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Ten Thousand Rocks
Ndirangu Githaiga
Githaiga’s (The People of Ostrich Mountain) honest, unflinching portrayal of a struggling marriage mixes drama with deliberation. Tired of working long hours as a doctor, William Young accepts a job as a medical director at an insurance company. His wife Laura is dismayed by his sudden decision and his failure to discuss it with her beforehand. Will soon discovers the ugly truth of his new position: the more medical procedures he denies coverage for, the more money he makes. He finds himself trying to maximize his earnings, but just as he is starting to upgrade his lifestyle to match, a twist of fate upends the couple’s lives.

Githaiga sketches the many challenges in the Youngs’ relationship—lack of communication, differing priorities, family tension over their interracial relationship—with both realism and sensitivity. While the couple’s marriage is the story’s primary focus, Githaiga also incorporates a large cast of diverse, carefully drawn secondary characters. These differing perspectives add variety, but they also pull the story away from Will, and some readers will be frustrated by the lack of insight into his reactions to the story’s major events. However, Laura’s perspective is consistent and revealing throughout, a sympathetic presence that readers will feel for her as she struggles to cope.

The plot offers dramatic twists and legitimate surprises. Some of these events link together in unexpected ways, forming an intriguing web of cause-and-effect, both logistical and emotional. The intersections Githaiga finds in these characters’ lives strike a unique balance between kismet and karma. As Will and Laura navigate the shifts in their fortunes, Githaiga reveals deeper insight into who they are and what they value about their lives and their relationship. A moving testament to the importance of our connections to each other, Ten Thousand Rocks illuminates how adversity can spur resilience in life and in love.

Takeaway: This understated portrait of a marriage will satisfy readers who prefer grounded romance that doesn’t shy away from hardship.

Great for fans of: Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage.

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

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The Ghost Princess
M. Walsh
The first installment in M. Walsh’s Graylands series is a high-stakes drama set in a helter-skelter world of magic and brutality. Katrina Lamont, a fallen hero, finds solace roaming the Graylands, a lawless country between two empires. Although she’d rather be drinking her troubles away, she finds herself swept up in a new quest when she learns that the dark sorcerer Jacob Darendin is on the hunt for a missing princess to sacrifice. The princess holds the key to Darendin’s ultimate plan to achieve godlike powers. With the fate of the world hanging in the balance, Katrina joins in the hunt for the young woman, crossing paths with the enigmatic demon Lily Blackthorn and the legendary renegade Krutch Leeroy. But can Katrina overcome the ghosts of her own past to secure the future?

Walsh’s characters brim with life. Fallen from grace, Katrina is embittered and rough around the edges. Krutch Leeroy is delightfully unsure of himself, his legendary status constantly getting the better of him. Lily Blackthorn’s humanity shines through, despite her demonic nature. Walsh takes a standard fantasy quest, complete with sacred daggers and a storied villain named The Enforcer, and breathes fresh life into it, with crisp action, cliffhangers, and ideas. A world where pirates battle dragons (“But I bet you’ve never taken a bullet, have you, you big bastard?”) is nothing if not inventive.

Some seasoned fantasy readers may find Walsh’s world-building to be a little uneven. Inconsistent naming choices—names like Krutch, Cypher, and Kader butt up against Lily, Katrina, and Jacob—may pull readers out of Walsh’s otherwise finely crafted world. Still, fans of high-stakes fantasy will appreciate what Walsh adds to the genre. His keen eye for detail and memorable scene-setting is bolstered by a wry humor. Walsh has already penned a sequel, which readers will no doubt seek out after reading this series kickoff.

Takeaway: This rousing fantasy abounds with character and inventive action.

Great for fans of: Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood, Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names.

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

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Because the Sky is a Thousand Soft Hurts
Elizabeth Kirschner
In this haunting debut, Kirschner delivers a raw and intense collection of intricately layered short stories that touch on recurring themes of sexual violence, domestic abuse, mental illness, and addiction. Her experience as a memoirist and master gardener is evident as she illuminates the human struggle and the natural world with lush and vivid descriptions, while her background as a poet informs her evocative style: “because I might as well let every moment ache, I pour myself a drink while watching the sky rinse off its pulp.”

