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Branches: A Novel
Adam P Johnson
In this introspective, time-crossed debut, an unnamed family man gets invited, in the wake of a particularly controversial president’s re-election, to participate in a unique medical experiment to treat his recurring seizures. A shock awaits: He’s Informed that his condition is caused by a quantum parasite that has set him adrift amidst myriad timelines. The narrator undergoes a drug treatment aimed at returning him to his proper reality. With each pill and each passing day, he travels through innumerable alternate timelines, struggling to make sense of both major and minor changes to his career, his family life, and his surroundings. He’s inspired to question the nature of reality, his real purpose in life, and the cause of his trauma.

The nameless protagonist has in recent years felt broken by his country’s circumstances, and Johnson skillfully captures the grief and trauma of life in a society racked by chaos, brutality, intolerance, and anger. While Branches steers clear of specifics, readers will pick up on references to events, political viewpoints, and major figures, though that vagueness defangs some of Johnson’s outrages, such as a subplot regarding systemic racism and police brutality that never quite gels. Moreover, as the protagonist shifts between timelines, encountering ever more authoritarian excess and problematic policies, the narrative never slows down to unpack these moments’ full significance.

Despite the speculative premise, Johnson’s emphasis lies on the narrator’s personal life, examining his relationship to wife and son, his lingering grief over his recently deceased mother, and his hatred of that unspecified President. The constant shifting scenarios, however, make it hard to get a good feel for the protagonist’s original status quo, for what he’s lost and what he hopes to gain. That lack of specifics diminishes the emotional power of this bold experiment in timelines and trauma, though lovers of alternate histories will find much that fascinates.

Takeaway: This journey through a thousand possible presents will appeal to fans of alternate histories looking for a cerebral adventure.

Great for fans of: Ken Grimwood’s Replay, Dexter Palmer’s Version Control

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

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Luray
Dennis Haupt
In Haupt’s intriguing science fiction debut, the first book of the Behind the Last Gate series, Luray, a hard-nosed risk assessment agent, travels to a space colony to investigate the arrival of an unmanned fleet of alien ships from the Aurigan Empire. Along with her high-tech artificial intelligence implant, Bin (which displays a remarkable ability for logical reasoning), Luray must assess the severity of the alien threat. While working with the United Earth Military, Luray discovers a vast conspiracy: humans wanting to join the Aurigans, willing to sacrifice the lives of others for their own safety. With another fleet of ships arriving in a few days, and the Earth itself on the line, Luray must figure out exactly what the Aurigans want—even if that means observing their empire from the inside.

Haupt is an adept builder of intrigue and suspense. Luray is kept in the dark, constantly wondering whom she can and cannot trust. Her primary colony guide, an adept pilot named Kailoon, hides secrets of his own, creating a dynamic and compelling partnership. The inner machinations of the colony—the power struggles between generals, the presence of Aurigan traitors—creates a vast web of conspiracy that readers will enjoy piecing through. Haupt is great at introducing mysteries, and many of them are still unsolved at the end of this series opener.

The novel covers an immense amount of ground, moving from earth to the colony to an Aurigan habitat, and uses both third- and first-person narrative. Luray and Bin are the only consistent characters. The changes in cast and environment keep the reader turning pages, and the plot never lags. Action is interspersed with relevant philosophical discussions between Luray and Bin, mixing up the pacing nicely. This fast-paced, highly entertaining book introduces a mystery on every page and keeps the reader guessing throughout. Sci-fi fans will be eager to get their hands on the next installment.

Takeaway: This intrigue-laden sci-fi novel, replete with action, philosophy, and conspiracy, offers something for everyone.

Great for fans of: Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, Dan Simmons's Hyperion Cantos.

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

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THE ILJJOCK YOKE
Anita Vaani
A high-tension, wildly inventive science fantasy that weaves religious themes into a quest for survival crossing time and space, Vaani’s The Iljjock Yoke marks a dynamic start to her Yadduk and The Gods of Seabor series. Young cowherd Yadduk finds himself transported to Seabor, a planet where the gods reside with their creations, the iljjocks. A fascinating creation, this loving species possesses animal heads and the ability to read each other’s souls by touching phalluses. Upon marriage, iljjocks connect to the iljjock yoke, which links their souls to those of all other married illjocks and facilitates the exchange of divine powers. Evil God Aakaa schemes to acquire those powers, and soon it’s up to Yadduk to stop him.

