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Cuppy and Stew
Eric Goodman
Creative writing professor Goodman (Twelfth and Race) merges memoir and historical fiction in this engrossing tale of love, tragedy, and perseverance. In Vancouver, during the spring of 1937, Suzanne “Anne” Kerr meets Stewart “Stew” Morgan and flirtation eventually leads to love. Stew’s wife and father refuse to let him leave his unhappy marriage, so Stew moves to South Africa with Anne to live as a couple. Their daughters, Sharon and Susan, are born there. They return to Canada in 1945 only to discover that scandal still hangs over their heads. A move to the U.S proves fortuitous, and the family thrives until the 1955 bombing of United flight 629 kills Anne and Stew, leaving Sharon and Susan at the dubious mercy of their estranged extended family.

Stew and Anne’s younger daughter—whose character is based in part on the diaries of Susan Morgan, the author’s wife—provides an engaging narrative voice for this seamless crossover of memoir and historical fiction. Descriptions of Anne and Stew’s more intimate moments are tasteful, though odd to hear about from their child’s perspective. Although the Great Depression and WWII both affect the narrative, historical events mostly fade into the background of the family’s personal struggles. Social norms of the period play a stronger influence on the story. Minor discrepancies arise during the time spent in South Africa.

An overriding sense of overcoming the odds unites the romance of part one with the more tragic circumstances of part two. Clear descriptions coupled with entertaining internal dialogue and concise, expressive characterization make the pages fly by. A marvelous narrator and eventful plot make for an entertaining and moving tale that’s sure to please readers seeking inspirational narratives about hard times in history.

Takeaway: Goodman’s unconventional blend of fact and fiction will be a hit with historical readers who like stories about overcoming adversity.

Great for fans of Edward Rohs and Judith Estrine’s Raised by the Church, Lindsey Jane Ashford’s Whisper of the Moon Moth.

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

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Pay Back
D. Z. Church
Vietnam-era Navy veteran Church writes with authority and skill in her gripping third Cooper thriller (after Head First). Taking place over a week and a half in 1975 in the waning days of the Vietnam War, this suspense-filled novel toggles between Vietnam and the Michigan suburbs, bubbling with fresh intrigue at every turn, as Navy and Marine brothers Laury and Byron Cooper balance their own interests with the U.S.’s. They’re not the only ones with secrets: Laury’s new wife, Kate, has a history she hasn’t divulged, and his daughters, Jolie and Emilie, aren’t telling all they know about friends and foes. Multiple lives are at stake in nearly every chapter.

Church skillfully draws readers into her meticulously researched and fast-paced tale with skillful worldbuilding that allows readers to practically smell the gunpowder as dangerous battles rage. Her able plotting will encourage readers to overlook the occasional small error. The author also does a masterful job of exploring moral shades of gray in her characters, avoiding making any of them one-dimensional and encouraging readers to examine their own beliefs about right and wrong.

This novel can be appreciated as a standalone story, but readers will get more enjoyment from reading the whole quartet in order, as several subplots are continued from the first two installments and the suspenseful ending suggests more intrigue to come. Ideal for fans of wartime stories and sweeping family sagas, this taut tale delivers a heady mix of intrigue and history that will keep readers on the edges of their seats.

Takeaway: This wartime thrill ride turns the waning days of the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam into a pulse-pounding, smart tale of suspense.

Great for fans of Ellen Emerson White’s The Road Home, Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July.

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

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Ghost Cat
Helen Currie Foster
In Foster’s fast-paced sixth Alice MacDonald Greer mystery (after Ghost Next Door), the small-town Texas lawyer contends with feuding clients and dead bodies. Alice is still reeling from discovering a body at the edge of her land, but it’s otherwise business as usual. Her current clients include a former pro football player turned vintner who wants to buy out his partner, a new client wanting to set up a trust for her sister in a care facility, and a couple complaining about mysterious vehicles entering and exiting their neighbor’s property. When one client is found shot and another almost suffocated, Greer is desperate to find out why they’re being targeted, and by whom. Among her suspects are a solitary new resident whom neighbors call the Hermit, a cowgirl with a missing finger, and a client’s bull-headed, disgruntled partner.

