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Rebuilt Recovery Complete Series Books 1-4: A Journey with God
Heather L Phipps
Presenting Christian discipleship as essential to recovery from trauma, addiction, depression, anxiety, and a host of other common mental and emotional issues, Phipps’s Rebuilt Recovery urges readers toward “complete” healing that encompasses the physical, mental, and spiritual, all “in a cooperative effort with the Lord.” Crucial to her program is the love of God, love of others, and love of the self in Christ, but not a “worldly” love—instead, she calls for a “sacrificial” love, “defined by respect and admiration.” True healing, she argues, comes only after discovering the root of the “problematic thinking” and replacing it with “God’s unshakable and unchanging truth.” To that end, the four books included in Rebuilt Recovery present, in clear language and with many practical tools and strategies, a path toward surrender to God and find peace.

Phipps’s strategies include catchy, comforting advice like how to “Stop, Drop, and Roll” to replace “wrong thinking with God’s Truth,” or training one’s self to relax safely, treating this as a “preemptive, routine practice” like exercise. Sets of questions focus the somewhat sprawling material on the individual needs of the reader, while verses from scripture and Phipps’s reminders that “complete healing does not mean that you will never experience difficult emotions or temptations” keep it all inviting. That’s also true of the many encouraging essays in the end matter, which find Phipps addressing questions of who decides an individual’s worth, how to face regret, and how to understand the sources of feelings.

The book’s main draw, though, is Phipps’s thoughtful, thorough, empathetic laying out of techniques, insights, and inspiration. Rebuilt Recovery presents healing as an ongoing process, one that demands serious self examination, understanding toxic behaviors and unhealthy relationships, and learning to forgive and accept forgiveness. Phipps never over-promises or advocates an easy fix, and she takes care to advise readers not to attempt to diagnose themselves or others. Instead, she offers believers a clearly defined, always inviting path.

Takeaway: This Christian guide to recovery from trauma, addiction, and other issues is encouraging and user-focused.

Great for fans of: Kathryn Greene-McCreight’s Darkness Is My Only Companion, J. Keith Miller’s A Hunger for Healing.

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

The American Outsider: a novel, 978-0-9779780-3-8 : a novel
Homa Pourasgari
Centered on an American animal rights activist, the third novel from Pourasgari (The Dawn of Saudi) is a charming read with characters who come to life on the page—and who live for a cause whose urgency shines through the story. Tessa Walker is a veterinarian on a visit to Japan who wishes to combine her vacation with some activism in support of animals. She meets Toshiro Yokoyama, the lazy son of a rich businessman, and much against her better judgment starts to feel something for him. His willingness to play tour guide ensures they spend some great time together. A skilled scuba diver, Tessa, with the help of Japanese activists, films the slaughter of the dolphins at Taiji to spread awareness of the massacre, risking her life and drawing the attention of the authorities.

Pourasgari retains the interest of the reader till the end, weaving Tessa’s activism and her reluctant love for Toshiro into an interesting narrative while evoking the conflict between the traditional members of Japanese society and those with a more modern and liberal outlook through the relationship between Toshiro and his father. The plot turns on an accident and an instance of short-term memory loss, a familiar justification in romance stories for keeping couples separated, and at times the narrative edges into travelogue, slowing the momentum.

Tessa, of course, is attempting to make changes in a society that’s not her own, and The American Outsider faces the question of why, when her own country allows so much inhumane treatment of animals, this gaijin travels across the world to protest. Throughout the story, as she risks prosecution and even imprisonment, Tessa makes new discoveries about Japan and its culture, while Toshiro likewise learns much that he never expected, about her past, her passion, the depth of feeling of dolphins—and about himself. Tessa’s commitment to the welfare of all of Earth’s creatures will inspire animal lovers.

Takeaway: The engaging story of an animal rights activist bringing her cause to Japan and finding romance.

Great for fans of: Fiona Mountain’s Lady of the Butterflies, Deb Olin Unferth’s Barn 8.

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

Forty to Finish
Larry Walsh
In this high-spirited memoir, Walsh relates his epic journey on the Trans Am Bike Race, biking from Oregon to Virginia in a feat of endurance. Through storms and a periodic lack of water, he is able to not only finish, but complete the race in under forty days through careful pacing, hard work and an adequate amount of luck. Forty days is an even more aggressive goal time than he originally set himself, a demonstration of the importance of not aiming small. His epic physical endurance is echoed by his reflections on his place in the world, as the race is actually his second cross-country trip following an unexpected firing from his job in pharmaceutical sales.

