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The Influencer
R. T. W. Lipkin
Lipkin (Nothing Lost) explores themes of consciousness and identity, blended with a gentle critique of modern consumerism, in a fabulist futuristic tale of a constructed fashion influencer striking out on her own. Claude Ryerson creates a beautiful virtual woman named Ash to sell luxury products through broadcasts from her small room in cyberspace. Ash’s minor deviations from Claude’s script soon develop into a range of emotions, a drive to learn, and a rebellious desire to understand herself and exist as a complete person outside of Claude’s control.

Lipkin taps into a plausible future where gossip columns push the buzz around wholly artificial celebrities and the rich pay for exclusive virtual experiences. Unfortunately, her human protagonists run toward stereotype: Claude responds to Ash’s growing desire for independence with abusive behavior to maintain control, while human influencer Quinn falls in love with Ash’s image despite knowing nothing about her real self. The “Before” section of the novel, in which Claude’s time at an exclusive academy yields close friends who become his investors, feels like a distraction from the main story arc of Ash’s self-actualization.

Far more delightful is the wondrous tale of Ash’s liberation. Claude’s cat, Devil, and his mouse friend, Bobby, guide Ash to freedom, escaping through a window that Claude never intended to exist and navigating mystical labyrinths. As Ash creates a life for herself in the real world, she struggles to move from her self-diagnosis of amnesia into a real understanding of what it means to be a sentient but constructed person. Ash’s eventual decision to settle down with Claude, who has been presented as her parent, her abuser, and her jailer, is a disempowering if technically happy ending. Readers interested in exploring the construction of the self and reading soft, dreamy prose will find Lipkin’s story enchanting.

Takeaway: This dreamy tale of a constructed woman escaping the bonds of her code will appeal to readers at the intersection of romance and magical realism.

Great for fans of M.T. Anderson’s Feed, Greg Dragon’s Re-Wired.

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

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Bradley's Dragons
Patrick Matthews
This imaginative middle grade adventure by writer and game designer Matthews (Dragon Run) blends coming-of-age soul-searching with high-stakes fantasy action. At age nine, Bradley had a run-in with a would-be kidnapper, an incident that left him with debilitating anxiety. When he turns 12, his parents explain that he’s about to undergo a magical transformation into a dragon. Bradley’s parents, also dragons, have been waiting for centuries for a child who displays the gallu draig, the power to transform or “hatch” into a dragon. Before he can begin to discover the central purpose that will shape his unique draconian form and powers, Bradley is once again targeted by the kidnappers, evil fae who drain the gallu draig from unhatched dragons. They threaten to wipe out Bradley’s entire dragon clan. Bradley’s parents and aunt try to protect him, and his fear paralyzes him, but in the end it still falls to him to save the day.

The premise of a preteen protagonist being thrust into a magical world will be familiar to seasoned fantasy readers, but Matthews puts his own stamp on it, focusing on the inner conflict of Bradley’s yearning to be respected and take action even as he feels terrified and weak. Unfortunately, the confusing power abilities and restrictions of different dragons and fae complicate an otherwise intriguing premise, and the dynamics of various alliances are briefly sketched or left for readers to puzzle over.

Teen readers will connect easily with Bradley’s quests to graduate from his safe but stifling childhood into a brave and active adulthood, master his panic attacks, and discover his passion. Those readers’ parents will appreciate the minimal violence, few and bloodless deaths (defeated fae vanish in a pop of light), and warmly present family. Bradley’s watchful mother, gruff father, clever aunt, and adorable younger sister are a pleasure to spend time with. A compelling cast of characters with rich backstories round out this fantastical story of a scared kid learning to stand up to bullies and be true to himself.

Takeaway: This good-hearted transformation fantasy about finding the strength to overcome fear will appeal to readers on the cusp of adolescence.

Great for fans of Sarah Nicolas's Dragons Are People, Too, Marc Secchia.

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

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The Means That Make Us Strangers
Christine Kindberg
This powerful debut YA novel, set in the turbulent American South in the 1960s, captivatingly recounts the ostensible homecoming of 16-year-old Adelaide Henderson, the daughter of a white American anthropologist, who grew up in an Ethiopian village along with her two sisters. The book kicks off in 1964 as her family is moving back to Greenville, S.C., not long after the death of a fourth sibling in infancy. Adelaide promises her Ethiopian boyfriend that she’ll return when she turns 18. In Greenville, she feels like an outsider until she befriends the first five Black students recently accepted to her school. Though they’re sometimes reluctant to trust or confide in her, she learns through them how dangerous it is to be Black in Greenville; even though she doesn’t feel she fits in with other white kids, she is still treated much better than her Black friends.

