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De Anima(l)
Joe Costanzo
Chaos ensues after a college mascot goes missing in this simmering and thought-provoking contemporary mystery by Costanzo (Restoration). When Gennesaret Christian College’s mascot, a live jackrabbit, disappears, the clue at the empty cage—a note that says “(L)”—points to mild-mannered 46-year-old professor Edward Stathakis, whose lecture on Aristotle’s De Anima treatise evolved into a discussion of animal rights when an “(L)” was added to the work’s title. However, what seems to be a college prank takes on a more sinister aspect when a fire is set in a billionaire game hunter’s lodge and an identical note is discovered. The professor becomes a target of suspicion and contempt among members of the college and local community.

Costanzo jumps right into the story, weaving philosophy and ethical questions into the well-developed and intriguing mystery plot. The sympathetic Stathakis is a worthy underdog protagonist. Passages from his perspective include an alluring element of crisp, hard-boiled description (“Even his tight dome of a beer belly was menacing, like the bronze shield of a Roman gladiator”) that convey his thoughtful bent. Despite his unassuming nature and unhappiness stemming from a devastating divorce, Stathakis is surprisingly tenacious and draws the attention of several women, including Alice, his bohemian girlfriend; Judith Scott, a powerful administrator; and the straight-shooting Det. Janet Ellison. Stathakis’s interactions with other characters, such as an amicable and outgoing neighbor who makes him realize just how little he knows his students, heartwarmingly reveal his changing self-perception and growth.

Although there are dramatic twists, this character-driven story is not for those desiring a brisk whodunit; rather, it’s suited to those who wish to savor Costanzo’s expertise with language. He carefully unspools the story, doling out colorful character descriptions and thought-provoking considerations of the complexity of choices and consequences. This is an enjoyable work for fans of mystery and philosophical debates.

Takeaway: Philosophical connoisseurs of modern-day mysteries will enjoy the sleuthing of this unobtrusive philosophy professor.

Great for fans of Elizabeth Peters, Alexander McCall Smith.

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

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The Meditation Process
Lyle Olson
Olson packs plenty of fodder for the intermediate meditator into this detailed, expansive guide to the practical and esoteric aspects of sitting meditation, which draws somewhat haphazardly on both Buddhist Shamatha and Raja yoga traditions. He covers positioning the body, balancing the breath, approaching meditation seriously without trying too hard, and overcoming obstacles to progression. He also clarifies terminology and includes both his own experiences and the words of others to help the reader recognize what successful meditation feels like. The somewhat abrupt conclusion succinctly lays out the end goals of the practice, including mindfulness and the impartial witnessing of one’s experience.

The level of detail will be very useful to those readers already deeply engaged in a meditation practice. Olson successfully bridges the gap between too-basic suggestions for beginners and less grounded, more opaque advanced guidance. When he offers hands-on advice, he distills complex ideas to concrete steps well, as in his discussions of the benefits of a kneeling posture and the use of mantras, his sample breathing exercises, and his analysis of the metaphor of treating passing thoughts as birds flying into the room. He gently but firmly contradicts methods that he views as unhelpful or less ideal. And he shows refreshing humility when discussing advanced states of meditation that he has not yet attained.

The inclusion of unlabeled, seemingly random photos of East and South Asian people has an unfortunate Orientalist air. The quotes from teachers and experts aren’t well integrated into the text, and Olson rarely explains who these authorities are or why he’s chosen to quote them. The dense language (including a slew of foreign-language terms) and stream-of-thought structure could frustrate novices, but Olson’s work will resonate with seasoned practitioners and help advanced beginners take their next steps. This hefty, detailed guide is a useful, if sometimes dense, exploration of every step of building a meditation practice rooted in multiple traditions.

Takeaway: Experienced meditators struggling with plateaus or looking for a comprehensive, detailed consideration of process will savor this hefty guide to building a meditation practice.

Great for fans of Pema Chödrön, Chögyam Trungpa.

