Find out the latest indie author news. For FREE.

Lemons in the Garden of Love
Ames Sheldon
Sheldon (Don’t Put the Boats Away) transports readers to 1977 through the eyes of Cassie Reed Lyman, a PhD student in Women’s History at the University of Minnesota, in this novel that’s part feminist history, part journey of self-discovery. While searching Smith College’s archives for guidance toward a dissertation topic, Cassie stumbles upon the diaries of her great-great-aunt, Kate Reed Easton. Cassie is immediately hooked, diving into journal entries covering Kate’s work as a suffragist, birth control advocate, and artist in the first half of the twentieth century. Sheldon models Kate’s experiences on the real life of Blanche Ames Ames, the artist and activist, and skillfully weaves past and present together. Sheldon sets Cassie’s efforts to face the family skeletons unearthed by her research, plus navigate fraught relationships with her husband and her mother, all against the backdrop of preparations for her sister’s shotgun wedding. Sheldon creates a moving portrait of the struggles and successes of first- and second-wave feminism.

Aside from minor editing issues, Sheldon’s evocative prose and compelling sense of the sweep of history grabs attention from page one right up until the final chapter, which rushes to a premature conclusion lacking the nuance of earlier pages. Careful research infuses the story, which abounds with surprising detail, though Sheldon glosses over the strain of eugenics that underpinned much early birth control advocacy, a lacuna made more obvious given Margaret Sanger’s many cameos throughout.

Sheldon’s relatable and emotional saga serves as a stark lesson about women’s lives before the right to reproductive freedom was achieved. Some will be put off by Kate’s scathing criticism of the Catholic Church’s injunctions against birth control, but readers invested in history, women’s rights, and cross-generational family sagas will find that Lemons in the Garden reveals the life-changing power of a woman’s right to determine her reproductive future.

Takeaway: Ames Sheldon brings two waves of the women’s movement to life in this compelling work of historical fiction.

Great for fans of: Fiona Davis’s The Lions of Fifth Avenue, Diane Atkinson’s Rise Up Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes

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

Click here for more about Lemons in the Garden of Love
The Dagger: The Madigan Chronicles Book 1
Marieke Lexmond
The opening chapter of Lexmond’s Madigan Chronicles, a series centered on a family of witches, blends clever magical spells and some proudly disagreeable characters with centuries-old conflict and a present-day urban fantasy backdrop. Detective Bridget Madigan rejected the drama of her witch relatives in New Orleans in favor of the magic-free life of a cop in Boston. Investigating a death, Bridget and her partner get attacked by an elderly woman identical to Bridget’s grandmother, Tara. Seeking answers, Bridget reluctantly returns to New Orleans and discovers that Tara’s twin sister, Lucy, had been banished from the family after being found unworthy to inherit its prize heirloom, a powerful wand that wields the elemental forces of fire. Lucy has returned, and Bridget’s Aunt Diane, whose power is precognition, foresees the destruction of the world itself if Lucy acquires the wand and three other elemental items. When Tara chooses Bridget to be the family’s champion and successor, the detective brushes up her rusty powers.

The Dagger’s elemental spellcasting is engaging and inventive, but the novel’s elaborate story of dark secrets and powerful magics often becomes repetitive, especially in its scenes of distrustful sniping among the Madigan sisters, brothers, aunts, and uncles. With their sarcasm and long-held grudge, these eclectic but minimally developed family members bog down the narrative and also the pleasure of getting acquainted with Lexmond’s promising history of American witchcraft. Tara’s tight lips about ancient secrets ensure that crucial information dribbles out slowly. Also disrupting the pacing: the various Madigan brood who traverse the country with stopovers in Utah and the land of Fairy.

The editing is poor, with frequent repetition and grammatical errors. Still, fans of fantasy and urban paranormal fare will enjoy the magical displays, the prominent women characters, and the satisfying final (for now!) battle between good and evil.

Takeaway: In this story of American witchcraft, enchanting magical spells and strong female protagonists somewhat alleviate a meandering plot.

