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Shadows
William Stephen Edwards
"God of my childhood, Dear God, let there be if naught else of worth, verse in me." Here begins a collection of poetry that is by turns whimsical, through-provoking, heart-wrenching, and introspective. Religion is explored in the pieces "Jesus Says," "Poet's Prayer," and "Bible," and themes of war beautifully spun out in the prose of "Black Beauty," a piece that is equal parts a war story and an ode to a soldier's gun with hints of PTSD. There are odes in this collection to patients Edwards crossed paths with during his medical career, eloquently written, in pieces such as "Julie in the Nursing Home," a poem about a young girl who is bedridden after being hit by a drunk driver, and "Leukemia," about a girl who dies from leukemia at the age of seven.

Edwards does not shy away from tough or dark subjects in his poetry, but there are also lighthearted, playful pieces. Fans of Greek mythology will enjoy poems referencing myths and well-known heroes of those stories, like "Prometheus," which delves into the Titan's desire to aid in mankind's creativity and development.

The collection is formally varied. Some entries are prose poems; in some poems Edwards incorporates somewhat formal, archaic language, like “oft” and “’tis”; in others, readers will find mentions of JC Penney and colloquial generalizations like “aargh!”. This skillfully written collection is accessible to novice poetry readers and avid fans alike. The wide range of topics, tones, and forms means at least some of its entries will resonate with a wide variety of readers.

Takeaway: This vast, varied poetry collection has something for everybody.

Great for fans of: Robert Frost, Walt Whitman.

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

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THE AURAS PURPOSE
Jose Colon
Offering a singular mix of apocalyptic adventure, conspiratorial secret history, and metaphysical superheroics, Colón’s sprawling end-times novel pulses with imaginative invention. This story, the first book in the Guardian series, centers on a nefarious faction of immortals led by one Master Oblivion, which has dedicated itself to the destruction not just of humanity but of people’s trust in their governments and capacity for hope.

In the late 1990s, Master Oblivion’s immortal team enlists power brokers to fake the computer “crisis” of Y2K so they can hack into the world’s computers. They’re also credited with the shootings at Columbine High School and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, among other events. Humanity’s best chance at restoring hope is a young boy from Seattle named Chris, who is revealed at a Shaolin Temple to be “the Shining One,” foretold in legend, part Dalai Lama and part Doctor Strange. Chris’s destiny, he’s told, is to remind humanity to “use our potentials to what they were supposed to be.”

As an adult, Chris achieves some of his destiny through (non-explicit) transcendental sex that leaves an eternal mark on a tech pioneer named Lori Muse. Colón doesn’t reveal much about what characters are thinking, so readers might find themselves, like Lori, unclear about Chris’s plan and her own role in the future; they’ll have to wait for future installments to find out. Readers interested in the machinations of power brokers will enjoy the panoply of angels, demons, CEOs, socialites, and monks battling for the fate of the universe in this fast-moving metaphysical epic.

Takeaway: This apocalyptic epic will appeal to readers who love a juicy conspiracy.

Great for fans of: L. Ron Hubbard’s Mission Earth series, S. M. Stirling’s Emberverse series.

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

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Every Day Is Saturday: Sleeping Late, Playing With the Grandchildren, Surviving the Quarantine, and Other Joys of Retirement
Jerry Zezima
Zezima's (Nini and Poppie’s Excellent Adventures: Grandkids, Wine Clubs, and Other Ways to Keep Having Fun) latest anecdotes about life in retirement pack colossal humor into bite-sized stories, revealing a man unfalteringly devoted to his wife and family. Zezima's long career, as a syndicated humor columnist specializing in droll observations about everyday life, gives him a unique perspective from which to expound on the different ways that retirement has changed him. He recounts interactions with his beloved grandchildren, home improvement projects, and an ever-changing dynamic with his wife, Sue. Each chapter compiles several short anecdotes or observations, with titles like “How to Bathe a Baby” and “Love at the Landfill.”

Zezima's nonstop puns and self-deprecating tone are balanced by his warmth and humanity. His grandchildren own a large part of the stage, and his witty recounting of their adorable antics brims with the loving devotion of retired grandparents. His natural penchant for hamming it up while storytelling is evident when he breathes life into mundane topics like needing a new fridge or applying for Social Security. The chapter of interviews about retirement with friends and former colleagues is surprisingly introspective and informative, highlighting Zezima’s reporter's instinct and knack for comedy.

