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Bridges: To There - Poems for the Mind, Body & Spirit
Gary W. Burns
Burns’s latest collection brings together appreciations of the natural world with poetic thoughts and invitations to meditate, enjoy the journey of life, and focus on the beauty of love. Inspired by Zen Buddhist and Taoist thought, these short poems meld introspection with nature, with motifs like the sky and clouds or birds and trees appearing in several poems. Burns strikes up a conversation on the page, with poems that often shatter the fourth wall and address the reader, offering encouragements to feel things or to dare to begin a journey.

Many of the pieces concern love: “Love/Tells me/Closeness/Is ecstasy/Let’s be.” While Bridges occasionally touches on relationships, Burns never delves into familiar topics like lost love or the search for love, instead focusing on appreciating the love that is, on enjoying a moment despite its ephemeral nature. He urges readers “Take time to cherish/And understand/The love/At hand.” Despite the brevity of these poems—“Truly” contains just three words, “Be/See/Eternity” —they illuminate the author’s dedication to Buddhism and the Tao.

Burns divides the work into four parts: Aerial, Suspension, Crossing, and Banks, each accompanied by photographs that often feature bridges in natural surroundings. The images pair well with the contemplative aesthetic of his poetry, and the photographic architecture reinforces the idea of “Be/Here/Be/Now/Blissful/Tao.” Though some of the elements feel repetitive, the pacing and crispness of the lines prevents them from becoming tiresome. The tone in these brief but rich pieces is comforting, with a warm voice advocating contemplation and self-love (“Whatever you do/Don’t hesitate/To celebrate/You”). In these tumultuous times, Burns’s poems offer a peaceful refuge for those who want to be immersed in the natural world while simultaneously looking inside themselves.

Takeaway: This succinct collection is an invitation to meditate on and appreciate the presence of love and the beauty of the natural world.

Great for fans of: Gary Snyder, A.S. Kline.

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

The Battle of Buffalo Wallow: The Japanese Attack on the 44th General Hospital in World War II - Leyte, Philippines December 1944
James R Odrowski
Odrowski debuts with a sensitive account of his father, a veteran of World War II, and his 44th General Hospital unit in an under-studied battle in the Philippines, the eponymous Battle for Buffalo Wallow. Drawing on his childhood fascination with hearing war stories, Odrowski transports readers straight into the action with his evocative descriptions of his father’s experience, such as his depiction of a visit to a native village in New Guinea with “tall coconut logs stood like sentries amidst areas of thick jungle growth.” He takes care to contextualize the human-scale story against the broader history of the war itself, explaining the proper chain of medical evacuation and considering deeper ethical questions, such as whether it was appropriate for a hospital unit to be fighting the in the first place.

Photographs of Odrowski’s father and mother, on the home front and in the field, illustrate the story, helping readers put faces to names and immersing them in the story’s events. Strategists will wish for more geographical context to follow the various maneuvers of the battle, but Odrowski does offer some maps and slightly too much primary material, such as when he quotes lengthy dueling poems between American units for several pages. Overall, his extensive research illuminates what happened and why, while not overwhelming the human interest at the core of his father’s story.

Odrowski even takes pains to highlight moral questions which may be overlooked by a less careful storyteller, recounting war crimes with deep concern and including a content warning for language used by Americans during the war to refer to the Japanese. (In honor of the “comfort women” abused by the Japanese, some of the proceeds from the book will go to organizations serving women impacted by war and sexual assault). This historical retelling is fascinating, and Odrowski does an admirable job of tying the personal to the world-historic in one engaging narrative.

Takeaway: History buffs will appreciate this family story that examines a little-known battle of the Second World War.

Great for fans of: E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, Hampton Sides’s Ghost Soldiers.

