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Unchecked Capitalism is Killing Us!: How unfettered corporate greed and corruption have made us poorer, fatter, sicker, less tolerant of others and more dangerously exposed to the coronavirus.
Michael W. Shroyer
Rynerson’s thorough, fierce, nonpartisan attack on contemporary capitalism emphasizes the pernicious influence that corporate power has on the daily lives of average Americans. Comparing the population to the archetypal frog who doesn’t recognize it’s gradually being boiled alive, Rynerson notes that, since the Reagan revolution, regulations on corporations have slowly eroded, allowing them to achieve ever greater profit at the expense of the public, a trend only exacerbated by the globalization of the Clinton era. Without restrictions, “unfettered corporate greed” is unleashed, which leads to corporations corrupting government policy. Rynerson presents an exhaustive list of charges of illegal activity by banks and other companies; he offers evidence of auto companies deliberately stifling innovation; and he charts the alarming history of pharmaceutical companies directly writing legislation to prevent Medicare from negotiating prices for medicine.

Rynerson's arguments prove most persuasive when focused on specific examples of corruption, such as his spirited takedown of the lobbying industry, in which he connects various powerful lobbies to their influence on specific members of Congress. At times, he overreaches, not addressing issues like race and poverty when urging readers to buy electric cars and healthier groceries, or loosely linking the treatment decisions made by oncologists to corruption elsewhere in the medical industry, such as pharmaceutical companies’ efforts to sell opioids. While most of his arguments are easy to follow, they sometimes get swallowed in the avalanche of outrages and references, a tendency that also dulls the righteous power of his anger.

“Unfortunately, corporate control of our nation became complete in 2010,” he laments in a discussion of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allowed unlimited election spending from wealthy donors. Rynerson makes that case with such clear fury that, perhaps inevitably, the solutions he offers (idealistic fixes like the creation of a new, centrist political party, individual-focused changes like eating less sugar) come up short. Still, Rynerson's passion and outrage raise urgent, thought-provoking questions.

Takeaway: A no-holds-barred attack on unchecked corporate power in American.

Great for fans of: David Dayen’s Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate Power, Christopher Leonard’s kochland.

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

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Vandella
M. Ch. Landa
Landa’s debut novel follows Maia Foster––a 17 year-old cancer survivor raised by her grandmother––as she journeys through the afterlife to save her grandmother’s life. A regular high school student with a crush on a popular jock and conflict with local mean girls, Maia sees her world fall apart when her doctor breaks the news that her cancer is coming back. Then things get strange: She wakes up in the hospital and sees a mysterious man touching her grandmother’s forehead. That stranger Sidney, who looks young but has an air of agelessness about him, hints at knowledge of life, death, and souls, and tells Maia that she has the opportunity to save her grandmother’s life, but for a price. Maia accepts, and together they take a dazzling plunge into the afterlife. But there she loses the medallion that protects her and then, one by one, her senses, all as she discovers that Sidney, her self-proclaimed “caregiver,” hasn’t been completely honest with her.

Featuring an angelic language, death personified, plus demigods and dragon, this coming-of-age story covers a lot of fantastical ground. Lovers of young adult romance steeped in fantastical journeys and coming-of-age themes will appreciate this story, if they’re comfortable with the issues of age, power, and consent that mostly go unaddressed in the budding romance between an underage teen and an apparently ageless being who can read her mind, has observed her since her girlhood, and is described in the narrative as a “man” while she’s referred to as a “girl.”

The descent into fantasy is slow and immersive, allowing time for the Maia and readers to acclimate to a convincing world, which helps develop stakes that give the story power. The worldbuilding is strong on both the fantastic and realistic sides, and a moving twist shifts the novel’s focus to familial love and sacrifice rather than romantic love.

Takeaway: Strong worldbuilding and an engaging teen protagonist ground this fantasy in real emotion.

Great for fans of: Archer Lakhani’s The Safekeeper, Neal Shusterman’s Everlost.

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

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Healing the Stormy Marriage: Hope and Help for YOU when Your Loved One has Mental Health or Addiction Issues
R Christian Bohlen
In this empathetic self-help book, Bohlen and his wife, Helen M. Bohlen, offer relationship advice rooted in Christian teachings for spouses of individuals with mental health or addiction issues. Bohlen opens with a relatable and hopeful admission: He and his wife have both faced issues including bipolar disorder, drug addiction, and suicide attempts, but, despite it all, they have survived and thrived as a couple for more than 35 years.

