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The Pawns: Book Two of The Bucharest Witches
Ron Gabriel
Gabriel’s second installment in The Bucharest Witches contemporary urban horror series picks up four years after The Banished, with Bucharest-based witch and psychologist Travis Coman fighting the forces of evil in Eastern Europe and New England. Travis has created a crystal ball-like orb that extracts people’s fears and anxiety and transfers that emotional energy to power his magic. He tests the orb on two patients—Andrei, a young boy who has bruises and is easily distracted, and nursing home resident Marku, who is tortured by guilt and shame—and encourages them to lay bare their pasts because “[s]haring releases torment that’s toxic while it’s bottled up.”

But there’s a catch. Soon, a gruesome death reveals that the orb unexpectedly creates a conduit through which the devil can possess the hapless patients. Meanwhile, Travis’s testing tactics also extend to Stefan, Andrei’s overprotective father who hints that he harbors a secret past. Fans of horror and the occult will enjoy this urban adventure with magical battles, an intricate mystery, and travels around the world. Gabriel focuses this second installment on Travis’s clash with the witch coven that considers him an outsider, and the tension takes time to build as Travis navigates the deception and cruel magical manipulation surrounding him as well as those who try to do good.

The action commences when Stefan announces that he and Andrei will vacation in Vermont, the location of a family Travis knew well who experienced a tragic accident. Travis and his mentor, Sorinah, travel to Vermont, wondering if the coincidence is a trap to draw them to their enemies. As the orb’s power also grows, Travis’s fight to overcome its pull ratchets up the story’s suspense. Readers who have read the first in the series will eagerly follow Travis’s continued adventures as he plays cat and mouse and investigates the mystery of who is really being hunted, though newcomers are advised to start with The Banished.

Takeaway: A suspenseful urban horror sequel with magic, devilry, and inspired surprises.

Great for fans of: T.J. Payne’s Intercepts, Wendy Webb’s The Keepers of Metsan Valo.

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

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Trapped in Glass
Pam Records
The sequel to the accomplished ­­­­Tied With Twine, Records’s epic Trapped in Glass returns readers to Hegewisch, the Polish neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side at the tail end of the roaring 1920s. Again investing vivid life into a milieu of kielbasa, gulumpki, and bootleg hooch in milk and Purex bottles, Records picks up the story of Halina, a young nurse’s aid as steeped in Old Country healing as she is in modern medicine, and her community as Hegewisch faces increasing threats and violence from Chicago’s gangsters. Pacja, Halina’s sister, runs the local tavern and faces trouble from “the Organization”—trouble that her 10-year-old son elects to handle on his own. Meanwhile, Stach, the newsstand proprietor who serves as something of the community’s memory, discovers that a detective is digging into secrets that Hegewisch would prefer stay buried.

The past looms large in this gripping sequel, as Records understands that people whose lives might seem like history to us were themselves shaped (and sometimes caught up in) what happened before, even long ago. Despite the urgent drama of the novel’s present—which includes shocking confrontations and Halina’s efforts to heal someone close to her—Records’s adult Poles are plagued by flashbacks and powerful memories of life before the States and of an earlier Chicago, too. This makes them feel uncommonly alive and relatable: scratch their present, and Poland or a decades-old job working at the Hawthorne Hotel bleed through.

That richness can slow the narrative momentum, but readers who share Records’s interest in immigrant communities, arresting character portraits, and the minds and language of the people of the past (“She looked silly, all dolled up like she was going to a wake for a saint. She had that floozy paint on her mouth,” one man thinks) will find this lengthy novel rewarding. It’s even, in its unhurried way, a page turner, with life-or-death stakes and plenty of swaggering gangsters. It stands alone, though Tied With Twine is recommended.

Takeaway: A stellar historical novel, set among Chicago’s Polish community and the gangland violence of the 1920s.

Great for fans of: Meyer Levin’s The Old Bunch, Aleksander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project.

