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My Epidemic
ANDREW M. FAULK M.D.
Faulk’s debut is a reflective memoir of life as a gay, HIV-positive doctor in the early part of the AIDS epidemic, working with HIV-positive patients in Los Angeles and tending several through their last moments. He gently lifts up a piece of 1980s gay history from a middle-class demographic that has gotten less recent attention than the ballroom and activist communities. Chronological vignettes touch on the vagaries of working in the medical environment, personal and professional relationships, survivor’s guilt, and Faulk’s “certain amount of regret” about his choice to stay closeted and hide his infection for the sake of his career.

Faulk recounts the “individual histories... rich in solace and hope” of patients and friends. His portraits shine with unmitigated warmth and a savvy encapsulation of personalities. His writing pulls together most strongly in its externally focused recurring threads: dinner party friends returning as partners in shared grief; sweet reminiscences of his first husband, Jack; and stories of lavish “goodbye parties” for those choosing self-euthanasia. Faulk’s detailed but measured narratives about caring for the dying never lean in to the sensational or voyeuristic urge. The chapters can be choppy, but the prose is meticulous even as Faulk writes about the emotional and cognitive problems caused by his HIV encephalopathy.

Negative, isolated chapters calling out an embezzling receptionist, lamenting ACT UP’s angry tactics, or disparaging the philosophy of Louise Hay detour distractingly away from the larger message. Retrospective passages that unburden the author of guilt and self-reproach are heavy and awkwardly distancing, as if Faulk is unsure how to invite readers into that emotional space. Notwithstanding the personal framing, the book serves best as an insider’s cultural history of the insular middle-class, urban gay community taking care of itself through a devastating crisis.

Takeaway: Readers curious about the experience of living through the 1980s AIDS crisis will find this memoir enlightening and affecting.

Great for fans of Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On, Larry Kramer’s Reports from the Holocaust.

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

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Okinawa
FX Holden
Holden’s intense second Future War novel (after Bering Strait) is a riveting take on the near future of warfare and global politics, peopled by a large cast of well-written characters. In 1942, Chinese-American soldier John Chen interrogates captured Japanese pilot Tadao Kato. In 2033, Japan and China sign a landmark treaty, and Chen and Kato’s great-grandchildren, Li Chen and Takuya Kato, are both pilots ordered to participate in the first-ever Sino-Japanese joint military exercises. But the supposedly peaceful Operation Red Dove turns deadly when a secret government-funded Chinese hacking group takes control of a DARPA drone and targets American Navy assets on Okinawa. Takuya’s friend Mitsuko, a political radical, may be the only person who can stave off a global war—because the death of her father has just made her Japan’s first empress.

This page-turner is filled with extensive cultural, interpersonal, and tactical detail, from the unspoken meaning in a cup of tea to the military decisions that move battleships. Holden (a pen name for Australian journalist Tim Slee) dispenses with stereotypes and crafts well-defined characters from multiple countries. Particularly memorable are the many richly characterized women, including outspoken, driven Mitsuko; brassy Australian drone pilot Karen “Bunny” O’Hare; conflicted hotshot Li Chen; brilliant hacker Frangipani; and big-hearted 103-year-old gardener Noriko Fukada. The human face they put on the conflict makes each development feel real and evoke powerful emotions.

The crisp dialogue is a pleasure to read and balances the tension with genuine laughs. (“Don’t lose those,” Bunny tells a sonar tech taking custody of her facial piercing jewelry. “I’m both sentimental and violent.”) Readers will be on the edges of their seats as Holden ratchets up the danger to civilians as well as sailors and pilots. This military thriller, which honors servicepeople while strongly questioning the value of war, is both highly enjoyable and deeply thought-provoking.

Takeaway: Any fan of military thrillers will be riveted by this near-future novel that sets Japan, China, and the U.S. at the brink of war.

Great for fans of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need Is Kill, Clive Cussler’s Oregon Files.

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

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Perfect iSland
Sanjay Perera
A political showdown quickly veers into surreal supernatural horror in this gore-tinged political satire. Singapore’s cartoonishly corrupt ruling party (known only as the Party) signs a deal with Satanic forces to zombify citizens through their smartphones. The Party plots to use the screen-addicted “smombies” to create “disturbance and tumult” sufficient to cancel an upcoming general election. Toni, a member of the fledgling opposition Justice Party, and her fiancé, Ben, struggle to survive this conspiracy to turn Singapore into a dictatorship, complete with cloned politicians taking office and an evil corporation pulling the strings.

