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Blind Date : A Hunter and Tate Mystery
Brenda Chapman
In this taut, accomplished thriller, Canadian author and former teacher Chapman (Tumbled Graves) opens with a wrenching mystery: did Josie Wheatley, the woman who moved into Ella Tate’s old apartment die by suicide after her rape, or was she murdered? Ella, a true crime reporter turned popular podcaster, is determined to find out, with the help of a mysterious online contact called Felix. As Ella investigates Josie’s death, the body count rises—with victims including Ella’s drug-addicted brother Danny, who was sexually assaulted by a neighbor as a child, and others close to her.

Ella and Detective Liam Hunter try to uncover a link between the killings and keep the body count from multiplying—before someone comes after them. Readers will warm to Ella’s sincere interest in the fight against good and evil, her dogged determination to find justice for her longtime friend and her brother, and Chapman’s expert handling of the material, which never loses sight of the human stakes in favor of thrills. Detective Hunter, meanwhile, is a bit more mysterious than his unexpected partner, especially as he enters Ella’s life, though readers will soon expect that he’s one of the good guys. As well, Chapman’s cast of supporting characters—especially Ella’s flamboyant neighbor Tony, who ultimately plays a key role in the outcome—shine.

Lively pacing, a plausible plot, and crisp, forward-moving prose will attract a wide variety of thriller lovers. Mystery fans will be engrossed in trying to work out the identity of the bad guy (or is there more than one?) from a well-developed cast of likely characters, but Chapman’s skillful plotting— complete with numerous tantalizing red herrings—power the narrative, keeping readers guessing until the final page is turned. Ella and Hunter make a memorable pair, and readers will look forward to future installments of their adventures.

Takeaway: This taut and well-written mystery/thriller will keep even the savviest amateur sleuths guessing up until the tale’s end.

Great for fans of: Mary Higgins Clark, Karen Rose, Kay Hooper.

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

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Father War
Thomas Doherty
Doherty’s debut novel focuses on a father and son embroiled in the messiness of war, honor, and country in mid-20th century America. The narrative begins in 1945, with young John Spenser waiting for his father to come back home from the front. Many years later his father does show up, but with a new woman in tow, leaving little Spenser and his mother to their own devices. Fast forward to the 1960s, when Spenser is fighting at the front in Vietnam—an experience of war and disillusionment that brings father and son together briefly, before their connection is severed forever.

The novel is aptly named for the overarching themes of fatherhood and war that span its pages. Doherty effectively layers complex issues, including intergenerational relationships and the anguish of combat, and his prose is full of vivid imagery that will transport readers from the barren crossroads of Vietnam to the post-war bunkers of Germany and the pines of Old Camp Palmer. Doherty evokes an insider’s understanding of the intricacies and effects of war—an eye-opening revelation that is evident in his characters’ reactions to the death and destruction surrounding them. The speech of Doherty’s main players bears a convincing cadence and power–“I’m nothing but grudges. Grudges are my meat and potatoes”—and the combat scenes are particularly striking.

Some readers may find the constant perspective switching to be disorienting, and some narrative sections come across as vague: Doherty errs on the side of subtlety, the writing so nuanced that at times readers may miss key plot points. But overall, this is a gripping novel that hurtles between different time periods, travels from one corner of the world to another, and sweeps readers into a cross-continental journey of lingering heartache. This is so much more than a war novel.

Takeaway: A lyrical and sweeping story of combat, family, and survival that will resonate with fans of historical fiction.

Great for fans of: Michael Herr’s Dispatches, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

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

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Masquerade
Stephen W. Hiemstra
The first novel in debut novelist Hiemstra’s high-stakes Christian thriller series, Masquerade tells the story of Luke Stevens, a financial engineer for the United States government, and his father, Phil Stevens. While on a blind date, Luke foils a group of terrorists attempting the abduction of the daughter of Ling Xiu, the premier of China. Luke appears to die in the dustup, and Phil, a pastor, is tasked with impersonating his son in order to help the CIA flush out the terrorists. Phil reluctantly agrees, but is concerned about his former congregation and the impact of the mission on his own family, including the ex-wife he is struggling to forgive.

