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Celoven STORMCHASER
Jason Abofsky
The ambitious kickoff to Abofsky’s Celoven Stormchaser series introduces four races living in uneasy peace on the planet Ankeros and the crisis that will force Celoven, Stone Maiden to Naruné, crown princess of Malenor, to rethink her loyalties–and everything she’s ever known. The peace quickly begins to unravel when the destruction of an Epion city also shows the instability of Ankeros’s core. Sun, the assistant to the Epion president, is convinced that the catastrophe was started by the Pelosians, but the First General Hirkain of the Pelosian military quickly produces evidence that the amalgans, a race looked down upon by the other three, are to blame–setting off discrimination and oppression of the amalgan people.

In his debut, Abofsky demonstrates rich world building. Epions, Pelosians, and Malens each have their own strengths that make them feel superior to each other and the amalgans, creating shifting alliances and dynamics that help move the story forward as First General Hirkain forms a relationship with Naruné that gives his people access to mines to build evacuation ships for leaving the planet. (Like her friend Sun, Celoven doubts Hirkain’s motives.)

Telling the story from the point of view of multiple characters gives readers a strong sense of the complicated relationships between individuals and the different groups, as well as the political and social dynamics. Ankeros’s leaders, coming from military, monarchical, and democratic societies, can either work together or fight separately for survival. Keeping up with everything can be a challenge for them and for readers alike, as the story’s scope and its large cast can be demanding, though Celoven makes a compelling central figure. Abofsky limits the number of unnecessary scenes, a wise decision given the complexity of the novel and its varied perspectives, and provides a nice conclusion to the story while setting up well for a second book in the series.

Takeaway: Sci-fi and fantasy fans alike will enjoy rich worldbuilding as four different groups must either work together or fight separately for survival.

Great for fans of: Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, Sally Green’s The Smoke Thieves series.

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

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White Gold
Micheal E. Jimerson
A former Texas lawman battles to save his family, solve a murder, and make sense of his own damaged life in this gritty and gripping mystery. Working in private security for wealthy energy CEO, E.J. Kane is facing a broken marriage, a son killed in Afghanistan, and a troubled daughter. A storage tank explosion leads to a investigation involving the feds, the Texas Rangers, an untrustworthy sheriff, and the mysterious "Widow" Welchel, a femme fatale whose game isn't immediately clear. E.J. eventually discovers that a sovereign citizens group has a stake in the crime, and that he must uncover layer after layer to wrap up these complex investigations.

Jimerson has worked as a district attorney, and his knowledge of the milieu lends a powerful sense of verisimilitude, as when the aging E.J. muses over the changes over the years in law enforcement. The author does an equally fine job with the settings of his native East Texas: "The pallet of colors pouring out on the green hills and pine trees gave him pause." The sense of this tightly knit community is also strong, as a shared background connects E.J. more closely to an opponent than his supposed allies. Although the plot gets a little convoluted, individual scenes carry the story to a satisfying conclusion.

Best of all are the sharply limned characters—E.J. is no cardboard cowboy, but a complex figure with a difficult past and tangled family life. Jimerson does an especially effective job of showing E.J.'s sense of powerlessness as he watches his daughter’s life fall apart. E.J.'s relationship with his ex-wife Rebecca is both subtle and real: A series of sharp exchanges reveals both why they got married and why they got divorced. Readers will be heavily invested in E.J.'s odyssey, turning pages rapidly in hope that his journey ends in victory.

Takeaway: Richly drawn characters and a vivid East Texas setting highlight this noir-flavored murder mystery.

Great for fans of: Craig Johnson’s Longmire series, Jon Land’s Caitlin Strong series.

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

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SCHLOCK Featuring Russia Cop
David R. Low
Low’s (CoinciDATE) bold, rambunctious collection thankfully doesn’t live up to the title of Schlock. Taking on issues of culture, identity, and discrimination, each tale interrogates ideas of Russia and Russianness, with an emphasis on what Low describes as the “Russian soul.” Still, the stories range widely in milieus, and each proves more outrageous than its predecessor: Low begins with Japanese salaryman Takahiro, a workaholic with an abusive boss, judgmental parents, and a budding friendship with a new Tokyo arrival. Takahiro eventually loses touch with his group of acquaintances and is forced to realize that the best days of his life may have been watching the mysterious seduction of his former friend, Hirata, by the music of Russian rock star Victor Tsoi.

