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The City
Brad Ramsey
Inspired by the work of English poet George Crabbe (1754–1832), Ramsey’s lyrical debut book-length poem takes a rhapsodic tone while recounting his experiences living in community housing. Writing in the style of Crabbe’s “The Village,” which sought to depict the grim realities of village poverty in the 18th century, Ramsey gives an honest view of impoverished 20th-century urban life through untitled poems with a wide range of topics. Excoriating the gap between the privileged and the destitute (“The wealth around them makes them twice as poor”) and confronting the fear of dying homeless and alone (“Here, to the church behold no mourners come”), Ramsey paints a heartbreaking picture.

The verses have no named characters, but Ramsey exhibits a gift for empathy as he describes the plight of the lower classes through metaphor. However, the pastiche itself can be a barrier. The scansion of the heroic couplets sometimes falters, and many of the concepts can be lost in the anachronistic language. Readers familiar with older poetry may be comfortable with lines such as “Fain would they ask the hoary swain to prove,” but this work will be less accessible to the average reader.

Portraying a small and often unacknowledged slice of life in its rhymes, the book stands as a forceful condemnation of class stratification as well as a respectful homage to Crabbe’s work. Even those readers who struggle with the language will applaud Ramsey’s ambition of conveying 20th-century plights in an 18th-century style, and he succeeds in engaging the reader’s sympathies, as he hopes: “Let this passing song distaste overpower,/ And make you more forgiving from this hour.”

Takeaway: Readers familiar with both 18th-century poetry and 20th-century poverty will appreciate this moving reminiscence in verse.

Great for fans of Giacomo Leopardi, William Blake.

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

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The Great Healing - Five Compassions That Can Save Our World
Stephen Erickson
Erickson’s debut is a comprehensive entreaty to save a rapidly dying Earth with compassionate activism. Erickson fears the planet is facing the end of the Anthropocene epoch, the “Age of Humans.” After citing dire statistics about global warming and vanishing species, he declares, “We are failing to take action to implement the solution because what we lack is awareness.” His five-part strategy is intended to create that awareness; encourage compassionate support for animals, humans, the land, communities, and democracy; and inspire action and collective work to heal the planet. To bolster his arguments, he includes three new short essays by activists, a photojournalist, and a doctor, as well as a reprinted poem by Wendell Berry.

Emotional descriptions (often illustrated by vivid photos) of animal cruelty, oceanic dead zones, and Farm Bill subsidies for “Big Ag” elicit compassion, outrage, and shame. Erickson takes care to balance his concerns with suggestions for solutions. For example, after decrying the ravages of diabetes and related ailments, he prints a brief essay by celebrity doctor Joel Fuhrman on healthy eating (though some readers may take issue with Fuhrman’s suggestion that people suffering from medical problems eschew medications in favor of following Fuhrman’s own trademarked dietary plan). A discussion of topsoil loss due to overfarming is followed by a primer on regenerative agriculture.

Readers who find calling their senators easier than going vegetarian will be relieved by Erickson’s view that government intervention is just as important as individual and community activism. “Realize your power as a citizen in our democracy,” he advises, encouraging readers to push for the Green New Deal and other large-scale actions. Though informed conservationists will know much of this information already, Erickson’s passion and earnestness make it accessible and interesting to a wider readership.

Takeaway: This alarming but not alarmist work provides purposeful, accessible, and concrete ways to counter and prevent ecological damage.

Great for fans of Melanie Joy’s Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows; Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

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

Murder Bytes
Gayle Carline
Carline’s fifth mystery featuring 51-year-old PI Peri Minneopa (after 2016’s A More Deadly Union) is an action-packed venture set in Placentia, Calif., that features a healthy dose of romance and family drama. Peri, rattled by past traumas, has closed her agency and sworn off investigating. Then she receives an unexpected phone call from her estranged older brother, Dev, who woke up in a hotel room next to a dead woman he swears he didn’t kill. Police confirm that the stabbing victim is Tressa Velasco, an electrical engineer who expressed interest in buying a device from Ro-Bet Engineering, where Dev works. When Peri starts pursuing leads, Dev turns himself in and abruptly confesses to the crime, complete with a murder weapon. Unconvinced, Peri becomes more determined to prove her brother’s innocence.

