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Deliberate Duplicity: A Detective Sasha Frank Mystery
David Rohlfing
In this debut novel, a meticulously researched police procedural set in modern-day Bloomington, Ill., a team of all-too-human detectives squares off against a serial killer in a cat-and-mouse game that builds tension until the last page. The chapters alternate between the perspectives of "Fred," a mysterious sociopath, and a team led by senior detective Sasha Frank, painstakingly investigating a series of murders related by method—even though the victims seem to have no connection with each other. The police, aided by careful forensics, delve into the personal lives of the victims, until a surprise clue sets the deeply introspective Frank onto the right path.

Rohlfing has the police procedural formula down pat: each crime scene comes across in crisp detail, and the reader is right there with the detectives as they examine every detail of each body. He also shows us the techniques Frank uses to tease out the backgrounds of the victims, even down to how picked locks are investigated. Forensic fans will revel in the comprehensive autopsy details and how they interact with the overall investigation. Occasionally the reader will struggle to recall a character who hasn’t been seen in a while, but the main investigators move smoothly through each murder until the end.

Even among the technical details, the characters still shine as individuals. Detective Frank comes across with a rich personal life, including a girlfriend, two ex-wives, and grandchildren who expect his attention. Scenes where Frank doubts his junior partner’s competence and soothes a prickly medical examiner lend a welcome air of verisimilitude. The author also gives the criminals backstories and their own personal arcs, so their ultimate fates are heartbreaking—they’re not just cardboard villains. The fully realized characters and the impeccably staged investigative scenes guarantee satisfaction to any aficionado of police detective mysteries.

Takeaway: Fans of the traditional police procedural will rejoice in these well-limned investigations, populated by a cast of vibrantly drawn detectives and criminals.

Great for fans of: J.J. Marric’s Commander Gideon series, Joseph Wambaugh, Ed McBain.

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

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Juror Number 2: The Story of a Murder, the Agony of a Neighborhood
Efrem Sigel
Novelist Sigel (The Kermanshah Transfer) turns his sharp eye for detail to a beautifully written hybrid of true crime and memoir. After serving as a juror on a 2017 Manhattan murder trial, The People v. Abraham Cucuta, Sigel was moved to examine the societal ills that cause underprivileged youth in New York City to turn to selling drugs and joining gangs. He soon learned about decaying public housing projects, poorly run schools, and a broken criminal justice system, all of which fail to equip the children of poor families to compete in higher education or in the workplace. The only legacy these institutions bestow, he found, is generational poverty.

Sigel’s incisive reporting examines sadly common situations—such as children growing up in impoverished single-parent (often mother-led) households or relegated to foster care because their parents are incarcerated or found “unfit”—that provide a fertile breeding ground for gangs, violence, and ruined lives. The news is not all bad. Sigel ably profiles formerly incarcerated individuals who turn their lives around and then return to their old neighborhoods in an attempt to dissuade younger men from getting caught up in the losing game of guns, crime, and jail. One of these men, Omar Jackson, founded SAVE (Stand Against Violence East Harlem), which counsels youth to de-escalate precarious situations by finding ways to “quash the beef.”

Sigel’s gift for choosing evocative details immediately captivates readers. One of his fellow jurors “works nights at the Penn Station McDonalds and arrives pasty-faced and sleep-deprived.” When they’re shown photos of the shooting’s aftermath, “it looks as if most of the contents of a can of red paint had spilled onto the cement.” He adeptly recounts the events of the murder, making clear the gravity of the crime without resorting to sensationalism. Rather than dissect details from a lofty perch, Sigel shows empathy to everyone and sincerely examines his own privilege. Any reader will relish Sigel’s gripping and enlightening work.

Takeaway: True crime buffs and fans of memoirs will be enthralled by Sigel’s irresistible mix of clear reporting, empathy, and thoughtful examination of the link between poverty and violence.

Great for fans of Ann Rule, M. William Phelps, Gregg Olsen.

