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Freydis : (Daughters of Freya Book 1)
gunhild haugnes
Norwegian author and journalist Haugnes (Daughters of Norway) delivers a historical tour de force with this irresistible Middle Ages romantic saga that spans nearly a century. Adventurous and fiery Freydis Eiriksdatter doesn’t accept the limitations placed on women in Greenland in the 1000s. Like her father, Eirik the Red, Viking chief of Greenland, Freydis longs to discover and explore new lands. She’s also not averse to exploring other experiences, and sleeps with whom she wants when she wants. She eventually gives birth to two sons—neither one fathered by her husband, the long-suffering Torvard Einarsson, whom she’s fond of but doesn’t love. At last she persuades him to bring her to the new land, called Vinland, discovered by her brother Leif—but nothing can still her restless spirit.

Haugnes has obviously done extensive research on the Vikings, and she doesn’t skimp on the gory realities of living in the Middle Ages. There are bloody battles (which quite literally send heads flying), voyages full of raping and pillaging, and frequent deaths: Freydis loses a beloved brother in battle and her newborn second son to the sea during a violent storm. Haugnes also ably portrays the dissent fomented when Christianity was first introduced to the Viking population.

As Haugnes ably spins her tale, she paints vivid word pictures (“the murmur from the mountains sounds like harp music, the stream gurgles merrily and the wind sings along”) that easily transport readers to the Greenland of more than 1,000 years ago. The scenes of passion are vivid and erotic. Readers who enjoy Norse mythology, strong heroines, and romantic passion won’t be able to put down this delightful, fast-paced story.

Takeaway: This impeccably researched and expertly plotted tale will give fans of Viking sagas a vibrant heroine to love.

Great for fans of Morgan Llywelyn’s Grania: She-King of the Irish Seas, Catherine Coulter’s Season of the Sun.

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

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Around the Sun
Eric Bovim
Bovim’s emotional debut centers on a man whose success in business is both due to and overshadowed by his personal tragedies. Mark White is the CEO of White & Partners, a high-profile D.C. public relations firm, but his success comes with a high cost as he mourns the death of his wife, artist Monica, and frequently leaves their eight-year-old son in the care of a nanny. Mark agrees to manage the fallout for a statutory rape scandal facing a startup company that developed an app to translate Mandarin into English. Then Mark over-medicates with his anxiety medication and passes out during a televised interview, and the mismanagement of the startup scandal damages his business. He must manage the fallout and repair his fractured relationship with his son.

Bovim draws on his personal experience as the managing director of a D.C. public relations firm to give Mark a strong, believable voice. He expertly describes the high stakes and pressures of the business, magnified by the speed at which success can be diminished by poor decision-making and missed opportunities. The depictions of the cut-throat nature of the public relations world are chillingly realistic, illuminating the dark side of fame and fortune.

As the layers of Mark’s personality slowly peel back, Bovim shows how the perfect image he projects to the world is fractured. The globetrotting persona, complete with expensive hotels and world-class restaurants, is one that readers will envy until they see beneath Mark’s exterior and the pain he endures from the loss of his wife and his inability to bond with his son. Bovim’s detailed descriptions of Monica's paintings are compelling on their own and show the depths of Mark’s character and his connection to his wife’s profession. Readers with a taste for character-driven family dramas will be drawn to this narrative about the ruinous weight of denial and grief.

Takeaway: This wrenching, immersive novel will appeal to fans of character-driven dramas that reveal the hidden sorrows of people leading seemingly perfect lives.

Great for fans of David Baldacci’s The Whole Truth, Corban Addison’s The Tears of Dark Water.

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

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Amelia's Gold: A story of romance, ruin, resolve snd redemption in the American Civil War
James D. Snyder
Snyder (Five Thousand Years on the Loxahatchee) crafts a heartwarming chronicle of a Southern belle’s travels during the Civil War. In 1829, dirt-poor 16-year-old Will Gaskins dives off the North Carolina coast and retrieves Spanish gold from a wrecked ship. In 1864, Gaskins, now respected cotton distributor William Beach, enlists his trustworthy but untested elder daughter, Amelia, to transport the treasure to the Bahamas so it won’t be confiscated during the war. Capt. Charles Timmons escorts her to Nassau, where she runs afoul of opportunists and begins learning how to interact with free black people, many of whom educate her about the abolitionist cause. Amelia and the gold turn back toward Wilmington, N.C., dodging destructive Northern blockade ships as well as blackmailers and swindlers. After a shipwreck, she winds up at a deplorable marine hospital where she nurses both Confederate and Union soldiers. Encounters with personable Union officer Benjamin Hawkes lead her to rethink her romantic interest in Captain Timmons.

