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The Girl Who Said Goodbye: A Memoir of a Khmer Rouge Survivor
Heather Allen
In precise, evocative prose (“In Phnom Penh, we were living in a house of fractured glass that was on the verge of shattering”), Allen tells the incredible story of her aunt Siv Eng, who fought to survive the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in 1970s Cambodia. Told in the first person, the memoir begins with Siv Eng’s idyllic life as a university student and quickly descends into increasingly nightmarish scenarios as the new regime took hold. She and her family are forced out of their homes, marched to labor camps, and separated. Siv Eng winds up in prison while trying to help her sister, and makes friends only to see them executed. Then the war’s tide turns and a series of unlikely events leads to Siv Eng's liberation and reunion with her family in America.

The episodic storytelling allows the reader to slowly absorb the horror of Siv Eng’s experiences. Grim scenes of violence are balanced with memories both sweet and sad, and the importance of family life is emphasized. Siv Eng’s story isn't sugar-coated, but she gives the reader a thread of hope even in the direst of situations. This is also a story about faith, as Siv Eng sees various signs and dreams that eventually lead her to Christianity.

Siv Eng pointedly mentions a lack of interest in politics, but this is a story of ideology vs. humanity. If it weren't for the kindness of certain chiefs, guards, and soldiers, Siv Eng would be dead. Her will to live and see her family again are inspirational. Allen has a remarkable ability to distill Siv Eng's stories into a smooth, if harrowing, reading experience, and readers will find it impossible to look away.

Takeaway: This harrowing, gripping story of survival in the face of horrific events will equally appeal to students of Cambodian history and fans of poignant memoirs.

Great for fans of Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father and Haing Ngor’s Survival in the Killing Fields.

Production grades
Cover: TK
Design and typography: TK
Illustrations: TK
Editing: TK
Marketing copy: TK

Rigged
Miranda Watson
Rosone and Watson (the World War III series) launch a series set in an alternate 2020 America where free elections are at risk. An attack on the email account of President Jonathan Sachs, a Republican who is up for reelection, is followed by bombings of early voting locations. Postal workers bribed by the Chinese government deliberately fail to deliver completed absentee ballots from Republican areas. While Lt. Col. Seth Mitchell and a team of operatives are sent to Kosovo to hunt for the people who orchestrated the attacks, U.S. federal agencies work diligently to unravel a worldwide plot to elect Democrat Marshall Tate.

The authors include plenty of realistic details of Mitchell’s operations in Kosovo and Serbia as he captures an Islamic terrorist leader and interrogates him (using drugs to induce compliance). One can almost hear the IEDs exploding and the helicopter blades whirring. The story line focusing on election security is both believable and current. However, the narrative loses some of its sharp focus following the election. All nine Supreme Court justices are assassinated; unable to have the election results invalidated, Sachs declares martial law. A vast international conspiracy is gradually uncovered. Though technically possible, these events in combination create an air of improbability, and a cliff-hanger ending does nothing to anchor them in reality.

The narrative’s sympathies clearly lie with Sachs, but there are moral shades of gray throughout. Tate scolds an aide who only cares about how the attacks benefit their campaign, a left-wing judge puts aside his hatred of Sachs in the name of protecting democracy, and a letter carrier takes bribes so she can pay off her enormous student loan debt from a Christian university. A wide range of thriller readers will be intrigued by this scary what-if scenario and curious enough to look for its sequels.

Takeaway: This terrifying scenario of a global conspiracy to throw a U.S. election will appeal to a wide array of espionage thriller fans.

Great for fans of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Legacy, Tom Clancy’s Code of Honor.

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

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Spent Identity
Marlene M. Bell
Romance and murder meld in Bell’s energetic second Annalisse murder mystery (after Stolen Obsession), which showcases a keen eye for the details of nature, rural life, fine dining, and cars. Antiques appraiser Annalisse Drury’s romance with Greek millionaire Alec Zavos is faltering under the demands of his family business, which makes high-end automobiles. Annalisse is looking for a distraction, and rescuing her elderly aunt Kate Walker’s New York State farm from imminent sale might be it. But when the ranch hand, Ethan, discovers a strangled corpse in the barn and then Kate disappears, Annalisse, Alec, and their friends follow a bread crumb trail of texts and clues through New England to find her. The trail leads into Kate’s hidden past, unearthing family secrets that could explode Annalisse’s life.

