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. . . But I Promised God
Malamateniah Koutsada
In her exhaustive memoir, Koutsada chronicles her life, from her relentlessly poor upbringing in a largely Greek Orthodox region of Northern Greece to her long run as a nurse and triumphant later ventures in real estate. Throughout her work, Koutsada’s faith as a Seventh Day Adventist remains her beacon. Born during WWII, Koutsada and her younger sisters often bore the brunt of their abusive and deeply religious mother’s steel rod, while their father worked in the mountains making charcoal. Koutsada’s commitment to God took hold at age 11, and since then she has looked to her religion for a source of strength. Koutsada emigrated to Australia in her early 20s and began the adult portion of her life, which included marriages, children, career, and depression.

Koutsada’s unfailing and brutal honesty about her childhood—being forced by a teacher to cane her own sister in front of her classroom, exposure to an older cousin’s sexual behaviors, and being punished with physical torture—is complemented by her unconditional devotion to her dysfunctional parents and grandmother, as well as her extraordinary and unflinching belief in God. Memories of her violent upbringing complicate her own experience as a mother, and Koutsada heartwrenchingly depicts her time coping with postnatal depression, running a household of three kids, and marinating in painful regret.

While Koutsada’s memoir indulges in recounting the presence of the most minor of people that she encounters throughout her life, what stands out is her own fierce personality. The raw dive into her traumatic childhood shows how ceaselessly harsh experiences can still lead someone to harbor extraordinary expectation of good things to come. Koutsada herself, a scrappy survivor and flawed heroine wearing the shroud of faith, is the star in her own life story, making that story a riveting read.

Takeaway: Koutsada’s uplifting memoir of surviving a brutal childhood will appeal to readers looking for inspirational stories of overcoming incredible adversity through struggle and Christian faith.

Great for fans of Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle, Tara Westover’s Educated.

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

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Along Came A Soulmate
Armenia Jess
Jess’s sobering and heartfelt debut memoir chronicles her impoverished childhood in the Philippines. Jess was the fifth of six children born to parents who did their best to provide for their kids. She depicts her young self as an innocent, hard-working daughter who only wants her family to be happy and together under one roof. From morning coffee brews with her mother to selling plastic bags for extra pesos with her brothers, Jess’s memories are told with great detail, filled with the foods, sights, smells, and values of her village. Through illness, evictions, and struggling to make ends meet, Jess’s family tries to give her the best education possible, and she in return strives to improve her family’s life.

Stories of abuse, family conflict, and hardship fill this book to the brim. The many anecdotes can be hard to follow as Jess introduces numerous family and community members, and their stories often come one right after the other with little transition. Her writing style is consistently calm and composed, occasionally diminishing the emotional resonance. After so many pages spent in the homes and worries of Jess’s youth, the final third of the memoir speeds through college, her foray into online relationships, and falling in love with a white American man twice her age. This may disappoint readers who were led by the title to expect more romance.

Though sometimes tragic, Jess’s tale is one of resilience, and readers will laud her determination to survive and find joy in a world that seems to be almost always fighting against her. Jess doesn’t sugarcoat her family’s shortcomings, but neither does she hold back from sharing her deep love for them. She shares Filipino culture and terms in a way that’s accessible, and by the end readers will feel like they’ve walked a mile in her very worn-out shoes. Jess’s memoir is vivid, messy, and difficult, a vibrant reflection of her tenacity.

Takeaway: This powerful memoir of growing up impoverished in the Philippines will be resonant for children of messy families, lifelong travelers, and survivors of adversity.

Great for fans of Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Meredith Talusan’s Fairest.

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

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When Lions Roar
Karen Leigh Gruber
Gruber’s debut combines two vivid narratives. In 2013, art curator Maggie travels from Denver to South Africa with her scornful and mercurial husband, David, and empathic eight-year-old daughter, Hannah. Maggie has little knowledge of Africa and she’s appalled by the conditions in which the poor of Johannesburg live, but she has “no time to dwell on these injustices.” Hannah disappears while the family is on safari, and then Maggie’s marriage collapses after David rapes her. Everyone fears Hannah is dead, but she’s not. Here, the book switches gears completely as an elephant mother tells her child a story about Hannah coming to live with the animals, who see her as the prophesied Golden Creature and hope she will save them from disaster.

