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Samurai Barber Versus Ninja Hairstylist
Zed Dee
Dee's innovative, fast-moving novel incorporates elements of cyberpunk and wuxia, the Chinese fiction genre following the exploits of honorable martial-arts warriors. Life isn't easy for a samurai barber. For some reason, giving haircuts for free is not very profitable. But the samurai barber does it, and that draws the attention of a group of anarchist ninjas who force haircuts on unwilling participants—haircuts that can change identities and lives, for better or worse. As the Samurai and the Master Ninja pursue each other through the streets of a futuristic cityscape, they are forced to confront their darkest secrets and deepest questions about who holds power and how to create a safe and just world.

An environment filled with anthropomorphic technology (cell phones with names, who yawn and purr and scream), cloned salespeople, and eldritch space monsters is weird enough that supernatural haircutting abilities fit right in. On the surface, this novel could be read as a campy martial arts parody; at a level below that, it is a sharp critique of capitalism and society; and even further down it is a story about two people reckoning with trauma, learning to give and accept love and forgiveness. As in the best dystopias, Dee builds a society that has both futuristic technology and recognizable problems of inequality and exploitation, in which rich people are above the law and everyone else struggles to get by. The Samurai and the Ninja are perfect foils, exemplifying conflicting responses to the same forces.

The fight scenes are described in sharp, direct narration that allows their strangeness and intensity to shine through. The worldbuilding is enhanced by distinctive language choices: sprinkled into the English prose are Mandarin nongendered pronouns for all the characters and Hokkien slang. While the ending offers a sudden influx of new complications without resolving any of them, the ride to get there is a wild one and fully worth it. The Samurai Barber is the hero of a delightfully weird and imaginative story with a surprisingly tender heart.

Takeaway: This distinctive novel will delight fans of genre-blending sci-fi, martial arts stories, and anime.

Great for fans of: Saad Z. Hossain’s The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday, Zen Cho’s The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water.

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

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Curve of the Dragon - Episode 1: Chasing Shadows
Matt Stokes
This first novel in a new series, an international spy thriller set mostly in modern-day Washington, D.C., delivers gripping action and richly detailed conspiracies. A motley and engaging crew of hard-edged operatives and determined amateurs battle Fractal, a mysterious and powerful organization. Will Taylor, a veteran and electronics whiz, is trying to track down his sister Laura, a Navy SEAL turned secret agent who may now be held by Fractal. He pairs up with rogue agent Carter Callahan, a friend of his sister's. In a parallel plot, CIA officer Maia Calderon and MI6 officer Sebastian George also find themselves on Fractal's trail.

Stokes keeps the action at a full boil, with some inventively choreographed fight scenes. The opening chapter builds tension steadily, with an air of quiet menace that leads to a stunning and violent surprise. Elsewhere, the protagonists defend themselves imaginatively with, for example, a cross inside a church and a fire extinguisher. Technothriller fans especially will delight in a plane hijacking accomplished not with a gun, but with a laptop. Occasionally, the plot strains credulity—Fractal agents seem to be brilliant in one scene but are absurdly easy to fool in another—but some suspension of disbelief goes with the territory.

Although the focus is mostly on plot, the author offers some development for his lead character Will. There's a warm flashback scene showing Will with his sister, who's trying to let him know that she's moving into the intelligence world, without breaking her cover: “We’re going through some… changes at work." He and Carter develop an amusing and believable odd couple relationship, while Maia and Sebastian have a tentative flirtation: "Sebastian took Maia’s hand and went to kiss it—But she deftly turned it into a handshake instead." Indeed, the author neatly relieves the violence with a welcome dose of humor: a pair of agents get into an argument over the relative merits of kombucha and wheatgrass. With wit and derring-do, the characters move the plot forward to a cliffhanger conclusion, leaving readers eager for the next installment. Spy thriller fans will relish this one.

Takeaway: Fans of spy thrillers will revel in the original and handsomely staged action scenes while rooting for the engaging characters to persevere against their delightfully evil opponents.

Great for fans of: Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler.

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

C'est La Vie: Such is life...
Melody Saleh
In this third installment of the Unbroken Series (Facade, Deja Vu), Saleh picks up where the second book broke off, in the lives of four close friends each facing different struggles in pursuit of their own version of happily ever after. Cancer-free for six months, Dominque Patterson wants to have a child, despite her doctor’s warnings. After saying yes to the wrong man, Debra Harris is ready to move forward with the right one. Fashion designer Zya faces her fears, and abusive ex, in a child contentious custody battle. Murder conviction overturned, Amber Fiore battles anxiety while trying to discover her stalker’s true identity.