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

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A Treatise of Morality: Morality uncovered: Everything one needs to know about morality: From the Philosophical chronicles and Empirical aspects to the Biological and Neurological aspects of morality
Amir Joy
Joy (I Tried, I Failed, but I Stayed Strong) chronicles the philosophy of morality and its multifaceted intricacies in this exhaustive work, pairing a pedantic approach to the historical background and transformation of moral beliefs with abundant musings on personal ethical convictions. After describing a six-stage concept of morality ranging from “Authoritative Morality (morality decided by external authorities)” to “Empirical Morality (morality examined through the use of science),” the work mostly omits original analysis, instead focusing on recapping prominent teachings from renowned philosophers.

Readers will need to have a basic understanding of, and significant interest in, the historical fluidity of philosophy and its impact on moral development; those who lack that grounding will find this textbook a struggle to read. Joy goes to great lengths to establish his anti-religious mindset and associate it with living “by logic” and perceiving “facts as the truth,” an approach that’s unlikely to resonate with religious and agnostic readers. He also detours into a discussion of racism that is insufficiently explored. The author’s overall deduction rising from his extensive review of morality is that it is “one hell of a matter to discuss,” which feels more like a starting point than a conclusion.

Though it will leave readers wanting more answers, Joy’s work offers an opportunity for self-exploration and application of moral theories. Some asides are tangential and extraneous, and attempts at humor amid a heavy topic often fall flat; however, the author unabashedly deals with current events and their moral dilemmas, which many readers will find an appealing theme. The illustrations are dark and out of place at times. More enlightenment comes from the topic summaries, a handy reference for readers craving a more organized understanding of the immense amount of information packed into this book. The work’s strength lies in its meticulous categorization of philosophical theories and moral beliefs that have shaped our understanding of ethics.

Takeaway: Atheists interested in the philosophy of morality will find this exhaustive chronicle a useful reference.

Great for fans of A.C. Grayling’s The History of Philosophy, Steven M. Cahn and Peter Markie’s Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues.

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

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Value Trap: Theory of Universal Valuation
Brian M Nelson
Data “makes us feel like we are in control, but the conclusions can be misleading if the data isn’t used in the right way,” Nelson warns in his persuasive debut, which attempts to shift the market’s belief in quantitative models of stock analysis back toward a more traditional enterprise valuation approach. Nelson, the president of equity and dividend growth research at Valuentum Securities, demonstrates how quantitative evaluative techniques that base pricing and investment strategies on trends in large sets of past data can lead investors to mistake correlation for causation. This can lead to conclusions that, as he puts it, are “no more predictive than believing the divorce rate in Maine will fall if we just slow our margarine consumption” simply because those two statistics have risen and fallen together.

Nelson makes the case that “spurious” or statistically insignificant correlations mined from ambiguous past data aren’t just a danger for individual investors or investment managers, but in an era of unprecedented volatility, these strategies will continue to increase the market’s erratic tendencies (especially in the uncertain age of Covid-19). Nelson proposes instead that greater returns—and greater market stability—would come from resuming strategies based on enterprise valuation, with an emphasis on forward-looking causal data and companies’ available cash assets.

This second edition is updated with a hefty prologue that invites readers to evaluate Nelson’s track record. He surveys the relative stability of his Valuentum stocks—stocks that meet the criteria of his 15-point checklist—over the course of 2020, demonstrating them to have been at least “pandemic-resistant” when not “pandemic-proof.” Readers eager for a simple investing system may find Nelson’s thorough case-making frustrating, but this work was conceived as a cry for economic stability, not an entry-level guide, and more experienced investors will find it thought-provoking and worth their time.

Takeaway: Readers steeped in the stock market will appreciate this persuasive economic treatise, which sounds the alarm on spurious quantitative analysis.

Great for fans of Aswath Damodaran’s The Little Book of Valuation: How to Value a Company, Pick a Stock and Profit; Richard Barker’s Determining Value: Valuation Models and Financial Statements.

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

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Beyond the Veil: An Ascension Journey
Allyssa Izetta
This mystical debut poetry collection takes an earthy and spiritual approach to the issues of interconnectivity, trust, and consciousness. An energy worker and soundbath practitioner, Izetta sets the tone with an elaborate dedication declaring that “we are all just finding our way back Home,” and poems such as “Cosmic Love” and “Planet Earth” seek to evoke and describe that elusive place of spiritual belongingness. In the introduction, she frequently uses the word “journey” to describe the book’s structure, and the sense of continual and heady bewilderment is part of its appeal. As readers discover just over halfway through the collection, “What I saw/ were illusions/ and now/ I’m lifting the veil.”