At just over 200 pages, Masquerade is fast-paced and packed with action, though that’s not all that’s on Hiemstra’s mind. Phil, the lead character for the majority of the book, often reflects on Christian values, and the narration and dialogue are often distinguished with Christian themes, including occasional quotes from scripture; readers who enjoy reading about the faith will likely enjoy this respectful treatment of a pastor who doubles as a CIA agent. The plotting offers strong echoes of Cold War spy craft, with double identities, a switcheroo funeral, and Phil’s physical transformation, and the prose, while often driven by dialogue, carries a lot of energy.

Some of that dialogue is, at times, stilted, and readers might face some confusion at the narrative choice to refer to the undercover Phil as “Luke.” Perhaps intended to suggest the delicate complexity of switching identities, that decision has the effect of distancing readers from the protagonist’s emotions and motivations. Lei Han makes an effective heavy, and the exciting adventure eventually involves the vice president, Air Force Two, a trip to China, and a jolt of an ending, likely to be picked up in future books. Christian readers of thrillers will find much that’s engaging here.

Takeaway: This short, fast-paced Christian spy thriller sends a pastor undercover–as his own son.

Great for fans of: Diane and David Munson, Joel Rosenberg.

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

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Deadly Declarations
Landis Wade
In this clever, amusing mystery, a group of residents at the Indie retirement home in Charlotte, North Carolina, must solve an 18th-century mystery in order to save the family of one of their own. When the "professor," a noted authority on the American Revolution, suddenly dies, new Indie resident Craig Travail—a forcibly retired lawyer—is dragooned into helping the man's granddaughter, Lori. Travail and friends discover Lori's problems are connected to the Mecklenburg Declaration, a legendary document that Thomas Jefferson possibly plagiarized for the Declaration of Independence. Emotions about it still run high, and the Indie team will face courtroom drama and physical danger to save Lori's dream and the professor's legacy.

Wade (The Christmas Courtroom Trilogy) does a beautiful job of weaving an actual American mystery into the story, interspersing real correspondence from the founding fathers that lend heft to the story without overwhelming the present. Indeed, it's done so neatly, it's hard to tell where history ends and fiction begins. And as a former trial lawyer, he makes the courtroom scenes as entertaining as they are convincing. Although the plot can get a little over complicated at times, the game cast of characters will keep readers riveted.

Indeed, the book's greatest joy is the team at the Indie. We see Travail mourning the loss of his wife as he struggles to find a new purpose in retirement, and how his new friends get him going again: The cheerfully loopy Yeager who goes "fishing" with a rifle, and the witty Harriet who appoints herself Travail's assistant, but don’t dare call her that. An Indie meeting about problems caused by bird feeders nicely outlines the residents to great comic effect. Even the antagonists are a pleasure. It's a joy watching the aging but still lively Indie residents plot to save the day, and readers will be left hoping to see what mischief they get into in a future story.

Takeaway: Cozy mystery fans will revel in this delightful mix of history, courtroom drama and engaging characters.

Great for fans of: Richard Osman, Roaslaind Stopps.

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

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A Touch of Light: The Ashes of Avarin #1
Thiago Abdalla
Abdalla imagines a memorable larger-than-life adventure in his debut fantasy novel, dropping readers into the imaginative world of Avarin, where political and religious strife stirs a clash between the Domain and the clans to the south. As those in the Domain hold tight to their belief that the Seraph watches over them and will one day return to raise the preserved dead, those in the clans follow an opposing doctrine and their custom to return their dead to the Earth. But when a mysterious illness known as “the Madness” spreads through the land, transforming those in its path into wild ravenous creatures with a lust for blood, the Domain and the clans must work together and save their world before the sickness claims them all.

Three rich storylines will enrapture fans of thoughtful fantasy. Prince Adrian of Othonea takes center stage as he struggles to live up to the memory of his deceased brother. Nasha, a fierce female protagonist, believes herself to be cursed and wants nothing more than to be respected as a member of the Ronar clan. And Lynn, whom we first meet in a prison cell of her own choosing, seeks redemption and seizes the opportunity to prove her value when the Madness spreads throughout the land. These characters find themselves battling their internal conflicts while struggling to survive the chilling illness, enduring vivid battles and heartbreaking betrayals that will keep readers glued to the page.

The depth and scope of Abdalla’s fantasy handily earn the “epic” designation, which means the novel might challenge readers not fascinated by worldbuilding and sprawling casts. But the characters’ journeys will reward the patient, who will enjoy watching Adrian, Nasha, and Lynn come to the thrilling realization that they must work with their enemies to save the land from the Madness. In the end, Abdalla will leave fantasy fans thirsty for more.