This uneven novel straddles comedy, horror, and suspense in a way that neatly encapsulates the disorienting experience of living under an authoritarian regime, but the genres aren’t fully integrated. The gore will jar readers who are primarily invested in Ben and Toni’s sweet, faltering relationship, while horror fans will be less than enthralled by a lengthy scene of an undead Dr. Caligari discussing economic theory. More action-oriented readers will be frustrated by the frequent philosophical ruminations on Singaporean history; circular, tangential arguments; an unnecessary digression about Ben’s Jewish heritage and Caligari’s link to the Third Reich; and complaints about smartphones.

Perera has a skilled hand with imagery—a smoker’s ceiling is stained “as if spiders had run into a vat of nicotine and wriggled in a dance of death,” and there are loving descriptions of juicy oranges and tapered fingers—but sometimes he defaults to the deeply obvious: “He read the sign that welcomed all visitors to Singapore. ‘Welcome to Singapore’, it said, in large black letters.” His moments of true eloquence may keep readers going through the detours that gradually subsume the central plot.

Takeaway: Readers familiar with Singaporean daily life and politics will get the most from this gore-splashed yet philosophical satire.

Great for fans of Tony Burgess’s People Live Still in Cashtown Corners, Gretchen McNeil’s #Murdertrending.

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

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Runes for Writers: Boost Your Creativity and Destroy Writer's Block
Marc Graham
Novelist Graham (Of Ashes and Dust) empowers stuck writers with this eclectic cross between a collection of story prompts and a New Age self-help book. Invoking the author as “a shaman, a wizard, a mage,” Graham focuses on breaking writer’s block and developing and fixing works of fiction through divination with Elder Futhark runes, which have their origins in second-century CE Scandinavia. Graham, observing that intuition is central to both writing and divination, suggests that the latter can inspire the former. After explaining the meanings of the symbols and how to apply them to storytelling, he ably leads readers through several rune-casting layouts (similar to tarot card spreads).

Graham counsels that this method is only for experienced writers, but anyone with an open mind can experiment with it, and Graham’s detailed layouts are well illustrated and easy to follow. He provides layouts designed for character development and story challenges, plot, theme, and escaping from writer’s block, among others. Each rune is given an open-ended interpretation (e.g., “Thurisaz reversed may also suggest that your character is not respecting boundaries of others”) that will easily get creative juices flowing. Graham also includes a short story that shows the process in action.

Graham maintains a sincere, empathetic tone throughout, treating the reader as a fellow traveler on the sometimes harrowing road of the creative process and encouraging a playful, flexible approach to rune-casting. At times he goes a bit overboard with his love of all things Norse (he’s unable to mention the concept of karma without calling it “an Indo-European cousin to the Norse mindset”) but his enthusiasm is endearing. This quirky and intriguing work will appeal to open-minded writers willing to look at their craft in a New Age light.

Takeaway: Fiction writers looking to engage their intuition will enjoy exploring this guide to story development through divination with runes.

Great for fans of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, Corrine Kenner’s Astrology for Writers.

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

Embracing the Abyss
John Smith
Smith’s first-person account of his involvement in the savings and loan (S&L) scandal of the 1980s is a fascinating look at the how and why of the crisis. Smith started his career at Dondi Group, a Texas start-up real estate company run by Don Dixon. The company acquired Vernon Savings and Loan, and Smith worked his way up to COO. Encouraged by deregulation and a corrupt environment, Dixon used fraudulent loans to fund a lavish lifestyle. Vernon was a house of cards, and when it started to fall in 1986, Smith resigned. The Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. soon sued Smith and seven other Vernon officers. Smith pleaded guilty to a felony charge, cooperated with investigators, and was later pardoned by President George W. Bush.

The book wavers between navel-gazing memoir and true-crime account without successfully meshing the two. With laconic prose, Smith paints a vivid picture of Texas in the 1980s, recalling, “Dixon remarked that the three of us had mustaches, so I should fit in well.” He occasionally overindulges in recounting his own problems, shortcomings, and insecurities. “I was stricken with a total lack of vision about what was going to happen,” he writes. His earnest claims of having been only a bean counter are supported when an FBI agent tells him he should never have been prosecuted and encourages him to apply for a presidential pardon.

