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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): A Memoir of a Recovering Perfectionist
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: SPATIAL STRATEGY TO SUCCESS AND HAPPINESS
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: Book One of the Macpherson Series
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: A Thung Toh Jig 2
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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Searching for Gurney
Jack Estes
Estes (A Soldier’s Son) delves into the Vietnam War’s emotional, physical, and psychological effects on American and Vietnamese young men caught in the conflict. American soldiers JT, Coop, and Collins and North Vietnamese soldier Vuong fight for their respective countries, all driven by personal reasons. The Americans’ novice lieutenant, Gurney, goes missing, leaving them alone and under fire. Their world is brutal and terrifying. Eventually the Americans go to a home that’s no longer home, while Vuong is assigned to run a labor camp to “reeducate” South Vietnamese soldiers and sympathizers. The war is over, but as Vuong numbly observes, it lives on inside their heads.

The narrative is a set of character studies told in vignettes. Vuong, cut off from his home village and let down by his government, tries to find solace in his girlfriend, but her pregnancy brings him no joy, only an increased sense of obligation. The Americans have only one another; their countrymen don’t see them as heroes and think draft dodgers are cooler than those who fought. JT feels “odd, like he’d been dropped from the sky, without roots, without connection to this world.” He tries to focus on his wife and baby daughter, but anger is always present and violence makes him feel good, like he’s “back at the Nam” and blowing things up.

Estes, a Marine Corps veteran who was wounded in Vietnam, brings both personal experience and meticulous research to the page. The prose is resonant, especially in descriptions of places and violence: “The sky turned black, the temperature dropped, and the smell of a storm was in the air. More incoming cranked the perimeter. Andy took a round in the mouth, teeth smashed, blood and broken bone.” His multilayered characters evoke sympathy as they struggle through their ordeals. Readers of character-driven drama and military tales will appreciate this novel’s unflinching examination of how the cruelty of war changes people forever.

Takeaway: This brutal novel of American and Vietnamese soldiers’ struggles during and after the Vietnam War will enthrall fans of character-driven drama.

Great for fans of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War.

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

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Holy Smoke: How Christianity Smothered the American Dream: A brief religious history from the colonial era to today
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

Supreme Realization
Anthony Nayagan
Nayagan’s first work is a complex account of his journey through traditional religious doctrines into Christian mysticism. He explores Christian mysteries while pursuing an intimate relationship with God by applying principles of Eastern religions and quantum physics that can be made relevant to modern Christianity. Nayagan provides hope on many levels for individuals challenging the current teaching methodologies of traditional churches, with a strong emphasis on journeying through different levels of self-awareness to find true spiritual achievement.

Though this book is initially described as giving alternatives for readers frustrated with current teachings of the Church, it carries more weight as a higher-level guide for those already familiar with the fundamentals of Christian mysticism. Nayagan combines science-based metaphor (“We are split and entangled particles in the awesome field of God’s conscious energy”) with Eastern theologies (“Detachment from desire is an important spiritual ideal in many faiths... We must detach from everything except for God”) to support the concept of transformation of consciousness as a spiritual quest. He provides ample mystical techniques to provoke meaningful self-exploration. Individuals seeking profound alternatives to traditional religious teachings will find Nayagan’s work intricate and fascinating, but it’s a bit too convoluted for readers in the beginning stages of unorthodox spiritual exploration. His journey is vast and at times overwhelming, even as it describes an intimate and personal theology.

Nayagan uses historical examples and extensive biblical citations throughout to concretely illustrate principles of Christian mysticism. Readers may wish for additional examples of his relevant personal experiences to make the high-level concepts more tangible. Those looking for an advanced framework for personal journeys into Christian mysticism will appreciate this comprehensive overview of several stepping stones to spiritual growth, presented in a way that encourages constant movement toward self-actualization and closeness with the divine.

Takeaway: Knowledgeable readers seeking to implement advanced principles of Christian mysticism into their spiritual journeys will find this personal account informative.

Great for fans of Carl McColman, Richard Rohr.

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

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The Secret Sign of the Lizard People
Kevin E. Buckley
Buckley’s zany, go-for-broke lampooning of police procedurals will have readers in stitches. It teems with goofy character names, such as Special Agent Justin Case and homicide detectives nicknamed “Beefy” and “Leafy” Abbott and Costello–worthy verbal misunderstandings (“Hugo Fürst... with an umlaut.” “You go first with an omelette?”); and outlandish plot twists (the title offers a clue). The mystery kicks off with the mainstay of L.A. noir: a corpse of a would-be starlet. Buckley relishes the exaggeration of familiar plot beats, so Dahlia is discovered naked in the Y of the Hollywood sign, and as Detectives Beefy and Leafy try to find her killer, they get mixed up with gangsters, ufologists, and the world’s first lie-sniffing dog.

As they work the case, Beefy and Leafy entertain themselves with elaborate patter, their routines equal parts vaudeville and postmodern dada with thinly veiled references to current events (“If POTUS and FLOTUS went riding in a Lotus, would SCOTUS even notice?”). At times the protagonists (and the novelist) seem more invested in the chatter than the mystery. Though this novel is indisputably funny and boasts many smart observations and sharp lines, the narrative doesn’t invite much involvement, and readers may wonder how literally to take the funny business.

Buckley’s emphasis on the gag above all else limits the material’s urgency, especially when Beefy and Leafy stop misunderstanding each other and instead seem to be improvising routines to amuse themselves. Still, there’s no question that Buckley has serious comedy chops and the doggedness to hustle through several neighborhoods in order to chase down a punch line. Witticism aficionados and longtime fans of crime fiction will happily ride along with these crack-up cops as they spar, snicker, and incidentally solve a mystery.

