesis but also part of a fascist group known as the “Jackboots.” Or at least he pretends to be—in truth, he’s a spy reporting back to the opposition. He hates this work, but in the course of it he meets his future love, Zoe, a nurse who soon quits the Jackboots, repulsed by their rhetoric. Meanwhile, Vernon’s best friend, Saul Maccabee, begins standing up against fascism in his writing, all as he grieves his late wife. When Vernon is forced to take a sabbatical and return to Ceylon to face the impending death of his father, Saul accompanies him, having no idea how important he’s about to become to Ceylon’s anti-imperialist movement.

Zeitler does a spectacular job of blending compelling true history, with these fictional lives, whose personal experiences stir a deeper, immersive understanding of the era and of what it takes to push back against humanity’s worst. With crisp prose and cultural sensitivity, the novel offers incisive perspective on the anger, fear, connections, and love that drive people to stand up against hateful ideologies.

Zeitler will also leave readers with a rich understanding of Ceylon, better known as Sri Lanka, the island nation colonized by the British. Through the eyes of Vernon’s family, once owners of a large plantation, and through the eyes of Saul, who knows very little about Ceylon but immerses himself in the culture, The Half-Caste conjures Ceylon with such persuasive power, charting the heartbreaking growth of racial prejudice and a movement, joined by the passionate Saul, who takes on his own nation’s colonial project—and will face terror and tragedy. Although the novel ends abruptly, and more could be told, readers will walk away satisfied, buoyed by these characters who risk it all for what’s right.

Takeaway: Heart-rending novel of standing up to fascism in 1930s Britain and Ceylon.

Comparable Titles: Edie Meidav’s The Far Field, Frank Griffin’s October Day.

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

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Return to the Lion's Den
G.S. Treakle
The complexity of family relationships takes center stage in Treakle’s gripping debut novel, following an estranged son who returns to his childhood home to nurse his terminally ill father. In 1981, 18-year-old Daniel MacRae is arrested after allegedly attacking his father; because he acted in self-defense, the charges are dismissed, but the incident—a culmination of multiple episodes of abuse from his father, Jerome, an alcoholic Vietnam veteran struggling with PTSD—is the final straw for Daniel, who leaves home for good to attend college. Fast forward to 2005, and Daniel is a successful broadcast journalist in New York City when he receives word that his father is dying from liver cancer.

At that news, Daniel returns to his home in Indiana for the first time in over two decades, unable to ignore his mother’s pleas, who’s desperate for Daniel to “come and deal with [his] father in person.” While reluctantly taking over as caregiver, he discovers a connection between his father’s Vietnam-related nightmares and abusive behavior, allowing Daniel a chance to understand his father’s past—and the two men to come to a truce. Treakle immediately draws readers in, connecting Daniel’s abuse to his own life choices and exploring how it’s impacted his relationships, particularly the decimation of his marriage.

Treakle spotlights the apparent idyll of middle-America through Daniel’s mother, a preacher’s daughter who, for years, did little to stop the abuse, only coming forward to support her son when his own negative choices threatened to ruin his life. Yet the book’s heart is the life-altering events of Jerome’s military service, the violence he participated in there as a soldier, and his inability to come to terms with his actions. As Daniel searches for answers about his father’s time in Vietnam, he hones his journalism skills, leading him to unravel a mystery that grips until the final pages.

Takeaway: A father and son take on the demons of their past in this gripping story.

Comparable Titles: John Podlaski’s Cherries, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

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

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Reap the Wind
Joel Burcat
A powerful hurricane shuts down much of the Midwest in this surprising thriller, and attorney Josh Goldberg and colleagues find themselves on an odyssey driving from Houston to Cincinnati, where his heavily pregnant fianceé, Keisha, is stranded. Josh faces a turning point in his career as he contemplates impending fatherhood. Meanwhile Keisha's obstetrician turns out to be old boyfriend Anthony, and long-hidden feelings start to surface. The violence of the storm threatens the lives of Josh and his companions. But even worse is his relationship with his boss, firm partner Diane, whose hard-driving attitude Josh finds increasingly repellent. Can Josh and Keisha physically—and psychologically—survive both storm and pregnancy?

An environmental lawyer like Josh, Burcat (Strange Fire) has a pitch-perfect ear for the horrific and compelling interplay among attorneys in a major firm as well as the tense rhythms of a hospital caught up in an ongoing crisis. He proves equally good with the weather descriptions, elevating the storm system into something like a well-developed antagonist. The story moves at a fast clip, with a lot of action: as Josh and the other lawyers fight their way through the destruction, the book even takes on a Homeric tone. And although the frequent switch between first- and third-person can be jarring at times, the tale itself always keeps the reader's attention.

