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Autumn and The Forest Guardians
Dustin Gibson
Alive with themes of rebirth and transformation, Gibson’s elegiac picture book offers a fresh, moving take on the season cycle. A young girl, Autumn, wakes up on a forest floor, the golden-leafed woods around her in sync with her name. Ellie, a chatty squirrel, fills Autumn in: She’s now a Guardian of one of the four forests, charged with taking care of it and its inhabitants. Ellie warns her not to wander to the forest’s edge, where some kind of evil lurks. Soon, though, after reveling in the beauty of fall and befriending a host of woodland creatures, Ellie gets lost and finds herself passing through the other three forests and meeting their guardians, diverse young women named Summer, Spring, and Winter.

The other forests vary from Autumn’s, of course, with Spring’s teeming with flowers and Winter’s laid over with snow. But the Guardians share a common trait: each grieves and fears the changes coming to her forest as time passes and the season she’s named for ends. Autumn senses that each Guardian is experiencing a cycle rather than an ending. “Your flowers are not dying!” she tells Spring. “They are being reborn!” Still, Autumn fears “the Rot” that has started to overtake her patch of woods, but the lesson about cycles of rebirth is made explicit in a dream by a wise woman of the forest: “These ‘Rots’ have a role: to clear the way for change.”

Autumn and the Forest Guardians invites young readers to perceive of seasonal change through a memorable, intuitive metaphorical framework that celebrates continual transformation. Nisa Tomak’s engaging illustrations capture the annual transformation of a forest, with detail worth poring over, colors that evoke each season’s feeling, and an emphasis on the smallness of humans in the face of nature. Gibson’s prose at times gets a touch wordy, with some text pages as dense as the illustrations are spare, but overall the book is a wise, rousing treat for budding nature lovers.

Takeaway: This inviting picture book offers young readers a wise new way to think about seasonal change.

Great for fans of: Kenard Pak’s Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn, Patricia MacLachlan’s My Friend Earth.

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

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Rites to a Good Life: Everyday Rituals of Healing and Transformation
Frederick Marx
Marx, the producer, director, and writer best known for the epochal 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, offers this searching yet practical guidebook to living a more meaningful life, with an emphasis on two causes to which he has dedicated much of his life, teen initiation and “Mature Masculinity.” A teen initiation, in the parlance of the African Rites of Passage movement--which gets a thumbnail history in the book—is a transformative, ritualistic experience “that accesses and re-empowers the wisdom of Elders and unleashes and empowers the capacities of youth” while bringing teens “into the community of adults, to take their seat at the village table, to be honored, accepted and treated as equals.”

Mature Masculinity, meanwhile, flowers from the same idea: Marx notes that millions of boys “are not accomplishing the transition from adolescence to adulthood,” and calls for the initiation of boys into a manhood of integrity, accountability, emotional intelligence, and at harmony and in balance with the feminine. Of course, Marx believes all teens should experience initiations, though he notes (with an apology for indulging in sweeping generalities, “It’s arguably more important for men to have a sense of mission or purpose in life because they’re more dangerous without it.”

Marx brings considerable persuasive power and storyteller’s craft to his calls for initiation and mentorship, clear-eyed action steps for the short and long term, and a welcome willingness to acknowledge his own blind spots and generalizations. He often lets thinkers he’s interviewed make the case, quoting at length from Chike Nwoffiah (“Do we prepare our young people so that as they are moving from one stage to the next, that they understand that for every privilege there is a corresponding responsibility?”), Meredith Little (“we’ve grown up in a context that really doesn’t have community”), and others. The result is a warmly provocative endorsement of the Rites of Passage movement and the idea of guiding all people, young and old, through life’s great transformations.

Takeaway: An impassioned, well-argued call for initiating young people into adulthood through organized “rites of passage.”

Great for fans of: Li'a Petrone’s Rites of Passage for the Young Black Male in America, Maryanne Howland’s Warrior Rising: How Four Men Helped a Boy on His Journey to Manhood.