Zezima deflects darker emotions with satire and deliberately keeps the tone light, even when discussing things like the coronavirus and its effect on his marriage. Gratitude for life is palpable on every page. Zezima’s childlike curiosity about the world around him, particularly the histories of people he meets, forms the basis of entertaining quips and reminiscences (“I am proud, happy, and really fatigued to say that I took a six-hour safe driving course sponsored by AARP”). Zezima has seriously elevated his shtick in this hilarious and heartwarming chronicle of grandparents gone wild.

Takeaway: Readers will chuckle at Zezima's propensity for puns and appreciate his outpouring of genuine warmth and love for family.

Great for fans of: Graham Harrop's Living Together After Retirement, Clive Whichelow's Retirement For Beginners.

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

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The Frosell Affair
Heddy Frosell da Ponte
Frosell da Ponte (The Glamour Years of Flying as a Stewardess) serves up an intriguing “dramatization of the true story” of her family’s experience after the 1944 Allied victory in Europe, drawn from her father’s unpublished writings. In her third-person telling, her father, Oscar Frosell, an affluent Swedish national living in France, is labeled a Nazi collaborator by corrupt members of the Resistance, who are after his fortune, when the Allies liberate Paris. After he is stripped of his home, tortured, and imprisoned, Oscar enters a lengthy legal battle with the French Republic, and his quest for justice puts him at odds with some of the most lauded figures in history. Meanwhile, his obsession with restitution isolates and forever alters his daughter Heddy.

The story is at its most successful when exploring Heddy’s loss of innocence as she comes of age during a period of intense turmoil. She is precocious and observant, and glimpsing a father’s predicament through the eyes of a child is noteworthy. While the dehumanizing treatment Oscar faces will deeply affect readers, the pursuit of wealth-based reparations can feel cold in the context of such widespread suffering.

This bold narrative is remarkably different from typical novels and novelizations of World War II. The bureaucratic villains are respected real-life political figures (Charles de Gaulle, Raoul Nordling), and, rather than focusing on the cruelty of the Nazis, the horrors of the Holocaust, or the war itself, Frosell da Ponte explores how greed and self-preservation can corrupt anyone. Though the historical accuracy of the story is largely unknown (the records of this affair are not readily available), this provocative work illuminates an atypical battle against oppression and intimidation.

Takeaway: This challenging, original historical dramatization is perfect for those interested in moral grey areas and corrupt bureaucracy.

Great for fans of: Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

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

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Optimal
John Berger
Berger (Extremism) depicts a dystopian world where online algorithms and recommendations have made life outwardly perfect and seamless. Since the end of the Algorithm Wars, the System runs everything flawlessly, creating a fully integrated global structure where everyone is connected via wearable devices and their jobs, diets, recreation, and romantic lives are guided by recommendations from the all-encompassing technology. When Stanton Lime (financial officer for the UVblZCofKX Corporation) disappears and becomes virtually untraceable, corporation lawyer Megumi tasks accountant Jack with tracking him down. Along with Mira, Stanton’s mysterious former associate, Jack navigates the intricacies of the System and learns about the dark side of a society with so much control over its members.

In Berger’s future, casual human touch is offensive, police surveillance reigns supreme, and serendipity has been replaced by a hyperefficient system based on likes and recommendations. Berger’s rebels and renegades, seeking to break away from this, fetishize retro technology (“Another item in the collection was a box with a round rotating platform and a swiveling mechanical arm.… Focus showed type:record-player”). This dark atmosphere will draw in even fans who are familiar with dystopian worlds.

The characters are charismatic and will keep readers invested. Jack’s journey of self-discovery and quest for individualism as he learns to let go of controlling technology is compelling. Stanton Lime, with his love for outdated technology and old-world wines, is a delightfully appealing revolutionary figure. Berger compellingly explores the predicaments of a globally networked civilization in this stimulating, immersive book.

Takeaway: Fans of dystopian stories will enjoy this speculative fiction thriller.

Great for fans of: Amor Towles’s You Have Arrived at Your Destination, David Eggers’s The Circle.

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

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Dream Phaze - Germination
Matt
Watters’s thrilling first installment of the Dream Phaze series combines imagination with technology to create a future where clients are immersed in customized engineered dreams. Dr. Saxon Zynn and his team of scientists are responsible for this revolutionary science, but they’re racing the clock to meet their launch date. Not everyone is eager to see this innovative technology hit the mainstream market, however, and Fundamental Purists stand in the way of the team’s success. When threats are issued against his family, Saxon is faced with a decision: Does he shut down his program, or does he push forward despite the severe consequences?