Kirschner’s characters are often cruel and inhumane, with parents speaking in riddles to their abused children. The narrators are all women, usually unnamed, who have a lost, dissociated quality to them, as the details of their lives seem to fray. “My prom dress was turquoise covered in white lace,” one notes. “Or was it white dotted Swiss with orange accent flowers, the color of churned butter?” As the stories develop, some of these narrators find love and normalcy, though not always happily. Kirschner crafts extraordinary similes and metaphors, though at times moment-to-moment meaning can get muddied: “I try to pick the flowers off my peach bedspread. To pick one would disturb the stars, but even stars, like fruit, rot from the inside out, just like a woman’s body.

That lyricism, though, paints full, complex portraits of tormented people coping with trauma, as each story reveals some fresh stretch of the underbelly of human nature. Violence pulses steadily throughout the collection, making it at times difficult to stomach, but Kirschner knows when it is time for the horrors to give way to beauty, like salve on a wound: (“Under the shaking aspens, butter weather, but cold like herringbone, and in the brain’s eternal lodgings”). Standout stories like “A Lattice of Filaments” and “The Shipwrecked World” reveal the breadth and power of Kirschner’s poetics, but literary-minded readers will cherish the striking final sentences of each.

Takeaway: Dynamic, poetic storytelling of women, trauma, and resilience.

Great for fans of: Carson McCullers, Sharon Olds, Joyce Carol Oates.

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

The Clovis Dig
Teri Fink
Fink (Invisible by Day) marries the genres of romance and suspense in this history-exploring tale of Claire Courtney, a bereaved orchard grower in East Wenatchee, Washington, who turns up not only ancient artifacts of the Clovis people but also a body buried on her farm. When Claire calls Washington State University, her alma mater, to report the artifacts, she is reluctant to allow Joe Running to come see the “Clovis points,” but permits him to set up a preliminary dig. Word of the authenticity of her findings quickly spread to, among others, handsome archaeologist Spencer Grant and the Colville Confederated Tribes. Soon, Courtney’s orchard is a bustling archeological site filled with scheming characters, budding romances, racial tensions—and, eventually, that body, and an attempt at arson. When the drama finally ceases, the novel retires to develop its main romantic storyline.

Claire is a compelling if distant protagonist who scratches at the restrictions of traditional femininity. Despite her strength, she frequently steps out of the way so that Spencer or the Sheriff can take the lead in a story as concerned with contemporary property rights as the ancient history being excavated. That said, with the help of her stubbornness, the novel’s resolution offers a glimmer of hope for a satisfying relationship just outside the societal norm.

The historically accurate backdrop of the 1987 Clovis Dig is intriguing, but characters drive the story: in conflict with each other for prestige, or love. Most of the leads are written convincingly, often with a touch of local color to represent where they come from, though Fink at times missteps when writing Native Americans, the “huge hombre” crime boss known as “El Gordo,” or the graduate student in anthropology who casually refers to her migrant worker parents as “illegals.” Otherwise, A Clovis Dig skillfully delivers on its murder mystery plot as well as its romantic and suspenseful subplots.

Takeaway: Excavating the past digs up romance and danger.

Great for fans of: A.C. Fuller’s Alex Vane Media Thriller series, Shining Light’s Saga.

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

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Gone Daddy Blues: A Grace Street Mystery
Sally Jane Tesh
Tesh’s seventh book in the Grace Street Mystery series (after 2018’s Death by Dragonfly) fuses classic gumshoe legwork with mysterious hints from beyond the veil. When tough teenager Doreen Padgett asks private investigator David Randall to find her absent father, Randall is reluctant to track down yet another deadbeat dad. But after his own deceased daughter Lindsey contacts him and urges him to help, he agrees to take the case. As he searches for Arliss Padgett, Randall finds himself embroiled in the hunt for a serial killer. Randall must convince his friend Camden, a powerful but reluctant psychic, to re-embrace his powers and help track down the murderer.

The book’s fine-tuned details and smooth dialogue will transport readers to the center of the action. Randall’s point of view reveals not only the creative, methodical mind behind his sleuthing strategy, but also his sharp sarcasm and frequently critical, even harsh attitude towards others. Although he has compassion for Doreen and a deep love for his girlfriend Kary, some readers will be puzzled by Randall’s lack of empathy towards his friend Camden, as he continually badgers Camden to stop feeling sorry for himself and use his psychic powers to help with the case even though Randall himself feels similarly ambivalent about his detective work.