Yadduk is a bold and courageous hero charged with saving the universe from evil. Vaani’s many vibrant characters mirror his charisma, including his soul mate Elli and his stout, short bodied iljjock friends, and imaginative world building keeps the novel engaging, even as the tension sometimes unravels. Vaani paints an enchanting and unique universe (one goddess resides in a wooden abode at the bottom of the ocean), though some of her inventions edge into the eccentric, as when Yadduk, newly arrived to Seabor, is granted three phalluses, or the revelation that iljjocks excrete waste by having tiny creatures suck it out of them.

Religious themes are delicately woven into the action -- dead human souls transported to a hellish black hole called Norrs, where God Aakaa torments the souls -- but the action remains rooted in science fantasy. Vaani’s excessive in her usage of exclamation marks, but it’s easy to be excited about these characters and ideas. Science fiction lovers looking for a good versus evil tale with high stakes and religious undertones will find much to enjoy.

Takeaway: This dynamic story wins science fantasy fans over with inventive aliens, religious undertones, and a courageous hero on a mission to save the universe.

Great for fans of: Ted Dekker’s Circle series, Clive Barker’s Abarat

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

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Spirit of the King
Amy Hay
The spirited first instalment of a forthcoming trilogy, Hay’s fantasy blends high-stakes adventure, a coming of age, and an intriguing and original mythology all rooted, as the title suggests, in themes of spiritual belief. In the world of Spirit of the King, allegiance to one of two ruling spirits, the good King Eli or the dark spirit Keriggor, can change the course of one’s life. Eighteen-year-old Aria has been a devoted servant of the dark spirit Keriggor since childhood, even bearing his mark on her forehead. Such allegiance comes at an immense physical and spiritual cost for most of his adherents, but Aria has proven to be Keriggor’s favourite -- a believer so prized that she becomes the target of King Eli, too. Desperate to form a new spiritual covenant with her, the good spirit king’s attentions release Aria from Keriggor’s power, but also making her vulnerable to all manner of spiritual possession. Now, as both spirits war for her loyalty and promise her great power, Aria must decide who to ally with.

Hay’s detailed prose and sympathetic young heroine will keep fantasy readers intrigued. Spirits may crave her, but Aria’s dark past and connection to Keriggor have made her an outcast among her own kind, and the author’s nuanced portrayal of a young woman’s self-discovery will resonate with readers. Likewise, Hay’s accomplished worldbuilding -- crowded village squares, ethereal palaces, and host of well-defined secondary characters -- gives vivid life to Aria’s complex world, though the pacing at times makes the narrative seem episodic.

Aria spends much of the novel adrift in the wilderness, and her uncertainty over which spirit deserves her allegiance grows repetitious, even in this relatively short novel. These slight drawbacks do not diminish the story’s originality, and readers keen on fantasy that touches on issues of faith will find much to love in this engaging tale.

Takeaway: Fantasy readers will be taken in by the fable-like quality of the story of this story of choosing between good and evil.

Great for fans of: Robin McKinley, Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series

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

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Chateau Laux
David Loux
This intricate novel of Colonial America by short story author David Loux blends compelling family drama with engaging historical detail. On a hunting trip up the Delaware river, Lawrence Kraymer, a Philadelphia brewer eager to build a name, encounters an aristocratic French family living on the edges of the frontier. Eager to court patriarch Pierre Laux’s daughter, Catharine, Lawrence elects to buy land and build a chateau near the Laux home, an attempt to prove himself worthy of her hand. Doing so, he sets in motion events that will fray the fabric of a tightly knit community.

Loux writes with panache. His characters are lively and well-developed, and his alternating of point of view chapters allows for nuanced portraits of Lawrence and the Laux family. Intimate historical details concerning Pierre’s upbringing in France and Lawrence’s life as a brewer lend the story immersive credibility. The courtship between Lawrence and Catharine is sweet and poetic, weaving hope through a narrative that depicts the at-times harsh reality of its era. Highlights include heartfelt moments of introspection as the young Jean Laux comes of age and finds his place in the world, as well as clear-eyed accounts of how “horrendously difficult” life can be. Laux persuasively steeps readers in 18th century minds, always attentive to the opportunities and dangers colonists faced.