Readers will delight in the world Watters has created. They will long to be one of Saxon’s customers, who can experience soaring through an asteroid belt, drinking molten lava from a Mars volcano, or literally tasting a rainbow. The standoff with the Fundamental Purists’ is high tension; it threatens the life of Saxon’s son Hugo while illuminating secondary characters such as Saxon’s strong-willed wife Margo, her father Walter, and Hugo’s mysterious fiancée Christine. A glossary makes it easier to decode the technical jargon of the opening chapter, and soon the mechanics of immersive dreaming take a backseat to the nail-biting action of Saxon’s personal and professional dilemma.

Watters masterfully pits Saxon’s most closely held values against one another for a page-turning thriller. The novel also considers the broader social implications of the technology, such as individuals manipulating the program to fulfill their own perverse desires, but the heart of the story is Saxon and his desire to create a beautiful dream experience. Science fiction fans will revel in this high-stakes, character-driven thriller that careens through an imaginative future of manufactured dreams.

Takeaway: This high-stakes science fiction thriller will win over readers with its dynamic characters and unforeseen plot twists.

Great for fans of: Roger Zelazny’s The Dream Master, Christopher Priest’s A Dream of Wessex.

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

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Restore Our Democracy: The Case for Equality and Justice
Werner Neff
In this stirring call to action, Neff (Restore Trust), who has a doctorate in political science, explores the historical and legal attributes of American democracy and the current crisis of democratic spirit in the United States. Neff defines the heart of democracy as a system of compromise that allows diverse people to live together and determine effective solutions for their lives. Neff offers a series of practical solutions, most importantly for voters to consider themselves Americans first and members of political parties second. He recommends a recommitment to nonpartisan electoral reforms and extensive compromise, with passionate and repetitive reminders to vote.

As an expatriate originally from Switzerland, Neff has the benefit of an outsider’s perspective, and his story highlights the drift that has occurred from the early ideals of the nation to widespread voter suppression and gerrymandering. Though Neff is overly sanguine about the founding of the United States on democratic principles, neglecting the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans, his retelling of democratic ideals is stirring. He convincingly argues that a failure of commitment to democratic ideals, like compromise, will inevitably lead to a failure of democratic structures like voting.

Though mostly uplifting, Neff’s examination of massive and intractable problems in the U.S. democratic system may cause readers to doubt the impact of their individual participation. This timely and inspiring study is an exhortation for readers to return to democratic ideals.

Takeaway: American citizens concerned about the direction of their democracy will find this thorough explanation of democratic principles to be a rallying cry.

Great for fans of: Democracy in One Book or Less by David Litt, How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

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

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Shadow Status
River K. Scott
Scott’s (Rangers of the Rift series) energetic cyberpunk adventure is a story of xenophobia in a dystopian future ravaged by a genetic disease. Society is separated into the marginalized infected, called Prosets (or grubs), living 500 feet underground, and the disease-latent Resets, who rule. Sixteen-year-old Jaffrey Pewitt hides his status as a grub and dreams of becoming a Watcher to protect the World Net from malware. Before his training begins, he befriends Hannah, a malware artificial intelligence entity (AIE) who trusts him enough to reveal a city of AIEs hiding in the World Net. Jaffrey must decide whether his loyalty lies with the Watchers or with Hannah.

Scott’s richly developed world pops off the page, giving a convincing sense of its dysfunctional society run on fear and intimidation. The stakes are high, and the characters are willing to challenge social constraints for the greater good. When a power surge threatens to destroy everything, Jaffrey weighs whether to improve his status by becoming a Watcher and preparing for an assault against the city or to the lives of people very different from himself. While Jaffrey’s older brother Ben joins the Watchers in the attack, his nine-year-old sister Astrid is more open-minded and has actually made contact with the leader of the AIEs, the master Builder Tandren.

Scott presents a sympathetic and imaginative variation on the familiar plot of sentient computer programs and artificial intelligence with a world of unique clothes, jobs, and vocabulary. She folds themes of environmental degradation and genetic manipulation into a fast-paced caper and delivers a satisfying ending to this cautionary but entertaining story. The message of diverse characters working together to solve a common problem will resonate with readers of all ages.

Takeaway: Cyberpunk fans will thrill to video-game action and sympathetic characters fighting high-stakes battles.

Great for fans of: Stephanie Flint’s Huntress, Julian North’s Age of Order.

