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HEART to BEAT
Brian Lima
Heart transplant surgeon Lima, the child of Cuban immigrants to the U.S., turns his talents to self-help with his slightly corny but sincere first book, an encouraging work intended to inspire readers to overcome mediocrity and live their best lives. “Lackadaisical effort leads to lackluster results and lukewarm reception, a vicious cycle set on auto loop,” he counsels. “This self-fulfilling prophecy comes to define our life.” Instead, Lima counsels his readers to try the “HEART” way—his acronym for the slightly disjointed set of “hard work,” “eager,” “aligned,” “resolute,” and “thoughtfulness.”

After six memoir-style chapters recounting his journey from working-class New Jersey to the halls of Cornell and Duke Universities, Lima buckles down with valuable life advice gleaned from his own experiences. He notes that fear can paralyze even the most capable of people, and he doesn’t believe getting over it is easy. He also advises throwing the idea of being “well-rounded” out the window, saying that laser-focusing on one key ambition is the key to success. “Visualize. Actualize. Repeat. Never give up!” His fondness for memory devices is sometimes excessive, as when he advises that people facing their failures should be careful not to accuse, blame, criticize, or defer (ABCD); the advice is sensible but the mnemonic is forgettable.

Lima scorns being pigeonholed by other people (“Never mind staying in your lane”), second-guessing decisions (“The should’ve, would’ve, could’ve’s will drive you insane if you let them”), and hesitating (“If you don’t believe in yourself or feel certain that you’re a sure bet... how the hell could anyone else?!”). He believes nearly anything is possible with hard work, confidence, and determination, and his enthusiasm is contagious. Some readers will find the descriptions of heart surgeries a bit too graphic, but this is otherwise a cheering and encouraging work.

Takeaway: Heart transplant surgeon Lima’s practical advice will inspire readers looking for direction and a confidence boost.

Great for fans of Sean Whalen’s How to Make Sh*t Happen, Mark Goulston and Philip Goldberg’s Get Out of Your Own Way.

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

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Safety-First Retirement Planning: An Integrated Approach for a Worry-Free Retirement
Wade Pfau
Pfau, a professor of retirement income at the American College of Financial Services and a principal and director for McLean Asset Management, switches topics from the riskier investment approach of his first book (How Much Can I Spend in Retirement? A Guide to Investment-Based Retirement Strategies) to more fiscally conservative strategies in this information-rich, jargon-heavy guide. For retirees who are worried about making their assets last for decades and hold up during times of economic uncertainty, probability-based strategies can become excessively stressful, the author counsels. An alternative is a “safety-first” approach that integrates investments with insurance. Pfau provides a compelling reason for taking this option: the risk pooling of insurance requires retirees to put in less money up front, as they no longer need to plan in anticipation of the worst-case scenario.

Pfau exhaustively and expertly explores all investment possibilities, including fixed-income assets; stocks and diversified investment portfolios; income, variable, and fixed income annuities; and life insurance. He discusses fitting income annuities into a financial plan and planning to leave a financial legacy for loved ones. He also warns of the dangers of loss aversion (fearing a loss more than wanting to make gains), overconfidence, and hindsight bias.

Readers with finance-phobia may be intimidated by Pfau’s dry, academic prose (“Low-volatility assets are generally viewed as less risky, but this may not be the case when the objective is to sustain spending over a long time horizon”) and deep dives into complicated investment options. However, his advice is both comprehensive and logical, and the liberal use of well-designed charts and real-world situations aid in comprehension. This sensible nuts-and-bolts retirement planning guide will satisfy readers interested in exploring their long-term financial options.

Takeaway: Readers looking for peace of mind during their golden years will find Pfau’s retirement planning guidance valuable.

Great for fans of Dave Ramsey, Jane Bryant Quinn.

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

The Bend in Redwood Road (Missing Pieces Book 1)
Danielle Stewart
Told in the distinct voices of two very different women, Stewart’s viscerally poignant novel examines the stark realities of pregnancy, adoption, parenthood, and romance. Gwen Fox is a happy 25-year-old graduate student with a loving family, good career prospects, and an ache in her heart: the knowledge that she’s adopted. Her field is genetic counseling, but trying to research her own ancestry sparks a panic attack that makes her realize how desperate she is to find her birth mother. Meanwhile, Leslie Laudon has sacrificed career advancement to support her husband and raise her three children. As her youngest goes off to college and the cracks in her marriage deepen, she can’t stop thinking about the baby she abandoned. Leslie and Gwen, troubled and determined, set out in search of each other, but their quests send shock waves through both their families.