The topic is enthralling and Smith thoroughly explains the S&L business. He uses appendices as extended endnotes; readers who wish the narrative spent more time on the details of Vernon’s malfeasance will be glad to find the nitty-gritty in the back of the book. The wealth of information in this short work will be fascinating and educational for anyone interested in the S&L crisis and the culture that made it possible.

Takeaway: Readers looking for a memorable white-collar true crime tale will relish this enlightening memoir of the 1980s S&L scandal.

Great for fans of Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker, Richard Stratton’s Smuggler’s Blues.

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

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Zero Percenters
Scott T. Grusky
Grusky’s mystical novel dreams of technological liberation from the flesh. In 2024, while Anja Lapin is on a solo wilderness trip, her father, the CEO of technology company 5s2, is murdered along with a research team that’s working on digitizing consciousness. The 5s2 board publishes the team’s discoveries to spite the assassins, and within five weeks, all eight million humans have uploaded themselves into solar-powered artificial bodies that can take any form. Anja is stunned to return from her trip and find a changed world. She grieves for her father and is disconcerted and intrigued by digitization. Guided by her AI personal assistant, Vicia, she interviews people about the benefits of transcending corporeality while debating whether to abandon her own body.

Readers will get the most from approaching this story as a parable of how the physical realm can inhibit the quest for enlightenment, rather than as a science fiction novel about the social ramifications of technological advances. Grusky doesn’t explore the challenging ethical edge cases of digitization, examine why AIs are content to be servants, or describe how religious objections or international conflicts were overcome in five weeks. Instead, he crafts a fanciful vision of human society without physical needs or limitations: no money, no pollution, no borders, frequent self-reinvention, universal participation in hours-long chanting circles, spiritual and psychological freedom.

Characterization is scant; Anja, Vicia, and other characters primarily exist to generate musings about consciousness and explicate this posthuman utopia. The story is leisurely, with many scenes taking place in peaceful natural settings and exploring metaphysical concepts. “Only consciousness was real,” Anja thinks as she meditates on a mountaintop. This is the ultimate fantasy for those who cherish the hope of no-cost universal interconnectedness and peace.

Takeaway: Transcendence-seekers will sink blissfully into this fable of how technological liberation from the flesh might lead to mass enlightenment.

Great for fans of Richard Bach, Herman Hesse.

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

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Ivory Tower
Grant Matthew Jenkins
Jenkins’s enjoyable debut follows a film professor as she uncovers a sex scandal within a Southern university’s football program. Margolis Santos (“It’s pronounced Margo-lee,” she tells Ford, the naive community college student she’s sleeping with) teaches television and film at Athens University, where her estranged husband, Frank Sinoro, is the head football coach. When Stephanie, a Delta Delta Theta sorority member, is gang-raped by football players, Theta sister Emma begs Margolis to collaborate with her on a film about how the Thetas were paid to have sex with football recruits. At first Margolis refuses to rock the boat, but after she is fired over her relationship with Ford and her marriage ends, she has little to lose. As she and Emma work on the film, they discover that the corruption at Athens is linked to the highest levels of the university administration, and those seeking to stop Margolis’s investigation won’t hesitate to threaten her.

The author expertly develops Margolis’s character and shows her evolution from a self-absorbed snob into a sympathetic crusader for traumatized young women. Readers will appreciate Jenkins’s insightful view of the feelings experienced by the women in the sorority house as they come to terms with their reasons for accepting payment for sex (including unreasonably high tuition and sorority fees) and realize they have been victimized. The chilling rape scene is not overly explicit, but it clearly reveals the brutality of the assault and its devastating effects.

Jenkins frames scenes with film terms such as “fade in” and “we open on,” a gimmick that detracts from the flow of the story. Nuanced characterizations do much more to keep the reader hooked, including Emma’s conflicting feelings about her sexuality, Margolis’s determination to keep her teen daughter safe, and assistant coach Eggy chasing her ambition even when it comes at the expense of her morals. This is an engrossing, evenly paced drama about how a woman lost in her own world discovers a real sense of purpose in helping other women.

