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Dutybound: Light Wings Epic Vol. 1
Mark A. Alvarez
When the province of Moz is attacked by a shadowy, demonic force, 18-year-old Lucia Sanoon, high maiden of Moz and sole heir to the governorship, is forced to flee, accompanied by Sir Leocadio Feral, heir to the neighboring province of Pinea. Heeding the advice of a letter left behind by Lucia’s long-missing father, the duo seeks refuge with Leo’s father in Pinea, only to be displaced after another attack. In search of answers, they venture forth to Aldric, the land of scholars, only to learn that they have been caught up in an age-old conflict between darkness and light--and that this new generation must pay for the sins of its predecessors. To save the world, they must uncover the secret of the Light Wings, a powerful artifact passed into Lucia’s safekeeping which grants her amazing powers, at a cost.

Alvarez brings to this epic fantasy an ambitious, philosophical bent, a resonant clash between generations, and a colorful, highly visual aesthetic. That emphasis, though, comes at the expense of deeper worldbuilding and character exploration. As his characters visit interesting locales, Alvarez paints vivid pictures with an eye for detail but neglects the cultural and social details that invited readers to feel invested in a living, breathing setting.

The same can also be said for his characters, who wax poetic about good and evil, light and dark, but never quite feel like real people. Instead, Alvarez uses them to explore his philosophical concern, a spiritually charged struggle between sin and virtue. The juxtaposition of religious and human elements makes for an interesting thematic core but doesn’t quite carry the narrative, which tends to skip quiet moments in favor of action and high drama. A sudden time jump late in the story may even leave readers wondering if they have missed some crucial developments. Still, the premise has potential and the author’s use of color throughout is impressive.

Takeaway: This philosophical fantasy will appeal to readers seeking vivid clashes between light and dark.

Great for fans of: Brent Week’s Lightbringer series, L. E. Modesitt Jr.’s Recluce series.

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

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MOMENT
Robert Abad
Abad’s debut collection of travel photography is a love letter to youth across the globe. Compiled with the help of his own daughters (ages twelve and fourteen), the book includes candid photos of the day-to-day lives of kids all over the world, providing insight into the cultures and people of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Focusing primarily on friend groups, families, and private moments, the collection is an introduction to destinations beyond North America, captured in a series of individual moments. Abad also includes shots of landscapes, temples, cities, and the Great Wall of China, exploring the commonalities and differences among his far-flung destinations, all interspersed with inspirational quotes (from sources like Confucious, Dr. Seuss, and Laura Esquivel).

Abad’s best work is illuminating and memorably composed, offering vivid glimpses into the intimate moments of others’ lives. But the collection offers little in the way of a throughline — in addition to photos of children, there are photos of buildings, cityscapes, and even aerial views. An introduction makes clear that the book is intended to introduce children to new cultures, experiences, and ways of living, inspiring a love of travel and a curious nature in young “trail-blazers, dreamers, and problem-solvers.” In the digital era, of course, people are far more global than ever; children are likely to have seen material similar to the images contained in this book.

The most engaging photographs here offer uncontrived looks at the countries of his travels, suggesting something of the essence of the everyday. Occasional photos of Abad’s own kids add a nice personal touch. His city photography in particular is striking. Abad’s collection combines humane and tender portraits of families, children, and locals with impressive landscape work. For those interested in glimpses of youth culture in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, this offers a welcome point of entry.

Takeaway: This book of travel photography, focusing on children around the world, will appeal to globetrotters and curious kids alike.

Great for fans of: Steve McCurry, Brandon Stanton’s Humans.

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

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Picnic for Parrots
Allison Sojka
In Sojka’s playful storybook, a colorful group of parrots has gathered in the jungle for a picnic. Each bird has brought a dish to share, but Red, the picnic’s host, only wants to eat pineapple cupcakes with kiwi cream icing. Unfortunately, Red is too shy to get up and snag his own treat, so he asks his friend Blue for help. In the middle of her own meal, Blue misunderstands Red, thinking he wants a pineapple cupcake with jellybean icing. When Blue can’t find this type of cake, she whispers to another parrot for assistance, leading to a cute and silly version of the popular children’s game, Telephone.

