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The Chameleon: A Jake Palmer Novel
Ron McManus
American and British agents track deadly terrorists and try to avert a war on the India-Pakistan border in this fast-moving political thriller. Jake Palmer, former Navy SEAL, is sent to Pakistan on a special intelligence assignment. Parallel stories follow London-based Fiona Collins—MI6 staffer and Jake's occasional lover—and various Pakistani officers. Meanwhile, the disparate parties must contend with the "Chameleon," a terrorist of uncertain background who may be planning to leverage the confusion surrounding the incipient war for his own purposes. Jake and his team must unravel secret motivations and loyalties to prevent a nuclear holocaust.

McManus (Libido’s Twist), a combat veteran, displays a sure hand with the military-intelligence setting: a firefight in Islamabad is exciting and convincing, and McManus offers clear context for the complexities of India-Pakistan-China relations that are the background for his scenes of combat. These armament and political details lend a strong air of verisimilitude and elevate the story—it's not a simplistic "shoot 'em up." Indeed, the action is well-integrated with the plot, and there’s little gratuitous violence. McManus proves equally at home with comic relief, as when he shows a hard-edged U.S. general taking a break to practice golf in his office. Occasionally, the military and technical details can overwhelm, slowing the narrative, but overall the plot moves, jumping nimbly from one perspective to another.

Although the focus is on action, the characters are nicely developed. Jake is a tough guy, but the romantic scenes with Fiona are surprisingly tender. A Pakistani soldier being deployed gets a full background, with a family, and details of Pakistani culture. Jake's agent partner, Alona Green, is a sharp-witted match for him, and their banter lends a lot of color. Even an enemy agent gets a complete personality—albeit a horrifically chilling one. The fully developed characters and well-staged action make for a thriller that will keep readers turning the pages to a satisfying—and unexpected—wind-up.

Takeaway: Spy thriller aficionados will revel in the lively fight scenes, engaging cast, and vivid settings.

Great for fans of: Jack Carr, James Rollins.

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

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A Wish Too Dark And Kind
M.L. Blackbird
Swimming in treachery, betrayal, and dark magic, Blackbird’s debut, centered on an investigation into an unexplained paranormal occurrence in Paris, immediately launches readers into a world of supernatural horror touched with death. Alex Dryden, witch and Councilor at The School of Winchester, receives a cryptic order from Arnaud Demeure—“the so-called old prince of Paris”—to attend his upcoming party as a representative of her renowned institution of magical learning. Guessing correctly that all is not as it seems, Alex is joined at the party by a menagerie of otherworldly beings: immortals, Wurdulacs, and even a nun with preternatural powers. When Arnaud’s true intentions are revealed, Alex and her mystical cohort find themselves in a race against time to escape his trap and put an end to his lethal ritual.

Lovers of horror fantasy will quickly lose themselves in the labyrinth of Blackbird’s novel, a world where every fresco reveals macabre history. Drawing from folklore and necromancy with evocative prose, A Wish Too Dark and Kind traces Arnaud’s gifts back to the Tower of Babel, to the birth of the “Scarlet Woman, born from the creators,” the sacrifice he needs in order to access unlimited powers. He will stop at nothing to get what he wants, including killing several of his attendees all under the guise of granting their obsessions and wishes. In the process, buried mysteries get uncovered, old ties get severed, and destructive occult forces get unleashed.

Blackbird proves adept at immersing readers into his dark world, offering abundant rituals, sacrifices, and supernatural powers, while the eerie setting cleverly mirrors the characters’ spectral abilities. The sheer number of roles to track—combined with an epic length, a singularly complex plot, and an inventive magical language system—may be daunting for readers new to the genre, but in the end, Blackbird triumphs with this hair-raising, enveloping mystery.

Takeaway: A chilling epic of the occult, with satisfying character depth and a cliffhanger ending.

Great for fans of: Clive Barker’s The Damnation Game, Stephen Dobyns’s The Burn Palace.

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

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Death on the Railway
Manuel Rose
Subtitled “a racy horror thriller novel,” Rose’s bloody serial-killer epic kicks off with the “Railway Butcher” of a Massachusetts town killing one of the many beautiful young women whose body he will harvest for parts. The raciness, though, comes in to play in the story of protagonist Angelo Russo, a young man whose parents recently died in a car crash—and is still reeling from a (graphicly described) sexual liaison with his sister, who soon numbers among the Butcher’s victims. The police consider Angelo a suspect. His sister, Carina, haunts him as he tries to put his life in order, training for a railroad job, and it seems that anyone he gets close to winds up dead.

