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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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From Pain to Love Our Journey Outside the Rainbow
Naomi W Scales and Marilyn J Jordan
“Our childhood is probably a shock to some of you and yet to others a milder version of your own life,” Scales notes in this engaging joint memoir that traces the lives of two dear friends (and eventual lovers and life partners) who have fought for love on their own terms in adult life after scarifying childhoods. “We had to fight for our innocence and our physical safety. In doing so we learned to hide our pain.” The women’s wrenching, ultimately uplifting story involves hiding pain right up into their adult years, when a love like theirs still sometimes is “demonized.” Their story, told in the authors’ intertwined voices and frankly facing trauma and loss, centers on resilience and learning to trust one’s own truth.

Scales’s childhood in Chicago’s Harold Ickes Projects takes up the bulk of the book’s first quarter, the narrative contrasting with shorter reminiscences from Jordan about her picket-fence, financially stable upbringing in Arkansas. Despite differences in their circumstances–while Scales faced city violence, including a stabbing, Jordan was a cheerleader with a boyfriend’s promise ring–both women endured attacks from bullies and sexual abuse, often from predators with power over them. “I did not tell my mom because I wanted to see her happy,” Jordan notes, heartrendingly, when discussing the demands she endured from her mother’s boyfriend. Befriending each other in college changed everything; though both understood that their bond was powered by something more than friendship, a conventional marriage, cross-country moves, and the expectations of society slowed the inevitable.

The authors’ journey toward love and acceptance is movingly told, with an emphasis on accepting and confronting challenges, such as entering counseling when things get tough. The prose is conversational, with epigrammatic wit, bursts of straight-talk wisdom, and surges of emotion, though readers of contemporary memoir might miss conventional scenecraft and pacing. This compelling dual love story is a vital contribution to the literature of what American life is actually like.

Takeaway: An arresting dual memoir and women’s love story about resilience and honoring one’s truth.

Great for fans of: E. Patrick Johnson’s Black. Queer. Southern. Women., Saeed Jones’s How We Fight for Ourselves.

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

The View from my Window
Patricia J. Gallegos
Willow is a 22-year-old shaman-in-training of the Tsigani tribe, a nomadic group that exists on the margins of their world. Hunted by villagers and treated as vermin by most, everything changes for the Tsigani when Willow is called upon by the queen of a neighboring realm who has long suffered from a mysterious illness. Having heard of Willow’s great skill in healing, the Queen’s daughter, Princess Madeline, summons Willow from her people and way of life for an adventure in a kingdom she barely knows. There, palace politics are cutthroat, especially for someone from the plains; just as pressingly, the princess herself intrigues Willow more than either of them could have imagined. To find love, save her tribe, and secure the kingdom, Willow must challenge everything she thought she understood about her world—and discover herself in the process.

In her YA fantasy debut, Gallegos draws upon real-life tensions and oppression faced by Roma people to shape her depiction of Willow’s “Romany” tribe. While the novel features a stirring depiction of queer love and cultural conflict through a fantastic lens, some readers may be discomfited by some of its treatment of people of color (one character is described by another woman of color as “…exotic to look at, as her skin was a delicious warm brown color.” In some moments, Gallegos’ writing seems to emulate the imagined conventions of ancient texts, replete with formal declarations between friends, dramatic repetition for effect, and speech devoid of contractions.

With plenty of twists and turns, The View from my Window is anything but predictable, though its graphic depictions of sex make it most suitable for adult audiences. Its many plot threads will keep readers guessing, while lovers of political intrigue may be surprised by the novel’s ultimate enemy. Gallegos leaves plenty of breadcrumbs for a potential sequel, which will surely delight fans of this epic fantasy.

Takeaway: An ambitious epic fantasy boasting romance and political intrigue, all rooted in Roma culture.

Great for fans of: Christi J. Whitney’s Grey, Charles de Lint’s Mulengro.