The satiric climax arrives in the third story, with a documentarian’s attempts to discredit a bioengineered robot, Russia Cop, whose duty is, “…to enforce Russian soul and patriotic sentiment throughout the nation.” Mighty enough to throw vehicles and withstand artillery shells, Russia Cop undergoes a jolting mental change throughout the narrative, and by the end has enlisted an army of orangutans, endorses Adidas as the best product material for his job, and is vying for the position of Russia’s premier, running on the platform that he “…will not rest until every citizen of the Russian Federation has become a homosexual.” Despite an ambiguous judgment on Russia Cop’s success, Low ends with the darkly funny note “we live in the age of Russia Cop.”

The final story muses on many of Low’s principal themes, told from the perspective of a podcast that addresses entrenched beliefs about Americans in Russia. Depicting Americans forced to pose as Australians in order to enjoy Russia in peace, Low illuminates how far individuals will go to feel accepted, an idea that exemplifies this collection’s chaotic familiarity, writing that mirrors contemporary reality at every turn.

Takeaway: Readers who love the absurd will be swept up by Low’s satiric collection examining the Russian soul.

Great for fans of: Ken Babbs’s Cronies, Max Barry’s Jennifer Government.

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

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A Different Purpose: A Martin Quint Novel
Stephen D Senturia
Building and rebuilding are at the heart of the thoughtful final novel in Senturia’s Martin Quint trilogy, which finds its protagonist still facing challenges both in his private and work life. Martin labors on establishing a new school at Bottlesworth college while satisfying the demands of his energizing yet challenging benefactor as well as the bureaucracy of his college, and on assessing a teaching method. At same time, he and his wife Jenny try to mend their marriage and broken trust. Through therapy, they realize how much the past afflicts their relationship, and strive to heal it. Despite their differences, the couple must pull together in order to deal with unexpected crises–including a shocking racial incident in the boarding school of Andrew, Martin's son from a previous relationship, that targets his best friend Lavelle, one of the few Black students at the school.

MIT professor Senturia doesn't just share a glimpse into the backstage of the academic world he knows so well, as through Martin and the kids he delves into urgent educational questions–from treatment of racial incidents in school to what would make a new program truly cutting edge. Such serious consideration of the realities of education is rare in contemporary fiction, even novels about academia, and his keen understanding of the complexities shine through, though at times narrative momentum is diminished by Senturia’s interest in technical matters.

Senturia also focuses on exploration of relationships, especially the reconstruction of damaged ones, observing through Martin: “This is what his entire career in science had led him to believe, that there were discoverable truths, objective truths that could be analyzed, verified. But life doesn’t offer those kinds of truths.” Such wisdom—and a welcome sense of humanity and hopefulness—distinguishes the novel, though at times a lack of nuance weighs on the story. The happy yet very open ending is satisfying, though it will leave fans of serious contemporary fiction eager for more.

Takeaway: In this striking, hopeful novel, a professor endeavors to build a new program– and rebuild his damaged marriage.

Great for fans of: John Williams’s Stoner, Jane Smiley’s Moo.

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

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Burying Eva Flores
Jennifer Alsever
Alsever (Trinity Forest Series) builds steady tension and thrills with a paranormal revenge fantasy that explores teenage cliques and the perils of social media fame. In the sleepy town of Paonia, Colorado, high school senior Eva Flores is a TikTok star performing popular dance moves and receiving thousands of likes. Her mother criticizes her looks and her stepfather Manny manages her career, all to maximize Eva’s popularity and salary. Eva is a snob to everyone in town, especially to fellow senior Sophia Palmer, a poor girl working in a café after school to help bring cash into her single-parent household. Once friends but now enemies, Sophia becomes the primary suspect when Eva disappears.

Through clever prose, journal entries, and interview passages, Alsever pieces together a cautionary tale of hero worship, class struggle, wish fulfillment, and young people caught up in social media frenzy. After Eva’s especially cruel steps to destroy Sophia’s life, Sophia is at a breaking point. As part of a class assignment, she documents her frustrations and rage in a journal, believing that “imagination creates reality.” When her fictional revenge against Eva actually starts to come true, Sophia rejoices, until Eva, on a camping trip runs into the woods on a dare and doesn’t come back.