True to its genre, nothing is quite what it seems in Death on the Railway, as the fast-paced narrative twists, builds, and gets weird. Angelo at times can’t tell if he’s dreaming of his dead (apparent) sister or being haunted by her highly libidinous ghost, and that feeling of not-quite-reality permeates the novel. Rose’s concrete, matter-of-fact prose presents wild and grotesque moments in an offhand way, often with little buildup, eviscerations described in the same tone as the lessons Angelo picks up in his training to be a railway conductor. More shocking than the bloodshed is its abruptness: a best friend and several potential love interests drift into the story only to be killed before their connection to Angelo is felt in any significant way.

The violence is likely too familiar to jolt devotees of the genre, but Angelo’s attitudes toward interracial dating and a “drag queen” he meets likely constitute the book’s truest shocks: Dude sleeps with his sister and acts like other people’s ways of loving are deviant? That character ultimately proves one of the novel’s most engaging, even as the blinkered protagonist keeps saying things like “You’re not going to try any funny stuff, are you?”

Takeaway: This serial-killer thriller’s most upsetting shocks aren’t its many murders.

Great for fans of: Andrew Martin’s The Blackpool Highflyer, Tim Weaver Vanished.

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

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When He Was Anna: A Mom's Journey Into the Transgender World
Patti Hornstra
Debut author Hornstra details a parent’s route down an unknown road with this deeply honest memoir about being the parent of a transgender child and, eventually, adult. At sixteen, Hornstra’s youngest daughter announces that he is transgender, now identifies with male pronouns, and now calls himself Lucas. Roughly three years, several therapists, and many arguments and hurt feelings later, Lucas, now known as Tristan, affirms his gender choice, although his explosive rage regarding his parents’ skepticism about testosterone therapy and top surgery cuts a deep schism through Tristan’s relationships with Hornstra and her husband.

More a story of Hornstra’s struggles than of Tristan’s transition, Hornstra reflects on her feelings and thoughts without apology, describing her path to coming to “accept” Tristan despite still not fully understanding. Hornstra acknowledges early on that she can’t always be “politically correct,” a term she uses thoughtfully rather than as a point of pride, and that writing this book is part of her process of coming to terms. The emotions are still raw: “I hope that one day Tristan sees me as two things,” she writes. “1) a mama who was strong enough to never go over the edge, no matter how close she got, and 2) a mama who loved her no matter what.” Many passages are difficult to read without strong feelings, scenes that were undoubtedly even harder for the family to live through.

Hornstra reports that she still struggles to use male pronouns consistently, although it pains her when others make the same mistake or simply refuse. She does not address her choice to use Tristan’s deadname in the title, though she notes that the book has won “The Tristan Seal of Approval”—and that she’d not have published without it. A glossary of up-to-date terminology demonstrates her engagement with issues of language, identity, and power, while the book itself lays bare her own journey, warts and all, possibly helping other parents arrive at acceptance—and maybe even understanding.

Takeaway: This honest, unflinching account of parenting a transgender child will help other parents understand.

Great for fans of: Amy Ellis Nutt’s Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family, Telaina Eriksen’s Unconditional: A Guide to Loving and Supporting Your LGBTQ Child , Jazz Jennings’s Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen.

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

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October Thirty-One: 10/31 [Children's book series title: Celebrate the HoliDates®]
María Felicia Kelley
Costumes, candy, parties, jack-o-lanterns–there’s a lot to love about Halloween, and Kelley covers it all in this vibrant children’s book all about the last day of October, with a promise that it won’t get too creepy. The book follows a little boy named Constantine–a tribute to Kelley’s real-life son–as he celebrates the arrival of fall with his friends. Constantine mulls over what to dress up as on his favorite night of the year–a superhero, an animal, a car?–before settling on a wizard outfit complete with a star-shaped wand and pointy hat. When night falls and “it gets a little spooky,” Constantine goes trick-or-treating with his friends.

Pratima Sarkar’s colorful illustrations enhance this familiar story’s lively, seasonal vibe, showing a smiling, wide-eyed Constantine doing fun things like playing in piles of orange leaves and dancing next to a table filled with caramel apples before he ventures into a haunted landscape rife with skeletons, spider webs, and witches. (An awkwardly anthropomorphic letter O with human arms accompanies him but seems out of place in a determinedly real-world story where the fantastical is what kids imagine and wear as costumes.)

