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Jackie Wins Them All
Fabian Ferguson
The exuberant Jackie J. Spade in Ferguson’s debut picture book is a young but seasoned competitor who, so far, has only experienced victory. Jackie’s an all-around over-achiever: an exemplary athlete in multiple sports who’s also taken first prize at science fairs and a spelling bee, and even won a chess match against a college student. Now, expecting to add another first place medal to her trophy case, the Albany Middle School sixth-grader will run the 200-meter race in a city-wide competition. The book’s title is both a confident declaration and a hint that, this time, things may be different.

Ferguson celebrates Jackie’s accomplishments with an infectious enthusiasm that encourages readers (especially Black girls) to identify with the protagonist and feel like winners. Illustrator Alisa Aryutova has made Jackie a joyous dynamo with endearing geek-chic aplomb. But Ferguson’s point about good sportsmanship (“Work hard, give your best, and do all you can do./That’s what matters most, and this Jackie knew!”) is somewhat blunted by only appearing at the story’s conclusion. An earlier glimpse of Jackie’s healthy attitude toward competition would show young readers how she’s able to recover from a painful disappointment and quickly get herself back on the right track.

Aryutova’s energetic illustrations are vivid color blocks with bold lines and textures, and she employs glowing gold on every page (including the end papers) in a nod to Jackie’s shiny trophies. The most emotional drawing is a textless spread that shows a hunched-over Jackie expressing in body language what her mind cannot yet process. With this pause in the narration, Jackie Wins Them All offers emotional catharsis by showing a successful athlete facing an upset. It will resonate with young readers ready to challenge themselves, reminding them that good sportsmanship--and always putting your best foot forward-- keeps them in the race.

Takeaway: Young readers will be inspired by this lively achiever who’s reminded that winning isn’t guaranteed.

Great for fans of: Brian Pinkney’s JoJo’s Flying Side Kick, Sharon Bell Mathis’s Running Girl: The Diary of Ebonee Rose, Addie Boswell’s The Rain Stomper.

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

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I Am Nuclear Fusion!
Muriel Fitzpatrick
Fitzpatrick’s colorful, customizable storybook teaches elementary school kids that everyone has a special gift or talent, but that some people blossom later than others–and that is perfectly okay. Seven-year-old Rita often compares herself to her talented friends, Emma and Lily, and feels that she always comes up short. “I am not a star,” she laments. She eventually remembers some advice from her aunt and concludes that her time to shine will likely come later in her life. Until then, she will be like “nuclear fusion” and work on building the energy her star will need to shine by being kind and always trying her best.

Rita tells her story four separate times, with each fresh revision a response to advice from a teacher to incorporate new details such as dialogue, description, and action. Rita’s final draft features bright, lively illustrations and a fleshed-out story that underscores the book’s central message: that practice is essential to success. It also suggests that Rita’s own burgeoning skill just might be writing and storytelling, which kids will recognize in themselves, too, as they work with their parents or a teacher to add details to their own stories. Fitzpatrick invites readers to copy the opening sections of the book–Rita’s first drafts–to allow children to color the pictures and add their own words in the same way that Rita eventually does.

Rita serves as a relatable and indomitable protagonist, revealing her disappointment over not being as good as her friends at singing and gymnastics but never letting it get the best of her. Her resilience demonstrates not only that failure is a part of life, even in a world that tends to worship superstars, but that it’s okay and even admirable to be supportive of other people. Most importantly, the book reminds kids never to give up, even if success doesn’t happen immediately.

Takeaway: This innovative storybook teaches young readers that everyone has a special gift or talent, but that sometimes it needs to be nurtured.

Great for fans of: Barney Saltzberg’s Beautiful Oops, Ashley Spires’s The Most Magnificent Thing.

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

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Revelation!: The Single Story of Divine Prophecy to Abraham and His Descendants - the Jews, Christians and Muslims
Jane McCabe
In this religious history surveying Creation to Mohammed, McCabe attempts to reconcile the Judeo-Christian tradition with the text of the Koran. Looking solely at the “revelatory texts” of the Bible and the Koran (that is, the passages believed to be transmitted directly from God), McCabe examines areas of overlap and dissonance among the three faiths’ holy texts. Placing particular weight on the Nicene Creed and its emphasis on consubstantiation, she explores how human interpretation shapes traditional understandings of these texts, all as she considers each religious tradition through the lens of the others. A Christian with an interest and education in Islam, McCabe takes a respectful, calculated approach.