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

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Banned from California: -Jim Foshee- Persecution, Redemption, Liberation ... and the Gay Civil Rights Movement
Robert C. Steele
In this lively and moving biography, a vital contribution to the history of LGBTQ life and activism in 20th century America, veteran reporter and broadcaster Steele memorializes the life of Jim Foshee, who first fled Idaho for California at age 15, in 1954 and went on to witness and experience the front lines of the nascent gay liberation movement. Eventually, Foshee (like Steele) would devote himself to researching and preserving gay history. Steele draws generously on interviews with Foshee and his contemporaries to tell the story, touching frankly on an abusive childhood, harassment by law enforcement, the occasional celebrity sighting, the secretive early days of the Mettachine Society, and Foshee’s choice, as a teenager, to be open about his homosexuality—easier in California than in Idaho, but still dangerous.

Foshee’s life fascinates, and his tales crackle on the page. Among the topics covered: hitchhiking; police raids of gay bars; 1967 in Haight-Ashbury; getting sentenced to five years at Huntsville for theft; finding love and happiness in Denver. For all the illuminating history that he and Steele have dug up, much of the book’s pleasure comes from Foshee’s voice: “I told myself, ‘I will not be embarrassed. I’m a grand queen, and I’m performing for all of my appreciative fans,’” Foshee says, recounting how he got through being forced to disrobe in front of other inmates. Despite moments of high drama, including Foshee’s stint on a chain gang, the book’s focus is on the everyday existence of gay Americans—and the development of community, independent media, and eventually a liberation movement.

The book is alive with personal and local stories. One especially welcome element: Steele and Foshee’s commemoration of gay magazines and newspapers, from Los Angeles and Denver and elsewhere, priceless chronicles of their era, from the late ‘50s to the era of AIDS and beyond. Banned From California, named for a nonsensical order a judge issued teenaged Foshee, documents a welcome sea change, over the course of one remarkable life.

Takeaway: This lively biography of a gay activist and historian captures an extraordinary life and a century of change.

Great for fans of: Michael Schiavi’s The Life and Times of Vito Russo, Mary Ann Cherry’s Morris Kight: Humanist, Liberationist, Fantabulist.

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

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The Making of a Dragonfly: Following Christ Through the Winds of Change
Mary Ethel Eckard
The second edition of Eckard’s memoir is a thoughtful contemplation on the difficulties she has experienced in her adulthood. An ordained minister and the founder of Dragonfly Ministries, whose mission centers on the spiritual growth of women, Eckard discusses the key moments in her life that have informed her spirituality—such as a kidney donation, the complications in a pair of marriages, and building a ministry from the ground up. In personal and intimate reflection, writing to a Christian and mainly female audience, Eckard describes her loneliness, pride, and self-consciousness as a woman seeking to know her God and discovering that her heart bends toward obedience and surrender.

The dragonfly, she notes, is strongest when closest to the sunlight that is the source of its strength, and she describes her discovery that she is the same, with the source of her strength being God. Drawing on her own experiences, as well as her Southern Baptist upbringing, Eckard describes in detail her relationship with God throughout the different stages in her adult life. A major theme of Eckard’s writing is her spiritual insecurity (“How was I to discern between my big heart and God’s voice?”) set against the journey of her learning to trust in God. Her depiction of these uncertainties is juxtaposed by a steady belief that God is guiding her in decision-making, an ambiguity that speaks to the complexities of contemporary Christian faith, though she never addresses this directly.

In this second edition, Eckard has included a study guide at the end of each chapter: the tools include questions, prompts for reflection, action steps, and guidance for prayers. Some of these meditations prove repetitive, though many Christian readers, especially women, will find comfort in Eckard’s account of doubts and revelation. She is honest about the challenges of her Christian journey, and the effort and rewards of flying close to the light.

Takeaway: Eckard writes to Christian women about how God has guided her through the challenges of adult life.

Great for fans of: Wendy Pope’s Wait and See, Mary Katherine Backstrom’s Holy Hot Mess.

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

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Mended Hearts
Angelina Disano
Disano’s debut highlights romance between a woman raising her younger brother and a CEO coping with his mother’s untimely death. Top-notch student Katie Williams left college before completing her degree, to raise her ten-year-old half-brother Tyler, after their mother died in a car accident. Katie secretly struggles with depression and regret over her decision to return home and take a job in banking. After her neighbor, Mrs. Stephens, dies from a brain aneurysm, Katie meets Matt, the son who comes to clean out his late mother’s apartment. While their relationship blossoms, both are wary of getting too serious—and their future is threatened when Tyler’s father decides to sue for custody if Matt, the CEO of a successful company, doesn’t pay him.