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

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Kings of the Earth
Christopher Stanton
Artist and graphic novelist Stanton’s debut literary paranormal thriller chronicles the intertwining lives of three very different people. In the reportedly cursed surfing town of Great Water, Mich., in the year 2000, Jenny Bloomquist, 25, and Eric Calhoun, 14, are linked by Jenny’s husband, Lance, who’s mentoring Eric in the mystical athletic art of soul surfing. Martin Van Lottom is 28, struggling with a menial job, poor health, and a disconnection from reality. Their paths cross when the blood moon, fog, and high tide coincide in a once-every-30-years event known as “the Baptism,” when people disappear from Great Water or claim to see ghosts, and all three begin searching for those they have lost, lest they become lost themselves. Lance vanishes, and Martin and Eric witness seemingly random acts of violence.

Tension develops in the juxtaposition of ordinary external events with the increasingly frantic internal monologues of the protagonists. There is a lingering sense the characters are just slightly out of step with reality. Everything happens very quickly, highlighting the sense of urgency but sometimes breaking the narrative flow. Additionally, the characters’ voices occasionally sound inauthentic; for example, Eric sometimes acts much older or much younger than his age. The best developed (and least sympathetic) character is Martin, and the chapters from his warped perspective will make the reader’s skin crawl.

Stanton builds chilling suspense with atmospheric details and the town’s legends. Elements of psychological horror (bullies, ghosts, child death, murder, molestation) are peppered liberally throughout, with depictions occasionally bordering on graphic but not gratuitous. Though billed as a supernatural thriller, this could just as easily be considered a horror novel, and is best read with the lights on.

Takeaway: Both horror fans and thriller readers will enjoy this dark, richly imagined exploration of fear and loss.

Great for fans of Jonathan Maberry, Kem Nunn.

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

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New Persia: Before the Storm
John L. Lynch
This entertaining and often gripping military SF series launch takes place in the far future on a planet colonized by descendants of Persian and Arab peoples and “other castoffs from Earth.” Tank captain Basir Turani and his fighter pilot friend, Farad Hashemi, embark on military missions while romancing military daughters Suri Pahlavi and Nasrin Avesta. It’s quickly revealed that both women chafe against laws restricting women’s freedom, and seeking husbands of their own choosing is their best chance at establishing a degree of agency. The story gets into high gear when the Persian military is deployed against the enemy Azanians just prior to a natural firestorm. Traitors trigger setbacks that Basir and Farad struggle to overcome, and war moves Nasrin and Suri to seek their own destinies, setting up further conflicts down the road.

This saga values worldbuilding and character development as much as it does highly detailed military operations. Lynch (Endemic) spends a lot of time pondering what it might be like if Middle Eastern and African societies were the ones who colonized alien planets in the future and how those societies might develop in harsh planetary climates. The work strongly critiques oppressive gender roles through the well-developed characters of Suri and Nasrin. The first half of the book is devoted to setting details and character background, and the pace drags as a result. There’s simply not enough story structure to support this much information dumping, especially as Lynch juggles multiple protagonists.

However, once the military operation begins, Lynch skillfully flips among the characters’ narratives as he reimagines WWII-era technology and tactics on this new world, generating tension and excitement from fine strategic detail. Smooth, evocative prose and entertaining characters keep the reader hooked as the plot careens to an exciting conclusion.

Takeaway: Readers who value detailed battle sequences, military strategy, politics, and cultural critiques will find this well-constructed military SF novel hits the spot.

Great for fans of Richard Baker’s Valiant Dust, W.C. Bauer’s Unbreakable.

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

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Inside the Masque
R. T. W. Lipkin
Lipkin (Now Playing on Outworld 5730) packs this ambitious, noirish futuristic murder mystery with characters whose romantic dreams and liaisons revolve around status and identity in a stratified society. All people—lofty “legacies,” middle-class “aboves,” and downtrodden “unders”—hide their ugly human behind gorgeous technological “masques” and use social circuits that are wired directly into the brain and provide witty banter on tap. “Unmasqueing” for a partner is the ultimate intimacy. On the brink of momentous success, a powerful figure in the masque business is murdered by a newly installed circuit. Investigating, Detective McNair and his team discover ties to an older crime and a potentially fatal flaw in their society’s dependence upon masques.