With teenage vernacular and an uncanny insight into teen angst, Alsever accurately captures the insecurities, bullying, class differences, and desire for popularity that plague teenage life. Despite the unfortunate cliché of a Native American curse and the (understandable, from the teens’ perspective) characterization of nearly every adult as either boring or bizarre, the elaborate adventure convincingly follows Sophia through her chaotic life, a newfound opportunity for riches, and reliance on her best friends. Young adult readers will appreciate the revenge fantasy aspects and how Sophia addresses the consequences when they actually happen. Alsever’s steady pacing and authentic characters will keep readers engaged until the satisfying ending.

Takeaway: Young adult readers will savor Sophia’s revenge fantasy and the revelations of what makes a good friendship.

Great for fans of: A.V. Geiger’s Follow Me Back, Michele Leathers’s They All Had A Reason.

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

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Press for Champagne: A Guide To Enjoying The World's Greatest Sparkling Wine
Christopher S. Ruhland
Ruhland’s fascinating, conversational guide to all things champagne opens with a compelling question: “What if delivering bliss to someone were as simple as connecting a button to a wire?” That query’s inspired by a London diner that outfitted each booth with a button marked “press for champagne.” Press for Champagne–the culmination of a lifetime of “obsessively” sipping bubbly–explores the mystique associated with champagne and offers pointers on how to enjoy this quintessential celebratory beverage, from clarifying what, exactly, it is and how it’s made to the best ways to “unleash the great champagne drinker within you.”

Detailed and well researched, this book dives deep into the history and production of champagne, including the fact that, in the U.S., people often use the term to mean any “sparkling wine.” Ruhland points out the inaccuracy of this generalization in no uncertain terms: true champagne only comes from the eponymous region in France. To help readers discover the variety that best suits their tastes, he thoroughly examines available champagnes and why each is unique. His tone is acerbic at times, but his occasionally forceful language is rooted in love–he respects wine producers, and he worries about their future as climate change takes hold.

Ruhland has created an essential and informative guide for dedicated drinkers, though readers without at least a cursory interest in champagne might not be converted. He adeptly connects his impassioned arguments with anecdotes and obscure bits of knowledge that enhance curiosity and intrigue–for example, bubbles make people happy, but they also serve an important function in giving champagne–and sparkling wines–its flavor. Perhaps most importantly, Ruhland wants everyone to remember that champagne isn’t just for parties: “Drink champagne whenever you feel like it. Seriously, if there is only one thing you take away from this book, I hope that is it.”

Takeaway: Ruhland’s conversational guide examines all things champagne, especially the best ways to understand and enjoy it.

Great for fans of: Tilar J. Mazzeo’s The Widow Clicquot, Michael Edwards’s The Champagne Companion.

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

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NOTES FROM A DEAD PLANET: Please Prove Me Wrong
Paul Brown
As a sequel to Notes from a Dying Planet, 2004-2006, Brown’s eye-opening and often terrifying survey explores what has happened to Earth regarding overpopulation, mass extinction, and climate change in the last two decades. Aiming to provoke action, Brown painstakingly–and unstintingly–lays out the evidence, drawn from hundreds of articles and studies, of what he calls the “planetary death,” detailing the uptick in extreme weather and climate-related catastrophes, the warning signs that too often languish unheeded, and the likely increasingly horrific disasters we can expect in the future. While he never sugarcoats anything, Brown also offers guidance to steps that readers can take to mitigate these compounding dangers—if we as a species really do want to continue living on the planet we call home.

Brown’s core message—that we have very little time to make massive, life-altering changes in order to save life on the planet as we know it—is delivered alongside copious links covering topics that range from media misinformation to political movements. He never shies away from his fears that we have gone too far as a species to be able to reign in the incredible damage already done, which means the book may prove too wrenching for readers who prefer a sunnier outlook.

Brown sounds a resonant alarm about what’s likely to come if immediate action is not taken, and his advice about alternative personal habits and choices that any of us can make are welcome, though some of the recommendations are challenging. Brown suggests humans stop procreating, arguing “there will be enough younger people to carry on due to accidental pregnancies and births,” and he advises an immediate end to mass tourism that results in unaffordable ecological damage. His writing will spark a fear for the future, but readers will walk away empowered to make personal changes to thwart some of the most dire consequences of resource waste and pollution.

Takeaway: A stark analysis of the threats to our planet, with a provocative call to action for environmentally aware readers.