Disano crafts believable characters with a focus on their innermost thoughts and fears. Despite the “jolt of electricity” when they first kiss, the challenges Matt and Katie face in finding their way to each other come from the secrets that each wants to keep. Katie’s ambitions were thwarted by her mother’s death, leading her to raise her brother; despite her willingness to take on this responsibility, she faces worsening depression, which Disano describes with sensitive precision: “She still went to work, shopped for groceries, and took care of Tyler, but she didn’t want to do anything at all.”

Katie shoulders that burden, wary of the possible stigma of revealing it, in much the same way Matt, grieving his mother, initially hides his wealth and business success–his hesitancy stems from a former girlfriend who was more interested in his money than him. Disano slowly peels back the layers of these characters, revealing their wounds and desires, as they must find a way to total honesty if they want a chance at future happiness together. Readers of emotionally acute love stories will find an enjoyable balance of intimacy and action here.

Takeaway: A woman who dropped out of college to raise her younger brother considers risking her heart in this emotional romance.

Great for fans of: Colleen Hoover’s Ugly Love, Brittainy Cherry’s The Mixtape.

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

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Suit to Saddle: Cycling to Self-Discovery on the Southern Tier
Larry Walsh
Walsh’s debut memoir covers his incredible journey across southern America via bicycle and his corresponding journey of self discovery. While facing a job loss in mid-life, Walsh chose to trek from San Diego to northern Florida in 57 days, offering himself the space and time to clear his head and chase after something new. Along his route, Walsh meets folks he never would have in his life in New Jersey. Along with ten other riders, he faces tremendous physical and mental torment through 3,120 miles, but time and again this odyssey rewarded and reinforced his new commitment to intentionality, gratitude, and wisdom.

Though this account is fairly lengthy, Walsh proves adept at the skill all long-distance cyclists must master: pacing. He transports readers right into the adventure, with each leg of his trip depicted in memorable detail. His descriptions of grueling yet liberating days in the saddle are the book’s heart. Though self discovery was his original motivation for the trip, Walsh demonstrates throughout that he knows himself well, which comes out in his reflections: he knows his own strengths, especially as a team member, and stays consistent when it comes to what inspires him or how to approach challenges.

Still, that self-discovery is paramount to the story, as Walsh demonstrates that it can come in all forms. He learns that he is happiest as himself—someone who chases dreams and accomplishes them even when the going gets tough. As a parent, friend, and spouse, Walsh learns the importance of being genuine and authentic. His honesty throughout the memoir is poignant and both exemplifies and crystallizes his concluding reflections. Readers on mid-life journeys of their own will cheer Walsh on as he reminds them that a journey doesn’t have to be a means to an end —it’s the trip itself that matters.

Takeaway: While facing a major transition in life, a family man takes to the pavement and rides across the U.S. on a bicycle.

Great for fans of: George Mahood’s Not Tonight Josephine, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.

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

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One Life to Lead: Business Success Through Better Life Design
Russell
In this ambitious and highly practical guide, Benaroya (Free Yourself to Work On Your Business) makes the case that it’s backwards to think “I’ll get my professional life in order first and then focus on the personal.” Instead, he argues, that “the very things you are putting off until you succeed are the ingredients necessary for success.” Drawing on the example of his own life, and a period in which he felt stuck and not in control, he calls for business leaders to “design” their lives, just as they would design a strategic plan. That process demands a willingness to ask themselves where they want to be—and how to build the route to get there. “Why do you want what you want,” he asks.

Throughout, Benaroya emphasizes “intentional” decision making, in life and in business, in both his clear and engaging passages of coaching and in the original anecdotes and examples (many from business leaders he’s dubbed the “Designers”) that regularly illustrate advice like “Grasp the difference between goals and intentions” and “If you don’t neutralize the entropy, the energy drains in your life, and you won’t have the room to welcome new energy for the intentional work ahead.” In inviting prose, he urges readers to identify their principles, find and stay in their “genius zone”s, and to come to a deeper understanding of what it means to take decisive action, right down to accepting fear, embracing patience, and moving with intention despite not knowing exactly how things will turn out.

Benaroya’ supplements his precepts and his many real-life tales with incisive exercises designed to help readers answer those pressing questions—what do they want, why, and how can they achieve it? At times, the advice itself can seem familiar from other leadership guides, such as a section on finding and inhabiting one’s “Genius Zone,” but Benaroya and his Designers always find a new insight, angle, or inspiring approach.

