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The Will to Die
Joe Pulizzi
A man’s quest to uncover the secrets behind his father’s death leads to the discovery of a sinister conspiracy in small-town Ohio in Pulizzi’s debut thriller. Will Pollitt runs a marketing company in Cleveland with his friend Robby Thompson and is deep in debt due to a gambling addiction. If he can’t pay tuition for his daughter, Jess, she’ll be kicked out of college. When his father, Abe, bequeaths Will the Pollitt Funeral Home in Sandusky, Ohio, Will is stuck being the boss of his ex-wife, Sam, who works there as an embalmer. Will becomes suspicious about inconsistencies with Abe’s death and the autopsy report, and Abe’s journals lead him to a number of suspicious life insurance sales followed by deaths, all targeting minorities. Will’s life and the lives of his loved ones are threatened as he races against time to prevent further crimes.

The character development focuses on Will’s emotions and challenges as he navigates personal relationships, including his sincere fondness for Jess, his lingering love for Sam, his partnership and friendship with Robby, and his crush on his high school classmate Xena. Unfortunately, Will is a casual racist and misogynist, and unrepentant when Sam bluntly calls him out. This choice, perhaps intended to depict him as a relatable everyman, instead paints him as out of touch and unsympathetic and makes him a less than ideal hero for this story about protecting minorities from predatory white supremacists.

Pulizzi (Epic Content Marketing), a longtime marketing professional, realistically develops Will and Robby’s work challenges and successes alongside the suspense plot. The pace is fast, and the conspiracy is multidimensional with intricate connections that extend throughout Sandusky. Concise writing and zippy dialogue propel the story swiftly to a solid conclusion. Only the flaws in the hero’s characterization undermine this otherwise strong contemporary thriller.

Takeaway: Fans of strong but flawed protagonists will be drawn to this contemporary thriller about suspicious deaths in small-town Ohio.

Great for fans of Harlan Coben’s The Stranger, Chris Bohjalian’s The Guest Room.

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

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Confessions from the Consortium of Rogue Gene Scientists
Charles and Cassandra Doe
This provocative short story takes the form of a letter written by “Charles” and “Cassandra,” scientists who violated a ban on genetic engineering so as to protect their descendants from inherited disease. In 2017, Cassandra dies of cystic fibrosis; in 2019, Charles has a fatal cranial hemorrhage resulting from hemophilia. This missive to their orphaned children is then released anonymously to the public. Cassandra and Charles believe their genetic flaws uniquely qualified them to illustrate that using science to extend the lives of the disabled does humankind no evolutionary favors; they hope their children, engineered to be “physically, mentally, and emotionally healthier,” will help the human race grow stronger over time by handing down the healthy genes from their parents as well as the engineered ones that remove their parents’ flaws and provide useful traits such as seeing ultraviolet light.

Tackling complex concepts in straightforward language (“No one consents to existing”), the Does explain that their children were conceived in love, encourage them to be existentially aware, and recommend a non-religious, joy-focused worldview. They punctuate their lessons with clever poems referencing Occam’s razor, Plato’s cave, and Fermi’s paradox. Discussing possible solutions for overpopulation in an age of dwindling resources, they explicitly reject eugenics, instead advocating to “make access to genetic technology a universal human right,” but readers may struggle to believe that individuals choosing which of their traits to eliminate would be much improvement over authoritarian eugenics programs.

Those who read widely and are acquainted with the philosophical and scientific concepts underpinning this story will have a leg up on enjoying it, but the conceit of the letter being written to young children makes it surprisingly accessible. The unusual concept, epistolary form, and surprising playfulness of the writing result in something special, perfect for both casual reading and philosophy classroom discussion.

Takeaway: Science fiction readers and philosophy students will enjoy contemplating the ideas in this provocative epistolary work.

Great for fans of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain, Neal Shusterman’s Unwind Dystology.

