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The Genesis of Seven
Sara M Schaller
This ambitious YA fantasy novel, which launches the Empyrean Trilogy, pulls a teenage orphan into a battle between archangels and Satan. Jordan has grown up at New York City’s Holy Trinity Home for Disadvantaged Youth, cared for by nuns. One day, he comes home to find the orphanage dark and empty. Sister Helen gives Jordan a locked backpack, an address, and a cryptic message that he’s their only hope. Tailed by a group of thugs, Jordan finally makes it to the address and meets a strange man who turns out to be the archangel Gabriel. He and six other archangels are the last stronghold against Satan, who is plotting a cataclysmic return to Earth. Jordan, whose backpack holds items that Satan desperately wants, must be protected at all costs, as he is the key to an ancient heavenly prophecy. Together, Jordan and Gabriel work together to round up the rest of the archangels and defeat Satan in a battle for the fate of humankind.

Introducing what promises to be a complex series, Schaller does necessary worldbuilding in her reimagining of the creation of heaven and hell and all of the novel's many characters. Her ideas are fresh and intriguing–the archangels taking on earthly jobs that correspond with their original roles in Heaven is charming–but the story gets bogged down by a sheer wealth of details as the angels explain these intricacies to Jordan. Even Satan’s ruthless quest for power feels overly complex. Jordan quips at one point that he’s “overwhelmed by all this information,” and readers may share the same sentiment.

Jordan’s engaging character is primarily defined by his humorous incredulity as he navigates this confusing new life. The tale would benefit from more in-depth characterization, but the intriguing premise is enough to carry readers into future installments where the major players may be developed further. Schaller’s imaginative take on Christian myth makes for a thrilling adventure with great potential for equally enjoyable sequels.

Takeaway: Teen fans of plucky heroes and battles between good and evil will relish this urban fantasy adventure.

Great for fans of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series.

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

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Angelus Rose
Loren Rhoads
In this well-constructed sequel to 2016’s Lost Angels, Rhoads and Thomas further develop the cosmology and complexity of their present-day setting, which digs into a variety of Christian theological traditions to form the framework of an ambitious urban fantasy story. The angel Azaziel and the succubus Lorelei may have fallen in love, but they’re still subject to the whims and commands of their respective superiors in heaven and hell, with Los Angeles as the current battleground. When Lorelei discovers Aza is hiding a secret that might tip the balance of power in the city, it places their fragile relationship in jeopardy and prompts both sides to ramp up their presence in preparation for a major battle.

This volume is accessible to new readers, but a familiarity with the first one is highly recommended. The romance between Aza and Lorelei carries much of the tale, but the erotic elements can feel pedestrian, and one scene of sexual body horror is likely to upset more sensitive readers. The story's real focus is on the sprawling cast of divine, infernal, and mortal characters who currently inhabit Los Angeles. Frequent perspective shifts occasionally make it difficult to keep track of the big picture, especially as characters switch allegiances. With such a large cast, it’s inevitable that some get less time to shine, and their ultimate fates don’t resonate as well as they should.

Rhoads and Thomas craft a plausible romance for the angel and succubus without betraying their inherent natures; readers won’t forget that Lorelei is an inherently infernal creature with undeniable carnal needs who serves truly evil masters. Vivid prose (“she felt the portal’s heat crawl over her skin like a thousand cockroaches”) keeps the reader immersed. The authors keep the personal stakes balanced against the larger conflict at hand, which builds slowly to a violent resolution that sets things up nicely for further installments.

Takeaway: This crossover between urban fantasy and paranormal romance will satisfy fans of star-crossed lovers, epic conflict, and dark, complex stories.

Great for fans of Richelle Mead’s Succubus Blues, Isadora Brown’s Awaken, Jillian Cooper’s The Devil’s Daughter.

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

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Queen of Swords
Karelynn A. Spacek
Spacek’s debut fantasy displays tons of raw storytelling talent that could use a bit of refinement. Ivyssa is an impulsive, outspoken tomboy with an “abrasive personality” in a culture that prizes demure women. She’s shocked when a line of flames erupts on her face, marking her as the future Queen of Swords. Distressed and disoriented, Ivyssa stumbles into a boy’s magical initiation rite and he accidentally kills his mother. A witness to this event vows to get revenge as Ivyssa starts training to be the future ruler of Azulyria, but the would-be assassin’s plans have disastrous repercussions for the entire nation. Many years later in Santa Fe, Alexandra Nealy, an FBI profiler turned yoga instructor, finds an Azulyrian artefact that gives her Ivyssa’s powers—and that Ivyssa’s enemy is willing to kill for.