Despite his roadblock with Camden, Randall’s connections with the story’s other characters spice up the sleuthing. No lone wolf, he is assisted by Kary and other roommates and friends in his quest to find the elusive killer. The group’s tight-knit, if occasionally fraught, relationships feel authentic and familiar, and inside jokes and references to their past adventures abound. Readers familiar with these episodes from previous books in the series will feel like one of the gang. This well-paced, multifaceted mystery offers readers an engaging story with an exciting paranormal twist.

Takeaway: Part procedural, cozy mystery, and supernatural thriller, the latest Grace Street Mystery offers crime fiction fans much to love.

Great for fans of: L.L. Bartlett’s Jeff Resnick Mystery series, Scott William Carter’s Myron Vale Investigations series.

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

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Don't Floss
DeLeon DeMicoli
DeMicoli’s latest comic mystery novella (following up on 2017’s Les Cannibales) follows Hugo Picoli, a bitter, laid-off cop turned private investigator just outside of Oakland, California, as he navigates divorce, psilocybin mushrooms, gold fillings, and a plethora of Hawaiian shirts. Farrah Mason comes to Hugo’s failing business with just the thing that might end his string of bad luck: a new case. Her husband, Jolly Mason, is missing––and Farrah just wants Hugo to find him before the police do. But when protests erupt in the streets (led by none other than his ex-wife) and Hugo discovers another missing person, this simple case gets more complicated. Hugo’s misadventures as he tries to figure out what’s going on will involve corrupt cops, shady dentists, and a cartel. Will Hugo be able to figure out what really happened––and more importantly, what will doing so cost him?

While this light, quirky PI comedy is clever enough to have readers guessing until the very end, its ambitions at times chafe against its novella length. Several characters are introduced too quickly, with names that it’s easy to confuse (Farrah and Frida, Mill and Moss and Miller and Mason), which makes it difficult for readers to gain their bearings. The narrator’s consistently sardonic tone de-emphasizes important backstories, while the revelation of Hugo’s own past reads like an afterthought rather than a driving force in his narrative.

Still, DeMicoli’s dry, concise prose enables him to build a convincing contemporary world in just 120 pages––complete with its own unique pop culture references. DeMicoli’s crisp, repetitive syntax sets up his punchlines well and keeps the story moving. His prose and plot border on minimalist: every detail is essential (even if this isn’t initially evident). Simply put, this is no generic mystery. Fans of flawed, middle-aged detectives will love Hugo and his misadventures as he struggles to pick a side: pro-cop or pro-people.

Takeaway: An offbeat comic caper that delivers as a mystery.

Great for fans of: Carl Hiassen, Tim Dorsey, Donald Westlake.

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

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Backstory
William Ried
Ried spins a compelling page-turner about the perils of trying to rewrite one's own personal narrative. Starting with a dramatic night late in the tenure of “the McYanks,” a group of six tight-knit friends studying at Dublin's Trinity College, Ried explores how secrets never stay buried and the past is never truly past. Focusing on sleazy Ansel Tone, a rock star among historians, and frustrated novelist Charlie Piedmont, Ried presents his characters as complicated, flawed, and human. Ansel is a womanizer who sleeps with students and plagiarizes their work; Charlie marries Ansel's girlfriend from Trinity and decides that his next novel should be about him winning the girl. That kicks off an escalating series of events that includes infidelity, manipulation, lies about the past, and eventually murder.

Readers interested in metafiction, roman à clefs, and morally complex character studies will thrill to Ried's deft writing and clever plot complications. Backstory shrewdly compares the theme of rewriting the past to bolster one's own narrative to the concept of “fake news,” as the narratives that Ansel and Charlie choose for themselves aren't just self-delusional but actually harmful. Lies pile on top of lies and, in a tense and exciting sequence, at first seem to trap narcissistic cad Ansel, but soon Charlie and the tireless detectives searching for the truth get caught up in distractions.

Ried's characters are all given an opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them. Ansel, who writes best-sellers on the concept of revisionist history, believes he can spin his way out of anything but eventually faces up to hard truths. His friend Dutch is the book’s moral center, courting an employee of Ansel's while providing support to the other McYanks. Tess and Molly feel less developed than most of the men, though both have their moments. This exciting thriller finds betrayals, alliances, lies, and secrets all shaken until the truth comes out at last.