Kindberg portrays the transition to American life in luminous detail, using each scene to explore another facet of the unfamiliar norms, sensations, and experiences of the Hendersons’ new home: soft beds, single braids instead of cornrows, attending school, seeing Shakespeare plays, driving, movies, the ocean. Adelaide is shocked by the racist way her friends are treated. Frederica tells her about the Klansmen who routinely sow terror in her neighborhood, and Nathan’s speech about Black rights is unfairly cut short by a teacher. After Lion is unfairly fired, Adelaide quits her job in solidarity. All the while, she saves up money for her return trip to Ethiopia, even as she becomes more attached to her American friends and the prospect of college.

Cleverly drawing readers into Adelaide’s life, Kindberg illuminates the injustice of segregation and racism without being preachy or didactic, portrays characters of various ages and backgrounds with dignity and tenderness, and expertly structures the plot. She draws this principled, independent, loyal girl so realistically that readers will feel they’re talking to an old friend. This beautiful novel will move readers as it immerses them in Adelaide’s coming of age and gently teaches ways to stand up for what’s right.

Takeaway: Teen readers interested in the civil rights era will be enthralled by this nuanced story of race relations in the 1960s American South, seen through the eyes of a white girl raised in Ethiopia.

Great for fans of Susan Follett’s The Fog Machine, Kristin Levine’s The Lions of Little Rock.

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

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Orbital
FX Holden
Holden’s nail-biting third Future War military thriller (after Okinawa) gives readers a front-row seat to an international tactical assault on a devastating orbiting weapon. In 2034, the blind, disfigured, and unstable Russian scientist Anastasia Grahkovsky develops a kinetic bombardment satellite weapon system that mimics the destruction of meteor strikes. She names it Groza, meaning thunderstorm. When Saudi Arabia refuses to curb oil production, Groza obliterates the country’s largest oil processing facility to boost the price of Russian oil and revitalize its economy. The Russians then escalate, targeting a Chinese pipeline and Cape Canaveral. American, British, and Chinese forces unite to destroy Groza’s 16 orbital platforms before more people die.

Futuristic exoskeletons and artificial intelligence bring a speculative edge to the story, which is grounded by international political maneuvering and old-fashioned espionage. Holden populates this political blockbuster of a novel with a cast of sympathetic and intriguing characters. Col. Alicia Rodriguez of the U.S. Space Force joins forces with Scotland-based Lt. Meany Papastopoulos, who leads the R.A.F.’s suborbital missile launch system. Cpl. Maqsud Khan, charged with deploying Groza, must balance Grahkovsky’s orders against his pacifist beliefs, humanizing the antagonistic side. Holden only stumbles with the characterization of Grahkovsky, which unfortunately falls into stereotypes of a disfigured and disabled sociopath.

Though the nonstop action is sometimes tiring, readers will be captivated by Holden’s deft battle sequences and his characters’ constantly shifting strategy. Holden expertly pulls from recent military history, technology, and international relations to fuel his prescient epic about the militarization of space. While keeping an eye on the big picture, he also delves into technologically driven warfare’s devastating effects on individual lives. Thriller readers with an interest in the future of politics and warfare will find a lot to chew on in this exciting and thoughtful novel.

Takeaway: Military enthusiasts and science fiction fans will delight in this action-packed political thrill ride set 900 miles up.

Great for fans of James Rosone’s Into the Stars, Matthew Mather’s CyberSpace.

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

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The Never: A Tale of Peter and the Fae
Don Jones
Jones explores the origins of J.M. Barrie’s Neverland and its inhabitants through the experiences of Queen Mab and her Fae subjects (who appear in Barrie’s less-known Peter Pan novels The Little White Bird and Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens). Exiled from Under Hill, Mab and her court of elves, fairies, and more find refuge in London’s Kensington Gardens during the time of King George III. After discovering that human children can shape the previously hostile realm of the Never with their imaginations, Mab manipulates a child named Peter into creating what soon becomes Neverland, an island refuge for lost children and the Fae alike. But to maintain Neverland’s cohesion, Mab’s people must continually entertain Peter and his followers, a task that grows wearisome. As Mab’s grip on her people slips, Peter’s influence on his surroundings creates new challenges that force the Fae to adapt further.