Awkward dialogue (“That doesn’t mean that I can readily forget all that has transpired like you seem to have done”), dramatic prose (Ivyssa describes her own eyes as “twin pools of lilac [that] glistened with innocent naivety”), and clichéd characters detract from the well-paced plot and imaginative worldbuilding. Both Ivyssa and Alexandra are classic examples of the “spitfire” heroine who’s not “a prissy little girl.” Alexandra’s love interest, Jared, comes across less as a tough alpha male and more as rude and violent. An unfortunate side plot kills off a same-sex couple.

Spacek displays a solid instinct for crafting a story that holds readers’ attention and captures their imaginations with a unique fantasy world. Though she tries to space out the introduction of Azulyrian lore, these paragraphs still slow the narrative. Plot inconsistencies and fumbles in the point of view cause confusion, but Spacek keeps the tension ratcheted up, and most major plot points land cleanly. Though readers never get fully immersed in the unfolding intrigue or form a firm sense of Azulyria, the familiarity of the modern-day Santa Fe setting is grounding. The captivating concept and setting hold great promise for Spacek’s future work.

Takeaway: This parallel world fantasy will appeal most to voracious readers of paranormal romance who like tough yet beautiful heroines and otherworldly magic.

Great for fans of Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass, Patricia Briggs’s Cry Wolf.

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

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Requiem for the Dead
Victor M. Alvarez
This exciting military thriller from Alvarez (the John Slade series) introduces tough, intelligent Jacqueline Sinclair, an agent for the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigative Division (CID). Along with her new partner, Tom Price, she must work quickly to find four children kidnapped from a U.S. military base in Germany. Soon Sinclair and Price realized this incident is the first of many. Gen. Thomas Scott’s son died in a North Korean prison, and Scott blames the U.S. for failing to retrieve him. Kidnapping the children of high-ranking officers is just the beginning of his plan to take revenge on both countries. If he’s successful, it could result in global war.

With the agents racing to stop Scott and his fellow conspirators, Alvarez’s action scenes will get readers’ hearts pounding. The details of scenery (“the tall book cabinet stocked with military books on tactics and deployment of assets in the field of battle, and the Iraq War strategy in four different volumes”) and equipment (“among his weapons of choice was his Glock-26 subcompact with his unattached Osprey 40k suppressor, held in his shoulder rig holster”) sometimes slow the pace of the story, but the thriller plot will keep readers engaged as long as they share the author’s interest in weaponry. The romantic elements are less convincing but not prominent enough to be much of a distraction.

Alvarez, a former CID agent, develops Jacqueline and Tom’s story through the nuances of dealing with chain of command, working with officers from other countries, and using various investigative techniques. He’s particularly adept at describing what characters feel in battle and what it’s like to get shot and witness gory violence, though their rehabilitation from injuries is implausibly quick. A strong thriller plot and appealing characters will keep readers gripped to the rousing finale.

Takeaway: Fans of military thrillers and tough, smart heroines will enjoy this high-octane adventure.

Great for fans of Candace Irvin’s Aimpoint, Nelson DeMille’s Wild Fire.

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

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The Bond
Angelo Grotticelli
This gritty memoir of being one of eight foster children in an abused home chronicles the ways that difficult circumstances can form tight-knit families of choice. Grotticelli and his four siblings became wards of New York State when their mother was dying of breast cancer and their alcoholic father proved unable and unwilling to care for them. Grotticelli, with his siblings Rose Ann and Charles, entered St. Michael’s Orphanage, a grim and Dickensian Catholic charity. After two years with the ironically named Sisters of Mercy, they were moved to Nina and Gilbert Nelson’s Long Island home. Although the Nelsons repeatedly stated their goal of “saving these kids from the streets,” what they truly desired from their eight foster children—three sets of siblings and a singleton—was free labor and monthly checks from the state. For years, the Nelsons dangled adoption in front of the love-starved foster children, offering security in an unstable world, while inflicting physical, sexual and emotional abuse. The children endured a years-long struggle to learn what a family truly is.