Walsh includes a handful of pictures from his trip, particularly compelling are the selfies which he is required to submit to the race organizer daily to show his continued health. They track the ups and downs of his energy as the book proceeds and the miles continue (as well as the growth of his beard). Walsh’s interactions with people on the race also wax and wane depending on his location and energy level—starting off with plenty of conversations in Oregon and trailing off in the Midwest before picking up again in the East with” trail angels” who aid his journey.

The Trans-America Bike Race is a test of endurance. Walsh finishes after 38 days averaging 109 miles per day. This is reflected a little in the text: There are only so many ways he can recount twelve hours in the bike saddle and still hold the reader’s interest. As with so many grand undertakings, monotony itself becomes a theme—with Walsh recounting his marking off each ten miles and attempting to divert his boredom and maintain focus. This is a journey of accomplishment and discovery, and the reader is privileged to be brought along on it as Walsh meets his goal: forty days to finish and cross the country.

Takeaway: Lovers of sports stories and tales of endurance will appreciate this memoir of cycling across the United States.

Great for fans of: Cory Mortensen’s The Buddha and the Bee, Paul Stutzman’s Biking Across America.

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

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Perils of a Pregnant Sleuth
Dershie McDevitt
McDevitt’s standout follow up to Just Holler Bloody Murder expertly blends romance and mystery as a pregnant biologist living on a South Carolina barrier island contemplates marriage while searching for a killer. Despite nearing the end of her second trimester of pregnancy, biology professor Callahan Banks, returning from the first book, enjoys life on remote Timicau Island off the Carolina coast, though her baby’s father, wealthy John Culpepper “Pepper” Dade, III, the island’s owner who is ten years her senior, continues to pressure her into marrying him. But her life becomes more complicated when the island’s precocious nine-year-old triplets (Tom, Dick and Harry), digging for treasure in the sand, discover a body wrapped in barbed wire. Suddenly, the safe haven becomes anything but as the body count rises, the list of suspects grows longer, and Callahan’s doctor puts her on several days of bed rest.

McDevitt offers just enough mystery and red herrings to keep the reader guessing without overwhelming with gruesome details of the crimes. She draws on her own island-living experiences to create a convincing and enticing setting, luring readers into an idyllic paradise with vividly descriptive prose that evokes the salt air, laughing gulls, and gnarled oak limbs. In Callahan, McDevitt has created a character readers will admire, both for her intellect, her drive, and her unwillingness to marry Pepper, the wealthy (and much sought-after) bachelor, for fear that doing so will put a damper on her sense of independence.

Though their romance simmers throughout the novel, the addition of a host of quirky characters adds to the pleasingly twisty mystery, as Callahan discovers that more than one of the island residents has secrets they want to keep hidden. Alongside the romance and mystery are welcome humorous moments, especially those connected to the triplet boys who ramp up their own detective skills only to find themselves in the crosshairs of a killer.

Takeaway: A fiercely independent pregnant biologist searches for a killer on a remote island.

Great for fans of: Danielle Collins’s Murder Mystery Book Club, Jasmine Webb’s Charlotte Gibson Mysteries series.

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

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the Bringer of Happiness
Karen Martin
The second standalone entry in Martin’s Women Unveiled series declares its boldness of vision from the first line: “I should have assumed with parents known to the world as Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ, I would be different.” In the vividly realized historical novel that follows, playwright/author Martin continues the striking storytelling of Dancing in the Labyrinth, exploring stories of women in history and myth pushing against the boundaries of patriarchal societies. This time, the setting is both Jerusalem, in the years of narrator Sara’s birth, and also 13th century Montségur as the French Royal Forces persecute the Cathars, a Christian sect deemed heretical by the pope. Sara may be “a swaddled babe in a hammock” in 34 AD, but her “memories are future moments yet to be lived,” she tells us. Born to visions, she often awakens inside others, throughout time. Eventually, she awakens in a young Cathar, Sarah-Marie.

In both of the novel’s major time-settings, Sara and her loved ones face religious persecution. In rich, clear, and sometimes playful prose—Sara uses the word “ginormous”—Martin offers a heady meditation on belief and oppression, the strength it takes to persevere, and what Sara calls “the conspiracy of time” as the narratives pass through continents and millenia. Crucial themes center the origins of Christianity in older systems of belief and efforts throughout history to erase those origins.