Takeaway: Suspense fans with an interest in current events will thrill to this riveting, insightful deep dive into corruption at an elite university.

Great for fans of Jodi Picoult, Chris Bohjalian.

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

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Daughters of Nyx
Diane Bonavist
Bonavist (Purged by Fire) sets her brisk historical murder mystery at a tense moment in the Peloponnesian Wars. When Athenian citizen Timarcus learns that his father has died, he asks his childhood sweetheart, Kore—a priestess of Artemis and “a fawn, yet a warrior”—to marry him now that his father can’t stop them. She refuses, citing her obligation to the goddess. Timarcus is devastated to learn, days later, of her death. When he journeys to her temple in Brauron to recover a trinket he gave her, he learns there are suspicions she was poisoned. His lonely, secretive quest to discover the motive and culprit brings him into fierce conflict with his loyal slave, Zeno, who is about to earn freedom; his uptight sister, Lachesis; and the powerful general Cleon, whom Lachesis once loved.

Bonavist immerses readers in ancient Greece with cultural and historical tidbits that are subtly woven in without feeling stilted. Her inclusion of genuine belief in Greek gods and Timarcus’s fear of a painful afterlife for Kore are especially welcome motivators of character action. She also captures Timarcus’s grief in delicate complexity as he veers from total dejection and disbelief to violent rage. Other emotions, including Zeno’s complex feelings for Timarcus, add more layers to the story.

The side plots, including worries over the safety of Timarcus’s nephew on the politically unstable isle of Lesbos, and minor characters, such as the grumpy cook and her jittery son, make for some confusing digressions, but most of these threads combine in the shocking conclusion. Even with these bumps, the propulsive story holds the reader’s interest all the way to the end. Readers will enjoy following Timarcus through the puzzles in this deeply researched historical.

Takeaway: Fans of classical settings and amateur investigators will savor this fully realized ancient Greek mystery and its resonant portrayal of grief.

Great for fans of Madeline Miller, Margaret Doody, Gary Corby.

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

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Staying In The Game
melih akkurt
Red’s confusing espionage novella largely focuses on Galina, a spy from a Russian agency known as SVR, and her damaged relationships. After a baffling and discomfiting beginning in which Galina uses sex to infect an American senator’s son with a mysterious illness, the direction of the story changes several times. Galina wants to quit SVR and have a baby, so she tricks disgraced politician Denis into getting her pregnant, later marrying him. Then she uses her pregnancy in a scheme against another man, Doruk, for whom she harbors complicated feelings (“Her love was as big as her hatred. She loved him as much as she hated him”) for unclear reasons. Doruk didn’t want a child with Galina, but when she tells him he’s the father of her baby, his reactions range from wanting her to end the pregnancy to being jealous of Denis for marrying her.

The meandering story, which is full of flashbacks and digressions, makes it difficult to get attached to the characters, though it does give a hint of how disorienting it is to work for SVR. Adding to the confusion, many conversational scenes consist solely of choppy dialogue without attribution, emotion, or context: “Care for some coffee?” “Wait, let’s get it together.” “I’ll bring you right away with my phone.” “With your phone?” “I’m going to explain.” (No explanation follows.) A subplot about Denis being accused of molesting a child involves so many double-crosses that readers may be uncertain of the truth, even after Denis is publicly exonerated.

Scenes from Galina’s perspective are sprinkled with literary quotes that have little connection to the story; Galina also speaks in quotations, to the annoyance of other characters. The pace is slowed by pages of detail about purchasing guns and the personal history of an unimportant side character, Inga. The already disjointed storyline is increasingly lost under the extra words, and it never reaches a conclusion. Though billed as a thriller, this labyrinthine story is primarily a window into an unusual woman’s difficult life.

Takeaway: Red’s labyrinthine novella tangles the reader in a woman’s attempts to escape her life in a Russian spy agency.

Great for fans of Charles Cumming’s A Divided Spy.