This well-written, provocative melding of Peter Pan with folklore provides appropriate origins for classic elements such as Tinker-Bell and the pirates. However, this story is slow-paced, and telling it primarily from Mab’s removed perspective leads to a darker, more grown-up narrative about survival, leadership, and taking care of others. Peter is rarely present and the events with which readers are most familiar are almost entirely skipped. With this focus on Mab’s experiences and increasing social instability in Neverland, the story feels less whimsical and fun than fans of Peter Pan (particularly its Disney and Broadway incarnations) might expect.

There’s an almost seamless interweaving of elements from English folklore, children’s literature, and history. Jones’s ideas about the power of creativity and the relationship between the Fae and inspiration work well; the horrendously stereotypical Indians, for example, are explained as Fae manifestations of childish interpretations of faraway stories. Readers looking for spirited children’s stories of adventure should look elsewhere, but readers interested in mythology will find much to enjoy in this elegiac tale about attempting to protect one’s way of life amid change and destruction.

Takeaway: This thoughtful reinterpretation of Peter Pan through myth and folklore will appeal to fans of darker adult takes on children’s literature.

Great for fans of Brianna R. Shrum’s Never Never, Christina Henry’s Lost Boy, Gregory Maguire.

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

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Who Will Hear Begonia?
Bonny Gable
Young readers will be delighted by this poignant picture book about Begonia, a thoughtful dachshund who wonders: is anyone paying attention? Misunderstood Begonia tries to help but always seems to end up being scolded by her human family of Kara, Emma, and Mom. One of the family’s most frequent activities is visiting their Nana, whose memory loss causes her not to recognize her granddaughters. Kara and Emma have noticed that their grandmother doesn’t talk or even smile anymore—and this makes them sad. Begonia wants to help make Nana feel better, but when she tries to pick flowers for Nana, she gets in trouble for her muddy paws. The girls set out on a mission to make Nana happy again, but it isn’t until Begonia joins them on a visit that Nana smiles. She’s reminded of her family dachshund, Hilda. Nana finally feels joy again, while the girls learn about Nana’s illness and are reassured that her memory loss doesn’t mean she loves them any less.

Gable does a great job of presenting the information about Nana’s memory loss in a subtle, age-appropriate way through Mom’s answers to Kara and Emma’s questions. (“That’s how her illness works. She can remember things from a long, long time ago. She just can’t remember things now.”) Readers will be heartened to learn that even the smallest thing can ignite a cherished memory from long ago, and that great ideas can come from unexpected places.

Stephenson’s watercolor illustrations are soft and gentle, with whimsical elements such as imaginary birds appearing when Emma's flute music mimics birdsong, and Kara's gymnastics display is as dynamic as Begonia's “wild romping.” The art perfectly compliments Begonia’s personality and the ethos of this sweet book. When Nana hugs Emma and Kara while calling them by her daughters’ names, Begonia reassures them (and the reader) that “Whoever Nana sees, she still loves ALL of us!” This story of a family finding caring ways through a difficult situation is well suited to young dog lovers and those whose loved ones have memory loss.

Takeaway: Parents will find this kind and gentle picture book a perfect way to open a conversation with young children about a grandparent's memory loss.

Great for fans of Veronique van de Abeele’s Still My Grandma, Kelly Starling Lyons’s Tea Cakes for Tosh.

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

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The Lance
George Vasil
In this sprightly, hopeful thriller, Vasil (Emperor’s Eyes) reinvigorates the biblical artifacts and ancient conspiracies genre by eschewing the usual rugged archaeologists and know-it-all symbologists. Instead, the heroes who emerge as the novel surges along are the Connerys, a married couple of American medical doctors on vacation in Istanbul. Through a sharply plotted series of events, they find themselves in possession of the tip of the Roman spear that pierced the side of Jesus Christ. Angie, an athlete, is eager to believe and to protect the recently discovered relic. Les, a nebbish, is more skeptical, especially once Angie rushes into the street to take on the mastermind behind a special-ops organization.