Children will find some of the parrots’ snacks amusingly gross–cherry breads with roaches, for instance, as well as cantaloupe pudding and cricket cookies. Young kids will also laugh as the birds repeatedly misinterpret each other, as by the time the message reaches the yellow parrot it has gotten garbled into “lime bowl cupcakes topped with chilies and beans.” There’s a good chance this goofy tale will spur a real-life round of Telephone with family or friends, making it an appealing choice for keeping youngsters entertained on long, lazy afternoons. The rhymes are a bit forced or awkward at times (eat/sweets, icing/green), but preschoolers are unlikely to notice.

Sojka’s simple, cheery illustrations rely on simple shapes and do not incorporate much detail or depth. Young children will easily recognize the parrots and their food, but the images are presented without context, with each page utilizing the same vaguely leafy, dark green background. Although parents will appreciate the story’s message about friendship, what matters most is this tale’s sense of fun and whimsy, which will inspire the kids to play their own games and make them want to read the book more than once.

Takeaway: This whimsical storybook about a colorful group of parrots having a picnic offers a playful take on a favorite children’s game.

Great for fans of: Mac Barnett's Telephone, Courtney Dicmas's Harold Finds a Voice.

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

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You Have Your Way
Hannah Larrew
In this eccentric thriller combining elements of the legal and crime genres, Glenn (Friday Calls) reintroduces protagonist Eddie Terrell, a flamboyant trial attorney willing to go to extraordinary means to get justice for his clients-- and presently on the verge of a mid-life crisis. After a bad breakup with his live-in girlfriend, Terrell runs to Montana to escape his personal problems. There, he meets sultry hair stylist Mikey Riewey, and after an exciting night together, he hatches an illegal investment scheme that will ease his boredom, test his skills, and score them both a “good pile of money.”

The story unfolds as Terrell puts into motion complex plans that skirt the law and demand Mikey attempt “some role playing, some being somebody else.” Although well-respected and known for holding high ethical standards, Terrell has no problem navigating between Southern high society and seedy, criminal elements. As the plot grows more complex, Terrell encounters a diverse cast of quirky characters, notably independent insurance investigator, Gigi Faye Erin, and bartender Val, whose speech is “a thesaurus of profane combinations.” The interaction between Terrell and other key characters makes for lively, uniquely Southern dialogue: “She’s seen me get my ass handed to me so many times, it’s got calluses deeper than leather knobs on it.”

Terrell’s personal and relationship problems come across in vivid prose: “Lee Ann had become a frenetic harpy and Eddie had become a workaholic, self-possessed, schizoid, a ducking and diving bastard.” With historical events and knowing references to Chapel Hill, Myrtle Beach, Fort Sumter, and other Carolina landmarks, Glenn crafts a tale that oozes with distinct Southern charm; if the pacing is at times erratic, it mirrors Terrell’s own wandering mind. Still, the spicy dialogue, witty innuendo, and details of Terrell’s scheming and love life will keep readers glued to the final page.

Takeaway: Fans of crime and legal thrillers will savor this novel’s eccentric Southern flavor and an enticing big-score plot.

Great for fans of: John Grisham, Carl Hiaasen, Janet Evanovich.

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

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Star-Spangled Panties
Carol Ann Strickland
Strickland's cheery guide to the superhero Wonder Woman is also an exuberant manifesto about the Amazon’s meaning and depiction. Drawing on decades of DC comics, she carefully explicates the character's origin, friends, powers, love interests, equipment, and enemies in chummy, breezy language. Rather than simply informing the reader of the twists and turns of Wonder Woman's eighty years of existence, she highlights the eras that most faithfully stick to themes of empowerment, discarding everything else. Strickland espouses an ideal version of the character, and one consistent with the thinking of creator William Moulton Marston, as a symbol of feminist empowerment.

Strickland argues that Wonder Woman’s Amazonian training prioritizes peace and personal improvement rather than violence, and that the hidden Amazon society that created the hero should have no connection to the patriarchy. Her tone is unapologetically fannish, sometimes suggesting an insider posting to other diehards rather than a guide for general audiences. Indeed, the prose is at times message-board casual: The writing is digressive, with abundant personal asides, and Strickland gleefully employs internet abbreviations like “imho” and often uses her catchphrase of “nevah happened” when discussing stories and interpretations that she dislikes. That said, she makes many compelling arguments about how inconsistent storytelling has hurt the character and how it’s diminishing to Wonder Woman to depict her enemies as motivated by simple misogyny. (“Ugh. Nope, nope, nope. No misogyny in the Wondie mythos, please.”)