Bohlen points out that it’s actually quite common to love someone with a mental illness, as roughly half of the U.S. population will experience one over the course of their lives. Bohen makes it clear that he’s not a mental health expert, but he establishes credibility with his research and his professional experience with trauma and substance abuse as a teacher for young men at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility. In a nutshell, Bohlen recommends that if “spouses of the mentally ill or addicted can be spiritually strengthened and learn practical things they can do independently, more marriages can be saved.”

This is, of course, easier said than done, so much of the book breaks down specific scenarios that apply to particular sets of circumstances, offering practical steps to navigate these difficulties. This includes understanding a spouse’s emotional triggers, enforcing boundaries, remaining focused on personal goals and dreams, and staying grounded in reality. While Bohlen emphasizes scripture, prayer, and, in a recurring section, the urgency of recognizing the “Spiritual Blessings” of “patiently persevering with your spouse or loved one in partnership with God,” he is adamant that dangerous or abusive marriages should end and that it’s urgent for many couples to seek professional help. “Praise God for inspiring professionals who research and then share what works with those of us who suffer,” he writes. For believers, this book serves as a helpful, faith-based guide for couples seeking to understand and overcome their respective challenges and remain together.

Takeaway: A warm, inviting faith-based self-help guide for married couples facing mental health challenges.

Great for fans of: Mathew S. Stanford’s Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness, Catherine P. Downing’s Sparks of Redemptive Grace.

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

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Inner Alchemy: The Path of Mastery, Updated and Revised Edition
Zulma Reyo
Reyo (Divine Alchemy) illuminates the often complex techniques of achieving healing and self-reflection to secure social and world change in this inviting revision of her 1989 first edition. With a supportive approach, Reyo posits that through inner alchemy, which is “the science of applied consciousness to raise the vibration of the matter that comprises our physical and psychological self into finer states or frequencies,” individuals can connect with something larger, achieve joy and fulfillment, and effect global change. Suitable for intermediate and advanced students of topics like astral realms and “energetic work,” this thorough manual presents immersive exercises to identify and manage the individual self through energy mastery and conversion. These exercises have been crafted to foster exploration of the nature of life, the self, and the soul—and how all of these are bound up together.

Useful in a group setting or individually, Reyo’s emotionally intense practices develop not only familiar energy areas, such as the seven chakras, but also concepts like the twelve dimensional stages of consciousness. Reyo describes the seven fields of energy around the living body and the seven rays or divine flames that imbue all of creation, and she offers practical applications for readers who have achieved transformation or arrived at fresh perceptions, such as composing daily personal affirmations and achieving confidence, control, steadiness, integrity, and divine reflection.

Adding a personal touch, Reyo describes her own journey with energy work, the knowledge she gained from experts in the field, and how she went on to found the Inner Alchemy School of Consciousness in several Latin American countries. Readers on the right wavelength will relish this elegantly designed edition, complete with sophisticated illustrations that convincingly depict difficult to understand concepts. The book is well indexed and catalogued with a glossary and bibliography, making it a valuable reference for seekers of spiritual well-being.

Takeaway: A practical, polished compendium of spiritual exercises for self-improvement and ways to effect global change.

Great for fans of: Anodea Judith's Wheels of Life, Athena Perrakis's The Ultimate Guide to Chakras.

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

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Gaining Altitude : Retirement and Beyond
Rebecca Milliken
In her debut, a hybrid work between memoir and self-help, Milliken deftly addresses the complexities and emotions of choosing to retire from full-time work. At age 63, after 30 years as a psychotherapist in Washington, D.C., Milliken made the difficult decision to retire and reinvent herself as a writer—no small feat in a city that measures human worth by accomplishments. Shedding her longtime identity as a therapist amid criticism from others about her choice, she took a leap of faith into uncertainty.

After an uncomfortable start in which she questioned what on Earth she should actually do with all her new time (learn Arabic? Volunteer for the Red Cross? Take up pickleball?), Milliken began to relish retirement, learning to ask herself new questions: “What seems important now that wasn’t before?” “Who am I if I am no longer who I used to be?” One of the most liberating aspects of retiring, she writes, was the opportunity to learn by doing and not to fear the possibility of making mistakes. “Mistakes are mirrors where we get an opportunity to see ourselves more clearly than usual,” she points out, as encouragement to those facing similar fears and thoughts. Milliken also celebrates the freedom to let her thoughts meander, to allow the random and the trivial to float through her head as a means for sparking creativity.