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

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Jojo's Tiny Ear
Stefania Munzi-Logus
In Munzi-Logus’ touching picture book, a little boy named Jojo enjoys his childhood just like any other curious kid–he likes going to the park, playing with cars and dinosaurs, and traveling to the beach, and he has lots of friends at school. The one thing that sets Jojo apart is his tiny right ear, which never grew and makes it hard for him to hear. That’s why Jojo wears a hearing aid, which is held in place by a colorful headband and to him is no big deal–but one day some bullies on the playground see it as a reason to push him down into the sand and tease him for being different.

Instead of fighting back, Jojo responds with incredible compassion and awareness: “Jojo realized they might never have seen a tiny ear. Maybe he needed to teach them about his headband and how it made sound clear.” This book’s strongest message come from its joyful celebration of the characteristics that make individuals special. Instead of treating Jojo’s disability as something he must overcome, his tiny ear is simply a part of who he is. “We all have differences. It's not bad,” Munzi-Logus writes. “Some kids need glasses or tools to help them speak. Without our individuality, the world would be sad.”

Throughout the story, vibrant, soft-edged illustrations show Jojo playing and traveling with his mom, as well as using sign language to communicate and his hearing aid to make sense of sounds that he otherwise could not hear. These pictures will help kids visualize and understand how Jojo’s special headband helps him. Inspired by Munzi-Logus’ real-life son, who was born with microtia, this tale serves as a powerful ode to the beauty of our differences and offers a memorable, uplifting lesson for kids about the importance of acceptance and kindness.

Takeaway: This inviting picture book offers a memorable lesson about the beauty of our differences.

Great for fans of: Emma Bilyk’s Rebekah's Superpower, Maggie Klein’s Maxi's Super Ears.

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

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UNDER THE GREAT ELM : A Life of Luck & Wonder
Rich Flanders
Debut author and lifelong actor/singer /songwriter/poet Flanders documents an adventurous life well lived in his sweeping and deeply honest memoir. After an idyllic childhood in the bucolic little Illinois town of Western Springs (home of the namesake great elm), Flanders’s father is transferred to San Francisco, kicking off a time that Flanders spends trying to find himself. His journey involves hitchhiking all over the West in the 1960s in the name of adventure, tales of hard labor in Arizona heat, taking an Army physical just ten days before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, being stationed in Paris and briefly living on a kibbutz in the Gaza Strip—and, among other noteworthy experiences, a UFO encounter.

Flanders—whose creative endeavors have included appearing in Broadway’s Shenandoah and in the touring production of Annie, as well as albums of trail songs and cowboy tunes like Yondering and Ride Away—spins beautiful prose as he recounts his life’s journey, marveling that although his adventures may have seemed random at the time, he now knows, as he looks back, that they cohere into something like a rich storyline. He embraces that journey with joy and optimism, even after losing the love of his life and working through that incredible pain. Eventually, he finds love again with an old flame—something he wasn’t expecting, but which renews his spirit and inspires him to live every day to the fullest. She and Flanders continue to perform music together, keeping both their spirits light.

A few grammatical issues distract but don’t diminish the power of Flanders’s lyrical prose. Readers will live vicariously through the author’s varied, adventurous life, which has an abundance of adventure and braveness packed into it. Any reader who believes in second chances and living life to the fullest will devour Flanders’s tale.

Takeaway: Flanders’s recounting of his Renaissance Man life will inspire readers to realize that it’s never too late to chase a dream.

Great for fans of: Brendon Burchard’s Life’s Golden Ticket, Tara Westover’s Educated.

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

Click here for more about UNDER THE GREAT ELM
Becoming Santa: Mom, today at the Christmas party Tommy said Santa isn't real!
Cyndi Go Go Merritt
When he starts to notice Santa comes in many different shapes and sizes, school-aged Daniel and his friends struggle to understand why in this coming-of-age tearjerker. Every Christmas since he was born, Daniel has been visited by Santa—who always kisses Daniel’s forehead while he sleeps, after leaving presents under the tree. But when his friend Tommy casts doubt on whether Santa is real, Daniel, filled with dread, turns to his mother for answers. She lovingly explains how Santa is a manifestation of that “wonderful, magical feeling you get deep down inside when you do something nice for someone” and helps Daniel learn how to become Santa himself, for others who need him.