Foster quickly sets up elements of mystery from the very first page, with the mention of a ranch hand’s missing sister and the potentially problematic gunshots heard nearby. The intrigue keeps building through the novel as Alice builds formidable list of possible suspects and uncovers new clues in this deftly paced and formulated plot. Poised and self-assured, Alice is a refreshing protagonist. Her quick comebacks, fearless sleuthing skills, and sensitivity in her quietly budding midlife romance make her a likable and well rounded heroine.

The engaging dialogue flows naturally and effectively brings out the personalities of secondary characters such as Alice’s indomitable secretary, Silla, whose liveliness adds lightness to the story. The uncluttered prose boasts several evocative turns of phrases, and the atmospheric descriptions are succinct and vivid, highlighting the rugged and bountiful landscape of Texas Hill Country. Foster’s skillful plotting, easy pace, and captivating characters will be a big hit for audiences craving a new mystery series to binge-read.

Takeaway: This sleuthing Texas attorney will hit the mark with readers who love mysteries featuring guns, cowboys, and a spunky female lead.

Great for fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series.

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

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Memory of Dragons
Michael G. Munz
Two worlds are tied together by memory, magic, and intrigue in this charming fantastical adventure from Munz (Zeus Is Undead). Austin Blanchard is on a pilgrimage to the Welsh coast to mourn the death of his girlfriend, Rhi, when a pickpocket steals a treasured keepsake: Rhi’s pendant. The young pickpocket, Corinna, later tracks him down, claiming that the pendant infused her mind with the dead Rhi’s memories. Corinna reveals that Rhi was a powerful wizard from another world, Rhyll, and had brought a malevolent dragon trapped in a crystal. Her description bears a startling resemblance to a crystal Austin found on his travels. A trapped spirit named Boden speaks from it, claiming that Rhi was trying to help him. Austin and Corinna also have to dodge a sorcerer from Rhyll who’s hell-bent on obtaining the crystal. Austin must decide whom to believe and trust, and the wrong choice could doom both worlds.

Munz’s carefully crafted realm of Rhyll and its fantastic magical system are fresh and inventive; readers learn much about Rhyll through entertaining interactions between the protagonists and the displaced Rhyllians who inhabit Earth. Munz’s compelling concept of memory magic—transplanting people’s memories into objects or other people—comes with interesting ethical implications that are teased out through the narrative.

Austin and Corinna are an instantly likable duo. Corinna’s worldliness and quick wit are a perfect foil for Austin’s curiosity and occasional incredulity at his situation. Although at the times the exposition is heavy-handed, Munz keeps a suspenseful edge on his plot while suffusing his characters and Welsh setting with color. Fans of fast-paced, high-stakes fantasy will enjoy Munz’s work.

Takeaway: Dragons, memory magic, and the collision of the fantastic and the mundane will please portal fantasy readers seeking a new world to fall into.

Great for fans of Diana Wynne Jones, Genevieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library.

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

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Life Is Big
Kiki Denis
Denis (The Last Day of Paradise) tackles life, death, happiness, time, genetics, and consciousness in this smart, funny novel. Alma-Jane, an 11-year-old New Yorker, is doomed to die because of the genetic mutation that also resulted in her heretofore-unseen perfect Genetic Happiness score. Her brilliant 14-year-old brother, Ayrton, wants to save her. So does Raduska Smith, an old woman with a GH score of zero. From there, the novel sprawls out wildly, introducing Alma-Jane’s synesthete friend Alejandro, who thinks minds are made up of “little brain people”; Laszlo, a game designer with a piece of Einstein’s brain in a jar; Mighty-11, a mouse genetically engineered to be fearless; and immortal beings including Pablo Neruda, Scrabble inventor Alfred Butts, the cake-baking Death, and his brother OM (Obituary Man).

The book is a riot of philosophical debates and surreal details. Characters use the online Overall Happiness scale created by anonymous supergeek Cornelis; the chat site GreatImmortality.org, “where you go and communicate with any book hero or any dead, but important and famous person”; and MinorImmortality.org, “where common people are stored after death.” During one such chat, Albert Einstein mentions that he’s been spending a lot of time with Sabina from Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. One scene takes place at a scientific conference, another at a town meeting in the world of the dead.