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

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Fearsome Destiny: Brothers and Sisters
Joseph Amiel
Amiel’s creative Fearsome Destiny young adult series launch is a grab bag of history, dimensional travel, teen drama, and suspense. Gallin and Alexine, two modern-day 17-year-olds, are stalked and trapped by an assassin. Then a device given to Gallin by his guardian (previously slain by the same assassin) whisks them to 1776 London on the planet Eratha, a 1984-style dystopia where members of the Noblic class secretly fly in stealth aircraft and manipulate the populace through television while medievalesque peasants farm with oxen. Gallin and Alexine discover they are the identical twins of Prince Ro-Gall and his fiancée, Ra-Alex, and were sent to Earth as newborns because of a law requiring Noblic younger twins to be killed. The clever teens, recalling what they learned about medieval law, claim to be the older twins and demand a trial by combat to prove that they are in the right. They manipulate the evil King Groghor into holding the event in Eratha’s Philadelphia, where revolution is brewing and the Noblics hold little sway.

Science fiction combines with a juiced-up history lesson in this peculiar but charming novel. Students of history will enjoy rummaging through the pile of cultural references and spotting differences between Earth and Eratha: on the latter, the Venus de Milo’s arms remain intact, and, instead of the mad king George, the even more tyrannical Groghor rules an England threatened by global warming and wealth inequality.

It’s fun to cheer on Gallin and Alexine as they snipe at their obnoxious siblings (“You may be marrying the prince someday,” Alexine says to Ra-Alex, “but I’m willing to bet you’re about as popular around here as head lice”) and embark on intensive combat training while discovering psychic powers, though characterization is limited to what will drive the plot. The book’s clunky elements are balanced by combat in anti-gravity belts, the wacky machinations of the king and his enablers, and the leads’ interactions with Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.

Takeaway: A spoonful of suspenseful science fiction makes this YA American Revolution history lesson go down smoothly.

Great for fans of Jasper Fforde, Gail Carriger.

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

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Girl with a Future
Parker Ames
Ames’s immersive debut follows a young woman’s coming-of-age journey in the 1990s. Angie Cohen lives in the small Canadian town of Aurora and is only 17 when her father dies from cancer. Though she is an accomplished swimmer and receives offers for scholarships at prestigious colleges, she decides to tour Europe using proceeds from the sale of her father’s coffee service business. While in Paris, Angie falls under the spell of Dominick, a mercurial painter with whom she has a volatile relationship. Once she returns home, Angie goes to university, but she’s lost her academic ambition, and her grades plummet while her drinking gets worse. After a man drugs her and tries to rape her, she moves to Vancouver, enrolling in another school part-time. There she turns a corner with the help of Samuel, a laid-back yoga instructor who genuinely cares about her.

Angie is a magnetic protagonist whose journey of self-discovery is enhanced by her ability to achieve success when she decides to singularly focus on goals such as improving her swimming or helping Dominick win artistic acclaim. In unvarnished, often evocative prose (“She popped back awake and rolled her window down halfway and drove with the cold air breathing energy back into her face”), Ames highlights how the ups and downs of Angie’s life stem from her decisions—driving drunk, terminating a pregnancy, leaving town—and her relationships with a variety of friends, lovers, and strangers who can be kind, cruel, or distant.

The novel ends abruptly on the fourth anniversary of Angie’s father’s death as Angie prepares to open a new chapter in her life. After following Angie through so many trials, readers may want more certainty that she will really find happiness; it’s too easy to read this hopeful moment as another risk that could end well or badly. Despite this sharp cut-off, fans of coming-of-age novels will warm to Angie’s journey and hope that a future installment will see her comfortably settled at last.

Takeaway: This evocative story of four years in a young woman’s life will grip readers looking for a nuanced tale of choices and consequences.

Great for fans of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing.

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

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Hundred Percent Chance
Robert K. Brown
Brown takes a dispassionate, unflinching look back at his cancer diagnosis at age 20 in this no-holds-barred medical memoir. In early 1990, Brown, a college student enjoying a semester abroad in England, went to the school infirmary with troubling symptoms. Diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a fast-moving bone disease, Brown returned home to Seattle in a fragile state. College classes gave way to hospital stays as Brown struggled through a months-long ordeal of chemotherapy, infections, fevers, and low white blood cell counts. As he endured the treatments, he kept in mind his oncologist’s words about his odds of surviving: “You either survive or you don’t.... One day at a time, Robert, you have a hundred percent chance.” It was a philosophy Brown embraced even as he faced unexpected complications.