Grotticelli’s unsparing honesty about his birth and foster families—including an uncle’s mob connections, his birth mother’s petty crimes, and the Nelsons’ blatant favoritism of their biological children and tolerance of their adult son sexually abusing their teenage foster daughter—will make readers wince and keep them marveling at the indomitability of these children. That the foster siblings were able to forge familial bonds with each other is extraordinary.

Although Grotticelli’s anecdotes frequently meander and his lengthy descriptions of people interrupt the flow of his story, the raw facts of how eight children came to live in the large home in Long Island makes for a compelling read. Grotticelli’s voice is compulsively readable, wry and friendly despite the horrors he describes, and full of affection for his chosen family. Even into adulthood, the scars of life with the Nelsons are tangible, but the former foster children found the family they longed for in one another. For readers seeking true stories of found families and surviving abuse, Grotticelli’s memoir is sure to please.

Takeaway: Grotticelli’s tell-all memoir of growing up as an abused foster child is gritty with positive notes, and will appeal to readers who want to see tough kids survive horrors and find happiness.

Great for fans of Tara Westover’s Educated: A Memoir, David Pelzer’s The Lost Boy.

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

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How Love Wins
Doug Carnine
In this no-nonsense, religion-free workbook, Carnine (Saint Badass: Transcendence in Tucker Max Hell) guides readers through developing a practice of “kindfulness,” an intertwining of kindness and mindfulness. Carnine, a lay Buddhist minister and educator, focuses on motivating readers to be kind to themselves and others in small, immediate ways. His core approach is to replace unkind habits, both physical and mental, and both inwardly and outwardly directed, with kind ones. He also discusses developing skills related to change, action, and character. He uses a straightforward, organized teaching style, supported by jargon-free explanations of simple mindfulness and meditation activities and grounded in the idea that change is possible even in the toughest of circumstances.

Carnine excels at articulate frameworks and memorable terminology, such as the “Renew-and-Serve Cycle” and the “Three-Breath Method,” without falling into cuteness, oversimplification, or jargon. Each chapter is organized into small, digestible sections and includes definitions of concepts, exercises, and anecdotes from his and others’ personal experience. He brings in just enough of his personal history to make his presence palpable without centering himself, and he avoids the denigration of his past failings. The only things detracting from the professional appearance of the text are hand-drawn illustrations.

Throughout the text, Carnine includes short sections written by prisoners whom he mentors and corresponds with. They share how their lives have been improved by these practices despite their histories of deep abuse and extreme violence, proving the value of kindfulness in any circumstance or context. These stories also put a subtly masculine spin on the material, offering a path for readers stuck in a mindset of toxic masculinity. Carnine’s articulate and easy-to-follow approach, and the deep sincerity that comes through his and others’ personal stories, create a transformative guide for readers seeking to make changes in their lives and relationships .

Takeaway: This accessible guide to changing one’s life through “kindfulness” is an invaluable roadmap for readers whose lives have been affected by toxic mindsets.

Great for fans of Elisha Goldstein’s The Now Effect, Jamil Zaki’s The War for Kindness.

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

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Clara Colby
John Holliday
Holliday (Mission to China) chronicles the life of little-known Midwestern suffragist Clara Bewick Colby in this scholarly but eminently readable biography. Born in England, fiercely smart and ambitious Clara Bewick came to the U.S. as a child. After studying law, civics and literature, she graduated as valedictorian of her class at the University of Wisconsin in 1869 and hastily married Civil War veteran Leonard Wright Colby. The pair moved to Beatrice, Neb., where Clara founded the town’s first library and later became a suffrage activist alongside such historical luminaries as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Holliday’s painstaking research brings Clara to life from dry, dusty history pages, piecing together her story and its context from letters, newspapers accounts, and her personal papers. He respectfully yet comprehensively chronicles Clara’s personal challenges—including raising two adopted children, Zintka, an infant survivor of the Battle of Wounded Knee, and Clarence, an intellectually disabled 11-year-old, as well as learning that her husband fathered at least one illegitimate child—and painstakingly celebrates her triumphs, as well as the victories of a nascent movement for women’s rights. Clara was the first woman in the United States to receive a war correspondent’s pass (as founder and editor of the Woman’s Tribune), and participated in the 20th-century precursor to the modern-day Women’s March, held in London in 1911. Sadly, Clara died four years before women finally gained the right to vote, and emotionally invested readers will feel a pang at the knowledge that she never saw her movement’s success.