The question of whether Alma-Jane will survive is just the jumping-off point for the declaration of a war against death, discussions about the role of fear and bravery in survival and how to define happiness, and revelations of unforeseen connections among the characters. The prose can sometimes be a bit stiff, many characters have similar voices, and the children are implausibly precocious. Nonetheless, this novel is clever, witty, inventive, and full of heart. Readers who love solving puzzles and eavesdropping on existential ponderings will eat it up.

Takeaway: This innovative and witty novel will delight logophiles and puzzle-solvers.

Great for fans of Tom Robbins’s Jitterbug Perfume, Robin Sloan, Jasper Fforde.

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

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This Book Is the Longest Sentence Ever Written and Then Published
Dave Cowen
Taking on the entertaining and grueling task of breaking the record of the longest single sentence ever published, Cowen’s hefty endeavor offers remarkable vulnerability alongside a strain of self-effacing humor. Cowen kicks off the book with good-natured jokes at the absurdity of his record-breaking labor, trying to prove that he isn’t a failed writer by competing valiantly against the likes of William Faulkner’s 1,288 word sentence in Absalom, Absalom! and the compelling 3,687 words in James Joyce’s Ulysses, but the 111,111 words of his book-length sentence soon incorporate enneagrams and virtues, mental health treatments, Cowen’s father’s kidney failure, and his fascination with rapper Kanye West.

The purposeful rambling gives Cowen license to explore odd connections and digressions among his wildly divergent topics, hopping from his father’s death to The Lion King to Paul Auster and back in one recursive tangent. He uses diagrams, social media screen grabs, and web pages (which he counts as a single word) to illustrate his points about the problems with Instagram (“the invasive proliferation of autobiography, of the diary, of self-preoccupation as a genre in and of itself”) or to launch into discussions of copyright usage. His single and singular sentence is impressively seamless, even when occasionally frustrating the reader.

Though the lack of finishing punctuation or breaks sometimes makes the text difficult to decipher, the through-line narrative comes across as meditative and honest in an intentionally disarming way. Cowen’s humorous narration and collage storytelling give readers a raw, unguarded look into his mind. An ambitious experiment in form, Cowen’s unfiltered journey is a rewarding read for fans of avant-garde literature that blends confessional writing and criticism.

Takeaway: Readers undaunted by literary experiments will find wholesome vulnerability and contemplative humor in this self-consciously record-breaking novel.

Great for fans of Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn.

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

Kuskovo: A Spy Novel
Rick Marshall
This debut novel of Cold War espionage is suffused with technological and political detail. In 1970, Alex Zoravar leads a top-secret project at the U.K.’s Atomic Weapons Research Establishment and suggests that they collaborate with the U.S. to work on a global positioning system of satellites to control intercontinental ballistic missiles. Samantha Endel, an American computer scientist, is tapped to lead the project, and the attraction between her and Alex quickly leads to a torrid affair. When Alex gets the news that Samantha has died in an explosion, he’s devastated—until he realizes that her lipstick’s GPS transponder is active and in the Soviet Union. Not sure whether she’s a spy or a kidnapping victim, he risks his life to lead a team to Moscow in hopes of finding her.

Marshall’s knowledge of the Cold War and its technology adds realism to the novel, with lengthy passages about alliances and highly detailed specifications of weaponry. That level of detail will appeal to fans of technology and history. Readers hoping for more spy-vs.-spy action may be confused by the nuances of radio triangulation positioning, but they’ll appreciate the rescue mission. The danger faced by the Westerners in Soviet Russia is palpable and believable, quickly immersing the reader in their peril.

Marshall’s characters are well developed and given lengthy backstories that slow the early part of the story but provide insight into the characters’ present-day behavior. His focus on Alex’s military background adds credibility to Alex’s shift from engineering to espionage. Once Samantha vanishes, the pace is crisp. Though the novel concludes abruptly, the intense narrative overcomes many shortcomings. This novel about the inner workings of Cold War espionage will please history buffs yearning for more realism and technological focus in the spy thriller genre.

Takeaway: Fans of well-researched historical spy stories with elements of romance and tragedy will be drawn to this Cold War espionage thriller.

Great for fans of Jack Arbor’s The Russian Assassin, Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War.