Brown frequently strays into medical minutiae, but it’s clear that his knowledge of clinical terms is hard-won, and readers who are personally familiar with AML will nod along. It’s surprisingly easy to walk the hospital corridors with Brown as he recounts adjusting to his new situation, often interjecting unexpected humor into the dreariness of his grueling medical marathon. He thoroughly evokes the curious mix of tedium and terror that is the life of an oncology patient.

Even three decades after his diagnosis, Brown’s perspective remains entirely about survival, without time or energy to seek meaning in illness or look beyond the personal. There are few references to his illness’s effect on his family or the difference health insurance made to his situation, and anyone looking for deep insights into how surviving cancer changes one’s approach to life should look elsewhere. Brown’s clear-cut prose and chronological storytelling keep the focus on the circumstances of his diagnosis and treatment, making his memoir truly a patient’s tale.

Takeaway: Cancer patients and their families will appreciate how Brown’s memoir highlights the stark reality of battling leukemia and the extraordinary determination to survive.

Great for fans ofWhen Breath Becomes Air.

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

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Imaginative Communities
Robert Govers
Govers (Place Branding) uses clear, readable language to construct this brief, insightful, and optimistic guide for physical communities looking to construct identities and boost their reputations. Paris is known for romance and Rio de Janeiro for partying; now, Govers writes, globalization is creating an economic need for other cities and communities around the world to foster proud global images—particularly those that embrace geography, history, and “moral virtue” over “nationalism, religion, or power.” He advises communities to create a sense of belonging and accomplishment for both residents and visitors by being bold and innovative rather than copying what other communities do or relying on stereotypes.

Blending social anthropology and psychology into this analysis of urban branding, Govers touts dramatic ideas that he feels are worth the cost and challenges of implementation. He asserts that communities must reject traditional media campaigns and instead use modern technological tools, citing augmented-reality phone apps that create projections of the Berlin Wall and Rome’s Coliseum in its heyday. He also advises thinking in terms of time as well as space, highlighting Oslo’s Future Library, a century-spanning literary project.

Govers shines when providing examples of imaginative initiatives, including Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Commission, Estonia’s invention of Skype and declaration that internet access is a human right, and Dubai’s palm-shaped artificial islands. Examples from South America and Africa are conspicuously lacking, and minimally useful tables and graphs intrude on the otherwise gripping descriptions of communities engaging with international audiences by communicating their values across different cultures and lifestyles. But this book will thrill municipal leaders, city planners, globalists, and sociologists with practical steps for implementing creative ideas that will invigorate community spirit and bring in tourist dollars.

Takeaway: Community leaders, city planners, and policy makers will appreciate these practical guidelines for implementing projects that build and communicate community identity.

Great for fans of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Bill Baker’s Place Branding for Small Cities, Regions, and Downtowns.

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

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Of Epidemic Proportions, Expanded Edition, 2019
Sylvia R. Karasu, MD
In this expanded edition of her 2018 essay collection, Karasu (The Gravity of Weight: A Clinical Guide to Weight Loss and Maintenance), a clinical professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine, authoritatively examines the fraught topic of body weight. In 100 concise and meticulously researched essays drawn from her blog, The Gravity of Weight, she exhaustively tackles topics related to every aspect of weight, including bariatric surgery, cellulite, the famed “freshman 15,” and the relationship between depression and binge eating.

Sometimes Karasu overreaches on social issues—as when she lists a number of situations in which obese people face discrimination but then says voters assessing candidates for higher office “certainly should [take obesity] into consideration” (though “the situation is clearly a complex one”)—but her grasp of the latest science is strong, and she explains factual findings well. Readers will be intrigued by her writing on discoveries such as irisin, a hormone found in skeletal muscle that may benefit those with conditions that preclude exercise. Her examinations of how circadian rhythms and sleep deprivation affect weight are especially fascinating. She often refers to publications by year alone, or even with vague phrases such as “several years ago”; full citations would be helpful for those who want to use her brief overviews as jumping-off points for further research.

Karasu adds visual appeal with lavish illustrations (most from before the 20th century, going back to illuminations from medieval manuscripts). Her expertly crafted writing is ideal for academics already grounded in the topic (language such as “epigenetic modifications can be reversible or stable, as well as occur randomly or induced by changes in the environment” is ubiquitous) and the book is well suited to classroom and library use.

Takeaway: This scrupulously researched collection of essays on the latest science around obesity is perfect for an academic audience.