Izetta is a declamatory poety, and her poems don’t so much preserve specific moments or images as advocate for positions. The beginning poems assert that “we want freedom,” order readers to “Open your eyes,” and—in line with the theme of journeys—state that “ we come from a place/ incomprehensible.” Such bold pronouncements are appealing for their naked confidence, but they lack specificity and imagery. When the poems do narrow their focus from the cosmic, such as in “Sadness Fairies of Love,” they are more memorable and idiosyncratic.

Izetta’s range of inquiry and aspiration will appeal to readers seeking poems that mine the fantastical from everyday life. Inherent mysticism is illuminated in “Shower Thoughts,” a poem focused on allowing one’s thoughts to be free to “whisper secrets to our conscious minds.” Izetta cultivates an open and meditative atmosphere of “infinite possibilities/ of experiences” that accumulate during the course of the journey, and any readers willing to follow Izetta to her destination will be rewarded with a new and liberated feeling.

Takeaway: This collection of free-spirited and psychonautic poems will appeal to readers with an interest in connectivity, spiritual journeys, and questioning reality.

Great for fans of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, Alice Notley’s For the Ride, CAConrad’s ECODEVIANCE: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness.

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

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Smart Kids Rock
A.S. Roper
Roper’s simple but affirming and playful third picture book (after Smart Girls Rock and The Adventures of Smart Boys) encourages children to harness their inner superheroes for elementary school success. Showcasing boys and girls of varying skin tones, Roper stimulates kids’ curiosity by describing learning as a superpower. The clean digital clip art, paired with a white background and unobtrusive text, keeps the focus on each page’s featured character and their aptitude: “This smart girl likes to read Mystery. This smart boy likes to read History.”

The layout is plain, and some readers will crave more sophistication. Lacking an overarching narrative, Roper’s text becomes repetitive and tepid for older readers but will entertain children in pre-K and kindergarten. Roper touches on a variety of school topics (including science, art, reading, and math) and cleverly emphasizes the importance of positive social behaviors for children’s school success through several pages aimed at practicing good manners. Her premise that all youth are capable will gratify parents and teachers.

Roper’s condensed offering is well-intentioned and broadly appealing, though its minimalism makes it easy to overlook in a saturated market. Despite an absence of attention-grabbing illustrations and exciting narratives, its emphasis on sleeping to recharge “superpowers” and the reinforcement of educational values still make this picture book a sweet read. For both kids who naturally excel in school and those needing more time and assistance, Roper delivers a commanding sense of reassurance and inspiration with portraits of happy and energized children empowered by the achievement that comes from working hard at school.

Takeaway: Early elementary whiz kids and struggling students alike will benefit from this cheerful and affirming book about working hard in school.

Great for fans of Andrea Beaty’s Questioneers series, Adam Rex’s School’s First Day of School.

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

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The Wisdom of the Flock: Franklin and Mesmer in Paris
Steve Gnatz
In this blend of 18th-century romance and mystery, Gnatz playfully reimagines Benjamin Franklin as part spy, part scientist, part patriot, and all lothario.The year is 1776 and Benjamin Franklin has been sent by the newly declared United States Congress to serve as the unofficial ambassador to France. Recently widowed and with his grandsons in tow, Franklin arrives in the city hoping to rekindle his relationship with performer Marianne Davies. But a new fad, mesmerism, has hit Paris, and claimed Marianne as a major disciple. Franklin’s personal and political plans are derailed when he is placed in charge of determining whether Franz Mesmer really has the powers he claims.

Fans of revolutionary history will find much to love in this adventure, including cameos by figures such as Pierre Beaumarchais, Marie Antoinette, and Pierre Cabanis. Though clearly a work of fiction, the novel captures a real-life event: Benjamin Franklin’s commission from Louis XIV to determine the science behind Mesmer’s theory of “animal magnetism.” Franklin’s reputation as a lover is equally historically accurate, though readers may have a hard time separating the historical image of Franklin as a wise, corpulent, goutish statesman from Gnatz’s characterization of a well-muscled and sexually vigorous grandfather. This dissonance is increased by occasional use of modern terms, such as Marianne and Marie Antoinette discussing how to “contract and relax your pelvic muscles” to encourage a lover.