Much of this work is a summary of, or direct quotes from, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Koran. While McCabe’s analysis of these texts and their historical background is cogent and absorbing, the often lengthy quotations themselves might frustrate lay readers. The most engaging sections center on McCabe’s own words, such as her succinct and illuminating recounting of the Nicene Creed and the key players involved. For the purposes of this exploration, McCabe treats all of these “revealed” texts as inviolably true and uncorrupted by millenia of translations, limiting the work’s utility for those who favor a more clinical approach to religious history. Others will balk at the premise: treating Mohammed as a true prophet in the Judeo-Christian religion. But her detailed explanation of each tradition is perfect for believers eager to expand their worldview.

While McCabe emphasizes the similarities in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (the sovereignty of God, codes of ethics), in the concluding chapter she acknowledges the immutable differences in the text of the various Revelations. But McCabe’s respectful treatment and analysis of the three religions is interesting on its own as she examines how religious traditions build upon earlier groundwork.

Takeaway: This measured look at the foundational texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam will appeal to believers eager to understand the origins of their faith.

Great for fans of: Ahmed Deedat’s The Choice: Islam and Christianity, David B. Burrell’s Towards a Jewish-Christian-Muslim Theology.

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

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The Season of Living Dangerously: A Fan's Notes on Baseball's Strangest Season
Robert Kopecky
When the COVID-19 pandemic shortened the 2020 Major League Baseball season to 60 games, it meant significant changes to a sport typically characterized by endurance. Like many baseball aficionados, Kopecky found the abbreviated season both fascinating and frustrating. His conversational book chronicles day-to-day observations of the year’s standout plays, memorable moments, and brushes with the coronavirus, as originally published on his blog. He also focuses on new, unique rule changes intended to shorten games, such as starting each extra inning with a runner on second base, as well as the strangeness of fake crowd noise coming from empty stands during game broadcasts, and how the sport could change going forward.

Kopecky offers plenty of wonky baseball stats and lamentations over missed opportunities for the game’s greats, such as Nelson Cruz and Mike Trout. He also places the sport in its larger context in an evolving and volatile world, acknowledging that the 2020 season was exceptional because players began to show unity on issues of racial inequality and injustice, and noting that several Giants players knelt during a “rousing gospel version of the [national] anthem.” At times, he questions whether the season should have been played at all during a public health crisis. Baseball, he philosophizes, could be considered “just a form of entertainment,” though it also provides “a needed psychological boost at a time when many are coping with the stresses occasioned by the pandemic and its consequences.”

Kopecky writes with a passion for the sport cultivated over many decades, as well as deep knowledge of the game’s complex statistics, sabermetrics, and unwritten rules. His book provides a thorough account of perhaps the strangest season in baseball’s 150-year history, one that fans will find both meaningful and enduring, particularly after the pandemic has ended and life has returned to something resembling normal.

Takeaway: Conversational, philosophical observations of the pandemic-shortened baseball season of 2020.

Great for fans of: Roger Angell; Stewart O’Nan and Stephen King’s Faithful.

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

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7 Unicorn Drive: From Startup to A Billion Dollar Sale in 7 Years : The Adventure of Iza and Samo Login
Dani Polajnar
Polajnar’s multifaceted biography follows Iza and Samo Login, a Slovenian couple with a spiritual approach to business, who turned a small startup into a billion-dollar company in seven years. Part biography, part how-to, Polajnar’s account explores the Logins’ team-focused business culture, their devotion to the law of attraction, and their ideas about “success” meaning more than monetary gain. Told through the eyes of Danny, a fictional journalist, this genre-crossing story implores readers to think deeply about wealth, of both the monetary and spiritual varieties. When the Logins sell their business during its prime, Danny reevaluates his ambitions and discovers for himself a more fulfilling way of day-to-day living.

Equal parts love story, business history, and how-to guide, this debut covers a lot of ground. Polajnar takes a unique approach to biography: Danny, the fictional protagonist, is a stand-in for the reader, more a vessel for the Login’s life lessons than a well-crafted character. His failures (such as his bungling of an interview with the Logins’ son) are difficult to care about–he’s a 2D character in a 3D world. Polajnar strives to fit everything into one story—the history of Outfit7, the account of its early development, and the enduring message of the company— but the fictional material overshadows the most interesting subject matter here: the entrepreneurs, the specifics of their day-to-day, and their search for meaning and success.