This is a dark story at times, with references to Amber’s rape and Brandy’s quest for revenge. Sexual innuendo and profanity are laced throughout the story, notably in scenes where Brandy is present (“Just think, identical twins, lesbians, sixty-nine, eating each other out. We could have made a mint with a video like that. What would we have named it?”). This is counterbalanced by the sweet bond Zya has with her daughter Ashanti and wife Tina.

Although the cast is large and story lines interconnected, Fiore’s drama takes center stage in this volume. From the first pages, readers are thrust into her murder trial and calamitous relationship with her evil twin sister, Brandy. Readers not familiar with previous installments may have difficulty following events in opening scenes. However, as the story unfolds, readers will quickly become enthralled by the fast-paced plot. Short snippets and texts from the antagonist’s point of view (“I’ll never forget what you did to me—what you did to us. You’re going to pay—I promise you will suffer. Feel safe for now”) add elements of mystery and suspense that will keep readers guessing about the identity of Fiore’s stalker. Full of tension, mystery, and angst, this melodramatic romance is well suited to readers interested in love and redemption.

Takeaway: The third volume in the Unbroken series will draw readers in with its mix of tension, angst, redemption, and love.

Great for fans of: Jennifer Close’s Girls in White Dresses, Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature, Traci Hall’s By The Sea series.

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

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Where Do I Go from Here?
Torrey C. Butler
Butler’s inspirational memoir recounts how he triumphed over obstacles ranging from an absent father and birth defects to academic troubles and periods of homelessness, eventually creating a successful and stable life as a commissioned Navy officer and proud father. His passion for telling his story drives the memoir, as does his belief that everyone’s story matters and that he can be a model to inspire the reader to tell their own. The included photos flesh out the narrative, giving readers a glimpse of Butler’s world growing up.

Even though the details of how he grew up are unique, Butler’s conversational voice makes it easy for readers to connect and even relate. The book encourages and advises readers, focusing on the idea that “anyone can be somebody, but it’s up to you to decide what you will be.” Butler’s discussion of fatherhood is particularly moving. He recounts feeling the absence of his own father deeply, addressing him directly early in the book, and later revisits that lack when describing how he missed his daughter’s birth because he was deployed.

This memoir is much stronger because Butler brings self-awareness to his story. The life he depicts is not one of unending hard work and virtue; he recounts college parties and includes details that depict him in a less-than-completely-positive light, including about the problems that held up his commissioning as a Navy officer. He isn’t claiming to be perfect, simply trying to tell his story. He is clearly eager to share, with honesty and courage, the journey through hardships and struggle that led to his building a successful career and life. Readers looking for triumph over adversity and inspiration to tell their own stories will find both in Butler’s relatable memoir.

Takeaway: Readers looking for a story of triumph over adversity and seeking inspiration in telling their own story will find both in Butler’s relatable memoir.

Great for fans of: Liz Murray’s Breaking Night, Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and Annette Gordon Reed’s Vernon Can Read.

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

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Complicit
Amy Rivers
In the first installment of the Legacy of Silence series, Rivers (All the Broken People) draws on her experiences as a director for the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) in two New Mexico counties and her postgraduate work in forensic criminology. Kate Medina left her career as a forensic psychologist and returned to her hometown of Alamogordo, N. Mex., to work as a school counselor at Centennial High School and care for her father following her mother’s death. Five years after her return, all is not well in Alamogordo; Kate hears from Detective Roman Aguilar, her onetime best friend. A missing student from Centennial has been murdered, and he wants to know whether she has any information about whether it was gang-related. Then Mandy Garcia, one of the students Kate counsels, comes to her for help after being beaten and raped and tips her off about the existence of a sex-trafficking ring. Kate and Roman join forces to investigate. Will they be able to fend off threats from prominent members of the local community—and will they overcome past misunderstandings and acknowledge the romantic spark between them?

Rivers deftly explores not only Kate’s relationship with Roman and the town’s underbelly, but also the relationship between Kate and her sister Tilly. Kate sees herself as the responsible sister for having returned and Tilly as irresponsible. The lifelike arguments that arise from these feelings hint at deeper reasons for Tilly’s rebellious behavior as a teenager and her determination to avoid returning to Alamogordo.