Maggie is a difficult character to connect with. She puts up with abuse, blames herself, and drinks heavily. After she leaves David, she comes into her own a bit, running a gift shop in the village near where Hannah vanished, but she’s understandably preoccupied with her missing daughter. Gruber accurately depicts a sheltered white American woman’s hyperawareness of being surrounded by Africans, but Maggie’s exoticizing of the villagers can be painful to read, even when it’s couched in positive terms such as being “astounded” by their artistic ability.

The fairy tale of the Golden Creature is more compelling than Maggie’s troubles, but frequently repeated elements, such as the prophecy, can be wearying for adult readers. A white girl taking a savior role in Africa may also give readers pause. The novel’s saving grace is the simple yet eloquent prose (“The elephants are defyingly enormous,” Maggie marvels), which nimbly evokes the setting. Even when it’s challenging to read, Gruber’s unusual bifurcate story showcases her ability to immerse readers in a time and place and get deep in her characters’ heads.

Takeaway: Readers who appreciate fantastical elements in a contemporary novel will be drawn to this story about a woman’s escape from a harmful marriage and a girl’s mystical connection to South Africa’s wild animals.

Great for fans of Marissa Honeycutt, Ker Dukey.

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

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The Bomb That Blew Up God
Freddy Niagara Fonseca
Fonseca’s second collection of poems (after This Enduring Gift), organized into seven sections, displays a clear writing style scored with tenderness and splashes of humor. The poems capture pivotal moments in relationships and point to the thread that connects humankind and the divine. Fonseca tackles adult subjects, such as alcoholism, a father-daughter relationship, and separation, with a confessional quality. Some of the collection’s poems have a theme and style that will appeal to a younger audience—“Sunset Blues” has traditional rhyme and rhythms, and “Fireworks” opens with an exciting “pow, ka-BOOOOM, fizzzz”—but both poems go deeper to address taking stock of oneself.

The collection begins to shine in the third section. Humor and creativity meld in the poetic fable of the title poem, which quips, “God retired and Angels sang Him to sleep.” When Fonseca turns his attention to the mundane, his poems pack concentrated power. The two depictions of a quiet, residential street in “Small Town Routine–One View” and “Small Town Routine–A Different View” reveal how the attitudes held by two neighbors colors how each one reacts to a commotion on their street. The clear images will give readers a chuckle. Anyone who has regretted lending a book to a friend will understand the passionate attachment described in “Long-Lost Books.”

Fonseca’s experience curating the Candlelight Reading Series is reflected in the flow of his poems, which take on an added texture when read aloud. This collection carries readers to Greece, Trinidad, and Brazil as well as several periods of history, as in “My Creole Belle,” which depicts a 19th-century cakewalk pageant. Modern poetry fans will delight in these poems, which capture the emotions of intimate and public moments.

Takeaway: This splendid collection attracts modern poetry readers with playful language and evocative imagery.

Great for fans of A.R. Ammons, Gary Snyder, Li-Young Lee.

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

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The Uninformed Voter
Robert Levine
Levine’s provocative third book on politics (after 2016’s Resurrecting Democracy) examines the failures of the democratic process in the absence of an informed electorate. Levine’s thesis is that most modern voters lack knowledge about political candidates, issues, policies, and even how the government functions. He states, “The majority of voters in democratic nations can be considered politically incompetent.” He suggests that this political incompetence results in governmental inefficiencies, partisanship, and corruption within democracies.

This work makes a strong case that every voter should be informed on government procedures, policies, and candidates’ positions. Levine provides some of this information himself with capsule summaries of past American presidential candidates and democratic scandals around the world. The 2016 presidential election gets particular attention; Levine views it as a significant example of an uninformed electorate being motivated by party, media coverage, and hot-button topics rather than a considered assessment of which candidate would be best for the country. Right-leaning readers may be put off by Levine’s detailed excoriation of President Trump, though he also analyzes the Clinton campaign’s failures.