Gwen and Leslie are initially challenging to spend time with, as Gwen covers up her brittleness with brashness and Leslie hides her depression with platitudes, but readers will come to care deeply for both women and sympathize with their struggles. Gwen’s prickly nature is, at first, a stark contrast to Leslie’s confident supermom persona. Yet as the story slowly unfolds, it’s easy to find points of commonality between the two women as they both grapple alone with what they fear are life-altering secrets.

Stewart (the Piper Anderson series) balances the intense emotions with healing balm provided by Gwen’s adoring parents; her irreverent best friend, Griff, who quickly becomes her love interest; Leslie’s best friend, Claudette; and Leslie’s warmhearted 17-year-old daughter, Kerry, whose half-sibling DNA match with Gwen kicks the tension into high gear. There are also hints of mystery involving a sketchy for-profit adoption agency. This deeply moving story and its captivating characters will keep readers enthralled.

Takeaway: Any fan of women’s fiction will be enthralled by this powerful, emotional story of a young woman, her biological mother, and their quest to be reunited.

Great for fans of Nora Roberts, Lori Foster, Bella Andre, Kristen Ashley.

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

A Circle of Firelight
Curtis Edmonds
Two sisters struggle to connect across the borders of a dreamworld in this homage to fantasy coming-of-age stories. Ashlyn Revere is driving from her home in New Jersey to a job interview in Manhattan when she discovers her teenage sister, Penny, hiding in the backseat. Ashlyn isn’t thrilled with Penny’s demand to tag along, as Penny’s cystic fibrosis makes any venture out of the house a challenge, but a car crash cuts short their argument. Ashlyn awakens in Summervale, where her thoughts and emotions manifest in alarming ways. (“That’s what happens when you lose it and get really angry, you know. Dragons. Sea monsters. Big scary scaly things coming at you.”) Meanwhile, Penny wakes in the hospital to the news that Ashlyn has suffered a traumatic brain injury and her survival is anything but certain. Ashlyn must confront a Dark Lord made of her “anger and fear and hate” while fearing that her physical life hangs in the balance.

Edmonds (Snowflake’s Chance) positions this tale somewhere between a paean to fantasy novels and a pastiche of them, studding it with dozens of pop-culture and literary references. Ashlyn’s journey feels paint-by-numbers at times, and her quest leaves a few unanswered questions. Summervale feels underdeveloped, a blank canvas for a collage of allusions. The real-world aspects of the novel—Penny’s fear for her sister’s survival, the Reveres’ struggles with Penny’s fragile health—are much clearer and more fraught.

Though the premise is a bit clunky, the execution is for the most part charming and clever, with lively dialogue, easy pacing, and fleshed-out protagonists. Although secondary characters can seem sketchy by comparison, Edmonds deftly captures the friction and love between two sisters who are constantly at odds but have each others’ backs. This culminates in a touching scene between Ashlyn and Penny, with their usual roles of caretaker and patient reversed. Edmonds’s novel evokes the magic of portal fantasies while grounding it with emotionally resonant relationships.

Takeaway: Fans of YA portal fantasies will enjoy this story of two sisters supporting each other through a challenging quest.

Great for fans of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle.

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

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Yoga at the Zoo
Teresa Power
Power (The ABC’s of Yoga for Kids) charms with the adventures of the unlikely best friend duo of Little Mouse and Mr. Opus the cat, as they visit the zoo and learn yoga poses from the animals. Little Mouse and Mr. Opus spend afternoons after school together, sometimes watching Tammy, the little girl Mr. Opus lives with, doing yoga with her mom. When Tammy’s school goes on a field trip to the zoo, Little Mouse and Mr. Opus go too. Little Mouse has never seen other animals and is excited to meet them. As Little Mouse meets each animal, he sees that they do yoga-like poses too. Little Mouse is on a serious quest for knowledge, while Mr. Opus provides some comic relief (such as falling asleep during his favorite yoga pose).