For all the tender power of the prose, and the flashes of inspired character-driven drama, Loux’s story at times lacks a sense of urgency. The initial thrust of the narrative — Lawrence’s bid to build a chateau — pays off in the novel’s middle, and momentum then stalls, despite the appeal of each character’s personal quests. Still, Loux’s adept handling of Colonial place and detail, and the squalls of fate that waylay the protagonists, offers readers of serious historical fiction a striking journey into the past.

Takeaway: Colonial America comes to vivid life in this nuanced, engaging historical novel.

Great for fans of: Willa Cather, Amy Belding Brown’s Flight of the Sparrow.

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

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A Grim Light Rising: Book One of the Illuminariad
Joseph Burgo
Burgo (Grim) ambitiously juggles dozens of players in this epic fantasy tale coursing with psychological undercurrents. In the world of Messano, in the aftermath of a magical plague that robs people of their capacity for empathy (or “fellow-feeling”), the rich and powerful are consumed by their ambitions. Immortal king Nical chooses to conquer the world, a mysterious woman named Silvana builds a personal army with disturbing methods, and dark secrets threaten death and destruction. Yet it is a humble village boy who is sometimes a girl, known as Devian and Devianna, who will change the course of nations, all while forming an earnest, sisterly friendship with a runaway princess.

Fantasy fans will wallow in Burgo’s gritty and bleak world filled with unsettling attitudes—particularly around sexuality and gender— where consent is dubious and intimacy is callous. The story boasts a multitude of characters but a tightly woven plot, as the many narrative arcs regularly intersect, with the backstories of the many attention-grabbing personalities taking precedence over personal quests. The sprawling narrative’s occasional redundancy, and the lengthy monologues on medieval technology, are offset by plenty of sex and intense character passages, although discomfort tinges the sensuality more often than joy. With not one, but two, instances of magical gender change, the author quietly endeavors for gender inclusivity while shying away from directly acknowledging queer identities.

Burgo’s background as a psychologist informs his nuanced treatment of the ways magic would affect people. Narcissists (“Narsicans”), for example, literally drain away the life force of those around them. A Grim Light Rising plays rough as its cast vies ruthlessly for power, with brutal consequences facing those who fall prey to King Nical’s desires. But classic themes of courage and heroism leaven the darker elements in a satisfyingly unresolved ending, setting the stage for the follow up to this an appealing (albeit disquieting) epic.

Takeaway: Lovers of dark, character-driven fantasy will enjoy this epic’s intricate plotting and unique magic system.

Great for fans of: Brent Weeks's Night Angel Trilogy, Lois McMaster Bujold's World of the Five Gods series.

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

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Booked for Murder
R.J. Blain
In the first installment of R.J. Blain’s Booked For Murder urban fantasy series, the very bloody murder of Senator Godrin via exsanguination tingles the Spidey sense of bodyguard-turned-librarian Janette Asurellaworks for a number of reasons. He’s one of a half dozen high profile politicians to die in such a bloody manner, while she’s one of a handful of beings that possess the power to kill in that manner. Also pressing: His corpse lies on the stairs of her own library. She worries that her kind are being targeted, especially since the senator spearheads a broader effort to silence voices like hers. He had been pushing a bill crafted to severely compromise the magical population. Despite Janette’s efforts to trade her dangerous past for a more mundane present, she, like Michael Corleone, keeps getting pulled back in. Further complicating matters is that her former boss, the handsome bachelor Bradley Hampton, is brought in to sniff out who might behind the murder. Throw in much unresolved sexual tension and Blain kicks off a sequence of events that puts Janette’s life back in the fast lane.

A magical being with a penchant for fast cars, a background as a bodyguard, and the power to manipulate blood, Janette’s not your typical librarian. Blain’s treatment of her exsanguination abilities rivals any procedural’s blood-splatter talk. She’s also crafted an engaging, compelling protagonist, giving her a promisingly layered relationship with Hampton, who technically owns her as part of a for-life contract he insists she once signed despite her claims of amnesia.

Blain’s carefully detailed world abounds with twists and turns, all tightly and vividly drawn, all set inside a singular magical world. Her cast’s motivations prove compelling and even relatable, for all their magical prowess. For readers excited about magic librarians cracking a case, this will hit the spot.

Takeaway: A magic librarian sleuth takes on a compelling murder mystery in the first entry in the Booked for Murder series.