Strickland's passion is clear, and she works hard to persuade readers of the righteousness of her take on the character. In the end, this is a celebration of Wonder Woman's history, but it's also a condemnation of how recent comics as well as movies and television have let the character down. For Strickland, a Wonder Woman who doesn't work hard for her power and fails to present herself as a role model is joyless--and simply cannot be the world's greatest superhero.

Takeaway: Wonder Woman fans will enjoy this highly opinionated take on what makes the Amazon the world’s greatest superhero.

Great for fans of: Jill Lepore's The Secret History Of Wonder Woman, Tim Hanley's Wonder Woman Unbound.

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

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MOON CHILD
Gaby Triana
In this eerie Florida Gothic tale, a young woman finds acceptance and fellowship in a coven of clairvoyant teens, only to question the ultimate purpose behind their rituals. Increasingly uncomfortable with her Cuban-American family’s Catholic faith and the pressure to conform, 18-year-old Valentina “Vale” Callejas rejects a position of leadership in her youth ministry and goes to stay with her half-sister Macy in the small town of Yeehaw Springs. There, a mysterious wolf leads her to a long-abandoned sanitarium, and its inhabitants– a quartet of teens with half-formed psychic powers who welcome her as their anticipated fifth member. As they strive to channel the area’s mystical energy, they tamper with forces beyond their control, opening the door to disaster.

Triana’s tale hovers on the border between dark fantasy and outright horror, drawing upon the creepiness of Florida’s forgotten corners to infuse the setting with a sense of loss, decay, and impending doom. Vale’s struggle to reconcile her wavering faith with a newfound affinity for Tarot and spiritualism makes for a compelling personal arc, especially when it brings her into conflict with family and friends. Triana is careful to balance both sides of these disagreements, encouraging personal exploration while condemning hypocrisy and closed-mindedness. She strongly emphasizes found family, as Vale slowly learns to trust her new friends–a refreshingly diverse group which includes Haitian-American Wilky, non-binary Mori, and lesbian Fae.

Triana skillfully ramps up the tension as her characters explore the sordid history of Sunlake Springs and how it relates to their personal lives. Even Vale discovers a surprising connection, and in a chilling subplot, Wilky confronts a lingering legacy of racism when he uncovers his great-uncle’s fate. The subtle influence of the supernatural on the story becomes more blatant near the end, but the end result is a powerful tale of personal discovery and dark secrets that will appeal to readers looking for an unsettling escape into the unknown.

Takeaway: This dark fantasy blends Florida atmosphere and witchy suspense.

Great for fans of: Hannah Abigail Clarke’s The Scapegracers, Amy Rose Capetta’s The Lost Coast, Shea Ernshaw’s Winterwood.

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

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52 - A Tale of Loneliness
Johnny DePalma
A singular whale with a mysterious tale inspired this contemplative picture book that dives deep into the ocean’s vast beauty and the rewards of a solitary existence. The real-life whale 52 was identified by Navy technicians who were monitoring sound waves in the Pacific Ocean, and detected an unusually high-pitched (52 hertz) whale song that always went unanswered by other whales. Since whales communicate on lower frequencies, 52 was unheard (and thereby invisible), and was eventually called “the loneliest whale in the world.” DePalma (The Raindrop Keeper) skips over this origin story, focusing instead on this pensive creature resigned to living without companionship.

Illustrator Kyle Brown, in his third collaboration with DePalma (after The Night Parade and Krampus: A Holiday Message), opts for expressive personality over species authenticity. 52 is jaunty and soulful (“It’s true I’m happy, / and yet blue.”), with cerulean skin and a white ridged underside that curves into a jutting lower lip. Shifting the whale’s position and features, Brown imbues 52 with an impressive emotional range that perfectly complements the text’s meditative musings. A lighthouse keeper’s poetry serves as an introduction, but young readers could just as easily plunge right into the whale’s point of view.

DePalma makes a repeating motif of “the ocean is a beautiful thing,” and this sentiment is emphasized by Brown’s glorious, textured pastels and watercolors. 52’s environment is full of plant life, rock formations, and other sea creatures, and the light shifts from sharp shafts slicing through water to glowing eddies floating on the dark ocean floor. While happy to someday play with other whales, 52 finds real joy in focused exploration (“There’s more to see when you’re alone”). The winsome, self-aware whale of this “tale of loneliness" will encourage young readers to view isolation as an opportunity to observe and reflect without distraction.

