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BEAST: A Haunted World
D. L. Frazell
This bold, inventive thriller, Frazell’s debut, dares to imagine contemporary life—the world we inhabit today—as the dystopian nightmare engineered by a couple decades back. That sounds cynical, and the novel’s introduction plays up a connection to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, so that they loom like the Sword of Damocles over the life of Florida newspaper columnist Bill Lefhans, the narrator for much of the book. But Beast in truth is brisk, playful, and often funny, written with a zest for wisecracking dialogue and mind-bending conspiracies, as its counter-reality story kicks off in early September, 2001, with Lefhans getting embroiled in much more than he bargained for while working on what he expects to be a piffle of a story about Thomas Edison’s efforts to engineer a telephone to speak to the dead.

Soon, Frazell springs on readers a shocking death, some attempts on Lefhans’s life, a frightening connection to the Third Reich, and intimations that the Lefhans lineage is tied up in a grand secret, all amid hints that some feral beast stalks humanity—and the revelation that an inventor, Franklin Melby, actually created the device Edison couldn’t, an “Electoplasmic Valve,” a sort of Pandora’s box. The columnist, though, is a classic skeptic, even on the run, with Israeli spy Valli protecting him—and striving to get this “frivolous” man to take this all seriously.

Lefhans’s flipness keeps the adventure fun even as Frazell—and a pair of other perspective characters, separated from Lefhans’s account by years—is dead serious about the implications that all our fates hinge on the Valve … and that global chaos, environmental catastrophes, and the rise of fascism all have roots in Lefhans’s 2001. Frazell manages this narrative trick without cheapening the real-world roots of international crises. The Lefhans chapters can move so quickly that suspense and mystery don’t have space to develop fully, and the narratives-within-narratives result in some interruptions of momentum, but readers fascinated by conspiratorial alt-history noir will find much to love here.

Takeaway: This bold, playful thriller asks what if our world today is the dystopian future.

Great for fans of: Arthur Shattuck O'Keefe’s The Spirit Phone, Matt Ruff.

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

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The Reality Meltdown
Dan Cray
This daring speculative thriller from Cray (Piercing Maybe) asks a straightforward but troubling question: what would happen if the objects in our world were somehow alive, and even sentient, with thoughts and feelings just like any human being? Matthew Beren finds himself living with such knowledge after striking it rich with a multi-million dollar deal involving the creation of highly mutable collectible figurines. “I’m pretty sure my coffee table isn’t thrilled about shouldering my bare feet,” Matt muses, as he becomes privy to the whisper of our world’s inanimate objects, or Elements, as they prefer to be called. They’re even less fond of Matthew’s deal. With his new awareness comes new responsibilities and dangers, especially since “a tiny fraction of them are fed up” with Matthew in particular.

Cray intriguingly blurs the lines of reality with his approach to panpsychism, the story stirring traditional suspense even as it rewards readers’ willingness to roll along with some conscious-expanding leaps. The big ideas are paired with a welcome interest in the practical implications: Mathewt’s introduction into this strikingly imagined “Elemental world” initially sees him speaking to various objects, only to be witnessed by someone from his company, forcing a leave of absence. As Matthew develops an intuition about what they’d like to communicate, Cray conjures up eerily paranoid moments that will keep readers guessing about the objects' intentions and abilities—and how far they will go.

Humanity’s wretched stewardship of the world proves a potent throughline as The Reality Meltdown touches on tense political situations, the existential threat of climate change, and other upsetting demonstrations of our indifference to all but ourselves. Cray builds to a positive message within the final pages, posing resonant questions between jolts of action and suspense.

Takeaway: A thrilling, provocative SF story on how the world adapts to us.

Great for fans of:Lee Mandelo's Feed Them Silence, Seon Manley and Gogo Lewis’s Nature’s Revenge

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

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Physics: A Science in Quest of an Ontology
Wolfgang Smith
Smith continues to pursue the trail he blazed with The Quantum Enigma with this compact fourth book dedicated to untangling the ontological conundrums at the heart of physics. Here, in three enlightening chapters, he examines what he posits may be “the key to an ontological comprehension of physics”: the irreducible wholeness of a “corporeal entity,” meaning it’s “not subject to the bounds of space and time”—and not reducible to the sum of its “atomistic” parts. Smith argues that irreducible wholeness, or IW, offers a glimpse of “a previously unsurmised ontological unity and order,” represents a solution to the famous “measurement problem” that has fascinated/frustrated physicists since Schrödinger and Heisenberg. Smith’s contention also stands as a challenge to much contemporary physics theorizing, such as superdeterminism and “widespread and supposedly well-informed opinion”s about quantum theory.