Fans of Civil War history, Caribbean seafaring, and coming-of-age stories featuring strong, capable women will delight in Snyder’s attention to detail and effortless descriptions of 19th-century wartime life. The sights and smells of tropical islands are immersive, and Snyder mines history for details of clothing, social etiquette, banking, wartime economics, racial discrimination, yellow fever, and nauseating medical treatments to further draw readers into the era.

The gold, which converted orphaned Will into a wealthy merchant, is a catalyst that transforms Amelia just as drastically. The pampered 24-year-old “spinster” becomes an exceptional businesswoman and compassionate nurse who confronts romantic entanglements, the horrors of war, and a hurricane with equal aplomb. Snyder gracefully breathes life into genuine characters who embody desperation, patriotism, ambition, and resourcefulness. Readers will relish this energetic adventure as they root for plucky Amelia.

Takeaway: Civil War buffs and fans of strong heroines will enjoy this epic tale of a spirited young woman’s Caribbean travels and wartime nursing travails.

Great for fans of Julian Stockwin’s A Sea of Gold, Randall Peffer’s Seahawk trilogy, Sandra Merville Hart’s A Stranger on My Land.

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

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Save Your Ammo: Working Across Cultures for National Security
Louise Rasmussen & Winston Sieck
This lively guide uses anecdotes from military and national security personnel to illustrate how to work effectively and confidently with people from different cultures. The stakes are higher than in many books on communication skills, but much of the advice is the same: Don’t be a “stereotypical ugly American,” pay attention, learn from your mistakes, look for possible bias on both sides, listen to “the people on the street” rather than just trusting the official line, take cultural considerations into account, and look for common interests from which to build relationships.

Psychologists Rasmussen and Sieck offer sound advice and share pertinent anecdotes within a well-organized framework, but their efforts are occasionally redundant. For instance, one of the takeaways from chapter 7 is to ask open-ended questions. That is undoubtedly an effective method for sussing out a situation, but most readers will have come across that same suggestion elsewhere. The men and women interviewed provide vivid stories, but at times, the authors provide too many examples in driving home a particular point. One of the “key points” that ends chapter 7 is to “ask ‘why’ to disentangle weird behavior and puzzling interactions,” but the whole of chapter 8 then focuses on “figuring out why people do what they do.”

The book is geared to military and national security officials in hot spots around the globe, but its useful suggestions can be applied by anyone involved in high-stakes situations that cross cultural lines. Rasmussen and Sieck’s expertise in cognition, culture, and collaboration is clear from their guide’s organization, the personal narratives it collects, and the lessons it teaches.

Takeaway: This is the perfect guide to cross-cultural communication for those working in government and diplomacy positions, multinational corporations, and NGOs.

Great for fans of David C. Thomas’s Cultural Intelligence, Simon Dolan’s Cross-Cultural Competence.

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

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Phase
James West
This character-driven contemporary fiction debut thrives on drama but struggles to set the scene. Alison Riley, 25, is a D.C. law firm’s administrative assistant by day and a passionate drummer by night, keeping her two lives firmly separate. In her office job, she studies the interactions among her coworkers, most notably the perilous romance between George, the hapless office assistant, and Joan, the young, popular new secretary. After Alison takes George out on a friendly dinner to help him sort out his romantic troubles, she shows him her drum kit and gradually lets him into her world. George, a budding musician and lyricist himself, is taken with the drum set and Alison’s talent, and they form a band, taking on new, idealized identities as they begin to mix business with pleasure.

Alison narrates in a loquacious inner monologue that sometimes veers off the track. She describes George as singing “like a heartbroken Negro,” and one of his original melodies as “Arabian-esque” like a “snake-charmer.” These unfortunate passages sour the rest of the narrative. If the era is sometime in the 1980s, as the setting details indicate—characters mention John Bonham’s death, work on a computer referred to as a CRT, and see Bambi in the theater—then why is a hip young rocker using terminology that fell out of common parlance decades before (not to mention calling her fridge an “icebox”)? Such befuddling details can jar the reader out of the story.