Readers will be drawn to Peri’s spunky personality and independence; she refuses to hide behind her affectionate, protective fiancé, police detective Skip Carlton, even when flashbacks double the stress of car chases and shoot-outs. Along for the ride is her quasi-assistant, Benny Needles, an autistic Dean Martin aficionado who proves to be indispensable during the story’s climax. The interactions between Peri and Benny are heartfelt as well as humorous, though Peri’s well-meaning neurotypical perspective can grate. (“Sometimes I get to the end of my rope with him, then I remember that he’s trying to process things the only way he knows how.”) In contrast, Dev’s relationship with Peri is one-note, and the reasons for their estrangement are unclear.

It’s fairly easy to spot the killer, but readers will appreciate Carline’s effective cliff-hangers and her ability to build truly creepy scenes, especially when Peri unearths sinister secrets in a prime suspect’s home. Carline also puts considerable effort into her depictions of PTSD, OCD, and autism. This is a satisfying mystery that will leave readers eager for Peri’s next investigation.

Takeaway: This entertaining mystery is perfect for readers who appreciate a funny and courageous heroine.

Great for fans of Anne George’s Southern Sisters series, Sue Grafton.

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

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Anonymous Is a Woman
Nina Ansary
Historian Ansary (Jewels of Allah: The Untold Story of Women in Iran) shines a light on the “obscure lives” of “accomplished yet forgotten female innovators” in this illuminating volume. The title, she explains, derives from Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own,” in which Woolf theorized that women’s genius “never got itself on to paper.” Ansary, hoping to “expose the roots and manifestations of institutionalized gender discrimination” and “inspire women and girls to move beyond gender barriers,” profiles 50 women born before 1900 who anonymized themselves in some fashion, starting with En Hedu-Anna, an Akkadian poet-astronomer in the 24th century BCE. She also cites Jane Austen, who wrote as “A Lady,” and Joanne Rowling, whose “J.K.” pen name is deliberately gender-neutral.

Ansary observes that the work of many of her subjects was stolen by or attributed to men. Spanish philosopher Oliva Sabuco, for instance, asserted mind-body dualism 50 years before Descartes, but her father took credit for her treatise. And though 19th-century scientist Eunice Newton Foote first showed that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and theorized that more of it in the atmosphere would warm the planet, a male physicist who published on the subject three years later is more often regarded as the founder of climate science.

The book’s design is beautiful, with gorgeous watercolor illustrations by Petra Dufkova. It’s best suited to classroom use; the brief profiles might appeal to laypeople interested in women’s history, but they’re preceded by scholarly essays on global calls for women’s rights, gender gap statistics, and the economic benefits of gender equality. Students will appreciate that the variety of women who made the cut—chemists, warriors, artists, educators—keeps reading lively.

Takeaway: Students of history will appreciate this reference work on women’s hidden achievements from the past 4,000 years.

Great for fans of Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women, Jason Porath’s Rejected Princesses.

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

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The Illusion of a Girl
LeeAnn Werner
Drawing on Werner's own traumatic experiences, this well-crafted debut YA thriller shows a brother and sister coping as best they can with an abusive alcoholic father. When Louis drinks, he gets violent toward his teen children, Brian and Jessie. Their mother, Jan, makes excuses for him instead of protecting them. The siblings must learn how to stay alive. For Brian, that means taking a punch and not letting it escalate; for Jessie, it means running fast. As the emotional strain becomes too much, Jessie begins having out-of-body experiences and not recognizing herself in the mirror. Finally, when she finds her boyfriend kissing another girl, she becomes overwhelmed, a switch flips, and another personality named Lena takes over.

Alternating points of view from Jessie, Brian, and later Lena and toddler personality Annie give readers a distinct sense of dread, conflict, and the weight of every decision the children make. Werner combines the normal stresses of teen life with the oppressive atmosphere of an abusive home, showing how impossible it is for the siblings to ever feel safe. When Jessie’s new personalities appear, they feel almost inevitable, as does the showdown with Louis once sarcastic, violent Lena begins expressing everything Jessie has learned to suppress.