Great for fans of: Ilona Andrews’ Magic Bites, Shelly Laurenston’s The Unleashing

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

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Adventures of a Serial Entrepreneur: Achievements over Adversity
Fred Duffy
Duffy (Want to be an Entrepreneur?), a determined Irish entrepreneur, shares his attempts to make a name for himself in business while contending with ongoing tumult in his native country. With enthusiasm and warmth, he details his upbringing in Ireland during World War II, his early life as a radio operator, and his sales career at Shell. But Duffy’s high-paying job and occasional misadventure couldn’t satisfy his entrepreneurial spirit, and the narrative soon finds him embarking on a number of business endeavors — house flipping, tomato farming, oil recycling and health care — in search of existential meaning. In the background, the tense political situation in Ireland comes to a head, causing mounting impediments to Duffy’s business growth. After losing a large chunk of money on unwise investments, he must prove that his early success was not a fluke, as he builds another business from the ground up.

Although this is the memoir of a serial entrepreneur, entrepreneurship only gets thoroughly explored about halfway through, and the delicate balance between personal narrative, historical exploration, and business how-to is never perfectly struck. However, Duffy is a natural storyteller with plenty of material, and the wide-ranging anecdotes peppered throughout are the most intriguing parts of the book: a case of mistaken identity in a Liverpool police station, a competitor engaging in scare tactics, and pro-bono stints as an on-call scuba diver.

Duffy’s account spans decades, jumping back and forth in time with occasional repetition and confusion, as he doesn’t always specify years. Readers may struggle to keep track of his personal life, but for the most part this in-depth look at starting a business in a challenging environment is a story of perseverance, cunning, and ingenuity. Filled with the day-to-day realities of entrepreneurship, and interspersed with historical events, personal failures, and bits of advice, Adventures stands as an exciting, fast-paced memoir.

Takeaway: This adventurous memoir of an Irish businessman is perfect for young entrepreneurs or history buffs.

Great for fans of: Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog, Richard Branson’s Losing My Virginity

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

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All Things That Deserve To Perish: A Novel of Wilhelmine Germany
Dana Prinz
Mack’s (The Assault on Parenthood) vivid and incisive historical novel, set in Germany and Austria in the 1890s, finds a Jewish pianist and heiress, Elisabeth von Schwabacher, caught between the promise of new freedoms for women in the coming century and the persistent expectations of her class, all as a socially acceptable anti-Semitism simmers around her. A pair of noble suitors vie for Elisabeth’s hand in marriage , yet she’s not eager to wed, fearing the loss of her freedom or the men’s intentions. Still, she’s not immune to passion, and amid a glittering milieu of balls and royalty, Elisabeth surprises herself—and a paramour—with a bold request: “Would you make me your mistress?”

The fallout comes quickly, though Mack proves more invested in examining the characters’ milieu and attitudes than in dramatizing each beat of this promising melodrama. A vicious postcoital eruption between the lovers gets rapidly summarized, without inviting readers too far into Elisabeth’s head or heart, and much of the subsequent storytelling is epistolary, as Elisabeth and company pen artful, engaging letters. Those circumspect missives invite readers to guess at the width of the gulf between Elisabeth’s written words and actual feelings, especially once this defiantly independent woman, a musician invited to perform for Otto von Bismark himself, elects to marry.

Mack’s prose often soars, and her scenes and letters pulse with witty remarks and jolts of hard truth. Elisabeth’s promise, so brilliant in the opening pages, gets dulled away by the novel’s ending, which poses resonant questions about the limited choices that talented women have faced throughout history. The story’s power is diminished by a lack of scenes in the final third—and a lack of Elisabeth’s arresting presence—though there is some thematic weight in the choice. It’s as if, in the end, as she’s swallowed by a conventional life, Elisabeth’s lost to the reader, too. But readers invested in the milieu or in historic domestic tragedy will find much to relish.

Takeaway: Lovers of historic fiction may savor this evocative novel of a woman’s romances and ambitions in 19th century Germany

Great for fans of: Irmgard Keun’s The Artificial Silk Girl, Miklós Bánffy’s The Transylvanian Trilogy, George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

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

The Gorge
Ronald M. Berger
This sharply crafted outdoor suspense debut introduces smart, no-nonsense criminology professor Richard Carlyle, who keeps a toe in his beloved central New York river rafting community by guiding the occasional guide trip for a friend’s outfitter company. When two seasoned guides meet fatal accidents within the same week of flood season, Carlyle takes on the role of investigator to discover who is sabotaging his friend’s outfitter operation. Carlyle brings to the case his specialized knowledge of how perpetrators think, the river gorge’s geography, and his own intuition, as well as his hard-earned credibility among the rafting community and the toughness it takes to face wilderness tracking work himself.