Levine only briefly addresses issues such as voter suppression and gerrymandering that directly deter citizens from exercising their right to vote. Instead, he suggests an “epistocracy” in which voters who do well on civics exams should have their votes count for more, claiming that “educational level, gender, race, wealth, or property would not matter” as anyone could “put in the time to acquire information” about candidates. Many readers will find this notion difficult to reconcile with democratic ideals and impossible to implement equitably. However, even those who disagree with Levine’s conclusions can agree that better-informed voters will likely elect more capable representatives. Readers of any political stripe will find this a thought-provoking, well sourced work of political analysis.

Takeaway: Amateur and professional political analysts will enjoy arguing over this treatise on democracy’s dependence on an informed electorate.

Great for fans of Erin Geiger Smith’s Thank You for Voting: The Maddening, Enlightening, Inspiring Truth About Voting in America.

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

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ICEAPELAGO
Peter Brennan
Brennan pivots from nonfiction (Public Procurement: Rules of the Road) to fiction with this intellectual climate change thriller. Climate scientist Lars Brun studies the accelerated melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet by measuring the speed and direction of the melted ice. His evidence suggests the world is on the brink of a climate induced catastrophe. Off the coast of Ireland, a crew takes a submersible to explore seismic activity in the ocean. At the Pico de la Nieve research center on the Spanish island of La Palma, twin brothers Simon and Ros Rodriquez monitor volcanic seismic activity. These three parallel stories converge as disaster strikes.

Brennan’s extensive expertise as a chair of the Climate Change Research Group at the Institute for European and International Affairs shows in the meticulous scientific dialogue and technical information throughout the book. His detailed geographical and historical knowledge about the settings comes through in his confident style. The delicate balance between fiction and nonfiction sometimes tilts toward the latter, resulting in paragraphs that are eloquently written but feel more suited for a textbook. (“The terrain was defined by rocky outcrops, ridges, spurs, lava mounds (called ‘roques’) and open areas bordered by thin lines of Canary pine trees with their characteristic branches.”) Though the pace slows each time the premise is repeated for the benefit of new characters, a hint of impending danger keeps the tension brewing.

There are rare somber moments when the characters reflect on how their relationships with loved ones will change due to the global disaster. These passages, though outnumbered by the more technical sections, humanize the characters and help readers understand what is personally at stake if their mission fails. Readers who revel in scholarly fiction will enjoy Brennan’s academic approach, which sends an unmistakable warning about climate change via a high-stakes thriller plot.

Takeaway: Climate change activists and readers wondering what environmental disaster might look like will devour this scholarly thriller.

Great for fans of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain, Tim Lebbon’s Eden.

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

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Her Eyes Underwater
Romona Simon
This deliciously disquieting debut thriller gleefully toys with both emotions and sanity. Julia Strauss is a 30-year-old law student, bored by life in mid-1970s Missoula, Mont., and desperately longing for a romantic adventure. When she encounters charismatic and aloof Alex Bowman, a fellow law student, in a café, her yearning turns into an obsession. Alex’s looks initially attract her, but it is his enigmatic emotional distance, occasionally broken by moments when he takes bizarre and terrifying actions, that drives her into a frenzy. Further encounters in class and at parties leave Julia determined to uncover Alex's secrets, without any care for her own safety or what unsettling mysteries she might unearth.

Simon’s detailed worldbuilding and sophisticated, evocative phrasing immerse readers in the minds of two unstable characters. Smooth prose allows for tension to build organically as the pace heightens; casual introductions quickly jolt to a fever pitch of passion that blurs the lines between socially acceptable interest and outright stalking. Julia attributes some of Alex’s alarming behavior to trauma from service in Vietnam, but readers soon begin to suspect there’s more going on. Scenes of graphic violence and sexual assault are a stark counterpoint to the more subtle, but equally horrific, mental manipulation between Julia and Alex.

In a delightful approach that pushes this firmly into horror territory, neither Julia nor Alex is especially redeemable, leading readers to uncomfortably wonder whom to root for, if anyone. The politically turbulent 1970s are the perfect background for the palpable sexual tension between the two leads. Julia’s sex-hungry fascination is complemented by Alex’s increasingly unnerving internal monologues. This disturbing foray into the minds of two deeply unhinged people will even make seasoned horror fans’ skin crawl.

Takeaway: Fans of horrific suspense and psychological terror will be enthralled by this obsessive, deadly game of romantic cat and mouse.