West has created two multifaceted leads. Alison’s monologues are darkly comedic as she analyzes the various characters in her office, sometimes prying for more details even as she wonders why she cares about gossip. George plays off her cynicism and sharp observations with his idealism and passion for music. Their strong personalities and enjoyable interplay will satisfy fans of stories in which ordinary people make a grab for a brief moment of glittering joy.

Takeaway: Fans of character-driven drama will be drawn to this story of ordinary people who harbor rock-and-roll dreams.

Great for fans of Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman's Sounds like Titanic, Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City.

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

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The Genesis of Seven
Sara M Schaller
This ambitious YA fantasy novel, which launches the Empyrean Trilogy, pulls a teenage orphan into a battle between archangels and Satan. Jordan has grown up at New York City’s Holy Trinity Home for Disadvantaged Youth, cared for by nuns. One day, he comes home to find the orphanage dark and empty. Sister Helen gives Jordan a locked backpack, an address, and a cryptic message that he’s their only hope. Tailed by a group of thugs, Jordan finally makes it to the address and meets a strange man who turns out to be the archangel Gabriel. He and six other archangels are the last stronghold against Satan, who is plotting a cataclysmic return to Earth. Jordan, whose backpack holds items that Satan desperately wants, must be protected at all costs, as he is the key to an ancient heavenly prophecy. Together, Jordan and Gabriel work together to round up the rest of the archangels and defeat Satan in a battle for the fate of humankind.

Introducing what promises to be a complex series, Schaller does necessary worldbuilding in her reimagining of the creation of heaven and hell and all of the novel's many characters. Her ideas are fresh and intriguing–the archangels taking on earthly jobs that correspond with their original roles in Heaven is charming–but the story gets bogged down by a sheer wealth of details as the angels explain these intricacies to Jordan. Even Satan’s ruthless quest for power feels overly complex. Jordan quips at one point that he’s “overwhelmed by all this information,” and readers may share the same sentiment.

Jordan’s engaging character is primarily defined by his humorous incredulity as he navigates this confusing new life. The tale would benefit from more in-depth characterization, but the intriguing premise is enough to carry readers into future installments where the major players may be developed further. Schaller’s imaginative take on Christian myth makes for a thrilling adventure with great potential for equally enjoyable sequels.

Takeaway: Teen fans of plucky heroes and battles between good and evil will relish this urban fantasy adventure.

Great for fans of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series.

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

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Angelus Rose: As Above, So Below: Book 2
Loren Rhoads
In this well-constructed sequel to 2016’s Lost Angels, Rhoads and Thomas further develop the cosmology and complexity of their present-day setting, which digs into a variety of Christian theological traditions to form the framework of an ambitious urban fantasy story. The angel Azaziel and the succubus Lorelei may have fallen in love, but they’re still subject to the whims and commands of their respective superiors in heaven and hell, with Los Angeles as the current battleground. When Lorelei discovers Aza is hiding a secret that might tip the balance of power in the city, it places their fragile relationship in jeopardy and prompts both sides to ramp up their presence in preparation for a major battle.

This volume is accessible to new readers, but a familiarity with the first one is highly recommended. The romance between Aza and Lorelei carries much of the tale, but the erotic elements can feel pedestrian, and one scene of sexual body horror is likely to upset more sensitive readers. The story's real focus is on the sprawling cast of divine, infernal, and mortal characters who currently inhabit Los Angeles. Frequent perspective shifts occasionally make it difficult to keep track of the big picture, especially as characters switch allegiances. With such a large cast, it’s inevitable that some get less time to shine, and their ultimate fates don’t resonate as well as they should.

Rhoads and Thomas craft a plausible romance for the angel and succubus without betraying their inherent natures; readers won’t forget that Lorelei is an inherently infernal creature with undeniable carnal needs who serves truly evil masters. Vivid prose (“she felt the portal’s heat crawl over her skin like a thousand cockroaches”) keeps the reader immersed. The authors keep the personal stakes balanced against the larger conflict at hand, which builds slowly to a violent resolution that sets things up nicely for further installments.

Takeaway: This crossover between urban fantasy and paranormal romance will satisfy fans of star-crossed lovers, epic conflict, and dark, complex stories.

Great for fans of Richelle Mead’s Succubus Blues, Isadora Brown’s Awaken, Jillian Cooper’s The Devil’s Daughter.