Although the emphasis is on the journey, Burcat’s characterization ensures that we see the personalities change along with the weather. Josh's first-person voice comes through clearly, especially his love for Keisha and weariness with his work. At the same time, we see Keisha fighting her own struggles, as what starts as a love triangle turns into some soul-searching. Most interesting is Diane, as Burcat shows just how deeply her soul has been damaged by her ambition. The ending is entirely unexpected—and yet satisfying, leaving the readers pleased they met Josh and the other characters, and hoping they weather whatever comes next.

Takeaway: A lawyer braves a hurricane and his colleagues to reach his pregnant girlfriend.

Comparable Titles: Taylor Adams’s No Exit, Samantha Jayne Allen’s Hard Rain.

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

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Charlotte's Ghosts: The Mystery of the Vanishing Boy
L. P. Simone
A cozy contemporary paranormal mystery offers an opportunity for a gentle historical perspective on war and loss in this time-crossed middle grade novel. As an Army kid, 7th grader Charlotte Cross is used to moving, but since her dad died in Afghanistan, she knows this new school in Manassas, Virginia, is more permanent. On a walk past a local Civil War battlefield, her black lab Beau runs toward a strange boy, who soon after disappears. From there, Charlotte’s Ghosts plunges into the past. In 1861, Jeremy is left alone on the farm after his father goes north to join the Union Army, but his pacifist Quaker mother won’t let Jeremy sign up to fight the rebels like he desperately wants to. While Charlotte navigates grieving by joining the cross-country team and making friends, she also finds some others willing to help her figure out how to help Jeremy’s ghost be at peace.

Charlotte’s side of this well-constructed story will be instantly relatable for readers, with themes of settling into a new place, and the sadness of losing her father touches without being overly visceral. Jeremy’s story will prove less immediately intuitive for young readers, as a Virginian father eager to fight for the North against slavery despite his wife’s religious objections is complicated, especially as slavery itself is not depicted in the story. Still, that setup illuminates the complexity of American identities, and the idea of a boy who wants to follow his own idea of manhood will resonate with adolescent readers.

In the past, the upsetting parts of the story, such as the killing of Jeremy’s beloved cow by soldiers, are also told with grace. Both Charlotte and Jeremy’s stories come to satisfying conclusions without loose ends, and the shift in Charlotte’s thinking about her dad at the end makes it clear she’s learned something from the experience.

Takeaway: Ghost mystery connecting present and past while gently exploring grief.

Comparable Titles: Claire LeGrand’s The Year of Shadows, Allison Mills’s The Ghost Collector.

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

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Married to a Psychiatrist: A memoir
Dan Prochoda
Prochoda, a former police officer and SWAT team leader turned mechanical engineer working for the U.S. Space Command, describes his emotional evolution in his refreshingly candid literary debut. The author divides his memoir into five sections: “The Psychiatrist and Me,” which outlines how he met his second wife; “The Insights,” a series of 13 essays which make up the bulk of the narrative and chronicle his emotional growth from an angry and manipulative man to one who understands how to set healthy boundaries; “A Closer Look,” where Prochoda outlines his desire to help others make similar emotional awakenings; “The Learning Never Ends,” which discusses the integration of these lessons into his life, and the amusingly named “Stuff You Find At The End Of A Book,” which includes a spritely afterword and acknowledgements.

Prochoda is engagingly frank throughout, often exhibiting a welcome light touch, as when he notes that he originally wanted to write his memoir Eat, Pray, Love style but discovered that when he tried this the narrative was “as interesting to read as a service manual for a 1979 Toyota Corolla.” In the aim of helping others to understand the power of growth and vulnerability, he also is open about other shortcomings, including regrets about parenting, an affair during his first marriage, and an unrealistic desire for the mythical “perfect woman.”

The author isn’t shy about laying himself bare and sharing what he has learned from his wise wife, a Harley-riding, emotionally badass blonde he met online. Prochoda writes that his wife also grew up in a dysfunctional household but used her training as a psychiatrist to set healthy boundaries in every part of her life, including her relationship with Prochoda. Under her tutelage, Prochoda learns to do the same thing. This inviting but unflinching narrative will appeal to those seeking emotional growth, especially those who struggle to show it to those who they care about.

Takeaway: Incisive look at a man’s bold emotional growth, with a road map for others.

Comparable Titles: Owen Marcus’s Grow Up, David Kundtz’s Nothing's Wrong.