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

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Alignment : Overcoming internal sabotage and digital product failure
Jonathon Hensley
Consulting firm CEO and Silicon Valley native Hensley gives practical, real-world advice geared toward management teams and organizational leaders looking to successfully launch digital products and services in this comprehensive business guide. Hensley’s stated goal is to demonstrate “that true alignment requires clarity, focus, and a powerful strategic product foundation.” Drawing upon his own career experience and extensive interviews with top industry leaders, engineers, and product managers, Hensley pins down the sometimes elusive concept of “alignment” and examines how it can be used to drive successful digital product transformations, build value, and create measurable impacts.

This guide is broken into five parts and carefully examines the various levels of alignment, causes of product failure, models of digital leadership, and the connection between a product’s strategy and a team’s overall performance. Hensley warns: “a plan without a clear strategy is worthless, and perhaps even dangerous” and goes on to explain the internal (controllable) and external (uncontrollable) factors that often lead to misalignment and product failure.The included case studies focus mainly on web, mobile, Internet and tech based products, but the concepts Henley discusses will be helpful to the launch of any new product or service.

While the audience for some of this information is highly specialized, many of the professional terms presented in the first few sections are not. Hensley briefly touches upon common business topics such as technical debt, strategic planning, and target audiences before exploring the “deeper, biological” behavioral and “innate psychological” aspects of alignment. Making graceful use of bulleted lists, illustrations, tables and charts, Hensley breaks down concepts into easily digestible snippets of information for readers to internalize. Professional and straight to the point, this guide delivers invaluable knowledge for those launching products and services in the ever-evolving digital environment.

Takeaway: Invaluable insight for product managers and organizational leaders hoping to launch successful digital products

Great for fans of: Jim Collins, Robert Cialdini.

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

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Jonathan: Prince of Dreams
A. Corrin
Corrin’s debut is an action-packed coming-of-age story. Reeling from his mother’s tragic death and his alcoholic father’s abuse, teenager Jonathan He’klarr tries to escape his demons on his high school’s football field, but his dizzying dreams are his only true escape. When an accident knocks him out, he is catapulted into the world of those dreams, where he discovers not only that he can transform into a griffin, but that he’s destined to become the next griffin king. Jonathan has a lot to learn and must do so quickly: Even as he’s plunged into the “Land of Dreams,” our real world is set upon by dark entities known as Rankers, creatures “born of nightmares and sinister thoughts” who manipulate humans to enact their darkest desires.

This rollicking fantasy moves at a swift pace, and readers will appreciate Jonathan’s believable bewilderment at his predicament and his sarcastic sense of humor (“‘Listen, Socrates,’ I snapped, ‘I would love to have some long, philosophical discussion with you about life and death and humanity and crap, but I’m kind of losing my mind right now, so if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to try and find a phone.’”) Likewise, his traumatic past gives the tale depth, especially when the Rankers try to use it against him; readers will cheer Jonathan on in hopes that he will overcome it.

Some odd extraneous elements (such as griffins riding surfboards) and a familiar quest plot may give pause to seasoned fans of the genre. However, Corrin more than makes up for some standard issue plotting with her varied cast of characters, some of which will leave a lasting mark. The Rankers in particular boast both portentous origins and otherworldly, evil powers. This intense and vivid fantasy will win the hearts of readers who crave mystical worlds, danger, and adventure.

Takeaway: This intense, character-rich fantasy finds a teen taking on a dream world to save our real one.

Great for fans of: Parris Sheets’s Warden’s Reign, Barbara Kloss’s Gaia’s Secret.

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

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Sleeping Presidents
John Phillips
Phillips’s (Ransoming Mathew Brady) slim prose fiction collection takes us into the dreams and daydreams of 45 American presidents, up through Donald Trump. Inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem “The Sleepers,” Sleeping Presidents unfolds with a dreamy, poetic quality of its own, these first-person accounts of dreams often emphasizing beds and sleep, keeping readers off balance and guessing at what is real, what is being dreamed up, and what is the author’s invention. Phillips’s own impressionistic watercolor and oil paintings mirror the chimerical prose and central theme that we can never really know anyone, perhaps especially our public figures.