Takeaway: The lonely whale that intrigued scientists and inspired artists offers young readers encouragement to pursue creative alone time.

Great for fans of: Lynne Kelly’s Song for a Whale, Anna Pignataro’s The Heart of a Whale.

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

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CoinciDATE
David R. Low
In this dark, semi-satirical novel, Low explores an utterly depraved exaggeration of hookup culture. Miranda is an employee at CoinciDATE, a shady dating service that, for a price, will stalk anyone’s desired partner. Many who sign up are maladjusted, violent, or struggling to cope with day-to-day existence. As Miranda abandons her morals for a chance at a better life, her clients become more and more desperate. Barry, a self-pitying incel, obsessively pursues (and glorifies) an uninterested acquaintance. Doug, an unfaithful, misogynistic pervert, hires Miranda to follow an underage girl.

With a cast of brutally immoral deviants, and acts of senseless and sexualized violence, the novel is by design no easy read. Upsetting and bleak, the novel focuses on the worst of humanity: pedophiles, stalkers, murderers. It offers readers nobody to champion—even the sympathetic characters take a turn for the awful. Still, the story is suspenseful and fast-paced, with a multi-perspective narration that chops the oft-grotesque material into bite sized pieces. And readers with the stomach for it may find something horrifyingly compelling about watching the characters descend into darkness. From a school shooting in the first chapter, the tone never lets up; Low is upfront about the book’s nature.

There are so many names, places, and plotlines that it can be difficult to keep track of who’s who, and in taking on the depravity of the worst sectors of the internet, such as incel culture, Low runs into the tricky dilemma of how to parody something that is itself already over the top. And sometimes the novel simply goes off the rails: the late addition of a pyramid scheme, an unbelievable deus ex machina, and a touch of science fiction. But for the most part, this is a well-crafted, morally ambiguous, utterly depressing satire, with plenty to say about relationships, loneliness, violence, and misogyny–from the perspective of some truly revolting people.

Takeaway: This grim, violent satire of online hookup culture demands a strong stomach.

Great for fans of: Nick McDonell’s Twelve, Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex 1.

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

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TWO DAYS AND ONE SUITCASE: The True Story of One Family's Choice of Friendship and Goodwill During World War II
Anne E Neuberger and Helen Hannan Parra
Based on a true story, this novel details the horrors of Japanese Internment Camps in the United States through the eyes of a young child. At the tail-end of World War II, twelve-year-old Helen Hannan’s father takes a job as a lawyer with the War Relocation Authority, representing Japanese-Americans who are reentering society after their imprisonment at the hands of the U.S. government. Helen and her siblings are stunned to discover that the camps exist and then horrified by the conditions. Soon, the family is stationed at the Camp Granada War Relocation Center, in Colorado, where Helen is impressed by the resilience and faith of the interned citizens. After the camps close, with the spirit of injustice still in the air, Helen takes it upon herself to document the true conditions of the centers. The result is this lightly fictionalized novel, published nearly 75 years later.

Aimed at young readers, Two Days and One Suitcase frankly explores disturbing aspects of this history (the lack of privacy in the camps, the mandated communal bathrooms, the government’s stripping of safety and sovereignty from its citizens), Neuberger and Parra don’t delve too deeply into the specific atrocities. The result is successful—age appropriate without shying away from the harsh realities. The authors include some overtly educational elements, with many chapters focused on vocabulary expansion, an introduction that lays out the historical basics, and an appendix.

The story follows a young woman’s observations over a short time period, meaning readers should not expect traditional plot progression, and the lack of a distinct beginning, middle, and end may be discouraging to young readers.There is very little in-depth focus on anyone but Helen and her sister–her father’s work, though interesting, remains in the background. But this is a fast-moving, thoughtful book, one that finds a young woman driven to memorialize a blemish on American history—and offering an education to readers today.

Takeaway: This true story, following a young woman’s drive to document injustice at a Japanese internment camp, is a staunch reminder to stand up to prejudice.

Great for fans of: Matt Faulkner’s Gaijin, Barry Denenberg’s The Journal of Ben Uchida.