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

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The Last Person In The World
Matthew Tree
Tree (author of If Only) pens a unique story of vigilante justice in this 1970s-based thriller. The story launches with a “lower-middle-class” unnamed narrator trying to earn good marks at his London school, filling his free time with Real Workers’ Party (RWP) events and navigating friendships with his more well-to-do peers. Enter terrorist group The Vanguard, an organization whose targets seem random, pipe bombing schools after first evacuating them and orchestrating drive-by shootings of prominent men’s homes. When M15 agent James Delaney tasks our narrator with infiltrating The Vanguard, he suddenly finds himself thrust into the center of the upheaval he's been dabbling in.

Intrigue and unexpected twists keep this novel moving at a fast clip. The narrator is kidnapped by Vanguard members, only to discover the group’s leader is none other than his friend, Ralph Finns, “the wealthiest of them all, so much so that he made the rest look practically insolvent.” Turns out The Vanguard isn’t political after all: it’s composed of people committed to righting the wrongs for victims unable to speak for themselves. Tree captures the nuances of classic literature in a sweeping, harrowing story, with larger-than-life characters who are unpredictable and unreliable at times, ensconced in a tale riddled with secrets and jaw-dropping revelations of the wolves—often in coveted, high-powered positions—who prey on the innocent.

With a mission to "undermine the status quo," Tree’s constantly moving narrative reveals the truth in stark snippets, exposing the wicked while central characters take justice by any means necessary. The villains are dark and haunting—protected by money, status, and elitist “boys’ club” traditions—and the horrific abuse and heavy subject matter may be triggering for some readers. Thought-provoking and biting, at times disturbing and challenging, this is a story of heroism and payback that will stay with readers long after its stunning and satisfying conclusion.

Takeaway: An unpredictable tale of vengeance and vigilante justice.

Comparable Titles: John Grisham's A Time To Kill, Deanna Raybourn's Killers of a Certain Age.

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

Click here for more about The Last Person In The World
The Epic of One: Act One: Perceiving the Beginning
Tony Blacksmith
Blacksmith’s debut pulses with inventive powers, action, conspiracies, assassination missions, torture scenes, training sequences, and bizarre enclaves of “activated souls” like the Red Lightning (cool!) and the Side Characters (meta funny!). It boasts dense lore, mad abilities (Reach, Isolate, Pressure, Blade) that you could map in your mind to a game controller, and an abundance of super-powered characters with code names (Crackle, Repulsion, Excalibur) that both sound tough but also give everyone involved the chance to make crack wise. “The hell is it with you guys and codenames[?]” 14-year-old protagonist Sidharth Ashoka Kumar asks a few pages in, the brisk, wised-up dialogue, like the correspondingly brisk and wild action, suggestive of the movies, games, and anime that have inspired this epic debut.

Readers eager for a sugar-rush of dark super-powered action and shadowy secret societies will find lots here that’s fresh and vivid. But editing and presentation issues, plus the novel’s relentless momentum and protracted length, make Sid’s adventures challenging to keep up with, even as the many twists, confrontations, power-set evolutions, and bursts of crisp dialogue (“He thinks he’s uncontrollable, but that makes him one of the most easily guidable people I’ve ever met”) prove individually exciting. But too often the rushed, unpolished prose reads as if texted: “Oh yea he brought Peacock with him he’s holding that knife made out of his skin and hair in his right hand did I mention that has that been mentioned?”

Characters and developments are introduced so quickly, with so little explanation, that they lack impact and often clarity. The fantasy of Sid, at 14, running a super-powered assassination squad is so fun that readers will want to relish the characters and imaginative setups before it all goes pear-shaped. That’s true, too, of later stages of Sid’s journey, involving demons, other dimensions, a Red Lightning civil war, and more. (It probably doesn’t apply to the surprisingly graphic sex scene.) When the narrative voice connects, though, Blacksmith blends a playful spirit and storytelling that surges.

Takeaway: Inventive but unpolished epic of superpowered killers at war.

Comparable Titles: Alexander Darwin’s Combat Codes, Drew Hayes.

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

As the Rivers Merge: A Story of Love, War and Perseverance Across Continents
Daniel Mamah
In this touching memoir, Mamah chronicles the life of his mother, Judit, and father, Matthew. Told through the immersive perspective of his parents' point of view from collected letters, journals, and loved ones’ memories, Mamah writes a sweeping narrative of his parents' separate lives growing up and then their enchanting romance and life forming a family in the 1980s. Matthew Mamah, a young Nigerian boy from the village Emelego, grows into a determined and highly educated man, earning a PhD, making an impact as a politician in his home country, and learning to lead (and at times ration food) in the face of injustice in his employment at West African Glass Industry. Matthew met his eventual wife, Judit, during an apprenticeship at Central Laboratory in Hungary, her home country, where she instantly took a liking to "this fascinating man—a Black man who actually spoke her language!"