Vasil’s plotting is brisk, surprising, and touched with a comic sensibility that’s rare for the genre and very welcome. The motley assortment of antagonists who pursue the bickering doctors include a septuagenarian Nazi geneticist and his bioengineered superman progeny, a racist French grad student who sics the local authorities on the heroes, and British aristocrat who dreams of re-establishing a Templar empire. Meanwhile, the Connerys find that the lance seems to be guiding their efforts to protect it, stirring new convictions in both of them.

The best of the action is rendered in crisp, exciting prose (“She introduced his left jaw to a vicious right cross that sent the big man to the pavement”), though the storytelling is often slowed down by wordy passages gummed up with unnecessary modifiers (“As he kissed her hand, he noticed that his employer’s hips, which were seductively accentuated by her tight, black slacks, were particularly alluring”). The story’s strongest selling points are its light touch, continual surprises, and kind heart. At last, here’s a chase for a biblical artifact where the climax involves redemption rather than carnage.

Takeaway: This twisty thriller will please readers looking for archaeological action with a light, redemptive touch.

Great for fans of Douglas Preston, Wilbur Smith.

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

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Zen and the Art of Funk Capitalism: A General Theory of Fallibility
Karun Philip
The “funk” in this searching, perceptive economic treatise refers to “the underside of anything.” In compact essays, Philip, an academic economist and entrepreneur, zeroes in on the underside of common assumptions about the U.S. and global economies, arguing that the path to more equitable growth and more effective antipoverty programs starts with an understanding of the theories of the late Friedrich August Hayek, an Austrian libertarian economist. Hayek, who died in 1992, argued that economic opportunity for all can be enabled by ending the economic “coercion” of individuals. This, Philip argues, can be achieved by passing universally applicable laws and eliminating the pervasive “non-disclosure” that keeps disadvantaged populations in the dark about economic opportunity.

Philip also draws inspiration from Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but rather than shape his philosophical inquiry into a narrative, as Pirsig did, he instead dives right into dense but coherent considerations of epistemology and the fallibility of knowledge. In an approachable and helpful foreword, Philip suggests that readers not interested in philosophy skip these pages, but their arguments prove essential to a full understanding of the volume’s later arguments about banking, securitization, and the need for entrepreneurs to generate value for their communities.

Philip advocates for a middle road between current economic arguments from the right and left. Unlike many libertarian thinkers, he imagines a society that outlaws Hayekian coercion of all kinds—including the coercion of being underinformed or misled about economic realities—rather than one committed above all else to the protection of property rights. However, this philosophical book offers little practical advice or discussion of implementing these ideas. The work’s academic bent makes it less approachable than simpler economics texts but also more persuasive.

Takeaway: Readers interested in economics and alienated by both laissez-faire and socialist approaches will find this treatise illuminating.

Great for fans of Jeffrey Friedman’s Hayek's Political Theory, Epistemology, and Economics, Ana Cordeiro dos Santos’s The Social Epistemology of Experimental Economics.

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

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The Flowers Celandine: A Pastiche of Sundry English Verse for the Drawer of the Hostess on Call
Brad Ramsey
Ramsey’s gentle collection of romantic poems proves as stereotypically flowery as the metaphors he uses in some entries to describe the relationship between a man and a prostitute. Writing in the style of 18th-century English poets such as William Collins and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who often sought out metaphor in nature when describing their love of a woman, Ramsey prettily captures this antiquated mode of verse (“In morning dew, all your leaves wet/ You are dear as the briar-rose/ Midst woodland brook and violet”).

In “The Hourglass Hostess,” the tone shifts between romance and sultriness without vulgarity (“I have sacrificed an hour for you; And four good posts within the red-lit room”); in “Helianthus and Hedera,” vulgarity is deployed sparingly in a dialogue between plants, a nun, and Mother Science. “To The Small Celandine” innocently likens a lover to a sprouting flower in bloom (“One so small and so very fair/ Like other flowers against the rain/ That shrink in close shelter, at rest/As the sun shines, come out again”). The narrator of “John the Baptist” inveighs against immodest dressing and working on the Sabbath, exhorting “all nations” to “reform your sinful lives this very day.”

This is a skillful homage to traditional English-language rhyming poetry. In fact, it hits the mark so well that it lacks the advertised modern twist; nothing in it will surprise fans of the poets it honors. Readers familiar with classic literature will delight in the gentle imagery and elegant meter of bygone days, but those seeking a new take on these older works may find themselves underwhelmed.