Great for fans of Perri Klass, Morgan Spurlock.

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

Water is Wider
Marie Green McKeon
In McKeon’s thoughtful but sometimes implausible second novel (after A Balm in Gilead), a runaway in search of her missing father forms a tight bond with a meek middle-aged woman whose life is slowly imploding. Though the two don’t meet until nearly halfway through, their stories move in restless tandem until Sidney O’Neill discovers 11-year-old Phoebe Locke hiding in her suburban Pennsylvania home. Sidney, a proofreader and self-described spinster, is stuck in a rut; she wears ill-fitting 20-year-old pants and eats lunch with women she doesn’t like. Her mother, Agatha, called all the shots, and after Agatha dies, her voice remains in Sidney’s head. Cowed even by young Phoebe, Sidney decides to let the girl stay with her. Meanwhile, Phoebe’s stepmother, Adele, is shaken by fear and self-recrimination over Phoebe’s absence.

McKeon creates strong empathy for Phoebe, Sidney, and Adele, powerfully exploring mother-daughter dynamics at varying stages of life. The characters aren’t entirely believable, though: Phoebe is preternaturally quick on her feet, while Sidney hasn’t noticed that pay phones have all but disappeared. Sidney’s behavior with J.T., her increasingly paranoid and disturbed colleague at the failing Poppy Press, exhibits such poor judgment as to fail the credibility test. McKeon provides some backstory for J.T.’s downward mental spiral and rants about the IRS and terrorists, but that doesn’t explain why Sidney finds him “mesmerizing” and is willing to tolerate his uninvited, unwanted intrusions into her life even after realizing he might be genuinely dangerous.

Some of the story’s pivotal moments hinge on obvious contrivances: Sidney’s decision not to call Adele and send Phoebe home, Adele’s unwillingness to tell Phoebe why her father abandoned the family, and the menacing reappearance after 50 years of Sidney’s father. These flaws aren’t fatal, but they reduce the story’s emotional impact. McKeon’s novel is at its strongest when it puts chosen and blood families under the microscope.

Takeaway: This exploration of mother-daughter relationships, biological and otherwise, will resonate with readers of women’s fiction.

Great for fans of Jodi Picoult, Kristin Hannah, Luanne Rice.

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

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Climbing Higher: Answering the Big Questions
Robert Wheeler
Wheeler’s engrossing book is part mountain-climbing memoir and part philosophical treatise. In simple prose and with an ebullient sense of curiosity about the world, Wheeler describes his experiences climbing mountains in minute detail, pairing these recollections with broad, sweeping attempts at synthesizing thousands of years of ontology, religion, psychology, and neurological studies. The book centers on what Wheeler identifies as the “ontological imperative,” which he defines as the human need to strive for difficult goals and face the unknown—an urge for which mountain-climbing is the perfect metaphor, as it tests the climber physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Starting with his climb of Japan’s Mount Fuji, a narrative of each climb (illustrated with Wheeler’s own lovely photos) ties into one of the philosophical concepts he introduces, such as awe, a sublime appreciation of beauty that he feels surveying the view from Mount Aconcagua in Argentina. Wheeler is especially interested in mountains that are considered to be sacred spaces and maintains a strong awareness of the mystical experience that can accompany the physical experience of climbing. He doesn’t preach; rather, this is an undogmatic exploration of ideas that have drawn and driven him for over 80 years.

The history of human consciousness and motivation is a huge topic, but Wheeler successfully breaks down these complex ideas with clear summaries, sometimes slightly oversimplifying. If his mountain-climbing memories ramble a bit at times, his writing style is so pleasant and inviting that it doesn’t matter much, and readers here for the joy and musings can easily skip the dry appendices of psychology research. The alternation between Wheeler’s personal experiences and his philosophical theories keeps the book lively and readable. This book is a conversation, both with himself and the reader, and through a willingness to reach out and ask questions he is able to come to a few tentative conclusions while bringing the reader on a purely delightful journey.

Takeaway: Readers interested in both physicality and philosophy will savor Wheeler’s blend of climbing memoir and quest for the meaning of life.

Great for fans of Climbing: Philosophy for Everyone, edited by Stephen E. Schmid; John Kaag’s Hiking with Nietzsche: Becoming Who You Are.

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

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