Great for fans of: Lydia Sherrer’s Love, Lies, and Hocus Pocus, Alix E. Harrow’s The Once and Future Witches

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

Click here for more about The Dagger
Factor-7
J.D.May
May's wide-ranging thriller blends together conspiracies, terrorism, romance, personal betrayals, and the possibility of an engineered pandemic as it unveils its complex web of characters. Set in modern-day Houston but soon sprawling out, the narrative centers on ER trauma doctor Dr. Sam Hawkins, whose friend, Bill Roberts, has died of a mysterious mutant virus. Hawkins must unravel the mystery not just of Factor 7, a virulent disease designed to kill, but also of the mysterious Keepers Collegium, a secretive organization as ancient as the Freemasons. With his unlikely ally, an Italian physician named Rainee Arienzo, Hawkins pieces together clues from Roberts's widow and faces surprising betrayals, a devil's bargain with the head of a drug cartel, and the stirrings of romance. The duo’s moral compass even against dires odds helps them survive.

May has developed a credible and terrifying biological profile for Factor 7. Her depiction of a centuries-old cabal whose mission is to root out evil and destroy it is fascinating, as is the idea of a renegade cell willing to unleash destruction to “cleanse” the sins of the world, convinced that the ends justify the means. However, this thriller’s focus shifts from these pressing issues to the personal lives of the protagonist, slowing the narrative momentum and diminishing the suspense of the Keepers’ targeted pandemic. Passages detailing the extended end of Sam's marriage or the awakening of feelings for Rainee blunt rather than ground the urgent intrigue of the espionage and conspiracy elements.

A series of anticlimaxes abruptly settles key characters and plot points. What seem like important villains get quickly dismissed, and a subplot involving an archenemy of Sam’s languishes unresolved. While May offers a compelling premise and explores a number of fascinating and timely topics, including COVID-19, Factor-7’s tendency to dilute its thriller elements ultimately results in a mixed bag as a reading experience.

Takeaway:Thriller lovers will enjoy this uneven novel’s take on virus outbreaks and secret societies.

Great for fans of: David Koepp's Cold Storage, Richard Preston's The Cobra Event, Mark Terry's The Devil's Pitchfork

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

Click here for more about Factor-7
Tough: Building True Mental, Physical and Emotional Toughness for Success and Fulfillment
Greg Everett
This energizing real-talk guide from Everett (Olympic Weightlifting), an Olympic weightlifting coach, transforms the lofty ideal of toughness into a tangible, easy-to-grasp goal. Everett’s rousing words urge readers to develop four core elements to achieve “true toughness": character, capability, capacity, and commitment. Everett encourages readers “to be capable of feeling what we feel without ever becoming victims of those emotions” while also admonishing followers to clearly differentiate between merely acting and actually being tough.

Helpful “Focal Points” summarize the central views of each chapter—such as “Capability is what allows self-reliance and independence”— and action steps challenge readers to put Everett’s insights into play (“List what you currently depend on others for that you can reasonably learn to do yourself.") Everett draws heavily on his athletic prowess and experience, liberally flexing his sports analogies repertoire (“If we’ve spent the last several years religiously watching boxing or MMA and have never been in a fight, it’s easy to believe ...”) and providing an abundance of training templates, perhaps more than most readers will need. Still, his direct voice and strong, common-sense approach will likely propel sympathetic readers into action.

With a repeated emphasis on staying cool, calm, and collected, Everett teaches preparation for adversity and healthy risk-taking (“the truly tough have the confidence, security in their identities and belief in their values to make the kinds of choices others fear”) while neatly laying out his four Cs in a clear and practical roadmap toward becoming “truly tough.” Everett admirably argues that personal values and identity must match up with life choices, demonstrates that for the truly tough violence must only serve as a last resort, and tasks readers with staying committed to their goals, even in the most drudging of circumstances. Readers hungry for inspiration and straight talk about toughness will find much to savor.

Takeaway: Sports aficionados and self-help fans will find plenty of motivation and advice in this guide to acquiring true toughness.