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

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The Art of Being Alive: Introspective Wisdom on Living a Vibrant Life
Suzette McIntyre
Internationally acclaimed photojournalist McIntyre’s (Beauty Surrounds Us) photo essay collection about living life with purpose encourages reflection on communicating with your “Inner Spirit” and embarking on our journeys into the world with confidence and vibrant energy. Drawing from her own travels around the world, encountering spiritual experiences and searching for the meaning of being alive, she focuses on topics like the certainty of seasonal change, moments of stillness in the chaos of city streets, the magic and power of water, and the need to share one’s knowledge with other people. McIntyre asserts, “We can move through the day with less judgment, seeing richness in everything.”

A Christian who believes Christ’s spiritual presence connects her to God, McIntyre acknowledges and expresses respect for other systems of belief that share the common intent of elevating humanity and encouraging kindness. Through her motivating verse and luminous photographs, she urges readers to tap into the empowering “Universal Force” within us, trusting the strength of a greater power to wash away negativity and help us each find the “source” of our individual spirits amid the commotion of life. “With a consistent channel from the Greater Power within, you will feel an endless source of Energy flowing through you,” she argues. Soothing, sometimes familiar quotes from contemporary philosophers and thinkers such as Leo Buscaglia, Helen Keller, Mahatma Gandhi, and Maya Angelou complement the evocative images, which range from bustling city scenes to rustic animal portraiture.

McIntyre weaves her text around the pages of this stimulating collection, but the ephemeral beauty captured in her photographs steals the show. She catches personal moments of exultation and joy and embeds them into the whirl of city life, toggling between horses on the high plains to street graffiti and sun bursts. Although the messages and photos are occasionally mismatched, inspiration-minded readers will delight in this visual representation of comfort and connection.

Takeaway: This optimistic collection of inspiring words and evocative images takes readers on a photographic journey of inner reflection.

Great for fans of: Howard Zehr’s Little Book of Contemplative Photography, Jan Phillips’s God Is at Eye Level.

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

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Gods of Sound: The Perilous Path of Cameron Foster
QM Schaffer
Schaffer explores a young boy’s coming-of-age story in a superpowered, rock-heavy fiction full of music, mystery, and hidden strengths. Lonely and asthmatic, Cameron Foster is an unlucky kid – his foster mom Ethel is an alcoholic, and he's bullied daily. But Cameron’s extraordinary talent for guitar keeps him going. When he meets a mysterious woman decked entirely in leather, Cameron’s life changes forever. His virtuosity attracts the attention of a secretive organization of extraordinary musicians with plans to change the world. As the life he knew disappears, Cameron must learn to fight for himself to discover his hidden power.

Schaffer endears the reader to his underdog protagonist by delving into Cameron’s character and dramatically stacking the deck against him. However, Schaffer hinders engagement by merely summarizing what is at the heart of Gods of Sound: the music. Guitar performances and competitions dominate the story, but instead of bringing the music to life with vivid descriptions, he states the songs on the setlists and moves on (“ with lightning fast fingers he played the beginning of an intricate classical song for Spanish guitar, gracefully slipping into the last two minutes of the Eagles’ ‘Hotel California,’ then into part of the heavier ‘Black Dog’ by Led Zeppelin.”) Consequently, readers are thrust out of the story, forced to look up the songs if they want to understand the scene better. Without capturing the power of the music, Gods of Sound falls shy of being the exhilarating, rock opera-esque adventure its audience might crave.

Still, Schaffer delivers a fantasy-fulfilling adventure that succeeds in the promise of most young adult novels: It immerses its readers in an entertaining world while mirroring their own coming-of-age journeys. Guitar lovers will appreciate the rise of a young and talented rock star, and YA fans will enjoy this hero who persists against every obstacle to find his real family.

Takeaway: Guitar lovers will enjoy this high stakes coming-of-age story that pairs the supernatural with the power of rock.

Great for fans of: Robin Benway’s Audrey Wait!, Sarah Nicole Smetana’s The Midnights.