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

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Good Night Phobos, Good Night Deimos
Tim Baird
This whimsical science fiction picture book parodies the classic Goodnight Moon, following a bedtime routine— this time, of a settler on Mars. Dedicated to the kids on Earth who are “destined to explore beyond our planetary gravity well,” Baird (The Dragon in the Whites) bids good night to some very specific Martian objects: a rover, a tardigrade, a cube of rehydrated meat. With colorful digital illustrations and a cheeky, humorous bent, this book will appeal to aspiring astronauts and their parents alike. Equal parts droll and relaxing, Baird’s scientific riff on an old standby is a nice addition to the nighttime canon.

Despite its early grade length and style, Baird’s language may be too advanced for a young audience. Words like “communicator,” “rehydrated,” “tardigrade,” and “rover” may require some extra explanation, and even the most precocious children (and their parents!) are unlikely to know that a “hab” is an artificial Martian living habitat. But despite (and perhaps because of) the book’s sophistication, Baird also provides a unique educational opportunity for kids interested in space travel. The storyline is simple to follow without being simplistic, and the illustrations provide helpful cartoons of interplanetary settings and items.

Some of the written structure and rhymes in the book are imperfect (for example, iron and Saturn). But the illustrations are colorful, clean, and professional, offering welcome, eye-catching renditions of Martian landscape, many of those complex terms, and the hab’s fascinating interior. The pages without illustration are near blank, which is jarring; if anything, even more emphasis on art would elevate the work. The drawings aren’t always well-integrated into the e-book (some of the landscape style pages are cut off at odd places), but the design on the close-ups is flawless. This is a well-drawn, well-executed, humorous book with a scientific spin, perfect for children interested in space exploration or general STEM.

Takeaway: This update of a beloved bedtime story combines humor, science, and interplanetary travel, perfect for budding astronauts.

Great for fans of: Tony Mitton and Ant Parker’s Roaring Rockets, Clayton Anderson’s Letters from Space.

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

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Fate of the Unwilling
Amy L Wheeler
This twisty psychological thriller and love story—which jumps between Gig Harbor, Washington, and New York City—follows abused amnesiac Daphne as her memory slowly comes back, revealing a dark conspiracy that makes her doubt the motives of everyone she knows, even as the police doubt her. Daphne ends up in the care of Silas Wayland, who appears to have a job in the intelligence community. Silas's brother Max is the detective investigating the case, and the pair share a damaging secret from their past. In fact, everyone has a secret and a backstory, and Daphne's returning knowledge—and records she may have hidden away—remain a threat to people in her still-hidden personal and work lives.

Lee brings to life the many damaged characters with lavish prose: Daphne is described as "relying on the push-up bra and lace panties to build a costume of the confident woman she wanted to be." She does an especially good job with Silas, who is deaf, depicting his disability with humor and sensitivity. The burgeoning love affair between Silas and Daphne, as they attempt to cope with each other's wounds, comes across as real. The bond stands in stark contrast to the relationships Daphne had in her old life. It becomes increasingly clear that she’s now a different person. Not all of the subplots are neatly resolved, and the plotting occasionally relies too much on coincidence. However, the reemergence of Daphne's personality meshes beautifully with the solution to the mystery of her disappearance.

Indeed, it's the merger of plot and personality that gives this mystery its special flavor. Lee springs one surprise after another, leading readers to believe they have a handle on who Daphne is, only to deftly pull the rug from under them. The richly drawn characters—good and bad—all get what they deserve in the end, as the slyly surprising thriller comes to an unexpected yet satisfying conclusion.

Takeaway: Fans of romance and subtle psychological mysteries alike will find much to love in this thriller.

Great for fans of: Gillian Flynn, Mary Higgins Clark.

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

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Pearls of Wisdom from Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeshitz : Torah Giant, Preacher & Kabbalist
Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeshitz
Translated into English for the first time by Rabbi Yacov Barber, this collection makes available to new audiences the thinking of one of the great Torah scholars, the 18th century Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeshitz. The writings are divided into two parts: one focusing on the Torah specifically, and the other exploring more general topics, including Shabbat, exile, and the Messianic Era. Each chapter examines verses in-depth, analyzing language choice, studying potential discrepancies, and artfully answering lingering questions. As a preeminent Halachic authority, a revered Talmudist, Kabbalist, and prolific author, this accessible compendium of Eybeshitz’s work adds fascinating new layers to study for those who are interested in Jewish tradition, Jewish law, and world history.

