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Yanks Behind the Lines: How the Commission for Relief in Belgium Saved Millions from Starvation During World War I
Jeffrey B. Miller
Jeffrey Miller (WWI Crusaders) delivers a gripping account of how private individuals in a U.S.-led effort saved millions from starvation during the First World War. When Belgium and areas of Northern France were unable to feed themselves under German occupation, the nongovernmental Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), led by a young Herbert Hoover, toiled alongside the local Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation (Comité National), the German government, the Allied powers, and several neutral countries to feed the hungry. Miller stays laser-focused on the diplomatic and logistical challenges of such a massive food operation without getting bogged down in minutia or details about the war, save when it directly relates to his topic, such as unrestricted submarine warfare or the background events of the Zimmermann telegram.

The story is full of drama that Miller sketches well, particularly tensions between the CRB and Comité National, and between Hoover and everyone else. In the initial rush of donations to Belgium, Hoover fought to ensure CRB was in control of relief. Miller’s dedication to facts rather than speculation means he leaves it to readers to wonder about how much of Hoover’s motivation in these disputes was humanitarian and how much was arrogance. (Miller quotes an expert who touts Hoover’s “ingenuity in persuading or bullying the various Powers” to get international actors to compromise.) The self-giving spirit of the CRB delegates, mostly young volunteers spread throughout Belgium, shines through Miller’s narrative, however, especially in the anecdote of a delegate arrested by German authorities under false pretenses.

Particularly helpful are period photographs and Miller’s statistical charts, helping readers stay oriented and personalizing the humanitarians who founded the first international nongovernmental organization. History buffs will be eager to learn the struggles of the Belgian and northern French during the war as well as the courage and fortitude of those who sacrificed to feed the desperate.

Takeaway: This compelling chronicle will grip history buffs while opening their eyes to a little known but vitally important humanitarian mission.

Great for fans of: John Keegan’s The First World War, Tom Scott-Smith’s On an Empty Stomach: Two Hundred Years of Hunger Relief.

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

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CODEX: The Origin of Thought
Amerigo Consta
With an epic, fantastical feel, Consta’s fact-heavy spiritual thriller reimagines not only the founding of Damascus, Syria, but the birth of humanity itself. The adventure begins almost 11,500 years before recorded history with the travails of a young nomad named Aram as he receives sacred items and orders related to the evolution of the species. From there, Consta follows history as it gets reshaped, with an emphasis on the Roman Empire, particularly Emperor Traianus, and onward to luminaries such as Constantine and Leonardo da Vinci. Drawing readers along a path that blends enlightenment principles with hints of science fantasy, Consta sets his account of the founding and evolution of a holy order.

The intricately detailed plot relies on a whirlwind mixture of historical facts and footnotes, both based in recorded texts and Consta’s own world-building. Slice-of-life snapshots of notable figures throughout history offers a tantalizing glimpse into what life may have been like, and Consta follows ideas from one era to another through devices like the diary of Apollodorus, a point-of-view character, later being read by Attila the Hun, who gets depicted converting to “the monotheistic God that unifies all humans on Earth.” While his passion for his subject is clear, Consta’s prose often edges toward the academic, offering recitations of details rather than a fully realized narrative, with side trips that rampage through various religious traditions.

More engaged with ideas than storytelling, the novel suffers from a lack of internal consistency and is crafted on a foundation of heavy chunks of information with little in the way of character development or realistic reactions to situations. The subtleties of politics are ignored in favor of literary expedience, and historical inaccuracies will pull readers out of the story. Readers of a technical bent with an eye for history and alternative theories regarding human origins may find this a fascinating, if dense, read.

Takeaway: This novel’s dense alternate take on human origins and spirituality favors fantastic history over storytelling.

Great for fans of: Barbara Frale’s The Templars: The Secret History Revealed, Robert Shea’s Illuminatus! Trilogy.

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

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Haiku for the Road
Stephen Holton
Holton, an Episcopal priest, has crafted a funny, thought-provoking, and deeply spiritual collection of haiku, the Japanese form of poetry that is limited to 17 syllables. In an introduction, he recounts his realization that during his morning prayers, the thoughts he was having could be placed, “like puzzle pieces” into the form of haiku. Holton has grouped his haiku into three general types. First, “morning prayer haiku,” are thoughts that evolved out of his devotions; “snapshot haiku” frame “words together like a photograph”; and, on the lighter side, the “donut haiku” are little treats for himself and his readers about things that delighted him. This collection, presented in reverse chronological order, is something like a scrapbook of those thoughts going back in time.