Young readers will enjoy Allen’s expressive and fun illustrations of Little Mouse and Mr. Opus’s antics. The illustrations have just the right amount of detail to draw in the reader, adding to the story without distracting from the text. It will likely not be clear to young readers whether the book is meant to teach yoga poses or just show fun things that animals do. However, the description of Little Mouse’s experiences with yoga fit the target age group well, as the poses are simple and presented as a regular, calming part of daily life.

As Little Mouse copies poses from other animals and sees how yoga relaxes them, young readers can imitate Little Mouse in turn. Power has a fine sense of which poses are suitable for children, and adults who aren’t deeply familiar with yoga can comfortably lead kids through the various poses. The emphasis on yoga as a daily practice will resonate with busy families looking for easy ways to relax and be in touch with their physical selves.

Takeaway: This simple, fun approach to yoga as a source of calm in everyday life will appeal to young readers and their parents.

Great for fans of Susan Verde’s I Am Yoga, Mariam Gates’s Good Night Yoga series.

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

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Sprinkles
Katherine S Stempel
Stempel’s sweet debut picture book blends cupcakes and bonsai trees with kindness and community. Sky, a girl who looks about 10, makes a batch of mini cupcakes, hoping to sell them to raise money for her suburban neighborhood’s animal shelter. As Sky and her mother set off with the cupcakes, they encounter their crotchety neighbor, Mr. Conway, who brusquely turns down the sweet treats before continuing with his evening walk. At the local nursery, Sky strikes a sweet deal, trading some cupcakes for an adorable little bonsai tree. Mr. Conway arrives as they’re leaving and also winds up with a bonsai tree—but in order to take care of it, he has to let Sky teach him about listening and love.

Children will instantly warm to Stempel’s pint-size protagonist (and her luscious cupcake flavor combinations, such as double chocolate with marshmallow frosting, graham cracker sprinkles, and a caramel drizzle). Spunky Sky doesn’t take rejection personally, and, through her generosity and kindness, she cares for and supports her community. Sky’s open and caring nature shines through in every conversation, and Stempel’s sensitive narrative shows how the briefest of interactions can hurt and the smallest of selfless gestures can change someone’s life for the better.

Stempel, a volunteer with a program that delivers food to the homebound elderly, underscores the importance of companionship with older neighborhood residents, shown in Sky’s burgeoning relationship with widowed, gray-haired Mr. Conway. Hershey’s dynamic digital illustrations evoke Sky’s bouncy energy, Mr. Conway’s gloom, and the contrast between Sky’s happy, well-loved tree and Mr. Conway’s sad, wilting one. Occasional words pop and swoop out of the text to convey changes in mood, adding emphasis and whimsy.

Takeaway: This sweet and touching illustrated story conveys important lessons about intergenerational connections and will be meaningful to both children and adults.

Great for fans of Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Jane Dyer’s Cookies: Bite-Size Life Lessons, Diane Alber’s A Little Spot of Anger: A Story About Managing Big Emotions.

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

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Fourth Trait
Benjamin A. Bryan
Bryan’s debut is an intermittently absorbing but frequently confusing political science-fiction epic set in 2095. The hero is Raile Alton, a cynical scientist working for the UEA, the provisional government that took power after the global Great Catastrophe killed off most of the world’s population. Those who survive possess heightened mental powers but are plagued by ghosts called “unattached.” When an unattached actually murders a human being, it triggers a sprawling series of events as the UEA and their opponents in the resistance engage in byzantine schemes, double crosses, and power grabs. Quests for sex, revenge, eternal life, power, and simple human comforts underlie the more metaphysical aspects of the conflict.

The frequent betrayals amid detailed military operations become wearying after a while, as do the many undefined, distracting neologisms related to mental powers and the afterlife. Some of the characters are better developed than others: Alton proves to be complex and vulnerable underneath his world-weary veneer, and Delva Brownson, the daughter of a resistance leader, is another nuanced character whose doubts about her place in the world make her far more interesting than her mother, a rabid caricature. The pacing, dialogue, and plot twists form a fluid narrative, though the vague, cliffhanger ending is unexpected and unsatisfying.