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

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These Scars Called Home
Milan Gupta
Gupta (The Mariner’s Grandson) explores romance as healing in a hopeful story that crosses social boundaries and shows that having a rough early life does not destroy the path to happiness. Mexican-born Casandra “Cassie” Matrinez, having run away from her abusive Houston adoptive family after high school, has made it to Miami on the power of her good looks and her self-protective attitude. There, she meets Ronnie Service, a kind if awkward man with schizophrenia, whose strongest attachments are to his mother, his therapist, and his memory of an old crush that he considers to have been the love of his life.

Gupta’s decision to keep this warm, good-natured novel mostly linear puts too much focus on Cassie’s and Ronnie’s lives before introducing them, material that might have been better presented in flashbacks or as part of the extensive therapeutic sessions both characters attend. Nevertheless, he does an admirable job examining how personal growth, relationship growth, and mental health work together, both positively and negatively. While Cassie is around, Ronnie’s fear of imaginary followers lessens, but his sensitivity to rejection means Cassie’s tentative responses to his enthusiasm can trigger him into a psychotic break. Both characters are always presented sympathetically, given complexity beyond their diagnoses, and allowed substantial progress in self-awareness without dismissing lifelong issues as solvable.

Gupta is less assured when depicting introspection, overemphasizing the character’s reactions to outside events and putting big insights into the mouths of therapists or friends. The way Cassie’s abuse story and its resolution are handled leans slightly too heavily into dramatic voyeurism. Nevertheless, Cassie’s struggle to understand whether she could handle a life with someone with schizophrenia feels authentic, and her definitive answer at the end will prove encouraging to readers who may fear that their mental health might exclude them from love.

Takeaway: This warm novel highlights the possibility of supportive love for everyone, no matter what their challenges.

Great for fans of: Melanie Harlow’s Some Sort of Happy, Penny Reid’s Beard in Mind.

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

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A Knock in the Attic: True Ghost Stories & Other Spine-chilling Paranormal Adventures
John Russell
Part autobiography, part engaging paranormal story-telling, John Russell pens an entertaining–at times scary, if you believe in the paranormal–account of his life as a medium. Russell insists that he first encountered a ghost at age five, when he awoke to see an older Black gentleman standing staring at him in bed. At first, young Russell believed the man to be an intruder, but when he screamed for his parents, the man vanishes into thin air. So begins Russell's many run-ins with the spirit realm. "Perhaps they would want me to try to convey messages to others for them. Perhaps they had things to tell me about myself that would prove beneficial to my own life. Perhaps they were lonely," Russell muses as to why the spirits gravitate toward him.

Russell serves up strange experiences and paranormal events with a fast pace and enough vivid detail to keep even some skeptical readers turning the pages to find out exactly how many encounters he claims with the spirit world and how he has dealt with the aftermath. Russell reports that his “gift” runs the gamut from seeing spirits to having prophetic dreams to being able to read other people's history–histories, he insists, that have not been disclosed to him and he would have no way of knowing. Russell describes his gift as likely inherited: "Several generations of my family had been both believers in and had had experiences with the paranormal."

Russell relishes building tension as he spins his tales. This is not a book readers will want to read late into the night if they are inclined to be fearful of the dark. It will put readers in the mind of television shows like Ghost Hunters or Medium in book format, or a round of entertaining ghost stories told around a campfire.

Takeaway: Readers who enjoy a good heart-racing, spooky ghost story will enjoy this collection claiming real-life encounters with the paranormal world.

Great for fans of: Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Sylvia Browne's The Other Side and Back.

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

Frogs: Weird and Wonderful
Leah Ingledew
Quite likely, when many children imagine a frog, they think of similar, familiar small green specimens. Ingledew’s (Ugly Ollie) fun and educational children’s picture book will expand their options. Frogs introduces a bumper crop of colorful, surprising frogs from around the world, with Ingledew’s accurate and arresting drawings giving vivid life to her descriptions. Ingledew highlights the curious and dangerous, explaining just how poisonous the most poisonous of all frogs might be, and entertaining her readers by depicting the world’s smallest frog, from Madagascar, sitting on the head of the world’s largest, the cat-sized Goliath from Western Africa.