The measurement problem, of course, centers on the mystery of the collapse of a wave function at the moment of measurement. In previous books, Smith has made the case that this transition from corporeal to physical “cannot be accomplished by means of the causality upon which physics as such is based.” Here, he goes further, arguing that understanding the transition means stepping outside of physics altogether. “I incline to believe that the worst metaphysics is generally to be found among those who claim not to have any at all,” Smith writes, with customary wit, in a preface.

That exemplifies the text that follows, a crisp, coherent, unabashedly opinionated presentation that will be clear and engaging to readers who need not be subject experts to follow along—though some background in physics will certainly aid in evaluation of Smith’s contentions, which suggest, at times, a return of Platonism. Smith is a deft stylist, offering brisk, memorable thumbnail rundowns of physics, ontology, and the histories of science, mathematics, and more. The crucial distinctions he draws between the physical and corporeal, or horizontal and vertical causality, come through wharp clarity. Three included articles digging deeper into aspects of IW illuminate the main text.

Takeaway: A sharply penned argument that solving physics’ great puzzle demands stepping outside of physics.

Great for fans of: Jean Borella and Wolfgang Smith’s Rediscovering the Integral Cosmos, Sabine Hossenfelder’s Existential Physics.

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

Selena's Song: Book One of The Siren Series
Alisa K. Michaels
Michaels opens the Siren Series with this inspired story of mythical creatures, high school drama, and a 16-year-old girl, Selena Thermopolis, struggling with her identity as a Siren—sea nymphs who lure men with their angelic singing and seductive beauty, often leading to their death in the sea. After moving to an island and accidentally attracting all the boys in her chorus class with her song, Selena’s mother, Marina, reveals that they are both Sirens, Selena must balance that identity with her everyday life as a normal high-school student. Alongside new friends, Mike, Jenny, Nicole, and love-interest Andrew, Selena must appease a bully threatening her father’s job, while struggling with her new identity on her own.

Michaels’s inspired depiction of relationships grounds this ordeal, with the key family dynamic feeling truly special and genuine to the characters. Selena’s mother, brother, and stepfather help her to come to terms with her identity—although in the case of her stepfather, he must struggle with his own discovery of the Sirens before he can help Selena. Selena also has a strong group of friends to back her up against a bully’s threat against her family. Whether she is navigating her new powers, a mean girl, or falling for a boy, Selena is sure to have someone by her side, this sense of togetherness lends to an overall feeling of emotional and psychological realism despite the prominence of fantastical elements.

Those elements, too, are deftly handled, with Selena’s “Siren-senses”—allowing her to ““hear the undertow as it pulls at our bodies”—and other supernatural inventions reading as original and exciting, Michaels’s prose touched with briny poetry. This story is well thought out and engaging; the mythology and the characters are appealing and are sure to keep the reader invested in Selena’s journey. Selena’s Song is an ideal YA fantasy, imaginative, polished, and accomplished.

Takeaway: An ideal YA fantasy, great for fans of Greek mythology and sure to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Great for fans of: Lucy Strange’s The Mermaid in the Millpond, Tracy Deonn’s Lengendborn.

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

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Elijah's Awakening: Chronicles of the Watchers, Book 1
J. William Hauck
Hauck’s (The Searchers) thought-provoking Christian fantasy, the first in his Chronicles of the Watchers series, follows immortal watcher Elijah, who has lived among humans since The First Age, as he continually tries to stop them from choosing “destruction over creation, death over life, evil over good.” When Elijah’s fellow watcher, Lu, becomes power hungry, he starts turning humans against each other, orchestrating catastrophes like the plague and World War I, and forces Elijah to battle for the human race. But Elijah’s greatest challenge comes when he falls in love with a human and is given the extraordinary choice to become mortal—a choice that foreshadows grim consequences for humankind.

Elijah, whose deep regard for mortals is viewed as a weakness by the other watchers, is a convincing character with relatable emotions, despite his otherworldly position. When he’s gravely injured from a WWI German shell blast, he wakes up with amnesia, and an immediate connection to his nurse, Michelle, who witnesses his miraculous recovery. The innocence of their love is refreshing, as Elijah initially doesn’t remember his immortal status, but as his memory slowly returns, he’s forced to choose between his love for Michelle and his duty to safeguard humans. Hauck manages to make Elijah’s indecision believable, and his feelings for Michelle are just as forceful as his commitment to humankind—particularly when he realizes becoming fully mortal could cause thousands more to die in the war.