While Clara Bewick Colby isn’t as well known as Anthony and Cady Stanton, Holliday’s biography may well change that. Impeccably and lovingly researched and punctuated with firsthand sources and historical photos, this work is ideal for anyone wanting to take a deep dive into the women’s suffrage movement.

Takeaway: Historians and feminists alike will relish this robust biography of a little known suffragist who played a major role in helping women get the power to vote.

Great for fans of Ida Husted Harper’s The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler’s The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement.

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

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The Hidden Hand of Death (The Jack Ryder Mysteries Book 1)
Lawrence J. Epstein
Epstein’s gritty period detective novel is intricately and elegantly plotted, but it’s the vivid characterizations that bring the story to life. Set in New York in 1942, the story revolves around a “fixer” named Jack Ryder. His job description is killing bad people, and his moral code dictates that he will only kill those who harm innocents. He’s dedicated his life to helping people, often for free. While dealing with a dangerous former client, Ryder has to help a police detective locate his sister, assist the FBI with rooting out Nazi sympathizers, and unravel the mystery surrounding the death of his wife.

Epstein effortlessly balances all of these plot lines, keeping the reader off balance by bringing some to a surprising early close. His prose is spare and taut, gripping the reader and creating an exciting pace. His sense of setting (“The Greenwich Village street was as dark as Europe’s future”) and character keep the book fresh. Epstein gives Ryder and the reader a chance to breathe in the scenes set in Ryder’s “office,” an all-night diner. His “secretary,” wise waitress Gertie, gets her own extensive arc. However, self-consciously diverse characters, such as a woman who escapes Nazi Germany and an African American man pondering entering military service on behalf of a country full of racists, feel tacked on.

Ryder himself remains the main draw, a tragic but noble character. Unlike the typical hard-boiled detective, Ryder is not a heavy drinker or a womanizer. He’s still haunted by his past and the death of his wife, and his vulnerability and complexity render him deeply compelling. His imperative is to help others, but he’s incapable of helping himself, which makes his story heartbreaking. Period details such as air-raid blackouts, automats, and the German American Bund provide a distinctive, authentic flavor to this solid historical thriller with a conscience.

Takeaway: Fans of gritty period detective stories will love this WWII-era novel's tight plotting, vivid characterization, and hero with a strong moral code.

Great for fans of Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder series.

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

Simone LaFray and the Chocolatiers' Ball
S.P. O'Farrell
This colorful middle grade debut from O’Farrell, set in present-day Paris, follows a particularly perceptive 12-year-old girl as she balances a family scandal with the challenges of a budding espionage career. Following in her mother’s footsteps, Simone LaFray is a secret agent for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Her mentor, Eloise Pilfrey, assigns Simone to catch the infamous thief Reynard Baresi, aka la Volpe Rossa (the Red Fox), who may be plotting to steal a painting from the Musée d’Orsay. Simone thinks she’s seen la Volpe lingering around her father’s famous bakery, LaFray’s Patisserie, where Simone assists her father, Louie. One Sunday, someone breaks into the patisserie and steals their beloved recipe books that have been passed down for generations. Now she has an additional mystery to solve.

As Simone narrates this story, readers will be amazed by her observational skills, which add a heavily descriptive layer to the story (“Since I was six, I could tell the handwriting and doodle marks of each inscriber”) and provide her with helpful clues. When Louie is accused of being a fraud and baking subpar pastries, Simone discovers someone laced one of their bags of sugar with salt. She becomes determined to find the culprit at the prestigious Chocolatiers’ Ball. The glamor and drama outweigh occasional errors in the non-English terminology and dialogue, and readers will forgive plot-necessary contrivances such as a famous baker never tasting his own wares.

Though Simone is bright (“Doing normal kid stuff made me twitchy,” she confesses) she prefers to be out of the spotlight. O’Farrell skillfully provides two foils: Simone’s theatrical younger sister, Mia, and her bubbly best friend, Gloria V. Cantone (known as the V). Both Mia and the V help dress Simone up for the ball, where O’Farrell reveals several twists. Some readers will wish the ball had been introduced earlier, given its prominence in the title and influence on the plot. This satisfying mystery leaves a few lingering secrets that readers will hope to explore in Simone’s next adventure.