Holton has wisely labeled each haiku with its type, and the variety of approaches and subjects gives each page of two or three poems an easy flow. He heads each section with a photo that offers either a sense of the everyday nature of his life or of extraordinary events like racial justice protests. Additional photos could have added more of this flavor and broken up some longer sections more effectively.

With the haiku form’s requisite economy, the poetry reflects many engaging topics, like Hoton’s mixed religious ancestry and desire for ecumenical unity. He also gleefully expresses his love of food and drink as well as his gratitude for his city's communities. The haiku are just as likely to contemplate the coronavirus (Social distancing: / flowers six inches apart / but still in God's earth.”) as they are to refer directly to God (“God offers us love / when all we have is anger. / We can use both.”) or his beloved spouse (“A bewildered world. / But I can still kiss my wife, / so ... what's the problem?”). Holton's emotional openness gives his verse a warmth, wit, and spiritual appeal that a wide audience could enjoy.

Takeaway: Readers interested in clever and often moving haiku related to spirituality and everyday life will delight in this observational poetry.

Great for fans of: Daphne Washington's A Christian’s Book Of Haiku, Hosea Williams Jr.'s By A Prophet.

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

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The Unseen Path
Zlaikha S. Sadozai
In this sequel to The Unseen Blossom, soulmates Lamar and Princess Zuli are reunited in their native Kabul after returning from a mystical journey in another realm. Although they don’t at first remember each other, they soon fall back in love, tied together by their shared experiences. Despite mutual adoration, complications impede their perfect union-- Lamar, though of noble birth, is a shoemaker, and considered unworthy of a princess’s hand. And with the Russians preparing to invade Afghanistan, the royal family contemplates an escape plan. Still, not even military occupation can keep the two lovers apart, as they attempt to survive in war-torn Kabul with the hope of someday being together.

Readers who have not read the earlier installments in this series will find it difficult to fully understand the narrative. Lamar and Zuli’s backstory is never fully detailed, and despite references to the earlier books’ fantasy realms, mythical creatures, and magical gardens, traditional fantasy elements are only intermittently featured here. The story primarily takes place in the real world, although it touches upon the otherworldly, with a strong focus on Lamar and Zuli’s cosmic love (their relationship is part of something bigger than themselves).

The prose itself is poetic, with the richness and mystery of religious verse, and the novel brims with optimism, even in the most difficult of situations. Separated from the rest of her family and forced to disguise herself on the streets of Kabul, Zuli finds purpose working as a volunteer nurse, while Lamar is accepted by his local baker and begins working illegally as a teacher. The characters, who frequently quote Rumi and reference poetry and spirituality, are buoyed by their love of country, their love of each other, and their faith. These characters are too unflawed for realistic fiction, but The Unseen Path’s allegorical approach celebrates community, love, and spiritual living.

Takeaway: This poetic novel combining fantasy, history, and romance will please spiritual-minded readers and their soulmates.

Great for fans of: Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil.

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

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The Language of Corpses
Tamara Linse
Set in a far-flung galaxy in the far-off future, Linse’s (Deep Down Things) poignant space opera about identity creates an immersive universe that readers can get lost in. Misfit turned cybercriminal Jazari, who hears voices in her head that don’t come from her personal computer, is recruited by Zosi, a rich mobster from the Bsam creche, to bring down a politician on her home planet of Cecrops. She finds love with her co-worker, Dang, another misfit who wants to be a lobbyist. When the mission goes awry and loyalties are broken, Jazari must head out into the vast network of planets to find herself. Eala, a woman who takes care of alien creatures called taktaks on the planet Corvus, is thrust into the middle of an alien war when she is called upon to be a human emissary for the taktak, Tahbi. The entity ZD777 wakes alone on a frozen asteroid its memories lost. When these three lives collide, Jazari, Eala, and ZD777 uncover the secrets to their pasts and the future of the galaxy.

In Linse’s brave new world, instantaneous space travel is made possible through exchanging one’s body for another. Drawing on her background as a computer scientist, she plays with the possibilities of such technologies in elaborate detail. Although these descriptions border on verbose, seasoned speculative fiction readers will appreciate her playfulness and commitment to thinking through the ramifications of her inventions, right down to the pronouns for her “essents”.