Milliken’s expertise as a psychotherapist is evident both in the introspective way that she chronicles her journey and in her wise and measured words—words that will strike a chord with readers contemplating their own next acts. A helpful list of books for more on the topic will also guide readers as they prepare for the imposing life change that is retirement, though readers will likely feel that Milliken’s own account, centered on how “this freedom invites me to be, not do qualifies for such lists itself.

Takeaway: Anyone with mixed feelings on the precipice of retirement will gain insight and comfort from this wise account.

Great for fans of: Gene Cohen’s The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life, William Sadler and James Krefft’s Changing Course: Navigating Life after Fifty.

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

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Penance
SETH SJOSTROM
This swift-moving and violent actioner follows FBI agent Alex Penance as he must use his phenomenal fighting skills to battle Mexican gangsters. Penance was marked for promotion, but he gets exiled to rural Mississippi when he has a fling with a senator's girlfriend. The Las Piratas have been kidnapping girls in the area, and when Penance arrests a cartel lieutenant, the gang promises retribution. Along the way, Penance has several run-ins with the Whatcoms, a local family of criminals, and embarks on a tentative romance with local Assistant District Attorney Annie Hunt while planning for a showdown with the cartel.

Sjostrom (Patriot X) keeps the action on full boil, as Penance solves virtually every problem with violence. To quickly interrogate a suspect, Penance shoves his head through a window. Even a disagreement with the local district attorney quickly gets physical. And when he finds a young woman being preyed upon by her boyfriend in his car, his first reaction is to smash glass. Even a meeting with an FBI psychologist about his propensity for violence…turns violent. Occasionally, we glimpse a warmer side of Penance, as when he shares an empathetic moment with an overwhelmed single father, and his relationship with local police officer Bubba comes across as genuine. But the various character-driven subplots, including his love-hate relationship with the Whatcoms, get overwhelmed by the continual fracases.

Indeed, most of the characters are either dishing out violence or defending it, including a local judge. When the cartel attacks, most of the town is willing and able to join the defense, and this includes the pastor, who is well-versed in the use of his AR-15. Sjostrom definitely has a flair for staging the brisk fight scenes: "… he sprung up to fire on the last visible guard only to see him knocked backward, a bullet shattering his skull." Action aficionados will enjoy the fast-paced conflict all the way to the satisfying conclusion.

Takeaway:: Fans of red-meat action will revel in the continuous stream of fight scenes.

Great for fans of: Stephen Hunter, Nick Petrie.

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

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Murder In the Haunted Chamber
Bill LeFurgy
LeFurgy’s second historic mystery takes a turn for the supernatural. It's 1910, and Baltimore is at the height of the spiritualist movement. Ever logical, returning hero Sarah Kennecott, a doctor on the autism spectrum, is a skeptic even when faced with the ghost of her own sister asking her to investigate the murder of a young woman. But when a decidedly living client—claiming to be a spiritual medium—shows up seeking her help in finding the same woman who appeared in Sarah's vision, Sarah and her returning partner, the detective Jack Harden, must once again dive into the seedy underbelly of Baltimore in order to catch a killer.

Lefurgy's signal strength is his persuasive weaving in of historic details of technology, pop culture, and Baltimore lore without distracting from the story. The characters ride around in horse-drawn or motor cabs, checking out seedy bars that play ragtime while being heckled by prohibitionists. The story itself is a complex mystery with a wide cast of characters tied together through with an assassination plot and a blackmail attempt.That complexity is mitigated by the author pausing periodically to have the characters rehash the situation, which might prove repetitive for seasoned fans of the genre.

The protagonists form a classic duo of opposites—Jack is an emotional man of the streets, while Sarah is a logic-oriented member of high society—who complement each other well and have a spark of affection that leads to an unlikely but believable friendship. Sarah is particularly unique as a historical heroine on the autism spectrum. While her speech patterns are exaggeratedly stilted (“There is a high probability that all three deaths are attributable to a murderer, or perhaps a team of murderers”) in the manner of Vulcans or androids, overall she is a fully realized person with a passion for justice, one who also misses social cues. The book is a well-plotted mystery set against a vivid historical backdrop.