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

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Queen of Swords: Stone Wielder's Legacy Trilogy Book 1
Karelynn A. Spacek
Spacek’s debut fantasy displays tons of raw storytelling talent that could use a bit of refinement. Ivyssa is an impulsive, outspoken tomboy with an “abrasive personality” in a culture that prizes demure women. She’s shocked when a line of flames erupts on her face, marking her as the future Queen of Swords. Distressed and disoriented, Ivyssa stumbles into a boy’s magical initiation rite and he accidentally kills his mother. A witness to this event vows to get revenge as Ivyssa starts training to be the future ruler of Azulyria, but the would-be assassin’s plans have disastrous repercussions for the entire nation. Many years later in Santa Fe, Alexandra Nealy, an FBI profiler turned yoga instructor, finds an Azulyrian artefact that gives her Ivyssa’s powers—and that Ivyssa’s enemy is willing to kill for.

Awkward dialogue (“That doesn’t mean that I can readily forget all that has transpired like you seem to have done”), dramatic prose (Ivyssa describes her own eyes as “twin pools of lilac [that] glistened with innocent naivety”), and clichéd characters detract from the well-paced plot and imaginative worldbuilding. Both Ivyssa and Alexandra are classic examples of the “spitfire” heroine who’s not “a prissy little girl.” Alexandra’s love interest, Jared, comes across less as a tough alpha male and more as rude and violent. An unfortunate side plot kills off a same-sex couple.

Spacek displays a solid instinct for crafting a story that holds readers’ attention and captures their imaginations with a unique fantasy world. Though she tries to space out the introduction of Azulyrian lore, these paragraphs still slow the narrative. Plot inconsistencies and fumbles in the point of view cause confusion, but Spacek keeps the tension ratcheted up, and most major plot points land cleanly. Though readers never get fully immersed in the unfolding intrigue or form a firm sense of Azulyria, the familiarity of the modern-day Santa Fe setting is grounding. The captivating concept and setting hold great promise for Spacek’s future work.

Takeaway: This parallel world fantasy will appeal most to voracious readers of paranormal romance who like tough yet beautiful heroines and otherworldly magic.

Great for fans of Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass, Patricia Briggs’s Cry Wolf.

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

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Outbreak (The Dark Days Series)
Christopher Cole
A boy survives the breakneck dangers of a zombie outbreak in this thrill-packed series launch. Preciously mature nine-year-old Sonny Daniels promises to protect his best friends, 11-year-old twins Ashley and Carrie, when their father, Brad, is infected as the two families flee zombies and aggressive quarantine enforcement to Fort Drum, N.Y. After a year of relative safety, a bandit attack pushes the adults to send all the kids to the better-equipped Fort Denver. Sonny, Ashley, and Carrie make new friends but feel squeamish about the fixation these more sheltered kids have for stories of their desperate acts of violence. When other kids unwittingly lure a horde of zombies to the fort, the trio flees again, joining a motley band of survivors. They tumble through a cavalcade of dire danger to the unresolved ending.

The constant violence and frequent dispatching of recently introduced characters rushes the plot along. Sonny’s ability to evade death borders on the miraculous as the number of battles multiply, but each scene is, for the most part, plausible on its own. Cole deviates little from typical zombie mythology; his revenants are clumsy, thoughtless brain-seekers that form packs and spread their disease through biting. There are some unexpected plot elements, including a long-distance train journey and an encounter with a pedophilic cult. While not breaking new ground, the onslaught of exciting moments keeps readers engaged.

Cole gives Sonny dialogue and thoughts well beyond his preteen years (“Yeah, we lost people. There’s not really an easy way to say this so here goes”). He explores the weight of Sonny’s responsibilities but skims over calmer periods when self-reflection might take deeper root. The open questions and unsettled ending set the stage effectively for the next books, and readers will be eager to follow Sonny as he searches for stability. This is a tense story of a boy muscling through violent clashes in a terrifying apocalyptic world.

Takeaway: This heart-pounding sequence of narrow escapes will gratify fans of classic zombie fare.

Great for fans of Nicholas Sansbury Smith, Alden Bell.