The arrest of a suspect in recent crimes and subsequent sentencing to life in prison in less than a month strains credulity, but the book’s other elements ring true. Kate’s experiences with being followed and sensing that someone is stalking her add suspense. Even as Kate gains clarity about her past and her future, some elements of the conclusion leave questions unanswered (what’s the relationship between Kate’s dad and the people running the sex trafficking ring?), setting up subjects for future installments to explore. This evenly paced, believable series opener will draw readers in and leave them eager for more.

Takeaway: The kickoff to the Legacy of Silence series combines suspense, deep relationships, and a compelling protagonist.

Great for fans of: Diane Chamberlain’s Big Lies in a Small Town, Heather Sunseri’s Truth Is in the Darkness.

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

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Lyrical: Poems that will blow you a kiss or punch you in the stomach
James Strazza
Strazza, a former musician and songwriter, “used to think poetry was stupid.” However, he recounts, as his chronic illness worsened, he became bedridden, and he lost his ability to play music, poetry became an expressive outlet and a refuge from his daily struggles. This collection is divided into five sections: “Blowing Kisses,” about love; “Heartache,” about loss and yearning; “Stomach Pains,” about his experiences with illness; “Heretic,” about controversial elements of our world; and a fifth section of song lyrics, blurring the lines between standard poetry and the poetics of music. Through brutal honesty and beautiful metaphor, Strazza offers countless quotable lines about the human condition: “They say the best art comes from pain, / but that’s incorrect. // The best art comes from honesty; it’s just / that pain has a funny way of making / people very honest.” Interspersed with the poems are a few illustrations by various artists that touch on some of the text's themes.

Strazza’s poetic strength shines in his shortest poems of just a few lines, as these allow his exacting word choice and mastery of rhyme to take center stage. His economy of language and punctuation create a sense of closeness between him and the reader. His past experience as a lyricist is evident in his use of metaphor and rhyme; for example, in “Houseplant:” “i’d bloom in early season / and never be a chore / i’d shine my waxy coating / for no other reason / than for you to adore.” “Houseplant” is just one of many poems in which Strazza personifies objects or animals as a way to envision life outside of his bedroom. He also relies on bodily imagery as a way to explain his thoughts and feelings within the confines of his room.

At the end of this collection, Strazza writes: “if you made it this far / you deserve one more kiss blown. // thank you / for taking my heart / into your home.” Sometimes funny, sometimes emotionally gutting, and always beautiful, Strazza’s poems inspire readers to contemplate the importance of words as vehicles for empathy. Readers and music fans will love this poignant collection of masterfully written poems.

Takeaway: Readers and music fans will love this poignant collection of masterfully written poems.

Great for fans of: Rupi Kaur, Rumi’s The Love Poems of Rumi, Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing.

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

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My Favorite Recipes
Christy Henry Di Leo
Di Leo, an avid home cook, invites readers to savor her family’s favorite dishes in this sprawling, well-photographed collection of more than 125 recipes. The collection’s chief strength is its abundance. From simple, everyday offerings (chicken casserole, macaroni, BLT sandwiches) to heartier, more elaborate fare (whole roast turkey, party dips), Di Leo provides food ideas for every occasion, often steeped in family tradition--a chicken soup is named for Grandma Teresa and a cranberry salad for Grandmother Leona. There are extensive choices here for all the courses of a meal, appetizer, entrée, and sides, and for many diets--vegetarians (asparagus ravioli), meat lovers (prime rib), and seafood aficionados (grilled swordfish) alike. And for those with a sweet tooth, Di Leo’s dessert offerings include 11 types of cookies.

While most of the dishes could best be described as American food, Di Leo also offers Italian fare—including instructions for homemade pasta and marinara sauce-- and her influences vary widely. Recipes are inspired by a variety of cuisines: French (seared beef fillet), Latin American (arroz con pollo), and Southern (buttermilk fried chicken). While this offers cooks plenty of options, the variety and lack of organization diminish the collection’s cohesiveness. Outside of being family favorites, ones Di Leo has cooked many times over, there’s little in the way of shared themes or techniques to the recipes — they require different equipment and skill sets, and they target different flavor palettes.