For all the fun, Frogs proves thorough, as Ingledew explains the life cycle of frogs--what tadpoles eat, when and how many eggs are laid, what stage they can leave the water and why--and memorably addresses key questions. Kids and adults needing to brush up on the definition of “amphibian” or the distinction between a frog and a toad will appreciate her efforts.

Ingledew is adept at guiding young readers through text, illustrations, and layout. Her inviting pages abound with realistic depictions of near-fantastical creatures like the strawberry poison dart frog, set amid bugs, leaves, and short statements of fact, both about frogs in general and each highlighted subspecies. She vividly highlights the organs visible through the thin skin of the South American glass frog and celebrates, in a spread that captures momentum and excitement, the athletic wonder that is Wallace’s Jumping Frog. The final pages hint at a message warning about the impact of water pollution on the world’s amphibians, but Frogs never quite addresses the issue. In addition to the welcome nature lesson, Ingledew dedicates a page to an activity for children to make their own frog by folding, with the option of cutting out bugs for the paper frogs to try to catch.

Takeaway: This gorgeous picture book celebrates the lavish diversity of frogs around the world.

Great for fans of: Irene Kelly and Margherita Borin’s A Frog’s Life, Martin Jenkins and Tim Hopgood’s Fabulous Frogs.

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

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Bull Shark Part 1
Chezdon Mitchell
In this loose follow up to Mitchell’s Innocence Waning duology, which detailed Australian Chezdon Morrison’s sexual awakening and coming out, Morrison, now 21, and his English boyfriend Louis are on holiday in Europe following Louis’s gallbladder surgery, when Morrison meets Oscar, an alluring young Scotsman, in a hotel bathroom. As the vacation progresses, Morrison strikes up a remote flirtation with Oscar, until Morrison finds an excuse to send Louis home and meet up with Oscar. Infatuated with the sixteen-year-old, Morrison struggles with how to dump Louis, even as he enjoys the company of his new boyfriend in bed and across Italy and France. Back in England and unaware, Louis battles his addictions and personal issues, until driven to confront Chezdon.

Mitchell showcases the messy complexities of relationships, the cost of lies and cheating, and the ways social media can impact our lives. There’s a raw, visceral quality to the way Morrison’s interactions with both Louis and Oscar play out and how they confront the world around them in scenes that draw out their respective pain and inner turmoil. Much of this installment focuses on Morrison and Oscar’s burgeoning relationship, making it easy to sympathize with them, especially as their trip takes a chaotic turn for the worse. When the novel pivots, in its final third, to Louis’s spiral into alcoholism and claims of sexual abuse, key scenes feel disjointed and less connected to the story, especially when culminating in an abrupt cliffhanger.

Unfortunately, technical issues undermine the storytelling, distracting readers from moments of genuine charm and dry humor. Although told through three different perspectives, the narrative voices seem interchangeable, hallmarked by awkwardly constructed sentences and an abundant use of passive voice. Meanwhile, several explicit sex scenes fail to connect on an emotional or erotic level. Ultimately, Mitchell’s stylistic approach may alienate some readers, despite this chaotic, in-your-face romance’s urgency and potential.

Takeaway: Ideal for readers looking for complicated gay romance featuring younger protagonists in the social media age.

Great for fans of: Zak Salih’s Let’s Get Back to the Party, K.A. Mitchell’s Getting Him Back.