This challenging, genre-blending work, 100 chapters long and packed with far too many characters, requires the reader to follow meandering paths parallel to the murder mystery, exploring a woman’s desperation to have her fabula (visual media) script produced, a wealthy man’s distaste for life, a fabula producer’s affair with the dead woman’s former employee, and retreats where people remove their masques to “disconnect and transcend.” These elements eventually prove relevant, but the structure is far from a straightforward investigative plot. The masque-related worldbuilding is filled in swiftly and well, but the late introduction of a cryptic invisible gateway upends it in baffling ways. The writing is swift and fluid, with few stumbles other than some blunt and tedious sex scenes. Readers may flinch when characters describe genius masque designer Van Etten as a “cripple,” though the usage is clearly rooted in the characters’ obsession with maintaining status through scornful oppression.

Lipkin’s blend of genres will reward readers who enjoy unpredictability and leisurely pacing. The narrative critiques the masques’ ill effects, showing the cruel arrogance of legacies and aboves, and ends on a high note. The broad scale of the plot and large cast of thinly described characters with disparate arcs become overwhelming, but a round of successful romantic resolutions provides a welcome sense of closure.

Takeaway: Readers willing to think outside the murder-mystery box will enjoy exploring this ambitious mash-up of procedural, romance, and futuristic social commentary.

Great for fans of John Varley’s Steel Beach, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

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

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The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected
Edwin Wong
Wong’s hardy debut book of literary criticism succeeds in presenting a challenge to the famous playwrights of yesteryear while providing a compelling framework for today’s storytellers. Inspired by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets and drawing on examples from Sophocles, Shakespeare, Ovid, and several other venerated writers, Wong depicts risk—not sorrow or regret—as the peak point of all tragic stories, arguing that setting up one’s own downfall through a misjudged gamble is, in fact, the greatest tragedy of all. Much of the book is devoted to retellings of classic stories, leading to the redefinition of the tragic theater art form. Wong goes beyond considering characters’ risk-taking to examine factors such as meddling from outside forces, external authorities, passion, and the supernatural.

The book’s appeal lies in its novel premise and attention to detail. Readers opening it in hopes of a quick explanation of tragedy in drama may find it initially slow going, but they will be satisfied by Wong’s complete and thorough explanation of a new perspective from which one can view the masterworks of tragic theater. Wong concludes by challenging modern playwriting, viewing it both as a form of art and as a way that playwrights themselves take risks.

Tragedy has long been seen as essential to literature and drama, and much ink has been spilled about what makes it work; the idea of conscious risk-taking being the real source of tragic emotion feels genuinely new and exciting. Though the language is dry, dense, and highly technical—leavened only by the occasional humorous quotation—this is nonetheless an excellent compilation of arguments that will stimulate creative minds.

Takeaway: Playwrights and philosophers will completely devour this deep dive into the idea that tragedy stems from the misjudged gamble.

Great for fans of Eric Bentley, Simon Shepherd, Neil Verma.

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

Cooperative Lives
Patrick Finegan
Debut author and financial lawyer Finegan skewers co-op buildings, governments, and marriage in a sharp, venomous comedy of errors about the self-absorbed, filthy rich residents of a Manhattan high-rise. Ex-spouses Hanni and George “Wally” Wallace are grieving the heart-wrenching death of their daughter from leukemia. Hanni is also secretly working with government agents who want Wally to sniff out wrongdoing at the hospital where he’s CTO. Hanni's friend and neighbor Susan Roberts, recently injured in a skiing accident, is stuck in a loveless marriage to Jack, a failed investment banker 17 years her senior. Among many other intrigues and dramas, Jack is hired by money manager Sheldon Vogel to oversee the trust fund of another neighbor, cantankerous Allison Pfouts. After Sheldon is injured while pushing Susan’s wheelchair out of the way of a bus, Jack is arrested for embezzling Mrs. Pfouts’s $1.43 million and, somehow, for being an Iranian spy.