Takeaway: This practical, engaging leadership guide argues that designing your personal life will aid your professional life.

Great for fans of: Bill Burnett and Dave Evans’s Designing Your Life, Jane A.G. Kise’s Intentional Leadership.

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

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What's That?
Karen Chan
In Chan’s sweet picture book, a little boy named Jax meets a new friend when they bond over their love of food on the first day of school. Growing up with a family that loves to prepare meals together–and a grandmother who is an “expert chef”–Jax has “discerning taste,” which means he appreciates a lot of items pickier eaters won’t touch: “He fancied Camembert and spicy tofu stew. He also ate green hummus well before he learned to chew.” His grandma loads his lunchbox with her “greatest hits”: “asty lu rou fan, so good it made rice sing” and “a chewy cong you bing!” When mealtime rolls around, Jax can’t wait to enjoy these special treats.

Helpful lessons for readers come when Jax, at school, notices no one else has a meal like his and faces a brief lapse of confidence. The other children in the cafeteria munch on sandwiches, pizza, and juice boxes. Suddenly, Jax wishes his food looked like everyone else’s– especially when some nearby kids notice his assortment of goodies and say that his lunch looks weird. Then friendly, confident Meena sits down beside him and lays out a special homemade spread of her own–daal and rice, fragrant with “curry leaves and mustard seeds and spice.” The two talk animatedly about their favorite foods and become fast friends.

Basia Tran’s detailed, expressive illustrations make this book extra special, showing Meena and Jax cooking at home in well-appointed kitchens, sipping hot and sour rasam on the back of a scaly dragon, and playing at school in an expansive, colorful landscape where the trees look like gumdrops and the planets sit low and clearly visible in the sky. Ultimately What’s That? demonstrates the vital role food plays in how we connect to our families and our cultures–as well as how we come to know and love each other and our selves.

Takeaway: In Chan’s sweet picture book, a little boy who feels ostracized for his homemade food bonds with a new friend.

Great for fans of: Debbie Min’s The Yuckiest Lunch Box, Grace Lin’s The Ugly Vegetables.

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

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A Slow Parade in Penderyn: Book One of the Dryad's Crown
davidhopkins
Hopkins (the Wear Chainmail to the Apocalypse series) pens a fantasy unlike any other, not by doing more, but by doing less, offering a meditation on a life, told out of order and without hurry despite the book’s brief length. In a land ravaged by war, Silbrey, a fey child of fish and tree, is taken in from the forest by a lax priest, until she's adopted by the abusive Dahlia, the guildmaster who controls the port city of Penderyn, and becomes her assassin. That is, until she meets Callis, and leaves that life. But can the past truly be left as that?

Silbrey's life story is not one of grand and moral heroes, but of adults who failed and are simply trying to get by. Instead of the usual magically overpowered embodiment of evil that has the world in its grip, this fantasy’s villain is a ruthless but ultimately human woman who holds nothing but a city and a child. The fantastical is treated as mundane in Penderyn and, in the end, the evil is not vanquished but instead proves more pernicious, leaving Silbrey to take what she can and go off to live a quiet life. That might sound like a spoiler, but Hopkins jumps back and forth in time, letting the end be known at the beginning, changing this story’s emphasis: rather than a familiar build to final conflict, A Slow Parade in Penderyn ruminates on how a life went awry, in prose distinguished by grace, clarity, and directness.

The short length means that at times Hopkins tells readers about developments rather than dramatize them, and some character motivations aren’t clear. Penderyn is refreshingly progressive, with many queer characters, an open-ish marriage, a lack of adherence to traditional gender roles, none of which is treated as anything out of the ordinary. Overall, this is a welcome, inventive, humane fantasy, set at the scale of a single fascinating life.

Takeaway: Fans of progressive fantasy on a small scale but with small stakes that feel large will relish this.

Great for fans of: Karin Tidbeck’s The Memory Theater, Donna Jo Napoli’s Zel.

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

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Murder in the Medina: A Blake Sisters Travel Mystery
Carter Fielding
In this lively cozy mystery, travel writer Finley Blake uses an assignment in Tangier to meet with her Manila-based sister Whitt, and the pair find themselves navigating murder and romance when a member of a film crew sharing their hotel is bizarrely killed. Meanwhile, Finley has an awkward reunion with her former lover, Max, while Whitt is initiating a possible new romance. As they vacation and sleuth, a mysterious stranger follows the sisters, a vaguely sinister hotelier makes demands, and a police inspector pursues his own agenda, before the sisters untangle the many motives to bring a killer to justice.