One gripping passage finds Sara awakened inside a young man during the canonization of the New Testament, privy to discussion about what other books were eliminated and why. While much of the novel is exploratory, with Sara feeling her way through stories and epochs and tribulations, the central thread of Sarah-Marie and her prescribed fate—“death by burning” in a massacre—generates welcome suspense, as Sara tries to find a way to save her. Perhaps what’s most remarkable about this layered, ambitious, poetic novel is its clarity and coherence, as Martin finds dramatic means to explore religious and historical complexities and spiritual connections between women through the ages. The Bringer of Happiness is occasionally challenging but more often illuminating.

Takeaway: This time-crossed novel examines women, faith, persecution, and the establishment of religious canon.

Great for fans of: Charmaine Craig’s The Good Men, Elaine Pagels’s The Gnostic Gospels.

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

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New Earth, Bringing It Home: A Light Hearted Transformational Journey
Joy-An Tucker
Living up to its subtitle, Tucker’s transformational New Earth, Bringing it Home invites readers to create their own “Temple of New Earth”—“a sacred space of love” in which one can “bring your core passion and joy into relationship with all things”—within their own homes. Despite the heady concepts, Tucker’s guidance is refreshingly clear, laying out the steps for a journey of introspection and vision-realization in prose that will appeal both to seasoned spiritual searchers and readers new to recognizing “the power of Creator’s light within you.” Tucker’s warm tone and personal anecdotes, encouraging explanations of topics like “intention” and sacred geometry, and her linking of the spiritual to home decor “that which makes your heart sing” all result in a calming, engaging read that persuasively conveys a larger message of love, unity, and balance.

The use of physical spaces, materials, sound, and vibrations form the core of the process of creating individual Temples of New Earth, joyful spaces where one can connect to the vibrations of Mother Earth or Gaia—a conscious being, Tucker writes, eager for us to ascend with her. Tucker emphasizes attunement to pink, white, and violet rays, and their affiliate archangels, through crystals, flowers, and step-by-step meditative practice. For readers new to or skeptical of such connections, these goals might come off as vague or utopian, but with the passing of every chapter, Tucker introduces small, achievable tasks that can inculcate a sense of connection and achievement.

Creating an entirely new universe in a small space like your living room can seem like a mammoth experiment, but as Tucker writes, “The difference between just decorating your home and creating a temple or sanctuary of New Earth is intention.” What makes this guide stand out from the pack is its emphasis on practical steps (breathing exercises and meditation prompts, bringing nature indoors, balancing colors, making one’s bathroom beautiful) that, before ascension, will certainly increase one’s peace of mind.

Takeaway: This encouraging guide to spiritual connection lays out how to create a Temple of the Earth within one’s own home.

Great for fans of: Jill M. Angelo’s Sacred Space, Donna Henes’s Bless This House.

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

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Hard Noir Holiday
Kirk Alex
The epic fourth entry in Alex’s Edgar "Doc" Holiday series declares its intentions from the title. Our hero, a Los Angeles P.I. whose veins pump pulp, leaves town only to discover the murder of a friend and myriad other crimes, and there ain’t going to be anything cozy about what he faces as he investigates. For Doc it’s no vacation—he’s got to deal with crooked ex-cops, a cartel south of the border, illegal dog fights, kidney smugglers, the terrifying forked-tongue Moe clan out of Bisbee, AZ, and a car chase involving a hearse and a tow-truck in desert scrub—but readers who get their kicks from the darker crime-noir classics will find much to relish.

Setting Alex’s hard-noir holiday apart is the author’s preference for action over the existential paralysis that sometimes afflicts private eyes. That’s not to say Doc doesn’t despair—“And god was a powerless mook with no more power to do anything about any of it than Bozo the Clown,” he muses early on—but when heavies would work over the likes of Philip Marlowe, Doc will squash one’s eyeball with his sap then draw his Glock. Alex captures the dustups and dangers with crisp, precise language, at times daring the outrageous—"Titus yanked, and continued to do so, taking a chunk of the crotch with him.” That stirs a sense of rugged tension even during shoe-leather investigation scenes. When Doc and co. sneak through cartel tunnels, Alex wrings gut-churning suspense from the possibility of tripwires and armed guards.