The primary conflict for many of these characters is between being ethical and being rich. Other pressures also intrude, including immigrants’ fear of deportation and residents chafing under stringent co-op rules. Through these portraits, Finegan provides scathing commentary on biased conservative news, the financial crisis, performance-enhancing drugs, white privilege and racism, government subterfuge, and the brutality of cancer treatments.

Finegan explores how city dwellers are connected to and influenced by those in their orbit. A people watcher, he demonstrates a careful eye for the details of urban life and human relationships. He is also a master of the slow reveal. At first, the profusion of minute details about his characters’ lives feels gratuitous, yet the voluminous threads eventually weave together to show how these wretched and paranoid characters became the lost and broken people they are today. Patient readers will be rewarded with a satisfying ending.

Takeaway: Contemporary fiction fans will be enthralled by in the tragic lives of upscale Manhattanites in this tale of espionage, corruption, and infidelity.

Great for fans of: Lara Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept, Jay Kerk’s A Predator and a Psychopath, Catherine Coulter’s Labyrinth.

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

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Watch Her Shine
Deborah Henry
Henry’s reflective, sometimes disjointed debut, ably illustrated by Greaves in lovely black-and-white linework with splashes of red, combines a fairy tale with a message of encouragement. Princess Dembe of the Beloved Land in the Bwindi Forest of Uganda is mourning the recent death of her mother, Queen Tessa. Her father, the good-natured King Rumba, and the rest of the kingdom are consumed by grief. Meanwhile, the evil Prince Damian concocts a plan to take over the Beloved Land by either forcing Dembe into marriage or doing away with her altogether. When Rumba falls ill, Dembe must defend her kingdom with the help of the people, three fairies, and her gorilla friend, Abbo.

The cheerful fairies use their magic to control Damian, but the spell is broken and Damian becomes increasingly powerful, leading to an exhilarating battle. Amid the action, some of the scene transitions are too abrupt and confusing, leaving questions unanswered. Dembe is developed into a multifaceted character, but Damian is a straightforward avatar of evil and greed, and Abbo, while a significant part of the princess’s backstory, is a minor, silent figure throughout the rest of the book.

Readers will be particularly drawn to Dembe. The loving relationship she shares with her father is touching, and her determination to find a remedy for the king’s illness, even to the point of wrestling an anteater and collecting its saliva for him to drink, is impressive. She is brave, creative, and independent, far from a damsel in distress. In preparing her kingdom for war, she proves to be a strong leader who encourages cooperation and unity, telling her people, “We can, and we will win this battle by working together.” Henry’s vivid female lead is a solid role model for young readers.

Takeaway: Early readers will be inspired by this empowering and heartfelt Ugandan fairy tale, which features a brave, creative, and independent heroine.

Great for fans of: JudyBee’s Queens of Africa series, Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess.

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

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The Pain Colony
Shanon L Hunt
In Hunt’s chilling debut medical thriller, three story lines intertwine in a devastating account of science in the service of greed. Sweet but disturbed Layla has fragmented memories of her life before joining the cultlike Pain Colony, where she is enamored of the mysterious Brother James. Geneticist Allison Stevens is a hot mess who’s having an affair with her boss, Austin Harris, CEO of Quandary Therapeutics. She has no idea that Quandary is using the Pain Colony for illegal human genetic testing. When Austin is accused of insider trading and disappears, Allison tries to find him, only to run afoul of the FBI. Meanwhile, DEA agent Peter Malloy is dealing with a rash of dead bodies with intrathecal pumps for pain-relief drugs embedded in their spines. The trail leads him not to illegal opioids but to a genetically engineered painkiller. All three characters’ paths collide with a sinister plan to reprogram the human race.

Hunt, a former pharma executive, uses her vast knowledge of drugs and genetic advances to write in detail about CRISPR, the science of gene editing, and nanotechnology. She doesn’t shy away from including horrific descriptions of animal testing and of the terrible and frightening things that happen to the humans who aren’t chosen to become superhumans. Throughout, she makes it clear that she views human avarice as the primary threat to ethical science.