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

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Freydis : (Daughters of Freya Book 1)
gunhild haugnes
Norwegian author and journalist Haugnes (Daughters of Norway) delivers a historical tour de force with this irresistible Middle Ages romantic saga that spans nearly a century. Adventurous and fiery Freydis Eiriksdatter doesn’t accept the limitations placed on women in Greenland in the 1000s. Like her father, Eirik the Red, Viking chief of Greenland, Freydis longs to discover and explore new lands. She’s also not averse to exploring other experiences, and sleeps with whom she wants when she wants. She eventually gives birth to two sons—neither one fathered by her husband, the long-suffering Torvard Einarsson, whom she’s fond of but doesn’t love. At last she persuades him to bring her to the new land, called Vinland, discovered by her brother Leif—but nothing can still her restless spirit.

Haugnes has obviously done extensive research on the Vikings, and she doesn’t skimp on the gory realities of living in the Middle Ages. There are bloody battles (which quite literally send heads flying), voyages full of raping and pillaging, and frequent deaths: Freydis loses a beloved brother in battle and her newborn second son to the sea during a violent storm. Haugnes also ably portrays the dissent fomented when Christianity was first introduced to the Viking population.

As Haugnes ably spins her tale, she paints vivid word pictures (“the murmur from the mountains sounds like harp music, the stream gurgles merrily and the wind sings along”) that easily transport readers to the Greenland of more than 1,000 years ago. The scenes of passion are vivid and erotic. Readers who enjoy Norse mythology, strong heroines, and romantic passion won’t be able to put down this delightful, fast-paced story.

Takeaway: This impeccably researched and expertly plotted tale will give fans of Viking sagas a vibrant heroine to love.

Great for fans of Morgan Llywelyn’s Grania: She-King of the Irish Seas, Catherine Coulter’s Season of the Sun.

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

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Around the Sun
Eric Bovim
Bovim’s emotional debut centers on a man whose success in business is both due to and overshadowed by his personal tragedies. Mark White is the CEO of White & Partners, a high-profile D.C. public relations firm, but his success comes with a high cost as he mourns the death of his wife, artist Monica, and frequently leaves their eight-year-old son in the care of a nanny. Mark agrees to manage the fallout for a statutory rape scandal facing a startup company that developed an app to translate Mandarin into English. Then Mark over-medicates with his anxiety medication and passes out during a televised interview, and the mismanagement of the startup scandal damages his business. He must manage the fallout and repair his fractured relationship with his son.

Bovim draws on his personal experience as the managing director of a D.C. public relations firm to give Mark a strong, believable voice. He expertly describes the high stakes and pressures of the business, magnified by the speed at which success can be diminished by poor decision-making and missed opportunities. The depictions of the cut-throat nature of the public relations world are chillingly realistic, illuminating the dark side of fame and fortune.

As the layers of Mark’s personality slowly peel back, Bovim shows how the perfect image he projects to the world is fractured. The globetrotting persona, complete with expensive hotels and world-class restaurants, is one that readers will envy until they see beneath Mark’s exterior and the pain he endures from the loss of his wife and his inability to bond with his son. Bovim’s detailed descriptions of Monica's paintings are compelling on their own and show the depths of Mark’s character and his connection to his wife’s profession. Readers with a taste for character-driven family dramas will be drawn to this narrative about the ruinous weight of denial and grief.

Takeaway: This wrenching, immersive novel will appeal to fans of character-driven dramas that reveal the hidden sorrows of people leading seemingly perfect lives.

Great for fans of David Baldacci’s The Whole Truth, Corban Addison’s The Tears of Dark Water.

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

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Amelia's Gold: A story of romance, ruin, resolve snd redemption in the American Civil War
James D. Snyder
Snyder (Five Thousand Years on the Loxahatchee) crafts a heartwarming chronicle of a Southern belle’s travels during the Civil War. In 1829, dirt-poor 16-year-old Will Gaskins dives off the North Carolina coast and retrieves Spanish gold from a wrecked ship. In 1864, Gaskins, now respected cotton distributor William Beach, enlists his trustworthy but untested elder daughter, Amelia, to transport the treasure to the Bahamas so it won’t be confiscated during the war. Capt. Charles Timmons escorts her to Nassau, where she runs afoul of opportunists and begins learning how to interact with free black people, many of whom educate her about the abolitionist cause. Amelia and the gold turn back toward Wilmington, N.C., dodging destructive Northern blockade ships as well as blackmailers and swindlers. After a shipwreck, she winds up at a deplorable marine hospital where she nurses both Confederate and Union soldiers. Encounters with personable Union officer Benjamin Hawkes lead her to rethink her romantic interest in Captain Timmons.