As with all collections, some pieces stand out. Phillips is most successful when he inserts specific details into the worlds these men inhabit. Reagan remembers how “Mother” (whose lap is “a bony refuge”) “changes her apron daily, so I can tell the day of the week from the colors and smells,” and Arthur describes a medicinal concoction for baldness consisting of “pulverized snails, horse leeches, and salt.” Phillips’s presidents tend to ruminate about similar matters—their childhood, their parents, the functioning of their bodies and, occasionally, the presidency. While certain chapters boast stylistic differences, such as Obama’s use of poetry, this makes the less inspired stories feel repetitive. The pieces are cohesive, of course, as each one deals with a president and demonstrates a shared and even mundane humanity (“I like being president,” Trump muses. “It’s not a job so much as a feeling”) though the stream-of-consciousness approach makes some entries feel less memorably focused than others.

This style does have the advantage of creating intimacy between the reader and each president–where else are we going to read about President Cleveland’s scrotum or Garfield’s shaved legs? The paintings, meanwhile, offer a stunning complement to the prose, inviting readers to make the kind of intuitive connections and leaps they might while dreaming. Overall, this is an unorthodox but captivating approach to historical fiction, and the embedded art elevates this to something quite special.

Takeaway: A winning, experimental plunge into the dreaming minds of American presidents.

Great for fans of: Thomas Mallon, George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo.

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

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Drained
Marc Daniel Acriche
Acriche’s debut ushers readers to a future New York City, circa 2048, where corruption spills into the streets and a border of light and dark divides Manhattan at 14th Street. High schoolers Casey and her best friend Jennifer live a relatively comfortable life until they discover that Jennifer’s crush Martin has been recruited by the ICP, the Independent Coalition Party, a formidable organization recruiting for the military’s endless wars at the southern border and overseas—and though it’s dangerous to question the ICP’s actions, Casey and Jennifer are certain Martin would never voluntarily sign up. When Casey risks her life to go behind enemy lines as a recruit she quickly discovers that she’s in over her head.

Acriche proves masterful at getting clear, inventive action onto the page and keeping it moving. When Casey reluctantly dashes down a “woodsy incline” outside a parking garage, Acriche writes “So, down she went, slipping and sliding—first on her feet, then on her ass, then back on her feet.” Readers will zip with the hero through the twists and dramatic fights. Casey’s courage extends beyond her years, as she slowly comes to realize that life will never be the same after her covert mission. Although the story centers on Casey, Jennifer plays a strong supporting role, sacrificing her entire way of life in the name of truth, and a sweet romantic subplot balances the tense themes and gives the reader a chance to breathe between the action.

The book opens with a map of this future New York, to orient readers to the setting and major scenes, but Acriche foregoes info-dump exposition about this dystopian future, instead plunging readers right into it. Stimulating discussion questions at the end will spark debate about privilege, family, friendship, and sacrifice. Readers of all ages will warm to Casey, as she finds more confidence and strength with each chapter.

Takeaway: A great escape for anyone who loves a dynamic young hero fighting a corrupt government.

Great for fans of: Tehlor Kay Mejia’s We Set the Dark on Fire, Axie Oh’s Rebel Soul.

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

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Pickoff: A Novel
GP Hutchinson
Set in Roaring Twenties Chicago, this swift-moving actioner follows major league catcher Joe Rath as he copes with rivalries on his team, recent fatherhood and his troubled marriage, and temptingly beautiful singer Amie Dawes, who involves him with gangsters. A depressed Joe tries to help Amie escape from her abusive mobster boyfriend even as team tensions and his demotion to second string lead to fist fights. Amie's boyfriend becomes increasingly jealous of the relationship between Joe and Amie, and the ballplayers find themselves facing a violent showdown as Joe has to decide what's important in his life: his family, his career, or Amie.