Great for fans of Gillian Flynn, V.C. Andrews.

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

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Brave(ish)
Margaret Davis Ghielmetti
Ghielmetti’s earnest debut memoir shares her experiences over 15 years in various global locales as the wife of a Swiss hotelier. During their years abroad in service to his career, she struggles to unlearn the exacting rules in the Davis Family Handbook. Expending endless effort on being the perfect wife and hostess, and taking care of others while neglecting her own wants and needs, leaves her lonely, stressed, and reliant on alcohol. With the grace she receives from finding God and the sage wisdom of a former drinking buddy, she pursues sobriety and slowly learns to lighten up on herself. After returning to Illinois to care for her aged parents, improvisation and story-telling classes empower her to “air her dirty laundry” as a spoken-word artist.

Formal prose and an excess of daily details slow the pace somewhat, but there’s still much to enjoy in this intimate work. Readers wary of a recovery-based or religious memoir can relax: the author does not linger for long on either aspect, choosing to use them as illustrations, and her brief conversations with God will also resonate with nonbelievers as she struggles with universal concerns and questions.

Ghielmetti’s story offers valuable lessons for women who feel driven to take care of everyone else at their own expense. Perfectionists will see that the world will not come to an end if they loosen up and allow others to help. She demonstrates that middle age is not too late to learn the value of a little selfishness. Finally, she shows that personal growth requires doing things that are scary—though maybe not every day—and encourages readers to take each day one step at a time. Anyone who needs a nudge in the direction of self-indulgence will find a very pleasant one here.

Takeaway: Women of a certain age, particularly those who are perfectionists, will enjoy this blend of memoir, travelogue, and self-help advice.

Great for fans of Elizabeth Tallent’s Scratched, Robin Romm’s The Mercy Papers, Andrea Martins’s Expat Women.

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

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Lost in Wildwood
Jason Ryan Dale
Dale’s low-key and surprisingly emotional heist story follows a conflicted young man toying with the idea of leaving the life of organized crime. Josh Keogh is 21 and living in a dangerous neighborhood on the outskirts of Philadelphia. He supports his widowed mother and younger brother by stealing. His pushy Korean friend, Nick Suk, informs Joshua of a mob-connected card game that will take place in Wildwood and proposes looting the game and splitting the profits. Meanwhile, Joshua reminisces about his life as a college student before he dropped out. He reconnects with his former classmate Julia and soon his obsession with her becomes a “fever” that consumes him.

Dale creates an impressive cast of truly abominable characters. Their vile language, which includes some racial slurs, may be discomfiting to some readers. At certain times in the book, particularly during the heist, it is difficult to keep track of the characters, since they share many similar personality traits. However, Joshua’s inner struggles around continuing in this line of work make him distinct, and his bittersweet memories of his father, which he often revisits, give insight into how he became a professional criminal.

The aftermath of the heist leads to more trouble for Joshua, including murder, but the tension is sometimes bogged down by confusing prose (“Stiffening his legs and his shoulders, he cut the water like a pencil”). Craving some comfort, Joshua increasingly pursues Julia, even though she has a boyfriend and shows no romantic interest in Joshua. This side of the story is more engaging than the one about Joshua’s criminal activity, and its conclusion feels abrupt, though it’s appropriate for the characters. The explorations of Joshua’s interpersonal relationships are the book’s most interesting and vivid sections, and will satisfy readers who want more than just action from their thrillers.

Takeaway: This gritty tale will appeal to fans of heist thrillers peppered with romance and tragedy.

Great for fans of James Sallis’s Drive, W.R. Burnett’s Asphalt Jungle

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

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HARNESS THE POWER OF THE INVINCIBLE MIND
Alex Neumann
Neumann’s debut treatise takes some anti-capitalist twists and turns, surprising readers used to conventional books on happiness and success. Chapter titles tell the reader to “Stop Whining. Start Thriving” and “Strip Naked.” Through thumbnail histories, Neumann draws on business self-help parables about inventors, celebrities, and innovators such as Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, and Susan Boyle. While leaning on some familiar pop Buddhist homilies to lay out a route to success, Neumann also dares to ask readers to contemplate what “success” even means.