Most of this autumnal lark doesn’t cover new ground regarding All Hallows’ Eve, so the inclusion of “shocking, creepy cuisine” is a pleasant surprise. One of Constantine’s favorite treats is soul cakes, described as “Celtic breads decorated with crosses made of currants.” Kelley includes welcome historical reference: “‘Souling’ was a house-to-house ritual inspiring the modern trick-or-treater, a Halloween custom that sparked today’s neighborhood, costumed candy-corn eater.” Kelley includes an easy-to-follow recipe, so families can work together to make soul cakes of their own. This book is a celebration of all things spooky, and elementary school kids who love to prowl the neighborhood on the scariest night of the year will find this a welcome addition to their library.

Takeaway: A picture-book celebration of Halloween, the start of fall, and the pleasures of soul bread.

Great for fans of: Lucy Ruth Cummins’s Stumpkin, Patricia Toht’s Pick a Pumpkin.

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

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Darkness & Grace
Kathryn Schleich
Inspired by a true story, this intimate family thriller from Schleich (Salvation Station) centers on the Piersons, an affluent Midwestern family united with excitement about middle son Paul's marriage to his second wife, Pamela, in 1996. But what starts off as a blessed union that the family approves of soon turns into something more sinister as Pamela's behavior changes once wedding vows are exchanged, and the family finds itself overlooking disturbing red flags in an attempt to keep the peace and avoid seeing Paul hurt by love yet again. Soon, the family and their close-knit relationships are severely tested by Paul's new bride and her ominous calculations.

Schleich instantly pulls readers in, opening with an ominous article about a woman found dead in the woods, and then, just as quickly, immersing them in the midst of a joyous wedding described as “a resurrection from the dead of sorts.” From there, the story’s pacing is entertaining, the events laced with intrigue, though the multitude of characters introduced within the first few chapters demands some effort to track. Despite that challenge, Schleich writes the Piersons and others with an engaging attention to their shared intimacies and histories, especially as the family rallies with touching gusto around Paul, a widower at the age of 31, and his new bride.

That makes the secretive and malicious intentions Schleich hints at and then reveals all the more suspenseful, as readers become attached and attempt to game out Pamela’s next moves—and how the family, especially Paul, will respond. Schleich delivers plenty of surprises and plot twists, but this slow-burn thriller also offers evocative prose and emotional nuance as it inspires readers to tear through the pages to discover what ultimately happens to the Pierson family. After a deliberate buildup, fans of the genre will be satisfied with the secrets, lies, and a shocking conclusion.

Takeaway: This gripping drama of a rich family, a second marriage, and plenty of surprises builds to a thrilling conclusion.

Great for fans of: Liane Moriarty’s The Husband's Secret, Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger.

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

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Capital de facto: Inquiring into the General Theory of Capitalism
Arman Calbay
Calbay makes a bold attempt to write a new chapter in economic theory–and to counteract resurgent interest in Karl Marx–by introducing to economics the principles of relativity and sustainable symmetry breaking, with the avowed goal of overturning Marxism once and for all. Calbay sets up three postulates from which the rest of his theory flows: that all the factors of economic production are equal (labor, land, and capital); that value is created from human ownership of a production factor; and that, in economic systems that don’t allow slavery, human labor can only belong to the individual. That foundation, he asserts, leads to a fundamental asymmetry in the relationship between capital and labor, in a non-slave society, since labor force cannot be sold but the capital can be.

Capital De Facto covers a large territory in a brief page count–as Calbay notes, it would require a dozen or more authors to explore every crucial element of capitalism. Still, readers may wish for more detail, as well as some attention paid to mathematical formalization, which the guide deliberately sets aside. Calbay’s core argument—that the relationship of individuals in the labor market is a contract between employer and employee for access to capital—would likely be more persuasive to skeptical readers if Calbay offered a more robust consideration of the power differential between labor and capital.

Calbay strives earnestly to disprove Marx–ultimately because “[c]ollectivism breeds dictatorship.” He asserts that the private ownership of capital is vital for the broader capitalist system, to avoid the dangers of collectivism and to promote freedom. He calls a society that pays “more attention to the conditions of the distribution of capital, rather than to issues of equalization of income,” and he takes time to explore older systems of production (such as slaveholding societies and feudalism) as he makes the case for the capitalist society as being the best way to preserve freedom.