Likewise, Linse’s characters are bold and fully realized. Jazari’s quest to find herself and her heated romance with Dang will resonate with readers. Eala’s environmentalist streak and her relationships with the alien taktaks give her undeniable charm, ZD777’s harrowing personal quest to uncover its past is touching and engaging, with surprising scenes like a computer teaching it to master concepts like names and categories. Fans of gritty, character-driven science fiction will find much to love in Linse’s work.

Takeaway: Driven by character and fascinating speculative technology, this space opera will please fans of thoughtful SF.

Great for fans of: Ann Leckie and Charles Stross.

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

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My Last Name
Eric Schumacher
Schumacher’s touching novella centers around the events of the last day of Charlotte Barnes’ life. Charlotte – Lottie as she is known – lives in an assisted living facility. She suffers from memory loss and, as she notes, “seem[s] to receive more assistance and do less living these days.” Lottie goes through brief moments of lucidity and longer periods of confusion as she spends the day going from her bed to her chair window and back again. As she does, she drifts through memories of her life, including the deaths of her husbands and child. Throughout the day, she is drawn back to the present by her caregivers before she peacefully dies in her sleep.

Lottie’s thoughts and experiences are front-and-center, which is a welcome change from many narratives about old age and memory loss that often focus on the experiences of children, spouses, and caregivers. Schumacher’s first-person narration adeptly shifts from Lottie’s moments of lucidity to her memories to her moments of confusion, all without losing the reader. Schumacher also brings commendable empathy to Lottie’s character. When we do get the perspectives of the caregivers–such as Sarah, who has tea dates with Lottie and clearly holds a place in her heart for her–it serves to further highlight Lottie’s feelings of confusion and isolation while effectively reminding readers of how the world perceives her.

On occasion, Schumacher recounts lists of facts from Lottie’s past, dwelling on names and dates rather than inviting readers to inhabit a moment. The sparse prose is mostly effective (“Only two men had ever kissed me, two men that I loved and who loved me”), but many of Lottie’s memories are set in the first decades of the 20th century with few period details to anchor them. Still, this quick read packs a lot of life--and a strong emotional punch--in just a few pages.

Takeaway: This tender novella will satisfy readers eager to look back at the end of a quiet life lived with dignity.

Great for fans of: Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk.

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

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In Women We Trust
Naim Haroon Sakhia
Attorney Sakhia’s tense English debut novel draws attention to the societal inequities in a small Pakistani town when a servant's son is found in a compromising position with a landowner’s daughter. In Hayatabad, Pakistan, landowner Sardar Timur Barlas exerts his power as he plans to inflict punishment on Gul, son of housekeeper Zara Bibi, when Gul is discovered in a kitchen pantry in an improper embrace with Sardar’s daughter, Farah. Mullah Aziz, imam of the largest town mosque, is appointed to select members for the Panchayat, an unofficial tribunal responsible for deciding Gul’s guilt or innocence. Zara Bibi’s only hope to see Gul avoid the punishment of castration is to sacrifice her daughter, Badri, whom Sardar wants to be “given” to his men for three nights. Zara Bibi faces a decision that no mother should be forced to make--and if she doesn’t choose which child will suffer, Sardar will decide for her. As the Panchayat convenes, Mullah Aziz’s acquaintance, Turab, a journalist, documents the trial and questions the truth behind the accusations against Gul.

Sakhia deftly explores the injustices faced by those in subservient positions in Pakistan, vividly exposing brutality and corruption. The novel also highlights the disparate treatment of women as Sardar’s and Mullah Aziz’s wives must be deferential to their husbands' decisions, and Badri suffers a vicious assault.

Sakhia focuses on disparate characters, revealing how Badri dreams of her grandmother Mimi Jan while she is in pain, and Mullah Aziz’s arrogance in controlling those who come to his mosque. These narratives initially appear unrelated, slowing the flow of the novel’s opening, but Sakhia adeptly connects them, rewarding patient readers. This in-depth study of life in a small town in Pakistan, the first installment in a series, richly outlines class and gender inequities while embracing believable, well-developed characters and a cliffhanger conclusion.

Takeaway:This intense novel of power in a Pakastani village reveals urgent truths and will keep readers turning the pages.

Great for fans of: Sejal Badani’s The Storyteller’s Secret, Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field.