The book exploits the techniques of its genre to draw a firm distinction between status-driven “market success” and a more enduring, humane, and sustainable idea of what it means to make it in a capitalist society. “Market success has led to millions of deaths around the world,” Neumann argues, pointing to climate change and cancer caused by pursuit of profits with little care for side effects, and wars fought over oil. Elsewhere, he insists that “What market success does to you is to commit perspectivecide,” meaning that it limits a person’s understanding of what truly matters. However, his book is no screed of denunciation. As he links titans of industry to his factors for true success, readers may wish for an acknowledgment of the seeming contradiction that those titans’ profits depended on the consumerism Neumann calls a “behavioral addiction.”

Neumann advocates for four qualitative factors of true success: compassionate service to others, a life fully lived, a commitment to achieving a vision, and a feeling of eternal joy. He encourages readers to apply familiar business success techniques (perseverance, making opportunity out of obstacles) towards a goal grander than the acquisition of wealth or status: the rewiring of ideas of what a successful life looks like. There’s much here that will intrigue readers who want to attain personal success without undue costs to those around them.

Takeaway: Readers looking to thread the needle of material success without exploitation will find this self-help book a useful guide.

Great for fans of Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Og Mandino.

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

The People of Ostrich Mountain
Ndirangu Githaiga
Debut author and physician Githaiga concocts an exquisitely imagined, sweeping historical saga that traces the generations of one Kenyan family from 1952 to the 21st century. The story opens as the infamous Mau Mau “boys of the forest” are committing atrocities in an effort to break free of British rule. Against this backdrop, 14-year-old schoolgirl Wambũi leaves her rural village to attend the Alliance Girls School in a town a half-day’s train ride away. There her teacher, British missionary and expat Eileen Atwood, realizes Wambũi has a genius-level aptitude for mathematics. Sadly, Wambũi’s family needs a breadwinner more than a mathematician, and after graduation she returns to her village first to teach and then to run the local hardware store. She’s determined that her son, Raymond Kĩng’ori Mwangi, will have more opportunities. He becomes a physician and eventually emigrates to the U.S.

Lyrical, descriptive prose effortlessly draws the reader into the multigenerational drama, which illustrates Kenya’s transition from a British colony to a sovereign nation. The author writes with expert ease about a dark time in Kenyan history when common people were caught in brutal conflicts between the Mau Mau and the British colonial government. Githaiga doesn’t pull his punches when he describes these atrocities, nor when he shows the racist attitudes of the white American doctors at Raymond’s residency program.

Githaiga introduces readers to a bevy of memorable characters that are so skillfully drawn that they effortlessly leap off the page and into readers’ hearts. Chief among them is Wambũi, who exhibits grit, grace and great expectations in a time when many Kenyan teenagers were routinely denied education and married off. Another standout is the dedicated and idealistic Eileen Atwood, who ultimately spends 42 years teaching in Kenya. These characters, teamed with an expertly paced plot, combine to create a rich and evocative story that will make a lasting impression on readers.

Takeaway: Fans of post-colonial literature and multigenerational drama will love this exquisitely written portrait of Kenya as seen through the eyes of unforgettable characters.

Great for fans of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not, Child, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.

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

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A Thimbleful of Honor
Linda Lee Graham
Graham’s first Macpherson historical novel takes readers to the wild Scottish Highlands and introduces them to Wylie Macpherson, a widowed sailor with two sons. After 25 years in exile for his participation in the Jacobite rising of 1745, he returns home from America, bringing his sons and a pardon purchased with family money. His father has offered to care for the boys, freeing Wylie to return to the sea, but he dies before Wylie and his sons arrive, leaving Wylie with an unwanted title and a mortgaged estate. Wylie ends up getting help from a tough, smart local woman, Anna Macrae, while he plans to fix his home, sell it, and set off again, perhaps eventually starting his life over in America. However, he and Anna begin to develop a romance, and for the first time he considers putting down roots.

Graham skillfully develops Wylie and Anna as multilayered characters with little in common, but also carefully traces the blossoming attraction that leads them to gravitate to each other despite their differences: “Wylie Macpherson—the same lad who’d once filled the daydreams of every lassie from lochs Laggan to Insch—had thought twice of her, the dowdy and willful Anna Macrae? Fancy that.” The characters are likable, and readers will especially appreciate that Wylie has a good relationship with his sons.