With a bit of imagination, Gnatz keeps his audience hooked on this fast-paced quest that takes place at the dawn of two revolutions. A helpful bibliography and brief biographical sketches of major characters are sure to please history buffs. The narrative mixes historical drama with romantic fantasy and a heavy dash of occult intrigue that will whet readers’ appetites for the next entry in the series.

Takeaway: Romance and mystery fans will enjoy this exciting reimagining of Benjamin Franklin diving into Parisian love triangles, political machinations, and psychic powers.

Great for fans of Jeff Shaara, Bernard Cornwell.

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

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Say Hello, Kiss Goodbye
Jacquelyn Middleton
In this smoothly written contemporary romance, Middleton (Until the Last Star Fades) effortlessly touches on mental health issues and their effects on personal relationships. Leia Scott married her high school sweetheart and supported his professional hockey career for years, but the relationship went sour. At 26, she’s a divorcee stuck in a part-time job she loves while struggling to launch her sustainable fashion line. Determined to live for herself, Leia has sworn off dating and complicated relationships, but a chance meeting with handsome property developer Tarquin Balfour threatens to change her resolve. The two enter a no-strings-attached, steamy relationship that quickly becomes tangled.

Leia and Tarquin’s chemistry sizzles from their meet-cute during a blackout in a London IKEA store on New Year’s Eve. Although the plot centers on their budding romance, Middleton smoothly blends aspects of their personal lives into beautifully interwoven subplots set against the backdrop of life in London and New York. The playful and racy banter between Leia and Tarquin is delightful. The heavy internal monologue and British slang may give some readers pause, but others will appreciate the insight it sheds on the characters’ motivations and actions.

Middleton elegantly balances the romance and sensuality by exploring challenges such as post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and depression. While readers swoon over Tarquin’s wealth, good looks, and love of Star Wars, they also get to see a strong man’s perspective on struggling with mental illness. Leia’s gratitude journal entries throughout the story add depth to her character and plot, simultaneously highlighting an effective coping mechanism for depression and anxiety. The heaviness in certain scenes is quickly lightened by the characters’ quirks and heightened sexual tension. This sultry, yet sweetly heartfelt romance is a winner.

Takeaway: Fans of contemporary romance will rejoice in this story of falling in love through and despite mental illness.

Great for fans of Candace Bushnell, Alexa Martin.

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

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Rise Unstoppable
Michelle G Stradford
Stradford’s (I’m Rising) third collection continues the project of feminine empowerment and tenacious autonomy begun in her previous volumes. She celebrates “womanly powers” through poems grouped into sections titled “Self-Care,” “Transform,” “Amplify,” “Rise,” and “Unstoppable.” Many are bold declarations of self-improvement; the poems deal with personal trauma, psychological healing, and political struggles. “I celebrate me / guilt-free,” the speaker declares, as the book traces a journey of acceptance, love, and heartbreak.

Stradford’s experience as an artist and architect aids in the design of this intimate paean to female power. Simple but poignant line drawings illustrate women in varied stances, including crying, falling, transforming into a tree, or caught amid an inferno. Though some titles (“Gestures”) boast occasional instances of third-person perspectives, most are written in the first person, balancing stark claims like “I am an original creation / a colorful masterpiece” with a humorous acknowledgement that the speaker is “Not for Everyone.” The collection is successful in its presentation of a contradictory self and in illustrating its central thesis that “There is healing / in facing our pain.”

This penetrating compilation will particularly appeal to women looking for inspirational and powerful reading. With titles like “She Is Invaluable,” “Believe a Woman,” and “Superwoman,” Stradford makes it clear she’s setting out to inspire women. The poems are more explicitly therapeutic and empowering than most, and Stradford’s distinctive style, marrying minimal uncertainty with plentiful exhortation, challenges her audience to delve into self-exploration. Readers will love the book’s encouragement to exercise “the capacity we all possess to transform and rise to be an unstoppable force.” This collection of poems about female self-empowerment will appeal to readers seeking psychic fortification in dark times.

Takeaway: This collection of intimate poems about female empowerment will appeal to readers seeking psychic fortification in dark times.