Hutchinson's love of baseball comes through in every ballgame scene, and sports aficionados will relish the descriptions, pulled off with such panache that even nonfans will find themselves drawn in. Equally accomplished are the scenes in speakeasies and the period argot: “Did you see the gams on those Shebas?” Joe's introduction to the seductive Amie has a deft, noirish touch about it. The plot is a little thin, and Joe's transformation into an avenging angel may be a bit over the top—how do ballplayers become such adept fighters?—but the bloody action scenes between gangsters and ballplayers are nicely choreographed.

Anchoring all the busy action scenes is Joe's character, a study in contrasts. From the beginning, it's clear he's a devoted family man delighting in his child, but he's also a tough athlete. His internal struggle becomes clear as he finds himself increasingly attracted to Amie and the two of them walk a fine line between friendship and romance. Joe thinks he is platonically comforting her: "With his hand still in hers…she nestled against him." But then he realizes: "Maybe not so safe." The richness of Joe's character and the unusual professional sports setting elevate this book above the usual gangster melodrama, and readers will find themselves caring deeply about Joe, Amie and their friends.

Takeaway: Sports and crime-fiction fans alike will enjoy this 1920s major league thriller.

Great for fans of: Dick Francis, William L. DeAndrea’s Five O'Clock Lightning.

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

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Bipolar Basics: Unpacking the Nuances and Understanding Solutions
Tracey I Marks
Organized for easy access and understanding, psychiatrist Marks’s debut is a practical guide to the defining characteristics of bipolar disorder, the disorder’s effective treatments, and how to differentiate it from other mental health disorders. Marks debunks the pervasive myths that link recurring depression to bipolar disorder, demonstrating instead that actual bipolar disorder is marked by mania or hypomania. From there, she shortlists crucial symptoms and warning signs, introducing readers to the facts about bipolar disorder while steering them in the direction of potential treatments and lifestyle changes to manage it.

Readers well-seasoned in mental health literature may find this introductory guide occasionally simplified, but Marks effectively breaks down a complex topic for novice mental health readers, cutting through jargon and clearly defining key terms. For those curious about telling bipolar apart from other disorders, such as anxiety or borderline personality, Marks acknowledges the areas of overlap while illuminating the disparities with clear, memorable metaphors: Manifestations of bipolar disorder, Marks notes, can feel episodic, something like “the unexpected arrival of bad weather,” while the racing thoughts that often come with the disorder can feel like a “time-lapse video of a blooming flower where the petals just keep coming.” Marks also surveys bright light therapy, lithium prescription, and other common treatment modalities, and includes a helpful aside covering why medication compliance is essential for stabilization.

Brochure-style illustrations help to clarify key concepts and provide readers with reference points for important takeaway information, and the bipolar management strategies are uncomplicated and easy to follow. Marks offers a six-step suicide safety plan that could save lives (“Step Three: Identify Social Contacts or Settings That Distract You From the Crisis”), though some might argue that the guide downplays the danger of “passive” suicidal thoughts. Other vital resources include a comprehensive relapse prevention plan that addresses triggers, reactions, and potential interventions/replacement behaviors.Those seeking initial advice about recognizing and treating bipolar disorder will appreciate this clear, user-friendly guide.

Takeaway: A helpful entry-level look at bipolar disorder’s common characteristics and potential treatment options.

Great for fans of: Carlin Barnes and Marketa Wills’s Understanding Mental Illness, Aimee Daramus’s Understanding Bipolar Disorder.