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

The Ghosts of Hawthorn, Missouri
James Peet
In Peet’s staggering debut novel, a series of portraits bursts from the page,showcasing bigotry, cult mentality, and cycles of misery in small-town America. The story begins in the early 20th century in the rundown section of Hawthorn, Mo., that’s crudely known as Jackass Flats. Nine-year-old Terrance Haight, the only black boy in Hawthorn, learns to harden himself to the white townspeople’s cruelty. In adulthood, his hopes of becoming a music teacher are dashed when a white teen claims she’s been having an affair with him. Meanwhile, local Baptist pastor Harold Redmond positions himself as one of the most powerful men in the region, though he doesn’t practice what he preaches. As Hawthorn lurches into the 21st century, the narrative turns to follow two very different young men: Daniel, whose troubled family force him to become “a fully-grown soul trapped inside a small boy’s frame,” and Father Redmond’s erratic and dangerous son, Eric.

Peet displays a breathtaking gift for weaving stories together, hopping effortlessly from one perspective to another without ever confusing the reader. Side characters spring to life, including Daniel’s mother, Shelly, desperate to make something of herself and doomed to fail, and Mrs. Redmond, who wants to celebrate her husband’s death with a parade. Peet poetically binds the ensemble together through effortless shifts in time (“He turned 25. He turned around twice, his father died, and then he was 26. He blinked. 27”) and distinctive prose that gives the reader a sense of looking at the town through a magnifying glass.

Everyone in Hawthorn has a distorted sense of reality; hallucinations are as common as drunkenness, and Peet sometimes leaves the reader guessing where the line is between truth and nightmare—or whether there’s a line at all. This startlingly brilliant modern gothic pulls no punches in its devastating takedown of life in the rural Midwest.

Takeaway: Fans of unsettling drama and deeply emotional histories will be bowled over by this gritty and brilliant Midwestern gothic novel.

Great for fans of Toni Morrison, John Steinbeck.

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

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Target Operating Model 2025
Randall Scott Rogers
In this slim but information-packed overview of business management best practices, Rogers (Only 1 Shot: Aligning the Inner Soul with Action), founder of management consulting firm Henosis Partners, shares the wisdom he’s gained from working with dozens of companies in various industries. Adopting a no-nonsense tone, Rogers states that bigger isn’t better; fragmented companies are vulnerable, not flexible; and there is no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all business approach. Having slain those sacred cows, he outlines 10 target operating models, or organizational design choices, that are intended to keep businesses alive and well. These touch on a wide range of topics, including office layout, data analysis, and diverse hiring.

Referencing several once-thriving companies now fallen on hard times, Rogers pulls no punches as he scolds business owners who mistake fads for innovation and focus on short-term performance to the detriment of long-term value creation. Though he frequently talks about the importance of innovation, most of his recommendations are solidly middle-of-the-road: developing personal relationships, building quiet rooms where people can think clearly, trusting employees to do their jobs. Most intriguing is his chapter on how to listen mindfully and make space for uncomfortable but necessary change. Bare-bones full-page diagrams illustrate several points and are suited to being photocopied and handed out at meetings.

Owners of smaller businesses may find some of Rogers’s suggestions harder to implement, as when he advises that every company should establish “an enterprise ‘sensing’ team of significant size and unlimited resources” dedicated to acquiring “disconfirming data” about its industry. Those who are less corporate will be put off by jargony phrases such as “shared intentions and aligned actions leading to innovative results.” But Rogers’s firm guidance will be very welcome to executives at large companies who are overwhelmed by success and struggling to stay on track.

Takeaway: Results-focused executives in need of direction will benefit from Rogers’s firm guidance back to basic business principles.

Great for fans of Tom Peters, Peter Senge.

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

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House of the Shrieking Woman: A Sarah Greene Supernatural Mystery (Sarah Greene Mysteries Book 2)
Steven Ramirez
Ramirez’s second Sarah Greene Mystery builds on The Girl in the Mirror by expanding the world of his spunky sleuth. Sarah, a divorced realtor and psychic living in Dos Santos, Calif., is recovering from a supernatural near-death experience that’s left her shaken and grateful to be alive. She tries to take it easy, if taking it easy means going to therapy, sorting out her complicated relationship with her ex-husband, and trying yoga. When she learns of odd things happening at the women’s shelter, she investigates. Along with her friend Carter, a fellow psychic; Lou, the town’s chief of police; and a few new partners, Sarah learns more about her community, her history, and the darkness surrounding Dos Santos.