The cozy, pragmatic everyday of horses, sheep, and farm life, and Annalisse’s own grounded personality, neatly counterbalance the excesses of Alec’s rarified world and the drama of the mystery. The story is welcoming and vibrant, and much of it is nuanced and warm. That care unfortunately falls short in one area: Annalisse’s hateful comments on other women’s bodies—notably her cousin Jillian’s weight—and repeated descriptions of antagonists as ugly. This pettiness risks alienating readers who expect a light, fun story.

The fine mechanics of a whodunit are derailed by multiple subplots and threats—including murder, blackmail, kidnapping, sexual assault, and a love triangle—that undermine one another’s urgency and can make Alec’s romantic gestures feel awkwardly mistimed. Several threads are left unresolved, and the answers to many questions fall into Alec and Annalisse’s laps through accident and luck. But when Bell aims for fun adventure, she hits the bull’s-eye. This mystery will appeal to readers who want to fall into intense moments of danger and lyrical descriptions of breezes rustling through maple trees.

Takeaway: Atmospheric descriptions will draw fans of thrilling stories to this romantic rural whodunit.

Great for fans of Sarah Barrie’s Hunters Ridge series, Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels.

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

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The Tempest: New Persia Book Two
John L. Lynch
Lynch’s painstaking character work in New Persia: Before the Storm pays off in this riveting, intense sequel. In the far future on a world founded by descendants of Arab and Persian peoples from Earth, Azania has launched an attack on New Persia. Tank commander Basir Turani and fighter pilot Farad Hashemi join with other New Persian forces to repel the attack. Suri Pahlavi and Nasrin Avesta, defying their society’s limitations on the roles of women, play key roles in the defense. Submarine captain Azeri and Azanian tank commander Aran provide crucial new perspectives. As an enormous natural firestorm threatens them all, its immense scale is humanized through a rescue operation. Triumphs and tragedies abound.

Lynch’s expertise is in military tactics, and he clearly depicts the perspective of officers who have to lead in combat. Each chapter is short and packs a punch. The cultural politics from the first book are still factors here, but are more in the background as the story focuses on what it means to engage in total warfare. Lynch’s characters are all capable but far from perfect or invincible, and that lends tension to every encounter.

Lynch is also interested in how technology affects war, as tactics can only go so far when the enemy has superior weapons and vehicles. With the technology on this world at a 1950s level, the introduction of helicopters proves to be a devastating move. There are times when the battle scenes are too dense, especially since so much of the book involves combat, but Lynch always brings the focus back to people, creating a resonant payoff. This is not a good starting place for newcomers, but series fans will be thoroughly satisfied by this installment and breathlessly await the next.

Takeaway: Series fans eager for more of Lynch’s gripping, tense, and detailed battle sequences will get their fill in this thrilling installment.

Great for fans of Edward L. Beach’s Run Silent, Run Deep; Taylor Anderson’s Destroyermen series.

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

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No More Dodging Bullets
Amy Herrig
In this frank memoir, Herrig (Forever Joy) describes surviving many troubles and retaining her optimism. Her childhood was idyllic until her senior year of high school, when her parents divorced. Her “sketchy years” began then and culminated in a serious heroin addiction. Herrig managed to clean up her act and joined the family business: the Gas Pipe, a head shop. The family’s holdings soon grew to include other businesses. Marriage, the birth of her twins, and divorce all followed before Herrig found true love with the manager of a fishing lodge in Alaska. Just when Herrig’s happiness seemed complete, the government seized the business’s assets and prosecuted Herrig and her father for the sale of synthetic marijuana, a hugely profitable product that Herrig believed was legal.

Herrig’s memoir is a perceptive portrait of someone who’s learned that “greed itself can be addicting.” Humble sometimes to the point of self-deprecation, she accepts full blame for every mistake she’s made while giving God all the credit for everything that went right. Though she acknowledges that her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment were devastating, she counts the cancer as a blessing because it delayed her trial and gave her time to bring on better attorneys. At times this relentless positive attitude is grating, though it’s unquestionably sincere. Balancing it are direct critiques of the aggressive prosecution.

Herrig is still in “survivor mode,” but she has come to the realization that “our strength is not defined by what we have but rather by who we are – the decisions we make, how we treat others, and how we live our lives.” A feel-good, faith-based memoir about being prosecuted for selling herbal incense seems implausible, but Herrig makes it work, and readers looking to immerse themselves in positivity will enjoy her story of finding “the rainbow” that follows the years of storms.

Takeaway: This frank and moving memoir about choices and regrets will especially appeal to Christian readers looking for a feel-good, faith-based story.

Great for fans of Kevin McCarthy’s Blindspots: Why Good People Make Bad Choices, Edward Snowden’s Permanent Record.