Polajnar draws from the Logins' unique approach to leadership valuable lessons for entrepreneurs and others looking for a change. This unusual biography touches on everything it takes to run a profitable company while also exploring why someone would want to start a business in the first place. (The Logins founded Outfit7, for example, to fund philanthropic environmental projects.) This is not just a business history, but a spiritual guide, and will appeal to self-starters looking to redefine success.

Takeaway: This unique biography, part business history and part self-help guide, advocates a more fulfilling life beyond monetary success.

Great for fans of: John Strelecky’s The Big Five For Life, James R. Nowlin’s The Purposeful Millionaire.

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

Furey's War
T W Lawless
This lean and atmospheric police procedural, set in WWII-era Australia, is narrated by small-town police sergeant Jack Furey, who recounts how he faced a surplus of troubles: an influx of boisterous American troops, an abortionist and a self-righteous busybody, and racial issues involving both the town's Aboriginal population and the segregated African-American servicemen. Furey has to solve several cases, including an abandoned infant and a bloody murder. As he addresses the varied incidents, he recalls how the crimes tested the soul of the town and his own faith.

Both native Australians, Lawless and Bell offer readers a pitch-perfect immersion in their milieu, presenting a nuanced view of the nation and its people, refreshingly free from stereotypes. Furey's own prejudices come to the forefront when a trip to an Aboriginal neighborhood highlights Australian racism, and again when he meets the American commanding officer with his Southern accent: "…they draw out their vowels, like what they have to say is somehow more important than anything anyone else has to say." Although the novel’s episodic approach and lack of a strong central narrative blunts the force of its conclusion, the individual stories never fail to engage.

The most richly drawn character is Furey himself, scarred by his World War I experience and full of contradictions. He’s still deeply devoted to his late wife yet cranky around almost everyone else, especially the town gossip, whom he loathes. Despite being a Catholic, Furey hints at a mournful respect for an abortionist who offered her service to desperate women. The final mystery is a heartbreaking tale of forbidden love. "There is no redemption, and no one is saved," concludes Furey, but he has, in fact, spent the whole book saving himself, even as a final twist calls into question his reliability as a narrator. Readers will no doubt be pondering the good and bad choices the downtrodden characters make long after finishing the book.

Takeaway: Fans of classic police procedurals will revel in the crisp storytelling, fresh setting, and emotionally damaged sleuth.

Great for fans of: Ian Rankin, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.

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

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Tuesday Night Requiem: Episode #5 Nurse Kit Carson's Knife & Gun Club
L.S. Collison
Collison delivers a quirky fifth episode of her Nurse Kit Carson's Knife & Gun Club, a satiric dystopian serial set in the New Wild West. This time, a mysterious virus called “the grippe” — which functions something like a stand in for COVID-19— is spreading like wildfire. Working the night shift, “nursettes” (seemingly glorified waitresses) are packing heat, and the soon-to-be CEO is gleeful about profiting from the virus. Oh, and a shooter who fancies himself a deliverer for the Grim Reaper is working his way through a list of patients at the High Plains Medical Center. Next on his list: virus crusader and nurse Kit Carson.

Collison’s imaginative plot about the dystopian state of affairs in New Wild West health care will seem downright plausible to contemporary readers. The details ring true, especially about the burdens placed on nurses, which isn’t surprising considering Collison worked as a registered nurse herself for over a decade, specializing in emergency and critical care. Her characters are memorable, especially the crooked sheriff in town, who resembles a recent occupant of the Oval Office right down to the pejorative and racist names he applies to the virus, his false bravado about his health, and his thirst for retribution. Witty dialogue provokes chuckles in many places, and the milieu, which combines western tropes with the American present of NDAs and online college classes.

However, odd typography choice unnecessarily detracts from the serial’s unusual pleasures, as do many of the willfully peculiar character names (such as Balmy Wether, Stormy Wether, Calamity, and Big Dick in particular.) Sentences like scattering atoms sometimes make following the narrative difficult. As this is a serial story, the entire plot isn’t contained within these pages — leaving readers who haven’t read the previous entries struggling to keep up. Fans of Collison who have been keeping up with the serial will enjoy this episode; those who haven’t are likely to be confused.

