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The Devil Pulls the Strings
J. W. Zarek
Zarek’s debut fantasy mixes magic, mystery, and time travel when a guitar player from a Renaissance Fair band is suddenly faced with the task of saving the world. After a serious jousting accident hospitalizes Boone Daniels’s best friend, Flynn, Boone agrees to take his place in a band to play at a charity event in New York City. Within minutes of arriving, the professor Boone’s supposed to meet falls from his balcony, landing at Boone’s feet. From there, Boone and Sapphire, the professor’s assistant, must flee men determined to kill them as the duo finds themselves tangled up with the Lavender and Roses Society, the fulfillment of a prophecy, and a plot to summon the devil.

Zarek creates an action-packed combination of mystery, fantasy, and treasure hunting as his likable heroes search for rare music and parchment, travel back in time, and fight to elude those eager to raise the devil. The secret society that Boone assists boasts an intriguing center of operations in the middle of New York, with an interior that looks nothing like the outside thanks to pocket dimensions: it’s all never-ending levels and rooms full of relics and books, plus creatures called Domovoi to protect it all. A fine, grisly touch: “When piranha are done, they leave bones. The domovoi do not.”

As immortal and mortal beings come together in different times, Zarek keeps the action brisk and clear, making it easy for readers to follow who is in the past, the future, and who’s in both. (Zarek even seamlessly weaves the stories of four sisters with the same name.) And even readers who are not musically inclined will feel the passion of the musicians playing the lost compositions that will call the devil to Earth. Although the end is a bit rushed, leaving some unanswered questions, the journey, mystery, and inventive worldbuilding is worth it.

Takeaway: A devilish urban fantasy adventure with a treasure-hunt mystery that’s sure to be a page-turner.

Great for fans of: Greg Cox’s The Librarians series, Mishell Baker’s The Arcadia project series.

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

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Love & Loss in the Time of Covid: A story for our time
Phil Dourado
Dourado’s autobiographical novel explores grief and relationships through the restraints imposed by Covid-19, revealing awkward and intimate interactions with strangers, phone conversations between lovers and friends, and even a Zoom funeral. Amidst lockdowns in London, Matthew dubs himself the “man under the duvet” as he struggles to grieve the dead and connect with the living. With his grown-up children living miles away, his mother in the hospital, and his father in a care home, Matthew is isolated in an apartment after he is forced to sell his family home. Matthew tries to cope with his losses in and before lockdown by engaging in a conversation with his favorite authors through reading them and writing his own novel. After almost two years of solitary grieving and pandemic lockdowns, will Matthew ever be able to get up––and move on?

Dourado’s refreshing, resonant experiment tells its story through phone conversations, conversations with ghosts, and Matthew’s reflections on books. A lot is riding on the dialogue with this concept, so it’s a relief that Dourado’s is strong, with the phone chats injecting welcome humor and life into an otherwise pretty grim story. This beautifully emphasizes the idea that community is central to proper grieving and healing, while the act of communing with novelists and poets hits hard in a time when that community must be proxied through screens and masks.

Dourado’s story––and the way he manages to showcase oral tradition, especially within strict pandemic restrictions––is impactful and unique, though a tendency to explain the key concepts at times puts the focus on the mechanics of the novel rather than the voices. The impact of Matthew’s connection to books would be stronger if the chapters were framed around them. Still, despite such a stark concept, Dourado manages to balance tragedy and comedy in this intriguing debut that reimagines “the novel” in the context of Covid-19.

Takeaway: This accomplished experimental novel centers on loss, connection, and trying to heal in a pandemic.

Great for fans of: Bill Hays’s How We Live Now: Scenes from the Pandemic, Ali Smith’s Summer.

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

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Clochán
Lawrence O'Brien
While morning light breaks upon an Irish village on the day of a battle at the start of this historical novel, O’Brien’s debut, the local militia fights to protect their families and town—but their last stand to save their own is utterly defeated, with families separated from each other in the carnage. These events are the beginning of Kevin Neal’s life in Clochán, and the loss of his family at a young age is only the start of many struggles he must endure. From the shadows, the Púca, of Celtic folklore, circles around him, causing gossip and rumors to surface wherever he goes. All throughout, his devotion to the kind and headstrong Anastasia “Anty” Kelly provides lighthearted reprieves as he matures in a deeply divided country.

O’Brien’s opening is strong and visceral in its depiction of the mayhem of war, and the chapters that follow maintain a persistent suspense—and will challenge readers to look deeply into what they’ve read to suss out the complexities of events that, at first, might seem simple. Set in the aftermath of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, Clochán finds Neal growing up in a land continually ravaged by violence. Subtle infighting between landlords hangs over the heads of O’Brien’s characters, with trouble always looming on the horizon yet coming quickly when it finally strikes. As O’Brien stirs the intrigue, including several mysteries, it’s best to remember the words of local Ned Scallan: “Learn from what your eyes tell you.”

What O’Brien does not write proves just as important as what he does. Readers will find themselves weighing different truths and teasing out the difference between the works of man and the purportedly supernatural. With polished prose and crackling dialogue, he draws deep on the culture and character of his milieu, summoning up not just the events of the day but the drift of mind of people far removed from us yet still relatable.

Takeaway: An accomplished historical novel of mystery and coming of age in a divided Ireland.

Great for fans of: John Banville, Thomas Flannagan.