Once he learns that the real meaning behind Christmas is “showing people how much you love them,” he is eager to pass on the affection. Daniel and his mother break open his piggy bank and purchase gifts for Tommy, anonymously leaving them on his front step on Christmas Eve. Daniel’s desire to lift up someone in distress is touching, made even more so when readers find out that Tommy’s family has recently split up–and see the magic and wonder felt by Tommy and his mother when they discover the gifts. Merritt’s emphasis on internalizing the Christmas spirit to help others is a valuable lesson for young readers, and adults will appreciate the creative assistance in explaining the complexities of Santa Claus to questioning children.

Bundoc’s brightly colored digital art fuses the narrative with an animated holiday atmosphere, complete with twinkling lights and warm Christmas scenery, while skillfully portraying the characters’ emotions. The story comes full circle in the end, with Santa visiting a grown-up Daniel and his family in a touching and sentimental conclusion–and readers will enjoy the link provided to create their own lists of who might need them to become Santas. This tender holiday narrative will be welcome on any Christmas bookshelf.

Takeaway: A child learns the moving truth about Santa and giving in this coming-of-age holiday tale.

Great for fans of: B.K. Gendron’s The (Wonderful) Truth About Santa, Martha Brockenbrough’s Love, Santa.

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

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Where the Light Shines Through: An Olivia Penn Mystery
Kathleen Bailey
In Bailey’s accomplished debut, advice columnist Olivia Penn (author of the syndicated “Penn’s Pals”) is back home in Virginia horse country for a quick visit with her father before she moves to New York City. Recently promoted and with a novel forthcoming, Olivia’s life might have seemed perfect—until her boyfriend of two years unceremoniously dumped her. Now back in Apple Station for the annual May festival, Olivia’s ready to unwind and recuperate among old friends. The relaxing trip quickly becomes a confounding mystery, however, when one of those friends winds up dead hours after they meet and Olivia must choose whether to follow her instincts for justice, even if it means uprooting secrets, or keep to the safety of her comfortable life. But when a family friend is implicated in the murder, Olivia must navigate small-town politics with the help of her childhood crew and an old rival—all before the murderer strikes again.

Olivia’s vividly sketched hometown of Apple Station is so alive with warmth and local color that it brings to mind a southern version of Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls. Bailey’s prose proves just as inviting. Her story boasts moments of real tension throughout, however, especially in the climax, which will keep readers on the edge of their seats. The mystery weaves a web of intrigue that brings skeletons out of the closet and long-held secrets to light, all while staying firmly grounded in the reality of living in a town where everyone knows everyone else’s business—and where the “ idyllic streetscape ... concealed the severity of the affairs transpiring within the [police] station.”

With these engaging, well-conceived characters, and expertly crafted twists that will keep readers guessing, this mystery is sure to please readers looking for an adventure with plenty of intrigue and a comforting conclusion. Fans of the cozy mystery genre will be thrilled to learn that this is just the first of many Olivia Penn mysteries planned.

Takeaway: Bailey’s winning debut will thrill fans of the cozy mystery genre.

Great for fans of: Stephanie Blackmoore’s Engaged in Death, Rita Mae Brown’s Wish You Were Here.

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

Click here for more about Where the Light Shines Through
The Marching Ant: A Novel Inspired By True Events
Allyson Chapa
Chapa’s wrenching yet heartening debut, based on her grandmother’s life, will shock, horrify, and ultimately inspire. The childhood of abused Antonia “Annie” Rivas in the 1950s is positively heartbreaking: rather than sending her to school, her father (a widower) makes her pick cotton all day starting at age nine, and when Annie turns 12, he settles a large financial debt with a pedophile who wants to rape his daughter on a regular basis. At 18, Annie escapes from her hell in her hometown of Big Spring, Texas, and steals away to Port Isabel, Texas, to take a job as a waitress. It is there that she meets and marries the sailor of her dreams, Art Garza.