Ramirez’s characters are relatable and flawed, and his approach to small Dos Santos makes readers feel like they live there too. Sarah and several other characters are devoutly Catholic, and faith plays an important role in the story, but there’s also casual sex, regular drinking, and an open attitude toward Judaism and other forms of spirituality. The interpersonal relationships are dramatic enough to keep a reader interested, but not so deep as to take away from the plot. At times, mundanity brushes up against horror in uncomfortable ways, as when a dinnertime discussion of domestic violence alternates with gushing over a perfect pizza crust. When a lesbian romance ends in tragedy, it’s more clichéd than poignant. But for the most part, there’s a warmth to the writing that will keep readers invested.

A newcomer could enjoy this installment without reading the first, but Ramirez leaves the story (frustratingly) open-ended, so picking up the next volume is a must. This mystery strikes a great balance between quirky and thrilling and between modern and timeless, and it’s easy to read, enjoyable, and thought-provoking.

Takeaway: This California-set supernatural investigation is perfect for readers who like their mysteries modern, suspenseful, and warm-hearted.

Great for fans of Victoria Laurie, Juliet Blackwell.

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

Winners and Losers
Arthur Hartz
This ascerbic collection of cartoons and witticisms written by Hartz (Inconvenient Truths About Relationships), part of his Mundane Fortune series appraising the idiosyncrasies of American life, comments on the clawing need to be the best, richest, and most beautiful. Hartz examines how Americans worship celebrity over intelligence and generosity, want to be associated with famous people, and self-deceive. He selects inspirational quotes from famous people and books, only to deflate them: “Isn’t this sentiment beautiful? Doesn’t it feel good? Too bad nobody buys it.” The collection is a gloomy yet noteworthy view of how some people schmooze and stomp their way to success, bulldozing their way through the “losers” around them.

Sporting a Harvard Lampoon vibe, illustrators Jovic, Wolfe, and Ramos skewer the patronizing, misogynistic, self-absorbed, and status-seeking with eloquently simple line art. Hartz’s aphorisms are thought-provoking, especially when he ponders the consequences of a culture that ties class, youth, and beauty to success. The reader may snicker at first, but the poignancy of despair comes through as he states, “We never give a sucker an even break or a loser the benefit of the doubt.”

Countering his sarcastic and pessimistic commentary, such as “Creating an honor is the ultimate low cost manipulation” and “Good things come to those who look good,” Hartz provides some hope for the hopelessly average, asserting “The impossibility of victory frees us to pursue personal satisfaction” and “No one else could survive being me. I must be tough.” Hartz’s insightful book provides readers with scorching observations that are balanced by an almost shy belief in the value of self-esteem even when the world is unremittingly scornful.

Takeaway: This sly book of well-drawn cartoons will bring hope and chuckles to readers who weary of the rat race.

Great for fans of Great for fans of Mark Stivers, P.C. Vey.

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

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The Eye of Ra
Ben Gartner
Gartner’s middle grade time-travel adventure is a rollicking ride through the sands of ancient Egypt. In the present day, siblings Sarah, 12, and John, 10, are bracing for the Tidewell family’s upcoming move from Colorado to Maryland. John, a worrier, is sad about leaving his old friends behind, but Sarah, bold and sometimes reckless, is looking forward to new experiences. Together with their parents, they take one last sunset hike in the Colorado mountains. When Sarah and John run off exploring, they come across a cave inscribed with a strange symbol. Sarah traces it with a finger, and then they leave the cave—and find themselves in ancient Egypt. John and Sarah are taken in by young Zachariah, the son of architect Imhotep, the designer of the Pyramid of Djoser. Together, John and Sarah must adapt to this new-to-them place, making friends and learning about the past while trying to find a way back home.

Gartner’s well-researched novel is suffused with atmospheric detail. John and Sarah’s exciting experiences include escaping crocodiles, facing off with cobras, and helping to build the pyramid. These scenes alternate with moments of ancient Egyptian domesticity, including cooking tilapia stew and playing board games. Gartner has a relaxed, playful sense of humor that comes through in the interactions between Zachariah’s family and the Tidewell siblings, and he weaves an intricate tapestry of the past.