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

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Don't Tell Mom About This
Eric Serrell
Serrell’s second novel (after Fall Rotten) follows a former FBI agent who returns to undercover work after serving prison time. Elise McNeil’s stealthy skills are valuable enough for her to be recruited by a shady security firm as soon as she’s paroled. Eager for money, she agrees to a job following Cuban-Hawaiian grifter Mia Garcia, whose high-stakes con games take them around the world. As Elise falls under the spell of the magnetic Mia, she begins to wonder whether Mia knows that Elise has been hired to keep tabs on her. Meanwhile, the Secret Service takes an interest in Elise. When Elise and Mia encounter a powerful man in Busan, all their plans fall apart and Elise is left in a desperate situation.

Serrell explores Elise’s history with flashbacks—to her childhood, the death of her biological mother, battles with her sisters, and involvement with various criminals, among other events—but the delineation between the present and the past is not always clear. The frequent jumps to different periods interrupt the flow of the main narrative, and characters from various eras pile up without receiving much development. The purpose of Elise’s journey becomes clearer towards the novel’s conclusion, but the slow plot doesn’t benefit from a sudden final rush of happenings.

Elise is a complex character. Her mixed-race heritage (African-American father, white South African mother) leaves her feeling like an outsider in both her parents’ cultures, and her facial scars, which she’s always conscious of, isolate her further. Her family and professional history and ambiguous morals set her up as someone who can go nearly anywhere and do nearly anything. She’s equally comfortable nannying her sister’s infant daughter in Belgium, flirting with a 16-year-old barista in Iceland, and shooting a former associate in the head in Los Angeles. Even when the story drags, readers will enjoy exploring Elise’s fascinating character.

Takeaway: Readers interested in character more than suspense will warm to the intriguing heroine of this twisty novel.

Great for fans of David Baldacci’s A Minute to Midnight, Lee Child’s Blue Moon.

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

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Elephants In My Room
Christie Nicholls
Comedian Nicholls’s effervescent debut memoir recounts family shenanigans, adventures abroad, and other entertaining and embarrassing experiences with a mix of humor and humility. The book is split into four sections, each one providing a theme for the stories (or “elephants”) it contains. The first section, “A Broad Abroad,” recalls traveling with Nicholls's mismatched family. The standout tale “I Love English” begins with Nicholls joking about her father’s family crest being “a light-bulb, a middle finger, and an Entenmann’s Danish” as a way of introducing a story about a booze-fueled wedding in England. The “Boys to Man” section recalls her dips into the dating pool, including “Mother Nose Best,” set in Wisconsin, in which Nicholls is determined to prove her mother wrong about her foul-smelling boyfriend.

In every story, Nicholls exhibits a gift for description; as she describes screaming a nonstop litany of curses while incompetently driving a stick-shift rental car through Iceland (“I accelerated and the car cried out ‘help me’ ”), readers will both cackle hysterically and want to tighten their seat belts. Her stories of childhood exude a clear love of family while never sacrificing the absurdity of growing up. If readers are looking for a combination of laughing and crying, the “Dearly Departed” section, filled with heartwarming stories of Nicholls’s grandparents, is sure to deliver. Family photos are given hilarious captions to underline that these stories are as true as they are absurd.

There’s no overall arc to the collection, but each anecdote stands well alone. Readers will admire the fluidity with which Nicholls describes her intensely relatable way of stumbling cheerfully through life. Nicholls’s zeal for storytelling about the everyday proves that any event can form the kernel of a good memoir. She sticks the landing by simply bearing and sharing it all.

Takeaway: This laugh-out-loud collection of anecdotes will delight any fan of funny and heartfelt memoirs.

Great for fans of Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, Justin Halpern’s Sh*t My Dad Says.

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

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A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains, a memoir
William Walters and Victoria Golden
The late Walters, aided by writer and editor Golden, takes readers on a remarkable journey spanning 90 years, beginning in 1930 when he was four years old and boarded one of America’s final orphan trains. Between 1854 and the 1930s, these trains transported 250,000 poor or orphaned urban children to rural areas for fostering. Without oversight, many of these children, Walters included, were separated from their siblings and suffered horrific abuse. After multiple attempts to run away, he escaped New Mexico for good at age 12, rode the rails, and survived on his wits before joining the Marines at 16 and fighting in WWII. His wife, Lucretia, became his lodestar for 65 years, but childhood demons damaged his personal and professional relationships. When he died in 2017, he was estranged from two of his three children.