Takeaway: Fantasy readers fascinated by religious and political strife and rich characterization will savor this epic.

Great for fans of: Tanith Lee, Aliette de Bodard

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

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Wake Up the Night
Kenneth A. Silver
Silver’s debut collection pairs incisive, searching character-driven fiction with premises that touch on science-fiction and horror, to often unsettling effect. The narrator of the lengthy title story, set in a near-future of expanded lifespans and declining birth rates, recounts rite-of-passage milestones growing up with senior citizen parents in an “Age Restricted Community”—he’s “the first and only child in a world inhabited by seniors.” As he comes of age, connecting with young people outside the ARC, Silver teases out the economic and political implications of this future, the protagonist discovering that an anti-immigrant movement called Put America First has evolved into “Put Kids First,” and that “retirement” now has a terrifying new meaning.

That grimly satiric spirit also powers the formally inventive “The Trigger,” a story that exploits the many meanings of its title. In 2040, the “industry leader” in the reformed private prison biz is experimenting with “Behavior Modification Theory” for the treatment of criminals; in this case, that involves having them face the circumstances that “triggered” their crime. Silver proves adept at the speculative elements, especially the upbeat corporate-speak of the employees of Renaissance Cross-Correction Alternatives, who discuss the behavior of the story’s rapists and abusive husbands with the detached interest of writers’ workshop participants. But his heart is in those lowdown characters, whose cruelty and suffering prove harrowing—Silver’s people struggle to retain their humanity in a society set up to stub it out.

Silver rounds out the collection with a tale of nature’s revenge, several narratives in script form—one a bleak joke; another a colloquy among dudes watching football on the possibility of science discovering a cosmic force that might be “god”—and a novella, “Leak in the Roof,” that blends fictional memoir, interviews, poetry, and an editor’s note to reveal an engaging life in the fashion industry, and also make explicit a theme tying together much of the book: the failure of truthtellers to convince humanity to turn things around before they get worse.

Takeaway: Dark, incisive fiction that emphasizes character and humanity as it edges toward the speculative.

Great for fans of: Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters, Lauren Beukes.

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

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Markertown
Amanda Fox
At the end of the school day, all the markers and pens have to find their way home to Markertown in Fox’s entertaining debut. Each marker returns to a unique home: the “classics” live at Colorful Court, the flair pens have an artsy resort, and dry-erase markers roam around Whiteboard park—a black and white carnival perfect for erasable pens. But when Glitter loses her cap on the way home, she wonders where the other capless markers go to live, and more importantly, what will happen to her now that she doesn’t belong. Accompanied by Fox’s dynamic and lively illustrations, Markertown is a heartfelt and encouraging story about embracing your inner worth and finding new ways to showcase your talents.

The kaleidoscopic pages render a beautiful and rambunctious marker world, at times at the expense of the text, which occasionally fades into the background and fights to be seen. The size and placement of Fox’s whimsical font frequently clashes with the busier scenes, causing the plot to lose momentum in places—and in some instances, such as when Pink is yelling alliterative insults at Glitter, the page becomes overcrowded and challenging to read. That being said, the collage of hues and activity will give younger readers plenty of space to exercise their imaginations.

The story more than makes up for these design issues in heart and joy. The rhyming narrative offers a fun readability, and kids will enjoy lingering over the small details bursting out of each page. Readers will be inspired to pick up their own markers, and Fox features kids’ illustrations throughout the story, including a page at the end that invites readers to draw their own flag. This cheerful and inspiring story is an ode to the joy of self-confidence and will make a creative addition to any shelf.

Takeaway: Artists and misfits alike will appreciate this story’s heartfelt message and colorful world.

Great for fans of: Drew Daywalt’s The Day the Crayons Quit, Diane Alber’s Snippets.

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

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The Cupid Chronicles
DENNIS COPELAN
A social worker in heaven tries to save a client from getting kicked out in this entertaining outing from Copelan (The Greatest Stories Never Sold). Pixel Millet, assigned to the “Paradise City Department of Discipline, Mythological Gods Division,” receives his latest case–a “bad apple” file of client Dean Webster, a deputized assistant to Cupid who is accused of seemingly endless violations of his professional oath. Pixel sets out to give Dean a fair fight, in hopes of finally getting promoted and earning his own full set of wings, but quickly realizes there’s something not quite right about this case.