Takeaway: Lies, betrayals, and morally complex mystery as friends from Trinity College face the past.

Great for fans of: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter.

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

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By the Light of Fireflies: A Novel of War Hero Sybil Ludington
Jennifer Walsh
Walsh (I Am Defiance) again brings a powerful woman from history to life with this middle-grade adventure featuring 16-year-old Revolutionary War hero Sybil Ludington. Based on true events, By the Light of Fireflies takes on George Washington’s inner spy ring in the heat of the battle between Patriots and Loyalists, spotlighting the role that young Sybil played during an all night, 40-mile ride through colonists’ territory to muster the militia against an impending British attack. In Walsh’s spirited depiction, Sybil is a courageous, quick-thinking Patriot who dreams of growing up to be something more than a farmer’s wife–and realizes that ambition is within her reach through the fight to advance the revolutionary cause.

Sybil’s father, Henry Ludington, is a Loyalist captain in name only and spends his free time helping Patriots spy on the British. When pressures mount, he enlists Sybil and her sister, Rebecca, to help decipher code written with invisible ink on letters bearing crucial information about the British army, its troops, and their planned maneuvers. This opportunity is a dream come true for Sybil, who idolizes Paul Revere and hopes for her own chance to prove her mettle–a chance that emerges when she gets asked to ride all night in a terrifying crusade to save her family and her country. “I didn’t realize it was weird for me to want to be brave or daring or courageous like a man was,” she memorably declares.

Walsh’s easy, flowing prose breathes life into colonial America. Readers will find themselves in the thick of the Revolutionary War as well as eighteenth-century living: Walsh uses period appropriate language (“Mama shook her head bigly”) and detail, such as a family strategy game of “Nine Man’s Morrice in the parlor,” to capture the feeling of the past, and her handling of the long ride is crisp and suspenseful. History-minded young readers will be roused by this stouthearted protagonist’s unflinching dedication.

Takeaway: Middle-grade historical fiction fans will be swept up in the bravery of one young woman’s fight to save her country against a British attack.

Great for fans of: Celeste Lim’s The Crystal Ribbon, Pam Munoz Ryan’s Riding Freedom, Augusta Scattergood’s Glory Be.

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

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Creeples!
Patrick D. Pidgeon
Pidgeon’s wildly entertaining debut brings together three unlikely friends who accidentally create some new friends in a science lab at school. Johnny Spignola (“Spigs”), Theresa Ray (“T-Ray”), and Pablo Torres (“Peabo”), three very different teens, are chosen to be the coveted Lab Rats, working on genomic research under Professor Sally Bodkins. However, not long after embarking on this adventure, they learn that the dean of the school has decided to discontinue the genomic department altogether. The trio knows that the professor’s work is important, so they decide to secretly raise money to complete it. Aiming for crowdfunding attention, they borrow a 3D bio-printer to whip up a real monkey ear. But when they don’t have everything they need, Spigs improvises with a secret serum—and doesn’t tell his friends when something goes wrong. The result is six troll-like beings they aptly name “Creeples.”

The Creeples bring the mania, humor, and constant action that kids love in a middle grade story. Each with their own personalities and magical abilities, causing constant mischief, they’ll keep kids glued to the page, wondering what catastrophe they’ll cause next, what inanimate object they’ll next bring to life. As the Lab Rats chase them all over campus, Pidgeon balances the fun with scary mystery, inviting readers to wonder what the dean and his goons are up to, and what will happen if he catches the Creeples first.

While middle-grade readers will be greatly entertained by the antics of all the fantastically created characters, some dialogue and concepts will be difficult for some younger readers to understand, such as a description of how the bio-printer works, or the inner-workings of the Dean’s plot, and a secret society. However, the sometimes challenging material doesn’t detract from the fun and can offer opportunity for discussing and learning with an adult. Middle-grade readers looking for wacky and fun science experiments gone wrong will adore the Creeples.

Takeaway: It’s science-lab mayhem as kids accidentally create troll-like Creeples.

Great for fans of: John Kloepfer’s Monsters Unleashed, Jennifer L. Holm’s The Fourteenth Goldfish.