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

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Tokyo Traffic
Michael Pronko
Pronko’s third Tokyo-set Detective Hiroshi police procedural (after The Last Train and The Moving Blade) adds a number of exciting, modern twists to a familiar genre. Pronko alternates among the narratives of three characters: Sukanya, a young Thai woman brought to Tokyo against her will and witness to a grisly multiple murder on a porn film set; Kenta, a hustling ex-con trying to track down Sukanya, who has stolen his computer with video footage of the crime; and Hiroshi Shimizu, a forensic police accountant assigned to the murder case. Pronko ramps up the tension as Sukanya tries to flee Japan, Kenta attempts to find her, and Hiroshi’s team pieces together clues, culminating in an explosive conclusion.

Pronko smoothly informs new readers of all they need to know about Hiroshi. He’s a refreshing character who defies the tough-cop stereotype, a thinker whose expertise is in following the money. There are just enough moments spent on his private life with his girlfriend, Ayana, to understand the fraught complexity of their relationship. Hiroshi’s colleagues on the force are also memorably portrayed and have wonderful camaraderie. The main characters all get their own detailed backstories and sense of agency, with the women having particularly rich, varied motivations.

Attention to detail is essential to this novel’s success. Pronko overexplains some cultural details, which slows the narrative’s otherwise tight pace, but it’s worth it as he makes the setting pop. While he doesn’t flinch from the unsavory details of murder, child pornography, and human trafficking, Pronko is careful not to exploit them for thrills. Modern details, such as cryptocurrency as a method for criminals to make money vanish, add a 21st-century touch. This is a sophisticated, humane, and compelling take on the modern police procedural.

Takeaway: Fans of police procedurals will thrill to this mystery’s lively characters, vivid descriptions of Tokyo, and unlikely heroics.

Great for fans of Seicho Matsumoto’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates, Arimasa Osawa’s Shinjuku Shark, Miyuke Miyabi’s All She Was Worth.

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

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How Did I End Up Here?: Essays from an Imperfect Life
Vicky Perrone
Perrone, a world traveler and photographer, shares memories from her unconventional life in this delightful, if at times eclectic, debut memoir. What began as a series of blog posts written when she and her husband retired and moved from Texas to Italy morphed into an autobiographical work that combines snippets of their expatriate life, stories from Perrone’s youth, and humorous thoughts and observations gained on her adventures. “Life is a continuing adventure. You just do what you gotta do,” she writes early on, and her many wry and merry anecdotes bear out that promise of cheerful perseverance and adaptation in the face of both challenging and uplifting experiences.

In one word, Perrone’s work is approachable. She begins the memoir with an anecdote of locking herself outside her apartment, setting the tone for similar tales about adjusting to life in Italy. She recounts her difficulties growing up, from being raised by abusive and alcoholic parents to checking into a psychiatric ward and running away from home. She admits to her own mistakes and writes, “The only thing I can do is... try to be a better person, which I do.” But her hardships have given her profound perspective, and she believes that celebrating birthdays, always adventuring, and laughing with those she loves will help her to face whatever comes next.

At times, Perrone’s writing is so informal that the book still feels like a series of travel posts strung together. She also tells some stories as if they happened “yesterday,” which can be disorienting to the reader. Perrone comes across like a quirky grandma: readers may feel some secondhand embarrassment when she goes a little overboard, but they’ll admire her endless willingness to try something new and fun. At its best, this unconventional memoir is a glorious snapshot of a woman who has overcome a great deal and continues to welcome life with arms wide open.

Takeaway: Readers with wanderlust and a desire to get the most out of life will enjoy this adventurous grandmother’s travel blog turned playful and uplifting memoir.

Great for fans of Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, Debbie Mancuso’s My Love Affair with Italy.

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

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Requiem for the Dead
Victor M. Alvarez
This exciting military thriller from Alvarez (the John Slade series) introduces tough, intelligent Jacqueline Sinclair, an agent for the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigative Division (CID). Along with her new partner, Tom Price, she must work quickly to find four children kidnapped from a U.S. military base in Germany. Soon Sinclair and Price realized this incident is the first of many. Gen. Thomas Scott’s son died in a North Korean prison, and Scott blames the U.S. for failing to retrieve him. Kidnapping the children of high-ranking officers is just the beginning of his plan to take revenge on both countries. If he’s successful, it could result in global war.