In the Talmudic tradition, much of this extensive work involves questioning (and subsequently resolving) specific apparent inconsistencies of language and studying apparent abnormalities in texts and holiday traditions (“Why does the Torah use the word walk in connection with mitzvot that are illogical?”). Despite this collection’s appealing title, these teachings are not for those unacquainted with the Talmud or for readers seeking an introduction to Judaism or general spiritual and religious advice. They are complex, and to fully appreciate Eybeshitz’s seforim, readers will need a solid grasp on canonical Jewish thought, specific Torah verses, and modern-day Jewish scholarship.

However, for those who are interested in deep, textual study of the Torah and its teachings, this is a welcome addition to the canon, translated with clarity and coherence. Eybeshitz pulls from a variety of sources and covers topics as widespread as Creation, Shabbat, and the coming of the Messiah with deft, logical prose. The style is in the traditional question-and-answer: In each short section, Eybeshitz poses queries based on earlier commentary or the Torah itself and, several dazzling paragraphs later, arrives at a resolution ready to be considered and debated by scholars of today or centuries from now.

Takeaway: A great Talmudist and Kabbalist of the 18th century, translated into English at last.

Great for fans of: John H. Walton & J. Harvey Walton’s The Lost World of the Torah, Mark Gerson’s The Telling.

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

Birth Order
Audrey Miller
Miller’s engaging debut takes readers on a turbulent ride of secrets and betrayal set against a backdrop of royal intrigue. Clementine Sloane, newly wed to August, the Prince of Wales, is pregnant with twins and due to deliver in a few weeks when a fall launches her into preterm labor and kicks off much subterfuge, all centered around the newly proclaimed Succession to the Crown Act of 2013 that allows for the firstborn male or female child to inherit the throne. When an emergency caesarean section produces an unexpected male twin as the firstborn, Clementine’s childhood friend and obstetrician, Dr. Angela Francis, who has sworn to protect her against all odds, is quickly swept into the conspiracies that threaten her own life and those closest to her.

Clementine, a “beloved, working-class commoner who won the heart of the future King of England,” plays the quintessential fiery princess in this diverting yet somewhat predictable thriller. She is fiercely protective of her children, head over heels in love with her husband, and plagued by the paparazzi, who will stop at nothing to smear her name in the press. Surrounded by a cast of royals who spend their time conniving or even turning to desperate measures to escape blackmail, Clementine and Angela try to navigate the deception surrounding the royal birth — both women suspect that birth order was purposefully reversed in order to put a male on the throne.

Miller exposes the risqué side of the royal family and modern-day London, replete with underground sex clubs, last-ditch efforts to save old family fortunes, and graphic murders. Inevitably, the iron fist of The Corporation (the nickname given to the realm’s decision makers) rules throughout, harshly dictating every detail, from the twins’ names to where they will be raised. Despite tidiness of the ending, Miller’s characters are allowed some panache to add color to the plot of this royal mystery.

Takeaway: Readers who enjoy royal intrigue with a sprinkling of lasciviousness will soak up this thriller.

Great for fans of: Lucinda Riley’s The Royal Secret, Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan’s The Royal We.

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

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MANTIS: Mulhenney & Poole
Steve Pitzel
This violent and riveting noir thriller—second in the Mulhenney & Poole series—follows an investigative reporter and medical examiner in 1968 California on the bloody trail of a killer leaving horrifically maimed bodies in her wake. A parallel story features Alena, a woman with physical disfigurements and psychological damage, and her involvement with a brutal mob family. Meanwhile, the characters face history and the fallout from the assassination of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles. The three women battle their own inner demons as their tasks, and obsessions, bring them toward an explosive finish.

Zell’s fascinating characters will grab readers’ attention. Sara Poole is an especially rich personality, full of startling and yet believable contradictions—a dispassionate scientist who nevertheless is capable of terrifying violence. Deanne Mulhenney is also fully drawn, with an engaging mix of ambition, talent and fear. But the most remarkable is the chilling Alena, who’s given a backstory from the grimmest days of World War II. The various plotlines get a little tangled, and it can be hard to keep track of everyone's motives (including the factions in internal mob wars), but the leads never fail to enthrall.