Fans of Civil War history, Caribbean seafaring, and coming-of-age stories featuring strong, capable women will delight in Snyder’s attention to detail and effortless descriptions of 19th-century wartime life. The sights and smells of tropical islands are immersive, and Snyder mines history for details of clothing, social etiquette, banking, wartime economics, racial discrimination, yellow fever, and nauseating medical treatments to further draw readers into the era.

The gold, which converted orphaned Will into a wealthy merchant, is a catalyst that transforms Amelia just as drastically. The pampered 24-year-old “spinster” becomes an exceptional businesswoman and compassionate nurse who confronts romantic entanglements, the horrors of war, and a hurricane with equal aplomb. Snyder gracefully breathes life into genuine characters who embody desperation, patriotism, ambition, and resourcefulness. Readers will relish this energetic adventure as they root for plucky Amelia.

Takeaway: Civil War buffs and fans of strong heroines will enjoy this epic tale of a spirited young woman’s Caribbean travels and wartime nursing travails.

Great for fans of Julian Stockwin’s A Sea of Gold, Randall Peffer’s Seahawk trilogy, Sandra Merville Hart’s A Stranger on My Land.

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

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Save Your Ammo: Working Across Cultures for National Security
Louise Rasmussen & Winston Sieck
This lively guide uses anecdotes from military and national security personnel to illustrate how to work effectively and confidently with people from different cultures. The stakes are higher than in many books on communication skills, but much of the advice is the same: Don’t be a “stereotypical ugly American,” pay attention, learn from your mistakes, look for possible bias on both sides, listen to “the people on the street” rather than just trusting the official line, take cultural considerations into account, and look for common interests from which to build relationships.

Psychologists Rasmussen and Sieck offer sound advice and share pertinent anecdotes within a well-organized framework, but their efforts are occasionally redundant. For instance, one of the takeaways from chapter 7 is to ask open-ended questions. That is undoubtedly an effective method for sussing out a situation, but most readers will have come across that same suggestion elsewhere. The men and women interviewed provide vivid stories, but at times, the authors provide too many examples in driving home a particular point. One of the “key points” that ends chapter 7 is to “ask ‘why’ to disentangle weird behavior and puzzling interactions,” but the whole of chapter 8 then focuses on “figuring out why people do what they do.”

The book is geared to military and national security officials in hot spots around the globe, but its useful suggestions can be applied by anyone involved in high-stakes situations that cross cultural lines. Rasmussen and Sieck’s expertise in cognition, culture, and collaboration is clear from their guide’s organization, the personal narratives it collects, and the lessons it teaches.

Takeaway: This is the perfect guide to cross-cultural communication for those working in government and diplomacy positions, multinational corporations, and NGOs.

Great for fans of David C. Thomas’s Cultural Intelligence, Simon Dolan’s Cross-Cultural Competence.

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

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Phase
James West
This character-driven contemporary fiction debut thrives on drama but struggles to set the scene. Alison Riley, 25, is a D.C. law firm’s administrative assistant by day and a passionate drummer by night, keeping her two lives firmly separate. In her office job, she studies the interactions among her coworkers, most notably the perilous romance between George, the hapless office assistant, and Joan, the young, popular new secretary. After Alison takes George out on a friendly dinner to help him sort out his romantic troubles, she shows him her drum kit and gradually lets him into her world. George, a budding musician and lyricist himself, is taken with the drum set and Alison’s talent, and they form a band, taking on new, idealized identities as they begin to mix business with pleasure.

Alison narrates in a loquacious inner monologue that sometimes veers off the track. She describes George as singing “like a heartbroken Negro,” and one of his original melodies as “Arabian-esque” like a “snake-charmer.” These unfortunate passages sour the rest of the narrative. If the era is sometime in the 1980s, as the setting details indicate—characters mention John Bonham’s death, work on a computer referred to as a CRT, and see Bambi in the theater—then why is a hip young rocker using terminology that fell out of common parlance decades before (not to mention calling her fridge an “icebox”)? Such befuddling details can jar the reader out of the story.