Takeaway: This western serial’s sly take on the events of the day will engage fans of satiric storytelling, but is best read from the series’ start.

Great for fans of: George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Terry Pratchett, Al Capp.

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

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She Remembered
Rita H Rowe
Rowe’s psychological novel follows Elena, a young painter, as she tries to recover the memories of her childhood that she has locked away. Elena’s recollections start with her mother, Maria, abandoning her for a job singing in clubs in Melbourne. Suddenly motherless, she grows up doted on by her father Jose, her brothers, and her best friend Luke–until one terrible night Elena’s life is changed with a sexual assault that ends her childhood and drives Luke away. Unable to remember exactly what happened, Elena begins to suffer from nightmares that plague her for years, and she starts down a destructive path involving parties, questionable men, and a tumultuous reconnection with her mother.

Rowe weaves a compelling tale of the impact of childhood trauma on adulthood, and both Elena’s sexual assault and the loss of her mother reverberate through her adult life. Elena’s story is raw and unflinching, and She Remembered tracks her father’s remarriage, her own damaging romantic relationships (including dating Robert, a man her father’s age), and her stormy bond with her mother. It is only when Luke re-enters her life that a happy future seems possible, but he’s guarding his own secrets–secrets that could threaten everything Elena thinks about him and their past. Rowe does not offer easy solutions to handling trauma, and she effectively explores themes of attachment and alliance as she dramatizes a toxic mother-daughter relationship.

Memory fascinates Rowe, at times to the detriment of the storytelling. Much of the narrative takes the form of a recollection: Almost every chapter opens with “She remembered.” This slows the pace, and the choice not to offer the perspective of the present-day Elena who is actually reminiscing distances the reader from the protagonist. Readers will be disappointed to miss the impact of Elena’s memories on her present life, and some may find the resolution too convenient, but overall the involving plot and all-too-real turmoil will keep them engaged.

Takeaway: Readers interested in the long-term impacts of trauma and the nature of memory will find plenty of value in this novel.

Great for fans of: Kate Atkinson, Anne Enright’s The Green Road.

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

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Sun Wolf: Space Unbound Book 2
DAVID C. JEFFREY
The second installment in Jeffrey’s Space Unbound series (after Through a Forest of Stars) follows the crew of the Sun Wolf, a high-tech Science and Survey vessel, on a journey to save the universe. When a series of government ships mysteriously vanish, and the solar system’s transportation portals (voidoids) are attacked, Commander Aiden Macallan and his team are recruited to track down the perpetrators. But what starts as a straightforward mission becomes increasingly complex, when Aiden discovers that the voidoids themselves may be sentient—and responsible for the existence of the universe itself. With the help of Maryam Ebadi, codirector of the advanced research center the Cauldron, the crew must travel outside the realm of Bound Space to track down Elgin Woo, a missing scientist with the knowledge to stop the carnage.

While the novel’s opening promises elements of mystery (Aiden’s pompous military advisor Colonel Aminu warns him not to trust anybody, even his own crew), the rest of the book is an epic space adventure written in the hard SF mode. The plot operates on a grand scale, featuring interplanetary jumping, rogue space pirates, and warring government factions. But, like its predecessor, Sun Wolf really shines on the micro level. Aiden is a likeable, honorable protagonist who commands a diverse crew of scrappy, well-intentioned individuals. With a team of nine (and counting), not everyone gets a chance to develop, but the well-crafted character dynamics add a personal touch to the wide-ranging storyline.

Actions, weapons, and scientific concepts are explained in-depth throughout, and the plot often feels secondary to the workings of the universe itself. It is not enough to have a ship travel at 92 percent light speed—the mechanisms by which it does so are explained and re-explained. The exposition can sometimes bog down the narrative, but Jeffrey gives lovers of the genre interesting perspectives on his concepts. Adventure fans and tech aficionados alike will appreciate this cosmic escapade.

Takeaway: This detailed space opera with a touch of mystery will appeal to those interested in the science of interplanetary adventure.

Great for fans of: Peter Watts’s Blindsight, Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin.