Takeaway: Great for readers of historical mysteries who love clever female detectives.

Great for fans of: Rhys Bowen, Victoria Thompson

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

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The Part That Burns: A memoir in fragments
Jeannine M Ouellette
Ouellette’s memoir is a mesmerizing narrative kaleidoscope centered on her struggle to come to terms with the abuse she endured as a child. When Ouellette was four years old, her mother’s second husband began to molest her, abuse that continued for years. Ouellette coped by searching for “doorways” that allowed her to escape into new worlds. Even after her mother’s relationship with the abuser ended, Ouellette’s rocky, unstable childhood eventually landed her in the foster care system. After she aged out, her own marriage and children inspired her to revisit her past, confront her trauma, and pen this remarkable book.

Ouellette eschews a traditional chronological approach, instead organizing the narrative into short vignettes, each related to a significant object or incident. This fragmented structure captures the complexity of Ouellette’s emotional journey by illuminating key events and themes from fresh angles and perspectives, the structure suggesting the actual workings of memory. Some readers may at first look for more sustained, synthesized reflection or more circumscribed resolutions, but Ouellette’s skillful arrangement of these vignettes allows the story to surge forward and backward in a way that both heightens anticipation and layers meaning onto her experiences, without disorienting attentive readers.

Within the vignettes, Ouellette tells her story with power, strength, and even surprises: She includes an autobiography she wrote in ninth grade, its youthful, polished sentences poignantly glossing over the darker truth of her life. A series of sections on “daughterhood,” co-written by her own daughter, puts both women’s perspectives in dialogue, intertwining their experiences while exploring their distinctions. These unique elements add further dimension to the rich themes of motherhood and memory, offering readers interpretive possibilities that are equally challenging and rewarding. Ouellette’s memoir inventively laces together her past, present, and future, resulting in an innovative yet deeply emotional reading experience.

Takeaway: This moving memoir will connect with thoughtful readers who are open to an unconventional exploration of living after abuse.

Great for fans of: Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Tara Westover’s Educated.

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

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To The Stars: A Novel
Shannon P Colleary
Two young women find friendship in each other just when they need it most in Bradley-Colleary’s heart-rending fiction debut, a novel that originated as a screenplay that became the 2019 Samuel Goldwyn film of the same title. Living in tiny WaKeeney, Kansas, where everyone knows everyone and everything, Iris has been an “Untouchable” her whole life. In high stress situations she wets herself, a byproduct of her mother’s verbal abuse and severe anxiety from a lifetime of bullying—the nickname “Stinky Drawers” follows her right into high school. So, she’s understandably leery when a stand-out city girl, Maggie, moves to town and wants to be her friend. Maggie has her own painful secrets, and she needs Iris just as much as Iris needs her.

Traveling back to 1961, a time when being different in any way was alienating and even dangerous in a small town, Bradley-Colleary expertly delves into the hearts and minds of young people of the era, inviting readers to experience their painful feelings and small victories. Making the story even more personal, the narrator is a woman who fought–and lost–her battle with depression and loved Iris as a daughter. Bradley-Colleary opens with that narrator’s captivating account of her own suicide (“This is not a ghost story. But it is a story told by a ghost”).

Bradley-Colleary brings the town and characters to full, engaging life in this moving narrative. The pond central to the story exudes sadness, as the location of the narrator’s suicide, but also the sanctity and solace Iris feels there. Minute character details—the flick of a cigarette, the way one’s “slick black hair” is “rolled into a stylish mound the Frogs call a ‘chingon’”—speak volumes both about individual personalities and mid-century Kansas. Sometimes uncomfortable in the best ways, To the Stars will draw readers in. Expect to fall in love with Iris and Maggie.

Takeaway: A beautiful story of an unlikely small-town teen friendship that empowers when it’s needed most.

Great for fans of: Fiona Valpy’s The Dressmaker’s Gift, Mary Ellen Taylor’s Honeysuckle Season.

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

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Creatrix Rising: Unlocking the Power of Midlife Women
Stephanie Raffelock
Inspired by the upheaval of American life during the Trump years, Raffelock (A Delightful Little Book on Aging) charts a course to embracing the title of Creatrix—her renaming of the archetypal feminine models of maiden, mother, and most especially crone—to empower other women. At the age of 68, Raffelock found herself among an oft-ignored group that has been slowly gaining a voice in society: midlife women. Through brief vignettes accompanied by prompts for journaling and reflection, Raffelock inspires midlife women to consider their own journeys in life and tap into their creative power.