Werner brings a strong, confident voice to a difficult subject. Though the story is fiction, readers will feel the truth in Jessie’s raw emotions, experiences, and unique point of view. Werner gives some lift to the story, mostly in Jessie's romantic entanglements, but shows clearly that there is very little light in the everyday life of an abuse victim. The ending is a little abrupt and leaves some questions unanswered, but it's a deeply chilling conclusion to one major chapter of Brian and Jessie’s lives. This is a somber portrait of children clutching at any way to survive.

Takeaway: This gripping story of surviving abuse will enthrall teen and adult fans of unsettling psychological thrillers.

Great for fans of Katrina Leno’s The Half Life of Molly Pierce, Francesca Zappia’s Made You Up.

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

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The Girl Who Said Goodbye: A Memoir of a Khmer Rouge Survivor
Heather Allen
In precise, evocative prose (“In Phnom Penh, we were living in a house of fractured glass that was on the verge of shattering”), Allen tells the incredible story of her aunt Siv Eng, who fought to survive the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in 1970s Cambodia. Told in the first person, the memoir begins with Siv Eng’s idyllic life as a university student and quickly descends into increasingly nightmarish scenarios as the new regime took hold. She and her family are forced out of their homes, marched to labor camps, and separated. Siv Eng winds up in prison while trying to help her sister, and makes friends only to see them executed. Then the war’s tide turns and a series of unlikely events leads to Siv Eng's liberation and reunion with her family in America.

The episodic storytelling allows the reader to slowly absorb the horror of Siv Eng’s experiences. Grim scenes of violence are balanced with memories both sweet and sad, and the importance of family life is emphasized. Siv Eng’s story isn't sugar-coated, but she gives the reader a thread of hope even in the direst of situations. This is also a story about faith, as Siv Eng sees various signs and dreams that eventually lead her to Christianity.

Siv Eng pointedly mentions a lack of interest in politics, but this is a story of ideology vs. humanity. If it weren't for the kindness of certain chiefs, guards, and soldiers, Siv Eng would be dead. Her will to live and see her family again are inspirational. Allen has a remarkable ability to distill Siv Eng's stories into a smooth, if harrowing, reading experience, and readers will find it impossible to look away.

Takeaway: This harrowing, gripping story of survival in the face of horrific events will equally appeal to students of Cambodian history and fans of poignant memoirs.

Great for fans of Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father and Haing Ngor’s Survival in the Killing Fields.

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

Rigged
Miranda Watson
Rosone and Watson (the World War III series) launch a series set in an alternate 2020 America where free elections are at risk. An attack on the email account of President Jonathan Sachs, a Republican who is up for reelection, is followed by bombings of early voting locations. Postal workers bribed by the Chinese government deliberately fail to deliver completed absentee ballots from Republican areas. While Lt. Col. Seth Mitchell and a team of operatives are sent to Kosovo to hunt for the people who orchestrated the attacks, U.S. federal agencies work diligently to unravel a worldwide plot to elect Democrat Marshall Tate.

The authors include plenty of realistic details of Mitchell’s operations in Kosovo and Serbia as he captures an Islamic terrorist leader and interrogates him (using drugs to induce compliance). One can almost hear the IEDs exploding and the helicopter blades whirring. The story line focusing on election security is both believable and current. However, the narrative loses some of its sharp focus following the election. All nine Supreme Court justices are assassinated; unable to have the election results invalidated, Sachs declares martial law. A vast international conspiracy is gradually uncovered. Though technically possible, these events in combination create an air of improbability, and a cliff-hanger ending does nothing to anchor them in reality.

The narrative’s sympathies clearly lie with Sachs, but there are moral shades of gray throughout. Tate scolds an aide who only cares about how the attacks benefit their campaign, a left-wing judge puts aside his hatred of Sachs in the name of protecting democracy, and a letter carrier takes bribes so she can pay off her enormous student loan debt from a Christian university. A wide range of thriller readers will be intrigued by this scary what-if scenario and curious enough to look for its sequels.

Takeaway: This terrifying scenario of a global conspiracy to throw a U.S. election will appeal to a wide array of espionage thriller fans.

Great for fans of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Legacy, Tom Clancy’s Code of Honor.