Fielding's protagonists are delightful and engaging, and the warm relationship between Finley and Whitt comes across as very real. Also nicely presented are the various romances, especially Finley's on-off situation with Max, which builds to a satisfying and surprising resolution. The low-key Inspector Evans, who subtly woos Finley, also makes an enticing suitor. The film crew adds suspects and a dash of glamour to the escapades though they aren't as fleshed out as the protagonists; as a result, their motives, and some elements of the main plot, can at times be hard to follow. Still, the adventure moves along at a quick pace with plenty of local color.

Indeed, half the fun of the book is the Moroccan setting, which Fielding presents in lavish detail: "Men sat at tables that blocked half of the narrow alleys, drinking fragrant mint tea …The smells of mint and coffee and spices and ripe fruit made an intoxicating blend." The local cuisine is a consistent pleasure, and readers even get a visit to a recreated Rick's Café from Casablanca. Fielding also offers a welcome soupçon of history, which enriches Finley's exploits without overwhelming the plot. The appealing sister sleuths and the unusual setting guarantee that readers will want to finish the mystery in a single sitting.

Takeaway: Fans of the traditional cozy will find much to like between these sister sleuths and detailed North African setting.

Great for fans of: Anne George’s Southern Sisters series, A.R. Kennedy’s Traveler Cozy Mystery Series.

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

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How to be an Amazing Volunteer Overseas: Rules of the Road, Stories from the Field
Susan E. Gibson
“Volunteering is about connecting to people, being of service,” writes Gibson in this straightforward debut. Springboarding from her own extensive volunteer experience, including working in over 40 countries across the world, she walks readers through the step-by-step process of discovering volunteer opportunities that are “uplifting, rewarding, and life-changing,” focusing on partnering with NGOs (Non-governmental organizations) to deliver valuable assistance where it’s needed most. Gibson includes snapshots of her personal diary entries and family communication for levity as she organizes her clear-eyed advice around four main steps: “deciding to go on a volunteer trip, preparing to travel, adapting to a new country, and readjusting to life back home.”

Readers will appreciate Gibson’s succinct, easy-to-follow guidance. Her insights include a rundown of reliable methods of determining the legitimacy of NGOs and volunteer sites, a breakdown of fees volunteers should be prepared to pay for the experience, and different medical needs that can arise when traveling outside your country of origin. She emphasizes the importance of anticipating culture shock and offers advice on how to combat it, and readers will enjoy the travel stories she shares—such as her refusal to accept one flight’s offer of a full bottle of vodka with her plane ticket, or a colleague’s mishap with culturally inappropriate clothing.

Throughout this succinct guide, Gibson emphasizes the remarkable opportunities that volunteering overseas can provide, encouraging readers to “do with others, not for others.” She includes touching memories of helping one woman realize her lifelong dream of learning to write her own name, alongside more emotional recollections of impacting lives awash with trauma. Gibson’s packing lists and checklists for safety and common language phrases to learn are the icing on the cake. Anyone who enjoys travel and wants to add value to others’ lives will find this a satisfying place to start.

Takeaway: A highly practical guide that simplifies what it takes to volunteer abroad.

Great for fans of: William MacAskill’s Doing Good Better, David Nott’s War Doctor, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s A Path Appears.

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

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Living a Parable: Finding Lessons in Unlikely Experiences
Silvia Davis
Structured as a workbook for Christians, Living a Parable blends memoir and religious instruction into a hybrid that’s most engaging as a portrait of a faith-based, middle-class Black family. With the fervor of a self-help coach, Silvia Davis urges Christians on the sidelines to get in the game with God. Each personal parable—such as the one illustrating the difference between punishment and discipline, or the distinction between praying for your will versus praying for God’s will for you—is followed by assignments to complete and reflect upon, Bible verses to contemplate, and a prayer to recite, along with blank pages for setting down one’s own thoughts.