Raffelock is a product of and poster child of her generation, and she devotes considerable energy to examining the development of her feminist identity and recounting her struggles with drug addiction. Rather than glamorize her past drug use, she illustrates her self-destructive tendencies and how easy it was to indulge them in Laurel Canyon in the 1970s. Her feminism, too, is very much situated in that era: Her heartfelt description of the 2017 Women’s March emphasizes a sense of hope, uplift, and cross-generational connection: “Older women like me had the experience of an earlier feminism,” she notes. “Younger women carried the torch of new inspiration and vision. We’d been walking side by side for longer than any of us realized.”

Raffelock’s voice is gentle but probing, of herself and her audience, which shines through in her journal prompts: Neither gimmick nor afterthought, they’re a continual highlight, functioning as an introspective, reflective tool for readers seeking a new perspective or an opportunity to work through the complexities of feminism. Full of heart and impassioned insight (“There is no diagnostic code for grief, and there are no medications for sorrow”), Creatrix Rising empowers and inspires midlife women with the author’s hard-earned wisdom, providing a framework for readers to come into their own revolutionary power as a Creatrix.

Takeaway: Midlife women who want to reclaim their power will find inspiration and tools for reflection in this moving memoir.

Great for fans of: Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s Women Who Run with the Wolves, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic.

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

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Swimming with the Angels
Colin Kersey
Kersey follows his exciting debut (Soul Catcher) with this immersive thriller about how a man reinvents himself when members of a drug cartel kill his wife. Grayson Reynolds is the name that a man adopts to evade pursuit when the Sinaloa cartel takes revenge against his wife, Heide, after discovering that she had engineered the theft of some of its money through a hedge fund. Bereft and in danger, this “Grayson” leaves California to work in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains, north of Seattle. Though the pay is minimal, Grayson hopes that his job at a farm will at least keep him safe. But complications arise when the farmer’s younger daughter, Valerie, a kind, blind woman, becomes attracted to Grayson—and her married sister Vonda starts flirting with him, too. Once he realizes his presence puts the family in danger, he must decide on his next move.

Kersey’s expert pacing and attention to detail surrounding the life-changing events in Grayson’s life breathes life into the story, quickly immersing the reader. An early attack on a boat at Newport Harbor captures the combination of momentum and convincing color: “Bits of vinyl seats, fiberglass,and bloody body parts peppered me as we blasted past the paddleboarders, swamping them in our wake.” Elsewhere, that lyricism highlights Grayson’s introspective nature, offering greater insight into a man forced to leave his life behind and start over.

While highlighting the beauty near the North Cascade Mountains, Kersey deftly depicts the family dynamic between Vonda and Valerie. He reveals the complexity behind Vonda’s jealousy of Valerie; though she’s initially portrayed as somewhat naïve, her depth gets revealed as Grayson comes to know her, discovering her conviction that he is the man her deceased mother believed would one day come to see her. This thriller offers the on-the-run action that fans of the genre crave but also character and heart.

Takeaway: One man must take on a new identity if he wants a chance at survival in this fleet on-the-run thriller.

Great for fans of: Nora Roberts’s The Witness, Michael Koryta’s Those Who Wish Me Dead.

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

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Jacob's Ladder: Book 3 of The Croy Cycle
Louis Flint Ceci
The third novel in Ceci’s Croy Cycle sees outsider teen Mally Jacobs return to his small hometown after experiencing life and love in the turbulent Big Apple of the late 1960s. After finding his first boyfriend and witnessing the Stonewall riots firsthand, Mally has changed—he’s even adopted a new moniker, calling himself “Jake.” But how can readjust to small-town life when Croy, Oklahoma, is just as conservative as it always has been? As he holds onto the secret of his sexuality, Jake will find what it means to be himself, even in less-than-forgiving Croy.

At its core, Jacob’s Ladder is an elegant meditation on the power of friendship, even in the most uncertain times. The story is strong enough to be presented as a standalone novel; even new readers will be drawn in this late in the series, and they’ll find ample reasons to seek out Ceci’s earlier books. Jake, his boyfriend Vince, and the various inhabitants of Croy are colorful, engaging, and complex. Jake’s struggle to come to terms with the close-mindedness of his schoolmates and his desire to help another long-suffering classmate, Beau, are touching. Charming line illustrations by Jennifer Rain Crosby give extra life to the story and a face to the characters.