Chapa toggles between Annie’s third-person voice and her granddaughter’s (named Alice in the book) first-person voice as it covers five decades of intimate history. Annie bears three children, navigates marriage hiccups, struggles to learn how to read and write (which, due to a suspected case of dyslexia, never fully happens) and works hard in a number of different jobs, including being a janitor at Alice’s school. For her part, Alice is inspired by her grandmother to study and learn as much as she can, culminating in acceptance to the University of Texas at Austin—ultimately, she’s the first person in her family to graduate from college.

Annie’s horrific abuse, described in frank language, makes this a tough read: Readers will find it challenging to accept that a father could fail his child so willfully, but they will be humbled by Annie’s grit, resolve, and her ability to power through even the most awful situations—and by her beloved granddaughter’s love and admiration. In fact, the title comes from ants’ ability to lift more than 100 times their body weight—much like Annie. Chapa pays beautiful tribute to the importance of family and one courageous woman in particular with this heartfelt and heart-wrenching tale.

Takeaway: This heartbreaking yet ultimately inspirational story personifies tenacity and the will to survive.

Great for fans of: Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It, K.L. Randis’s Spilled Milk.

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

Click here for more about The Marching Ant
Run to the Pain
Dr Robert Lewis Evans III
In this rousing yet practical debut, psychotherapist Evans shares hard-won wisdom from both his own life and more than two decades as a therapist. His chief insight: rather than running away from pain, it’s absolutely crucial to move through it and embrace the challenging lessons that it offers. He frames adversity as an opportunity to learn one’s specialized talents and skills, and he urges a paradigm shift for those who have been trained to believe that problems derail progress to ultimate happiness. Instead, he counsels readers that developing resiliency is impossible without failure. He smartly advises readers to allow themselves to release negative feelings, to identify lessons learned and what can and what cannot be changed, and, through reflection and documentation, to pay “meticulous attention to every experience that causes you to feel emotional distress” while still continuing to move forward.

Evans’s guide is structured with valuable formulae, or “evidence-based equations,” for readers to practice early and often on their path to resolving pain, such as “Self-Awareness + Desire = Intentionality” and “Humility + Motivation + Resiliency = Defeat of Adversity.” “If your behavior is not the best illustration of who you would like to be, your first step is to become Self Aware,” he writes, and Run to the Pain offers concrete steps to practice thought replacement, banish that harsh inner critic so many of us hear, and deal with painful situations in a realistic, productive fashion. He sensibly admonishes readers that “by failing to forgive, you are sponsoring your self-destruction.”

Though occasional incorrect words and grammar missteps distract, Evans packs a great deal of wisdom and useful advice into this slim tome, with kind yet firm guidance on how to persevere and move forward in the face of adversity. This common-sense guide to powering through pain will hand readers a valuable roadmap for personal growth.

Takeaway: This guide to moving forward, through pain and adversity, offers clear-eyed wisdom and practical steps.

Great for fans of: Eric H. Mennell’s Relentless and Unbeatable, Eileen Lenson’s Overcoming Adversity.

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

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ALICE IN DREAMLAND
Roland S. Jefferson
This urgent political thriller from Jefferson (White Coat Fever) centers on a secret plot among white politicians and officials to establish an “English-speaking, non-Hispanic whites-only democratic republic” outside of the United States. Fearing “the looming shift in racial demographics as a catastrophic threat to the financial and political power of America’s dwindling white supremacist population who controlled the country,” and convinced that Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign truly meant “Make America white again,” Kansas Senator Methias B. Crandal and others hatch the “Alice Plan” to preserve white cultural and economic power. The thriller plot kicks in when Pepper, a Black sex worker, snatches from a congressman client an encrypted USB drive with details of the plan. Soon she’s on the run, aided by ex-cop and current hot mess Taylor, a man pushing fifty and in bad need of a cause.