With the agents racing to stop Scott and his fellow conspirators, Alvarez’s action scenes will get readers’ hearts pounding. The details of scenery (“the tall book cabinet stocked with military books on tactics and deployment of assets in the field of battle, and the Iraq War strategy in four different volumes”) and equipment (“among his weapons of choice was his Glock-26 subcompact with his unattached Osprey 40k suppressor, held in his shoulder rig holster”) sometimes slow the pace of the story, but the thriller plot will keep readers engaged as long as they share the author’s interest in weaponry. The romantic elements are less convincing but not prominent enough to be much of a distraction.

Alvarez, a former CID agent, develops Jacqueline and Tom’s story through the nuances of dealing with chain of command, working with officers from other countries, and using various investigative techniques. He’s particularly adept at describing what characters feel in battle and what it’s like to get shot and witness gory violence, though their rehabilitation from injuries is implausibly quick. A strong thriller plot and appealing characters will keep readers gripped to the rousing finale.

Takeaway: Fans of military thrillers and tough, smart heroines will enjoy this high-octane adventure.

Great for fans of Candace Irvin’s Aimpoint, Nelson DeMille’s Wild Fire.

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

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Coaching for Life
Andrew Pansini
This celebration of the art of coaching celebrates and inspires people who feel called to help others. Pansini draws on his career in business and his own philanthropic ventures to suggest that coaching is a symbiotic relationship. As the coach and student learn from each other, both parties become better equipped to coach others in the future. Coaching, Pansini writes, is at its heart an act of giving, as it “benefits the coach as much as it does those being coached.”

It is fitting, then, that Pansini splits this compact volume between paeans to the act of coaching and thoughts on how to coach effectively. He shares general insights from his days as a Little League baseball coach and also draws on farther-reaching examples as a teacher, friend, executive, parent, grandparent, and volunteer. Pansini challenges readers to heed the coach’s calling in their day-to-day lives. He urges empathy and compassion, creating an ethos of being there for those in need. He provides real-world examples of those who have pursued this noble calling, such as off-duty health care workers who helped evacuate a hospital engulfed in a California wildfire.

This is more of a series of reflections on the process of coaching than an advice book; there are scant examples of coaching in action. Pansini presses readers to be aware of the importance of trust, especially the ways that people earn or bestow it upon one another. An advocate for better healthcare, Pansini argues that end-of-life care can be seen as a vital form of coaching. While the book is tied together with anecdotes about coaching through life, the most compelling passages go further into the realm of philosophy and memoir. Pansini’s work will appeal to readers who are already passionate about coaching and will be pleased to find a writer whose approach to life they can readily agree with.

Takeaway: Pansini’s philosophical reflections on coaching as a metaphor for social interdependence and mutual care will appeal to anyone who’s found a calling in some form of service to others.

Great for fans of Tony Porter’s Breaking Out of the “Man Box,” Houston Kraft’s Deep Kindness.

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

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The Bond: How a Mash-Up of Foster Kids Became a Family for Life
Angelo Grotticelli
This gritty memoir of being one of eight foster children in an abusive home chronicles the ways that difficult circumstances can form tight-knit families of choice. Grotticelli and his four siblings became wards of New York State when their mother was dying of breast cancer and their alcoholic father proved unable and unwilling to care for them. Grotticelli, with his siblings Rose Ann and Charles, entered St. Michael’s Orphanage, a grim and Dickensian Catholic charity. After two years with the ironically named Sisters of Mercy, they were moved to Nina and Gilbert Nelson’s Long Island home. Although the Nelsons repeatedly stated their goal of “saving these kids from the streets,” what they truly desired from their eight foster children—three sets of siblings and a singleton—was free labor and monthly checks from the state. For years, the Nelsons dangled adoption in front of the love-starved foster children, offering security in an unstable world, while inflicting physical, sexual and emotional abuse. The children endured a years-long struggle to learn what a family truly is.

Grotticelli’s unsparing honesty about his birth and foster families—including an uncle’s mob connections, his birth mother’s petty crimes, and the Nelsons’ blatant favoritism of their biological children and tolerance of their adult son sexually abusing their teenage foster daughter—will make readers wince and keep them marveling at the indomitability of these children. That the foster siblings were able to forge familial bonds with each other is extraordinary.

Although Grotticelli’s anecdotes frequently meander and his lengthy descriptions of people interrupt the flow of his story, the raw facts of how eight children came to live in the large home in Long Island makes for a compelling read. Grotticelli’s voice is compulsively readable, wry and friendly despite the horrors he describes, and full of affection for his chosen family. Even into adulthood, the scars of life with the Nelsons are tangible, but the former foster children found the family they longed for in one another. For readers seeking true stories of found families and surviving abuse, Grotticelli’s memoir is sure to please.