Instructions and ingredient lists can be vague. Serving sizes are only rarely included, making it hard to gauge portions. The collection’s strongest elements are Di Leo’s personal touches, such as pairing recommendations, or indications of which dishes her family prizes most. Here’s an ambitious collection of disparate dishes, brought together by a woman with a passion for cooking. And, although it’s at times ambiguous, this cookbook dishes up a bounty of possibilities.

Takeaway: This potpourri of family recipes covers a variety of cuisines for home cooks at every skill level.

Great for fans of: Erica Walker’s Favorite Family Recipes: A Year of Favorites, Alex Guarnaschelli’s The Home Cook.

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

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The Unicorn Diet
MK Lorber
Lorber’s high-spirited, eminently reasonable guide to intentional weight loss lands squarely in the category of diet books promising straight talk, offering a crash course in nutrition rather than yet another gimmicky crash diet. Lorber, an optometrist, cheekily acknowledges that she first came to her subject as an amateur—“another exhausted, middle-aged parent who had to figure this out on her own.” But she demonstrates throughout the book both a practical understanding of the science of nutrition and the ability to communicate that understanding with wit and clarity.

Lorber lays out what she’s discovered in crisp, clean prose, always with an eye toward what readers need to know. Her chapters are lean, but marbled with humor and conversational asides. (She apologizes, when working through some relatively complex material, for the text briefly resembling “acronym vomit.”) Her explanations of fat types, antibodies, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (“just a swanky phrase for the amount of energy required for your body to return to baseline after a hard training session”) boast a welcome verve, as does her advice. On exercise, she writes, “Find something you love, or just walk until you do.”

Lorber has tough words for “charlatans and diet companies” who promise readers and consumers more than their latest plans can deliver. The Unicorn Diet argues, in engaging and tightly structured chapters, that a slow and steady approach to intentional weight loss (monitoring calories, changing sleep habits, developing an exercise routine, incorporating these new habits into your sense of self) remains the healthiest path. Dieters seeking a down-to-earth guide will appreciate this one.

Takeaway: This witty, science-backed book persuasively advocates for dieters to take the slow and steady approach.

Great for fans of: Joel Kahn’s The No B.S. Diet, Michael Greger’s How Not To Diet, Glenn Livingston’s Never Binge Again.

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

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Take Me Out To The Ballgame: After These Incidents The Players Were Taken Out Of The Game
Dave Berger
This slim, easy-to-read book thoroughly details a niche part of baseball lore: the freak injury. With long seasons, frequent travel, and demanding game play, baseball players are susceptible to weird and wild accidents, collected here by Berger for reader amusement. The author provides an ample history of all 30 current, and one defunct, baseball teams through the lens of their players’ most intriguing injuries. Notable highlights include a drone repair gone wrong, Guitar Hero overload, animal bites, catastrophic food poisoning, and an oblique injury sustained while fluffing a pillow. Peppered with statistics, fun facts, and occasional personal tidbits about the author’s life, this book is perfect for MLB fans looking to delve into one of the weirder sides of the game.

The account could be slightly more structured. The chapters, each focused on a team, are ordered based on Major League Baseball's divisions, with an alphabetical player index at the back, should readers want to seek out a particular player by name as well as a team index. And entry length and contents vary: some players have extra fun facts, some have photos, some have more than one injury listed at a time, and others have barely anything—merely a very brief sketch. Because many of the entries include information beyond injuries, the book sometimes crosses the line into general facts and figures, somewhat muddling its purpose. It works best when focusing on the freak mishaps, carving out a niche purpose in the world of baseball reference material.

This book is an ode to what makes baseball great—its players’ quirks. Berger’s descriptions impart a sense of the wonder and awe associated with the sport, and he is not only knowledgeable about his topic of choice but clearly inspired by it. Those who are not already baseball fans might find themselves slightly confused by game terms and stadium locations, but any trivia buff will be sucked in by the bizarre anecdotes.

Takeaway: Trivia lovers and sports fans alike will appreciate this thorough compilation of MLB injuries and fun facts.

Great for fans of: Bill O’Neill’s The Great Book of Baseball series, Jamie Frater’s The Ultimate Book of Top Ten Lists.