Dean is an endearing character who only made it to heaven because he saved a kid’s life on Earth, but his performance as a Cupid assistant leaves a lot to be desired. His methods of making people on Earth fall in love are too unorthodox, leaving a trail of costly expenses and emotional distress, and the further Pixel dives into the defense, the more he starts to wonder if he’ll be able to keep Dean from “getting flushed”—heaven’s jargon for those residents who don’t work hard enough to stay. When Pixel starts to notice a trend in Dean's failings—that he projects his parenting onto his Earth assignments because he died before his own child was born—he soon discovers the whole situation is a set up by power-hungry angels.

Copelan’s tongue-in-cheek writing and relatable characters make this read a win, and he dissects the nuances of heaven versus Earth in a thought-provoking way. From the amusingly satirical interactions with humans, like the unionized genie in a bottle who keeps granting unfair wishes, to Dean’s hearing that deteriorates to the point where the “Big Guy” has to step in with a good old-fashioned rotary phone call, readers will be equal parts amused and intrigued. By turns lighthearted and reflective, this story will delight readers open to a touch of divine comedy.

Takeaway: A social worker in heaven attempts to save an assistant to Cupid from banishment in this enjoyable, irreverent read.

Great for fans of: Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi.

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

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Eluramance Chronicles Book One LESSIA
Lucas Maloney
The first installment in this traditional fantasy series spins an emotional coming-of-age tale as young Lessia, frustrated that she hasn’t manifested magical powers, trails behind other children her age, toiling as her blacksmith father’s apprentice. When her powers at last reveal themselves, when she comes to the aid of miners trapped in a tunnel, Lessia is sent to the Academy of Magic to hone her gifts. There, as a young Luxmancer, a mage who can control light, she’ll be tested as she joins a band of mercenaries in a quest to overthrow Zavus, the dark lord bent on destroying the dragon forces that protect the land of Eluramance.

Maloney shows promise in his eye for detail and character and his investment in creating an immersive fantastical world. Despite working within the traditional confines of the fantasy quest, he has built the tale around some freshly imaginative concepts: Eluramance boasts wonders like glass trees, voidbags, and Komeyu, a shining sword crafted from a dragon’s tooth. An intricate mythology and creation story gives nuance to a tale that otherwise risks familiarity, and Lessia is a likable protagonist, whose above-average abilities are tempered by a wide-eyed eagerness.

However, Maloney plays it safe by integrating stock tropes: Eluramance is peopled with elves, dwarves, and orcs who behave as one would come to expect, and expository dialogue slows the pace at times. Future installments may benefit from an appendix to help young readers keep track of characters and magic essentials to firmly ground them in the series. Still, there is a touching emotional weight to the tale that will keep readers invested. The Eluramance Chronicles does not yet break new ground, but a spirit of enthusiasm, adventure, and conviction distinguishes this series kickoff. It will appeal to young readers new to the genre or older ones who favor tradition.

Takeaway: A young woman learns to master her own magic in this traditional but promising fantasy quest.

Great for fans of: Marie Lu’s The Young Elites series, Sue Lynn Tan’s Daughter of the Moon Goddess.

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

Click here for more about Eluramance Chronicles Book One LESSIA
The Silk Road
Kirsten Marion
Marion launches a striking fantasy series with her debut, introducing resourceful tweens Lucy Banks and Dee Ringrose in an adventure that offers middle grade readers rich emotional reality as the heroes enter a magical world. Lucy’s bedroom is plastered with maps and her bookshelf stocked with National Geographic magazines; Dee built a laboratory in his Aunt Delia’s house to experiment with chemical compounds, often resulting in stinky, messy catastrophes. Lucy’s desire to escape her modest, disordered family home has heretofore only involved running down the street to Delia’s mansion, as she does on a pleasant Saturday afternoon after hearing an explosion in Dee’s lab.