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

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We Are Akan: Our People and Our Kingdom in the Rainforest - Ghana, 1807 -
Dorothy Brown Soper
Offering up a historical adventure featuring African culture and the Akan tribe in the Asante Kingdom, Soper’s debut middle reader follows the circuitous lives of three young boys: Kwame, the chief's son; Kwaku, the chief’s heir; and Baako, a slave hoping to earn his freedom. Friends from a young age, though individually different and on divergent paths, the boys experience life lessons together and find themselves in dire situations that they must escape. Peppered with beautiful illustrations, and offering history and knowledge of the Akan clans, Soper weaves a powerful coming of age story set against a rich display of African culture.

Engaging characters will keep young readers involved, and Soper’s use of the native tongue, Twi, lends authenticity to the story as We Are Akan touches on the history of the Akan tribe leading up to and during the Atlantic Slave Trade and the voyages that originally carried African people to North America. Opening chapters deliver a crash course on the class system, the commerce industry, and the daily lives of the Akan people, with absorbing specifics like the spearing of a cobra and the “smoked fish that he carried wrapped in a leaf on top of a flat rock.”

At the end of the book, Soper includes a more thorough “Introduction to the Akan People,” covering, among other topics, their deep-seated extended family structure and formidable army. For readers not already well-versed in the Akan culture, this might have proven more helpful at the start. James Cloutier’s illustrations offer snapshots of daily Akan life, including acts such as pounding fufu (a well-known African dish) and the “Descent of the Golden Stool,” a festival ritual honoring Akan legend.This story’s action-packed, educational style will resonate with readers of all ages looking to gain knowledge of African history and charm those seeking a narrative that features diverse history and characters.

Takeaway: This richly historical African adventure will entertain and inform young readers and their parents.

Great for fans of: Kwame Mbalia's Tristan Strong Punches A Hole In The Sky, Beverley Naidoo’s Burn My Heart.

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

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The Art and Science of Real Wealth: Earn Real Wealth
Dhyan Appachu Bollachettira
Appachu draws on his experience as a real estate investor and speculator to give practical and philosophical advice in this guide to acquiring wealth. Appachu focuses on the poor planning, lack of discipline, and unethical investment practices that can hinder the accumulation of real wealth. As he recounts the mistakes he made as a novice investor, he makes this book’s central idea clear: He wants to enable readers to “manage money wisely” and to earn a consistent income while achieving the security of Moksha, the “freedom from the permanent influence of Karma.” Rather than offer shortcuts to wealth, he argues that the “world’s greatest investors succeeded only because of logic, reason, patience, and discipline.”

Appachu doesn’t shy from harsh criticism of “today’s casino capitalist stock markets”, Wall Street, or what he calls “con acts in the finance” industry such as mutual funds and the “Buy and Hold” strategies promoted by hedge fund owners and investment managers. He follows up this criticism with detailed market predictions and investment advice based on personal experiences and research of historical economic downturns and stock market crashes. Appachu offers striking--sometimes dire--claims about the financial futures of India, Singapore, the U.S., and several European markets. Charts and links to outside resources scattered throughout the guide add credibility to the author’s forecasts.

At times the book reads as a memoir. Appachu’s memories of past investments are presented as a cautionary tale, but his sometimes harsh language may give some readers pause: “By this time the Zyprexa had completely raped my mind and body. I was introduced to the horrors of fraud gutter pseudo ‘science’ of Psychiatry." The book takes a light spiritual turn with Appachu giving advice on high risk and dividend investing, while providing insight based on Hindu teachings and the principle of Dharma. With strong assertions and thought-provoking language, this guide sheds light on both financial and spiritual wealth.

Takeaway: Financial gurus and professionals will enjoy these strong opinions on investing and the future of finance.

Great for fans of: Richard Teitelbaum’s The Most Dangerous Trade, Sebastian Mallaby’s More Money Than God.

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

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A NEW NOW: Your Guide to Mastering Wisdom Daily, Achieving Equilibrium, and Empowering Your Nobler Self
Michael Goddart
Goddart’s (In Search of Lost Lives) detailed and extensive spiritual roadmap lays out many possible routes to a greater knowledge of self. Grounded in Eastern spiritual traditions like reincarnation, this guide instructs readers in the cultivation of spiritual growth and connecting to the “infinite, inexhaustible aquifer” of divine knowledge the author argues lies in each of us. Goddart claims that by developing this wisdom we can live each moment fully, always working toward a unique, self-determined purpose in life. Achieving this demands maintaining equilibrium, or a calm, positive state of openness free from the selfish desires of ego and the childish demands of the “lower mind.”