“America’s ongoing cultural shift by the year 2050 was on a collision course with white privilege,” Jefferson writes, and his depiction of the machinations of a cabal of white elites scheming to preserve and protect their power outside the U.S. has a timely frisson. Of Trump, Senator Crandal says, “He didn’t understand that to have a white republic again, meant we would have to be the ones to leave.” The unlikely conspiracy is presented with convincing detail, both in the plotters’ thinking and in the practicalities of pulling it off, right down to strategic planning documents and attention to how congressional committees actually work.

Still, Jefferson’s tendency to use terms in narration like “the treasonous Kansas senator” or “an extremely bigoted eight term congressional racist” edges the novel into polemic territory, distracting from the suspense. His use of exaggerated dialect, especially for Pepper (“Ain’t you got no common sense left in that brain of yours?”), also cuts against verisimilitude, though the chase and its mysteries, which span the globe, prove surprising and often exciting, with stakes that couldn’t be higher.

Takeaway: This urgent political thriller pits a conspiracy of white racists against the Black sex worker with the power to expose them.

Great for fans of: J.A Walsh’s Purpose of Evasion, John Cutter’s Firepower.

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

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Hot Air
Charlie Suisman
“Gadzooks, the last thing Arnold Falls needs is more characters,” Judge Lionel Harschly muses early in Hot Air, Suisman’s comic sequel to Arnold Falls. Again, a singular assortment of oddballs ricochet against one another within the town of Arnold Falls, the Hudson Valley town that’s now the home of an official “resident hermit” (“catnip for travel writers in need of a punchy hook”) and the shooting location of a television series about Arnold Falls’ oddballs. The latter development suggests the second half of the original comic novel, Don Quixote, in which Cervantes’s delusional hero encounters a world that has read all about him. Suisman, too, seizes every comic opportunity as he checks in on notables from the earlier book—and sets them on collision courses with newcomers and new troubles.

Suisman’s feel for small-town daftness of the Red Sox Nation variety (“Oh, they’re playing the Astros. Skip it. Astros cheat.”) impresses and pleases as the residents of Arnold Falls, from the Elks lodge to the weed emporium, deal with pushy actors, a rash of odd thefts, the possible extinction of the northern cricket frog, an FBI investigation, and a scheme to sell a corporation naming rights to the town. Suisman again weaves the comedy through extended dialogue scenes alive with quips, wit, misunderstandings, amusing local-isms, and an overall sense of irresistible momentum. Once his people get going, readers on Suisman’s wavelength will be loathe to shut them up.

For all the laughs, and its occasional reliance on stock types, Hot Air also has pain and truth as its characters reveal their resilience in the face of harsh reality: the opioid epidemic looms in one backstory, and a pediatric oncology ward figures into the plot. Meanwhile, the theft of a stature of the town’s “foundering” father presages a reckoning with its past. Readers might want to reckon with it, too, by starting with the first book in this laugh-out-loud series before catching Hot Air.

Takeaway: This comic sequel finds ample hilarity in the Hudson Valley’s oddest small town.

Great for fans of: Cathie Pelletier, Donald Harrington.

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

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I'll Go Rhythm
Justin Webb
In this offbeat picture book warning against the dangers of artificial intelligence, imaginative Charlie follows his algorithm, AL, on a surreal journey to discover the inner workings of the internet. AL makes big promises in an effort to ensnare Charlie—he vows to make him a star, be his best friend, and teach him all he needs to know—but soon Charlie learns that AL’s gifts come with a hefty cost. To reach the fame and fortune of his dreams, Charlie will need to stop thinking for himself while also disconnecting from others—a price he’s not sure he is willing to pay.