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

Click here for more about Sun Wolf
GOROSHI Beyond Technique: What is Karate
Andrés Escobar
In this amalgamation of martial arts quotes, facts, and techniques, Escobar, who uses the pen name “Goroshi,” invites readers to learn more about karate and its powerful impact on personal growth and balance. Fighting against what he calls the “prostitution” of karate, Escobar shares his own martial arts journey, his brilliant teachers along the way, and the relationship between karate and Zen, with an emphasis on the discipline, physical training, and self-sacrifice necessary to develop as an individual. With advice on how to meditate, how to navigate group training, and what to look for in a mentor, Escobar’s tips will appeal to beginners and experts alike.

This guide reads almost like a diary: Escobar releases all of his thoughts, often without clear consideration for what information readers might be seeking. Sections range from how-to (“Meditation” or “The Ideal Psychological State for Students”), memoir style (“Sensei Takayuki Mikami”), and even précis of other material (“Takuan Soho: An Interpretation and Summary”). Despite an abundance of information, the material is presented without much structure, and readers will feel disoriented at the historical timelines, photos of the author in various stages of his life, and commentaries on the modern-day martial arts–commentaries that at times offer no clear takeaway.

Regardless of the unconventional approach, Escobar has much insight and encouragement to impart in this fast-moving read. For beginners, it offers a glimpse into the world of advanced karate, and what can be achieved by sticking with the demanding (and rewarding) practice. For more advanced followers, Escobar’s musings may be a reminder of karate’s purpose or an interpretation of the teachings he’s picked up over the years. Although it can feel unfocused, and that language about the “prostitution” of karate will strike some as distasteful, Escobar has written a treatise that will appeal to martial artists of all skill levels, as well as to those interested in expanding their view of martial arts beyond fighting techniques.

Takeaway: Part how-to and part memoir, this treatise on karate emphasizes the deeper purpose of martial arts.

Great for fans of: Takuan Soho’s The Unfettered Mind, Gichin Funakoshi’s The Essence of Karate.

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

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Bridges: To There - Poems for the Mind, Body & Spirit
Gary W. Burns
Burns’s latest collection brings together appreciations of the natural world with poetic thoughts and invitations to meditate, enjoy the journey of life, and focus on the beauty of love. Inspired by Zen Buddhist and Taoist thought, these short poems meld introspection with nature, with motifs like the sky and clouds or birds and trees appearing in several poems. Burns strikes up a conversation on the page, with poems that often shatter the fourth wall and address the reader, offering encouragements to feel things or to dare to begin a journey.

Many of the pieces concern love: “Love/Tells me/Closeness/Is ecstasy/Let’s be.” While Bridges occasionally touches on relationships, Burns never delves into familiar topics like lost love or the search for love, instead focusing on appreciating the love that is, on enjoying a moment despite its ephemeral nature. He urges readers “Take time to cherish/And understand/The love/At hand.” Despite the brevity of these poems—“Truly” contains just three words, “Be/See/Eternity” —they illuminate the author’s dedication to Buddhism and the Tao.

Burns divides the work into four parts: Aerial, Suspension, Crossing, and Banks, each accompanied by photographs that often feature bridges in natural surroundings. The images pair well with the contemplative aesthetic of his poetry, and the photographic architecture reinforces the idea of “Be/Here/Be/Now/Blissful/Tao.” Though some of the elements feel repetitive, the pacing and crispness of the lines prevents them from becoming tiresome. The tone in these brief but rich pieces is comforting, with a warm voice advocating contemplation and self-love (“Whatever you do/Don’t hesitate/To celebrate/You”). In these tumultuous times, Burns’s poems offer a peaceful refuge for those who want to be immersed in the natural world while simultaneously looking inside themselves.

Takeaway: This succinct collection is an invitation to meditate on and appreciate the presence of love and the beauty of the natural world.

Great for fans of: Gary Snyder, A.S. Kline.

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

The Battle of Buffalo Wallow: The Japanese Attack on the 44th General Hospital in World War II - Leyte, Philippines December 1944
James R Odrowski
Odrowski debuts with a sensitive account of his father, a veteran of World War II, and his 44th General Hospital unit in an under-studied battle in the Philippines, the eponymous Battle for Buffalo Wallow. Drawing on his childhood fascination with hearing war stories, Odrowski transports readers straight into the action with his evocative descriptions of his father’s experience, such as his depiction of a visit to a native village in New Guinea with “tall coconut logs stood like sentries amidst areas of thick jungle growth.” He takes care to contextualize the human-scale story against the broader history of the war itself, explaining the proper chain of medical evacuation and considering deeper ethical questions, such as whether it was appropriate for a hospital unit to be fighting the in the first place.