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

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Remembering Hope
Parastoo Rezai
Rezai’s touching debut follows a woman coming to terms with her husband’s cancer diagnosis. Bahar, mother to fifteen-year-old Kayvon and his younger brother Koosha, is faced with mounting medical complications following her husband Omid’s cancer surgery; despite his terminal diagnosis, she is determined to remain strong for her sons. Nostalgic for their “old life,” and reflecting on their initial meeting over 20 years ago—when she flew from Iran to London—Bahar craves the idyllic days spent together before their marriage and subsequent move to San Diego. She manifests an unshakeable resilience that carries her through, even as she faces her own cancer diagnosis and the financial difficulties of Omid’s medical practice.

Rezai deftly uses flashbacks to highlight Bahar’s years with Omid, both painful and moving: “The sparkler candles produced a halo-like glow on Omid’s face that choked me up…This moment was the last happy memory Omid and I shared as a couple.” She heightens those recollections with descriptive language that transplants readers into the midst of the couple’s daily lives, including eloquent depictions of the meals they share, their family interactions, and an intense focus on Bahar’s sorrow over Omid’s declining health. The narrative also spotlights Bahar’s determination to forge ahead and take the bar exam, despite her own challenges with chemotherapy treatments, highlighting the character's strength and tenacity.

Though some of the author’s metaphors are strained—“expanding my cheeks into two over-inflated balloons”—the even pacing and heart-warming style will win readers over, and Rezai’s emphasis on Iranian culture adds a welcome realism while drawing attention to the experiences of (and discrimination against) Iranian women. This compelling exploration of one woman’s sorrow over her husband’s disease and her fortitude to put the needs of her sons first propels this novel swiftly forward to its satisfying, emotion-filled conclusion.

Takeaway:This emotionally charged novel finds a woman persevering in the face of her husband’s terminal diagnosis.

Great for fans of: Marjan Kamali’s The Stationery Shop and Jasmin Darznik’s Song of a Captive Bird.

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

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The Fred Valentine Show: Episode 1
Vincent Glen
Glen's bizarre blend of absurdist meta humor, raunchy shtick, and romantic fantasy is brazenly confident in its presentation of its many disparate and weird elements. In this first novella-length “episode” of a five-part series about a televised play both set in and televised from the Las Vegas Strip, Glen teases out the structure: That show’s star and namesake, flanked by two scantily-clad showgirls, is a talking Saint Bernard named Fred Valentine, who opens the book with a “monologue” that warms up the audience with hacky, sexist jokes. Fred describes the show that follows as “a play...a musical featuring dancing showgirls, and a sitcom all rolled into one.”

From there it gets wilder. The show features a teen named Tango Valentine trying to get a job with his troupe of talking animals at the Golden Jackpot Hotel. He has to negotiate with buffoonish owner Abner, his delusional mother Mama Lulu, and his clever wife, Tutty. Meanwhile, his magician orangutan, talking dog, clever macaw, and sly werecat all cause their own mischief. This opening chapter finds Glen offering a lot of exposition to establish this premise, and it's awkward at first, especially with repeated descriptions of characters, their origins, and other establishing material. Soon, though, the story picks up, centering around the profane, scheming, and supernaturally gifted orangutan, Joe, whose silver tongue and mischievous intentions move the plot along and generate laughs.

Elements of romance and fantasy offer interesting diversions from the madcap comedy. The overall effect is crude and clever, occasionally heart-warming and off-putting. This first chapter’s strongest when it focuses on character, but some, like Abner, are so broadly written they edge into stereotype. The proud crudeness of many of the jokes detracts from some clever commentary on Vegas and American culture, but Glen's vision for his characters is so bold and strange that it supersedes the easy vulgarity.

Takeaway: Talking animals, media parody, and absurd, raunchy send-ups of Las Vegas power this serialized comedy.

Great for fans of: Yoko Towada's Memoirs Of A Polar Bear, George Saunders’s "Brad Carrigan, American.”

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

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In The Mirror
Fabian E. Ferguson
Ferguson’s charmingly illustrated children’s book encourages kids to understand that they are so much more than their physical appearance. In this sweet and simple story, a brother and sister look at their faces in the mirror while getting ready for their day. The duo declares that they love what they see, and as the little girl dons a crown and a cape, Ferguson’s deeper message begins to shine. These kids–like all young people–have big dreams and bright futures, as well as the skills and innate talents to accomplish their goals: “Between these two ears are wheels always turning. There is imagination, brilliance, and a hunger for learning.”