What makes this novel stand out is Hauck’s choice to place his characters into actual historical events, generating realism alongside the fantasy. While Lu engineers destruction, Elijah tries to turn the tide through his own small changes—like convincing Theodore Roosevelt to push America to join the war, or saving Churchill’s life when he contemplates suicide in 1916. The result is a riveting consideration of how much one person will sacrifice to protect others.

Takeaway: An immortal must choose between his true love or saving humankind in this promising series start.

Great for fans of: Jill Williamson’s By Darkness Hid, Serena Chase’s Eyes of E’veria series.

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

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A Machine Divine
Derek Paul
Paul delivers heart-pounding action in his bold genre-blending thriller. Science prodigy Asher Auden has been accepted into the prestigious Langford University alongside introverted animal lover Callie Saint. Both live in serene Vana, a quiet small town surrounded by lush forest where sprites buzz and a friendly giant resides. They must leave their hometown and travel to bustling Riali, filled with wealth, power, and the elite. While Asher quickly adapts to his lavish new lifestyle as a student amongst the prestigious, Callie retreats, but when they discover that Riali is the target of chemical warfare terrorist attacks, they work together to try and save the city.

Paul’s imaginative world includes human-like robots, “giant, four-legged creatures” with “an armadillo-like appearance,” and human genetic alterations. The expertly paced action rumbles through the pages as murder and anarchy strike. Asher may be a young genius, but he experiences the same relatable insecurities of many young individuals who find themselves stumbling at the precipice of a new, unfamiliar adventure. Eager to fit in with the cool kids, especially his influential roommate Nico, he brushes off the digs at his humble background and embraces the carefree party lifestyle. Callie prefers solitude and the company of her pet fox, Cloud. The juxtaposition of these two brings humanity to a creative world built on futuristic technology mixed with a dollop of whimsy, but within this magical setting lies a dangerous threat.

Paul hooks readers early and never lets them go as secrets are unearthed and Asher and Callie must combine talents to fight evil. At the core of this thrill ride are thought-provoking questions regarding immortality, death, and the role science plays in both. Mix these themes with a heavy helping of political unrest and Paul concocts an explosive look into corruption, power, and greed. Fans of genre mashups, dark secrets coming to light, and characters worth rooting for will be on board.

Takeaway:: A pulse-racing blend of fantasy, science fiction, action, and relatable young heroes.

Great for fans of: Cindy Pon’s Want, Olivia A. Cole’s A Conspiracy Of Stars.

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

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The Movement (Time Corrector Series Book 2)
Avi Datta
Datta’s head-spinning, time-bending Time Corrector science-fiction/romance epic continues, after The Winding, with this follow-up that doubles down on the first book’s already grand ambitions. Picking up in media res—appropriately, since given the Möbius strip plotting, every moment can come before or after the next—The Movement opens with blood and destruction before vaulting pack a year, to 2026, with Vincent, the Time Corrector hero of the first book, about to launch the “Neurolink” network in his capacity as CEO of Quantum World, while Emika, the woman he loves, observes from a distance … and the villain Vandal stirs global digital chaos. With Emika is Nozomi, the daughter Vincent doesn’t know he’s fathered. Emika’s world is shaken, though, when after at last making sense of the misunderstandings that have kept her and Vincent apart, she dares to see him again—and he doesn’t seem to know who she is, and his closest advisors want to keep it that way.

From there, the novel offers a wealth of perspectives and surprises, with Datta taking great care to guide readers through the labyrinth of time jumps, A.I. surprises, alternate histories, and Jack Kirby-scaled visions: “Chronos’s scythe, Zeus’s thunderbolt, Hades’s spear, and Poseidon’s trident multiply and create an impenetrable wall of weapons,” Datta writes in one go-for-broke moment. While more narratively complex than its predecessor, The Movement is in many ways more inviting, right down to the helpful footnotes explaining the nuances of backstories.