Photographs of Odrowski’s father and mother, on the home front and in the field, illustrate the story, helping readers put faces to names and immersing them in the story’s events. Strategists will wish for more geographical context to follow the various maneuvers of the battle, but Odrowski does offer some maps and slightly too much primary material, such as when he quotes lengthy dueling poems between American units for several pages. Overall, his extensive research illuminates what happened and why, while not overwhelming the human interest at the core of his father’s story.

Odrowski even takes pains to highlight moral questions which may be overlooked by a less careful storyteller, recounting war crimes with deep concern and including a content warning for language used by Americans during the war to refer to the Japanese. (In honor of the “comfort women” abused by the Japanese, some of the proceeds from the book will go to organizations serving women impacted by war and sexual assault). This historical retelling is fascinating, and Odrowski does an admirable job of tying the personal to the world-historic in one engaging narrative.

Takeaway: History buffs will appreciate this family story that examines a little-known battle of the Second World War.

Great for fans of: E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, Hampton Sides’s Ghost Soldiers.

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

Click here for more about The Battle of Buffalo Wallow
The Art of Being Alive: Introspective Wisdom on Living a Vibrant Life
Suzette McIntyre
Internationally acclaimed photojournalist McIntyre’s (Beauty Surrounds Us) photo essay collection about living life with purpose encourages reflection on communicating with your “Inner Spirit” and embarking on our journeys into the world with confidence and vibrant energy. Drawing from her own travels around the world, encountering spiritual experiences and searching for the meaning of being alive, she focuses on topics like the certainty of seasonal change, moments of stillness in the chaos of city streets, the magic and power of water, and the need to share one’s knowledge with other people. McIntyre asserts, “We can move through the day with less judgment, seeing richness in everything.”

A Christian who believes Christ’s spiritual presence connects her to God, McIntyre acknowledges and expresses respect for other systems of belief that share the common intent of elevating humanity and encouraging kindness. Through her motivating verse and luminous photographs, she urges readers to tap into the empowering “Universal Force” within us, trusting the strength of a greater power to wash away negativity and help us each find the “source” of our individual spirits amid the commotion of life. “With a consistent channel from the Greater Power within, you will feel an endless source of Energy flowing through you,” she argues. Soothing, sometimes familiar quotes from contemporary philosophers and thinkers such as Leo Buscaglia, Helen Keller, Mahatma Gandhi, and Maya Angelou complement the evocative images, which range from bustling city scenes to rustic animal portraiture.

McIntyre weaves her text around the pages of this stimulating collection, but the ephemeral beauty captured in her photographs steals the show. She catches personal moments of exultation and joy and embeds them into the whirl of city life, toggling between horses on the high plains to street graffiti and sun bursts. Although the messages and photos are occasionally mismatched, inspiration-minded readers will delight in this visual representation of comfort and connection.

Takeaway: This optimistic collection of inspiring words and evocative images takes readers on a photographic journey of inner reflection.

Great for fans of: Howard Zehr’s Little Book of Contemplative Photography, Jan Phillips’s God Is at Eye Level.

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

Click here for more about The Art of Being Alive
Gods of Sound: The Perilous Path of Cameron Foster
QM Schaffer
Schaffer explores a young boy’s coming-of-age story in a superpowered, rock-heavy fiction full of music, mystery, and hidden strengths. Lonely and asthmatic, Cameron Foster is an unlucky kid – his foster mom Ethel is an alcoholic, and he's bullied daily. But Cameron’s extraordinary talent for guitar keeps him going. When he meets a mysterious woman decked entirely in leather, Cameron’s life changes forever. His virtuosity attracts the attention of a secretive organization of extraordinary musicians with plans to change the world. As the life he knew disappears, Cameron must learn to fight for himself to discover his hidden power.

Schaffer endears the reader to his underdog protagonist by delving into Cameron’s character and dramatically stacking the deck against him. However, Schaffer hinders engagement by merely summarizing what is at the heart of Gods of Sound: the music. Guitar performances and competitions dominate the story, but instead of bringing the music to life with vivid descriptions, he states the songs on the setlists and moves on (“ with lightning fast fingers he played the beginning of an intricate classical song for Spanish guitar, gracefully slipping into the last two minutes of the Eagles’ ‘Hotel California,’ then into part of the heavier ‘Black Dog’ by Led Zeppelin.”) Consequently, readers are thrust out of the story, forced to look up the songs if they want to understand the scene better. Without capturing the power of the music, Gods of Sound falls shy of being the exhilarating, rock opera-esque adventure its audience might crave.