John and Sarah’s assimilation into ancient Egyptian society feels too easy. Sarah’s blasé attitude of “Even if we are stuck here, no sense worrying about it, right?” is unrealistic even for an adrenaline-junkie tween, and she waves off John’s concerns and homesickness in a way that feels heartless at times. However, younger readers who mostly want a glimpse of life in another time and place will find plenty to enjoy in this glittering picture of a distant era.

Takeaway: Grade schoolers eager to learn about daily life in ancient Egypt will find this adventure novel hits the sweet spot.

Great for fans of Lloyd Alexander’s Time Cat, Eloise Jarvis McGraw.

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

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Three Degrees and Gone
J. Stewart Willis
In the global warming–ravaged America of 2086, jobs are scarce, tracking implants are mandatory, and desperate migrants are smuggled into Canada—now an isolationist, right-wing nation with a Trumpian border wall. Three families meet while traveling north for better lives. Bored Texas housewife Dana Wilkins is saddled with her abusive, philandering husband, Frank; they hope to give their daughter, Embrey, a chance at college. Georgia hurricane survivor Harry Sykes and his son, Georgia Tech student Jamie, are escaping Atlanta, which has been overwhelmed with refugees from Florida. Chicago socialite Cynthia Sherwood and her 12-year-old daughter, Adeliza, are fleeing Cynthia’s husband, Desmond. They band together against thieves, Desmond’s quest to bring Cynthia and Adeliza home, and Frank’s destructive selfishness. When their border crossing goes bad, the refugees must decide whether to make another attempt or turn back.

Readers seeking nuanced characterization may struggle with characters who habitually explain the world more than they live in it—most notably Embrey and Adeliza, who talk like small adults. Well-meant but clumsy ideas about race and women’s self-image, social roles, and aspirations are often put in the mouths of black and female characters. Desmond is black and Cynthia is white; the scene where he explains to her that he only finds black women sexually exciting is particularly awkward.

These flaws aside, this idea-packed futuristic road trip will appeal strongly to fans of classic science fiction. There are detailed descriptions of climate change and future engineering projects. Willis’s Canada is a clear, direct allegory for the modern U.S., and it’s not an appealing place; the deep sympathy for modern migrants (“You think the Mexicans felt this vulnerable seventy years ago?” Embrey wonders) will touch readers’ hearts. The book’s pragmatic, sincere pacifism holds significant appeal for those looking for hard science fiction without militarism or a right-wing slant.

Takeaway: Future technology and climate migration combine in this empathetic refugee novel.

Great for fans of Kim Stanley Robinson, Madeline Ashby, Robert Charles Wilson.

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

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Vocabulary for Champions
Joe Oswald
Longtime high school history teacher Oswald assembles a genuinely useful and enjoyable guide to building vocabulary. Most such guides are meant to be used by students preparing for standardized tests, but Oswald aims his at working adults looking to bolster their interviews and presentations, suggesting that a bigger vocabulary can lead to a higher income. The guide is orga-nized in a practical and intuitive way. Oswald starts with the basics, discussing tone and listing common prefixes and suffixes that can help students guess the meanings of words. These sections are followed by sets of relatively common words that readers can use in multiple everyday situations. To avoid overwhelming the reader with heaps of words, Oswald builds in short quizzes at regular intervals, ensuring that the lessons are absorbed and the reader can recognize words in context.

The topic sections include science, grammar and literature, math, economics and finance, and history. The finance section is especially useful, as Oswald digs into terms relating to mortgages, assets, and savings plans, educating readers on basic financial literacy as well as vocabulary. Learners of English as a second language will get a lot out of the discussion of commonly confused and misused words such as elicit and illicit.

Oswald keeps the guide fresh with fun study aids such as crossword puzzles and word searches. By the time the reader reaches the general vocabulary section, the rhythm created by Oswald’s method makes it simple to approach new words without a guiding theme. Though the book is short and doesn’t include advanced vocabulary words, it packs a lot into 276 pages. Some odd formatting choices are a bit distracting, and the layout cries out for occasional graphics, but the core content is valuable and presented well. This breezy, fast-moving guide can help anyone looking to build their word power.

Takeaway: Teens and adults at all stages of life can benefit from this well-constructed workbook for learning mid-level English vocabulary.

Great for fans of Chris Lele’s The Vocabulary Builder Workbook.