The novel’s long, demandingly so, and sometimes proudly over the top, the grim developments penned with a sense of play but still taken seriously. While the thugs and ne’er-do-wells at times edge toward stock types—notable characters include Termite, Slim Biffle, Fede Gu, and Moustapha Standish—Doc and compatriots like Ilsa and Lucretia, whose dog Doc commits to recovering, remain engaging throughout as they “follow the money, find the truth” no matter how dark.

Takeaway: Living up to its title, this hard-edged P.I. epic dives into desert darkness and action.

Great for fans of: Matthew McBride, Max Allan Collins.

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

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Mercy
Steve Crown
Crown’s fast-paced, satirical debut follows, with a cyclical structure and an eye for inequity, the life of a boy named Mercy from birth to his own fatherhood, all “at the mercy of life’s whims.” The exuberance that greats his birth, and his parents’ “master plan” for his success, soon ebb in the face of everyday life: Mercy’s mother immediately feels alone as she brings her baby boy home, and Mercy’s father’s priorities fall elsewhere. Childhood proves difficult and uncentered, as Mercy moves into his grandmother’s home and then shifts from parent to parent throughout his adolescence. The father’s restlessness upends Mercy’s life. As the boy faces a moving van, Crown writes, with pained insight, “Mercy found it remarkable how easy his life got uprooted, friendships destroyed, communities lost, and loneliness exaggerated.” Fortunately, teenage love will carry him through his teens and beyond.

For all its honesty about real human pain, Mercy amuses with Crown’s sharp bursts of humor. These are exemplified as Mercy’s mother starts her life over as a single parent: in a flailing attempt to get it all back on track, she searches via dial-up internet for a new career, and finds that even the open position of “Toilet Scrubber” demands “five years of experience or a Ph.D.” Tragedy eventually pushes Mercy to living with his jaded and narcissistic father, whose dicey past is flung into Mercy’s face at school.

Throughout, Crown is sensitive to the realities of poverty, the difficulties of escaping it, and its cross-generational impact. Also well handled is the often isolating nature of schooling, as bullying from students and unfair treatment from teachers create emotional potholes on Mercy’s path towards manhood. Still, loving moments sprout in unexpected places, tempering the raw emotion this story often stirs, especially in the touching final pages, which echo the promise of the opening—and offer hope that, this time, it might be sustained.

Takeaway: A touching satire of growing up rootless in an indifferent America.

Great for fans of: Growing Up Poor: A Literary Anthology, Justin Torres’s We the Animals.

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

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Darling, You're Not Alone
J.D. Slajchert
Slajchert (MoonFlower) packs an emotional punch with his accomplished second novel, which finds a young man bringing relief to the grieving as he manages his own transition from childhood to maturity. The story opens with Phoenix Ivor’s 10th birthday party in 1994 in his small Colorado town of Darling. He’s enjoying playing with his close friend Shay when Shay’s and Phoenix’s fathers, police officers and partners, are called out on an emergency. After that, Phoenix seems to have an intense panic attack (later in the story, readers will understand all that it foreshadows), severe enough that he winds up in the hospital. There he beholds a chilling site: his father in his police uniform, covered in blood.

Slajchert tugs hard at the heartstrings with this expertly plotted story of the power of understanding and faith. The narrative leaps to 1999, when Phoenix heads to the state spelling bee finals, and his father is now a school safety officer who seems to have a second job, a mysterious evening role. The wrenching events that follow are written with insight and sensitivity: soon after returning to Darling, a Columbine-type school shooting takes place, killing friends and Phoenix’s father, and Phoenix soon learns the truth about his father’s mysterious night job that finds him striving, in a unique way, to bring some consolation to the bereaved. Under the guidance of an ethereal woman named Maya, Phoenix takes on the mission in his father’s place—and learns that compassion and empathy can help cure even the most painful of burdens.

Darling You’re Not Alone builds to rich emotional payoffs, stirring tears with characters’ backstories and heartfelt letters, as Slajchert illuminates how deep pain can influence behavior—and how the incredible gift of healing words can transform lives. Anyone who has ever wished for just one more communication with a loved one will see themselves on every page of Slajchert’s skillfully told story.

Takeaway: This deeply felt tale of pain, redemption, and forgiveness will stay with readers.

Great for fans of: Nicholas Sparks, Leah Hager Cohen’s The Grief of Others.