Still, Schaffer delivers a fantasy-fulfilling adventure that succeeds in the promise of most young adult novels: It immerses its readers in an entertaining world while mirroring their own coming-of-age journeys. Guitar lovers will appreciate the rise of a young and talented rock star, and YA fans will enjoy this hero who persists against every obstacle to find his real family.

Takeaway: Guitar lovers will enjoy this high stakes coming-of-age story that pairs the supernatural with the power of rock.

Great for fans of: Robin Benway’s Audrey Wait!, Sarah Nicole Smetana’s The Midnights.

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

Click here for more about Gods of Sound
These Scars Called Home
Milan Gupta
Gupta (The Mariner’s Grandson) explores romance as healing in a hopeful story that crosses social boundaries and shows that having a rough early life does not destroy the path to happiness. Mexican-born Casandra “Cassie” Matrinez, having run away from her abusive Houston adoptive family after high school, has made it to Miami on the power of her good looks and her self-protective attitude. There, she meets Ronnie Service, a kind if awkward man with schizophrenia, whose strongest attachments are to his mother, his therapist, and his memory of an old crush that he considers to have been the love of his life.

Gupta’s decision to keep this warm, good-natured novel mostly linear puts too much focus on Cassie’s and Ronnie’s lives before introducing them, material that might have been better presented in flashbacks or as part of the extensive therapeutic sessions both characters attend. Nevertheless, he does an admirable job examining how personal growth, relationship growth, and mental health work together, both positively and negatively. While Cassie is around, Ronnie’s fear of imaginary followers lessens, but his sensitivity to rejection means Cassie’s tentative responses to his enthusiasm can trigger him into a psychotic break. Both characters are always presented sympathetically, given complexity beyond their diagnoses, and allowed substantial progress in self-awareness without dismissing lifelong issues as solvable.

Gupta is less assured when depicting introspection, overemphasizing the character’s reactions to outside events and putting big insights into the mouths of therapists or friends. The way Cassie’s abuse story and its resolution are handled leans slightly too heavily into dramatic voyeurism. Nevertheless, Cassie’s struggle to understand whether she could handle a life with someone with schizophrenia feels authentic, and her definitive answer at the end will prove encouraging to readers who may fear that their mental health might exclude them from love.

Takeaway: This warm novel highlights the possibility of supportive love for everyone, no matter what their challenges.

Great for fans of: Melanie Harlow’s Some Sort of Happy, Penny Reid’s Beard in Mind.

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

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A Knock in the Attic: True Ghost Stories & Other Spine-chilling Paranormal Adventures
John Russell
Part autobiography, part engaging paranormal story-telling, John Russell pens an entertaining–at times scary, if you believe in the paranormal–account of his life as a medium. Russell insists that he first encountered a ghost at age five, when he awoke to see an older Black gentleman standing staring at him in bed. At first, young Russell believed the man to be an intruder, but when he screamed for his parents, the man vanishes into thin air. So begins Russell's many run-ins with the spirit realm. "Perhaps they would want me to try to convey messages to others for them. Perhaps they had things to tell me about myself that would prove beneficial to my own life. Perhaps they were lonely," Russell muses as to why the spirits gravitate toward him.

Russell serves up strange experiences and paranormal events with a fast pace and enough vivid detail to keep even some skeptical readers turning the pages to find out exactly how many encounters he claims with the spirit world and how he has dealt with the aftermath. Russell reports that his “gift” runs the gamut from seeing spirits to having prophetic dreams to being able to read other people's history–histories, he insists, that have not been disclosed to him and he would have no way of knowing. Russell describes his gift as likely inherited: "Several generations of my family had been both believers in and had had experiences with the paranormal."

Russell relishes building tension as he spins his tales. This is not a book readers will want to read late into the night if they are inclined to be fearful of the dark. It will put readers in the mind of television shows like Ghost Hunters or Medium in book format, or a round of entertaining ghost stories told around a campfire.

Takeaway: Readers who enjoy a good heart-racing, spooky ghost story will enjoy this collection claiming real-life encounters with the paranormal world.

Great for fans of: Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Sylvia Browne's The Other Side and Back.

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

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