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

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Tideon: A New Myth
Elizabeth MacDonald
Tideon is a little boy who loves the ocean. He loves it so much that he has been blessed by the goddess Diana to understand the language of the sea. Even though others in the village think it is strange or wrong, Tideon is happiest when he is in the water, chatting with the sea creatures and watched over by his loving mother. Though his mother does not always understand him, she is determined to protect him from the often cruel and uncaring world. But when human forces threaten to take him away from all that he loves, only a miracle can save him.

Sometimes dreamlike and sometimes nightmarish, Bron Williams’s breathtaking illustrations create a powerful vision of a magical world. The watery textures keep the ocean motif at the forefront and show the world through Tideon's eyes. The narration waxes poetic, sometimes to a degree that may make it hard for young readers to follow along. A description of skeletons "fixated, forever gazing at the filigranes of coral reef pluming to reclaim" may be too advanced and abstract for an impatient child who might otherwise prefer to spend their time looking at the pictures.

Fortunately the text often takes backseat to the illustrations, with several pages in a row of immersive images. Even the more text-heavy pages have enough decoration to be visually interesting. Overall the result is beautiful and would make a good challenge for advanced or adventurous picture book readers. It is a good choice for caretakers to read with children, as one of the central themes is a mother's unconditional love for her child who does not fit in. The vivid, imagination-stimulating illustrations and warm story make up for the sometimes flowery prose in this magical picture book.

Takeaway: This story makes for a good read-aloud for older kids and their adults who enjoy mythic tales and beautiful pictures.

Great for fans of: Lon Po Po by Ed Young, Sukey and the Mermaid by Robert D. San Souci.

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

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A Story of Karma: Finding Love and Truth in the Lost Valley of the Himalaya
Michael Schauch
Schauch’s deeply personal, wondrous debut travel memoir begins with mountain climbing but leads to a more profound discovery in a small village in Nepal. Mike Schauch’s love for mountain climbing began at a young age, becoming an undeniable passion that took him, and eventually his wife, Chantal, on trips around the world. The moment he saw a friend’s picture of the mountain he referred to as “the pyramid mountain” in Nepal, he knew this had to be his next climb. Although the trip didn’t go as expected, Mike recounts, it turned out even better than he planned, because they met a bright little girl named Karma and changed the trajectory of all of their lives.

When planning the trip through Nepal, Mike and Chantal put a team together to document their journey and the Lost Valley of Nar Phu, hoping to bring to light its history and culture and the negative impact modernizing could have. What they ended up experiencing and documenting was much more profound. Each village brought different experiences that opened the eyes of all the travelers, all of which is beautifully documented and brought to life by Mike’s powerful, immersive writing and photographs taken by Chantal and photographer Arek.

What begins as a mountain trek turns into a quest to ensure that a smart, curious little girl named Karma and her sister, Pemba, will receive the best possible education that either Nepal or Canada can offer, while continuing to grow in Tibetan Buddhism and never forgetting where they came from. Schauch relays the extensive research, paperwork, and travel he, Chantal, and Karma’s parents undertook, making tangible the dedication all the adults share to a beautiful future for the girls. This story of cross-cultural love and devotion will move readers.

Takeaway: Readers looking for a beautifully written, moving travel memoir will be drawn in by everyone Mike Schauch and his friends meet in Nepal, especially a little girl named Karma.

Great for fans of: Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, Dorje Dolma’s Yak Girl: Growing Up in the Remote Dolpo Region of Nepal.

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

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The Actor
Mharlyn Merritt
Merritt’s slow-burn romance-thriller explores the corrosive effects of celebrity, as a washed-up singer enters a complicated relationship with a world-famous actor. Felicia Lake, better known by the moniker “Babe,” is a thrice-married cinema junkie, visiting London with her best friend, cyberpunk writer Raymond T. Pickles. Pickles introduces Babe to the Actor, known for his onscreen magnetism and violent sexual proclivities. Meanwhile, the paparazzi poke into the mysterious disappearance of Philippe Noiret, the Actor’s onetime assistant and former lover. As Babe gets sucked back into the world of all-consuming fame, she begins to wonder whether her new boyfriend is responsible for Philippe’s demise—and whether she’s next.

Merritt delves into Babe, the Actor, their relationship, and their drug and alcohol abuse. The misfit cast of characters, shoved into the unrelenting spotlight, are unique, raw, and emotionally unstable. There is no shortage of plotlines, side mysteries, and surprise reveals, some of which are dropped, inadequately explored, or awkwardly paced. The first chapter is unconnected to the rest of the action: Babe is fired from a teaching position, visits her brother, and struggles with money, three plot points that are never mentioned again. But the introduction of the Actor establishes a focus and a more consistent tone.