Hunt employs occasional wry wit (“sipping his urn coffee and admiring his view of the parking lot”) and moves the story along with rapid-fire discoveries, not lingering on the nitty-gritty of the protagonists’ quests for answers. Even secondary characters are fleshed out with quirks such as man buns and statement T-shirts. The plot builds up to a shocking finale that even jaded readers won’t see coming. This science fiction thriller entertains readers while raising powerful questions about medical ethics and the role of money in science.

Takeaway: Any fan of medical thrillers, ethical quagmires, and surprise endings will relish this gripping cautionary tale.

Great for fans of: Robin Cook’s Coma, the film Extreme Measures.

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

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The Rhythm of My Life
Yvon Milien
In his rambling debut memoir, Milien chronicles his search for spiritual meaning as he struggles to make sense of life and surrender to the power of the Almighty. His father, a Haitian military officer, was killed when Milien was an infant. Milien was adopted by his grandmother, while his mother remarried and started a new family without him. The account of his early years is studded with vivid tales of voodoo rituals and exorcising evil spirits. As Milien grew, he was influenced by the spiritualist Georges Barbarin’s writings about how to follow the will of God, even when it is not easy. The sudden deaths of his mother and fiancée, along with Haiti’s political turmoil, drove a heartbroken Milien to move to the U.S. After dabbling with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Episcopalians, he discovered the Mormon faith, which sustains him to this day.

“Everything that happens to me in this life is divine,” Milien writes. This holistic perspective unfortunately leads him to mingle recollections of religious discovery and personal pathos in a work that has no obvious audience. Readers interested more in the spiritual side of Milien’s story may weary of the recollections of mundane interactions with people Milien has known. Those drawn in by the angst of childhood trauma and romantic difficulty may skim the paragraphs devoted to religious philosophy. A disjointed writing style occasionally overwhelms the book’s dramatic and inspiring elements.

A significant drawback to Milien’s profoundly personal story of finding a spiritual path is his assumption that readers are familiar with the religions he explored and with Barbarin’s writing. Discussions of what Milien found attractive or off-putting in different faiths would have increased the work’s value for readers seeking their own enlightenment.

Takeaway: Christian readers may glean some nuggets of insight from Milien’s unconventional journey to finding happiness and a faith that fits.

Great for fans of: Eckhart Tolle, Joyce Meyer

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

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Simon's Mansion
William Poe
Poe draws inspiration from his own life in his gritty third exploration (after Simple Simon) of the life of a gay former member of the Unification Church of Reverend Sun Myung Moon. As the first two installments relate, Simon Powell grew up in a “timber mansion” in Sibley, Ark., with a racist, homophobic father. He escaped to Los Angeles, became a Moonie, and married a woman, but he couldn’t hide from the truth: he loves men. He left the cult and sunk into a cocaine addiction that nearly killed him. In this entry, a newly sober Simon and his boyfriend, Thad, head for Sibley, trying to stay ahead of sketchy Spanish film distributors who have a score to settle with Simon. The family home that first looked like a sanctuary becomes a trap as Simon realizes his past is putting Thad’s life in danger.

Poe, a strong, able writer, opens with a vividly sketched Deep South of the civil rights era and seamlessly leads the reader into the present. There are a few clunkers hiding in the prose (the most egregious being “enraptured by delirious arousal”), and Poe has a fondness for repeating himself, but these snags are balanced by nice turns of phrase (“They slid like playing cards onto the rug”) and rich analogies (“Simon knew the location of holy places where the strong voice might be appeased... sites where priests administered a white-rock sacrament”).

Poe nails the soul-sucking despair of addiction and the constant vigilance sobriety requires, and his capable plotting easily engages the reader from beginning to end. With elements of romance, suspense, and tragedy, Simon’s story jumps genre boundaries to leave a lasting impression on the reader. While this story is a natural fit for an LGBTQ audience, other readers will enjoy it every bit as much.

Takeaway: This well-wrought gay coming-of-age story, third in a series, is packed with romantic and suspenseful elements that will appeal to a wide variety of readers.

Great for fans of: André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name, Tom Spanbauer’s In the City of Shy Hunters.

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

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2017 July Test Project
Test Test Last Name
This is the final review.
Click here for more about 2017 July Test Project

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