Great for fans of: John Doerr’s Speed & Scale, Mike Berners-Lee’s There Is No Planet B.

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

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Love Chibis ABC Alphabet Bakery
Joqlie Publishing, LLC
“C” isn’t just for “cookie” anymore. Well-loved recipes are paired with alphabet letters in this delectable, bakery-inspired picture book. Starting with the letter “A,” each member of the English alphabet is assigned a sweet treat—from apple pie to chocolate chips all the way to zucchini bread—with key ingredients for making each confection displayed alongside. Every page features an iconic dessert or savory treat (such as empanadas), combined with a cartoon figure decked out in a complementary outfit: pineapple parfait grins next to a figurine wearing a pineapple headdress, banana pudding is topped off with a miniature vanilla wafer character, and “L” features a winking toy positioned in between two flashy lollipops.

Young readers will be absorbed by the richly hued, mouth-watering illustrations. Aside from priming the sweet tooth, these diverse and educational pictures will also give kids plenty to discuss with adults, and the multiethnic figurines, add entertainment value with their fun expressions and engaging mannerisms. Novel words like “quince” and “granita” elevate the text’s vocabulary and will spark interest in new recipes and confections, and even tried-and-true favorites incorporate unconventional ingredients (think dark chocolate highlighted as a main component in doughnuts). The authors even make “X” interesting: “xylocarp cupcakes” are displayed, with an accompanying definition that clarifies, “xylocarp–a fruit with a hard outer shell.”

Although dessert is abundantly fêted, and readers will be intrigued and tantalized by the authors’ creative selections, this alphabet celebration is best consumed by young children just starting to show an interest in reading. The concept stays minimalistic throughout, and some older readers may wish for more detailed recipes. However, the educational value of unfamiliar culinary lingo will please adults (and possibly inspire some kitchen experimentation), and the book accomplishes the welcome goal of offering a fresh–and notably sweet–method of teaching the ol’ ABCs.

Takeaway: A bakery-inspired alphabet picture book, with innovative desserts featured for every English letter.

Great for fans of: Keith Baker’s LMNO Peas, Lisa Frenkel Riddiough’s Letters to Live By: An Alphabet Book with Intention.

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

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Prophet Reborn: Book Two
Diane M. Johnson
In the second book of author/screenwriter Johnson’s epic, uncommonly thoughtful saints-and-sinners-and-Satanists thriller series, the focus shifts to Lucas, a young man raised “to be the leader of a new generation of classic satanic thought,” who in The Perfect Prophet had been tasked with fulfilling a “Black Book” prophecy by killing his brother, Alec, the atheist death metal guitarist turned faith healer who served as the first book’s protagonist. Both brothers survived, and now, shaken by the apparent reality of his brother’s miracles and his own dark magic, Lucas, scion of the New Church of Satan, seeks redemption at a living-off-the-land Christian commune, as Johnson examines the fallout—in emotional, practical, and theological terms—of the first book’s bold cult horror and suspense.

Somewhat subdued in comparison to its bloody predecessor, Prophet Reborn finds Lucas and Alec questioning their beliefs and their miracles—"Who was to say that his gift, his ability to self heal and to foster healing in others, wasn’t some kind of evolution?”—and systems of religious authority, especially those that encourage zealotry, all while tending the wounds each has endured. Mysteries and a sense of looming dread still loom over them though, especially related to the prophecy of their father which called for the killing of a “misguided” son in order to “renew” the Church of Satan—what if it referred to Lucas rather than Alec?

While the emphasis here is on the brothers’ individual journeys, both physical and spiritual, with special attention paid to each’s shifting about Johnson’s character-driven follow-up still builds to deaths, new identities, an explosive confrontation involving hostages, armed compounds, and federal authorities—and legitimate shocks, especially as the brothers’ wayward paths converge and they and readers discover, together, who they’ve become. This engaging sequel will please fans of the first book open to big questions, challenging developments, less ritual violence—and, just maybe, a happy ending.

Takeaway: This thriller about faith healing, satanism, and fraternal prophecy is uncommonly thoughtful.

Great for fans of: Dan Chaon, Lynn Hightower.