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

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Confessions of a Helmet-Free Childhood
Cinnia Finfer
Finfer’s quick, humorous debut recounting the high and low points of her formative years in the 1960s and ’70s, when bad fashion was the rule and not the exception, will bring smiles of remembrance to many. References to (and photos of) Schwinn Stingray bikes, Crissy dolls with “growing” hair, and cooking with fondue pots evoke a time when kids were expected to go outside and play unsupervised until dinner. Finfer tells wry, often riveting stories of facing a school bus bully, inadvertently destroying her sister’s banana-seat bike, and becoming entangled in scrapes not always of her own making. Teen readers will recognize many similarities to their own lives even as they marvel at the idea of going through adolescence without mobile phones or social media.

The brief tales in this slender book are enjoyable and occasionally provide laugh-aloud moments: for example, the list of lessons learned from an autonomous childhood include “Even if something happens by accident, it’s still on your watch” and, perhaps related, “Read the label before igniting anything.” However, readers may wish for a tighter framework to give context to the stories, and struggle to make sense of who the major players are and how they relate to one another. Finfer only briefly introduces her parents and siblings, and it’s not clear why they endured the many house moves that form the backdrop for some of the anecdotes.

Finfer’s writing is reminiscent of the late humorist Erma Bombeck’s essays about a suburbia that no longer exists. Readers may wonder how Finfer survived being allowed to play with no grown-ups hovering nearby, and she did run into difficulties that probably warranted an adult’s attention, but this is primarily a fond look back at a very different time. This wonderful Wayback Machine of a memoir may leave readers wanting to wear terrible plaid and reacquire their long-lost childhood toys.

Takeaway: These charming tales of childhood before smartphones will evoke nostalgia in older readers and wonder in younger ones.

Great for fans of Great for fans of Tom Purcell’s Misadventures of a 1970s Childhood, Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.

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

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Leave the Lights On When You Go
Janis Ahlenberg
The pseudonymous Ahlenberg’s uneven memoir boasts fluid prose and a strong narrative flow that’s sometimes disrupted by navel-gazing. She was born in the 1940s and raised in New England with her brother, Steve. She was 12 when their mother, pregnant with triplets, announced she would no longer give Ahlenberg care beyond room and board. Ahlenberg never recovered from that betrayal and left home at age 18. The triplets, denied nothing, descended into mental illness. After Ahlenberg’s 30-year marriage ends in divorce, she tries to reconnect with her family, but Steve’s libertarianism manifests as selfishness, and her aging parents and the triplets are locked in a self-perpetuating cycle of despair.

The author deserves kudos for crafting nonfiction that reads like a novel, but her all-too-human faults sometimes make her a challenging protagonist. Though she’s a therapist who understands toxic family dynamics, she’s often blindsided by those she loves. Still, she describes them vividly, particularly the sadness of her parents’ final years and the triplets’ struggles. Her attempts to confront her parents are understandable, but her bad timing makes for cringe-worthy moments. Her account of grieving her ex-husband’s death is an evocative portrait of being emotionally stuck, but the overabundance of self-analysis is difficult to read.

Ahlenberg makes the curious authorial decision to only briefly summarize the eventual upward trajectory of her personal story. She writes that she has not “taken the room here to tell” about her joy, but after so much emphasis on her sadness, readers will wish for balance. Regardless, the underlying resilience of her spirit comes through. Readers looking for stories of coping with difficult relatives and childhood sorrows will find this memoir satisfying and inspiring.

Takeaway: Fans of beautiful prose and sad stories with a glimmer of hope will be satisfied by this memoir of a family’s fragmentation.

Great for fans of Great for fans of Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle; Annabelle Gurwitch’s Wherever You Go, There They Are.

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

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Three Proofs That God Exists
Walt Runkis
Runkis (The Golden Cord of Arram) mixes up a potent blend of memoir and philosophical New Age self-help guide in an effort to prove the existence of a divine entity. As a young man in the 1960s, Runkis had no use for organized religion, instead placing his faith in science. But after a vivid vision of the Divine Mother-Father followed by a near-death experience, Runkis “burned for God-Realization.” After undergoing a vision quest in rural California, he developed a unique spiritual philosophy incorporating elements of several Eastern and Western religions.