Takeaway: This hilarious parody of L.A. noir will delight mystery fans who enjoy discursive comedy and poking fun at the genre they love.

Great for fans of Mel Gilden’s Zoot Marlowe series, John Swartzwelder’s Frank Burly novels.

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

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Goddess Rising
Jay Hartlove
The conclusion of Hartlove’s Goddess urban fantasy trilogy (after Goddess Daughter) blends religion, magic, and myth in an ambitious tale of suspense and hidden identities. Desiree Macklin, a victim of an unethical human cloning experiment, visits Ireland to explore her Irish roots. To her shock, she encounters the Egyptian angel Joseph, who informs Desiree that she is an avatar of Isis. Desiree realizes that her sense of self is coming undone at the seams, as she is being used by Isis as a pawn in a revenge plot involving a number of warring gods. Aided by her psychiatrist friend Sanantha Mauwad and ghost-hunter Alec Doogan, Desiree must take ownership of her psychic and magical powers for her own sake and the sake of the world.

Hartlove makes a slight misstep in setting up too many concepts for a conclusion to a trilogy. Desiree’s need to master the spiritual practice of tai chi and achieve the enlightened state of satori derails an otherwise tightly woven story. The characters often have colloquial conversations about warring gods and the fate of the universe (“This is his final play to snuff out the pantheon”), which are entertaining but sometimes tonally dissonant.

Complex characters draw readers into the intricate world of demons and angels, many of whom have multiple names. Desiree’s struggle to reconcile her new powers with a strong sense of self is poignant; the cagey Joseph, the ambitious Alec, and the caring Sanantha round out the appealing central cast. Hartlove gives readers a sumptuous fantastical realm for readers to get lost in, a world where ancient Egyptian gods, Celtic spirits, and Catholic saints collide. His ability to suffuse each ancient deity with a distinct personality gives the narrative a delightfully human edge that will keep the pages turning.

Takeaway: Readers who enjoy thought-provoking fantasy will appreciate this complex final installment of Hartlove’s urban fantasy trilogy about warring gods.

Great for fans of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, Nalini Singh’s Archangel series.

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

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EMPIRE PALADIN: Realm of the Dead
M. S. Valdez
In Valdez’s action-packed historical fantasy debut, it is 1241 in the Holy Roman Empire and a battle is brewing between good and evil. Paladin warriors, charged with upholding God’s laws, have been blessed with the power to heal mortal wounds. But when a leading Paladin, Lord Vhaldrynn Malleus, discovers his village attacked and his family burned to death, he is convinced God is no longer worth the fight and vows to destroy the world. With a little help from Lucifer, he turns his healing powers into necromancy and creates an undead army. It is up to paladin Lady Camila Chastaine and her compatriots to stop this new Lord of the Dead.

Readers will feel each character’s trials and anguish as Valdez shows how far they will go in pursuit of their beliefs. Malleus lived his life in God’s service, and when he feels that God has wronged him, his torment and anger quickly turn to deep irrationality. Camila believes that she speaks for God and the laws of men are irrelevant to her; no matter how cruel the punishment she doles out, she believes it is acceptable because God gave her the power to do it. The parallels in their stories are powerful, illustrating the necessity for checks on power no matter how well-intentioned the wielder is.

Valdez effortlessly drops readers into the middle of fierce, often gruesome battles, as paladins and magicians fight a giant army of undead and demons. As fireballs fly and weapons clash, Valdez emphasizes the fears and anxieties of the people who are fighting for their lives as well as for a greater cause. Each location is clearly painted, each demon horrifyingly detailed, without bogging down the heart-pounding story. The mix of bloody action, inner torment, and potent faith will reward any reader of grimdark fantasy.

Takeaway: Fans of dark historical fantasy will be drawn to the emotional turmoil and gripping action in this novel of the paladins of the Holy Roman Empire battling demons and the undead.

Great for fans of Rex Jameson’s Age of Magic series, K.J. Parker.

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

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THE JUICY FRUIT MAN
LaMar Going
Going’s thriller about stoner and Vietnam veteran Declan Noakes plunges readers into a world of action and betrayal. Declan returned home from the war with a head full of trauma. In between flashbacks, he rides trains and sells large quantities of Juicy Fruit, a potent Thai marijuana he smuggled during his second tour. All is going well until Ben Fisher, a war buddy turned drug dealer, tries to take a cut of the Juicy Fruit action and force Declan into selling cocaine for him. When Declan refuses, an epic standoff begins between Ben and his crew, dirty cops, and Declan and his deceptively tough cousin Rachel.

Going writes in a slang-filled and hardboiled style, and his protagonist mixes old-school stoner references with action-movie machismo. His prose is full of original and startling descriptions: “Morning skies were angry-red and gray, and full of vinegar.” “The old house was fond of its own voice.” However, the narrative voice sometimes misses the mark with off-putting racial and sexual humor, such as the offhand observation that Declan “had been babe-candy since junior high.”

Fast pacing and fight sequences are where Going excels. The last third of the book is one long standoff that will keep readers hooked and anxious for the final explosion of gunfire. “Courage is a lie, a children’s tale,” the narrator asserts, yet Declan and Rachel show otherwise as they fiercely fight for their lives. Despite the book’s dark outlook on corruption and disloyalty in the military and law enforcement, Declan maintains his honor. Though a flawed hero, he realizes the distinction between himself and Ben: “I’m not evil, and I never will be.” Going’s thrilling tale of this morally gray Vietnam vet is perfect for those who enjoy gunfights and confrontation but aren’t afraid to laugh a little.

Takeaway: This action-filled novel will thrill readers who are looking for gunfights, cynicism about the military’s dark side, and edgy humor.

Great for fans of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, Philip M. Derrick’s Facing the Dragon.

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

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