Ceci’s atmospheric prose captures the ethos of the era as church and school clash, the war rages on, and the Beatles give way toThe Brady Bunch. Ceci’s skillful, empathetic examination of sexuality, youth culture, and religion is not just welcome but necessary, in any time of upheaval. Young readers who may be coming to grips with their own sexuality will be drawn to the openness and honesty of this depiction and the likeability of the cast. Ceci’s honest, realistic depiction of teenage life in the 1960s and 1970s will resonate with young and older audiences alike.

Takeaway: A moving novel of going home and coming of age while gay as the 1960s end.

Great for fans of: Jim Grimsley’s Dream Boy, Fenton Johnson’s Scissors, Paper, Rock.

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

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Hall Of Skulls
Jamie Eubanks
Eubanks (Hidden Doors, Secret Rooms) weaves an impressive sci-fi love story that crosses time and space. Kai, a member of the Mokuteki civilization, sits at the precipice of earning the prestigious rank and title of Captain Da’o Churi Koa Kai. First, he must complete a grueling, four-stage testing phase, but when it’s discovered that his soul mate Asher has been captured by the Mokuteki’s sworn alien enemies, the Thrakens, he realizes the most important test has begun—and it’s deeply personal. He must risk everything to travel through a portal to Bastian Thraken to rescue his beloved before she’s lost forever.

The heart of this epic is one man’s quest to rescue his soulmate, but Eubanks threads the tale with intricate worldbuilding and fascinating themes, such as concerns about humanity’s dependence on technology, how personal perception can alter history, and the conflict between the desire to remain civilized and the necessity to defend oneself against enemies. Kai’s physical and mental prowess are equally matched by Asher’s strength and pose; when his loyalty toward her gets tested, Kai’s rational personality is pitted against the hopeless romantic he is at his core, creating significant tension.

Eubanks presents the spacefaring technology and tricky time-travel adventures of her complex universe with inviting clarity while showcasing her ability to craft visceral images: “The intense swirl of cloud started to drain of its many colors, becoming pure white as it began to dissipate, eventually leaving just a wispy veil of fog behind.” She sprinkles inventive elements throughout, such as a Tutor—a device that syncs with the wearer’s genetic material and plays educational material—or kips, the whiskers on Kai's ears that help detect movement. While some points of plot or tech get repeated in dialogue, the narrative moves at a pleasant pace, waxing and waning between action and reflection. Readers looking for a sci-fi romance filled with adventure and a likeable protagonist will enjoy Halls of Skulls.

Takeaway: An SF epic packed with action, romance, and a quest across space-time to rescue a soulmate.

Great for fans of: Lois McMaster Bujold, Carol Van Natta.

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

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FUNCTIONAL DYSFUNCTION: From Sour Grapes to Fine Wine
Dr Curtis E Ball
Physician and minister Ball debuts with an intense analysis of his childhood trauma and the myriad ways it impacted him as an adult. The youngest of four siblings, Ball recounts his strict upbringing by cold and distant parents — including painful details of sexual abuse by a sibling — and delves into his dysfunctional adult relationships springing from unresolved trauma, all in the name of demonstrating that “the power of love” is what’s needed to repair “many of the things that ail humanity,” as “many homes and families are generationally inept at loving.” More memoir than self-help guide, this grueling account examines years of abuse and tumultuous family dynamics, mining Ball’s experiences for lessons in how to break trauma cycles.

Ball’s writing style evokes fireside diary entries with a dark edge. He initially focuses on the distant, demanding parenting of his upbringing, including never hearing “I love you” and exposure to regular verbal tirades with “backhanded” compliments. Later chapters touch on wrongs he suffered as an adult as well, including his first wife’s affair, his erasure from his ministry position, and his mother’s refusal to help him access scholarships for medical school. Ball reveals that these wounds culminated in a desire to end his life–but instead led to his discovery of the “diamonds of wisdom under the rubbish of my childhood trauma.”