Carlyle is an appealing hero, with convincing and engaging relationships with the outfitters and guides who join him on the rafting trips his investigation entails. The antagonist, motivated by the outfitter’s overreach in developing the area, also proves compelling, taking actions that, though extreme, make enough internal sense to stir in readers an uncomfortable frisson of relatability, even as they root for Carlyle’s crew to end his schemes. Carlyle’s relationship with his wife, though, strains plausibility, as he mostly leaves in the dark about the details of this dangerous work.

Berger’s love of nature and deep knowledge of river rafting shines throughout the novel. His prose is invitingly rich without being overwrought, and readers drawn to the theme of rafting will be satisfied by his arresting and accurate description and action. Berger also eschews jargon and extraneous technical detail, offering a story that’s inviting to readers without a rafting background as well. Devotees of police procedurals may find the dynamics on the law enforcement side in this story somewhat vague, though the climactic scene in which Carlyle gets to negotiate is in classic style for the genre.

Takeaway: Fans of backwoods suspense will find this thriller strikes the perfect balance of tense excitement and opportunities for testing their deductive skills.

Great for fans of: Peter Heller’s The River, Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter

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

Click here for more about The Gorge
Finding George Washington: A Time Travel Tale
Bill Zarchy
Zarchy’s sprawling and suspenseful time-travel thriller finds General George Washington mysteriously vanishing from Valley Forge in 1778 and stumbling into a San Francisco dog park in the summer of 2014. Thrown into the deep end of a new reality, Washington encounters unsuspecting twentysomething Timothy, and his dog, Nevada. Timothy extends his hospitality, introducing Washington to toilets and Miller Lite, but soon faces the tragic truth: Sinister powers and unforeseen forces are at play, and it is up to Timothy and friends to transport the first president back to his own time before all hell breaks loose. Righting the destiny of the world means facing assassins as cities collapse. Will they ever make it in time?

Zarchy takes full advantage of the premise’s opportunities for poignancy and hilarity. Washington is thrown, for example, by newfangled words like delicious, and declares during a discussion of burritos, “You know I have become partial to the food of Mexico so prevalent in this area. And I recognize that you are using a French word, I believe, to indicate tastiness.” Exchanges between Washington and the citizens of 2014 also touch on dark historical truths, including the oppression of minorities and Washington’s ownership of slaves. Despite Zarchy’s sincere interest and supporting research, these discussions pepper the story unevenly, without much room to convincingly evolve.

Engaging action sequences bridge major twists, though the pacing flags due some extraneous detail. Zarchy parallels the heroes’ efforts at sending Washington back to the past with recaps of the 2014 World Series, in which the San Francisco Giants bested the Kansas City Royals. Baseball is a dominant motif throughout, lending convincing texture to the story but never quite connecting meaningfully to the narrative’s themes. Still, Zarchy’s crisp prose shines from the get-go as he manages to map a sophisticated tale of time travel with significant tension and memorable characters.

Takeaway: This alluring mix of time-travel, American history, and baseball will rope in readers of socio-political thrillers.

Great for fans of: Mike Chen’s Here And Now And Then, Bee Ridgway’s The River of No Return, Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays.

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

The B Words: 13 Words Women Must Navigate for Success
Tricia Kagerer
In this practical, inviting guide, Kagerer, an executive and speaker specializing in risk management who has often been “the only woman in the room,” lays out clear-eyed career advice for women. Her aim: to encourage the next generation of women professionals with frank advice and discussion about issues women persistently face in the workplace (bullying, condescending nicknames like “kiddo,” propositions, being judged on voice and appearance). Crucially, Kagerer also focuses on the “limiting beliefs” that she argues often hold women back, including still-pervasive myths about women being less analytical than men or being better suited for clerical or HR jobs than management.