West has created two multifaceted leads. Alison’s monologues are darkly comedic as she analyzes the various characters in her office, sometimes prying for more details even as she wonders why she cares about gossip. George plays off her cynicism and sharp observations with his idealism and passion for music. Their strong personalities and enjoyable interplay will satisfy fans of stories in which ordinary people make a grab for a brief moment of glittering joy.

Takeaway: Fans of character-driven drama will be drawn to this story of ordinary people who harbor rock-and-roll dreams.

Great for fans of Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman's Sounds like Titanic, Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City.

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

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The Genesis of Seven
Sara M Schaller
This ambitious YA fantasy novel, which launches the Empyrean Trilogy, pulls a teenage orphan into a battle between archangels and Satan. Jordan has grown up at New York City’s Holy Trinity Home for Disadvantaged Youth, cared for by nuns. One day, he comes home to find the orphanage dark and empty. Sister Helen gives Jordan a locked backpack, an address, and a cryptic message that he’s their only hope. Tailed by a group of thugs, Jordan finally makes it to the address and meets a strange man who turns out to be the archangel Gabriel. He and six other archangels are the last stronghold against Satan, who is plotting a cataclysmic return to Earth. Jordan, whose backpack holds items that Satan desperately wants, must be protected at all costs, as he is the key to an ancient heavenly prophecy. Together, Jordan and Gabriel work together to round up the rest of the archangels and defeat Satan in a battle for the fate of humankind.

Introducing what promises to be a complex series, Schaller does necessary worldbuilding in her reimagining of the creation of heaven and hell and all of the novel's many characters. Her ideas are fresh and intriguing–the archangels taking on earthly jobs that correspond with their original roles in Heaven is charming–but the story gets bogged down by a sheer wealth of details as the angels explain these intricacies to Jordan. Even Satan’s ruthless quest for power feels overly complex. Jordan quips at one point that he’s “overwhelmed by all this information,” and readers may share the same sentiment.

Jordan’s engaging character is primarily defined by his humorous incredulity as he navigates this confusing new life. The tale would benefit from more in-depth characterization, but the intriguing premise is enough to carry readers into future installments where the major players may be developed further. Schaller’s imaginative take on Christian myth makes for a thrilling adventure with great potential for equally enjoyable sequels.

Takeaway: Teen fans of plucky heroes and battles between good and evil will relish this urban fantasy adventure.

Great for fans of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series.

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

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Angelus Rose: As Above, So Below: Book 2
Loren Rhoads
In this well-constructed sequel to 2016’s Lost Angels, Rhoads and Thomas further develop the cosmology and complexity of their present-day setting, which digs into a variety of Christian theological traditions to form the framework of an ambitious urban fantasy story. The angel Azaziel and the succubus Lorelei may have fallen in love, but they’re still subject to the whims and commands of their respective superiors in heaven and hell, with Los Angeles as the current battleground. When Lorelei discovers Aza is hiding a secret that might tip the balance of power in the city, it places their fragile relationship in jeopardy and prompts both sides to ramp up their presence in preparation for a major battle.

This volume is accessible to new readers, but a familiarity with the first one is highly recommended. The romance between Aza and Lorelei carries much of the tale, but the erotic elements can feel pedestrian, and one scene of sexual body horror is likely to upset more sensitive readers. The story's real focus is on the sprawling cast of divine, infernal, and mortal characters who currently inhabit Los Angeles. Frequent perspective shifts occasionally make it difficult to keep track of the big picture, especially as characters switch allegiances. With such a large cast, it’s inevitable that some get less time to shine, and their ultimate fates don’t resonate as well as they should.

Rhoads and Thomas craft a plausible romance for the angel and succubus without betraying their inherent natures; readers won’t forget that Lorelei is an inherently infernal creature with undeniable carnal needs who serves truly evil masters. Vivid prose (“she felt the portal’s heat crawl over her skin like a thousand cockroaches”) keeps the reader immersed. The authors keep the personal stakes balanced against the larger conflict at hand, which builds slowly to a violent resolution that sets things up nicely for further installments.

Takeaway: This crossover between urban fantasy and paranormal romance will satisfy fans of star-crossed lovers, epic conflict, and dark, complex stories.