Takeaway: Middle grade readers who love mature protagonists and vivid imagery featuring sweet treats will enjoy this spy story.

Great for fans of Stuart Gibbs’s Spy School series, Lauren Child’s Ruby Redfort series.

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

Call Me Joe
Martin van Es
In this stirring novel, debut author van Es, aided by ghostwriter Crofts, imagines the world’s reaction when the son of God returns to Earth. After a 12-minute period of global darkness, New Zealand teacher Sophie sees a man outside of her classroom—a man with dark skin and hair who’s wearing only a white robe and has kind, “astonishing” eyes—and believes he’s lost. Surprising herself, she offers to let him stay at her apartment. Though Sophie is wary of believing the man her students call Joe is the son of God, her skepticism wavers when she witnesses his miracles. Joe attracts the attention of political leaders who are threatened by his power and religious leaders wondering whether he really is the messiah. When Joe unveils 12 new guidelines for global peace and environmental preservation, including “Be honest” and “Try to forgive and say sorry,” he becomes the target of a hired assassin, but he remains intent on fulfilling his earthly mission before leaving once again.

The responses of world leaders to Joe’s appearance are unsurprisingly similar to the narrative of the Gospels, but they still feel realistic, and the authors update many other biblical concepts for the modern era. Joe’s human nature is shown through his behavior and the revisions of commandments with a more modern appeal. His view of sex, exemplified by his eventual sexual relationship with Sophie, focuses on personal decisions rather than procreation. While this adaptation makes Joe a more realistic 21st-century messiah, those who have a literal view of the Bible may find it flawed.

This creative narrative combines spiritual elements with the critical global problems of economic inequality and climate change. Van Es and Crofts intend this novel as a gateway to the Joe Project, which encourages readers to undertake their own efforts to “save humanity” and prevent ecological collapse. Those who appreciate the hopeful message of this immersive, magnetic story will be eager to see where the Joe Project goes next.

Takeaway: This gentle, optimistic story of Christ’s second coming will resonate with readers looking for a message of hope and empowerment.

Great for fans of John Niven’s The Second Coming, Richard Bach’s Illusions.

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

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Ice Queen
Felicia Farber
With a fresh voice and a keen comprehension of the lives of present-day teens, this somber cautionary tale follows 16-year-old Blair as she navigates high school life as the prime target for the mean girl clique. An issue of mistaken identity in freshman year complicates things with the Ice Queen, leader of the mean girls. Blair tries to keep to her small group of friends, but then she gets an invitation to an exclusive pool party full of cool kids. While there, she meets Davey and his friend, Frank, and finds herself having a good time. Little does she know that Davey is the Ice Queen’s prized boyfriend, popular athlete David. When Davey snaps a photo of Blair in her underwear, someone texts it to other students, and the police are alerted, the two become tangled in arcane laws regarding sexting and bullying, leaving them to juggle felony charges with college admissions essays.

A reliance on somewhat technical language where legal issues are explained may serve to pull some readers out of the story. The character voices are all strong in their own right, but when the legalities come into play, the texture of the narrative changes, becoming much more adult and somewhat awkward. In addition, Blair seems to have little difficulty getting time alone with David in her bedroom and going out to a club that serves alcohol. This degree of apparent inattention from her otherwise caring parents may strike readers as unlikely and distract from the book’s message.

With a clear understanding of the teenage mind, the story moves very naturally through the day-to-day activities of a group that’s too mature for childish things but lacks the knowledge and experience to navigate the adult world. One of the highlights of the novel is the depiction of healthy, cooperative relationships with adults, with no stereotypical arguments to be seen. A diverse cast and the inclusion of characters outside of the school microcosm gives the story an authentic feel and adds varying perspectives. This is a vivid and well-constructed portrayal of teens struggling with 21st-century concerns.

Takeaway: This timely contemporary novel introduces teens to the social and legal risks of sexting while pulling them in with strong, authentic character voices.

Great for fans of Judy Blume, Jennifer Brown, Laura Steven, Helen Schulman.