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

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It's the Right Thing to Do: An Amazonian Tale from the Brazilian Caboclos Tribe
Lindalouise
Lindalouise’s debut picture book is a simple, kind fable about helping others, framed as a traditional story told by indigenous Brazilian elders. Lana the ocelot is eager to help all kinds of creatures in her Amazon rainforest home, including helping a toucan build a nest and howler monkeys find bananas; she holds fast to the conviction that “it’s the right thing to do” to “offer help whenever possible.” She gains friends among the animals who build homes close to her. Leo the jaguar, on the other hand, is selfish and exiles himself far from the others, who give him a wide berth. Leo sneers at Lana’s openheartedness and, when one of her kittens wanders off, he refuses to help her search. But soon Leo has a dangerous run-in with loggers, forcing him to question his rejection of past offers for help.

The human elements, indigenous storytellers and the loggers working in the forest, are only touched upon, with little commentary on the ecological effect of logging; the story focuses on the differences between selfish Leo and cooperative Lana. The friendliness towards all creatures from a carnivorous ocelot matches the softened reality of most traditional fables (though teaching her kittens to hunt is mentioned). Although the text pages, which superimpose small text over a pale illustration, can seem a little busy, the length seems ideal for reading aloud.

The plot is clear and easy to understand, and the illustrations are vibrant and playful, with a pen-and-watercolor effect, lightly anthropomorphizing the creatures while still maintaining a sense of realism. Young readers will enjoy this gentle call for selflessness.

Takeaway: This animal friendship tale and its simple lesson will be enjoyed by late preschool through early grade audiences.

Great for fans of: Aesop's fables, Laurie Keller's Do Unto Otters.

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

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A Disappearance: A Robert Chase Novel
G.E. Forth
This heart-stopping thriller, third in the Robert Chase series, is set in a darkly fascinating post-Soviet world. Covert CIA agents Robert Chase and his wife and partner, Samantha D’Aubrisson, search for the kidnapped goddaughter of a senior Russian security officer. To find and dismantle an international sex trafficking ring involving both ex-KGB and Chinese criminals, Chase and his associates must travel the world, taking on spy agencies and police in multiple countries.

Forth keeps the action at a boil. Action scenes are choreographed with meticulous detail and are populated with hard-edged killers who bring down their opponents without hesitation. Indeed, some scenes—the graphic rape of a child and torture with a blowtorch—might be too grim for some readers. But overall, action aficionados will delight in well-staged shootouts and imaginatively described violence: a quickly dispatched guard "now sported a red badge on his forehead and another on his face."

The author doesn't neglect characterization: Chase is capable of terrifying violence but prefers to avoid firearms, and D’Aubrisson smoothly moves between gunplay and love for Chase, perhaps her only loyalty. Their associate Wolf stands out as a seriously disturbed soldier—he is disappointed when he loses a chance to kill. Especially well-drawn is Russian security chief Popov, an unmoored ex-KGB agent who has a complex frenemy relationship with his opposite number in the CIA—a metaphor for the dynamic between the U.S. and Russia. The beautifully paced scenes, full of red-meat action, and the well-developed characters will keep readers turning pages to the satisfying denouement.

Takeaway: Vividly described fight scenes and an engaging cast of well-detailed and coldly effective black ops agents make this book especially rewarding for fans of spy thrillers.

Great for fans of: Ian Fleming, Robert Ludlum.

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

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The Finn Chronicles: Year One: A dog's reports from the front lines of hooman rescue
Gwen Romack
First-time author Romack writes from the perspective of her beloved dog, a Vizsla mix named Finn, as he narrates a year’s worth of comedic weekly updates. The book began when Romack was fostering Finn, as a series of popular Facebook posts she hoped would “help prospective adopters fall in love with Finn.” However, Romack and her partner could not part ways with the pup, and, as Finn himself confesses, “I find myself growing attached to these freaks.” We see through Finn’s eyes as he muses about Romack, “The Squishy One”; and her partner, “The Hairy One”; and Finn’s tribulations and joys in dealing with the silly habits of “hoomans.” ‌ ‌ ‌

This is more an episodic scrapbook than a novelesque narrative arc. Entries’ structures vary occasionally with a comedic haiku, frequent Special Reports, and weekly stats like, “Ribs I almost snatched off the counter: 3.” Finn is, undoubtedly, the book’s selling point. Photos for each post show him with a cone around his head, or looking yearningly at a tennis ball stuck under the bed, or wearing new outfits his people have made for him.