Bryan has clearly put a lot of thought into building this world and its metaphysical underpinnings. The story is as much about the mysteries of the afterlife as it is about the schemes of its desperate characters. Bryan notes that the traitors to the resistance are desperate for a taste of easy living and that the UEA traitors are angry about the corruption inherent in the system. For some of these, the end justifies the means, but the narrative embraces a more humanistic approach beyond simple comfort and revenge. This near-future story of discontent in life and after death leaves readers with much to think about.

Takeaway: This metaphysical murder mystery will appeal to fans of more philosophical and conceptual science fiction and horror.

Great for fans of M. John Harrison’s Light, Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

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

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Jane Under Pressure: The Life of a Korean American Schoolgirl
Sun Min
Min’s debut picture book draws young readers into the childhood of Jane, a 10-year-old Korean-American student facing pressures imposed by her family. Her days are full of studying and extracurriculars, and her hobbies must be wedged in at the edges of her busy schedule. Despite her stress about being pressured to succeed, she is determined to make her family proud when she performs in an upcoming cello competition. As she prepares, she learns more about where her relatives’ expectations come from.

Jane is instantly relatable as a young girl with trouble balancing her long-term goals and her momentary joys. It is clear that her family is incredibly important to her, and Min carefully contextualizes their constant pushing for Jane to apply herself: it stems from a belief that, with practice and hard work, she can accomplish anything. When Jane connects with her aunt over essay writing and with her mother while practicing cello, the reader will feel their love and support.

Simple digital illustrations of Jane in various situations face pages of straightforward text. The story is best suited to a slightly younger audience who will enjoy sounding out the occasional Korean vocabulary, which is well explained. The slightly stilted English of Jane’s immigrant relatives sounds accurate rather than stereotypical and is easy to read aloud. Min provides glimpses of Korean culture as Jane and her family venerate ancestors, put on traditional clothes for the holiday of Chuseok, and cook seaweed soup. Readers of all backgrounds will find it easy to connect with Jane’s longing for time to herself, love for her family and her cat, enjoyment of karaoke, and powerful emotions during the competition.

Takeaway: Younger children of all backgrounds will enjoy following 10-year-old cellist Jane through the the pressures and joys of life in her Korean-American family.

Great for fans of Matt de la Peña’s Last Stop on Market Street, Jacqueline Woodson’s The Day You Begin.

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

The Long Journey to the Fair
Radka Yakimov
In an evocative series of vignettes, Yakimov explores conflict, intolerance, and what it means to be a refugee through the experiences of an ethnically diverse set of Eastern Bloc families forced to flee their homelands before, during, and after WWII. Most of the short and factual impressions are given voice by Ms. Konstantinov, a Toronto college professor and Bulgarian emigré who introduces herself by recounting a long-ago dream of going to a fair.

Yakimov, herself a Bulgarian emigré to Canada and onetime college professor, writes in a distinctive detached and matter-of-fact voice (one chapter heading is “And Here Comes a Guy Called Ludmil”; another introduces “The Melancholy Figure Standing on a Bridge, the Crazy Lady, and the Strange Attraction Felt by Men to Girls with Blond Hair”). The dispassionate narration, which reads a bit like listening to Greta Garbo as Ninotchka, allows the episodes to unfold succinctly, though at times the descriptions are curious (“a gust of warm air suddenly oozing by”). The author’s voice suits the impressionistic nature of the work, but it leads to challenging brevity. There are too many subjects; each individual portrait is focused up close but the fuller picture appears blurry and vague, like a pointillist painting in reverse. The epilogue attempts to wrap things up but then takes off on a new tangent, albeit one that extends one of the book’s themes. It barrels up out of nowhere and readers get only a glimpse before it fades out.

After mourning the separations caused by Balkanization and the Iron Curtain, Yakimov evokes hope by shows her characters intersecting in large and small ways. Readers who spot a connection or two will feel encouraged to seek more, and will also search for metaphorical and literal journeys to the fair.

Takeaway: Readers who want to explore the human side of the Cold War will appreciate this series of Eastern Bloc immigration narratives.

Great for fans of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land, Ismail Kadare.