Walters’s story is one of survival. His Marine unit suffered devastating losses in the Pacific. His formative years damaged him so badly that Lucretia agreed to marry him only if he let go of the massive chip on his shoulder. Walters rarely acknowledges how difficult a man he was, something left for Golden to discuss in the almost therapeutic analyses she provides between chapters of Walters’s first-person narration. The combination of his reminiscence and her supplementation—which includes interviews with his children—creates a rich account of hard-knock life in the Great Depression and WWII.

Unfortunately, in the years after Walters’s marriage, his story becomes a recitation of facts. Readers will lose interest in the accounting of all of his jobs over 60 years while wishing to better understand why his sons estranged themselves from their parents. This memoir shares its narrator’s aversion to self-examination, but it’s still a valuable close-up portrait of forgotten and overlooked elements of 20th-century American life.

Takeaway: This remarkable story of resilience and self-reliance is perfect for those who enjoy reading about the “greatest generation.”

Great for fans of Stephen O’Connor’s Orphan Trains, Tara Westover’s Educated, Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation.

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

Grace: Stories and a Novella
Dan Burns
With varying degrees of success, Burns’s cross-genre collection explores characters at critical junctures in their lives, touching on themes of relationships, alcohol, and mortality. The best of the six entries are the two science fiction shorts. In “Hardwired,” a dying man who spun fanciful tales for years about having an artificial intelligence implant wants his adult son to know the truth of the matter. In “The Final Countdown,” Earth’s lack of resources in 2115 is blamed on its elders, who are required to be euthanized or move to a moon colony. Also noteworthy is “Redemption,” in which an aging writer takes his directionless grandnephew into his Montana home. The remaining work is less well executed, particularly “Grace,” a novella about a failing marriage.

The 26 Jules Feifferesque illustrations by Kelly Maryanski perfectly complement Burns’s writing, which is most effective when focused on affectionate relationships, such as the ones between great-uncle and grandnephew in “Redemption,” father and son in “Hardwired,” and a 12-year-old and his grandfather in “The Final Countdown.” Burns falters in exploring darker elements in the lurid and alcohol-fueled “Grace” and “The Plight of Maximus Octavius Reinhold,” a short story featuring a character from Burns’s novel A Fine Line.

The novella has contradictory problems—it is both predictable and overly complex—and these flaws and its length make reading slow going. There is also a challenging lack of clarity in “Adrift at Sea,”a short story without a clear place or time, and “The Plight of Maximus Octavius Reinhold.” Science fiction fans interested more in story than science are the most likely to enjoy Burns’s work, as he puts a human face on larger societal concerns about aging, resource depletion, and remaining emotionally connected in the digital age.

Takeaway: This multi-genre collection of stories about characters at life-altering crossroads will appeal most to science fiction readers.

Great for fans of Graham Greene, Marilynne Robinson, Gene Wolfe.

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

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Saving Calypso
Dawn Z Church
Church’s twisty thriller is driven by greed and power. Teen heiress Calypso Swale was about to join the U.S. equestrian team in the Olympics when a car crash involving drunken Grieg Washburn, heir to the Washburn Exploration (WashEx) empire, killed her parents. At the time, Larch Swale, Calypso’s father, was COO of WashEx. Her father’s last word to her was “Run,” and Calypso obligingly disappeared with a chunk of his money and a precious patent for a new kind of engine. Five years later, Grieg’s father is dead and it looks like someone’s trying to kill Grieg too. WashEx’s board is offering a reward for Calypso’s return, and no one wants her found more than Grieg.

This well-constructed thriller provides plenty of action as well as a glimpse into the cutthroat world of intellectual property and mineral rights profiteering, where patents are a highly lucrative commodity and companies make millions from exploiting deposits of rare substances. WashEx made its money in oil; as Grieg tries to turn it in a new direction, the board pushes for an IPO. Blackmail and murder are also at the forefront, thanks to a bounty of colorful characters whose needs, jealousies, and ambitions drive the solid story.

The protagonists are unusual and compelling. After slipping off the grid, Calypso is forced to abandon her privileged lifestyle and live off the land, raising chickens, making her own bread, and even drying seeds in order to survive. Grieg, a “charming, monied, swaggering, offensive, risk-taking, impulsive, murdering bully” but also a “future-facing genius,” is determined to sober up and prove to everyone that he’s more than capable of stepping into his father’s shoes. Their mutual need to reinvent themselves in order to survive will resonate with readers as the double-crosses and questions pile up. This is a satisfying look at the devastation wrought by selfishness.

Takeaway: This well-constructed thriller driven by old-fashioned vices and modern concerns about resource use is sure to appeal to fans of the genre.

Great for fans of James Patterson’s The 6th Target, David Baldacci’s A Minute to Midnight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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