Takeaway: Grotticelli’s tell-all memoir of growing up as an abused foster child is gritty with positive notes, and will appeal to readers who want to see tough kids survive horrors and find happiness.

Great for fans of Tara Westover’s Educated: A Memoir, David Pelzer’s The Lost Boy.

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

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How Love Wins
Doug Carnine
In this no-nonsense, religion-free workbook, Carnine (Saint Badass: Transcendence in Tucker Max Hell) guides readers through developing a practice of “kindfulness,” an intertwining of kindness and mindfulness. Carnine, a lay Buddhist minister and educator, focuses on motivating readers to be kind to themselves and others in small, immediate ways. His core approach is to replace unkind habits, both physical and mental, and both inwardly and outwardly directed, with kind ones. He also discusses developing skills related to change, action, and character. He uses a straightforward, organized teaching style, supported by jargon-free explanations of simple mindfulness and meditation activities and grounded in the idea that change is possible even in the toughest of circumstances.

Carnine excels at articulate frameworks and memorable terminology, such as the “Renew-and-Serve Cycle” and the “Three-Breath Method,” without falling into cuteness, oversimplification, or jargon. Each chapter is organized into small, digestible sections and includes definitions of concepts, exercises, and anecdotes from his and others’ personal experience. He brings in just enough of his personal history to make his presence palpable without centering himself, and he avoids the denigration of his past failings. The only things detracting from the professional appearance of the text are hand-drawn illustrations.

Throughout the text, Carnine includes short sections written by prisoners whom he mentors and corresponds with. They share how their lives have been improved by these practices despite their histories of deep abuse and extreme violence, proving the value of kindfulness in any circumstance or context. These stories also put a subtly masculine spin on the material, offering a path for readers stuck in a mindset of toxic masculinity. Carnine’s articulate and easy-to-follow approach, and the deep sincerity that comes through his and others’ personal stories, create a transformative guide for readers seeking to make changes in their lives and relationships.

Takeaway: This accessible guide to changing one’s life through “kindfulness” is an invaluable road map for readers whose lives have been affected by toxic mindsets.

Great for fans of Elisha Goldstein’s The Now Effect, Jamil Zaki’s The War for Kindness.

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

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Tales from the Gray Area: A Shadowt Realm of the Imagination that Defies Reality
Curtis Burdick
This intriguing collection of seven novellas by author and screenwriter Burdick (Protectors of the Black Prince) pays homage to The Twilight Zone, playing with the fantastical, the uncanny, and the weird. With a mix of dry humor and careful attention to detail, Burdick introduces his characters’ encounters with the extraordinary. “Alien Addiction” is a classic invasion story with a twist: an alien emperor detoxing from an intergalactic mix of drugs in a rehab centre befriends a hip actor in science fiction movies. The comedy in “Vacation from Hell” is darker: a group of angels of hell revolt against Satan by asking for vacation time, taking the place of regular humans and living normal lives.

At times, Burdick’s creative ideas fall short of their potential. In “Discoveries at River View,” a palaeontologists discovers a dinosaur skeleton with far-reaching implications for human history, but the story ends before the gravity of such a discovery can be explored. Similarly, both “Reincarnated,” in which a group of babies born with the same birthmark on the same day are targeted by an Indian far-right nationalist organization, and “Bottom Dwellers,” a story about powerful creatures lurking in the deep sea, build up suspense but don’t deliver a matching payoff.

Burdick makes an effort to give his stories global scope, but some of his descriptions of “primitive” people and dwellings can be jarring. An Indian-American doctor defends British colonizers who “saved” India’s past from plunder, a line of editorializing that’s never integrated into the story. However, there is a freshness to Burdick’s prose, and he breathes new life into familiar tropes. Burdick is at his best in the intricate final story, “Sanctuary,” in which a group of Army personnel have a life-changing encounter with an alien god living among the Inuit. This venture into the realm of the strange showcases Burdick’s potential.

Takeaway: Seasoned readers of classic, adventurous speculative fiction will enjoy diving into Burdick’s strange spaces.

Great for fans of Harlan Ellison’s Shatterday, Richard Matheson’s The Best of Richard Matheson.

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

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