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

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Mabel!: A Once in a Lifetime West Coast Travel Adventure
Everett L. Jennings and Jon C. Rogers
Mabel! is the detailed chronicle of a 1987 road trip from northern California to Washington State, on to Victoria, Canada, and then back. Two friends, Jon C. Rogers (Spaceship Handbook) and Everett L. Jennings, drove Jon’s classic Jaguar northwest from Belmont, California, visiting parks and wilderness, ghost towns, family members, plus plenty of bars and restaurants. Mabel is the car, the source of the book’s title and what the authors’ refer to as the trip’s personified “feline” (read: female) presence. The duo is often joined by friend and motorcyclist Clark, who contributes a chapter. The nine-day trip mostly sticks to plan but ends with an apocalyptic drive through the California wildfires known as the “Fire Siege of 1987.”

Overall, Mabel is a straightforward, colorful narrative that employs its roadster camaraderie to create a shared sense of joy (Jennings on the thrill of passing through Everett, Washington: “If you’ve always lived with a name that is not at all common, and you get thrown into a place where all you see is your name, you get a little giddy.”) Still, the sense of momentum ebbs and flows. The late Jennings wrote much of the book not long after the original trip, and Rogers, who promised to complete the manuscript and see it published, has updated the account, offering greater detail in the vein of a travel guide. He honors Jennings’ work but hasn’t thoroughly edited it to condense protracted play-by-plays or eliminate redundancies.

Jennings and Rogers experience frequent car troubles and moments of drama and awe, but some retrograde humor limits this adventure’s appeal, such as the suggestion that out of feminine jealousy the car, Mabel, intentionally “runs off” its owner’s dates. Still, descriptions of classic cars and America’s last wild places shine through this account that reads less like a polished memoir than a series of travel diaries.

Takeaway: Road trippers (and classic car enthusiasts) will find points of interest in this account of a 1987 West Coast journey.

Great for fans of: The Road Trip Book: 1000 Drives of a Lifetime, Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent.

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

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A Stranger Killed Katy: The True Story of Katherine Hawelka, Her Murder on a New York Campus, and How Her Family Fought Back
William D. LaRue
LaRue, an award-winning journalist, delivers a methodical account of the murder of Katherine “Katy” Hawelka, the resulting conviction of Brian McCarthy, and the homicide’s impact on Hawelka’s family, friends, and society as a whole. In 1986, on the Clarkson University campus, Hawelka was sexually assaulted and strangled–and taken off life support in the days following, due to the extent of her injuries. In this intense and heart-rending annotation of a brutal crime that influenced campus security on a national scale, LaRue recounts the mountainous forensic evidence, ensuing legal battles, and decades-long fight from Hawelka’s family for “justice for all…even the victim.”

Hawelka’s legacy radiates across the pages. LaRue effectively highlights the systemic changes that were jumpstarted in large part due to the courage and activism of her parents, Terry Connelly and Joseph E. Hawelka, who advocated in the midst of extreme personal trauma, in opposition to long established societal norms, and against near-insurmountable odds. Much of the work is dedicated to exposing a societal tendency to blame victims, plus the importance of sexual assault protections and the need for ongoing transformation to campus safety practices. Readers will be inspired by Katy’s parents’ unflagging pursuit of justice and discover compassion for the ongoing trauma to victims’ families that can be perpetuated through legal proceedings.

LaRue’s account is efficient, easy-to-follow, and significant–even for audiences unfamiliar with this event. He exposes the ripple effect of Hawelka’s murder, from enhanced security regulations at Clarkson University to 1990’s Student Right to Know and Campus Security Act enacted by President George H.W. Bush. Perhaps most wrenching is the cycle of regular parole hearings (“again, it kind of reopens the wound every two years to some extent”). Though born out of violence and trauma, LaRue’s chronicle sheds a light on the resilience necessary to initiate change protecting victims and generating a legacy of justice.

Takeaway: This compelling true crime narrative charts the fight for justice and reform.

Great for fans of: James Ellroy’s My Dark Places, Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and Justice in a College Town.