Takeaway: Readers interested in understanding and defending capitalism will find provocative ideas in this economic treatise.

Great for fans of: Michael Heller and James Salzman’s Mine!: How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives, Hernando De Soto’s The Mystery of Capital.

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

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The Visibility Factor
Susan M. Barber
Executive coach Barber debuts with this polished, practical guide to creating “authentic visibility” in the workplace when merely working hard and playing by the rules isn’t enough. Targeting leaders inside companies, she urges readers to step out of “the shadow of invisibility” while still being themselves, to understand the difference between being visible and feeling exposed, and to accept the hard truth that being excellent at their jobs isn’t necessarily enough to secure promotion.

“You have so much potential, but you sit at the back of the room in meetings and don’t say a word,” a mentor once said to her. “Why do you even show up?” With The Visibility Factor, Barber offers a similar (albeit less sharp-elbowed) intervention for readers. She writes as an engaged, encouraging coach, drawing on over a quarter of a century’s experience at a major corporation as she lays out clear steps (create status reports; develop a coterie of advisers; set a vision; challenge the status quo) essential to achieving a positive visibility. She’s generous with real-world anecdotes, drawn from her life and those of people she’s mentored. Crucially, Barber acknowledges and addresses the common reservations and even fears that make invisibility appealing, and she mines her own struggles with impostor syndrome for memorable lessons. “To keep you safe, impostor syndrome keeps you out of action,” she notes.

Barber includes all the action steps, reflection questions, pragmatic lists, leadership scorecards, and catchy acronym-based processes that readers might expect. Still, her book’s most valuable element might be its thorough detailed accounts of the actual workplace experiences of leaders Barber has mentored. Relatable and inspiring, they tend to voice the uncertainties and excuses that readers might harbor themselves; seeing a frustrated leader like “Nicole” go from feeling “stuck and unsure” whether she should stay on a company that wastes her time in constant meetings to someone who now shapes the job and key company priorities is satisfying and persuasive.

Takeaway: A clear-eyed, persuasive, and encouraging guide to standing out for the better as a leader within a company.

Great for fans of: Carol Kinsey Goman’s Stand Out: How to Build Your Leadership Presence, Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead.

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

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A Thousand Valleys: A Novel
Ken Fulmer
The first volume of debut author Fulmer’s Piedmont trilogy, A Thousand Valleys offers an unflinching and poignant account of a family in trouble. Seven-year-old Jimmy Taylor faces growing up in 1970s North Carolina with an uncertain foundation: his parents are divorced, and his mother Sara works nights as a nurse and sleeps during the day, often leaving Jimmy to fend for himself. Worse, Sara has changed: instead of the funny, loving woman she once was, she now seems depressed, even unhinged. As her mental state declines, Jimmy struggles to cope and searches for a way to meet the challenges presented by his family’s dysfunction.

As Jimmy’s mother becomes detached from reality, she still, like Fulmer’s other characters, is written with such care and persuasive detail that she vibrates with authenticity. Fulmer boldly mingles characters’ strengths with their flaws, creating convincing, complex people: while Sara could be viewed as neglectful, she fights off her exhaustion to take Jimmy to a movie, and though Jimmy’s grandmother is strict and joyless, when she is baking she saves the mixer’s cake batter-coated beaters for Jimmy to lick. Jimmy himself is conflicted as he grapples with his troubles, shifting from playing with action figures to contemplating suicide.

The characters’ relationships with each other are similarly fine-tuned. Family interactions make up the bulk of the plot, and while the intense focus on them may at times be overwhelming, the constant kaleidoscope of shifting tensions, bonds, and loyalties often proves mesmeric. The most heartrending connection is that between Sara and Jimmy. Even as Sara drifts further away, succumbing to bizarre thoughts and behaviors, her devotion to her son never wavers. This complicated portrait of a family thrown into chaos by forces beyond their control will keep the attention of thoughtful readers right up until a final twist that complicates all that has come before—and maybe edges the book into a new genre.

Takeaway: This gripping, empathetic family drama finds a young boy in a crumbling family facing powerful problems.

Great for fans of: John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down, Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.