While her subject is urgent and often complex, Kagerer adopts the encouraging tone of a coach, emphasizing action steps and real-world strategies to help readers break through inhibiting barriers, face their inner critic, or understand unconscious biases in individuals and organizations. Kagerer has arranged her material into 13 chapters, each titled for a B word: beliefs, balance, babes, babies. (An initial chapter covering how individuals can and should arrive at their own definitions of success boasts no alliterative title.) The chapters’ organizational logic isn’t always clear, and readers in a hurry might not intuit that Kagerer’s clarifying discussion of the rules of handshakes comes deep in the chapter titles “Babes.”

The book at times is playful—”Bitches” and “Badasses” get their own chapters—but Kagerer’s suggestions are nuanced and thoughtful, often illustrated by case studies of professional women or in well-told anecdotes from the author’s own life. Kagerer takes care to honor and address a diverse array of possible readers, including those whose idea of balance includes a traditional family and those who elect not to have children. The B Words is uncommonly helpful and candid.

Takeaway: This guide to success in the workplace for women offers frank, encouraging advice.

Great for fans of: Alicia Menendez’s The Likeability Trap, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s The Confidence Code.

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

Click here for more about The B Words
Make it a Double: More poems from my 10-year bender inside heaven's dive bar
Randall McNair
Author of Dispatches from the Swinging Door Saloon and proud “Poet Laureate of the Absurd,” McNair returns with a second batch of “Bar Poem”s in Make it a Double. The verses within loudly assert the author’s masculinity, as noted in the collection’s poetic “Disclaimer”: “This is not / your mother’s poetry.” With titles like “Beer Battered and Twice Cooked” and “The Disease of our Existence Shrouds the Moon,” McNair’s writing eschews effete and delicate aesthetics in favor of drunken philosophizing and tales of debauchery.. Yet for all its gestures toward convictions and ideas, the collection is truly, as with any good dive bar, more about atmosphere and feeling. As one poem proclaims, “baby, I feel things / deeply, right from the gut.”

McNair acknowledges a deep stylistic debt to Charles Bukowski, a towering figure among poetically inclined barflies, even naming a poem “Channeling Bukowski.” As in Bukowski’s work, McNair’s speakers have healthy egos, declaring “The poet is best when he is most godlike” or “I am Iron Man.” Like bravado-laden hip hop or heavy metal, the machismo of McNair’s narrators works best when the reader feels invited to pump their fist right alongside them. Yet the emotional pendulum swings every few pages to self-loathing, with despairing lines like “I need to quit— / the writing, not the boozing.” These dueling impulses make for a compelling tension.

McNair declares that this collection is “written by a man for men.” Titles like “An Ode to Tits” or “Whiskey Dick” will satisfy some readers’ cravings for transgressive bodily humor and candor, but will no doubt offend others. The poems relish this divergence, the stark division between love and hate, often for the same person or action. McNair’s speakers yearn to capture a wide range of experience, “a million good choices / wiped clean with the dirty rag of living.”

Takeaway: This collection of raunchy but imagistic poems will appeal to young readers with a taste for the blue.

Great for fans of: On Drinking by Charles Bukowski, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell by Tucker Max.

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

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Anathema
Rich Yoder
Spanning from the Middle Ages to near modern day, Yoder’s debut fantasy novel follows a vengeful sorcerer who casts a curse on his sworn enemy, binding their families together for generations. When Jonathon Egan, overlord of the shire of Bothington, is summoned by King Richard to fight in the Crusades, his absence creates a dangerous power vacuum. The once-exiled Melsafar, an evil wizard with the backing of Satan, has total control of the townspeople. Gwain, Melsafar’s long-lost son, attempts to reject his father’s evil ways, but finds himself trapped in a plot to create a monster bearing the Egan name. Generations later, descendants of Gwain and Jonathon band together to save their descendants from eternal damnation.

Magic features heavily throughout. There are enchanted hallucinations, otherworldly battles, and a modern-day shootout with a hellish twist. However, the world’s rules are not always well-defined. Exactly how the magic works is left up to interpretation: who can use it, what it does, and who grants the power. This lack of clarity can make the plot somewhat difficult to follow, and although the twist at the end is surprising, it also feels a bit out of the blue.

The novel’s construction is episodic: there is no single protagonist and no clear, overarching goal. The third-person narration follows Melsafar, Jonathon, Gwain, James, and servants alike—heroes, villains, and everyone in between. This is both a strength and a weakness. While the novel is fast-paced (years are spanned in sentences, generations crossed through chapters), no one character is developed at length. Often, characters die before their full potential is explored. Even though there is no single hero, however, there are well-defined villains throughout; the reader always has someone to root against (be it Melsafar or the Devil himself). And, as lean as it is, this entertaining book covers a lot of ground and touches on some very serious philosophical questions in the process. Fans of genre-bending epics will find much here to sink their teeth into.