Great for fans of: Judy Ho’s Stop Self-Sabotage, Damon Zahariades’ The Mental Toughness Handbook

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

An Ätman Visits Planet Earth: 250 million years of evolution
Robert Hallowes Brown
This philosophical, sci-fi-flavored history from Brown, a mechanical engineer, challenges readers to examine human history through the eyes of an outsider. Alien space explorer Horatio is an ätman, a member of an advanced civilization that incorporates software into their biological material. The Superior of the ätmans’ planet, Ragnarök, feels they lack something in their programming, and Horatio returns to his planet after observing the Earth for 250 million years, hoping to fill that void by suggesting an upgrade gleaned from the human example. Much of the book is a dense but concise world history tour; Brown guides readers from the time of the dinosaurs through early man, past such humans as Socrates and Christopher Columbus, to the present time, with discussions of climate change, Covid-19, and the economy.

Brown’s retelling of Earth’s history is meticulous and methodical, and there are some fascinating worldbuilding elements. On Ragnarök, dark matter and dark energy have been cultivated to produce advanced technology such as levitation and rapid ground excavation. All buildings on the alien planet are underground, which preserves its environment. When an ӓtman’s body expires, they use a 3-D printer to make another one and transfer their thought process to their new body. But, while the scrupulous history achieves its goals and these ideas are intriguing, the fictional elements of the plot lack the detail, emotional depth, and tension that would engage sci-fi readers. Insights into Horatio’s attitude about humanity are sparse, not enough to create tension or an emotional connection between the reader and the alien space traveler, and the ätmans’ physical characteristics are hinted at but never fully described, leaving readers unable to picture them clearly.

The book is more focused on scientific and historical meganarratives: when the asteroid hits and destroys the dinosaurs, Horatio asks himself, “Could survivors of the catastrophic even regenerate the abundant life that had existed before the collision? Would the large scaly creatures with long back legs and short front legs be re-established? Or could evolution take another path?” After philosophical and historical discussions, Horatio pitches to the Superior his idea about one very particular attribute that makes humanity worth saving and emulating. Readers looking for an intellectually robust romp through history followed by a philosophical debate about the nature of humanity will enjoy this unusual book.

Takeaway: This melding of history and science fiction will appeal to intellectual, philosophically inclined readers.

Great for fans of: Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, Louisa Hall’s Spark.

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

Click here for more about An Ätman Visits Planet Earth
Listen Mama
M.S.P. Williams
This epistolary coming-of-age memoir follows a resilient protagonist trying to make something of himself without leaving his loved ones behind. In letters addressed to his mother, Selita, Williams recounts facing overwhelming challenges while caring for his brothers, sisters, and mentally ill mother. Over the course of the two decades ending in 2014, he grows from a precocious, TV-obsessed youngster to a determined university student to an exhausted graduate, struggling to provide for his family. The format is diarylike, with letters dated over the whole 19-year period. Williams, called Manny by his family, discusses his early childhood, the hospital accident that left him with severe scarring on his face and head, the sacrifices he makes to help his mother and protect his siblings, his struggles to find a career, his love life, historical and pop culture events. Running through it all is an entertaining and heart-wrenching look at his complex, fraught mother-son relationship with Selita.

The epistolary format provides an incredibly strong sense of character, fully immersing readers in Manny’s story—his upbeat personality, his will to start a better life, and the frustration, sadness, and love in his relationship with Selita. While this lets thoughtful introspection flourish, it can keep readers somewhat distant from the events that form the emotional core of Manny’s experience. Events are mentioned, but not often narrated as scenes and sometimes not discussed for a long time after they occur, so, while Manny is a fully fleshed-out character, the supporting cast, including Selita, can feel flat by comparison.

Another of the memoir’s strengths is its ability to capture the 20-odd years between 1995 and 2014. The entries that discuss albums, basketball players, movies, and historical events (including the election of President Obama—with whom, Manny writes humorously, he shares an obsession with his BlackBerry phone) bring brightness to an occasionally disheartening tale and help immerse the reader in the time period. Not only does this book examine racism, poverty, love, loyalty, and mental illness, but it is a time capsule for the recent past. Readers will be drawn in by this equally devastating and uplifting memoir of a challenging mother-son relationship.