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

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2011: A Collection of Prose and Cons...
Bob Mayfield
Mayfield (The Lime Green Jello That Ate Portland) ponders the power of words in this lively offering. The collection starts, fittingly, with a study on the evolution of short stories, lamenting the passing of their iconic status in satirical form “The Short Story is survived by Facebook, Twitter, texting, and a lingering sense of foreboding”—and playfully continues that trend, musing on idle pleasures as well as the weightier topics of relationship ups and downs, the meaning of life, and more. Mayfield uses humor throughout to impress upon readers the potential fallout to being a writer: “The problem with knowing a writer is, you might get written about.”

Readers who enjoy quirky introspections will be entertained. In “Writer Rampage,” small town residents are shocked to discover their secrets spilled across the page by a pseudonymous author, resulting in a general sense of paranoia as they go about their daily business, and “Buck” draws a spirited portrait of a colorful local character who regals bar mates with stories of his overseas military service, only to end up facing down an unexpected—and peculiar —opponent. Mayfield even pays tribute to writer’s block in “The Artist Addresses His Muse,” which finds an author railing against editor-imposed deadlines while “staring at a glowing blank sheet of screen, not a word oozing out.”

Though Mayfield covers substantive topics, the highlight is the tongue-in-cheek style running throughout —“That’s All, Folks!” is a clear play on acknowledgments, with a nod to the literary genius required to craft a cohesive story from a ragtag collection of notes and cryptic jottings. Mayfield repeats main characters, giving the collection continuity, and threads their perspectives into several pieces. Readers will enjoy both the tidy endings and those sections left open to interpretation. Despite sporadic moments of gravity, readers should come prepared for plenty of laughs—and even an eye roll here and there.

Takeaway: A quirky, entertaining celebration of the power of words and the reality of being a writer.

Great for fans of: Thomas Pierce’s Hall of Small Mammals, Beth Lisick’s This Too Can Be Yours.

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

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Silence Says the Most: An Olivia Penn Mystery
Kathleen Bailey
The second in Bailey’s Olivia Penn mystery series, after Where the Light Shines Through, finds advice columnist Olivia facing another riveting and deadly puzzle after departing the Washington, D.C., area to her hometown of Apple Station, Virginia. In the thick of October’s spooky season, Olivia’s picnic outing at Lake Crystal gets disrupted by the discovery of a body—what the local newspaper editor calls a “floater”—with only a child in a red jacket as a possible witness. Although at first reluctant, Olivia, true to form, can’t resist trying to find out who would kill a fieldworker from Virginia’s Department of Envitonmental Quality, and soon she’s trrying piece together the details of the murder, with the help of some new friends, before she becomes the next victim.

“You’re a regular Nancy Drew,” Olivia is told early on, and in this warm and humorous cozy Bailey pays welcome homage to the famed teen sleuth, even as her adult hero balances grown-up responsibilities—and gets warned off the case by local law enforcement. Bailey pulls readers in with charming descriptions and personalities, giving Apple Station an inviting downtown where a chatty local will hitch a chestnut quarter horse outside Daisy’s Feed and Saddlery, and a wag observing the library notes “Somebody just took two books. What happens if the library runs out?” Even Olivia wryly notes that she feels like “an extra in a Hallmark movie.”

For all the good cheer, the tensions mount with each passing page, and fans of small-town amateur detectives will be hooked from the start, as Olivia gets tangled up again with the police, strives to connect with the recalcitrant witness Mikey, and learns more than she ever expected about copperheads, algae blooms, and other surprises. The case is arresting, but Silence Says the Most also offers that crucial ingredient for the standout series cozy: a hero worth rooting for and capable of surprising readers.

Takeaway: This enthralling small-town cozy abounds with suspense, surprise, and autumn atmosphere.

Great for fans of: M.C. Beaton, Annette Dashofy’s Zoe Chambers Mysteries series.

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

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Intimations: Intuitions beyond Subject
Martin Miller
Miller (Triumph and Tragedy: The Evolution and Legacy of 20th Century War Machines) calls forth the dreamy and the tormented in this stark collection of his photographic work, drawn together from 50 years of “capturing a fleeting glimpse of the elusive realms of the mind, the source of both our fears and our miraculous creative capacities.” He groups pieces chronologically as well as according to theme, offering readers short musings before each collection in the hopes of “divorcing subject from meaning,” and dedicates plenty of space to exploring the inspiration behind his images.