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

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Hamilton's Choice
Jack Casey
Casey’s gripping novel breathes new life into the later years of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. Fans of the musical Hamilton will be familiar with the outline of Aaron Burr’s rivalry with the young upstart, but Casey takes his time developing the details of Burr’s political successes and failures, and Hamilton’s part in the latter. He frames the novel around the pivotal 1801 death of Hamilton’s son Philip—who died in a duel defending his father’s honor—and Burr’s failed gubernatorial campaign after Jefferson dropped him as the vice presidential candidate in 1804. Casey cleverly ties the two episodes together while exploring these two men’s characters and their involvement in political matters that would help define the United States.

Lawyer and author Casey (The Trial of Bat Shea) paints an unflattering picture of Burr as a cur whose “cynicism, power lust and lechery” destroy his potential. This venality makes for riveting reading but can feel one-sided. Hamilton’s character is more dimensional as he struggles with his decisions, influenced by burdens of regret and responsibility that he carries like a sack over his shoulder. Casey seamlessly integrates political intrigues with daily life and gives Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, a considerable role, showing how much marriage and family meant to them both.

After Eliza extracts a promise that her husband will retire from public life, powerful men, including her politician father, try to tempt his return. Eliza fears for him and has increasingly gloomy portents about his renewed involvement. “Have you ever thought about my suffering?” she cries, both to her husband and, perhaps, to historians who have omitted women from their histories. Readers interested in Revolutionary War history and the politics of Jefferson’s presidency will be enthralled by this portrayal of Hamilton and Burr’s rivalry and the multitude of relationships surrounding and tugging at them.

Takeaway: Fans of American history will love this fictionalization of Alexander Hamilton’s political and family life in the years leading to his death.

Great for fans of Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor, Gore Vidal’s Burr.

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

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Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps
Eugene Clark
Clark explores the possibilities and pitfalls of human genetic engineering in this science fiction series debut. He takes as his inspiration recent scientific experiments in using CRISPR technology to edit human DNA, extrapolating the stories of two people who use genetic engineering to buy “designer babies.” Rachael, a successful horse breeder, finds her relationship with her pothead loser boyfriend unfulfilling. Uninterested in being saddled with a lazy husband, and with her biological clock ticking down, she heads to the Better Genetic Corporation (on a remote tropical island) to get herself a baby on her own terms. Max, a millionaire video game designer, is dumped for suggesting a prenup and remakes himself into an upstanding man. He is swept up by BGC’s claim that they can make him an ideal child. All he needs now is to find a surrogate.

Clark’s characters grapple well with the moral dilemmas of designing a child, but the additional topics he addresses—religion, eugenics, Nazism, human sexuality, race, and consensual sexual violence, to name a few—are often glanced over. The narrative brings them forward dramatically only to resolve them in a manner of pages, undermining the weight of their implications.

Awkward dialogue and interactions between characters, and some clumsy narrative techniques, tend to drag down the pace of the plot. Clark tries hard to reach for a broader understanding of the future of reproductive technology, but his narrative lacks nuance, preventing the reader from truly grasping the horror that can arise from designing children from scratch. Despite this debut’s fumbles, science fiction readers interested in emerging technology and moral dilemmas will find enough to engage with and will keenly await future installments.

Takeaway: Readers interested in the implications of human genetic engineering will appreciate Clark’s disturbing vision of a near-future era of designer babies.

Great for fans of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Theodore Sturgeon’s More than Human.

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

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Dwarf Story
Professor W. W. Marplot
This middle grade modern fantasy debut, set in contemporary Long Island, balances a sleuthing aesthetic, conflict between its preteen protagonists, and an exploration of Irish folklore and language. When an armed dwarf (of the fantasy variety) appears in Arty’s backyard, the anxious boy overcomes communication barriers to befriend him. Arty confides in some friends who soon meet their own magical companions. Action-driven Emma steals a magical map, and she and Arty ditch school to discover the reason these creatures have appeared: a brewing battle between the fairies and the Old Woman of the Mountain.

Unfortunately, Marplot’s fairy world’s simplistic good-and-evil turf war ultimately turns the story’s protagonists into pawns. Arty and Emma feel a bit sidelined in their own adventure; Emma loses her will under the mind magic of the evil Gwyllion, and all the characters follow the clues and puzzles created by the ancestors of a deus-ex-machina mentor who appears near the end of the book. Emma and Arty never quite get a chance to own their victory. As the magic fades away from the story, so too does its sense of wonder.