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

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My Manufactured Soul
Jeffry Dwight
Dwight (Mortal Dreads) delivers an ambitious fantasy—the first in his Sundering Saga series—set on the planet Sundering, formed eons ago by the First Colonists who have all but disappeared, and now is populated by three different species: white-haired muria who are rumored to be descendants of the planet’s first inhabitants, fey-like nina who were Sundering’s first dwellers, and humans. The species don’t intermingle, and ancient folklore incites superstition among the humans when blonde haired, blue-eyed Grey is discovered lying on the ground, with no memory of who he is, sickened from the harsh elements. When he embarks on an epic quest to discover his origins, it puts the entire planet at risk and threatens everyone Grey holds dear.

Dwight sets his sights high with this story, transporting readers on a whirlwind journey fraught with betrayal, love, and sorcery. Grey develops connections to multiple characters throughout his travels, often too many to track without effort. Nina, an ancient being who takes the form of a unicorn, accompanies Grey from the beginning–and their budding romance gives the novel solid footing in the midst of dizzying adventures. Grey and Nina run the gamut from chasing violent brothers fighting over the throne of Jappa to falling prey to creatures with bewitching powers, and through it all Grey’s destiny is mysteriously threaded to Qol, one of the original muria who seems to know more about Grey than he understands about himself.

Despite the extraordinary scope of the story, readers of searching, inventive fantasy will be entertained until the end. Dwight leaves several loose ends to set the stage for the next installment, but his main players reach a satisfying conclusion. My Manufactured Soul strikes a nice balance between supernatural beings toying with their creations and more relatable, down-to-Sundering characters who want nothing more than to create a safer world.

Takeaway: An elaborate fantasy that will transport readers to mystical lands with supernatural creatures, on a quest of self-discovery.

Great for fans of: Zogarth’s The Primal Hunter, A. F. Kay’s Legion’s Fifth Vault.

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

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Radiant Wise Woman : Breaking Free from the Myths of Menopause and Aging
Lee Sumner Irwin
Irwin leverages her own experience working with vibrant older women to provide inspiration for women in their “second spring” “wise woman” phase of life to lean into their capacity for creativity, intuition, healing, and passion. Presenting the archetypes of Maiden, Queen, and Wise Woman not only as life stages, but as powerful inner allies with energies that can be accessed throughout life, she offers inspiration for readers to discard the myths of aging as decline and of the post-menopausal end of sexual energy. Exercises at the end of each chapter encourage readers to engage the ideas through personal contemplation and gentle action.

Irwin’s love and energy for her older peers comes through clearly and infectiously throughout the text. Her conversational tone is inviting, her advice easy to process, and the experiences that she shares, both her own and those of her group members and coaching clients, are relatable. Her conceptualization of the three female energies and how they manifest throughout life is a unique take on a well-worn female empowerment trope that readers should be able to put into action. The most powerful messages prioritize internal work and personal growth, doing internal work of healing old trauma and connecting to the untamed self via nature, and expanding embodied joy, an idea tightly entwined with encouragement to keep pursuing sexuality and sensuality. Advice to find an “angel posse” puts a spiritual spin on the importance of community during aging.

For all its inspirational power and welcome mythbusting, Radiant Wise Woman is less helpful on the physical aspects of the menopause transition, leaning on personal experience with bio-identical hormone replacement while skipping most of the biological background and blaming familiar feelings of exhaustion on spiritual disengagement. Still, the effect overall is an uplifting contrast to the negative cultural messages often pushed on older women.

Takeaway: Readers discouraged by our culture’s sidelining of older women will find empowerment and inspiration in this mythbusting guidebook.

Great for fans of: Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s Women Who Run With the Wolves, Jean Shinoda Bolen’s Goddesses in Everywoman.

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

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Blue Haven
Lisa King
King (Vanishing Hour) gives adventurous mystery buffs their money’s worth in the beguiling Blue Haven. Aloe Malone, a twenty-five year-old former foster kid, arrives at Blue Haven, a top-secret community of luxury condos available only to the world’s filthy rich whose powers-that-be insist she be drugged as a precaution to protect the island’s undisclosed location, the first of a number of foreboding details. Still, on the island, the clothing is designer, the ocean is heated, the restaurants are staffed by celebrity chefs. Aloe at first feels as if she’s won the lottery, after a life of harrowing long waitressing shifts, a tiny Chicago apartment, and depression. She dines with new friends (the other four residents on the concierge-attended, amenity-filled island), and makes choices foreign to an introvert, choices that make her believe she might finally have found a new life.