But it’s the summer solstice, and Delia’s assertion that “the veil between the worlds appears exceptionally thin” appeals to Lucy, whose imagination roves to distant lands. When they encounter a mystical bird encircled by fire, the impetuous Lucy leads her skeptical best friend into a hidden world with a dismissive, “Come on, what could go wrong?” Plenty, Marion correctly notes, and soon this engaging, imperfect duo are tasked with protecting Yidi, the arrogant, ineffectual young emperor of Sericea. This pre-industrial realm is ruled by a medieval political structure and powerful magical forces, especially those wielded by Yidi’s evil stepmother, Queen Xixi.

Utilizing familiar elements of fairy tales and fantasy, The Silk Road features a brave girl, brainy boy, and heartened prince who follow the colorful road and long for the safety of home. But Marion doesn’t make the “chosen” Lucy and Dee into saviors, only role models of loyalty, kindness and resilience for the sheltered Yidi. Their rewards are hard lessons: Lucy realizes that her rash decisions have consequences, and the analytical Dee comes to accept that exploration sometimes involves getting lost. The Silk Road will engage young readers eager for an exciting quest on the uncertain path to maturity, where hard-won knowledge is a given, and a happily-ever-after is not.

Takeaway: Likably fallible tweens embark on a fantasy adventure that offers young readers both thrilling escapism and insightful self-reflection.

Great for fans of: Ted Sanders’s The Keepers, Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, and Colin Melody’s Wildwood Chronicles.

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

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MIDNIGHT FLIGHT TO NUREMBERG: CAPTURE OF THE NAZI WHO PUT ADOLPH HITLER INTO POWER.
Marcus A. Nannini
Nannini, author of Left for Dead at Nijmegen, takes flight in this gripping account of courage in the air, the story of pilot Harry E. Watson, who flew 27 combat missions in World War II and was the recipient of seven Battle Stars and three Air Medals. Nannini, who interviewed First Lieutenant Watson extensively, opens this vivid account in the thick of the war, with the tense tale of Watson, already celebrated for his skill at bad-weather piloting, being tasked to fly “a plane-load of Jerry cans”—that’s fuel— to General Patton’s troops near the French city of Reims, on the front lines, “so they don’t get themselves massacred” by the Germans. The fog’s a beast, and there might be wounded to ferry back, and the adventure that follows will involve Mark IV tanks, 800 German troops, and French champagne in a foxhole.

Nannini proves adept at war-time storytelling, with an emphasis on bravery and camaraderie; his accounts of Watson’s missions take an engaging novelistic approach, with memorable detail—the C-47s Watson flies, the “hot chow” the crews scarf, the rituals a superstitious pilot works into his routine—and a feeling for suspense. On a mission to evacuate a field hospital in danger of being overrun by the SS (from the mission briefing: “get ’em all the hell out of there”), the sight of a German Messerschmitt 262 jet fighter stirs in Watson and readers both a mesmerized awe and then deep alarm.

This inviting volume reads quickly, building to the top-secret, behind-enemy-lines mission of the title—"You’re picking up some top Nazis, and they won’t be happy about it, understand?”—rendered with clarity and power. Nannini excels at establishing the stakes, explaining crucial context like flight conditions, and putting readers alongside Watson in the cockpit. The reconstructed dialogue tends to be upbeat, sounding, perhaps, like Watson’s own voice, sharing these stories. It’s a pleasure to have them set down. The striking photographs offer welcome context.

Takeaway: The high-flying accounts of an American pilot’s daring World War II missions.

Great for fans of: Adam Makos’s A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II, Guy Gibson’s Enemy Coast Ahead.

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

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The Empathy Academy
Dustin Grinnell
Grinnell’s (Without Limits) thought-provoking thriller balances action and contemplation. High school senior Monty Hughes is concerned he may one day be like his father, who fraudulently promoted a miracle cancer drug based on bogus data. As a preventative measure, Monty sneaks into Woodward Academy, an experimental summer school for students who have a genetic predisposition for unethical behavior. As he struggles to come to terms with his father’s actions, Monty begins to realize that Woodward Academy may not be what it seems. Faced with challenges both inside and out, Monty must discover who he is and who he will become.

The book’s Nantucket setting offers an atmospheric oceanside backdrop to Woodward Academy, and Grinnell skilly weaves it into the story with exciting scenes on the water and subtle, but meaningful, nautical references that symbolize Monty’s growth. Monty’s deep desire to be an ethical person often makes his actions somewhat predictable, but nevertheless, Grinnell tests his character in surprising ways. Similarly, some secondary characters are simple archetypes–most of Monty’s classmates are defined only by their vices, and the story’s antagonist has the feel of a supervillain– but others, like his teacher Dr. Reid, face tough choices and learn from their mistakes.