Readers will likely find Goddart’s bulky treatise as thought-provoking as it is overwhelming. Though he carefully defines the many concepts he introduces, their quantity, complexity, and occasionally overlapping meanings (as with “higher self,” “spiritual self,” “nobler self,” and “conscience”) leave readers with plenty to keep track of. Goddart’s division of the book’s primary concept—wisdom—into 33 varieties is thorough but difficult to absorb. He often further divides these subsections— in “The Wisdom of Simplicity,” he itemizes three different ways to achieve this type of wisdom. But though he inundates readers with occasionally repetitive information, Goddart’s multifaceted, analytical writing style also offers a variety of entry points to engage with his ideas.

Goddart’s relationship with the reader emerges as the true strength of the book. Far from presenting himself as a lofty guru, he acts as a warm, welcoming guide, encouraging readers to look within themselves for the wisdom and guidance they need to live their best lives—telling them that “You are potentially, if not already, the greatest authority on who you are and what’s best for you.” Goddart’s supportive companionship balances out the book’s often technical approach and will offer comfort to readers who are struggling with self-doubt on their spiritual journeys.

Takeaway: Goddart’s rigorous but inviting take on self-improvement will challenge open-minded, motivated readers— and provide a reassuring boost.

Great for fans of: Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, Judith Marshall’s Past Lives, Present Stories.

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

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Arty and The Forest of the Forsaken
Nicholas Jauregui
In this exciting middle grade fantasy debut, Jauregui, who works in visual effects on animated features, strikes the right balance between familiarity and novelty. The Arty of Arty and The Forest of the Forsaken is an Arthur, recently moved to the grand city of Camelot, where his father has found work as a blacksmith. There, Arty bands together with scrappy kids eager to become squires to knights. What they lack in noble pedigree, Arty and company (including Galahad, Gawain, Percy, and the bow expert Gwen) make up for in spirit, pledging themselves to the righteous protection of friends, family, and kingdom. The attitude of Camelot’s actual knights, meanwhile, is summed up by snobby squire Lance, who sneers at Arty, “Being a knight is about power, privilege, and nobility. Of which, you possess none.”

By the end, of course, Arty and friends will prove themselves, and a certain sword of legend might get yanked from its boulder. Jauregui’s quick, clever plot pits the heroes against a scheming wizard, a terrifying dragon, and sundry beasts of sea and forest. This Camelot lies in the fantasy playground of Atlium, alive with fairies, trolls and romantic settings for adventure, such as the Forsaken Forest, where Arty and friends face vivid (but not too scary) dangers. Older readers will enjoy the connections Jauregui draws between this unique vision of Arthurian legend and other myths.

Jauregui’s crisp, clear prose surges readers through his tale. He’s adept at quick sketches of character, offhandedly comic dialogue, and brisk, memorable action. Occasionally, when introducing the cast or laying out the scope of the world, Arty offers up a large lump of expository text; in other instances, the narrative occasionally bucks ahead too quickly for some emotional beats to resonante. Those minor pacing issues aside, though, this adventure will engross young readers and charm the adults who share it with them.

Takeaway: This playful take on Arthurian legend will delight middle grade fantasy fans.

Great for fans of: Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time, Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The False Prince.

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

Click here for more about Arty and The Forest of the Forsaken
The Zealots
G.K. Johnson
Johnson’s debut novel is a beautifully imagined re-telling of some of Christianity’s most beloved stories from the viewpoints of two friends. Friends Shim’on and Yeshua are two young men in their mid-teens in Capernaum, a small village on the Sea of Galilee. Yeshua’s father is a rabbi and craftsman while Shim’on is the son of a fisherman. When Shim’on’s father is killed by the Romans occupying the region, the boys’ paths diverge as one seeks vengeance while the other seeks righteousness. As the story progresses, their experiences run the gamut from the chance to study in Jerusalem to interactions with the Zealots, a Jewish resistance movement opposed to the Roman occupation of Judea. The tales of both young men run a parallel track to that of Jesus, the rising Mashiach, or Messiah.