The magical creatures have an unearthly but relatable appeal, and their method of communicating with the kids by sharing images seen through their eyes offers a creative glimpse into fairyland. The alternating perspectives between Arty and Emma are well-balanced and give a wider view of the action, but short chapters narrated by minor characters, many of whom quibble about their representation, diffuse the immersive sense of adventure and pad out a book that already stretches out a little too long. Marplot plays well to young readers whose sense of adventure is balanced by their desire to learn, grounding his playfulness and whimsy with an excellent knowledge of folklore.

Takeaway: Middle grade readers looking for a fantasy grounded in Irish folklore will enjoy the detailed puzzles and, dynamic friendships in Marplot’s debut.

Great for fans of Great for fans of: Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, Jeremiah Curtin’s Irish Tales of the Fairies and the Ghost World.

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

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Emergency Powers
James McCrone
McCrone’s second political thriller featuring FBI agent Imogen Trager (after 2017’s Dark Network) continues the dogged investigator’s probe into a far-reaching conspiracy targeting the office of the Presidency. Her prior work on the Faithless Elector Task Force thwarted the plotters’ first scheme to steal the U.S. presidency, and the White House is now occupied by Democrat Diane Redmond, whose vice president, Bob Moore, is a Republican. After less than two months in office, President Redmond is found dead of an apparent heart attack, making Moore the Chief Executive. Trager suspects foul play and a connection to the Faithless Electors case. She and trusted colleague Amanda Vega dive into an investigation to find the truth and preserve democracy.

It’s odd to read about an America where Barack Obama was not succeeded by Donald Trump, and some readers might find it a challenge to navigate the novel’s alternate present without reading the first installment. Given Trager’s success in the prior book, and the higher stakes in this one, it strains belief that she doesn’t encounter more resistance or complications as she slowly pieces together the conspiracy. Some of her success feels convenient, such as when the bad guys make a groan-worthy mistake that leads to an over-the-top climax.

TMcCrone could do more to distinguish this from other thrillers centered on a secret cabal with eyes on the White House. The fast pace and twists carry readers along, and some of the prosaic details of paper investigations—tracking the bad guys through audit reports and campaign filings—work unusually well. McCrone’s research and political insight are an intriguing backdrop to this tale, sometimes holding the interest more than the central plot does, and will be a pleasant surprise to readers used to more gunplay-style action.

Takeaway: Political thriller fanatics with an interest in following paper trails will be satisfied by this second Imogen Trager investigation.

Great for fans of Brad Meltzer, David Baldacci.

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

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Ones & Zeroes: A Short Story Collection
M Walsh
Though many of the the settings and characters retread familiar ground in this eerie anthology by Walsh (The Jinxed Pirate), twisty turns and dark humor knock the 14 stories askew, subverting tropes and turning ideas of heroism and Americana upside down. The only thing standing between humanity and a parasitic alien invasion in “Intervention” turns out to be an alcoholic cokehead a bit slow on the uptake. Is a cheerleader-type high school girl turning emo in “Fitting In,” or is she reacting to something more sinister than teenage angst? “Someone Else’s Story” features a hero who takes on a preternatural villain in a small-town diner. A married couple in “Look the Other Way” find refuge from a bloodthirsty monster at a small-town police station—or so they think. “Damsel” finds the intrepid Gwen being murdered over and over again in every universe, a comment on the practice of “fridging” female characters to give their male counterparts motivation. Meanwhile, in “The Mouse & and the Dragon,” a princess decides to rescue herself after multiple heroes fail.

Not all of Walsh’s stories are as clever in their execution. “Finding Bosco” doesn’t have nearly the same impact as its companion story, “Look the Other Way.” “His Friends,” a meandering tale of a woman stuck at a party with her boyfriend and his buddies, fails to deliver its promised thrills. Two bug stories, “Clash of the Titans” and “My Window,” are all setup and no payoff.

Despite these fumbles, those who calculate win/loss percentages on story collections will be impressed. Walsh’s collection is generally smart and genre-savvy, playing on reader expectations in surprising ways. He doesn’t shy away from camp, gore, crude characters, and twist endings, and even when his stories are heavyhanded, they rarely fail to be fun. Fans of tongue-in-cheek horror and trope-twisting fantasy will not be disappointed.

Takeaway: This collection of horror and fantasy shorts will appeal to genre-savvy fans of the darkly humorous.

Great for fans of David Wong’s John Dies at the End, Richard Matheson.

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

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