Monty’s father is also a complex and evolving creation, and his relationship with Monty reflects both characters’ difficult personal journeys. It also prompts readers to ponder larger questions even beyond nature versus nurture: What does it mean to be a good person? How should we deal with the faults in ourselves and others? Should we stop loving people if they do bad things? Grinnell widens the lens on these topics by including references to related books and psychological experiments. This story’s action-packed plot will keep readers guessing, and the energy it infuses into the deep questions at its core will keep them thinking.

Takeaway: Students of psychology, philosophy and ethics will appreciate the depth of this exciting thriller

Great for fans of: A.G. Riddle’s The Atlantis Gene, Allison Larkin’s The People We Keep, Mary E. Pearson’s The Adoration of Jenna Fox.

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

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Three Questions Stories
Eugene Kelly (E Aly)
Stagnant relationships, betrayal, and the pain of self-doubt distinguish this collection of short stories from Aly (Change Happens). In “Young Love,” hired house hand Isabella falls prey to the seduction of Shepard, a fellow worker with a plan to unseat the property’s owner by way of murder. When Isabella steals money from their employer at the behest of her lover, she is quickly and unwittingly swept into his plans to use arsenic as a means to his own end. “Be Careful What You Pray For” follows a widower caught up in the illegal business affairs of his best friend as he turns to witness protection in exchange for valuable information, only to discover he can’t outrun his past.

Aly’s often dark, aching tales ooze humanity and will leave readers unsettled and contemplative. In “The Mentor,” retired professor Rodman leaves cryptic clues for his godson, Sabastian, to uncover his network of activists and locate the funds he has embezzled from his work with unnamed racketeers. Unfortunately for Sabastian, his impatience and short-sightedness leave him high and dry, putting himself, and his family, at risk. Aly’s prose is direct and economical, and he leaves welcome space for readers to connect the dots and mull over connections, outcomes, and ironies.

The title story takes a sharp turn, with a heartening narrative centered on Ralph Bixner, a suicidal man who encounters troubled student Stephen Elwood and shares his wisdom with the boy, in the process experiencing an epiphany about his own woes: “Whatever my problems are, other people are carrying just as heavy a burden as I am.” Readers will catch the thread of angst that weaves through each story, none more so than Anita in “Beach Walk,” who ruefully wonders if her flagging marriage will be revitalized by a couples vacation–“Can two miles of beach change the course of life?” The result is a moving revelation of the ties that bind us all.

Takeaway: An accomplished story collection that finds human feeling in desperate scenarios.

Great for fans of: Claire Vaye Watkins’s Battleborn, Laura Lippman’s Seasonal Work.

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

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The World Against Her Skin
John Thorndike
In this assured and compelling novel, Thorndike (The Last of His Mind) gives voice to a passionate woman who stubbornly follows her heart. After twenty-two years of marriage, anesthesiologist Ginny Thorndike leaves her husband for a much younger man, only to be abandoned. Her devotion to her sons, Rob and Jamie, quells thoughts of suicide, and Jamie’s mysterious disappearance draws out her fierce determination: she will find him. Despite debilitating alcoholism and addictions, Ginny pursues adventure: Peace Corps work in Chile, visits to Jamie amid Key West’s gay culture, assisting a birth in Rob’s hippy commune, and more. Memories of family, lovers, and possible sexual abuse intertwine with her everyday life, providing a rousing portrait of a brave, imperfect woman.

Although the novel spans the 1960s with flashbacks to previous decades, Thorndike’s present-tense storytelling imbues the material with immediacy, while its sense of history, such as Ginny’s brief affair with legendary sculptor Isamu Noguchi, entices readers to see the world freshly. Thorndike alternates between the perspectives of Ginny and Rob, revealing the love Ginny yearns to show her children and the loyalty they give in return. Rob’s unusual life path immerses readers in a full range of emotions, from sensual thrill to abject loneliness. Striking language and poetic and historical detail bring vivid life to the emotional journey.