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

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Dusted by Stars
G.A. Matiasz
Matiasz’s bite-sized space opera introduces a new SF world and crew in the classic blue-collar space trucking vein. When Earthling freighter pilot Stacey Jones is contracted by a mysterious woman to transport an ancient object to a holy planet, she's just happy to have a paying gig. But her cargo turns out to be the literal Holy Grail, and plenty of others want to get their hands on it. With a little help from her crew—a bug she met during a bar fight, an anxious AI, and a feline stowaway—the resourceful trucker tries to stay a step ahead of those other interested parties (and, as she puts it, “all that fairy tale crap”) so that she can survive, get paid, and maybe, just maybe, find a new home for the scattered remnants of humanity.

Matiasz hits all the right notes for her subgenre: daring escapes and space battles, weird aliens and wacky robots, a cynical-on-the-outside protagonist with an impossible dream.The setting is at once familiar and fresh, with unique takes on some standard ideas. In this universe, the terraforming of Mars was a complete disaster, and a lonely remnant of an alien hive mind is a charming crew member rather than a frightening foe. And while space has long been the dominion of white men, Stacey Jones makes room for herself as a Black woman with strong ties to her Earth heritage.

The specifics are fascinating, though at times Dusted By Stars wanders into long asides with little bearing on the plot. Still, the action is well paced and exciting, and this novella feels, in the end, the right length for the story it’s telling. Detailed and dynamic illustrations make it an easy world to sink into. Perfect for fans of space opera looking for all their favorite things in one place.

Takeaway: This quick space trucking adventure delivers everything it promises.

Great for fans of: Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, G. Willow Wilson and Christian Ward’s Invisible Kingdom.

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

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The Poetic Vibrations of a Matured Butterfly
Arthur Lee Conway
Part political commentary, part confrontation with history, Conway’s pained, scathing collection reconsiders historical moments that no one would deem the brightest hour for nations and peoples, opening with the powerful “The Consequences of a Blackman Bringing Fire,” about the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr, and moving on with titles like “An Abrupt Flash of Hell in Urbania.” Illustrations created by Hampton R. Olfus Jr. illuminate the darkest moments, the sketches breaking through the white of the page as if to show the shadows the light is trying to burn out, and Conway offers some reprieves, such as a paean to spending the night with someone beautiful or observing a dragonfly skirting above the surface of water without care of what might lie beneath. Those moments propel readers (and possibly the poet) to keep going, an encouragement to push forward.

Conway’s poems face injustices of global history, in the Americas and South Africa and China and more, often sharply critiquing systems of power that have not just allowed atrocities and apathy but encouraged them. The bluntly titled “A Progressive Act of Land Reform, As Viewed by a Latin American Child” summons up the vulnerability of having nowhere to turn as the powers that be destroy the Earth itself—”brown earth-flesh” spatters against this El Salvadoran’s “tin casa” like “rain falling against an empty Campbell’s / soup can.”

The Poetic Vibrations of a Matured Butterfly is raw yet ethereal, a dream journal linking powerful injustices throughout history into an interrelated whole, tied together by a vigorous clarity of language, especially in the occasional short poems that open with “Oppression is …” and then offer ever-evolving examples that each connect to the same enduring root problem. The collection builds to the powerful image, in the penultimate poem, of “…a mighty Panther devouring a dead, tainted Eagles / flesh…” The reincarnation detailed afterwards gives a sense of change–of hope–despite all the scenes of misused power that precede it. Conway brings fire.

Takeaway: A pained, potent collection of poems on global injustice, oppression, and even hope.

Great for fans of: JP Howard, Larry Neal, Haki R. Madhubuti.

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

A Better Heart
Chuck Augello
Augello (The Revolving Heart) has crafted a sweet, funny character study centered around a fiery animal-rights polemic. Kevin is a struggling independent filmmaker working with a motley assortment of volunteers and friends, including his sometimes-lover Veronica. In the middle of filming a scene, his estranged actor father shows up with a capuchin monkey and a concealed gun, and the shenanigans only get wilder from there, as Kevin learns that his father has married a much younger woman, and that the monkey has been rescued from cruel experiments at a lab. Kevin’s life is amusingly complicated: he’s trying to impregnate his sister-in-law at her request, must deal with the FBI investigating the stolen monkey, all while coming to grips with his own dawning consciousness regarding animal rights.

The tone veers wildly from impassioned lectures to madcap comedy—a road trip with his father as part of an FBI operation goes in surprising directions, including a hilarious extended cameo from a real-world actor—to sincere examination of complicated, flawed characters. It holds together, though, thanks to brisk pacing and Augello’s total commitment to each character's narrative, no matter how absurd. A subplot in which a priest directs Veronica to help out a woman with a mental illness might feel tacked on, but it’s funny. Augello incorporates arguments about animal rights without much nuance, but the novel's great strength is that the philosophical points come from characters who feel like fully formed people rather than rhetorical devices—and that the dialogue is sharp.