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The humor and personality Romack gives Finn will appeal to readers of all ages. Humor ranges from highbrow to low: Finn describes certain training as “my 6th ring of Hell (Yes, dogs read Dante too),” but also boasts, “5 deuces in one walk!!” As Finn says, “Sometimes I like to throw the hoomans a bone to keep them feeling positive.” And this charming diary is a lighthearted escape that will put a smile on dog lovers’ faces.

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Takeaway:‌ ‌This light and joyous collection of a dog’s weekly updates will amuse and comfort readers looking for relatable humor about the abrupt and daily starts and changes of training a new dog.

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Great‌ ‌for‌ ‌fans‌ ‌of:‌ ‌Matthew Inman’s My Dog: The Paradox, E.B. White’s E.B. White on Dogs, Maira Kalman’s Beloved Dog.

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

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Santa Abella and Other Stories
Ken Wetherington
Wetherington’s first short story collection sees ordinary people grapple with big questions, from death and dying to love and sexuality. Some of Wetherington’s stories are more nuanced than others, but the author has a clear capacity for revealing something profound about the human condition. The characters’ foibles and faux pas drive the action, for example in “Sweet Jenny,” whose narrator’s obsession with a youthful crush persists across decades, and “The Postwar Years,” whose narrator pushes away the woman who loves him out of fear she’ll find out his secret.

Other stories in this collection are less nuanced. “Black Bear Lake” chronicles the mysterious death of one member of a camping party in the North Carolinian mountains, hinting at local legend and lore without a satisfying payoff. Similarly, the story “The Revivalists” seems hastily sketched out—Wetherington’s central idea of a woman paying a celebrated doctor to revive her dead husband deserves more narrative weight.

The collection’s standout pieces convey a heartfelt intensity of feeling. “Inheriting Dad” depicts a father and son’s strained relationship in a careful meditation on the complexity of grief. Charlie Harris, whose father supposedly died in the ICU, learns that the hospital made a mistake and his father is in need of home care. With no other family members available, it is up to Charlie to shelter his father, who never had a kind word for him. In “Starstruck,” teenager Angie’s nagging infatuation with a beautiful actress is poignantly described. Though some endings leave many questions unanswered, fans of searching, inquisitive short fiction will be gratified by Wetherington’s tales.

Takeaway: This probing collection of short stories is perfect for readers seeking to delve into the complexities of human nature.

Great for fans of: Alice Munro, Lucia Berlin.

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

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Moving Jack
Michelle Mars
Mars (“Frisky Connections” in Eight Kisses) kicks off her Love Wars series with aplomb in this funny, ultrasteamy paranormal science fiction romance. In 2025, Tarc (a member of the Staraban species and commander of the Alien Relocation Cooperative) is trying to save humanity by relocating them from a dying Earth when he discovers geek-girl vampire (and anonymous dating blogger) Jack Daniels hacking into alien computers. Raven-haired, golden-skinned Tarc is unaware of Jack’s leadership in HARM (Humans Against Relocation Movement), and the two are launched into an all-out battle, caught between their explosive chemistry and individual allegiances. Mars sets up her protagonists to be enemies on the surface, but when HARM becomes convinced the Vrolan (the alien race that hired the Staraban to relocate Earth) are operating under false pretenses, their causes unite.

The novel’s twist on vampire lore—vampires don’t instantly turn to dust in the sun, but will fatally overdose on it if they stay outside too long—is fun, allowing Jack to move around undetected and making for some high-stakes scenarios. Jack’s self-esteem issues make her character more believable, and Tarc’s experience with an ill-fated romance adds depth to his personality. And their couplings are frequent, energetic, and highly orgasmic.

The sassy characters’ camaraderie is a treat (Jack’s snarky personal assistant link, Hal, routinely fires off sarcastic, witty observations), and Mars throws in original and genuinely clever byplay between Earth women, the groundwork for future couples in the series, and the Starabans’ love of “peet-zza.” This paranormal is light, sexy interspecies fun.

Takeaway: Fans of funny, strongly erotic paranormal science fiction romances will eat this one up.

Great for fans of: Christopher Moore’s vampire trilogy, MaryJanice Davidson, Shelly Laurenston.

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

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The Hugonauts - Animals of Africa: Amazing Animal Adventures
mark morris
This picture book, one in a series of four from Morris and Swingler, delivers a menagerie of information combined with complementary visual elements. To focus on teaching children about the natural world and its inhabitants, each animal is given an African first name (such as Osumare) that suits their habitat and a rhyme describing their unique traits (such as Jahi the Giraffe, “who is very, very tall..., she is the tallest of them all”). The book’s protagonist, Hugo the explorer, peers out from a "hidden" place on each page. Extra material at the end supplies intriguing and funny animal details relevant to the geographical area covered in the story.