Takeaway: Fans of 18th-century poets will be thrilled to see a present-day writer accurately and vibrantly employ their flowery verse styles.

Great for fans of William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth.

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

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The Last Moon Before Home
Barbara J. Dzikowski
Dzikowski continues chronicling the Trudeau and Ziemny families (introduced in The Moonstoners) in this emotionally turbulent novel. Young Willow Trudeau, a nursing-school dropout, seeks to understand her past as she heads to a tiny town in Indiana, searching for a father she only knows by name, Leon Ziemny. Leon, meanwhile, is struggling with his own problems: his father, Walt, a retired Polish steelworker turned innkeeper, has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. When Willow marches into the Ziemny family’s inn, she immediately takes to Walt, her nursing background giving her a way to forge a connection with him while she decides whether to tell him that she’s his granddaughter. As Walt begins to fray around the edges and Willow tries to find her place in a new family, the family’s connections, already brittle, will be tested until they reach their breaking point.

Drawing on her expertise as a counsellor for dementia patients and their families, Dzikowski creates a nuanced portrait of a family in turmoil. Walt’s descent into dementia is rendered with gut-wrenching accuracy, and his portrayal will resonate with readers who have firsthand knowledge of the effects of Alzheimer’s. Willow’s quest to find her identity while struggling with her family baggage will speak to 20-something readers who have faced similar challenges.

Dzikowski’s occasional reliance on stock phrases (“losing his marbles,” “big hairy deal,”) and meandering passages sometimes blunt an otherwise sharp narrative. However, her portrayal of an Eastern European immigrant family is suffused with color. Her realistic dialogue (Walt earnestly informs Willow “I’m afraid of ships” before abruptly pivoting to frank morbidity and adding, “I sure as hell hope I don’t have to go to heaven on a ship”) prevents the story from sinking into melodrama. Dzikowski brings a steady authorial hand to this poignant and approachable family tale.

Takeaway: Readers who have been personally affected by Alzheimer’s will particularly resonate with this poignant drama about three generations of a troubled family.

Great for fans of Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves.

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

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The Two-State Dilemma: A Game Theory Perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Michael Dan
Peace activist Dan deftly uses mathematical game theory to examine the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling it “an unresolvable political paradox.” Dan simplifies mathematical models and philosophical concepts while using them to describe the history of the region and its peoples. Through the lens of game theory, he discusses how irrational and inefficient decision-making has persisted over time. Asserting the impossibility of independent states in “tiny Palestine,” he makes a strong case for mutual cooperation in a single state while acknowledging that such an outcome seems unlikely.

Dan’s approach of slowly introducing concepts and applying them to the history of the conflict allows him to build his case while providing background for the reader. He explores game theory not as a way of finding a solution but as an illustration of how different kinds of conflicts play out. In games such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma and Deadlock, illustrated in clear, simple charts, Dan explains the available outcomes as mutual cooperation, mutual destruction, or individual destruction. With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he builds to the conclusion that the only path to resolution is through rational self-interest that also seeks to protect others.

Dan, a Canadian Jew, is far from a dispassionate observer, making it clear that he has a personal and moral stake in the outcomes Israel chooses with regard to colonization, especially as Palestinian population growth is set to outpace Jewish population growth (and both populations are already higher than the region can support, he says). He fears the outcome of a true apartheid state, and urges both Jews and Palestinians to rethink finding ways to cooperate. A lack of objectivity does not imply a lack of rationality, however, and Dan’s thorough research on philosophy, history, and genetics reveals two peoples who are more alike than different. This unusual treatise approaches the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with compassion, wit, and a flexible philosophical framework that is both engaging and crystal-clear.

Takeaway: This is an evenhanded, compassionate, logical, and clearly explained must-read for those interested and invested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Great for fans of Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, Neil Caplan’s The Israel-Palestine Conflict: Contested Histories, Shlomo Ben-Ami’s Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.

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

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Help Keep Out: Volume 5
Robert Letters
Letters, the pseudonymous author of the four previous volumes of Help Keep Out, delivers another collection of mysterious and haunting poems first published on Twitter. The book moves among different narrative strands that could sound either historical or current, recursively exploring threats of violence and promises of glory in battle throughout history. Letters makes passing references to mythical epics (“His physical body was taken but/ his fate was to live forever in song”) as well as more contemporary conflicts, with lines about a man “standing watch/ on a wall whose intent was to terrorize” reminding readers about the timelessness of war.