The intricately woven storylines flow at a wonderful pace, as readers are swept along on a tide of lovingly rendered details – from the wonder of Yeshua’s arrival in the Holy City to Shim’on’s time out on the open water. Johnson imbues cornerstone tales of Christianity’s origins with a fresh view through the eyes of fictional people, demonstrating a deep respect and love for both the ancient Jewish traditions and the new religion that grew out of them. Shim’on and Yeshua’s eventful lives are presented with little fanfare, but instead an enticing blend of action and introspection.

While aimed at young adults, the novel’s violence and attentiveness to the rigors of spiritual journey may push it toward the higher end of that age range, especially when coupled with some unfamiliar terms that are not immediately explained. The glossary at the end proves helpful, but could have found more use at the novel’s beginning. The prose otherwise is invitingly easy to read, though occasional inconsistencies -- such as the names of the boys’ mothers being switched in several places -- may pull readers away from the central message.

Takeaway: A deeply respectful take on the origins of Christianity through the eyes of two young men and their coming of age.

Great for fans of: Lynn Austin’s The Restoration Chronicles, Ken Gire’s The Centurion.

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

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Living in Cleveland with the Ghost of Joseph Stalin
Marc Sercomb
Sercomb’s imaginative second novel seems to have been pulled straight from the summer of 1953 and serves as homage to that time, despite some touches of the absurd. Calvin Jefferson Coolidge is thirteen years old. His father is an inveterate gambler, and as for his mother, well, as he puts it “most people called her nuts.” After a stint in foster care, Calvin moves in with his Aunt Evelyn in Cleveland. Evelyn is a rough woman who has a taste for alcohol, suffers from agoraphobia, and tells Calvin to “fend for himself” when it comes to meals. His life in shambles, Calvin makes a surprising discovery in Aunt Evelyn’s cluttered attic, where he’s looking “for her lost husband’s cheap second-hand accordion.” There he meets the ghost of Joseph Stalin, who wants Calvin to write his memoirs--“to counteract all of the lies and false information perpetrated by my detractors and enemies!”

This would be enough to keep any kid occupied, but Calvin’s life is a maelstrom of weirdness even beyond Stalin. (His cousin reports being “abducted by men from Mars and taken up into their spaceship.) Still, as Calvin deals with a school psychologist and the lavish encouragement of an English teacher, the narrative’s emphasis lies in exploring childhood in the context of American suburbia in the 1950s. This is a story with soda jerks and beatniks in the streets and Howdy Doody and Senator McCarthy talking about communists on TV.

The humor and observations make this truly enjoyable beyond being an engaging slice of Americana. This is a funny story told in the energetic, curious voice of a teenager, but one with thoughts that will entertain adults. While slightly long, and offering more incident than plot, Sercomb’s novel will appeal to those who lived through the 1950s as well as those fascinated by that era.

Takeaway: A sharp teen voice drives this episodic, playfully ambitious novel of 1950s America.

Great for fans of: Tom Perrotta, A.M. Homes

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

Black Rifle
Alex Davidson
Alex Davidson’s fast-paced thriller pairs an unlikely duo of Los Angelenos—ATF Agent Miranda Lopez and mercenary for hire simply known as Cal—as they track down the mastermind(s) behind the murder of Arianna Barros, killed in a mass shooting of the South L.A. apartment building where she lived. Arianna is the daughter of the powerful Senator Marco Barros, and the Feds are under pressure to handle this case with delicacy. Cal is dispatched by a private client, ostensibly from Barros’ camp, to find the murderer, too. Uneasily aligned, neither Agent Lopez nor Cal are prepared for the complicated case they’re about to get sucked into—terrorists, gun fanatics, leaders of the nefarious WorldMovers Church, and a possibly sinister father who doesn’t even cry at his daughter’s funeral.

Davidson slowly unravels the web of gun owners and the clandestine puppet masters calling the shots as Cal and Lopez’s hunt for the murder weapon, an AR-15, takes them to the South Side of Chicago, the backroads of Arizona, and just over the border into Mexico. As their investigation touches on prophets and sex traffickers, it’s clear that Cal and Lopez are in dangerous waters. Cal, an assassin addicted to killing for a price and Agent Lopez, a career Fed in love with her girlfriend Camilla, must work together to make it out alive. In crisp, swift prose, Davidson captures the tension between the heroes: “Miranda was never one to be intimidated. Not by anybody. Except maybe Cal.”