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

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Spent Identity
Marlene M. Bell
Romance and murder meld in Bell’s energetic second Annalisse murder mystery (after Stolen Obsession), which showcases a keen eye for the details of nature, rural life, fine dining, and cars. Antiques appraiser Annalisse Drury’s romance with Greek millionaire Alec Zavos is faltering under the demands of his family business, which makes high-end automobiles. Annalisse is looking for a distraction, and rescuing her elderly aunt Kate Walker’s New York State farm from imminent sale might be it. But when the ranch hand, Ethan, discovers a strangled corpse in the barn and then Kate disappears, Annalisse, Alec, and their friends follow a bread crumb trail of texts and clues through New England to find her. The trail leads into Kate’s hidden past, unearthing family secrets that could explode Annalisse’s life.

The cozy, pragmatic everyday of horses, sheep, and farm life, and Annalisse’s own grounded personality, neatly counterbalance the excesses of Alec’s rarified world and the drama of the mystery. The story is welcoming and vibrant, and much of it is nuanced and warm. That care unfortunately falls short in one area: Annalisse’s hateful comments on other women’s bodies—notably her cousin Jillian’s weight—and repeated descriptions of antagonists as ugly. This pettiness risks alienating readers who expect a light, fun story.

The fine mechanics of a whodunit are derailed by multiple subplots and threats—including murder, blackmail, kidnapping, sexual assault, and a love triangle—that undermine one another’s urgency and can make Alec’s romantic gestures feel awkwardly mistimed. Several threads are left unresolved, and the answers to many questions fall into Alec and Annalisse’s laps through accident and luck. But when Bell aims for fun adventure, she hits the bull’s-eye. This mystery will appeal to readers who want to fall into intense moments of danger and lyrical descriptions of breezes rustling through maple trees.

Takeaway: Atmospheric descriptions will draw fans of thrilling stories to this romantic rural whodunit.

Great for fans of Sarah Barrie’s Hunters Ridge series, Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels.

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

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The Tempest: New Persia Book Two
John L. Lynch
Lynch’s painstaking character work in New Persia: Before the Storm pays off in this riveting, intense sequel. In the far future on a world founded by descendants of Arab and Persian peoples from Earth, Azania has launched an attack on New Persia. Tank commander Basir Turani and fighter pilot Farad Hashemi join with other New Persian forces to repel the attack. Suri Pahlavi and Nasrin Avesta, defying their society’s limitations on the roles of women, play key roles in the defense. Submarine captain Azeri and Azanian tank commander Aran provide crucial new perspectives. As an enormous natural firestorm threatens them all, its immense scale is humanized through a rescue operation. Triumphs and tragedies abound.

Lynch’s expertise is in military tactics, and he clearly depicts the perspective of officers who have to lead in combat. Each chapter is short and packs a punch. The cultural politics from the first book are still factors here, but are more in the background as the story focuses on what it means to engage in total warfare. Lynch’s characters are all capable but far from perfect or invincible, and that lends tension to every encounter.

Lynch is also interested in how technology affects war, as tactics can only go so far when the enemy has superior weapons and vehicles. With the technology on this world at a 1950s level, the introduction of helicopters proves to be a devastating move. There are times when the battle scenes are too dense, especially since so much of the book involves combat, but Lynch always brings the focus back to people, creating a resonant payoff. This is not a good starting place for newcomers, but series fans will be thoroughly satisfied by this installment and breathlessly await the next.

Takeaway: Series fans eager for more of Lynch’s gripping, tense, and detailed battle sequences will get their fill in this thrilling installment.

Great for fans of Edward L. Beach’s Run Silent, Run Deep; Taylor Anderson’s Destroyermen series.

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

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No More Dodging Bullets
Amy Herrig
In this frank memoir, Herrig (Forever Joy) describes surviving many troubles and retaining her optimism. Her childhood was idyllic until her senior year of high school, when her parents divorced. Her “sketchy years” began then and culminated in a serious heroin addiction. Herrig managed to clean up her act and joined the family business: the Gas Pipe, a head shop. The family’s holdings soon grew to include other businesses. Marriage, the birth of her twins, and divorce all followed before Herrig found true love with the manager of a fishing lodge in Alaska. Just when Herrig’s happiness seemed complete, the government seized the business’s assets and prosecuted Herrig and her father for the sale of synthetic marijuana, a hugely profitable product that Herrig believed was legal.