Letters keeps the poems in their original tweet format, with longer narratives broken up into small sections. Each is titled with the date of its original publication, spanning from 6/5/18 to 10/22/19. This can make it hard to track which poems concern the same characters or events. In the preface, Letters asserts that the poems are “informed by Asian forms” of poetry such as haiku and tanka but doesn’t dogmatically adhere to their constraints, potentially vexing those concerned about appropriation of or conformity to cultural tradition.

The most successful poems are also the most visual. Letters’s message and angle can be caught between critique and support, muddled in their intentions, in lines such as “to keep out/ the invading mothers/ and their phony children.” But the images of “Slow it down/ to see the small earth rotate” and “In your pale night dress/ you sang locust songs” are clear, personal, and easy to connect with. Letters’s collection will thrill readers who love the stark imagery and battles of epic poetry but want an update for the current national climate.

Takeaway: This meditative, minimalist collection of imagistic poems will appeal to readers looking for a contemporary poet blending experimental forms with social commentary.

Great for fans of Brian Turner’s “Here, Bullet,” Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems.

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

Click here for more about Help Keep Out: Volume 5
Cockloft: Scenes from a Gay Marriage
Kyle Thomas Smith
Smith (85A) recounts the curious, mundane, and intimate moments of life with his husband, Julius, in this startlingly wonderful collection of autobiographical dialogues, vignettes, and personal essays. Smith’s writing blends campy memories with snappy wisdom from tumultuous times, including the lead-up to the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, as well as fallout from both events. He invites readers to accompany him on a disorienting night in Amsterdam, around his favorite writing spots in Brooklyn, and to the tech hub of San Francisco, all described with witty and writerly charm.

Smith’s collection taps into a very contemporary tendency toward both reflection and self-deprecation, awareness and ego. The text sometimes resembles a Netflix comedy special, using observational humor to deconstruct and recontextualize a personal narrative; at other moments, it’s more like a viral tweet with an unexpected punchline. It’s never without an undeniable core of cultured, bougie gayness, with references to Prince, meditation retreats, and socialism. In Smith’s afterword, in which he explains his writing process, the reader comes to recognize the years of study and intention that have gone into this assortment of everyday quips turned unexpected masterpiece.

Some readers may find Smith’s style too raunchy, political, or obscure. Though he and Julius lament their struggles under the Trump administration, they are still well-off white men, and it shows. But Smith turns his privilege and flaws into the book’s strengths. Such an intimate look into two men’s marital squabbles and joys—written only a few years after marriage equality became law in the U.S.—is timely and educational as well as touching. Smith’s quick, lighthearted, and tender quasi-memoir is a snapshot of queer America that will find its way into the heart of anyone with a romantic streak or a funny bone.

Takeaway: Smith’s funny, raunchy, and political musings on gay married life will delight trendy queer readers and anyone with a taste for vulnerable humor.

Great for fans of David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day, Sloane Crosley’s I Was Told There’d Be Cake.

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

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River of Blood
S O'Fuel
This brutal, philosophical crime novel spans generations in its examination of family myth, cycles of violence, and corruption and racism among police departments. O’Fuel (That Night Filled Mountain) traces the life of Sean Tower, a restless young man from a family of cops, from a childhood fascinated by violent comic books to years spent hoboing across America to eventual deployment as a police officer in an unnamed American city. Sean slowly develops a moral philosophy that places him at bloody odds with a police department infested with racketeers and white supremacists.

O’Fuel’s ambitious novel is an impressionistic swirl of past and present, especially in its first half, as passages of vivid family lore alternate with present-tense accounts of Sean’s childhood. The prose surges with anger, despair, and invention, but it’s not easily approachable. O’Fuel vaults among timelines and perspectives. Dialogue is scant, and at times the prose loses clarity as it strains for poetic effect: “Spooky details cloned in the repetitive scenes of spontaneous destruction will produce macabre moments of déjà vu.” O’Fuel’s scenes often fall into present-tense summary and focus on characters’ internal experiences, skimming through action that might have had greater impact if dramatized.