In Babe, Merritt has created a well-developed and compelling main character with a killer voice—funny, sarcastic, quick-witted, and narcissistic. Readers who prefer their thrillers with character depth will enjoy this one, and cinema fans will appreciate references to the films of the ’40s and ’50s; Babe parallels her life with those of classic Hollywood stars, and each chapter begins with a relevant quote from a member of Hollywood’s old guard. Toeing the line between romance and suspense, Merritt successfully probes the darker, violent sides of fame and love.

Takeaway: A missing-persons thriller for movie lovers, this story of Hollywood weirdos living in London is perfect for those curious about the detrimental effects of fame and fortune.

Great for fans of: Adam Shankman and Laura L. Sullivan’s Girl About Town, Stuart Woods’ The Prince of Beverly Hills.

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

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Into the Carpathians: A Journey Through the Heart and History of East Central Europe (Part 2: The Western Mountains)
Alan E. Sparks
Sparks (Dreaming of Wolves) finishes his trilogy of hiking travelogues of Eastern Europe's Carpathian mountains with amusing observations and a wealth of historical detail. Concluding the “Way of the Wolf“ journey with a team tracking various natural predators in the mountains, this final volume is light on wolf sightings but rich in challenging terrain and amusing anecdotes. The team travels through Slovakia, Poland, the Czech Republic, then back through Poland as the author alternates between the cultural history of each region, with vivid descriptions of the local topography, and funny stories about encounters with locals. The attempts made by his group to communicate with locals often comes down to hand signs, and one of his party members laments cultural imperialism's impact on the uniformity of worldwide youth culture. The team's outreach results in a pickup basketball game in the Czech Republic and a dance party in the tiny Polish tourist destination of Jedlina-Zdrój.

There are times when the historical sections ramble or interrupt the travelogue's momentum, especially when a plethora of names and dates are packed in a relatively short space. But readers will appreciate the thoroughness of Sparks’s research, and the way he tells the story of the trip will keep them turning the pages.

The lasting political instability in the region is emphasized in the chapter on Slovakia, when a local interpreter mocks the police after Sparks's car is broken into. He introduces the history of the Lemko people by way of their museum dedicated to Andy Warhol, an ethnic Lemko. The illustrations are a boon: colorful pictures of meticulously crafted wooden churches and the massive Spiš castle bring Sparks's stories to life. The photo of the Skull Chapel of Czermna is a particularly interesting, if gruesome, highlight. Sparks honors his journey and teammates with a thoughtful and historically dense, but still lighthearted, account of their time together, blazing a new trail.

Takeaway: Travelogue fans will appreciate Sparks' deep dive into both a visitor’s view of local cultures and historical research.

Great for fans of: Francis Tapon's The Hidden Europe, James Roberts' The Mountains of Romania: A Guide to Walking in the Carpathian Mountains.

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

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The Travels of ibn Thomas
James Hutson-Wiley
Hutson-Wiley’s follow up to his debut, first in The Sugar Merchant series, follows 12th-century Thoma ibn Thomas, son of an English father and Moor mother. After his father embarks on a dangerous mission to help free Jerusalem from Muslim control, Thoma travels from his home in Eynsham to study medicine in Salermo. Thus begins a series of epic adventures that see him curing Ruggiero of Sicilia and earning the favor of his mother, Adelaide, acting as Regent, escaping pirates and freeing slaves. His quest to discover his father’s fate has him traversing the length and breadth of the Christian and Muslim worlds, healing as he goes.

The author’s extensive historical research adds realism to the novel with depictions of actual historical figures and events. Those unfamiliar with the turmoil and conflict, including wars, between different faiths and cultures in the 12th century, as empires expanded and contracted, may find the plotline challenging to follow. The addition of a glossary at the conclusion, however, helps familiarize readers with the terminology referencing places, religions, and other terms with Latin, Arabic, and Persian origins.