But the veneer of perfection quickly begins to smudge: for example, who is Eloise and why was her journal hidden inside Aloe’s condo when Aloe was told that it had been never previously uninhabited? Why does Aloe feel stalked by the “steely eyed creeper?” Suspension of disbelief comes thanks to King’s descriptive, verbose language that seeks—and mostly succeeds—to evoke Aloe’s eerie yet pleasing new world in vivid, cinematic images. There’s a consistent psychological edge to Aloe, referenced via internal dialogue, and the pace sparks when Aloe discovers Blue Haven’s dark, unexplained secrets that leave her hiding in her condo, tugging on matted hair, and chewing her fingernails.

Scary and exhilarating, with more twists and turns than a game of Chutes & Ladders, Blue Haven is an ambitious and painstakingly written psychological thought-adventure about the pursuit of pleasure and escape from pain. King offers surprises in terms of perspective and flashbacks, even edging at times toward speculative fiction, building to the urgent question “Why fix your old life, when you can have a new one?”

Takeaway: A grabber of a psychological thriller imagines living the lush life on a private island–or is it something else entirely?

Great for fans of: Rachel Howzell Hall’s They All Fall Down, Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square.

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

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The Human Factor: The Phenomenon of Espionage
W. Patrick Lang
Lang’s revised and updated debut examines the art of espionage and human intelligence gathering. Lang–a retired colonel who has since authored many other books, including a memoir on his time in the military and a trilogy of historical fiction novels based during the American Civil war–offers a succinct guide on all facets of modern intelligence gathering, laying out the history of intelligence gathering through the stories of past spies and heroes, explaining the systems and institutions that have traditionally emerged in modern nations to facilitate espionage work, and illuminating the delicate art and practice of gathering human intelligence today and in the future.

Employing a lucid structure and writing with welcome clarity, Lang demonstrates his authority on the business of human intelligence, offering fascinating case studies and insights into the psychological motivations of the agents who are at the center of this dangerous business. His description of these psychological motives has a literary quality while also suggesting greater truths about human nature: “The nature of the hunger is unimportant to the clandestine collection team. It is the strength of the hunger that matters.” Recounting the case of Arnold Deutsch, a Soviet-era spy who had recruited students referred to as the “Cambridge Five” to pass on information to the Soviet Union but was later executed on Stalin’s orders, Lang writes, “His reward for creating an entirely new doctrine was a small caliber bullet to the back of his head.”

For the most part, this is an objectively written primer meant for a specialist audience, namely those involved in the human intelligence and espionage or who have a particular interest in the field. General audiences may find some sections bogged down in detail, and at some points Lang’s didactic tone may prove off-putting for a casual reader. Still, Lang’s chronicles and consideration of real historical figures and the tradecraft of espionage will likely sustain and reward the attention of anyone with serious curiosity about his subject.

Takeaway: A vital, succinct primer for anyone interested in understanding the art of human intelligence gathering and espionage.

Great for fans of: Darryl Pennington’s Human Intelligence Collection, Christopher Andrew’s The Secret World.

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

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Beyond the Threshold: Second Book in the Hero's Path Series
Mark Ristau
Our choices in life, and the power of forgiveness, are the themes in this absorbing bildungsroman, the follow up to A Hero Dreams, that follows troubled hero Ricky Williamson from his childhood in the 1970s up to the dawn of the new millennium. The assault he endured as a child has left its mark on his personality, and he has had deep problems at work and eventually looks to get back the people who have hurt him. But a mysterious boy named David suddenly appears in his life–or at least in his mind–forcing Ricky to face his past, and helps him remake his life for a better future.

Ristau does a beautiful job of setting scenes and personalities from the very beginning–for example, the dichotomy of a seemingly bland midwestern suburban house that boasts a statue of the Buddha in a yoga studio. Ricky reflects back on his great teenage crush, and much convincing angst comes out (“Why would she go out with a nervous, insecure, skinny little dweeb like me?”) This contrasts nicely with a scene from his later years, as Ricky wakes up after a tawdry liaison and reflects on his life, "my mouth as dry as the windblown sands of the Atacama Desert." Although the plot itself gets a little convoluted, the entrancing writing will keep readers turning the pages to the end.

The main focus of the book, however, is the portrait of the narrator and his complex journey. There's a Babbitt-like thread that runs through his story of trying to fit into the business world: "a mainstream culture that shared little in common with my father’s high ideals." Generally a passive man, his explosion comes as a cathartic surprise. Ricky's story becomes a time-bending odyssey, where redemption takes on mystical properties. Readers will be left hoping the best for this engaging protagonist, and eager to read about his further adventures.