The length is daunting, though the story moves fast, balancing heart, brainy timeline complexities, and an ethos of self-sacrifice to protect us all. Passages from the point-of-view of Vandal are especially engaging, blending mad science, righteous revenge, and Vincent’s own history. For all its sweeping scope—the “escalating tragedies” foretold by the mysterious Chronos—the novel’s heart is as much in its romance as in the intreton-powered “core” that only a Time Corrector can draw upon.

Takeaway: This time-bending epic blends SF, romance, and adventure on the grandest scale.

Great for fans of: Heather Blackwood’s Time Corps Chronicles, Blake Crouch’s Recursion.

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

Silence of the Seamaid
Ann Medlock
In this intimate, revelatory novel, Medlock (Outing the Mermaid) charts the awakening of a woman of promise and ambition who continually discovers that, in mid-century America, even the men who share her political values would prefer she perform the role of “Mrs. Montagna.” After a few years as “a template bride, young helpmeet, then a new mom,” Lee Palmer dares to divorce her husband, becoming a single mother in the mid 1960s and making her living as the “girl assistant” to a boss in charge of generating position papers for Democrats. After an unceremonious firing, she secures a shot at her dream job, writing at the White House, trying to imbue Lyndon Johnson with “Kennedy-style class.” But her promising new romance with Joe Montagna—a hard-charging charmer certain to be “Secretary of Labor someday”—quickly swamps out her plans.

Joe proposes, and he has their lives all laid out: a new home in New York City, to go with his new consulting business, and the new boat he bought for the honeymoon, without checking in with Lee, who has recurring nightmares of shipwrecks. An ill-wind blows soon after she accepts, and Medlock’s vibrantly detailed novel surges into a tumultuous age and milieu, its world of marches, movement politics, Play it as it Lays, Italian weddings, and audiences with the Maharishi, all captured with a verisimilitude that’s both dishy and nerve-wracking. (One sharp invention: a dopey hippie musical called Boobs, the “defining theatre work of their era.”)

What’s most wrenching, though, is the man Joe reveals himself to be, angry and fragile as his ceramic bulldogs. Lee’s eventual efforts at making a mistake, like the rest of the narrative, ride her zeitgeist, as she finds strength and support as “the rise of feminism was changing so many rules, confusing so many people.” The richness of characterization and cultural reporting comes at the expense of narrative momentum, and the length is epic. But it’s urgent and alive, studded with insights and a relentless succession of striking scenes.

Takeaway: This marvelously written epic lays bare a woman’s awakening at the dawn of second wave feminism.

Great for fans of: Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Dorothy Bryant’s Ella Price’s Journal.

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

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Our Man in Mbabane: A Novel Based on a True Story
K. E. Karl
Touched with espionage, romance, and a welcome sense of verisimilitude, Karl’s first novel features an American expat in the heart of Africa at the height of apartheid. The story revolves around Frank George, an American economist who in 1977 travels to Swaziland and talks his way into a job in the nation’s Central Statistical Office. But the whole thing is just a cover. In actuality, George is on a secret mission to transport arms and ammunition to the African National Congress (ANC) to aid in the fight against apartheid. Will he succeed in his endeavor, or will he end up getting lost in the color and camaraderie of the local landscape?

Despite the rather heavy subject matter, Karl’s plotting and storytelling are light and fun, with much of the novel caught up in descriptions of romance, parties, and social scenery. George himself swings from one love affair to the next, his social life at times seeming to take narrative precedence over his daring secret. The passages when Karl shifts focus to the ANC and their fight against apartheid, meanwhile, convincingly depict the system, its lived peculiarities, and what it took to stand up to it. Likewise, scenes involving political wrangling or the bureaucratic tangle of working abroad are distinguished by the author’s expertise.

Karl’s novel is no thriller fantasy, digging into life and spycraft as it’s actually lived, offering lively and in-depth insight into African politics, history, and culture rather than the plot twists of a potboiler. The dialogue and characterization both are sharp, and Karl’s smooth, unfussy prose keeps the story flowing smoothly as he illuminates a fresh milieu, avoiding the stereotypes or ginned-up suspense that often compromise stories of white Americans in Africa. Lovers of romance and spy novels with a real-world edge will enjoy this story, which is as light in its telling as it is weighty in its concerns.

Takeaway: A thoughtful novel of an American expat fighting apartheid in Africa, told with a light touch.

Great for fans of: Eleanor Morse’s White Dog Fell from the Sky, Graham Greene.