Takeaway: Readers will be drawn in by this equally devastating and uplifting memoir of a challenging mother-son relationship.

Great for fans of: Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life, Ariel Leve's An Abbreviated Life, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy.

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

Click here for more about Listen Mama
The Ascension Within: Becoming Who We Already Are
Robert DeVinck
Theistic rationalist and recovering addict DeVinck (The Pono Principle) offers a somewhat disjointed entreaty to look inward for stability and purpose. Drawing heavily on Christian ideas with some Buhddist inflections, he argues that finding God and truth requires not paths outward but a process of diving deep into oneself. Human differences are only on the surface, he emphasizes, and the world will be more harmonious if people find internal similarities. He builds on these ideas in six chapters each dedicated to a virtue—happiness, peace, goodness, purpose, confidence, and love—and punctuated with mandalalike illustrations that suit the genre.

DeVinck sprinkles in personal stories, from his basic training experience to a tourist trip to Vietnam and being aboard a cruise stuck at sea due to Covid-19. DeVinck parlays some of his darkest moments into powerful examples; he recounts that, for example, hitting rock bottom as an addict paved his way to productive introspection. Some other anecdotes, such as those of his time spent hobnobbing with David Bowie on a transatlantic ship or his friends and family’s long urging to publish his writing, seem included mostly to impress, but his agreeable tone carries the reader along.

This blend of philosophizing and ethical urgings will appeal to Christian-inclined readers who want a taste of mysticism. While the work lacks a clear throughline, each chapter makes its case well enough. DeVinck’s regular quoting of Jordan Peterson will alienate some readers, but those who don’t mind will find musings on timely questions, like how pandemic-related lockdowns might affect human connection long-term, and on perennial ideas such as the damage caused in relationships by needing to be right or how perception can limit our choices. Christian readers who want a personable guide to the long tradition of finding truth, purpose, and meaning by looking inside themselves will enjoy this work.

Takeaway: This introduction to Christian New Age thought is approachable and framed by personal anecdotes.

Great for fans of: Don Miguel Ruiz, Eckhart Tolle.

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

Click here for more about The Ascension Within
One Day Stronger: How One Union Local Saved a Mill and Changed an Industry--and What It Means for American Manufacturing
Thomas M. Nelson
Former Wisconsin State Assemblyman and Outagamie County Executive Nelson delivers a captivating and comprehensive account detailing the plight of American manufacturing company Appleton Coated, a historic paper mill in Wisconsin’s Fox Valley region. Nelson critically examines the circumstances surrounding the sale of Appleton Coated to Industrial Assets Corporation, an industrial scrap dealer, in 2017 and the resulting battle that pitted mill workers and labor unions against large corporations and state politicians.

In the first third of the book, Nelson delves into the political events and corporate policies that caused the 127-year-old paper mill to be put on the auction block. A native of the Fox Valley region, Nelson has unique insight into the town of Combined Locks and the importance of the paper industry to the local economy. In the second part, Nelson skillfully takes readers through the rich 150-year history of paper manufacturing in the region, starting with land conflicts between First Peoples (Outagamie, Iroquois, and Mohican) and European settlers, moving through the roots of the labor movement, and on to the current state of the paper industry.

In the third and final part of the book, Nelson swings into high gear as he details his efforts and those of Appleton Coated CEO Doug Osterberg, CFO Marianne Sterr, and USW Local 2-144, the international labor union that represented Appleton Coated workers. At times, the book reads like a memoir; Nelson narrates courtroom testimony and private conversations related to the legal battle to save the mill. Nelson doesn’t shy away from opining that Governor Scott Walker took a “cynical approach to economic development” and that Republican legislators under Walker’s administration “afforded scant attention let alone resources to the paper workers.” Political biography fans and readers interested in labor movements will both enjoy Nelson’s account in which the underdog prevails.