Takeaway: Fans of character-driven stories will cheer this literary thriller’s surprising turn toward redemption.

Great for fans of: JoAnne Tompkins’s What Comes After, Casey Gerald’s There Will Be No Miracles Here.

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

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Perfect Prophet
Diane M. Johnson
Death-metal rocker Alec Lowell appears to become the world’s perfect “prophet” in screenwriter and author Diane M. Johnson’s (The Schoharie) harrowing thriller, the start of an occult suspense series. Alec–or Alexander the Great, as his fans call him–is shot in the chest during a concert and makes a “miraculous recovery” that splashes him all over the news and moves this proud atheist to reconsider his beliefs. When he learns that he has a son, Jake, with his ex-girlfriend, Alec moves back to rural Wisconsin, committed to ensuring that Jake doesn’t “become disillusioned with [him]” like Alec was with his own dad, a figure with mysteries of his own. But as Alec strives to find higher meaning, getting caught up in a cult-like Satanist movement spurred on by fans of his music, people close to him start dying–and Alec seems unable to find his way out.

Pulsing with blood and pentagrams, murder and faith healing, Alec’s decidedly adult journey is not for the faint of heart but will grip readers with an interest in tense cult tales until the very end. In classic thriller style, Johnson teases out the clues between jolts of action–many believe Alec has been “chosen,” but for what?–until it’s possible to put together an almost-complete puzzle of Alec, his family, his friends, and, most importantly, his enemies, one of whom commands point-of-view passages throughout. The crisp, to-the-point prose, engaging characters, and pacing of revelations will keep the pages turning, though the end proves somewhat anticlimactic, leaving mysteries for the second book.

Alec is caught between a mad Satanic cult and true believers, in a tug-of-war between Satanism and Christianity. Johnson takes matters of the soul as seriously as the thrills, and does a miraculous job of weaving ideas and suspense as Alec continuously wins reader sympathy as he questions the beliefs that are foundational to life.

Takeaway: A dark adult thriller of faith, prophecy, and a murderous Satanic cult, crafted to keep readers guessing.

Great for fans of: Lynn Hightower’s Satan’s Lambs, Ray Russell.

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

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Possum Boy Battles The Mulefoot Menace
Swifty Slowpoker
Slowpoker debuts with an exuberant caper that reveals the resilience of boys relegated to a mental health institution. In mid-1970s Tennessee, eleven-year-old Delphus V. White, who believes himself a possum mutant, lives at the Clover Bottom Hospital and School for children. He spends his days savoring comic books with his plucky, fart joke-loving pals and birthing piglets on the property’s farm. After his beloved case worker dies, an abusive pedophile named Dick Phillips takes charge of the boys and their hog chores. Convinced a CIA agent has recruited him, Delphus decides that only destroying the farm’s demonic Mulefoot boar will bring about Phillips’s downfall.

The author spent time growing up in the custody of Tennessee’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and renders the hospital and its residents with vivid description and spot-on dialogue. At times whimsical, poetic, or irreverent, Slowpoker skillfully uses humor to mask the melancholy pervading these lost boys’ existence. Even after Delphus, who suffers from epilepsy, stumbles into the “normal” outside life of happy families and helpful salesmen, he chooses to return to Clover Bottom, noting without complaint, “Out in the real world, there ain’t no place for us to go.” Superheroes, kung fu Buddhists, and CIA agents fill the boys’ imaginations as their reveries come to life. Occasionally, extended tangents distract from the narrative momentum, but these anecdotes carry ample charm thanks to Delphus’s spritely wit.

The author’s lighthearted name aside, this is sophisticated literature, both in structure and character depth. Artifacts intersperse Delphus’s first-person narrative—a newspaper article, footnotes, and more—and moments of magical realism intertwine with practical challenges. The characters’ vibrant, evolving personalities and varied voices are memorable. The life-affirming connections between these young people nurturing one another against the odds will appeal to readers of serious fiction about mental health, social services, and growing up.

Takeaway: A playful yet profound caper peeks into the hidden lives of lovable youth mental health-facility residents.

Great for fans of: Victor Lodato’s Mathilda Savitch, Truman Capote’s My Side of the Matter.

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

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