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

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The Winter Sisters: A Novel
Tim Westover
Westover (Auraria) digs into early-19th-century medicine and superstition in rural Georgia. Dr. Aubrey Waycross is invited to tiny Lawrenceville, Ga., where rabid dogs and a panther are supposedly menacing the townspeople. Aubrey is disappointed to find no signs of the promised rabies epidemic, but the panther is real, and it prevents people from traveling to visit the three Winter sisters, who were Lawrenceville’s healers until they were chased out of town for suspected witchcraft. Though science-minded Aubrey is mystified by their healing powers, he comes to the conclusion that the sisters’ methods are “not without merit” and asks them to return to town with him and set up a shared practice. Rebecca, the oldest, is sweet on Aubrey and supports the plan, overriding the opposition of sour middle sister Sarah. Inevitably, youngest sister Effie’s magic unsettles the townspeople, leading to a spiral of disasters.

Readers will appreciate Aubrey’s transformation from self-righteousness to being humbled by the tenacity and healing skills of rural women. The writing is smart and witty: Aubrey thrills to patients who bring “coughs, sneezes, wheezes, rales—a cacophony of illness,” and Sarah bitterly snarls, “Every human being is a skin sack stuffed up to the neck with greed and flesh and stupidity. And what spills out of their face holes are delusions and mistakes.” The humorous moments help to balance the era’s pervasive fear and despair in the face of sorrow, poverty, and incurable diseases.

Westover’s attention to historical detail is evident in his portrayal of the medical treatments popular in the early 19th century. The members of the Lawrenceville community feel entirely real, especially in their contradictory fear of the Winters’ powers and desperate hope that the sisters will heal their ailments. Fans of historical fiction with a focus on American folklore will warm to the enigmatic characters of Lawrenceville.

Takeaway: Historical fiction fans will be riveted by this immersive portrait of medicine and superstition in 19th-century rural Georgia.

Great for fans of Adriana Trigiani, Jennifer Chiaverini.

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

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De Anima(l)
Joe Costanzo
Chaos ensues after a college mascot goes missing in this simmering and thought-provoking contemporary mystery by Costanzo (Restoration). When Gennesaret Christian College’s mascot, a live jackrabbit, disappears, the clue at the empty cage—a note that says “(L)”—points to mild-mannered 46-year-old professor Edward Stathakis, whose lecture on Aristotle’s De Anima treatise evolved into a discussion of animal rights when an “(L)” was added to the work’s title. However, what seems to be a college prank takes on a more sinister aspect when a fire is set in a billionaire game hunter’s lodge and an identical note is discovered. The professor becomes a target of suspicion and contempt among members of the college and local community.

Costanzo jumps right into the story, weaving philosophy and ethical questions into the well-developed and intriguing mystery plot. The sympathetic Stathakis is a worthy underdog protagonist. Passages from his perspective include an alluring element of crisp, hard-boiled description (“Even his tight dome of a beer belly was menacing, like the bronze shield of a Roman gladiator”) that convey his thoughtful bent. Despite his unassuming nature and unhappiness stemming from a devastating divorce, Stathakis is surprisingly tenacious and draws the attention of several women, including Alice, his bohemian girlfriend; Judith Scott, a powerful administrator; and the straight-shooting Det. Janet Ellison. Stathakis’s interactions with other characters, such as an amicable and outgoing neighbor who makes him realize just how little he knows his students, heartwarmingly reveal his changing self-perception and growth.

Although there are dramatic twists, this character-driven story is not for those desiring a brisk whodunit; rather, it’s suited to those who wish to savor Costanzo’s expertise with language. He carefully unspools the story, doling out colorful character descriptions and thought-provoking considerations of the complexity of choices and consequences. This is an enjoyable work for fans of mystery and philosophical debates.

Takeaway: Philosophical connoisseurs of modern-day mysteries will enjoy the sleuthing of this unobtrusive philosophy professor.

Great for fans of Elizabeth Peters, Alexander McCall Smith.

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

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The Meditation Process
Lyle Olson
Olson packs plenty of fodder for the intermediate meditator into this detailed, expansive guide to the practical and esoteric aspects of sitting meditation, which draws somewhat haphazardly on both Buddhist Shamatha and Raja yoga traditions. He covers positioning the body, balancing the breath, approaching meditation seriously without trying too hard, and overcoming obstacles to progression. He also clarifies terminology and includes both his own experiences and the words of others to help the reader recognize what successful meditation feels like. The somewhat abrupt conclusion succinctly lays out the end goals of the practice, including mindfulness and the impartial witnessing of one’s experience.