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

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Flight Time
Darcy Flynn
Flynn (Keeper of My Heart), author of several heart-warming romances, takes off for the world of young adult SF in her latest. Sixteen-year-old Rylee Dean is crazy about flying, a love passed down from her grandfather, Jaxon Scott. Not that Rylee’s met him: Jaxon disappeared during a flight before Rylee’s mother was even born, so all she has is her grandmother’s memories of Jaxon as a young man and pilot. At least, that’s all she has before she sneaks the Cessna passed down from grandfather out for a flight, and a mysterious piece of equipment installed in the plane sends Rylee back in time forty years to 1981–and to a young Jaxon. While Rylee is thrilled with the chance to finally meet her grandfather in person, he’s not sure he trusts her, and she runs the risk of altering the timeline in which she was born, if she can even find her way back.

Being a flight enthusiast may be an unusual hobby for most teenagers, but in pretty much every other way Rylee is a typical teenage girl. With a starry-eyed crush, makeover parties, and pulling pranks, this could make her character completely relatable to the target audience of the book. As with many time travel adventures, the science powering Rylee’s journey feels thin, and in this case her ability to keep her secret from most everyone she encounters in 1981 by pretending to be a runaway or orphan can strain credulity.

The book’s heart is in family, though. Rylee quickly charms her own great-grandmother, the Dragon, and the story is strongest when it focuses on the relationships she forms with the people that have the most impact on her future, or recognizes how the strained silence at breakfast between Jax and the Dragon reminds her of meals with her own mother. Any reader can relate to Rylee’s intense desire to meet a cherished family member and discovery of all she’s inherited.

Takeaway: This time-travel adventure is perfect for YA readers who enjoy stories of strong family connections and young women who dare to chase their passions.

Great for fans of: Victoria Maxwell’s Class of 1983, Jamie Rae’s Call Sign Karma, Edith Lavell’s Linda Carlton series.

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

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Columbus and Caonabo: 1493–1498 Retold
Andrew Rowen
Historical novelist Rowen captivates in his powerful standalone sequel to Encounters Unforeseen: 1492 Retold, following Columbus’s ongoing subjugation of Haiti and the Dominican Republic as well as the desperate attempts of Caonabó, a storied Taíno cacique, to defend his chiefdom and protect his people. After leaving behind an unruly fleet with instructions to appropriate the island’s gold in the name of Spain, Columbus invades a second time–assured in his belief that the indigenous peoples will welcome conversion to Catholicism while handing over their treasure without a fight. The Taíno leaders are astounded at Columbus’s arrogant assumptions, and choose distinctive ways to combat his conquest, most remarkably Caonabó’s unrelenting attacks and refusal to give up his people’s freedom.

Rowen’s writing brims with striking historical detail, and he offers welcome maps and illustrations of the main characters and events, but as a storyteller he never loses sight of the heart of this conflict: the devastation wrought by Columbus and Spain’s power-hungry monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand. Despite his promises of an easy annexation and wealth beyond imagining, Columbus fails to deliver more than disease, starvation, and Taíno slaves–and most of the “pale men” he places in strategic forts around the area spend their time raping Taíno women, spreading deadly bacterial infections among the indigenous tribes, and meting out punishment as they see fit: “No heathen can escape the consequence of murdering Christians,” one declares. Columbus himself struggles with mutiny, the hardships of survival in an unknown land, and the distrust of nobles back in Spain. He never loses his conviction to force Christianity on the Taíno people or his assessment that “slavery is the fate of those who resist me.”

Historical fiction readers will applaud Rowen’s candid, albeit heartbreaking, account of the travesty of Columbus. Caonabó—and his wife, Anacaona, who emerges as a brilliant strategist and freedom fighter—are trailblazers in their war against the invaders. Rowen weaves bravery and treachery and pits truth against myth in this sweeping tour de force.

Takeaway: A meticulously researched and intensely tragic novel of Columbus’s offensive against the Taíno people.

Great for fans of: Mary Glickman’s An Undisturbed Peace, Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger.

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

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Where the Dead Go
Rasa Samimi
In this futuristic horror tale about life after (first) death, Samimi (The Rise of the Superhero) combines lyrical prose with harsh dystopian and horrific particulars. “The dead go to Earth’s dark matter doppelgänger lurking in the space all round us; wherein we we live on til a second death,” Samimi writes, in the provocative opening, introducing a story that will cross into “the secreted realms of the dead, there and back again.” It is in this spirit that the author pulls readers into a parallel existence where humans between their first and second deaths get treated like animals. Residents include Aldous Huxley, physicist Erwin Schrödinger, 20th century Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and, as the book begins, the protagonist, Adam.

After dying in his lover’s arms, Adam wakes up bobbing like a cork on a mysterious sea, reborn into a dark, violent world. The circumstances of his birth there are unusual enough to raise alarm, stirring speculation that he might be some kind of prophet. Deeply disturbing scenes of torture and death, some involving infants, will haunt readers, as Adam discovers the horrors of the life after life. He draws parallels to the atrocities of Nazi prison camps--and discovers, to his shock, that Hitler and other evil leaders are revered in this realm.

Samimi’s stream-of-consciousness narrative and decidedly fanciful plot capture attention from the first page, and his use of the active voice allows readers to feel as if they are part of each scene, though the gruesome situations he relishes describing are not for the faint of heart. Sly, tongue-in-cheek cameos—Trudeau, father of the current Canadian prime minister, hopes his son hasn’t gone into politics—lighten the mood, but Where the Dead Go wholly targets an audience that thrills to horror fiction’s extremes. Samimi’s imaginative though disconcerting tale will captivate readers who like their fiction decidedly dark, dystopian, philosophical—and unafraid of a grotesque joke.

Takeaway: This fever dream of a tortuous afterlife will please readers who like their horror grotesque and inventive.

Great for fans of: Clive Barker, ​​Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld.

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

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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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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+

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