Augello's passion for diving into the feelings of all species gives this wild story much heart and wit. Readers interested in animal rights issues will respond to Augello's in-your-face arguments he tells through his characters, but this is also a crisply written, sometimes hilarious novel whose heart, ultimately, is in the relationship between an absent father and his estranged son.

Takeaway: Madcap and accomplished, this comic novel boasts big surprises, heartfelt characters, and a passion for animal rights.

Great for fans of: Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Nick Sage’s It’s a Cow’s World.

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

Click here for more about A Better Heart
THE SPHERE OF DESTINY
NASSIM ODIN
Odin’s young adult debut explores themes of cultural diversity as human and alien characters must understand each other to achieve the common good. In 832 AD in Baghdad, alchemist Al-Khidr, an expert in the chemistry of plants and acids, is hired by the Caliph to travel to Egypt, find a way into the Great Pyramid, and plunder the riches within. The Caliph ultimately confiscates the gold but lets Al-Khidr keep some apparently worthless trinkets: an orb and a mysterious strip of bendable glass. Al-Khidr enlists the aid of Sufi mystic Dhu Al-Nun to translate the writing on the orb, which says “As above, so below,” and, as Al-Khidr fiddles with it, a sphere of energy envelops him, transporting him to the planet Lyra around the star Vega. There, Al-Khidr encounters an advanced civilization—but when the people learn he is from the cursed planet Keb (Earth), they fear he will infect them with a deadly disease.

Odin drives the action as nightmares haunt Al-Khidr, bandits chase him on Earth, and police arrest him on Lyra, with one officer, the kind Nefertiti, hoping to help. Still, the story is breezy, even as it reveals a surprising alternate history in which, millennia ago, Lyra’s Queen Hathor and her scientific crew landed on Earth and contracted the disease. With his knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants, Al-Khidr asks the queen if he can return to Earth to look for a cure.

Al-Khidr’s education and the region’s language, dress, and culture contrast sharply with Lyra’s advanced technology. While the action progresses and readers will enjoy Al-Khidr’s honesty and generosity, some clunky language distracts and the pace sometimes languishes as extraneous events detour from the main plot. Nevertheless, this fresh take on the concept of an ancient Egypt inspired by aliens will draw readers in with its cultural interactions and tense action.

Takeaway: Aliens, ancient Egypt, and tense action power this alchemist’s adventure for YA and SF readers.

Great for fans of: Ashley Poston’s Heart of Iron, Ryan Graudin’s Invictus.

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

Click here for more about THE SPHERE OF DESTINY
A Necessary Explosion: Collected Poems
Dan Burns
This expansive, conservational collection from Burns, a poet and novelist who embraces above all else the role of storyteller, collects 75 poems composed as something of release valves, “necessary explosion”s that expel “the worrisome crap accumulated / within the confines of one’s skull”. Little surprise, then, that the verse (and occasional prose pieces) is so urgent and engaged. Burns examines this impetus in the disarmingly direct “Why Write Poetry?”: penning these pieces, he writes, is a way to “Let the world know that you’re alive” and “Utilize symbolism, metaphor, structure, and form to say what cannot be said any other way.” Throughout A Necessary Explosion he does both, again and again.

Burns’s eruptions survey, among other topics, what seems “the coming end of the world” and his hopes that perhaps there’s a better one to be discovered. Burns takes on the terror of his times—he likens living during the Covid-19 pandemic to being “the only passenger on a plane that I understand will soon run out of fuel”—but also the everyday experiences that make those times worth enduring. He captures the collective transcendence of experiencing live music (“Hearts pause, / imprinted with wonder.”) and the transformative power of encounters with nature (a spring thicket “poking me to let me know/I’m alive and human to a fault”). His touch can be engagingly light, as in a block-text consideration of scribbling notes on napkins: “it beats the alternatives, which are gazing endlessly—like a self-absorbed dope with mind-numbing consequences—into the idiot-slab (iPhone)”.