The level of detail will be very useful to those readers already deeply engaged in a meditation practice. Olson successfully bridges the gap between too-basic suggestions for beginners and less grounded, more opaque advanced guidance. When he offers hands-on advice, he distills complex ideas to concrete steps well, as in his discussions of the benefits of a kneeling posture and the use of mantras, his sample breathing exercises, and his analysis of the metaphor of treating passing thoughts as birds flying into the room. He gently but firmly contradicts methods that he views as unhelpful or less ideal. And he shows refreshing humility when discussing advanced states of meditation that he has not yet attained.

The inclusion of unlabeled, seemingly random photos of East and South Asian people has an unfortunate Orientalist air. The quotes from teachers and experts aren’t well integrated into the text, and Olson rarely explains who these authorities are or why he’s chosen to quote them. The dense language (including a slew of foreign-language terms) and stream-of-thought structure could frustrate novices, but Olson’s work will resonate with seasoned practitioners and help advanced beginners take their next steps. This hefty, detailed guide is a useful, if sometimes dense, exploration of every step of building a meditation practice rooted in multiple traditions.

Takeaway: Experienced meditators struggling with plateaus or looking for a comprehensive, detailed consideration of process will savor this hefty guide to building a meditation practice.

Great for fans of Pema Chödrön, Chögyam Trungpa.

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

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Kings of the Earth
Christopher Stanton
Artist and graphic novelist Stanton’s debut literary paranormal thriller chronicles the intertwining lives of three very different people. In the reportedly cursed surfing town of Great Water, Mich., in the year 2000, Jenny Bloomquist, 25, and Eric Calhoun, 14, are linked by Jenny’s husband, Lance, who’s mentoring Eric in the mystical athletic art of soul surfing. Martin Van Lottom is 28, struggling with a menial job, poor health, and a disconnection from reality. Their paths cross when the blood moon, fog, and high tide coincide in a once-every-30-years event known as “the Baptism,” when people disappear from Great Water or claim to see ghosts, and all three begin searching for those they have lost, lest they become lost themselves. Lance vanishes, and Martin and Eric witness seemingly random acts of violence.

Tension develops in the juxtaposition of ordinary external events with the increasingly frantic internal monologues of the protagonists. There is a lingering sense the characters are just slightly out of step with reality. Everything happens very quickly, highlighting the sense of urgency but sometimes breaking the narrative flow. Additionally, the characters’ voices occasionally sound inauthentic; for example, Eric sometimes acts much older or much younger than his age. The best developed (and least sympathetic) character is Martin, and the chapters from his warped perspective will make the reader’s skin crawl.

Stanton builds chilling suspense with atmospheric details and the town’s legends. Elements of psychological horror (bullies, ghosts, child death, murder, molestation) are peppered liberally throughout, with depictions occasionally bordering on graphic but not gratuitous. Though billed as a supernatural thriller, this could just as easily be considered a horror novel, and is best read with the lights on.

Takeaway: Both horror fans and thriller readers will enjoy this dark, richly imagined exploration of fear and loss.

Great for fans of Jonathan Maberry, Kem Nunn.

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

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New Persia: Before the Storm
John L. Lynch
This entertaining and often gripping military SF series launch takes place in the far future on a planet colonized by descendants of Persian and Arab peoples and “other castoffs from Earth.” Tank captain Basir Turani and his fighter pilot friend, Farad Hashemi, embark on military missions while romancing military daughters Suri Pahlavi and Nasrin Avesta. It’s quickly revealed that both women chafe against laws restricting women’s freedom, and seeking husbands of their own choosing is their best chance at establishing a degree of agency. The story gets into high gear when the Persian military is deployed against the enemy Azanians just prior to a natural firestorm. Traitors trigger setbacks that Basir and Farad struggle to overcome, and war moves Nasrin and Suri to seek their own destinies, setting up further conflicts down the road.

This saga values worldbuilding and character development as much as it does highly detailed military operations. Lynch (Endemic) spends a lot of time pondering what it might be like if Middle Eastern and African societies were the ones who colonized alien planets in the future and how those societies might develop in harsh planetary climates. The work strongly critiques oppressive gender roles through the well-developed characters of Suri and Nasrin. The first half of the book is devoted to setting details and character background, and the pace drags as a result. There’s simply not enough story structure to support this much information dumping, especially as Lynch juggles multiple protagonists.