Though Thoma is a 12th-century physician, his internal conflicts and musings about his Muslim origins and subsequent Christian baptism is a conflict that transcends time, providing him with an authentic voice that will resonate with contemporary readers: “There was no escape from my difference. Half Moor, half Christian; half English, half Arab.” As Thoma comes to terms with his religious convictions, he must figure out how to balance his duties as a physician with his vow to discover what happened to his father. These ever-present thoughts form the basis for many of Thoma’s decisions, propelling the plotline swiftly forward as his travels and adventures are highlighted by an undercurrent of mystery and ever-present dangers. This thoughtful, detailed narrative will draw readers in.

Takeaway: A 12th-century physician navigates the dangers of illness and religious battles while searching for clues to his father’s fate in this intriguing novel.

Great for fans of: Dan Jones’s The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God's Holy Warriors, Susan Peek’s Crusader King: A Novel of Baldwin IV and the Crusades.

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

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The Fiddler in the Night
Christian Fennell
Fennell’s debut novel follows 16-year-old Jonathan on an adventure-filled road-trip through the backwoods of America in a desperate search for his missing mother. While living with his parents on the family sheep farm in a small town his ailing father dies. On the night of the wake, his mother goes missing and a gun and truck disappear from the house. Jonathan embarks on an epic quest to find her, unaware of the dangers before him—including a killer close at hand. On his journey, Jonathan meets and falls in love with a young woman escaping her own violent past. The road is filled with strangers and bloodshed, but also love and camaraderie as he encounters others who have likewise been touched by violence.

Fennell describes Jonathan’s journey in evocative, crisp prose. Some passages—“So beautiful. Her hand upon his face. The madness in his eyes dissipating”—read almost like poetry. Jonathan and the group of people he amasses are all fully realized characters with compelling stories. Leonard, the violent criminal pursuing Jonathan, is relentless and frightening. In one scene, he crushes a baby chick’s skull to make a point about culling the weak. All of this creates an eerie, dark atmosphere throughout the book.

Some readers might be put off by the extreme violence, especially as most of that violence is directed towards female characters. The middle section of the book can get repetitive, with Jonathan introducing himself to new allies and repeating his story as he searches for his mother. It is also not clear who certain characters are or why they are being focused on until the final act. When it all comes together, however, the destination is worth the slightly meandering journey. Readers who enjoy coming-of-age road trips and horror tales will enjoy this intense, dark novel.

Takeaway: This dark coming-of-age story will impress readers with its distinctive writing and intense, at times violent, story.

Great for fans of: Randy Kennedy’s Presidio: A Novel, Max Porter’s Lanny.

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

Click here for more about The Fiddler in the Night
The Soul Grows in Darkness
Loren E Pedersen, PhD
Pedersen’s deeply affecting memoir is an elegiac meditation on suffering, adversity, and spirituality. Born partly deaf to neglectful parents in a violent Chicago neighborhood, Pedersen describes grappling with the fallouts of mindless gang brutality and desolation of a postwar world. His formative years are ruefully colored with unforeseen deaths of his loved ones and an unsupportive, turbulent household. The sweet ordinaries of a normal teenage life brush past him as he spirals into angst, hopelessness, and terrifying violence. Then, he recounts, he spent his years as a premed student struggling in a failing marriage and questioning his purpose in the larger scope of human existence. His experiences lead him to a career in psychiatry. He intelligently explores the rotations of grief that inform his insights into organized religions, antiwar movements, and the search for ultimate truth.

This book is many things at once, pivoting from violence, drugs, and distress to spirituality and awakening in a world where loss and pain maintain a formidable stronghold, with meditations on relationships and science. There is an unwavering strength and necessary tenderness in the recounting of Pedersen’s early years, when the people populating his life help redirect the course of his ambitions. The absorbing details and effective prose carry his moving chronicles across decades with dignity and a poignant discernment.

Readers will never encounter a dull moment with Pedersen’s expertly crafted imagery and energetic pacing. It’s no easy task to retain an underlying sense of hope in a narrative that so heavily hinges upon grief and suffering, but the author pulls it off with marked grace and potency. He paints himself not as a pitiable victim of his circumstances, but as an active participant of his life. This affecting memoir is a careful and rewarding examination of outgrowing toxic roots and pushing through difficulties with grit, determination, and introspection.

Takeaway: Pedersen’s gripping autobiographical accounts will encourage readers to find strength and spiritual wisdom in the face of life’s challenges.

Great for fans of: Paul Ornstein and Helen Epstein’s Looking Back: Memoir of a Psychoanalyst, Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am, Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle.

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

Click here for more about The Soul Grows in Darkness

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