Readers seeking their own trauma healing will appreciate Ball’s willingness to open old scars, though some of the abuse details can be triggering. He postpones discussion of recovery strategies until the book’s end—where he endorses nuggets like giving yourself permission to feel negative or positive emotions and refusing to fall into shame after failures—but readers seeking more concrete advice will have to look elsewhere. By often focusing on the faults of others, Ball will alienate some audiences, but for those who value raw memoirs that boldly dissect the lasting impacts of trauma, this account will make a lasting impression.

Takeaway: A piercing memoir of childhood trauma, supplemented with strategies to overcome and break the cycle.

Great for fans of: Janyne McConnaughey’s Brave,Chanel Miller’s Know My Name.

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

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All the Tommys in the World: a zombie thriller
Javier Gombinsky
Gombinsky’s debut follows Lilith and Nate, middle-aged YouTubers who love horror movies and scaring each other––even during a zombie apocalypse. This zombie thriller begins at the end of that apocalypse––at least, that’s what the media is saying. That claim inspires Lilith and Nate decide to go for a “zombie run” outside, their last chance to experience the adrenaline of being chased by walking dead. They get separated while escaping from the still quite prevalent undead––leaving Frankie, a kid in a hospital gown, behind. Separately, they start to realize that the “slayers” who reportedly had been eliminating the threat are actually nowhere to be found, and now the fight for humanity is up to them.

From zombies to ghosts to ancient orders to psychic visions and prophecies, this genre-bending mystery keeps its audience and characters guessing, keeping the suspense alive throughout, though at times the storytelling falters. The narrative begins strong and clear, gets muddled and repetitive in the middle, and regains its strength by the end. There are so many twists that the story becomes disorienting––and important plot points are easy to miss, as key moments pass too quickly and the passage of time in the story is not always clear.

Gombinsky’s use of dramatic irony creates a lot of tension: Lilith and Nate’s separation adds to the suspense because they each learn different clues to solve the mystery of the zombies, but they aren’t able to communicate. In a meta-fictional twist, the characters note “It’s trope after trope out there” of their zombie encounters; once Lilith and Nate start to do “the unexpected,” outsmarting the zombies, the story flowers into a potent exploration of rebellion and genre. A final twist that turns all those zombie apocalypse tropes on their heads makes up for the slow-moving middle. Fans of meta-horror and gory body horror will be satisfied: between green blood, severed body parts, and creepy old cemeteries, this thriller never forgets its bloody roots, even as it upends them.

Takeaway: This bloody, clever zombie thriller takes off when its heroes start challenging the rules of the genre.

Great for fans of: David Wellington’s Monster Island, Mira Grant’s Feed.

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

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The Balance of Fear
Diana C. Hall
In Hall’s suspenseful thriller, a university professor racing to forget the traumatic events of her past must dive headlong into a quest to solve a student’s murder. suspenseful tale of death on a college campus. Beth Stanton, a theater professor at Seattle University of the Arts, moved from New York to Seattle to escape the painful memories of her stalker. One morning, Beth discovers the body of a student hanging in the rafters: Alyson Samuel, a cast member of the university’s production of Madame Butterfly. Though police initially consider Alyson’s death a suicide, suspicious circumstances point to murder–and Beth, along with her attorney husband John, jumps into the race to find the killer.

As she tries to uncover the motive for Alyson’s murder, Beth finds herself caught up in the bizarre dynamics of Margaret Palmer, the director of the play, and her husband Ray, a fellow professor whose fixation with the play’s young lead, Ami Akido, lands him on the suspect list: Ami was one of the last people to see Alyson alive. Hall’s understanding of academia, the theater, and the legal world add welcome authenticity to the narrative, as she convincingly captures a criminal investigation and provides accurate insight into John’s legal practice. The spot-on depiction of university tenure systems, and the tension-filled relationships between faculty and administration, ground the novel’s different components in a believable world.

Also strongly developed: The backstage politics and emotional upheaval of casting and staging a play. Hall gradually offers details into the circumstances of why Beth, once a dancer on Broadway, left New York, adding another layer of mystery. Hall’s knotty plotting and fast-paced storytelling will keep readers guessing. Despite some wooden dialogue between the characters at times, this is a compelling thriller builds to a stunning conclusion.

Takeaway: This smart, swift race-against-time thriller boasts a convincing academic milieu and a knockout conclusion.

Great for fans of: Christopher Greyson’s The Girl Who Lived, Margaret Coel’s The Dream Stalker.

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

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