Herrig’s memoir is a perceptive portrait of someone who’s learned that “greed itself can be addicting.” Humble sometimes to the point of self-deprecation, she accepts full blame for every mistake she’s made while giving God all the credit for everything that went right. Though she acknowledges that her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment were devastating, she counts the cancer as a blessing because it delayed her trial and gave her time to bring on better attorneys. At times this relentless positive attitude is grating, though it’s unquestionably sincere. Balancing it are direct critiques of the aggressive prosecution.

Herrig is still in “survivor mode,” but she has come to the realization that “our strength is not defined by what we have but rather by who we are – the decisions we make, how we treat others, and how we live our lives.” A feel-good, faith-based memoir about being prosecuted for selling herbal incense seems implausible, but Herrig makes it work, and readers looking to immerse themselves in positivity will enjoy her story of finding “the rainbow” that follows the years of storms.

Takeaway: This frank and moving memoir about choices and regrets will especially appeal to Christian readers looking for a feel-good, faith-based story.

Great for fans of Kevin McCarthy’s Blindspots: Why Good People Make Bad Choices, Edward Snowden’s Permanent Record.

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

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Don't Tell Mom About This
Eric Serrell
Serrell’s second novel (after Fall Rotten) follows a former FBI agent who returns to undercover work after serving prison time. Elise McNeil’s stealthy skills are valuable enough for her to be recruited by a shady security firm as soon as she’s paroled. Eager for money, she agrees to a job following Cuban-Hawaiian grifter Mia Garcia, whose high-stakes con games take them around the world. As Elise falls under the spell of the magnetic Mia, she begins to wonder whether Mia knows that Elise has been hired to keep tabs on her. Meanwhile, the Secret Service takes an interest in Elise. When Elise and Mia encounter a powerful man in Busan, all their plans fall apart and Elise is left in a desperate situation.

Serrell explores Elise’s history with flashbacks—to her childhood, the death of her biological mother, battles with her sisters, and involvement with various criminals, among other events—but the delineation between the present and the past is not always clear. The frequent jumps to different periods interrupt the flow of the main narrative, and characters from various eras pile up without receiving much development. The purpose of Elise’s journey becomes clearer towards the novel’s conclusion, but the slow plot doesn’t benefit from a sudden final rush of happenings.

Elise is a complex character. Her mixed-race heritage (African-American father, white South African mother) leaves her feeling like an outsider in both her parents’ cultures, and her facial scars, which she’s always conscious of, isolate her further. Her family and professional history and ambiguous morals set her up as someone who can go nearly anywhere and do nearly anything. She’s equally comfortable nannying her sister’s infant daughter in Belgium, flirting with a 16-year-old barista in Iceland, and shooting a former associate in the head in Los Angeles. Even when the story drags, readers will enjoy exploring Elise’s fascinating character.

Takeaway: Readers interested in character more than suspense will warm to the intriguing heroine of this twisty novel.

Great for fans of David Baldacci’s A Minute to Midnight, Lee Child’s Blue Moon.

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

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Elephants In My Room
Christie Nicholls
Comedian Nicholls’s effervescent debut memoir recounts family shenanigans, adventures abroad, and other entertaining and embarrassing experiences with a mix of humor and humility. The book is split into four sections, each one providing a theme for the stories (or “elephants”) it contains. The first section, “A Broad Abroad,” recalls traveling with Nicholls's mismatched family. The standout tale “I Love English” begins with Nicholls joking about her father’s family crest being “a light-bulb, a middle finger, and an Entenmann’s Danish” as a way of introducing a story about a booze-fueled wedding in England. The “Boys to Man” section recalls her dips into the dating pool, including “Mother Nose Best,” set in Wisconsin, in which Nicholls is determined to prove her mother wrong about her foul-smelling boyfriend.