After blindly following AL through his “sifted” and “filtered” reality, in the process learning how to pump out copycat creations that will attract the most followers, Charlie eventually takes a stand against AL and insists on marching to the beat of his own drum. “I’ll-go-rhythm instead,” he declares, opting to “explore real places” and offering readers a last-minute lesson about the origins of happiness: “It comes from helping others and having real relationships.” Adult readers will find the book’s championing of imagination and individuality valuable, though the moral about “real” relationships might land with more power if Charlie developed one within the story itself.

Illustrator Kayla Stark employs subdued hues and delicate lines to illuminate the story, and her geometric drawings fit the quirky theme. Especially effective: a haunting vision of a chain of identical children in violet coats, holding each others’ hands and bright red hearts, saying “We’re all alike. That’s what we do.” Webb’s rhyming is occasionally forced, but young readers will enjoy some of the more clever and tongue-twisting moments. The conceit of collecting those hearts as a measure of “how much you’re liked,” and a hint about online news being filtered to promote conformity, are heavy topics for the age group, but most readers will find the theme—and the warning—relevant and resonant.

Takeaway: A young boy learns that creativity beats out conformity in this cautionary tale against online living.

Great for fans of: Matteo Loglio’s Many Intelligences, Michael Rex’s Facts vs. Opinions vs. Robots.

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

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AGENDA 2060: The Future as It Happens
A.I. Fabler
This satiric dystopia from the pseudonymous Fabler imagines a near future in which a World Government has fully committed to identity politics and the “deplatform”ing of people like mathematics professor Jordan McPhee. “Apolitical and ambitious only for a life of moderate academic achievement,” McPhee was driven to his breaking point by a culture ruled by “Agenda 2060,” U.N. articles calling for an end to discrimination, hate speech, and carbon emissions, in addition to establishing plans for equal education, living standards, and other liberal causes. As students in this brave new world scream slogans like “White men’s math is dead men’s oppression!” McPhee, “stripped of any sense of value or identity,” eventually breaks, posting a statement decrying “Fevered, unbalanced seekers of nonexistent oppression.”

In short, he’s canceled, a “non-person” ousted from the academy and getting by in a tech job while airing his grievances through the voice of a political commentator, Artie Sharp, who reveals inconvenient truths about Agenda 2060’s “One World, One People, and One Government”—and turns out to be an A.I. algorithm of McPhee’s own invention. The plot, unsurprisingly, finds the society that canceled McPhee later desperately needing him, as he’s secretly enlisted to solve the math problem that threatens this purported utopia: how to balance the budget when the government is committed to pay benefits to minority populations that, thanks to shifting definitions, now constitute the vast majority of the population?

The prose and many of the ideas are uncommonly sharp for a cancel-culture satire, and the story’s incorporation of A.I., space travel, higher mathematics, and the challenges of governance are engaging, more so than the more familiar story of McPhee’s cancellation, a fantasy that itself can be read as an example of seeking “nonexistent oppression.” But that’s what any proudly divisive satire faces: Agenda 2060 is provocative and often funny, though readers not predisposed to its ideological conclusions won’t find reason to read long enough to discover that.

Takeaway: This sharply written satire of a future in which “cancel culture” rules might not change minds but offers some real laughs.

Great for fans of: Kinglsey Amis, Christopher Buckley.

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

Click here for more about AGENDA 2060: The Future as It Happens
The Broken Promise Of A Promised Land
William Hanna
This outraged polemic from Hanna (The Grim Reaper) argues that Israel’s “perversely persistent persecution of the indigenous Palestinian population” makes the nation an “‘apartheid regime’ guilty of crimes against humanity.” Further, he alleges that Judaism itself has been “hijacked” by Zionists who have made criticism of Israel tantamount to anti-Semitism and claim “that only a state controlled by, and exclusive to Jews can protect them against anti-Semitism and the threat of another Holocaust.” Zionists, he says, have prevented Jews from making common cause with other groups facing or that have survived genocide, especially the Palestinians, victims of “barbaric ethnic cleansing.”