Above all, Davis urges Christians to accept that they must do the work: “Faith is like a muscle, and it becomes more powerful the more we put it to use.” Mining her own experience for practical wisdom, Davis relates events from her childhood (the eldest of five, she grew up near Castle Air Force Base in Atwater, California) and as an adult who’s tried to replicate the close-knit and God-fearing family life of her youth. Her vision of a Heavenly Father is reinforced by her earthly one, a strict military man who espoused Christian principles but could also laugh—in this family, raucous kids snap to attention when parents speak, while individual foibles become the subject of shared jokes.

The strength of Living a Parable is Davis’s unequivocal faith in both God and in the rightness of her upbringing. She acknowledges the fault lines that crack American life, but avoids discussing them in detail, advising “Reconnect and start again, don’t be stubborn.” So, when she details the misery of hot combs, she doesn’t dig into what straightened hair signified in the 1980s. Instead, by focusing on conscientious Christians and what they can attempt to control in their lives and homes, Davis preaches to the choir, but always reminds them that everyone could use a little more practice.

Takeaway: A nostalgic portrayal of a Black Christian family and a call to prioritize worship, this self-paced guide extols the virtue of active devotion.

Great for fans of: Khristi Lauren Adams’s Parable of the Brown Girl, Michele Clark Jenkins’s She Speaks: Wisdom from the Women of the Bible to the Modern Black Woman.

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

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HOJO Girl
Dorothy K. Fletcher
The HOJO Girl, poet and Jacksonville historian Fletcher’s latest novel, reads like a satisfying scoop of Pistachio ice cream on a sweltering day. Readers meet protagonist Sadie Wainwright in June of 1968 on the first day of her summer job as a Howard Johnson’s waitress, or “HOJO Girl.” Nervous and naive, Sadie promptly spills a tray of ice water onto a table of customers. At the time, this accident is the worst scenario Sadie could imagine, as her primary concerns in life are trying all 28 flavors of Howard Johnson’s ice cream by the end of the summer and saving tips for college tuition.

As the summer goes on, however, her innocent worldview is challenged by her blossoming sexuality, an older brother wounded in the war, and racial tensions between her coworkers and peers. Sadie’s summer follows a pattern of conflicts that test her naivety and faith in human nature. Amidst these challenges and tests of courage, she proves herself a character who always sees the good in others.

Fletcher’s storytelling illustrates events and themes familiar in stories about the late 1960’s, but here they’re drenched in warm nostalgia rather than cliche. The milieu is evoked with power and specificity: “Once the restaurant was totally prepared for customers—coffee made, butter softening, jelly jars set out, ice chests filled with crushed ice and tables set—the waitresses sat in a booth up front and sipped coffee together.” Each character is richly drawn, with distinct narrative voices and clear goals that work in preparing Sadie for the real world. While Sadie and her love interest Allan agree that “people are generally crazy,” each challenge they face—from robbery to death—ultimately proves the wisdom of Sadie’s father to be true: “...there are good and bad people everywhere. You need to judge people in relation to how they treat you, not how other people want you to relate to them.”

Takeaway: This tender coming-of-age novel resonates with life lessons and a long-gone late ‘60s world.

Great for fans of: Elin Hilderbrand’s Summer of ‘69, Sherry Shahan’s Purple Daze.

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

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The Certainty of Chance
Jacquelyn Middleton
Middleton (Say Hello, Kiss Goodbye) delivers a sparkling holiday romp through the streets of London with her latest romance. Madeleine Joy, on her way to Paris for a girls’ trip with her famous sister, finds herself stuck in London alone for Christmas instead, after an Icelandic volcano disrupts airspace with dangerous ash. Convinced she is about to experience her worst holiday ever, Madeleine is pleasantly surprised to find a connection with her cab driver, Julian Halliwell, who just happens to be one of her all-time favorite music journalists. Madeleine and Julian instantly hit it off, igniting a whirlwind holiday romance, but both dread their looming goodbye.

Despite the wish-fillment premise of Madeleine chancing upon a gorgeous (and single) cabbie right when she needs it the most, this holiday fling manages to stay appealing with its touching focus on grief. Madeleine is still reeling from the death of her best friend, Kellie–who was supposed to meet her in London but passed away from a blood clot after the first leg of her flight–and is reluctant to open up to Julian about her grief. When she can no longer handle the pressure, Madeline’s forced to spill her feelings, prompting a deeper intimacy in her relationship with Julian and nudging her toward the first steps of healing.