Given the convincing plot and fully fleshed out protagonist, it is no surprise that a real woman inspired the novel: Thorndike’s own mother, which accounts for the shared last name. But this is no memoir—Ginny’s free-spirited choices and dark struggles measure up to fiction’s great protagonists. Her self-awareness and wit garner affection and sympathy as readers hope she finds relief from the memories that haunt her. Fans of women’s fiction and family drama will savor Ginny’s search for happiness, and readers will miss Ginny and her children long after finishing this moving stunner.

Takeaway: A stunning drama that delves into one woman’s bid for romantic satisfaction, even at the price of desolation.

Great for fans of: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder.

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

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Not Book Club Material: Stories
Aaron Zevy
Wry, self-deprecating humor is the highlight of this delightful collection of drawn-from-life short fictions, the third from Canadian Zevy (The Bubbe Meise and Other Stories). With prose and a warm, incisive comic spirit reminiscent of the likes of Arthur Bradford or Ruskin Bond, Zevy’s vivid vignettes find inspiration in people the author meets during the course of his days, everyday activities like going for a walk or meeting friends for a meal, or discussing rejection slips at Starbucks. But behind these quotidian happenings and their hilarious descriptions, these stories also gently illuminate human foibles and follies.

“The Pitch” is not just about a day in the life of a marketing and PR person, but also a satire that inks organized religion to brilliantly thought out marketing campaigns. “Silver Tweezers” and “Jaffa Oranges” offer beautiful depictions of the father-son bond through shared activity, while “Ten Houses” and “My Imaginary Girlfriend” adeptly paint loss and loneliness. Among the several stories about friendship, especially male friendships, “Shwartzman’s” and “The Reminder” stand out for sheer hilarity and ‘Stocking the Pond’ for never once slipping into mawkishness. “The Rumor” and “Shprintza” effectively bring out horrors of the early twentieth century–life in a dictatorship and the Holocaust–by just alluding to them. “Theory of Relativity” and “Theo and Me” sketch the ups and downs of being a writer, the struggle to get traditionally published, and the joy and exhilaration of being accepted and appreciated, all in a lighter vein.

The language is casual and engaging, with the inviting feeling of being in the company of close friends, after a good meal, relishing a well-told anecdote. This highly enjoyable collection will not only capture readers’ hearts with its humor, it will also leave them feeling more charitable and magnanimous towards this world, which Zevy makes seem a touch brighter.

Takeaway: These comic vignettes, drawn from life, create the feeling of being regaled with a friend’s best anecdotes.

Great for fans of: P. G. Wodehouse, David Sedaris.

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

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Another Way Over: A Novel of Immigration to America
John J. Michalik
Inspired by his paternal grandfather's story of migration to the United States, Michalik's debut novel follows the not-so-smooth journey of a hopeful and determined young Slovak peasant, starting in 1910. Like countless others before and after, Jan Brozek dreams of securing a better life for himself, his fiancé Maria, and their future family. With hopes of emigrating to America, Jan carefully prepares for his daunting endeavor, which is complicated by the Habsburg empire’s refusal to let go of men who are fit for military service. But an eye inflammation and a chance encounter with the lovely daughter of a baron disrupt the pair's meticulous plans. Those unpredictable twists of fate force Jan to find a new path to the United States and question what his heart truly desires.

Readers fascinated by the day-to-day life of the past will be drawn in by the thoroughly detailed depiction of travel from Europe to the Americas–Michalik’s research reveals the logistics and practical considerations of every leg of the journey–as well as the larger historical aspects that Michalik includes, particularly the political and social aspects of daily life for rural Slovak villagers. The choice to emphasize historical detail, such as the lecture a character delivers about the holds and refrigeration of a cargo vessel, comes at the expense of narrative momentum, with Michalik’s love story lacking some intensity, and several promising plotlines fading into the background without making a larger impact.

Jan's travel, which is not instigated by tragic circumstances, naturally stirs a sense of adventure and optimism. But Michalik doesn't neglect to highlight the uncertainties and difficulties facing immigrants in that time period—including the hardship of leaving loved ones behind, knowing you may never meet again, with only slow and unreliable mail as a form of communication. This heartfelt story showcases the perseverance and steadfastness required when taking a leap of faith to start a new life.

Takeaway: This inspiring, detail-rich immigration story will speak to history lovers fascinated by the early 20th century American experience.

Great for fans of: Mary Antin's The Promised Land, Adriana Trigiani's The Shoemaker's Wife.

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

Click here for more about Another Way Over

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