“Preventing another genocide of the Jewish people, however, can hardly be either achieved, or morally justified, by having Jewish people exterminate another ethnic group,” he writes, with the high heat and opprobrium that pulses through the book. That scalding tone, while certain to alienate readers not onboard with his argument, doesn’t cover up a lack of rigor. To make his case, Hanna surveys not just 20th century and contemporary history, though he digs deep there, charting the horrific phenomena of genocide (“a fatal combination of social Darwinism … racist genetic theory, and fervent nationalism”) and anti-Semitism as well as considerations of Israel’s establishment, conflicts, and expansion. The Broken Promise Of A Promised Land also reaches back further, persuasively tracing a millennium-spanning history of inter-faith conflicts and oppression—and the development of Zionism itself.

With principled empathy for the oppressed, Hanna challenges religious dogma of all types, likens the idea of being “chosen” by God to the idea of a “master race,” and links Israeli lobbying to the United States’ Middle Eastern wars. He demonstrates from the first sentence his disinterest in inviting skeptical readers or believers into his thinking (it begins “If some Jewish people wish to believe they were chosen by a non-existent god …”), instead favoring rhetoric that will stiffen the spines of those already likely to agree.

Takeaway: A fiery denunciation of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, written with outrage and historical reach.

Great for fans of: Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, Ilan Pappe’s Ten Myths About Israel.

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

Click here for more about The Broken Promise Of A Promised Land
The Last Days of Dom Sebastian
Greg Barron
Threading medieval and contemporary stories together, this epic archaeological adventure from Barron (Whistler's Bones) opens in 1554, when Prince Sebastian is born to the recently widowed queen of Portugal. The court astrologer gives his mother a haunting pronouncement upon the prince’s birth: Sebastian will be a world-changing king, remembered through the ages, but he would also die violently—and young. In the modern day, Australian archaeologists Francis da Costa and Lauren Hart search the eastern coast of Kimberly for remains of the ships that first brought Europeans to Australia. Their hard work pays off when they find a sixteenth-century Portuguese barca. To assist with their discoveries, they enlist the Lisbon-based scholar Dr. Nicolá Massane, whose research has uncovered a sect of contemporary Sebastianists convinced that Dom Sebastian will return to save Portugal in its hour of need.

Barron’s century-spanning epic thrill readers who love history, archaeology, and a mystical twist: The sect has dwindled over the centuries, but the traumatic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have revitalized its hope in a savior who will solve the problems plaguing the modern world. His prose and storytelling shine as he carefully balances two narrative modes that are widely different in content and form. The majority of the book’s first half follows the modern story of da Costa, Hart, and Massane, all fully-rounded and compelling characters. Romance fans are sure to enjoy the sparks that fly between da Costa and Massane, while history lovers will appreciate how Barron delivers well-researched facts with flair.

Barron fluidly shifts perspectives to an account of Dom Sebastian’s reign, told in the voice of a friend and confessor, vividly bringing the past to life. The two plots converge in one final discovery that satisfyingly ties up loose ends. The Last Days of Dom Sebastian combines the best elements of The Count of Monte Cristo with The Da Vinci Code, resulting in an adventure sure to grip readers from start to finish.

Takeaway: Filled with both romance and history, this archaeological adventure twining past and present is a must-read for fans of thoughtful epic thrillers.

Great for fans of: Will Adams’s The Alexander Cipher , Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land, Sean Pidgeon’s Finding Camlann.

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

Click here for more about The Last Days of Dom Sebastian
CHANGE HAPPENS: But Will They Understand?
Eugene Kelly(E. Aly)
Aly’s fiction debut focuses on the impact of a decision one judge made 17 years before—and the challenge of achieving justice. Ernst “Cal” White-Callaway, a judge in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, complied with his mother’s wishes almost two decades back to continue with his engagement and marry Catherine White instead of Josey, the woman he fell in love with after a short acquaintance. Now trapped in a loveless marriage, Cal conducts an affair with Maggie Latham, a librarian committed to aiding abused young women. Cal and Maggie are members of the Berkshire Book Club, an organization banded together to make decisions outside of the law about how to handle issues of crime in a community rocked by organized crime activities.