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

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The Germ Who Would be King: A Ridiculous Illustrated Poem about the 2020/2021 Global Pandemic from One Canadian's Perspective
Jennifer Tremblay
Spinning a zany and energetic narrative, Tremblay (Freddie's Gift and The Sprightly Carrot's Dream) introduces a coronavirus germ who aspires to rule the world. The ambitious virus, abetted by “boogers,” finds himself bored sitting on his throne inside the nose of an intergalactic bat. Seeking adventure, and eager to infect billions, he heads to Earth to find a human host. Soon enough, the pandemic hits humanity with all-too-familiar consequences: Hospitals and morgues operate beyond capacity, economies collapse, political leaders evade blame, and the media struggles with misinformation and hearsay. However, with the introduction of vaccines and a commitment to exercising the necessary safety measures, the virus gets sent packing with a "prickled bum."

Tremblay employs amusing rhymes (farty/party, obscene/vaccine) and catchy action verbs (tickled, wheeze) while underscoring the pandemic's enormity and urgency. Her imaginative pairing of the intergalactic expeditions of a vile virus and a continuing global epidemic creates opportunity for careful hilarity, and her comic yet cluttered illustrations offer vivid colors and satiric detail, such as the Earth itself lamenting that COVID hit right when humanity was finally starting to take climate change seriously. The risk, of course, is that some will find the humor grim and insensitive, for adults and young readers alike, especially the provocative depiction of souls chatting as they depart dead bodies inside the morgue.

Tremblay peppers the busy illustrations with interesting factoids, such as Canadian Oil being cheaper than water in 2020. Her choice to let the antagonist drive this campy, eccentric plot offers a welcome respite from hero narratives. The playful storytelling never strikes a consistent tone and message, and parents will want to sample the potentially upsetting material before passing it along to young readers, but, despite missteps, The Germ Who Would Be King exhibits some ghoulish charm and wit.

Takeaway: This satiric, booger-y picture book dares to find gallows humor (and even some hope) in the pandemic

Great for fans of: Samantha Harris and Devon Scott’s Why We Stay Home, Christina van Deventer and Bragi Thor Valsson’s LOVE/HATE: A COVID-19 Picture Book For Adults.

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

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Blooming in Winter: The Story of a Remarkable Twentieth-Century Woman
Pam Valois
Expanding on a biographical sketch from her book Gifts of Age: Portraits and Essays of 32 Remarkable Women, Valois tenderly maps the legacy of Jacomena van Huizen Maybeck (known as Jackie), a potter and Valois’s landlord who maintained many real-estate properties in Berkeley, California. Valois organizes this charming study into four sections tied to the seasons, each fitting a phase of Maybeck’s life. "Spring" details her early years in Java and her family's subsequent move to America in 1907. The following chapters examine Maybeck's tryst with and marriage to Wallen Maybeck, plus motherhood and her creative pursuits all set against the turmoil of World Wars and the Great Depression. It’s in "Winter," though, that the story becomes fascinating. Navigating widowhood and grappling with the onset of old age, Maybeck embraces her independence and freely explores all artistic inquiries—reveling in what others might think of as the declining years. In Valois’s persuasive treatment, Maybeck’s enterprising undertakings, and her exchanges with family and friends, suggest she bloomed in the late chapters of her life.

Soul-bearing letters, pictures from Maybeck's albums, and anecdotes from acquaintances of the family bring Valois’s subject to life and honor her heritage, while detailed endnotes, appendices, and a bibliography are testament to the author’s dedicated research. For all that rigor, Valois offers crisp prose, suffused with poignant observations and dry humor: Maybeck preferred the term “Lady of the Land” to landlady. Valois’s style is sincere and affecting, attentive to nuance; she eschews the literary or academic and in favor of Maybeck’s sensibilities.

Many themes abound within these pages, and at times Valois’s attention shifts away from what readers may find most compelling. Some discussions of architecture border on the tedious, compromising the pacing. Nevertheless, the book remains a reverential celebration of a feisty woman with a zest for growth, art, community, and dynamic living.

Takeaway: This careful consideration of an extraordinary life emphasizes creative expression and the strength of womanhood.