Great for fans of: Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey, S.M. Keat’s The Stardust and Her Magic, Alexandra Vasiliu’s Blooming.

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

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Dream Wizard Escapes
Alexander Randall 5th
Randall’s inventive second Dream Wizard middle grade adventure (after Dream Wizard) follows a young boy, Sandy, and his clever sheepdog, Mr. Harris Tweed, after Sandy is kidnapped near his Boston home and held for ransom. Lucky for him, Mr. Tweed is extraordinarily smart—he’s “no ordinary dog”—and follows Sandy and his kidnappers to their hideout to rescue Sandy. Meanwhile, Sandy must draw on his experiences, including of the hidden back stairs in his historic home and the collaborative “Knight School” he visits in his dreams, to escape his kidnappers and reunite with his family and Mr. Tweed. Sandy’s Knight School companion, Kat, has her own mini-arc in which she is also kidnapped by Killian and Helmut and goes from Sandy’s dream acquaintance to his real-life friend.

The most exhilarating elements of Randall’s novel are the imaginative plot and evocative charcoal illustrations, which convey a wonderful sense of motion and vibrancy. Though the writing is unpolished and the dialogue repetitive, the captivating suspense of Sandy’s situation entices the reader to continue on. Sandy’s positive, can-do attitude and his meaningful relationship with Mr. Tweed somewhat redeem the verbal awkwardness. Other than Kat, the characters are not well developed, including Sandy’s younger sister, Rose, and his nameless parents, as well as the kidnappers, Killian and Helmut, and Sandy’s newfound policeman friend, Officer Miller.

In making two children the most developed characters, Randall creates a world where kids reign supreme. This is made literal in Knight School, where children are in charge. The author’s expertise in the psychology of sleep and dreaming is visible in this notion of a fantastical place that can only be accessed in slumber. Knight School allows children to collaboratively solve real-life problems through dream sequences, giving Sandy and Kat the chance to explore their imaginations and creativity. Younger readers will revel in the motivated, can-do attitude of Sandy and Mr. Tweed, particularly the problem-solving inspiration it provides.

Takeaway: Young fantasy and adventure readers will be inspired by the optimistic, positive attitude of two children and a clever dog, even in the face of danger.

Great for fans of Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie, Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan.

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

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Elemental Natures: Selected Lyrics, Sequences, and Artwork with New Poems and the Essay "The American Voice"
Lance Lee
Lee (Homecomings) unites a selection of work from “old favorites” and poems he feels he has “neglected” in this cohesive and lyrical collection. Classic themes—such as love, pain and suffering, and religion—unfold amid vivid word imagery and profound symbolism, enveloping readers in a mix of “self and other, just as the present mixes with the past and any number of hoped-for futures.” Lee provides glimpses of a writer at work through the filter of time in this massive tome, packing a multitude of meaning into dramatic inflection and phrasing while challenging readers to open the wounds caused by being human.

Lee’s collected work shares elements of intensity and raw human experiences, from the powerful imagery of fixating on breast cancer scars during lovemaking in “Backrub,” to the merciless hard labor sentences of immigrants in “The Way Home.” He divulges his discovery of “how blood waters the earth/ how flesh is food and death” and reveals penetrating feelings of isolation and loneliness, making the selected writings read like a fragmented biography told through scenes of the author’s life. “Homecoming” presents as an homage to finding purpose through love - “I am caught in the hall of mirrors husband and wife become/ bound to the urban streetweb where only earthquakes/ remind us the world is real... here is my ocean, fog, light; my stone, my earth, my self/ my flight.”

Though the sheer amount of work presented causes feelings of repetition, Lee’s stunning writing about the natural world and bold descriptions of collective and fundamental experiences is enough to keep readers returning for more. Occasional black-and-white illustrations contextualize the works. Both returning and new readers will savor Lee’s compilation of work in various formats. This compendium will appeal to those who enjoy classic literature as well as poetry about archetypal themes.

Takeaway: This impressive collection organically mixes poetry, prose, and nonfiction and will appeal to thoughtful readers of classic literature and 20th-century verse.

Great for fans of Walt Whitman, Robert Lowell.