That line’s a joke with teeth, exemplifying what is, for Burns, a need to write: it beats the alternatives. The collection builds to a prose piece, “Adrift at Sea,” that circles feelings of loneliness and longing–and the suspicion that the narrator will become “a once-vivid memory soon replaced by a more present thought.” That narrator knows that books, though, endure, making past present, staying vivid even as all else fades.

Takeaway: These poetic eruptions strive for meaning and connection in a world seemingly lurching to its end.

Great for fans of: Heather June Gibbons, Campbell McGrath.

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

Click here for more about A Necessary Explosion: Collected Poems
Girl on the Carpathia - A Novel of the Titanic
Graham Hodgetts
The latest polished historical novel from Hodgetts (author of the Excalibur Rising and Toby Whitby series) cleverly mixes fact with fiction in this story of a governess embroiled in Senate hearings following the RMS Carpathia’s rescue of survivors of the RMS Titanic. Kate Royston escaped painful memories of her past by finding work as a governess aboard the Carpathia; she assists in caring for Titanic survivors, including wireless operator Danny McSorley, a man she’s drawn to, and elderly Eva Trentham, who wants Kate’s assistance in sending a Marconigram message to U.S. Senator William Smith, urging him to conduct a hearing into the catastrophe. Upon the Carpathia’s arrival in New York, Kate attracts the interest of Sheriff Joe Bayliss who is charged with issuing subpoenas to the Titanic’s crew for the hearings before they can escape out to sea. Kate watches the hearings while acting as a companion to Eva and weighing her feelings for Danny, believing that cowardice led him to claim a seat on a lifeboat.

Hodgetts excels at setting vivid fiction in a convincingly realized past. She finds compelling drama in a Senate inquiry populated with historical figures, crafting a fast-paced, expertly written story that immerses readers from page one. Her focus on class disparities among the Titanic’s survivors, and the discrimination faced by the steerage survivors, is chilling and resonant, a reminder of the treatment visited uponimmigrants to the U.S., such as the “humiliating so-called health examinations” endured by women.

Unlike so many Titanic stories, Hodgetts highlights the aftermath. Her reimagining of the crowded conditions on the Carpathia, the hunt for the Titanic’s crew, and the media frenzy that followed the disaster offers a fascinating new perspective, all while Kate strives to reinvent herself after the financial downfall of her family and navigate the upper-class society where she once belonged.

Takeaway: This resonant historical novel finds a young woman facing the aftermath of the Titanic disaster.

Great for fans of: Walter Lord’s The Night Lives On, John Maxtone-Graham’s Titanic Tragedy: A New Look at the Lost Liner.

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

How To Be Dead-: A Love Story
Laurel Schmidt
In her first novel, nonfiction author Schmidt reveals secrets from beyond the tomb, turning out less the love story promised by the subtitle than an epic tale of vulnerability across lifetimes. (There’s a romance, too, of course.) After an opening set in our world in the spry, combative voice of protagonist Frances Beacon, the narrative jumps to a “whitewashed” Afterlife. There, Frances is locked in a kind of Groundhog Day of her own denial—beginning, then refusing, to perform the healing tasks the University of the Afterlife and her guide, Grayson, set out for her. As Frances fights the inevitable, including reliving painful moments of her life on earth, she also gleans insight on the relationship between her death and ideas of reincarnation.

At first, readers will cheer Frances’s obstinacy, expressed through martyr-like outburst of rebellions: “Mandatory? Says who? Who’s running this place, anyway?” Eventually, though, the sheer number of days that transpire, with “Constant Comment” (the voice in her head) and her other emotional deficiencies cropping up like a game of Whack-a-Mole, can drag the story’s momentum. But when Schmidt eventually reveals all her surprises, the novel coalesces. Rich in ideas, How to be Dead explores reincarnation and how history shapes our lives, right up to its last letter: characters from suffragettes to a Victorian life-coach breathe life into the afterlife as the Committee, a group of Frances’s previous incarnations concerned with saving “their collective life.”

These inventive, often feminist figures speak in quick-witted, soaring prose that give power to the themes and context to Frances’s outbursts. Bantering dialogue is a consistent pleasure throughout the book, and the climax, when it comes, is clever: just when readers will be sure that Frances has failed, the novel turns. From there, we learn the story of Mac (the romance), and witness a breakthrough that will ring bells of recognition—and likely trigger tears.

Takeaway: A fiery fictional take on life and death sure to engage anyone who wants to rediscover that “life is a gift.”

Great for fans of: Camille Pagán’s Forever is the Worst Long Time, Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing.

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

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