That inspiration ranges from enigmatic to deeply personal, as manifested in his 2002 image “The Foreboding,” created a few months before his son’s death—a thorny bramble reminiscent of the jagged edges of grief—or his rendering “Phantasm No. 33, 2005” that suggests soft symmetry and treacherous depths through a surreal natural landscape. Miller summons hints of destruction, too, in his 2007 Asteroid series, attempting to capture the essence of “potentially catastrophic earth colliders” through a sequence of somber photographs that mimic the rocks’ chilling beauty.

Aficionados will relish digging into Miller’s exploration of the driving forces behind his work and his passion for evoking “strong but evanescent emotional responses.” To better illustrate the hidden meanings in these pieces, he reproduces them all in black and white, acknowledging upfront that color can be more of a distraction than a catalyst for deep reflection. Perhaps most menacing are the testimonials to the Cold War, a range of photographs documenting the dark humor that often comes with the terrors of war: Miller juxtaposes a Minuteman II ICBM missile with a snapshot of a missile blast door decorated with “world-wide delivery in 30 minutes or less or your next one is free” across the front. This is a magnetic, but unsettling, collection that will invoke profound mediation.

Takeaway: A haunting photographic collection that hints at the devastation of human nature.

Great for fans of: Clarence John Laughlin, John Alexander Dersham’s Changing Moods.

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

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Moon and Sunn: Memoir of a Fishing Legend and His Son
Shane Sunn
“He thinks like them fish think,” author Sunn recalls hearing locals from his hometown of Ackerman, Mississippi, marvel about his father, James William “Moon” Sunn. In this striking memoir, the younger Sunn, a pastor, honors the figure that loomed so tall in Ackerman, a fisherman of great repute, in the Gulf and Alaska and the lakes that WPA projects created in Mississippi; a friend to stray dogs and stray people; the man everybody called for whenever somebody faced drowning in Choctaw Lake. The adventures of “Moon,” as the father was known, and his “all-out pursuit of fish,” make for irresistible reading, especially as Sunn often shares them in Moon’s own inimitable voice: “A boat gives you an unfair advantage,” Moon says, explaining his preference for wading when fishing for salmon. “You never feel the fish’s full power because once you hook ’em, you can just drift with ’em.”

But Moon and Sunn is a richer, more moving book than it is just a collection of excellent fish stories. Sunn notes that stories of Moon have inevitably gotten exaggerated over the years, especially around Ackerman, and in his retellings he takes pain to filet away the elements of tall-tale. That means even the wildest stories—Moon representing himself in court when accused of killing a doe illegally; Moon attempting to float his canoe 85 miles from the family home to a reservoir during Mississippi’s Easter Flood of 1979—stay refreshingly human scaled.

Touchingly, Sunn never shies away from the challenges of having a folk hero as a father, and his accounts of at times feeling isolated in the great man’s shadow, especially after Moon’s divorce from Sunn’s mother in the early 1960s, have real power. Sunn’s prose is clear and strong as a mountain stream current, and this tribute to—and reckoning with—his father will get its hook into lovers of outdoor adventure and father-son stories.

Takeaway: Rousing outdoor adventures, fish tales, and touching father-son storytelling make this memoir stand out.

Great for fans of: Luke Jennings’s Blood Knots, Dean Kuipers's The Deer Camp.

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

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I Look Forward to Further Collaboration Between Our Species
Edward Ringel
A gentle sendup of 21st century American culture arrives in a goofy 22nd century first alien contact story, Ringel’s playful novel introduces the people of the planet Lattern, who, curious about humanity’s combination of creativity and tribalized violence, send a friendly emissary in the form of Reldap, a biobot version of an important official’s unmotivated stoner son. After crashing his craft in rural Maine, Reldap meets doctor/writer Dr. Ed Gilner, who helps him navigate Earth media and politics while addressing the two big problems Reldap has caused: the ecstasy-producing kleptrons, aka brainsuckers, that he has released, and the broken ship that must be fixed quickly to avoid repercussions on Lattern.

“This is a silly book, but I had a lot of fun writing it,” Ringel writes in prefatory material, setting clear expectations for the madness to follow. Ringel’s spry sense of humor shines throughout, and the closeness of the story at times to 21st century realities—the doublespeak of Homeland Security, the incompetence of the “Prez,” an industry leader’s zeal to allow people the freedom to have their brains destroyed—situate the tale firmly in the satirical realm. The best method to stop kleptrons from biting: wearing tin foil over one’s head, a technique that inspires the observation, “Tinfoil bonnets didn’t exactly have a sterling reputation among the sane.”