Great for fans of Richelle Mead’s Succubus Blues, Isadora Brown’s Awaken, Jillian Cooper’s The Devil’s Daughter.

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

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Queen of Swords: Stone Wielder's Legacy Trilogy Book 1
Karelynn A. Spacek
Spacek’s debut fantasy displays tons of raw storytelling talent that could use a bit of refinement. Ivyssa is an impulsive, outspoken tomboy with an “abrasive personality” in a culture that prizes demure women. She’s shocked when a line of flames erupts on her face, marking her as the future Queen of Swords. Distressed and disoriented, Ivyssa stumbles into a boy’s magical initiation rite and he accidentally kills his mother. A witness to this event vows to get revenge as Ivyssa starts training to be the future ruler of Azulyria, but the would-be assassin’s plans have disastrous repercussions for the entire nation. Many years later in Santa Fe, Alexandra Nealy, an FBI profiler turned yoga instructor, finds an Azulyrian artefact that gives her Ivyssa’s powers—and that Ivyssa’s enemy is willing to kill for.

Awkward dialogue (“That doesn’t mean that I can readily forget all that has transpired like you seem to have done”), dramatic prose (Ivyssa describes her own eyes as “twin pools of lilac [that] glistened with innocent naivety”), and clichéd characters detract from the well-paced plot and imaginative worldbuilding. Both Ivyssa and Alexandra are classic examples of the “spitfire” heroine who’s not “a prissy little girl.” Alexandra’s love interest, Jared, comes across less as a tough alpha male and more as rude and violent. An unfortunate side plot kills off a same-sex couple.

Spacek displays a solid instinct for crafting a story that holds readers’ attention and captures their imaginations with a unique fantasy world. Though she tries to space out the introduction of Azulyrian lore, these paragraphs still slow the narrative. Plot inconsistencies and fumbles in the point of view cause confusion, but Spacek keeps the tension ratcheted up, and most major plot points land cleanly. Though readers never get fully immersed in the unfolding intrigue or form a firm sense of Azulyria, the familiarity of the modern-day Santa Fe setting is grounding. The captivating concept and setting hold great promise for Spacek’s future work.

Takeaway: This parallel world fantasy will appeal most to voracious readers of paranormal romance who like tough yet beautiful heroines and otherworldly magic.

Great for fans of Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass, Patricia Briggs’s Cry Wolf.

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

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Outbreak (The Dark Days Series)
Christopher Cole
A boy survives the breakneck dangers of a zombie outbreak in this thrill-packed series launch. Preciously mature nine-year-old Sonny Daniels promises to protect his best friends, 11-year-old twins Ashley and Carrie, when their father, Brad, is infected as the two families flee zombies and aggressive quarantine enforcement to Fort Drum, N.Y. After a year of relative safety, a bandit attack pushes the adults to send all the kids to the better-equipped Fort Denver. Sonny, Ashley, and Carrie make new friends but feel squeamish about the fixation these more sheltered kids have for stories of their desperate acts of violence. When other kids unwittingly lure a horde of zombies to the fort, the trio flees again, joining a motley band of survivors. They tumble through a cavalcade of dire danger to the unresolved ending.

The constant violence and frequent dispatching of recently introduced characters rushes the plot along. Sonny’s ability to evade death borders on the miraculous as the number of battles multiply, but each scene is, for the most part, plausible on its own. Cole deviates little from typical zombie mythology; his revenants are clumsy, thoughtless brain-seekers that form packs and spread their disease through biting. There are some unexpected plot elements, including a long-distance train journey and an encounter with a pedophilic cult. While not breaking new ground, the onslaught of exciting moments keeps readers engaged.

Cole gives Sonny dialogue and thoughts well beyond his preteen years (“Yeah, we lost people. There’s not really an easy way to say this so here goes”). He explores the weight of Sonny’s responsibilities but skims over calmer periods when self-reflection might take deeper root. The open questions and unsettled ending set the stage effectively for the next books, and readers will be eager to follow Sonny as he searches for stability. This is a tense story of a boy muscling through violent clashes in a terrifying apocalyptic world.

Takeaway: This heart-pounding sequence of narrow escapes will gratify fans of classic zombie fare.

Great for fans of Nicholas Sansbury Smith, Alden Bell.

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

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