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

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The Mother Gene
Lynne Bryant
Gynecologist Miriam Stewart has dedicated her career to helping poor women in the “hollers” of western Virginia, where she herself grew up, make good reproductive choices. Now 65, at the brink of “retirement … old age … obsolescence,” she faces the increased needs of her octogenarian mother, Lillian, still living on her own although becoming more fragile. At the same time, Miriam’s lesbian daughter, Olivia, is exploring the possibility of motherhood through insemination, and Miriam’s on-again, off-again romantic partner—Olivia’s biological father—announces his return to her life. Then, on the eve of leaving her practice, she lands a multi-million-dollar grant that will enable her to build the women’s medical center she has long dreamed about. A revelation of disturbing family secrets, however, calls into question her career choices.

The ambitious cross-generational novel addresses compelling social issues such as class, health care, and women’s reproductive rights without taking a heavy-handed approach. Bryant's empathy and understanding shines throughout, a uniting perspective that helps unite some at-times disparate storylines. The Mother Gene employs three points of view—Miriam, Lillian, and Olivia—to good effect as it explores the theme of what it means to be a mother. A multi-timeline novel, the story hops from the present in 2010, back to Miriam’s early career in the 1970s, and then further back to her mother’s life during the Depression and World War II. Early on, these time shifts can feel jarring and too frequent, and what particular flashbacks are intended to illuminate is not always clear.

Bryant rewards reader patience, though, as midway through, when the characters are more fleshed-out, the strands weave together, and the narrative flows with purpose and power. Some readers may guess at aspects of Miriam’s family secret early on, and the revelation itself is somewhat drawn out. But when it finally arrives, the full truth about Lillian and Miriam’s past delivers an emotional punch thanks to Bryant’s perceptive, humane characterization and abiding sense of what matters most.

Takeaway: A gynecologist questions the choices she made in her life in this humane novel of family and secrets.

Great for fans of: Diane Chamberlain, Jodi Picoult

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

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Eudora Space Kid: Do the Robot!
David Horn
Horn returns with the lively third installment in his Eudora Space Kid series, and this time the mischievous Eudora is battling more personal enemies, including her emotions and bad decisions. When her sister Molly wins the lead part in the school play, Eudora’s role as a background tree pales in comparison. To cope with her jealousy, she bypasses the controls for the ship’s resident robot officer Walter, piloting him into a scene-stealing moment with her sister that ends in disaster for Eudora—and a week in the ship’s brig as punishment. But Eudora’s shenanigans don’t end there, and soon she’s in more hot water than ever before.

Young readers will again be entertained with Eudora’s antics and Horn’s playful storytelling. Eudora unintentionally breaks Walter after he beats her at a board game, kickstarting a massive effort with her best friend, Arnold, to hide the accident—by using Eudora’s newest invention, a “remote-control-person device,” to take over Walter’s movements and voice. As always, her big ideas lead to chaos and a lesson, this time about owning up to your mistakes after Captain Jax needs Walter on the bridge to help stop yet another alien Qlaxon attack, and Eudora and Arnold’s plan backfires. All is not lost however: in typical Eudora fashion, she inadvertently staves off the attack by introducing the power-hungry aliens to competitive board-game play.

Horn’s creative details—Eudora and Molly were adopted by alien parents, and Arnold’s dad is actually a Qlaxon (and the ship’s chief of security)— give the story an exciting interstellar feel, while Tondora’s black-and-white illustrations bring the characters’ emotions front and center. And those emotions form the crux of Horn’s important message: that sharing your feelings and accepting help from others is the true secret to conquering the galaxy. The mock author interview at the end, spearheaded by Horn’s dog, Trixie, and a fun story-centered crossword add extra amusement.

Takeaway: An entertaining space tale with valuable lessons on handling your emotions.

Great for fans of: Lizzie Lipman’s Rocket Kids, Peter Brown’s The Wild Robot.

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

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Echoes: A Collection of Linked-Verse Poetry
Michelle Hyatt & Jacob Salzer
Hyatt and Salzer’s first linked-verse collaboration together offers poetry of movement between the authors’ verses, choreographed by the Japanese forms of renga, rengay, and others. The collection achieves a “blissful silence of ecstatic dance” in poems that aren’t about merely friendship but are themselves friendship made poetic. In most of the pieces, apart from the solo linked-verse, the poets alternate stanzas, which creates the effect of “roots and shoots.../ push-pull energy/ in a garden/” to cultivate a natural tension but also a stirring awareness of the space between verses, friends, moments, and nature and art.