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

BEDLOE (A True Fable)
tony powers
In this bitter critique of the Trump administration, Powers combines Romeo and Juliet with 1984 against the backdrop of a stolen presidency. It's been 24 years since Ransom B. Conover won the presidency in a dubious upset and quickly turned it into the appointed office of chairman. Now only the ironically named servers, the wealthiest 10% of the population, have the right to vote, learn, send letters, use the internet, or access fresh produce and clean water. Everyone else is an associate, including John Bedloe, a widower and Iraq War veteran, and his 16-year-old son, James, a parcel courier. By day they shiver in the ruined climate; by night they watch government-provided TV and chug energy drinks laced with synthetic meth while John rants about how things used to be and James shrugs him off. Everything changes when James meets Lacey, a new colleague hiding a dangerous secret, and mutual attraction sparks.

Like its literary influences, this satire is first and foremost a tragedy. Readers should prepare for mature themes and graphic depictions of violence, such as in the wildly popular propaganda show Rape! Murder! Execution! Powers's unedited prose is challenging to read; some plot points are repeated near-verbatim throughout the text, and the dialogue lacks traditional formatting, making it difficult to follow. These issues and some technical errors undermine John's paeans to the purity of the English language, which he feels his fellow millennials have destroyed.

Fans of political and dystopian fiction will find much to hold their interest. Powers’s vision of the Conover administration and its legacy are bleak. America has shifted from a democracy to an oligarchy, and the American people are hopeless and helpless, numbly buying into the new system and cheering on the latest cyberwar with PanAsia. This allegory begs readers to fight propaganda and consumerism like the future depends on it.

Takeaway: This grim reimagining of the fallout from the 2016 election will appeal to readers of political satire and apocalyptic fiction.

Great for fans of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

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

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THE PLAN: After Police Reform That Will GUARANTEE Social Justice & Progress For The Black Community
Reco McDaniel McCambry
In this accessible, encouraging guide, CEO McCambry (The Fatherless Father) calls for his fellow Black Americans to create “true justice, power, and prosperity” for all Black people. The book, which begins with a dedication to a 13-page list of Black people killed by police, discusses “steps each of us can take today, and every day, to transform our communities and claim the prosperity that is our birthright” through ending police murder of Black people, building up Black men and boys, creating prosperity for the next generation, becoming politically involved in making lasting legal changes, and “uplift[ing] the national and global Black communities—not just individuals and isolated families.” Each chapter begins with an overview of its topic (e.g., historical Black-owned banks, recent police brutality, the effects of racism on self-efficacy) and activists’ proposals regarding issues like police brutality and reparations; some also include brief profiles of exemplars like Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman.

By using pronouns such as "we" and "us," McCambry builds a sense of camaraderie with the reader. His tone is inviting and encouraging, rather than preachy. The well-organized chapters, accessible explanations of concepts, and clear prose make this book approachable and appealing.

While McCambry writes approvingly of Malcolm X and the authors of the 8 to Abolition platform, ultimately he’s focused in this volume on practical changes related to parenting, voting, financial literacy, and so on. This isn’t aimed at radical readers or calling to burn it all down; McCambry clearly wants his readers to be safe and thriving. While his focus on business and money may not initially appeal to all readers, McCambry’s love for Black people and sincere desire to help others shine through on every page of this book.

Takeaway: McCambry’s approachable guide lovingly encourages Black Americans to seek the justice, power, and prosperity they deserve.

Great for fans of: Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, Adrienne Maree Brown.

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

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The Atropos Maker II: A New Order
N. J. Lujan
In a near-future United States with advanced technology, Middle Eastern jihadist terrorist groups plague the nation. Fresh off their successful, though costly, last mission, the covert government squad Atropos, named for the Greek goddess of fate, face their next challenge: terrorist-led child sex-trafficking rings in Iraq. And it’s personal: they have history with one of the perpetrators and happen to know one of the victims. Meanwhile, Atropos’s leaders—Norma and Alex Veurr—are aging (“now in their mid-40s”), and their son Alexander is eager to take over leading the squad. But will Nyx, a mysterious and beautiful new neighbor in his luxury condo building, interfere with the family’s plans for Alexander’s future?