In every story, Nicholls exhibits a gift for description; as she describes screaming a nonstop litany of curses while incompetently driving a stick-shift rental car through Iceland (“I accelerated and the car cried out ‘help me’ ”), readers will both cackle hysterically and want to tighten their seat belts. Her stories of childhood exude a clear love of family while never sacrificing the absurdity of growing up. If readers are looking for a combination of laughing and crying, the “Dearly Departed” section, filled with heartwarming stories of Nicholls’s grandparents, is sure to deliver. Family photos are given hilarious captions to underline that these stories are as true as they are absurd.

There’s no overall arc to the collection, but each anecdote stands well alone. Readers will admire the fluidity with which Nicholls describes her intensely relatable way of stumbling cheerfully through life. Nicholls’s zeal for storytelling about the everyday proves that any event can form the kernel of a good memoir. She sticks the landing by simply bearing and sharing it all.

Takeaway: This laugh-out-loud collection of anecdotes will delight any fan of funny and heartfelt memoirs.

Great for fans of Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, Justin Halpern’s Sh*t My Dad Says.

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

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A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains, a memoir
William Walters and Victoria Golden
The late Walters, aided by writer and editor Golden, takes readers on a remarkable journey spanning 90 years, beginning in 1930 when he was four years old and boarded one of America’s final orphan trains. Between 1854 and the 1930s, these trains transported 250,000 poor or orphaned urban children to rural areas for fostering. Without oversight, many of these children, Walters included, were separated from their siblings and suffered horrific abuse. After multiple attempts to run away, he escaped New Mexico for good at age 12, rode the rails, and survived on his wits before joining the Marines at 16 and fighting in WWII. His wife, Lucretia, became his lodestar for 65 years, but childhood demons damaged his personal and professional relationships. When he died in 2017, he was estranged from two of his three children.

Walters’s story is one of survival. His Marine unit suffered devastating losses in the Pacific. His formative years damaged him so badly that Lucretia agreed to marry him only if he let go of the massive chip on his shoulder. Walters rarely acknowledges how difficult a man he was, something left for Golden to discuss in the almost therapeutic analyses she provides between chapters of Walters’s first-person narration. The combination of his reminiscence and her supplementation—which includes interviews with his children—creates a rich account of hard-knock life in the Great Depression and WWII.

Unfortunately, in the years after Walters’s marriage, his story becomes a recitation of facts. Readers will lose interest in the accounting of all of his jobs over 60 years while wishing to better understand why his sons estranged themselves from their parents. This memoir shares its narrator’s aversion to self-examination, but it’s still a valuable close-up portrait of forgotten and overlooked elements of 20th-century American life.

Takeaway: This remarkable story of resilience and self-reliance is perfect for those who enjoy reading about the “greatest generation.”

Great for fans of Stephen O’Connor’s Orphan Trains, Tara Westover’s Educated, Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation.

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

Grace: Stories and a Novella
Dan Burns
With varying degrees of success, Burns’s cross-genre collection explores characters at critical junctures in their lives, touching on themes of relationships, alcohol, and mortality. The best of the six entries are the two science fiction shorts. In “Hardwired,” a dying man who spun fanciful tales for years about having an artificial intelligence implant wants his adult son to know the truth of the matter. In “The Final Countdown,” Earth’s lack of resources in 2115 is blamed on its elders, who are required to be euthanized or move to a moon colony. Also noteworthy is “Redemption,” in which an aging writer takes his directionless grandnephew into his Montana home. The remaining work is less well executed, particularly “Grace,” a novella about a failing marriage.

The 26 Jules Feifferesque illustrations by Kelly Maryanski perfectly complement Burns’s writing, which is most effective when focused on affectionate relationships, such as the ones between great-uncle and grandnephew in “Redemption,” father and son in “Hardwired,” and a 12-year-old and his grandfather in “The Final Countdown.” Burns falters in exploring darker elements in the lurid and alcohol-fueled “Grace” and “The Plight of Maximus Octavius Reinhold,” a short story featuring a character from Burns’s novel A Fine Line.

The novella has contradictory problems—it is both predictable and overly complex—and these flaws and its length make reading slow going. There is also a challenging lack of clarity in “Adrift at Sea,”a short story without a clear place or time, and “The Plight of Maximus Octavius Reinhold.” Science fiction fans interested more in story than science are the most likely to enjoy Burns’s work, as he puts a human face on larger societal concerns about aging, resource depletion, and remaining emotionally connected in the digital age.