Though Hugo and his sidekicks have cute character design, they play a fairly minor role; the text focuses on bringing to life the animals’ quirks, and even adult animal lovers will discover new facts ("unlike his cat mates, [the cheetah] cannot roar, but he has a loud purr when he is happy, lying on the savannah floor"). The search-and-find aspect is best suited to the youngest readers; Hugo is not concealed in very challenging places (on the page of Hakima the Hippopotamus, Hugo is hiding in the only thick clump of reeds in the illustration), so even very small children should not feel frustrated in this pursuit.

Swing’s lively illustrations are the highlight, giving readers an up close and personal encounter with the story’s animal stars . And the creators’ love of the natural world is apparent. The combined effect is informative and appealing, without overwhelming the reader.

Takeaway: Young animal lovers will enjoy the polished, professional illustrations on this whirlwind tour of popular African fauna.

Great for fans of: Laura Watkins’s T is for Tiger: A Toddler’s First Book of Animals, Alek Malkovich’s I Spy Books Series.

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

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Complex
A.D. Enderly
Enderly’s first installment in his Complex series is a carefully crafted adventure in a dystopian hellscape. The future world has two types of governments: Legacies (shells of former democracies) and Complexes (police-nation-states run by corporations, whose contracts bind users in lifelong agreements in return for basic human necessities). After their father’s untimely death, teenage Legacy citizen Val and her younger sister Kat are ekeing out a meager living in a poverty-stricken area. When Kat is abducted, Val joins forces with a group of scrappy renegades desperate to improve their situation through rebellion, and they claw their way through a Complex megacity to rescue Kat. And, in trying to unravel that mystery, they stumble on a much larger-scale threat.

Enderly’s dystopian world is gritty and cruel. Although life would be easier joining a Complex, Val refuses to, following the advice of her deceased father; the theme of fighting for survival is illuminated through Val’s encounters with the brutality of both the Legacy and Complex systems. In a 700-page book, the expository focus on the corporate evils of the Complexes can be somewhat overlong, and a multiplicity of viewpoint characters may make some readers feel disconnected from the action.

But Enderly’s faceless corporations and social scoring system are dystopian sci-fi classics that will resonate with fans of the genre, and Val’s steely determination in the face of overwhelming odds makes her a likeable heroine. Enderly does a remarkable job of weaving together his many threads and characters, and there is broad appeal in this detailed futuristic world. Readers will want to see where this story is going.

Takeaway: Readers who enjoy gritty science fiction will find much to love about Enderly’s grim, multilayered portrait of the future.

Great for fans of: Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, Marie Lu’s Legend trilogy

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

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Called to Dragons Nest
Madison Hinko
This YA fantastical allegory debut from high school student Hinko, the second in a series, follows a young woman, Rose Mensch, on a fateful journey. Rose learns that she’s a Red Lip: a member of a race of sinless people created by dragons, gifted with the power to create fire, and tasked with being a constructive example to humanity—but who, because of their aversion to harming others, are “entirely unable or unwilling to protect themselves.” Jealous of their power, the king of Rose’s homeland, Nava, has oppressed the Red Lips and hopes to eradicate them, a catastrophe that Rose is prophesied to defeat. After learning about the prophecy, Rose leaves her aunt’s idyllic home and she sets out to kill the king, while wrestling with whether doing so is worth betraying her inherent pacifist nature.

The novel’s vision is ambitious, but the plot can lack momentum at times, encompassing a number of detours unrelated to the stated goal. The stakes are sometimes lowered because the social persecution of Red Lips, which is the reason for killing the king, is rarely shown. And some characters can lack complexity, having only one note or characteristic; for example, the main villain is one-dimensional evil.

But Erik, the morally compromised chief of the Blue Lips, is a fun, complicated, and necessary foil for simpler characters. Rose’s parents’ backstory is told in affecting fashion. And the worldbuilding will draw readers in. This imaginative young author has built a compelling world, populated by thoughtful, philosophical characters considering big questions. Readers will be curious to see how her work evolves.

Takeaway: Readers searching for classic YA fantasy with girls on the front lines and a focus on virtue will enjoy this traditional tale.

Great for fans of: Sherry Thomas’s The Burning Sky, Christopher Paolini’s Eragon.

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

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