Zell excels in bold staging, and the frequent scenes of sex and violence are equally lavish. One death has "blood gushing between the fingers he clasped tightly to his throat… Zasha drew a pistol from the waistband of her pants and shot the dying man through the forehead," and a scene between lovers is comparably evocative: she felt "fingers on the back of her thighs, sliding her dress up to her waist...the warmth of her fingers traveled slowly, surely, then deeply inside her." These scenes, like another that walks a fine line between seduction and rape, may offend some readers but pack a serious punch. The engaging cast and their predilection for sumptuously presented sex and violence make this a definite page turner.

Takeaway: Fans of character-driven thrillers with passionate action will revel in Mantis.

Great for fans of: Robert Ludlum, Lee Child.

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

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Welfare Cheese to Fine Caviar: How to Achieve Your Dreams Despite Your Upbringing
THOMAS C WIDEMAN
"Welfare Cheese to Fine Caviar" is an apt title for this stirring, powerful memoir. Wideman takes the reader on a moving rags-to-riches story, as seen through his eyes: He shares his personal life story of starting out in poverty, being raised by a single mother, and eventually enjoying a flourishing career, a beloved wife, and two sons. For Wideman, "riches" came in the form of personal achievements, a successful family life, and the satisfaction of overcoming obstacles and hardships along the way.

"Dear Father, where are You taking me?” Wideman asks at the book’s start. “You started me out in a single-parent home with three younger brothers. Each of my brothers had a different dad. Where was mine?" As that opening suggests, the stories and memories that follow are deeply personal and presented with insight. Wideman edges this memoir toward the realm of business self-help with some interactive elements, such as ending each chapter. In the "Reflection" sections, Wideman breaks down what he hopes readers will take away from the text and presents questions to contemplate; in the "Application" passages, readers are invited to consider how and where they can apply Wideman’s lessons to their own life. "Caviar Time," meanwhile, presents practical exercises, such as standing in the mirror saying affirmations, while "Professional Tidbits" provide pro tips on navigating the business world. Throughout, Wideman showcases his determination to prevail over setbacks or shortcomings, such as being bullied, being judged for his race, or being passed over for opportunities.

Readers looking for inspiration will appreciate Wideman's straightforward account about how adversity only made him push harder to achieve a better life. Though this memoir best suits a younger audience, such as high school or college-aged strivers, the message and motivational language can resonate with older readers, as well, looking to pursue a new career path or achieve a lifelong dream no matter their background or financial circumstance.

Takeaway: This inspirational memoir makes a good gift for young readers with big dreams starting out on their career paths.

Great for fans of: Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here Won't Get You There, James Clear’s Atomic Habits.

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

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Nights of the Moonless Sky: A Tale from the Vijayanagara Empire
N S Vishwanath
Vishwanath's debut novel is a tense political drama set in medieval India. While a war of succession rages across the nation, a similar conflict plays out on a smaller scale at the Madhuvana estate. Lord Rajanna has been killed under suspicious circumstances, and local officials decree that his wives must commit ritual suicide at his funeral. The youngest wife, Aadarshini, refuses to give in and hatches a plan with Rajanna's bodyguard, Azam Khan to escape her demise. As various factions battle over the estate, Aadarshini must gather her allies to outwit a spying priest, find her son, and take back her home.

Exploring the intricacies of the historic empire of Vijayanagara, Vishwanath creates an immersive story filled with vibrant details of daily life, from a message system that stretches across the Empire to traveling theater troupes complete with made-up boys in the role of a monkey army as they perform the Ramayana. Front and center, though, is the drama of succession. Alternating chapters show the perspective of the treacherous priest Prabhakara Swami as he and Aadarshini engage in a deadly game of cat and mouse for control of the estate. Much of the plot depends on near-misses and mistaken identities, which at times stretch credulity–Aadarshini initially seeks Prabhakara Swami for aid, only to pass him unrecognized on the road; Azam Khan delays his journey by a single day and arrives to find his village in ashes. While sometimes over the top, the story generates a compelling tension that will keep readers hooked.

Aadarshini is a captivating protagonist whose growing strength and ruthlessness is tempered by her love for her son and for the bodyguard Azam Khan. Torn between love and duty, the doomed romance brings a tenderness to an otherwise brutal sequence of events. Emotional, tense, and richly detailed, this dramatic thriller presents a microcosm of larger historical events.

Takeaway: Fans of historical political dramas full of powerful women will love Aadarshini's arc as she grows into her fierceness.

Great for fans of: Philippa Gregory’s White Queen, Indu Sundaresan’s The Twentieth Wife.

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

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