However, once the military operation begins, Lynch skillfully flips among the characters’ narratives as he reimagines WWII-era technology and tactics on this new world, generating tension and excitement from fine strategic detail. Smooth, evocative prose and entertaining characters keep the reader hooked as the plot careens to an exciting conclusion.

Takeaway: Readers who value detailed battle sequences, military strategy, politics, and cultural critiques will find this well-constructed military SF novel hits the spot.

Great for fans of Richard Baker’s Valiant Dust, W.C. Bauer’s Unbreakable.

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

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Inside the Masque
R. T. W. Lipkin
Lipkin (Now Playing on Outworld 5730) packs this ambitious, noirish futuristic murder mystery with characters whose romantic dreams and liaisons revolve around status and identity in a stratified society. All people—lofty “legacies,” middle-class “aboves,” and downtrodden “unders”—hide their ugly human behind gorgeous technological “masques” and use social circuits that are wired directly into the brain and provide witty banter on tap. “Unmasqueing” for a partner is the ultimate intimacy. On the brink of momentous success, a powerful figure in the masque business is murdered by a newly installed circuit. Investigating, Detective McNair and his team discover ties to an older crime and a potentially fatal flaw in their society’s dependence upon masques.

This challenging, genre-blending work, 100 chapters long and packed with far too many characters, requires the reader to follow meandering paths parallel to the murder mystery, exploring a woman’s desperation to have her fabula (visual media) script produced, a wealthy man’s distaste for life, a fabula producer’s affair with the dead woman’s former employee, and retreats where people remove their masques to “disconnect and transcend.” These elements eventually prove relevant, but the structure is far from a straightforward investigative plot. The masque-related worldbuilding is filled in swiftly and well, but the late introduction of a cryptic invisible gateway upends it in baffling ways. The writing is swift and fluid, with few stumbles other than some blunt and tedious sex scenes. Readers may flinch when characters describe genius masque designer Van Etten as a “cripple,” though the usage is clearly rooted in the characters’ obsession with maintaining status through scornful oppression.

Lipkin’s blend of genres will reward readers who enjoy unpredictability and leisurely pacing. The narrative critiques the masques’ ill effects, showing the cruel arrogance of legacies and aboves, and ends on a high note. The broad scale of the plot and large cast of thinly described characters with disparate arcs become overwhelming, but a round of successful romantic resolutions provides a welcome sense of closure.

Takeaway: Readers willing to think outside the murder-mystery box will enjoy exploring this ambitious mash-up of procedural, romance, and futuristic social commentary.

Great for fans of John Varley’s Steel Beach, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

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

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The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected
Edwin Wong
Wong’s hardy debut book of literary criticism succeeds in presenting a challenge to the famous playwrights of yesteryear while providing a compelling framework for today’s storytellers. Inspired by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets and drawing on examples from Sophocles, Shakespeare, Ovid, and several other venerated writers, Wong depicts risk—not sorrow or regret—as the peak point of all tragic stories, arguing that setting up one’s own downfall through a misjudged gamble is, in fact, the greatest tragedy of all. Much of the book is devoted to retellings of classic stories, leading to the redefinition of the tragic theater art form. Wong goes beyond considering characters’ risk-taking to examine factors such as meddling from outside forces, external authorities, passion, and the supernatural.

The book’s appeal lies in its novel premise and attention to detail. Readers opening it in hopes of a quick explanation of tragedy in drama may find it initially slow going, but they will be satisfied by Wong’s complete and thorough explanation of a new perspective from which one can view the masterworks of tragic theater. Wong concludes by challenging modern playwriting, viewing it both as a form of art and as a way that playwrights themselves take risks.

Tragedy has long been seen as essential to literature and drama, and much ink has been spilled about what makes it work; the idea of conscious risk-taking being the real source of tragic emotion feels genuinely new and exciting. Though the language is dry, dense, and highly technical—leavened only by the occasional humorous quotation—this is nonetheless an excellent compilation of arguments that will stimulate creative minds.

Takeaway: Playwrights and philosophers will completely devour this deep dive into the idea that tragedy stems from the misjudged gamble.

Great for fans of Eric Bentley, Simon Shepherd, Neil Verma.

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

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