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Ferguson’s book is its acknowledgment that children will face struggles and unpleasant feelings as they grow, learn, and endeavor to fulfill that promise. In one illustration, the frowning girl holds up a test with a grade of D-, and a few pages later she trips and falls while learning to roller skate before finally succeeding. An essential bit of wisdom accompanies those scenes: “I will scar this chin from some falls I may take. They will be lessons I will learn from the choices I make.” The book also shows the siblings expressing a wide range of emotions–silly, scared, angry, excited–which will give parents the opportunity to discuss these feelings with their children.

Wide-eyed, playful, and sincere, the kids in Ferguson’s mirror seem real and friendly, which will help preschoolers relate to them and identify their own emotions and experiences in the illustrations. The pictures are colorful, inviting, and original, growing more elaborate and inventive with the kids’ imaginings. (The cover does not fully represent the quality of work inside.) They give the book personality and depth while helping young readers develop the tools to build their confidence in a way that feels fun and fresh.

Takeaway: This picture book reminds kids they’re much more than what they see in the mirror.

Great for fans of: Susann Hoffmann’s YOU Are Awesome, Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s Just Like Me.

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

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Swept Away
Arnold Johnston
In this surprising comic novel, Dennis McCutcheon is a struggling, recently divorced college professor and playwright who is desperately worried about his future in academia–as well as his romantic prospects and happiness in general. Johnston’s engaging and mysterious novel follows Dennis from Pennsylvania to Detroit after he learns his alma mater, Wayne State University, wants to stage a production of his play, “Swept Away.” Once there, Dennis falls for the beautiful and troubled Andrea, but his contentment is short lived. After Dennis is mugged, he becomes further embroiled in a highly publicized scandal when he is suspected of murdering Andrea’s vitriolic husband, Larry.

Dennis may appear at first glance to be a stereotypical jaded academic, but Johnston avoids cliché, revealing his protagonist to have much more going on beneath the surface. He offers readers real reasons to want to spend time getting to know this guy. Both Dennis and his best friend and coworker, Eileen, face common struggles that have too often not been part of the public conversation: Dennis’ sense of inferiority is heightened by his ex-wife Deirdre’s ongoing emotional abuse, including online harassment and stalking. Film scholar Eileen, meanwhile, is subjected to professional scrutiny despite her stellar publication record: “Her opportunities were limited by her sexual orientation as a faculty member in a relatively small college town that didn’t even have a gay bar.”

While Johnston’s characters face myriad real-world challenges, unpredictable supernatural forces are also at play, such as a series of Civil War-era apparitions that leave Dennis wondering who has really invited him back to Detroit and why. The story at times moves slowly, and the sharp commentary about the business of creativity is likely more exhaustive than many readers might hope. But the book is incisive, and narrator Dennis is engaging, making Johnston’s tale of professional ambition, midlife aggravation, and treacherous love affairs delightfully unpredictable.

Takeaway: A sharp, engaging, wholly unpredictable novel of ambition and academia.

Great for fans of: Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members, Jane Smiley’s Moo.

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

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Into the Heartland
Jack Casey
With a deceptively simple premise, Casey (The Trial of Bat Shea) deftly weaves romance into a historical retelling of the birth of the Erie Canal in the early part of the 19th century. Eleanora Van Rensselaer, a young widow who alternates between her estate, Claverack, and Albany, New York, finds her time bound up with social obligations–and more pressingly, with advancing the efforts of politico DeWitt Clinton, who is drumming up support for the Erie Canal project. Daniel Hedges, a ship’s captain and surveyor from Buffaloe Creek, emerges as a driving force behind the actual planning of the canal, while Eleanora, despite being considered landed gentry, appeals to the general populace for backing.

Characteristic of all transformative infrastructure projects, the building of the canal is littered with secrets–much like the relationships that Casey examines among these three proponents. Casey brings historical characters and situations to life for contemporary audiences, painting key events–from the region’s battles during the War of 1812 to a malaria epidemic during the canal’s construction–with enough vibrant, unstinting detail to evoke a visceral response. History-minded readers will be deeply immersed in the political and social machinations that powered this then-young country’s budding political machines. Casey’s respect for the time period and passion for the subject shine through.