The narrative successfully places readers in the Highlands in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising, allowing the rich dialogue to carry most of the action and plot. Outstanding research brings the historical elements to the forefront throughout the novel. Wylie tries to tell himself that the past is dead, but Graham adeptly brings it to life. With two nuanced protagonists and a strong foundation laid for sequels, this eloquent mix of historical fiction and romance will appeal to fans of both genres.

Takeaway: This rich novel of love, money, and family ties in 1770 Scotland will sweep away fans of Highlands romance.

Great for fans of Julie Garwood’s Lairds’ Fiancées series, Donna Grant, Hannah Howell.

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

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American Blasphemer
John Matthew Gillen
This delightfully lecherous debut is a masterful exercise in debauchery, understanding religious interpretations, and coping with heartbreak. John has successfully escaped his religious, right-wing, abusive family and is now a struggling artist in New York City. He’s unable to get past breaking up with his girlfriend, a memory so painful that he refuses to say her name. On his quest to find ease from his feelings of isolation, John finds himself in unforgettable situations with people whose unconventional loneliness often mirrors his own, including a drug-fueled $5000 Christmas tithing with his brothers, a knife fight with a troubled nymphomaniac, and a storytelling session with a meth-addicted waitress. Perverse and critical, John continually keeps people at arm’s length, pushing others away under the guise of being unworthy of love and incapable of receiving it.

Though the book has no clear direction and sometimes feels rambling or disjointed, Gillen’s visceral imagery and uncensored candor offer more than enough entertainment value, especially when combined with his prolific, inventive use of profanity. Readers will forget about the lack of narrative drive as they immerse themselves in psychedelic rants and a fascinatingly bizarre, often quite blasphemous take on conventional Christian views as they apply to everyday life.

The beguiling, busy story comes to a strange end that encourages readers to question their own faith and personal beliefs, but it never comes across as preachy. While harkening back to classic gonzo works, Gillen’s first novel demonstrates his modern, entertainingly cynical voice. This deep dive into pain, self-righteousness, and degeneracy is sure to delight readers looking for the darker answers to life’s questions.

Takeaway: This unabashedly honest romp with heartbreak will satisfy readers who are looking for a story of self-discovery under psychedelic circumstances.

Great for fans of Irvine Welsh, Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski.

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

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They Eat Their Own
Amanda K. King & Michael R. Swanson
King and Swanson return to their Thung Toh Jig fantasy world for this thrilling, involved sequel to The Things They Buried. Duke Sylandair Imythedralin celebrates the Sower’s Festival aboard the luxury ship Ipesia, locked in a seemingly endless, drug-aided gambling contest with desperate Mayor Idra Carsuure, odious landlord Flark, and Flark’s acerbic ex-wife, Daisy. Sylandair hopes to win a coveted building from Flark, who has been demolishing apartments with inhabitants still inside. Meanwhile, Sylandair’s mate, the recently recuperated Aliara (also known as Rift), agrees to assist cocksure professional thief Dreg in recovering stolen goods from Flark’s apartment. Among those is an ancient death mask Sylandiar and Aliara need to protect from being misused by an old foe. As Sylandair navigates threats to his life and Aliara and Dreg arrive at the ship to complete their mission, Flark cajoles the gamblers into a dangerous wager.

The fleshed-out worldbuilding continues to impress, with hints of powerful ancient civilizations and a multitude of species and cultures. Complex card game rules fold in naturally amid ominous gifts, mysterious conspiracies, and carefully placed reminders of the unresolved problems from the first book. New slang hovers just beyond comprehension, emphasizing the setting’s strangeness. The horror elements found in the previous book are missing here, handily replaced by involved politics and layers of deceit that provide a slightly different, no less enjoyable reading experience.

The timing of events can be a bit confusing, as each chapter’s shifting perspective blurs the duration of the various plot arcs. When the characters come together, though, the action coalesces into a smoothly paced, often surprising tale. Readers will need to keep track of myriad details, but those who succeed in following all the threads will find this a well developed, satisfying, character-driven story that neatly sets the stage for subsequent novels.