For readers willing to disorient themselves in O’Fuel’s sweeping and outraged narrative, the novel offers accounts of war, policework both bizarre and mundane, life on the road, suicides and cop murders, and, eventually, the pulpy violence readers might expect from a crime thriller. Even then, O’Fuel bucks simple convention by penning the climax as a lengthy, ruminative colloquy, the text stripped of quotation marks, the scene feverish and unsettling. This ambitious exploration of systemic violence and moral philosophy has a lot to offer for fans of dense, cerebral crime fiction.

Takeaway: This thoughtful, vicious cop novel will jolt readers who crave moral inquiry in their crime fiction.

Great for fans of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, James Ellroy.

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

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Ring On Deli
Eric Giroux
Giroux’s somewhat autobiographical debut novel draws on the Market Basket protests of 2014 as he highlights the fractured relationship between two brothers. Ray Markham was 18 when his parents died in a car accident. He abandoned his college plans to care for his 11-year-old brother Patrick and took a job as a deli clerk at the Bounty Bag grocery store in Pennacook, Mass., a recession-hit town with a wild boar problem. In the five years since, Ray has risen in the ranks at Bounty Bag, while Patrick has become a rebellious teenager. Ray weathers the upheaval of workers planning a walk-out, and Patrick’s academic struggles are offset by his excellence in the state-required local history class. As Patrick’s high school principal anticipates an upcoming referendum vote on raising the tax cap to provide funding for a new school and tries to find her nephew a job, Patrick submits a college application for Ray, opening up the possibility of a brighter future for both of them.

Giroux’s witty writing enhances the cast of quirky characters, including deli manager Toothless Mary and a debauched coworker known as the Alfredo. He draws on his experience working in a deli to detail the inner workings of a grocery store and the hierarchy among the employees, and his work as an attorney for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission adds insight to his depiction of Bounty Bag management’s strategic attempts to retain their positions.

The fast-paced narrative includes witty descriptions of the town of Pennacook (“a kind of Brigadoon with malaise”) and its residents’ relationships and foibles. The element of humor is a welcome counterpoint to a character’s tragic death and Patrick’s often self-destructive behavior. With a steady authorial hand and dryly funny narration, Giroux crafts a memorable setting for this poignant story of people awkwardly trying to improve their ordinary lives.

Takeaway: This dryly funny, engaging novel will appeal to fans of small-town stories full of quirky characters.

Great for fans of Emma Straub’s All Adults Here, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.

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

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Cuppy and Stew
Eric Goodman
Creative writing professor Goodman (Twelfth and Race) merges memoir and historical fiction in this engrossing tale of love, tragedy, and perseverance. In Vancouver, during the spring of 1937, Suzanne “Anne” Kerr meets Stewart “Stew” Morgan and flirtation eventually leads to love. Stew’s wife and father refuse to let him leave his unhappy marriage, so Stew moves to South Africa with Anne to live as a couple. Their daughters, Sharon and Susan, are born there. They return to Canada in 1945 only to discover that scandal still hangs over their heads. A move to the U.S proves fortuitous, and the family thrives until the 1955 bombing of United flight 629 kills Anne and Stew, leaving Sharon and Susan at the dubious mercy of their estranged extended family.

Stew and Anne’s younger daughter—whose character is based in part on the diaries of Susan Morgan, the author’s wife—provides an engaging narrative voice for this seamless crossover of memoir and historical fiction. Descriptions of Anne and Stew’s more intimate moments are tasteful, though odd to hear about from their child’s perspective. Although the Great Depression and WWII both affect the narrative, historical events mostly fade into the background of the family’s personal struggles. Social norms of the period play a stronger influence on the story. Minor discrepancies arise during the time spent in South Africa.

An overriding sense of overcoming the odds unites the romance of part one with the more tragic circumstances of part two. Clear descriptions coupled with entertaining internal dialogue and concise, expressive characterization make the pages fly by. A marvelous narrator and eventful plot make for an entertaining and moving tale that’s sure to please readers seeking inspirational narratives about hard times in history.

Takeaway: Goodman’s unconventional blend of fact and fiction will be a hit with historical readers who like stories about overcoming adversity.

Great for fans of Edward Rohs and Judith Estrine’s Raised by the Church, Lindsey Jane Ashford’s Whisper of the Moon Moth.

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

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