Runkis divides his work into “the microcosm,” an account of experiences that he believes are proof of a “non-mechanical universe” where miracles happen, and “the macrocosm,” an accumulation of philosophical knowledge and spiritual insights. In persuasive prose illustrated by his own digital artwork, Runkis exhorts open-minded readers to believe that reality extends beyond what can be sensed. “This book offers a way of recognizing miracles in events that often pass for ordinary experience,” he explains, giving the example of someone appearing to help him and his wife while they were stranded on a mountain and their car wouldn’t start. He also posits that encounters with evil are necessary for spiritual evolution.

Runkis is extremely open-minded when it comes to methods of enlightenment. He advises readers to explore spiritual books of all kinds and discusses the use of psychotropic substances such as LSD (though he prefers meditation and breathing exercises as sources of altered states). Some may be put off by his belief in alien UFOs visiting Earth and his insistence that reincarnation is a fact, not fiction. Others may interpret his visions as mere hallucinations brought on by drugs or physical privation. But there are some intriguing spiritual concepts here for seekers willing to comb through and find them.

Takeaway: Readers open to DIY religion will find wisdom in this thought-provoking memoir of spiritual seeking.

Great for fans of Raymond Moody, John Edward.

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

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Zip Monkey
Eric Randolph Rasmussen
Political intrigue and sexual hijinks abound in this quirky novel from Rasmussen (American Banjo). Former porn star Angel Bimini has set herself up as a private investigator in Secaucus, N.J., desperate to get away from her past. She’s approached by an unscrupulous accountant who claims he’s being stalked by his mistress and wants Angel to investigate. The university he works for has come under scrutiny for its animal experimentation. As Angel begins work on the case, she uncovers mysteries, secrets, and half-truths that envelop the local scientific community—and when someone shoots up her office, an eyewitness claims the shooter was a chimpanzee wielding a machine gun.

Rasmussen crafts an atmosphere of palpable intrigue; there are many twists and turns, and the underhanded moments and double-crosses keep the plot moving. The book is replete with scenes of sexual misadventure. Lust is quite a preoccupation for several characters, and though some lines are funny (“The idea of this statuesque goy dish with an assault rifle made him turn inside out at the groin”), readers will eventually weary of the descriptions of each character’s libidinous thoughts. At times these scenes are uncomfortably puerile, and the humorous treatment of a primate sexually assaulting Angel is disturbing.

Where Rasmussen succeeds is in the character of Angel Bimini herself. She is a strong lead, instantly likable, with a familiar but not unwelcome story of personal redemption, and she gives the story color and life. Rasmussen is at his best when he delves into her personal background and her quest to reinvent herself. Like any noir PI, she’s sharp and cynical, but her moments of soul-searching and reinvention keep her well-rounded. Character-motivated readers will be glad to follow her through this madcap story.

Takeaway: Fans of humorous, tongue-in-cheek detective fiction will enjoy the misadventures of Angel Bimini, a porn star turned PI.

Great for fans of Melissa Olson, Justin Robinson.

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

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The Forgotten Duke (Diamonds In The Rough Book 5)
Sophie Barnes
Falling in love interferes with a man’s quest for vengeance in Barnes’s dramatic fifth Diamonds in the Rough Regency (after The Infamous Duchess). Regina Berkly, the 18-year-old daughter of the Earl of Hedgewick, is shocked when her father gives one day’s notice that she is to wed the 14-year-old Marquess of Stokes, who is afflicted with a wasting disease. Stokes urges her to find some way out of the marriage. She runs away and straight into the arms of Carlton Guthrie, the Scoundrel of St. Giles, who lets her stay at his London tavern until she can figure out how to undo the betrothal. Carlton’s kindness is not altruistic, as he plans to use her as a lure so that he can confront the earl, who killed his father. As Regina and Carlton draw emotionally and physically closer, he struggles to harden his heart against her, while she pursues her suspicion that he’s nobly born.

Barnes’s excellent character development is highlighted as she reveals the hidden depths of Carlton’s past, his defense of the defenseless, and the pain he suffered after witnessing his father’s murder. She cleverly exposes the layers of Regina’s personality as the daughter of a peer who matures quickly when forced to confront disturbing truths about her father’s violence and reconcile them with the man she thought she knew.