Takeaway: This multi-genre collection of stories about characters at life-altering crossroads will appeal most to science fiction readers.

Great for fans of Graham Greene, Marilynne Robinson, Gene Wolfe.

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

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Saving Calypso
Dawn Z Church
Church’s twisty thriller is driven by greed and power. Teen heiress Calypso Swale was about to join the U.S. equestrian team in the Olympics when a car crash involving drunken Grieg Washburn, heir to the Washburn Exploration (WashEx) empire, killed her parents. At the time, Larch Swale, Calypso’s father, was COO of WashEx. Her father’s last word to her was “Run,” and Calypso obligingly disappeared with a chunk of his money and a precious patent for a new kind of engine. Five years later, Grieg’s father is dead and it looks like someone’s trying to kill Grieg too. WashEx’s board is offering a reward for Calypso’s return, and no one wants her found more than Grieg.

This well-constructed thriller provides plenty of action as well as a glimpse into the cutthroat world of intellectual property and mineral rights profiteering, where patents are a highly lucrative commodity and companies make millions from exploiting deposits of rare substances. WashEx made its money in oil; as Grieg tries to turn it in a new direction, the board pushes for an IPO. Blackmail and murder are also at the forefront, thanks to a bounty of colorful characters whose needs, jealousies, and ambitions drive the solid story.

The protagonists are unusual and compelling. After slipping off the grid, Calypso is forced to abandon her privileged lifestyle and live off the land, raising chickens, making her own bread, and even drying seeds in order to survive. Grieg, a “charming, monied, swaggering, offensive, risk-taking, impulsive, murdering bully” but also a “future-facing genius,” is determined to sober up and prove to everyone that he’s more than capable of stepping into his father’s shoes. Their mutual need to reinvent themselves in order to survive will resonate with readers as the double-crosses and questions pile up. This is a satisfying look at the devastation wrought by selfishness.

Takeaway: This well-constructed thriller driven by old-fashioned vices and modern concerns about resource use is sure to appeal to fans of the genre.

Great for fans of James Patterson’s The 6th Target, David Baldacci’s A Minute to Midnight.

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

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Unfathomable
Thomas Pryce
Ocean conservationists wrestle with greedy extraterrestrials in Pryce’s sharp, mind-altering expedition to the middle of the Pacific. On a secret mission, hesitant eco-defender Jake Chee boards a trawler suspected of illegal fishing activities that’s heading for the outskirts of Hawaii. Posing as a fisherman, Jake is immediately perplexed by the oddball crew, the purple Gatorade-like liquid they’re required to drink, and the enormous black tube on deck that reaches into the sky. Soon Jake’s body undergoes distressing transformations: hair falling out, appetite for raw fish increasing, and an earlier amputated toe growing back. When the tube is turned on, a gigantic worm creature materializes to siphon off millions of gallons of sea water and disgorge fish onto the deck. After a spindly alien called an Eproxx appears and declares its plan to steal all of Earth’s water, Jake channels his newly evolved courage to save the planet.

Pryce (Unnatural Selection) employs unconventional storytelling to keep the surprises coming and maintain an ominous tone with jabs of terror. Occasional diversions, such as a parallel story in which Jake’s ex-girlfriend Ellie and her crew chase a rogue whaling vessel using sonic harpoons, always veer back to the action. The narrative is wordy in places, but Pryce smoothly blends subtle humor with quick, hip writing and references to popular culture, and respectfully draws on Jake’s Hopi and Irish heritage. Readers will eagerly follow Jake’s journey into the weird and feel sympathy for his cause.

Pryce packs the story with meticulous descriptions of mutated fish, trapped sea turtles, and the tragic raft of plastic and garbage circling in the ocean, contrasted with the valiant efforts of those who strive to make a difference. The abrupt cliff-hanger ending is frustrating, but readers will eagerly look for sequels. With unexpected turns and plenty of trippy strangeness, this escapade will chill readers to the bone.

Takeaway: Conservationists and SF fans will relish the detailed science and fast-paced adventure of this quest to save the planet.

Great for fans of Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean, Jack Vance’s The Blue World.

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

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