Takeaway: This combined history and memoir will resonate with centrists, readers interested in labor movements, and political biography fans.

Great for fans of: Michelle Obama’s Becoming, Mona Hana-Attisha’s What the Eyes Don’t See.

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

Click here for more about One Day Stronger
Crisis at Calista Station: Book 2 in The Portal Adventures
Andrew J. Harvey
Harvey’s imaginative second middle grade science-fiction outing (after Trouble on Teral) tells of a group of friends from across the universe and their great escapades on a space station. Thirteen-year-old Tania Martin is used to moving regularly for her mom's job with Malachi Mining, but this move is especially significant: for the first time, she’ll be temporarily living in space on Calista Station. Shortly after arriving, Tania makes friends with Mark Spender, his Terek friend Windracer, and Shr’un, a Hspk. When artificial intelligence throughout the station begins to malfunction, Shr’un’s father, Sh’man K’valth, also disappears. With the help of his father’s portable AI, the group of kids set out to find Sh’man and save themselves from the people behind it all.

Young readers will relate in many ways to the characters Harvey has created and the narration, which is largely from a 13-year-old point of view. Harvey does a great job showing how the characters would view and respond to different situations, often in ways that adults wouldn’t. The group is nicely varied, including kids from multiple planets that are at different levels of learning how to adjust to, maneuver, and live in a zero-gravity environment. Realistically, they also continue to worry about normal kid concerns like getting in trouble with their parents.

What could have been complicated to explain, Harvey makes easy, clearly describing the steps taken and equipment needed to move around in zero-G. The author describes every twist and turn, every movement, and every view in a clear way that makes it easy for young readers to imagine the action. Standout settings include a beautiful garden within a space station that practically beckons readers to join the characters in their playing and relaxing in and around the trees. Although some of the smaller scientific details of how things work will be hard for some young readers to understand, that won’t keep them from engaging with the story. This book will appeal to middle grade sci-fi readers with its blend of mystery and fun, exciting space trip.

Takeaway: This book will appeal to middle grade sci-fi readers with its blend of mystery and fun, exciting space trip.

Great for fans of: Stuart Gibbs’s Space Case, Bruce Coville’s My Teacher Is an Alien series.

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

Click here for more about Crisis at Calista Station
Alessia in Atlantis: The Forbidden Vial
Nathalie Laine
In Laine’s debut middle grade fantasy, Scottish 12-year-old Alessia Cogner is unexpectedly sucked underwater to Atlantis, where she discovers that her family—whom she believes to be dead—hails from the lost city. Alessia is surprised to learn how seamlessly she fits into Atlantide society, from her now-unremarkable pale skin to her grasp of the language. As she becomes more immersed in the city, Alessia begins to seek out information on her parents, even as the elders, including her new guardians Wimmi and Felthor, seem reluctant to share any stories. Alessia soon uncovers secrets that link her family to Atlantis’s tyrannical leader, Emperor Oscor, and the mystical five Sensate Powers—bringing her closer to finding her history, and, in turn, herself.

Though the plot is complex, Laine’s artful ability to tie together every detail keeps it understandable. Each character and event has purpose, with the threads expertly woven together to feel clever, not contrived. Alessia’s support system is no different; her classmate crew-turned good-guy-posse—“the unusual bunch that she was now making her accomplices”—and budding relationship with a mysterious boy, Vulcor, each ultimately aid Alessia in her quest for the truth while also adding sweet and humorous side stories. All the while, Laine crafts picturesque prose (“she felt like a fizzy drink that had just been shaken”) and realistic dialogue, sprinkled with imaginative elements like color-changing clothes and teleportation bubbles.

The book also has a message of acceptance which comes through in both worldbuilding (Wimmi and Felthor are a same-sex couple) and plot: Emperor Oscor believes Atlantis’s indigenous population to be “second-class citizens.” He long ago separated those species, yet, when Alessia befriends a blue person of Minch, she realizes there’s no need for the divide and demonstrates the need for acceptance and equality. Drawn in by Alessia’s determination and empathy, as well as the age-old draw of Atlantis, fantasy readers will be wrapped up in this underwater tale.