Takeaway: This philosophical fantasy novel combines the medieval and the modern-day, perfect for fans of genre-bending epics and moral conundrums.

Great for fans of: Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Teresa Frohock's Miserere.

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

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KOBANI: This is the Future of War
FX Holden
The high-octane fourth book in Holden's Future War military thriller series (after Orbital) provides a gripping drama of land and air combat fought with the best in futuristic weaponry. In 2030, Russia is strengthening its role in the Middle East by offering support to Syria in its offensive against Turkey to reclaim their northern territories. A coalition of American, Australian, British, Turkish, and German troops operate out of a NATO base in Incirlik, Turkey, while a force of only 300 American Marines are holed up in a Kurdish-backed safe zone in Kobani, Syria. Syria wants the coalition out of Incirlik and Kobani, but if Kobani falls, the Russians gain a political coup.

Holden arms both sides of the conflict with a bevy of high-tech futuristic weapons that generate intricate, exhilarating battle sequences that Holden brings to vivid life, making readers feel they’re right in the middle of the action. Russian Lieutenant Yevgeny Bondarev commands a squadron of Su-57 Felon lethal stealth aircraft directed by AI simulations and data from orbiting early warning systems. The Russians also utilize Okhotnik unmanned combat aircraft that are virtually invisible to radar. The coalition’s Flight Lieutenant Rex King has Perdix microdrones guided by AI and carrying grenades, along with BATS combat drones that work in concert with stealth F-35 fighters to flush out the enemy and coordinate air maneuvers. Sniper assassinations, explosions, chemical weapons attacks, and cyberwarfare pull the two sides into a rapid-fire face-off.

The number of characters, plots, and combat arenas can be dizzying, but Holden balances this with intricate backstories and motivations for his capable and steadfast characters, offering up fleshed-out human stories amid all the high-tech toys. Military thriller fans, war buffs, Middle East politics junkies, and sci-fi enthusiasts will immerse themselves in Holden’s epic tale of regional politics and potential for worldwide conflict.

Takeaway: War buffs and Middle East politics enthusiasts will immerse themselves in nonstop aerial assaults guided by futuristic weaponry.

Great for fans of: Mike Maden’s Drone Threat, James Rosone’s Rise of the Republic series.

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

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Princess Quest: An Adventure into the Forbidden Lands
Chandra Jerome
Princess Kira of Latavia is not one to be messed with. She’s quick to draw a sword, has spent her whole life training to be queen, and will do anything for her kingdom. Jerome’s (Sully the Spider Learns to be Nice) Princess Quest follows teen princess Kira as she faces her toughest challenges yet: bonding with her new younger brother Alec and saving him after he’s been kidnapped. Complicating matters is the fact that she’s suspected as the kidnapper.

A colored pencil illustration opens each chapter of this spirited adventure, but there’s otherwise scant description of the physical landscape of Latavia or anywhere else that the heroes journey, which limits the opportunity for immersion in the world. Readers also get few glimpses into the minds and hearts of the characters, so their actions tend to feel reactionary or abrupt, since there’s little indication of how or why they make the choices they do. Upsetting events like the loss of a horse to a monstrous snake pass with little attention paid to the emotional impact on the young protagonists.

While the novel at times is thinly developed, Jerome still executes a compelling quest narrative, complete with trolls, knights, royal intrigue, and fantastical surprises like the mountain that literally needs to eat. The dangers alternate between comic and just scary enough. Most importantly, like all the best quests, Princess Kira’s ultimately becomes a journey of self discovery, despite the novel’s limited interiority. Even if they’re not royalty themselves, young readers will likely enjoy this narrative of how a young princess must find her true strength. Also memorable: the honest (if sometimes a touch harsh) portrayal of sibling dynamics. Fast-paced and full of action,and boasting a feisty lead, Princess Quest sneaks in a bit of heart along the way.

Takeaway: Young fantasy readers will enjoy this fast-paced quest and its strong-willed and feisty main character.

Great for fans of: Shannon and Dean Hale’s The Princess in Black, Ursula Vernon’s Hamster Princess series, Cornelia Funke’s The Princess Knight

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

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