The novel’s romantic entanglements don’t shine quite as brightly as the political intrigues and carefully chosen historic details. Eleanora and Daniel’s interactions come across as more scripted than organic, and much of their dialogue in the book’s first half is stilted. As the story unfolds, however, their dynamic takes on a smoother and more inviting tone, especially when the focus is less on romance and more on the relationships developing among the large cast. Historical fiction lovers will delight in this unique tale of a rarely dramatized turning point in American history.

Takeaway: An immersive historic novel that illuminates the digging of the Erie Canal.

Great for fans of: Amy Harmon’s Where the Lost Wander, Jennifer Donnelly’s The Tea Rose.

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

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Haunting Patagonia: A Novel of Passages & Echos
Eva Newcastle
Newcastle debuts with an omen-filled, generational mystery infused with romance and a touch of magical realism. Angeni Braum, having dissolved her residential development business, settles for an administrative job at a Chicago museum. While working with a paleontology team that’s delivering a new sauropod acquisition, Angeni is intrigued by her surprisingly personal connection with Dr. Leonardo Díaz, the expedition’s leader. That connection, coupled with Angeni’s noticing a sudden crop of references to Argentina in her life, eventually leads to her taking a business trip to Patagonia. Meanwhile, in a parallel story line set in the past, the original turn-of-the-century dinosaur expedition hints at an alluring link to Leo and Angeni today.

The concept is lovely—a romance that echoes through time in the clues that the lovers leave for their descendants—and Newcastle plants enticing hints for readers to discover, such as the handwritten botanical journal that Angeni picks up in an opening scene. The writing is evocative: “The juicy-colored hibiscus flower beyond my hotel room window was rolled tight in its nocturnal state, the shrub's bloom scraping the window screen.” But Angeni’s naiveté (she fails to learn even rudimentary Spanish and exhibits little interest in understanding cultural nuances) cuts against characterization of her as a curious spirit. Similarly, Angeni’s vague memories of her dysfunctional upbringing effectively cloak connections to her past to build mystery, but they also flatten her character.

Newcastle is most successful with the storytelling on the historical side of the narrative, as the secret love story of Orlando and Angeline evokes a satisfying sense of destiny. In the present, Angeni and Leo’s efforts to decipher the mysteries of the past lag behind readers’ certainty about where the story is going. Still, Haunting Patagonia will hit a sweet spot for readers who enjoy grand historical romances, plots that boast a supernatural undercurrent, and mysteries with easy to follow clues.

Takeaway: An appealing parallel romance haunts this novel of love, history, and portents.

Great for fans of: Ernest Dempsey’s Sean Wyatt series, Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea.

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

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Tattoo : A Memoir of Becoming
W. Patrick Lang
Lang’s sweeping memoir surveys the author’s life as a soldier, officer, and intelligence official, telling not just the story of Lang’s service and family but offering a close-up history of the U.S. military’s global engagements in the fractious second half to the 20th century. Born into a family of soldiers, Lang talked his way into enlisting with the Maine National Guard at just 16 and then enrolled, after high school, in the Virginia Military Institute. Even before joining the Army’s 5th Infantry division after graduation, Lang had distinguished himself as a speaker, marksman, tactician, and expert in languages and military history, talents that would serve him well in Panama, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, and other posts in a career that would take him to the position of the DIA’s Defense Intelligence Officer for the Middle East and South Asia.

Tattoo overflows with revealing–sometimes harrowing–stories of military life. War games in training, conflicts with commanding officers, the fascinating early days of Army Special Forces, the horrors of Vietnam: Lang covers this and more in clear-eyed, scene-driven prose unencumbered by romance or overstatement. He refers to himself in the third person, but his command of the language ensures feeling (sometimes even humor) suffuses every page: “After watching Lang shoot, [the CIA operative] asked how Lang felt about shooting individuals. The reply was that this would depend on who they were.”

It resonates deeply, then, when Lang does indulge emotion, express doubt about a mission, or set the record straight. One impassioned clarification: The U.S. did not furnish Iraq with military materials during its 1980s war with Iran. Don’t expect much in the way of guidance of where this life is going or a précis of lessons learned in the manner of many contemporary memoirs. Still, with a scrupulous eye for detail, Tattoo illuminates every international conflict Lang saw and offers a fascinating portrait of what soldiering means.

Takeaway: An incisive and revealing survey of the career of an American soldier, from Vietnam to the Middle East.

Great for fans of: Richard E. Mack’s Memoirs of a Cold War Soldier, Elliot Ackerman’s Places and Names.

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

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