Takeaway: Alessia’s magical journey to the lost city of Atlantis and the discovery of her family’s history will enrapture middle grade fantasy readers.

Great for fans of: Shannon Messenger’s Keeper of the Lost Cities series, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, Kali Wallace’s City of Islands.

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

Click here for more about Alessia in Atlantis
A Climate for Death
R. T. Lund
A plane crash, a snowmobile accident, and the coldest Minnesota winter in years are the raw materials for an intricately woven, character-driven detective novel with a big cast. From the moment the plane crash is reported, Sheriff Sam MacDonald faces a complex mystery: Only the dead pilot, with a bullet in his head, is at the crash site, while the flight’s three passengers have gone missing. MacDonald must also piece together the events that led up to a snowmobile accident involving a philanthropist and the young woman college student who appears to be his escort. Dirty dealings and the secrets of ego-driven rich men swirl at the center of the drama.

Lund excels at sketching compelling portraits of his thriller’s sprawling cast, such as Kelly Ann Kinnear, a park ranger with a “fondness for frequent and diverse sexual encounters,” and Special Agent Lance Whitney, a “self-described body builder whose ego was more inflated than his biceps.” As he surveys Lake Superior’s secrets, though, Lund doesn’t always develop his people. His interest in local color, and his dedication to capturing the essence of his North Shore milieu, at times slows the narrative momentum, as A Climate for Death touches on political campaigns, climate change, intelligence agencies, the machinations of energy companies, and the tragic fate of Isle Royale’s wolf population. Lund knows his region cold and takes great pains to reveal it.

The novel builds to a satisfying ending that justifies the title, complete with a whiff of noir fatalism. Still, that large cast and the story’s wide sweep may prove demanding for readers who don’t relish keeping a pen and pad on hand to keep dates, characters, and events straight. Fans of twisty, complex thrillers with a chill in their bones and an interest in how political power shapes our lives and our world should find this title to their liking.

Takeaway: Crime thriller fans will enjoy the intricately woven mystery wrapped in a vastly diverse cast of characters.

Great for fans of: Lin Enger’s Undiscovered Country, William Kent Krueger’s Thunder Bay

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

Click here for more about A Climate for Death
ZODIAC SAGA 2 The Balance of Power
Kaitlyn McKnight
From New York to Seattle, the present to the future, this fun, if messy, sequel to Zodiac Saga 1 takes Lancaster and his gang on a journey to find the Gems in order to help the Elders, the Zodiac gods. But soon after they start, they get severely sidetracked by a series of zany events, such as an unfair trial, crazy weather, silhouette zombies, unhelpful gods and their wily children, and the potential end of the world. By Lancaster’s side are Sofia, Taurus’s daughter; Judas, an undead ghoul; and Peter, the driver. Can Lancaster overcome a constant onslaught of trials and tribulations to uncover the truth about himself, or will the world fall to ruin on his watch?

This is a unique twist on familiar concepts that’s full of humor and personality; the immaturity of the gods is a quirky take on deities. But too many ideas are stuffed in this installment, and not all of them properly flow into each other, leading to an ungrounded patchwork effect. The only goals given are that Lancaster and his team need to “help the Elders” by “finding their gems” (concepts which won’t be clear to readers who haven’t read the previous volume), with no mention of how that would happen, whether there is a time limit, or what the stakes are if they fail. Thus, when the crew shows up in New York and things go awry immediately, it’s unclear how this impacts the larger mission. Also, most of these events do not get resolved by Lancaster, who’s often being called away in his dreams, being left behind by his friends, or leaving his friends behind, thus spending very little time with them and letting seemingly dire circumstances get resolved in the background while he works on his own mission.

Fortunately, between the well-defined smaller stakes, the plot twists, and the breakneck speed, this is an escapade that will certainly keep young readers on their toes. While this novel could use stronger connective tissue, there’s no denying this scramble against constant destruction will be fun for an upper middle grade audience.