Once Julian and Madeleine build enough trust to be vulnerable with each other, their fling transforms into a more solid affair. Anyone who’s faced loss will easily empathize with Madeleine’s distress, and Middleton crafts their relationship into a mutually supportive, sweet connection that will leave readers hopeful for the next stage—when the inevitable goodbye and long-distance relationship are nicely reshaped into a potential happily ever after. Any romance fan who craves real-world problems paired with the satisfying intervention of fate will enjoy this read.

Takeaway: Destiny intervenes to stir up romance in this appealing and sensitive holiday affair.

Great for fans of: Helen Hoang’s The Heart Principle, Becky Monson’s The Accidental Text.

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

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The Devil Pulls the Strings
J. W. Zarek
Zarek’s debut fantasy mixes magic, mystery, and time travel when a guitar player from a Renaissance Fair band is suddenly faced with the task of saving the world. After a serious jousting accident hospitalizes Boone Daniels’s best friend, Flynn, Boone agrees to take his place in a band to play at a charity event in New York City. Within minutes of arriving, the professor Boone’s supposed to meet falls from his balcony, landing at Boone’s feet. From there, Boone and Sapphire, the professor’s assistant, must flee men determined to kill them as the duo finds themselves tangled up with the Lavender and Roses Society, the fulfillment of a prophecy, and a plot to summon the devil.

Zarek creates an action-packed combination of mystery, fantasy, and treasure hunting as his likable heroes search for rare music and parchment, travel back in time, and fight to elude those eager to raise the devil. The secret society that Boone assists boasts an intriguing center of operations in the middle of New York, with an interior that looks nothing like the outside thanks to pocket dimensions: it’s all never-ending levels and rooms full of relics and books, plus creatures called Domovoi to protect it all. A fine, grisly touch: “When piranha are done, they leave bones. The domovoi do not.”

As immortal and mortal beings come together in different times, Zarek keeps the action brisk and clear, making it easy for readers to follow who is in the past, the future, and who’s in both. (Zarek even seamlessly weaves the stories of four sisters with the same name.) And even readers who are not musically inclined will feel the passion of the musicians playing the lost compositions that will call the devil to Earth. Although the end is a bit rushed, leaving some unanswered questions, the journey, mystery, and inventive worldbuilding is worth it.

Takeaway: A devilish urban fantasy adventure with a treasure-hunt mystery that’s sure to be a page-turner.

Great for fans of: Greg Cox’s The Librarians series, Mishell Baker’s The Arcadia project series.

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

Click here for more about The Devil Pulls the Strings
Love & Loss in the Time of Covid: A story for our time
Phil Dourado
Dourado’s autobiographical novel explores grief and relationships through the restraints imposed by Covid-19, revealing awkward and intimate interactions with strangers, phone conversations between lovers and friends, and even a Zoom funeral. Amidst lockdowns in London, Matthew dubs himself the “man under the duvet” as he struggles to grieve the dead and connect with the living. With his grown-up children living miles away, his mother in the hospital, and his father in a care home, Matthew is isolated in an apartment after he is forced to sell his family home. Matthew tries to cope with his losses in and before lockdown by engaging in a conversation with his favorite authors through reading them and writing his own novel. After almost two years of solitary grieving and pandemic lockdowns, will Matthew ever be able to get up––and move on?

Dourado’s refreshing, resonant experiment tells its story through phone conversations, conversations with ghosts, and Matthew’s reflections on books. A lot is riding on the dialogue with this concept, so it’s a relief that Dourado’s is strong, with the phone chats injecting welcome humor and life into an otherwise pretty grim story. This beautifully emphasizes the idea that community is central to proper grieving and healing, while the act of communing with novelists and poets hits hard in a time when that community must be proxied through screens and masks.

Dourado’s story––and the way he manages to showcase oral tradition, especially within strict pandemic restrictions––is impactful and unique, though a tendency to explain the key concepts at times puts the focus on the mechanics of the novel rather than the voices. The impact of Matthew’s connection to books would be stronger if the chapters were framed around them. Still, despite such a stark concept, Dourado manages to balance tragedy and comedy in this intriguing debut that reimagines “the novel” in the context of Covid-19.

Takeaway: This accomplished experimental novel centers on loss, connection, and trying to heal in a pandemic.

Great for fans of: Bill Hays’s How We Live Now: Scenes from the Pandemic, Ali Smith’s Summer.

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

Click here for more about Love & Loss in the Time of Covid

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