In alternating chapters Mamah provides vivid details of both parents' upbringing and childhood struggles in the face of war and hardship in each country. The pair allows their love to guide them through relocations, career changes, political regime changes, and even prejudice from within their own family, specifically Judit's father, who eventually grows to love Matthew as his own son. Mamah's narrative is an engaging tale that immerses readers in the rich cultural history of Mamah's parents and a love that spans 25 years and five children, including two sets of twins, plus much societal change Mamah emphasizes the perseverance of that love in the face of “the political turmoil of the latter part of the twentieth century,” celebrating their strength, commitment, and connection in a world too often unmoored.

As the Rivers Merge is an emotional and inspiring story of cultures colliding and love transcending borders and human divisions. Fans of historical narratives and culturally diverse love stories will find much that’s moving in this story of family, religion, political strife, and resilience.

Takeaway: Sweeping memoir of Nigeria, Hungary, and resilient cross-cultural love.

Comparable Titles: E. Dolores Johnson's Say I'm Dead, Mark Whitaker's My Long Trip Home.

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

Click here for more about As the Rivers Merge
AfterLife: There Will Be Trouble
E. Vince
In this Christian-focused debut, the first installment of Vince’s Afterlife series, the fractured Hill family grieves the looming death of their matriarch, Karen, who is suffering from a congenital heart condition. Her husband, Bert, is angry at the world and a bitter alcoholic, while daughter Melody (who later changes her name to Crescenda), is a self-absorbed teenager too caught up in a toxic romance and her friends to be concerned with her mother's impending death. Meanwhile, Karen’s son, Roy, is a quiet boy trying to cope with the loss of his mother and the dysfunctional family he has left.

When Karen dies, she awakens in a peaceful place “of rest and nurture” called Paradise. Under the guidance of distant relatives, and guardian angel AJ, Karen undertakes a spiritual journey as entertaining as it is profound (Paradise runs on a “buddy system,” to help newcomers “learn the ropes”), while AJ secretly watches over her family, attempting to steer them toward God’s encompassing light—and away from the shadowy, demonic figures luring them down a path of destruction. The result is a moving story of family, faith, redemption, and love, as Vince explores death—and its rippling impact on the Hill family—through biblical text, references to well-known biblical figures, and famous people from history (including Claude Monet and John Denver).

Beyond a transformative story of the ways love and faith shape life and death, this emotional narrative delves into the turmoil that chronic illness can cause within a family—and the negative vices people can succumb to when bitterness, anger, and heartbreak fester. Vince juxtaposes those grueling human emotions—and the dark feelings attached to death—against the spiritual beliefs of God’s unfailing love, making this an immersive read for Christian audiences of grief and deliverance, both in the living world and in the spiritual afterlife.

Takeaway: Christian study of one family’s journey through grief after the death of a loved one.

Comparable Titles: Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven, William P. Young's The Shack.

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

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Herbvana
Brian B. DeFoe
In this twisty debut, attorney and Bainbridge Island resident DeFoe mines both experiences to create a surprising tale about murder and mayhem connected to a Washington State cannabis dispensary called Herbvana. Sleazy lawyer-turned-dispensary co-owner Marshall is reveling in all his weed-related income provides—including a yacht dubbed the Mary Jane and barely legal women any time he wants—when a scheming employee named Lilith sets her target on taking over the operation. Working with Marshall’s somewhat simple-minded partner, Barry, Lilith takes advantage of a questionable accident and a dirty cop on the take to set her plan in motion, spurring events that will forever change the lives of Bainbridge Island residents.

This fast-paced story, illuminating the still-evolving dynamics of the legal marijuana trade during the late Obama years, will captivate readers up for crime, a brisk and canny chatter, and the occasional jolt of action. DeFoe’s tale doesn’t shrink from the gruesome—a human head in a crabbing pot, a devious woman literally fileting a nemesis for food for sea creatures—but employs such details for more than shock; instead, Herbvana demonstrates the lengths to which corrupt individuals will go to protect their interests. The perspectives of supporting characters, such as internet fame-seeking teenager Leaf, solid cops Sarah and John, and Internal Affairs officer Eleanor, are finely drawn, each distinctive and adding depth to the narrative.

Readers will sympathize most with slightly dopey Barry, whose ambition is to share his passion, marijuana, with others to make them happy, while all around him are plotting for their own personal gain. Crooked cop Earl is so odious that readers won’t waste a lot of time feeling sorry for him, reflecting the author’s skill in spinning a world that seems eminently possible. The storytelling is agreeably loose, fitting the milieu, but never slack.

Takeaway: Briskly told thriller of the Washington State weed biz circa 2012.

Comparable Titles: Nick Petrie’s Light it Up, T. Coraghessan Boyle’s Budding Prospects.

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

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