Stokes is a charming and thoughtful young man whose company Regina enjoys, so readers may quibble with the idea that marriage to him would mean “ruining her life” with “no hope of happiness” solely because he’s disabled. In addition, Regina is implausibly quick to forgive Carlton for using her as a pawn in his revenge scheme. These drawbacks are the only flaws in this otherwise magnetic romance, which is enhanced by a fast-paced plot, sensuous attraction, and the mystery surrounding Carlton’s identity.

Takeaway: Regency romance fans will be enamored with this well-plotted tale of love, intrigue, and revenge.

Great for fans of Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series, Eloisa James’s Say No to the Duke.

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

The Sandpiper's Spell
Tom Pearson
Pearson’s debut collection of intimate poetry offers a meditative selection of free-form vignettes across intertwining themes, all with a transformative tone. The title poem is split into six parts that capture the writer as a beachcomber describing the beauty of the shore (“bleached now by daylight/ under the assault/ of wind/ and flight/ and trumpets”). These are interspersed with shorter poems that fleetingly transport the reader elsewhere before returning to the coast. “Death of a...” envisions the sad end of a sad life, balanced by the captivating rural sunsets of Georgia in “Vanishing Point” (“the calico corona of/ autumn forgetfulness”).

Above all, Pearson demonstrates a mastery of imagery. Whether he’s describing a trip to the carnival or a Greek creation myth, the poems’ language and mood ebb and flow like the “retracting water” of the ocean. The tone is set organically through Pearson’s use of free-form verse and a sentimentality for childhood that feels like a personal diary, helping to develop a more intimate relationship between reader and poem. Other than adjusting to the rapid shift in subjects, the reader is required to do little in the way of mental gymnastics, leaving more time to enjoy the introspection that the poems invoke.

Bringing out the beauty in the everyday, the collection holds its own as a relaxing but powerful reminder to appreciate the little things in nature and in life. Sometimes the peaceful verse slips into melancholy, but even solitude brings “the gift/ of concentration/ allotted/ only/ to the lonely.” The images are quiet rather than breathtaking, encouraging attention to small creatures and subtle seasonal shifts. Even readers who would normally shy away from poetry will find comfort and calm in Pearson’s humble recollections.

Takeaway: Longtime poetry fans and new readers alike will appreciate the vibrant, lyrical imagery of Pearson’s nature-influenced verses.

Great for fans of Marge Piercy, Conrad Aiken.

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

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Goldilocks Private Eye
Greg Trine
Trine (Melvin Beederman, Superhero) introduces readers to lovable and quick-witted detective Goldilocks in this amusing mix of fairy tale and mystery. After inheriting her father’s investigative business, Goldilocks is desperate to pay the rent owed on the office that was also their home. She also fears being caught by Tom the Kid-Snatcher, who takes children to the horrible orphanage. When her first customer, Frank Sims, asks her to help find his missing grandparents and figure out why bears are living in their home, Goldilocks leaps to take the case—even though the home she must investigate is in the nightmarish Black Forest. Fortunately she has her sidekick cat, Charlotte, and her new friend, orphanage escapee Patty Wagon Patty, to help her.

The characters, both good and evil, are perfectly written for tween readers. Charlotte is the ideal companion and gives Goldilocks someone to narrate her plans to. The new friends she makes, such as wise Patty, are fun and endearing. The questions of whether Goldilocks will prevail against the tough landlady and dodge the Kid-Snatcher add suspense that will keep young readers hooked but not scared. This isn’t a comedy, but the frequent dashes of dark humor keep the story from getting too intense. Unfortunately, Baykovska’s chapter-head sketches are bland, but the writing is vibrant enough to stand alone.

Putting a Nancy Drew twist on the tale of Goldilocks and the three bears, Trine adds adventure, mystery, friends, and villains, telling an intriguing story of why Goldilocks was at the bears’ house and what happened after she ran away. Though Goldilocks faces real-life fears and troubles such as potential homelessness, losing a parent, stranger danger, and tales of giant spiders in the dark forest, the tone stays light, drawing readers into the new layers of an old story.

Takeaway: Older children will want to investigate right alongside this tough, smart, noir-influenced version of Goldilocks and her clever friends.

Great for fans of Great for fans of Liesl Shurtliff’s Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood.

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

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