The plot careens between spy thriller, family drama, and American nationalism at full tilt. Readers will sometimes be tripped up by editing oversights like incomprehensible sentences (“Zen soon turns ruffled at the thought that his impulsive craving may leave an undesirable outcome”), confusing diction (“admirably” used for “admiringly”), and a conflation of ancient Greece and Rome, two distinct cultures treated interchangeably. And this book is for mature audiences only, given its graphic depictions of violence and sexual assault—and even the good guys use homophobic slurs, which may put off some readers.

Yet Lujan provides plenty of heart-pounding twists and turns throughout, and makes family history clear enough that new readers can dive in without having read the previous volume. The Atropos team takes on high-stakes situations both professional and personal (generational tensions, revelations of family secrets, conflicts between love and work), kicking ass all the while. Thriller fans who don’t mind graphic scenes or the book’s politics, and can overlook the language issues, will find this a fun ride.

Takeaway: Though at times confusing and jingoistic, this intense thriller delivers an action-packed punch.

Great for fans of: Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series, Joel C. Rosenberg’s JB Collins novels.

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

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He Lands In Palm Springs: Father Tierney Book 2
John F Shekleton
Former Jesuit priest Shekleton (A Jesuit Tale, Father Tierney Stumbles) explores complex intersections of love, religion, and sexuality in his fast-paced, steamy second installment of the Father Tierney series. Joe Tierney, “HIV-positive and AWOL from his once-formidable life as pastor,” is on a quest to reunite with his ex-lover Kenny. After finding work at an idyllic gay guesthouse in Palm Springs, Joe finds his heartbreak falling to the wayside as he fosters new friendships and infatuations in the California sunshine. Casa Vista Oro seems like Father Tierney’s personal paradise—full of chiseled, attractive friends and lovers with a web of relationships and histories with each other—but complications soon arise.

Occasionally, ideas are repeated within paragraphs and from different characters’ perspectives, and sometimes conflicts are more told than shown, but these lapses are offset by the appeal of characters who openly acknowledge their seemingly “soap opera existence.” The romance and drama are complicated by each character’s complex relationship to their sexuality: some can be fully “out,” but some must keep their sexuality hidden for the sake of job security and comfort.

Shekleton shifts perspectives frequently, providing a look into each character’s inner thoughts and motivations. Readers may struggle to keep track of the many characters at first, but the author successfully differentiates their voices. Shekleton also provides positive depictions of healthy, safe sexual relationships between people living with HIV. By the novel’s delicious climax, it’s unclear who will end up with whom, but readers can be certain that this sunny novel is a treat.

Takeaway: Romance fans will love this tender, fun look into gay life in Palm Springs.

Great for fans of: Victor J. Banis’s C.A.M.P. series, George M. Johnson, Mathew Rodriguez.

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

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King of Wands
Anna Durbin
Durbin (King of Swords) weaves an unusual, erotic historical romance with tarot themes in this second installment of the Kings of the Tarot series. Though she is a lady of the gentry, Julia Lacey isn’t the typical social butterfly in Regency-era England. Not only is she a widow with a secret philanthropy, she also subscribes to Eastern mysticism, completely appalling the new vicar, Charles Rodman. A widower who espouses conservative beliefs about women’s roles, Charles is nevertheless open-minded enough to listen when Julia challenges everything he’s ever thought to be true. But even as their love blooms, the cards aren’t necessarily drawn in their favor.

Durbin’s occasionally repetitive phrases and situations, particularly in character descriptions, could pull readers away from the story. The broadly sketched characters transcend stereotypical historical romance tropes, delving into little-discussed elements of the time and place. Readers will catch an intriguing glimpse into some of the effects of British colonialism and the power wielded by the wealthy through Charles and Julia’s respective histories and scandals.

Durbin’s strong focus on the effects of domestic violence, the plight of women during the period, and Julia’s celebration of her sexuality without being constrained by societal mores breathes new life into the usual fare, adding depth and novelty to what might otherwise be a boilerplate tale. Julia and Charles have passions other than each other: hers is for helping women in difficult circumstances and his, as a man of the cloth, is tending to his flock of faithful despite the sins of his own past. The complex and nuanced interplay between these two characters makes for a powerful love story.

Takeaway: This richly described love story focuses on passion and second chances, offering a refreshing take on the traditional historical romance.

Great for fans of: Georgette Heyer, Courtney Milan.

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

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