In crisp, inviting prose, Aly excels at creating the primary narrative of Cal’s complex life and momentous decisions while highlighting the power of the women around him. Catherine exerts influence over Cal and her standing in the community as an organizer of important charity events while Maggie empowers women who have been wronged by men in their lives. The novel’s introspective view of long-term consequences hints at how a different choice could have significantly altered Cal’s life. If he had decided to marry Josey, he may not have been afforded the social status that led him to a partnership in a law firm and subsequent judgeship.

Tragedy strikes after Cal sentences a young man with a connection to his own past to three years probation for dumpster diving. Meanwhile, Aly’s chilling view of organized crime and its pervasiveness convincingly reveals both the ruthlessness of the players, their methods, and the difficulty of bringing them to justice. Hard choices and consequences loom over this thoughtful, immersive, and fast-paced novel: as the Berkshire Book Club collides with the organized crime cartel, the members of both organizations must make tough decisions to ensure their survival.

Takeaway: A judge faces the consequences of the past and the possibility of justice outside the law in this thoughtful literary thriller.

Great for fans of: Diane Chamberlain’s Big Lies in a Small Town , L.T. Ryan and Brian She’s Drift.

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

Click here for more about CHANGE HAPPENS
PsycheDeliah: A Novel
Kite Jenson
A spirited mélange of neo-noir detective storytelling, southern California satire, outraged screed, and vigorous erotica, Jensen’s provocative thriller finds hero/naif Paul (a “vanilla boy of supreme proportions”) plunging into the world of underground sex clubs and rich-dude fantasies on a quest to find and maybe avenge his errant wife, Deliah. Not long after one of the couple’s typical humdrum sexual encounters leaves her (as always) unsatisfied, Deliah leaves Paul, filing for divorce, communicating only through a short note, and apparently vanishing. To track her down, Paul quits his job at a videogame company, buys an RV, and launches into a series of harrowing, sometimes vividly sexual misadventures, revealing both Deliah’s secrets and the worst of humanity.

Crisp, energetic scenes of sex, comedy, and suspense set apart this proudly randy title, which navigates a tricky, shifting tone between liberated erotica and pained disgust at sexual exploitation, especially as Jenson reveals the abuse that men have inflicted on Deliah, Paul, and other characters. Eventually, inspired by that abuse and by Deliah’s own ahead-of-the-game scheming, Paul helps launch a crusade to round up and punish a circle of rapists. The lovemaking, after that by-design disappointing first encounter, tends toward the inventive and lightly comic, especially as Paul discovers new approaches and abandon with professional submissive Alex.

Jensen’s scene craft and voice at times suggests a hip, sharp-elbowed how-we-live-now comedy in the vein of old Vintage Contemporaries paperbacks (a pricey new car is described as the “ultimate mashup of ostentation, viciousness, and absurdity”), but with a twisting mystery/vengeance plot and regular eruptions of explicit content. Much is made of the hero’s inability, before her disappearance, to satisfy Deliah or even to recognize that she’s not satisfied, a tendency he comes to regret. The mix of elements, here, will not be palatable to all audiences, of course, and the world of this fast-paced novel isn’t always convincing, but Jensen writes it with sincerity, wit, and the understanding that being provocative mean more than just including lots of sex.

Takeaway: This snappy, explicit erotic thriller builds to a psychedelic conspiracy to take down predatorial men.

Great for fans of: New Erotica for Feminists: Satirical Fantasies of Love, Lust, and Equal Pay, Chuck Palahniuk’s Beautiful You.

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

Click here for more about PsycheDeliah

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