Guns —a Ruger American Rifle, a Ruger .380 and a Beretta M9—are the third protagonist in Davidson’s gritty tale, playing as important a role as the humanity of Cal, and the burning ambition of Lopez. With haunting characters and memorable action, readers will be glued as Cal and Lopez get closer to cracking the murder, their drive leaping off the page to the very end.

Takeaway: Fans of tightly written thrillers with memorable detectives will enjoy this noir-tinged page turner.

Great for fans of: S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland, Kathleen Kent’s The Dime.

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

Click here for more about Black Rifle
Reflections on Transcendence: Everything You Have Been Searching For Is Already Inside of You
Elizabeth M. Lykins
“What causes our unhappiness?” asks transformational coach Lykins in this browsable collection of reflections on inspirational quotes, illustrated by the paintings of Steven Lyons. Lykins grounds her philosophy in the Three Principles articulated by Sydney Banks, Universal Mind, Universal Consciousness, and Universal Thought, inviting readers into an “inside-out” approach to life centered on the understanding that our lives are not created by our external circumstances, and that we can choose to ignore our toxic and fearful thoughts and look to our inner essence for calm and happiness.

Lykins advises readers not to approach Reflections in “chronological order” and instead to “surrender fully” to what they “see and feel” while browsing the book.That means that Lykins’ repetitive revisiting of a few powerful ideas is less of an issue than it might be in a traditional guidebook, but the inconsistent layout is not optimized for the ease of browsing. Chapters are numbered in the text, but not in the table of contents, and a pivot to relationship management advice near the end is a jarring shift. The accompanying art is evocative of the right moods—with an ephemeral sense of light in the landscapes and a mystical impression from human figures—but the sense of the canvas gets lost in the reproduction, and large stretches of white space diminish the illustrations’ impact.

Nevertheless, Lykins does an excellent job connecting her ideas to a wide range of thinkers in the Western tradition, pulling quotes from creative, scientific, business, and religious luminaries and using them to exemplify the idea of trusting the self to experience life from a strong internal grounding, undeterred by difficulties in the outside world. Lykins offers readers new to the idea of “inside-out” thinking a clear introduction, and those with some experience in cultivating a mind-centered perspective a good collection of jumping-off spots for reflection.

Takeaway: Awash in calming insight, these reflections on lasting happiness will appeal to readers looking to dip into universal wisdom.

Great for fans of: Sydney Banks’s The Enlightened Gardener; Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now.

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

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The Able Queen: Memoirs of an Indiana Hump Pilot Lost in the Himalayas
Rainy Horvath
Rainy Horvath's stirring first-person celebration of her father—Robert “Bob” Binzer—follows his wartime experiences as a pilot in the Army Air Corps Unit (the predecessor to the U.S. Air Force) during World War II. As a youngster, Binzer was enthralled by the sight of airplanes soaring above Chicago and did everything he could to pass training so he could enlist, including memorizing the eye chart with the help of his ophthalmologist father. Describing him as “a boy from Indiana who always dreamed of flying and one day got his wish,” Horvath presents in Binzer’s own words his time spent performing military missions over the Himalayas.

Binzer was thrilled to be assigned to China, despite it being one of the most dangerous areas to fly, on an aerial route known as “The Hump,” a passageway running through the Himalayas where topography, weather, and the occupying Japanese forces all posed constant threats. From his memory of trying to land at Chungking in difficult terrain to losing a rudder when flying through wires strung up to deter Japanese planes, Binzer’s straight-talking storytelling transports the readers d into the cockpit of his “Able Queen.” Expect to cringe at the vulnerability of Binzer and his crew as they traverse along the Aluminum Trail (the route between China and India strewn with crashed planes) and be mesmerized by their final flight—ending in parachuting from the plane after running out of fuel—that catapulted Binzer into his most dangerous adventure.

This unpretentious memoir also surveys Binzer’s memories of growing up during the hard times before the war. His admiration and gratitude for the Chinese peasants who aided Americans in the fight is inspirational, and essays by historians Carl W. Weidenburner and Dr. David T. Fletcher add welcome perspective. This well-researched memoir of a quiet hero is a gem for fans of World War II history.

Takeaway: This memoir of a World War II pilot offers a portrait of extraordinary courage.

Great for fans of: James M. Scott’s Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor, John R. Bruning’s Race of Aces: WWII’s Elite Airmen and the Epic Battle to Become the Master of the Sky.

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

Click here for more about The Able Queen

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