Takeaway: Middle grade readers will revel in this quirky, no-holds-barred take on the children-of-gods trope.

Great for fans of: Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, Cindy Lin’s The Twelve.

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

Click here for more about ZODIAC SAGA 2 The Balance of Power
Too Long Ago:: A Childhood Memory, A Vanished World.
David Pietrusza
In this rollicking memoir about growing up Polish Catholic in a small upstate New York town in the 1950s and ’60s, presidential historian and author Pietrusza (1920: The Year of the Six Presidents) shines a light on the quirks and foibles of Amsterdam, N.Y., birthplace of Oscar-winning actor Kirk Douglas. In the tone of a wise old uncle telling well-loved family stories passed down through the ages, the author recounts engaging tales of small-town life, both good and bad, mostly concentrated on the era of his before he headed off to SUNY Albany). Once a carpet-making town with that industry providing a lion’s share of jobs, Amsterdam’s fortunes began to fall after its key employers left the region.

With sardonic charm, Pietrusza makes clear that small-town life retained its considerable appeal, regaling readers with descriptions of whistle-stop visits by presidents such as John F. Kennedy, comically bad small-town baseball games, and a guitar-loving cop. The author’s imaginative prose (“laid out in a particularly haphazard fashion as if dropped from the sky by a drunken engineer”) and self-deprecating humor (“a reaction to the fairly new-fangled wonder drug penicillin turned me blue and came very close to making this the world’s shortest autobiography”) will charm readers.

The author discloses painful family secrets, including a relative’s rape and subsequent stay at a state mental hospital, but largely keeps the narrative optimistic. Without formalized chapters, readers may be hoping for more structural guideposts to aid in comprehension, but Pietrusza’s story-telling skills carry the day. Anyone who has ever thought longingly about days gone by in picture-perfect small towns will devour these enjoyable reminiscences.

Takeaway: Pietrusza’s work is a striking, nostalgic look at the up-and-down fortunes of an evolving town in the 20th century, sure to entice those who long for the “good old days.”

Great for fans of: Earl Hamner’s Spencer’s Mountain, Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana, Bill Geists’ Lake of the Ozarks: My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America.

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

Click here for more about Too Long Ago:
The Lost Signal: Slaves of Zisaida, Book 1
Jennifer Saraí Fernandez Morales
This volume, the first in Fernandez Morales’s Slaves of Zisaida series, tells the story of a group of humans, aliens, and a hybrid rushing to save Earth from a hostile threat. Bill, a member of the Uruklu race, makes contact with a human crew at the Salt Lake Space Force Base. Bill informs the crew that the Creators, the superspecies that created both Uruklu and humans for their own purposes, are coming to re-enslave humanity, and that unity between Uruklu and humans might be Earth’s only hope. Meanwhile, Fiona, a Uruklu-human hybrid, has been kidnapped along with her human neighbors by Kurugar, the increasingly mentally unstable leader of the Uruklu. Fiona is kept as a sort of pet, only alive because of the whims of the leader’s naïve and impetuous sister Inanna. Fiona struggles to keep herself, the love of her life Ralph, and his wife Anya—both human slaves—alive. In the exciting conclusion, these two story lines converge, setting the protagonists up for a war with the Creators.

Surprisingly, despite the themes of slavery and genocide, the tone is often light; the characters are quick to banter and laugh despite the high stakes of impending doom. There are some elements that may leave readers wondering. It’s unclear when the story is set; all readers learn is that the US is a shell of its former self (“a bottom-feeder country)” and the Salt Lake Space Force Base crew is badly scarred but forever united by a previous decision to turn against the American military during a war and save Japanese civilians.

One particular strength in Morales’s worldbuilding lies in the details about the Uruklu; they’re humanoid-ish but have tentacles, go through a tadpole stage and, most importantly they have nervelike tentacles (“neurals”) that allow them to take in information, learn languages, and connect their nervous systems directly to their spaceships, controlling them like limbs. Science fiction fans will enjoy this engaging, well-paced caper and look forward to the sequel.