Ringel follows the lead of other comedic science fiction in making nothing particularly alien about the Latternites, primarily using them as a foil to criticize human behavior. That’s not to say Redalp’s not strange: one moment of alien cultural exchange with humanity involves the sharing of a biological sample, the details of which are best left unspoiled. The story alternates between Gilner’s reminiscences and Reldap’s journals, with a welcome emphasis on science, but the novel’s driven by events rather than voices, and readers should not expect much in the way of interiority. Instead, this is a playful pageant and thought experiment, working through the possibilities of the scenario with wit and ingenuity.

Takeaway: This satiric first-contact story explores how ludicrous American culture could look to alien eyes.

Great for fans of: Douglas Adams, Robert Sheckley.

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

Diya Dances the Dandiya
Priya Vennapusa
Diya is excited to perform her first Dandiya for the Navaratri celebration, but once she realizes she’s lost her anklets, she embarks on a low-stakes journey to find them and educates readers about Indian/Hindi traditions and vocabulary along the way in Dee’s Diya Dances the Dandiya. Full of family, community, and heart, Diya’s search for her anklets provides a straightforward and friendly way of introducing readers to articles of clothing, food, and even name meanings, including Diya’s, which means lamp or light. Kim’s pastel illustrations on brown paper renders a more subdued color palette that still manages to have pops of color that suit the celebratory setting and mood.

As the book explains concepts and words to readers while also furthering the plot about the missing anklets, the text sometimes piles up, with large blocks of words taking up an entire page and occasionally a word that might not be familiar to readers not immersed in Indian culture gets presented without further context, as in the scene where Diya remembers that she washed her hands after eating a samosa, and her little brother Ramu sits on the counter eating laddu. A glossary at the back helps, as do Youngju Kim’s rich and emotive illustrations, which center Diya’s feelings while finding in clothes, food, and smiles bursts of inviting color.

The simplistic approach to introducing new words and concepts may serve younger readers well, and incentivize them to do further research into Indian culture. In so doing, Diya Dances the Dandiya succeeds at being a welcoming and engaging introduction, and the illustrations are well worth revisiting for appreciating small details. Likewise, young Indian readers may also find themselves, their friends, their families and traditions in this book, making it worth a gander for anyone interested in the premise.

Takeaway: A charming picture book introduction to Navaratr and the Dandiya.

Great for fans of: Meera Sriram’s A Gift for Amma, Surishtha Sehgal’s Festival of Colors.

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

Click here for more about Diya Dances the Dandiya
The Happy Valley
Benjamin Harnett
This kaleidoscopic voyage through time, space, and a litany of lives and puzzles from Harnett, the poet and short story writer, opens with two children in upstate New York playing at solving the mystery of a serpent-shaped key that opens the “strange top-floor apartment” with the “dragon-scale windows.” The narrative hurtles forward into their future and ours. In the 2030s, the children have grown up, and the mystery abounds, but with new elements, among them the surprise success of a workers’ anarchist movement called the “blue smocks,” whose aims one character describes as “What if the French Revolution, but good?” The U.S. is upended by irreversible changes and climate catastrophes, and, amid it all, one of the children from the opening has disappeared. The pressing question, as Harnett’s surprising, genre-bending story stretches into the past as well: does all of this connect to that key and a secret society?

The sprawling novel touches on places and topics as familiar as a PB&J-on-Wonder Bread American childhood to as far flung as the outer space adventures of Zane Arbuster, and a near-future, post-revolutionary society where the decentralized blue smock government—ascribed as free or fascist depending on perspective—faces cyber crime and attacks “financed by the richest, most ‘enlightened’ barons, titans of progressive philanthropy who all felt that this movement of the working class had gone much too far.”

Harnett deftly sets mood and scenes, the storytelling touched with inventive beauty, sharp insights, curiosities and unsettling mysteries, a strong sense of the evolution of politics and culture—and the way people talk about it all. That said, the narrative takes on a lot, challenging readers to keep up with leaps from one place, time, and theme to another. The Happy Valley demands and rewards the committed reader. But overall, Harnett’s writing is agile and will please lovers of bold, incisive fiction that radiates a love of play even as it faces societal collapse.

Takeaway: A visionary, marvelously written novel of secret societies, revolution, a near-future America, and much more.

Great for fans of: Matt Ruff’s Sewer, Gas & Electric, Samuel R. Delany.

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

Click here for more about The Happy Valley

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