Takeaway: Fans of elaborate worldbuilding will be swept up by the combination of heist action and games of chance in this intricate magicless fantasy.

Great for fans of K.J. Parker, Marshall Ryan Maresca.

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

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Holy Smoke: How Christianity Smothered the American Dream
RICHARD SNEDEKER
In this cogent and comprehensive work, Snedeker (3,001 Arabian Days) chronicles the influence of Christianity on the United States, from the earliest European settlements to the present day. He recounts decisions made throughout the nation’s history that were heavily based on religion, often in the guise of religious freedom. After detailing various Christian sects and their emigration in search of religious freedom, Snedeker chronicles laws rooted in Christian scriptural beliefs; how the faith deeply affected Native Americans, the institution of slavery, and the slaves themselves; and government and educational choices made with a Christian bias. He concludes with a plea to teach children to be more open, critical thinkers and a hope that humankind will eventually become “more rational, less religious.”

The book’s title and description give an unfortunate impression that the work attacks Christians or Christianity, but the text is straightforwardly factual and even deeply devout readers will find most of it unobjectionable. Very little of the author’s personal opinion is incorporated until the concluding chapters, and he suggests that lessons in critical thinking can complement religious beliefs, noting that “There are mortal dangers to being unaware that our myths can seamlessly masquerade as reality.” Snedeker is also sympathetic to how deeply rooted Christian beliefs can be and how difficult it is for leaders to completely separate church and state.

Clearly heavily researched, Snedeker’s work is both informative and entertaining. Readers may be surprised to learn how many Christian elements go unnoticed in today’s American culture: Christian references are imprinted on currency, visible in national holidays, displayed on government vehicles and buildings, and widely present in school buildings and the curriculum. The book immerses the reader in an examination of American history from a perspective that most textbooks omit (or incorporate without acknowledging it). This clear and factual work will intrigue a wide variety of readers and encourage them to see familiar elements of American culture in new ways.

Takeaway: Readers interested in religious history and American history fans will be captivated by this informative view of Christianity’s influence on America.

Great for fans of Jon Butler, Grant Wacker, and Randall Balmer’s Religion in American Life: A Short History, Thomas S. Kidd’s America’s Religious History: Faith, Politics, and the Shaping of a Nation.

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

Ethan's Healthy Mind Express: A Children's First Mental Health Primer
Emily Lane Waszak & Erik Bean, Ed.D., Illustrator Gail Gorske
This wide-ranging picture book introduces young children to supporting one another through mental challenges. Various troubling emotions and psychological conditions are described sympathetically from the children’s perspective and never labeled with diagnoses. Loneliness, difficulty focusing, short tempers, and oscillating moods are all treated as problems that are worth taking seriously and addressing. Children are shown helping one another, sometimes directly and sometimes by seeking help from an adult (“This isn’t tattling,” the authors assure concerned readers), and those who are struggling are encouraged to reach out to “whomever is comfortable for you.” A brief final section discusses the dangers of online predators.

Waszak and Bean’s nonjudgmental approach is laudable, but they may confuse readers by juxtaposing many different experiences with different origins that need to be differently addressed. Putting signs of ADHD and cyclothymia side by side with a boy’s anger over being teased or the sadness of an ostracized wheelchair user can inadvertently imply that those are all serious psychiatric issues, passing moods, or social problems with social solutions. Adults with little knowledge of psychology may struggle to articulate the nuances to children they read to, and children reading on their own could reach some incorrect conclusions.

Gorske’s marvelous collages are the highlight of the book, illustrating each concept with wonderfully evocative portraits that show diverse ethnicities, settings, and feelings. The children’s body language is clear and evocative, from the lowered brows of an insecure athlete to the wild hair and eyes of a child caught in an uncontrollable urge to act out. The rhyming text can feel stilted and the rhythm isn’t always sharp, but the fluidity of the artwork carries the day. This book is best suited to teachers looking to start classroom conversations about the different ways people think and feel.

Takeaway: This beautifully illustrated picture book about troubling thoughts, feelings, moods, and urges will help teachers start conversations about supporting friends through mental and emotional challenges.

Great for fans of Elizabeth Swados’s My Depression, Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree.

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

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