Takeaway: This engaging story about a group of unlikely heroes trying to save humanity will appeal to sci-fi fans.

Great for fans of: Mike Chen’s A Beginning at the End, Hao Jingfang’s Vagabonds.

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

Click here for more about The Lost Signal
One Vote
J. Stewart Willis
Willis’s (Gestation Seven, One Was Black and One Was White) novel of political wrangling and faithless electors imagines the chaos that could ensue following the death of a president-elect before an inauguration. Democratic President-elect John Hornsby Vickers collapses during a press conference and then, three days after his tightly won victory, dies at George Washington University Hospital. Constitutional turmoil ensues, and the race is on to find a substitute, with the party ultimately settling on Brock Henry, the runner up from that cycle’s primaries. But Chance FitzBourne, one of the party’s 272 electors, proves faithless, and two more may have been bought off and vote Republican. The election gets thrown into the House, which debates a motion declaring that the presidency should be awarded “based on the popular vote received by each Party in the state in last November’s Presidential Election.” True to life, chaos ensues -- and the sitting president refuses to vacate the White House.

Plausible and engaging, One Vote examines its alarming scenario with tension and humor, taking on the Electoral College (one character notes how stupid it is that “People who get a lot of votes in one state can still lose if their opponent squeaks out small majorities in other states”), the choice to nominate a 76 year old with a bad heart, and comparing the machinations of the parties to the process of “selecting heifers to breed.” While fun, the unpolished prose is repetitive and plagued by awkward phrasings and too-frequent typographical errors.

Despite these shortcomings, Willis’ novel offers a cautionary tale worth readers’ attention, especially as Willis convincingly lays out how a candidate could win the popular vote, the electoral college, and still lose the election. “This is serious as hell,” one character notes. Voting is important, and One Vote demonstrates why.

Takeaway: Political junkies should keep an eye out for this cautionary novel about how the death of a president-elect could upset the order of everything.

Great for fans of: Larry Beinhart’s American Hero, Karin Tanabe’s The List

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

Click here for more about One Vote
Elegy to Murder: Medieval Mystery
Priscilla Royal
This well-researched 16th installment in the Medieval Mysteries series follows the murder of a wool merchant in a village near Tyndal Priory. Travelers, returning from a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Walstan, flood the town seeking a place to stay before their journeys home. After a series of violent events—the brutal beating of a carpenter, the murder of a merchant from Norwich—and with the King’s Crowner away catching smugglers, Prioress Eleanor and Brother Thomas begin an investigation with the help of Nute, the innkeeper’s foster son. Meanwhile, the residents of the priory struggle to understand their relationships with God, as they explore the morality of homosexuality, birth control, and calculated dishonesty.

This book stands alone and works well as a one-off, even though the characters are part of a much larger series. Certain plotlines (Brother Thomas’s homosexuality, Prioress’s Eleanor’s move to Tyndal) are mentioned in this installment but are not fully explored; those seeking in-depth backstories may want to start at the series’ beginning. In the first half of this volume, well-developed character studies of village residents get almost as much focus as the mystery, with complex characterization. The second half is lean and quick-moving, more focused on the murder.

The novel’s real triumph is Royal’s steadfast commitment to remaining true to period while crafting dialogue and prose that feel at home in both the 21st century and the 13th. The characters have modern sensibilities, but never don’t seem out of place in the society in which they live. History buffs will appreciate the attention to detail. Readers who are less familiar with medieval history may want to familiarize themselves with some of the basic customs of the time, but the book includes enough context to remain enjoyable for those who are new to the genre. This well-balanced novel, with its blend of fact, fiction, and thrills, will pique readers’ interest in the village and its denizens.

Takeaway: This period thriller will appeal to medieval history buffs and those who like their murder mysteries set in a well-developed context.

Great for fans of: Bernard Knight’s Crowner John series, Ellis Peters’s A Morbid Taste for Bones.

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

Click here for more about Elegy to Murder

Loading...