The subject matter reflects the collection’s poetic form, often juxtaposing, as is traditional in Japanese poetry, seemingly disparate images to illuminate stark truths that relate at times to the political, as in “The Machine” and “A Drop of Water,” the ancestral, as in “Inheritance” and “Grandma’s Stories,” and the natural, as in “Kaleidoscope” and “First Light,” where lines like “tired of the English language / I sit in the shade/ with a cranefly” explore the kind of paradoxes that aren’t housed in the sphere of chaos but rather the sphere of dream. The world is always turning, yet life remains still. Echoes shows readers contradictions of peace.

Yet while Hyatt and Salzer’s poems occupy this lulling, liminal space of blurred consciousness, they also harmonize into a soundtrack or sound-portrait of modern life, and the collection is abundant with lines like this one from “Black Ice”: “breaking news/ in the old t.v./ drifting clouds.” The way we live today is exposed in blends of dissimilar images that pair the mundane with the strange, but the authors throughout point towards how we can find serenity amid this chaos. An echo is a thing between sound and silence, and readers in this collection will find depth and meaning in their exposure to all three.

Takeaway: A linked-verse collaboration exploring nature, friendship, and the spaces between.

Great for fans of: Hiroaki Sato’s One Hundred Frogs, Matsuo Bashō.

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

Rebirth of the Gangster Act 4: Inheritance
CJ Standal
The climactic fifth volume of Standal and artist Juan Romera’s Rebirth of the Gangster accomplished graphic novel series (collecting issues 19 through 24) offers more killer street-level crime storytelling, with sincere interest in the hard circumstances that lead to a criminal life and the complex and squalid mess that crime leads to, across generations. In Standal and Romera’s work, the bad choices someone makes right now—or that their parents made a generation ago—are likely to lead to worse ones tomorrow, spinning out into others’ lives. This edition opens with fallout from a death in the previous entry, with the criminal cohort of series protagonist Marcus, actually run by the unstable Hunter, now desperate for a fourth man to run a job targeting a bank … and Marcus’s own mother.

Complicating all this, of course, is the mess they’ve already made, as Lorena Sanchez, a long-ago friend of Hunter’s and a cop on her last case, closes in on the plan. (The heist is planned by men, but it’s the many compelling women who often have the upper hand.) The storytelling is tense, taut, and emotionally resonant, the silent panels of characters going about their days, weighed down by worries, every bit as suspenseful as the action. The creators excel at depicting hard lives, addiction and desperation, at the thrill of plotting a heist but also the compounding tragedies that lead to such a crime—and that will follow. Romera’s layouts are clear, sometimes stark, the emphasis always on the people and gripping flow of action and feeling across a page.

The dialogue is pared to the bone, never wasting a word. Like all the best crime stories, this volume stirs a sinking in the pit of the stomach as the heist approaches, and the violence, when it comes, is wrenching but humane. The conclusion proves satisfying, though new readers are advised to start with the first collection.

Takeaway: The knockout conclusion of a smart and humane graphic novel crime series.

Great for fans of: David Lapham’s Stray Bullets, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s Criminal.

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

Running from the Dreamland
Tulasi Acharya
Acharya’s debut surveys the experience of immigration to the U.S., from the perspective of a bright student (and teacher) of literature and journalism. On graduation day at Georgia University, as he waits for his girlfriend Melissa, Nepali native Deepak recalls the two years of struggle after immigrating to the US. He has found the going tough in his new nation, having to scrounge money not only to pay tuition and expenses but also to send home to meet the medical expenses of his ailing mother. Unable to find a job on campus, Deepak has to work outside illegally. His employers exploit him, paying him much less than the required minimum wage, but he is grateful. In class too, he faces ridicule for his Nepalese accent.

Deepak’s experiences are moving and ring true, echoing and enriching truths that have been explored in the body of South Asian immigrant writing. Acharya’s prose tends toward the blunt and declaratory, fitting the drudge work that Deepak, who lacks legal work documents, must take on to achieve his dreams. Deepak’s over-qualified, and often jolted by what he encounters in America, from his friend Ganesh’s refusal of his embrace (“Only gays do so”) to realizations about his own ingrained attitudes: “He claimed he did not believe in the caste system, but every time, when he reached the Dumpster, he felt humiliated.”