Great for fans of: Nancy Princenthal’s Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72.

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

Click here for more about Blooming in Winter
The Pale Wolf
Robert B. Warren
This high-stakes coming-of-age drama, set in Africa during the turbulent 1970s and 1980s, finds Asha growing up in the fictional kingdom of Umaga, which she describes as being “a proverbial coffee stain on the map sandwiched between the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.” Asha is unique amongst the other villagers. She was born with albinism, and her mother cautions her that she has magic deep within her, and to be on the constant lookout for predators. When Asha and her childhood friend Talib are brutally kidnapped and sold into slavery at a diamond mine, she is subjected to abuse after abuse. The duo eventually escapes the mine, finding refuge in Young Town, but after surviving an explosion at the local nuclear plant, Exert, Asha awakens to find that she has developed superpowers, including the ability to emit potent blasts of energy.

Asha must forge a new path for herself on the run from Exert security as she curries favour with rebel army and militias in a fractious land. Warren has crafted a compelling bildungsroman with a passionate, headstrong heroine. Warren captures the struggles and hardships of growing up an outsider, charting Asha’s development as she transforms from a terrified young girl into a cunning, adept warrior. Searing action sequences are tempered by moments of poignancy.

Warren frames the story as Asha penning her autobiography, a choice that enhances her relatability even as her powers give her access to “a fathomless sea of energy.” Asha’s accounts of what it feels like to wield that energy crackle with excitement. However, this approach also sets up an unnecessarily long prologue and several heavily expository passages–the Young Town sequence in particular delays an otherwise compelling story. Still, fans of action-packed stories of growing into power will find much to love in this bold page-turner.

Takeaway: A coming-of-age epic of revolution and super powers, full of feeling and set in a fictionalized Africa.

Great for fans of: V.E. Schawb’s Vicious, Naomi Alderman’s The Power.

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

Click here for more about The Pale Wolf
Life In Full Colors
Corry MacDonald
MacDonald, an art therapist and creative healer, debuts with a seven-step method for forging a “Life in Full Colors”–a more balanced, creative, and authentic existence. Her approach to personal growth works from the ground up, with an emphasis on owning one’s pain, reframing hardships, and accepting advice from the Universe itself. MacDonald combines first-hand stories, client experiences, and strangers’ anecdotes to outline the ways that ordinary people get stuck in a rut, as well as to illustrate how her methods can help break out. Both a guidebook and a training manual, Life in Full Colors brims with both abstract spiritual lessons and everyday advice with art-based exercises and pragmatic, step-by-step instructions.

The book’s great strength lies in the “Creative Spark” inclusions after each chapter. Drawing on her background in art therapy, MacDonald presents creative activities (word association, drawing, painting), designed to instill key concepts through artwork. In the “Own It” section, she suggests writing out life’s challenges and labeling them with appropriate shapes, while “Expect It” recommends creating spontaneously guided by the energy of the universe. MacDonald’s day-to-day spiritual advice can occasionally feel familiar, but by giving readers a chance to “practice” what she teaches, she elevates this work above other spiritual self-help offerings. Personal anecdotes throughout effectively share a first-hand look at the deeper meaning behind a fully colored life.

Like any workbook, this guide is what you make of it, and it takes effort to live by MacDonald’s method–carving out time to “play” around with art, building a creative space inside a home, purchasing supplies (paint, markers, crayons). But for those seeking a hybrid method of self-improvement through creativity, with steps to check off after each completed lesson, this is a winning, in-depth manual. Readers will appreciate MacDonald’s clearly outlined methods.

Takeaway: This spiritual guide to creative living and healing offers day-to-day advice and follow-along art exercises.

Great for fans of: Jennifer Guest’s The CBT Art Activity Book, Susan I. Buchalter’s 250 Brief, Creative & Practical Art Therapy Techniques.