This narrative of soul-crushing work and cultural alienation in the interest of ambition is frank, revealing, and insightful. Occasional moments of connection lift the spirits of Deepak and readers alike, though key relationships—like that between Deepak and Melissa, who exchange poetry—are not explored in depth. Melissa’s issues with Deepak come up during the denouement but would have added welcome drama if dramatized earlier. That feeling of being cut off from others is powerful, but the novel comes to fullest life in moments of interaction.

Takeaway: An insightful novel about a Nepali immigrant's isolating experience in the U.S.

Great for fans of: Rajika Bhandari’s America Calling, Anurag Mathur’s The Inscrutable Americans.

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

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Cloud Conversations & Image Stories--Leonardo's Theory: Pictorial Consciousness
Margaret A. Harrell
“I see in the clouds a cast of characters speaking to me,” Harrell (The Hell’s Angels Letters) writes in this searching, soaring collection of cloud photography, an art she practices, contemplates, and celebrates while exploring its deep mysteries. “Whose are the images I see as if miraculously, in creating my own photography? How did they get into the sky? Is my mind—really capable of making up such elaborate images?” Harrell’s own images, striking and surprising, suggest multitudes, yielding rich new visions of figures and scenes the longer one gazes into their tufting splendor. An early photograph captioned “Angel Squadron,” for example, might offer a browser, at first glance, a suggestion of a solitary winged figure. Let your eyes linger, your imagination engage, though, and the seemingly abstract cloud gauze around that angel can bloom into a host, every billow and hump alive with sudden definition.

Harrell’s cloud photos are collaborative, between artist and nature, between beholder and photograph, between our at-a-glance perceptions and the deeper, expansive visions we tend to allow ourselves only in meditation or reverie. In inviting prefatory essays, Harrell persuasively links the art of cloud photography to “chance” images from the history of art, especially to da Vinci’s contention that “by indistinct things”—by this he means “the stains of walls, or ashes of a fire, or clouds, or mud or like places” “the mind is stimulated to new inventions.”

Harrell’s writing and photography here both combine the ecstatic with disciplined research and honed practices. The result is both inspired—the photographs reward patience with revelations—and inspiring: for readers, those revelations need not be the same ones that Harrell herself discerned. A chapter on clouds “as a meditative tool” explicitly encourages what the photos implicitly do, urging the discovery of “minute interconnections” in nature. Excerpts from others’ work on the history of chance images illuminate the material.

Takeaway: Seekers will relish this collection’s rich cloud photography and history of “chance images.”

Great for fans of: Robin Kelsey’s Photography and the Art of Chance, Rachel Eisendrath’s Gallery of Clouds.

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

Born Into Crisis
Kenneth Nixon
This powerful and touching memoir, Nixon’s debut, recounts a young man's journey with his mother and her struggle with mental illness—and the deeply troubled systems meant to offer support. With unflinching directness, Nixon pens the story of his family, with the strong support system of his paternal grandmother and his father, navigating the ups and downs of his mother’s illness and the impacts it has on those around them. In addition to sharing Nixon’s story, a heart-wrenching journey that touches on important moments of pain and connection that shaped his upbringing and the man he is today, Born into Crisis also stands as a call to action for change within the mental health community, urging greater compassion, a more personalized approach, and long-term therapy and observation among essential steps to fixing a broken system.

Nixon recounts the harrowing circumstances of his birth, digs into generational trauma, and testifies to the strength of familial bonds even in the face of uncertainty and chaos, all while painting a vivid, deeply personal picture of the ways many who experience mental illness are judged and viewed through a biased mindset rather than given the care and help they need. Nixon tells the story of his upbringing in emotionally charged prose that will resonate with readers of memoirs about trauma and mental issues; elsewhere, he offers a survivor’s clear-eyed assessment of the system itself, helpful breakdowns of new approaches like the Crisis Now model, and suggestions for how anyone can become an advocate for better treatment for a loved one, though at times the analysis of the potential systemic changes is generalized.

The book’s power comes from Nixon’s examination of the toll that living with untreated mental illness can wreak upon a family and the helpful, often inspiring advice and examples Nixon offers. A memoir showcasing familial bonds and rising above one's circumstances, Born into Crisis will resonate with readers facing the impact of mental illness in their lives.

Takeaway: A touching memoir on familial bonds, generational trauma, and mental health awareness.

Great for fans of: Bruce D. Perry’s What Happened to You, Jenifer Lewis’s The Mother of Black Hollywood.

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

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