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

Click here for more about Life In Full Colors
Murder in Dubrovnik
Zoran Basich
In this plot-twisting, character-driven second book in Basich’s (Kill Signal) Marko Bell Mystery series, San Francisco police detective Marko Bell is thrust into a world of Kremlin spies, billionaire oligarchs, and dark secrets as he attempts to solve the disappearance of his long lost love, the United Nations attorney Amanda Murphy. His off-the-books investigation sends him to Dubrovnik on Croatia’s Adriatic Coast, stirring repressed memories from his own past, while he maneuvers corrupt politicians, hard-nosed local law enforcement, and Murphy’s dysfunctional family in search of the truth.

From the opening pages in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, readers are thrown into Bell’s chaotic mind, jumbled thoughts, and troubled spirit--a protagonist with a tortured soul. This is followed by the introduction of Konstantin Berberov, CFO of a company on the verge of financial collapse, and a man just as troubled. The story alternates between Bell’s and Berberov’s perspectives, heightening the overall suspense. As Bell chases down leads, he crosses paths with Berberov’s boss, billionaire CEO Alexander Maximov, a former member of an elite Russian military unit. In crisp, purposeful prose, Basich moves the story forward as he seamlessly intertwines the troubled histories of these three characters in a way that will keep readers guessing, all while visions from Bell’s past, triggered by scents and locations, escalate the suspense.

The action is clear and convincing: “Marko executed a hard downward chop with his left arm to the bodyguard’s right wrist to separate gun from hand, then threw a hard uppercut that connected with his face.” Amid the mystery about Murphy’s disappearance are references to horrors committed in the conflict between Chechnya and Afghanistan during the Russian-Afghanistan War. Although Basich doesn’t dwell on the details, some readers may pause at the gruesome nature of Maximov’s war crimes. Fans of political thrillers and mysteries will enjoy this fast-paced, page-turning plot.

Takeaway: This globe-trotting mystery combines suspense, espionage, and action enough to please fans of political thrillers and police procedurals.

Great for fans of: David Baldacci, James Patterson.

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

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The Family Bible
Stephen Johnson
In this novelistic meditation on family history, Johnson, a former mechanical engineer with the Army’s Special Forces, draws on his and his mother Dorothy’s research of a 250-year-old family Bible that has endured in his family for seven generations. The sprawling narrative begins in 18th century Scotland, when Scott Jemison, a wagoner, crosses the countryside delivering Bibles published in Edinburgh. One makes its way into the hands of Robert Ramsey, who works as a seaman and eventually moves to Charleston, South Carolina, where he meets the woman, Tabitha Beaver, he will eventually marry in Tennessee. Robert passes the family Bible to his daughter Elizabeth, who becomes a teacher and marries John McKenzie, and she passes the Bible to her own daughter, and on and on, until at last Dorothy, having inherited the Bible from her Aunt Zelma, works to unearth its history while searching for the truth about radiation exposure at the Nevada nuclear test site where her husband Glenn--who died of cancer--once worked.

Johnson capably segues from generation to generation as he details the Bible’s--and the family’s--journey. Details and stories about its owners’ lives and beliefs add intrigue to the history, though Johnson’s tendency to switch from past to present tense within a paragraph, which occurs throughout the book, impedes the narrative flow. The reproduction of actual pages from the titular Bible are a welcome addition.

Johnson reimagines his family members' narrative, dramatizing incidents, inventing lively conversations, and filling in gaps in the factual record. At best, he brings the past to life: Readers who study the Bible will appreciate the attention Johnson gives to scripture in the irresistible passages where James Love, fired up with the spirit, renounces the whiskey he used to peddle and becomes a traveling revival preacher, evangelizing to his former customers. The material edges between general interest and family history, but Johnson’s evocation of the past often has appeal for those beyond the family fold.

Takeaway: This lively novel, based on family history, follows a real-life Bible from 18th-century Scotland up through the American present.

Great for fans of: Patti Callahan’s Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis and Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love.

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

Click here for more about The Family Bible

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