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

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Transformation in Times of Crisis
Nitin Rakesh & Jerry Wind
Rakesh and Wind’s timely primer offers strategies for capitalizing on opportunities during crises and relays a careful assessment of how leveraging trends and consumer preferences can help businesses navigate the post-pandemic market. Replete with actionable, practical advice and up-to-date analysis, Transformation in Times of Crisis centers on the authors’ eight principles for “creating principle and value” in the world after Covid, principles crafted to guide businesses, marketing teams, and others in revitalizing approaches toward technology and talent while keeping an adaptive organizational perspective. Interdependent chapters steadily build the authors’ cases on sustainability, centering the customer, embracing digital transformation, and the process of implementing changes. The authors cast an attentive eye toward the global market—especially the U.S. and India—and break down with welcome clarity the factors that lead to recent success for start-ups and established companies.

In accessible, energetic prose, Rakesh and Wind urge readers to consider any disruptive change as an opportunity to reexamine the values and goals of their ventures. While they employ some familiar examples, such as Amazon, to demonstrate how companies found silver linings in a grim climate, they also shine a light on how smaller businesses like cleaning services, delivery services, and grocery stores have stepped up to challenges—“changed their mental model”—and thrived, always showing the research that backs up their arguments. The authors, a CEO and an academic, spare readers dense jargon and instead pepper the text with flowcharts, images, tables, self-assessment tools, and questions for reflection, bridging disciplines and making the long chapters approachable.

Citing case histories of companies like Pixar, Jio Platforms, Apple, Microsoft, and a host of start-ups, Rakesh and Wind's comprehensive and optimistic roadmap (“While there is a lull in business activities, you can map out and push toward a customer-centric digital transformation of your organization”) offers clear-eyed insight into the evolving economy that will aid businesses, leaders, and general readers in managing risks and opportunities.

Takeaway: A compelling guide to turning disruption into opportunity during difficult economic times.

Great for fans of: Susan Kahn’s Bounce Back: How to Fail Fast and be Resilient at Work, Edward Segal and Nicholas Brealey’s Crisis Ahead.

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

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Mermaid Tears
Susan L Read
Read’s debut, the first in a series centered on a New England middle school, is a sensitive, heartfelt account of a young girl’s journey toward mental health. Fifth-grader Sarah loves reading, crafts, playing with her friends, and mermaids, but while her interests are typical, her behavior is increasingly not. She begins to feel like her actions are out of her control —and when she enters middle school, she struggles with grades, friendships, and erratic behavior outbursts that she can’t explain. Sarah decides everyone would be better off if she were to leave, but after sharing her feelings with a homeroom teacher, she discovers a new path forward.

Read’s experience as an educator is reflected in her skillful depiction of Sarah’s middle school happenings—from the pressures of the cafeteria to the awkwardness of the “boy-girl thing,” she captures the essence of day-to-day student life. Though the narrative voice is more mature and formal than the average middle school student, Sarah expresses age-appropriate, authentic priorities and concerns. Some readers will wish for more details on Sarah’s everyday struggles, but the frustration, guilt, fear, and pain that these incidents cause her are described in rich detail.

Read captures these feelings most effectively in poems embedded throughout the story, resonant interludes that distill Sarah’s emotions while expressing her love for mermaids and the power and freedom they represent—a stark contrast to her own life. But alongside its poetry, the novel offers a down-to-earth look at the realities of experiencing mental illness at this age, as well as how important teachers, friends, and family are for children who are facing such challenges. Sarah’s story is both genuine and inspiring, and readers will root for her as she learns to recognize and harness her own power.

Takeaway: Middle school students and their parents will enjoy this novel’s empathetic, honest exploration of mental health.

Great for fans of: Christine Day’s The Sea in Winter, Lisa Thompson’s The Goldfish Boy, Jack Gantos’s Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key.

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

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Susan A Jane Austen Prequel: A Jane Austen Prequel
Simon McVeigh
Novelist, editor, and ghostwriter McVeigh (While the Music Lasts) offers an outstanding addition to the canon of Jane Austen-inspired fiction with this utterly charming period novel, a prequel to Austen’s sharp-elbowed Lady Susan. Poor and orphaned, Susan Smithson is 16 and living in London with her uncle George, an attorney, and her aunt Emily. After being booted from her school due to unseemly rumors, Susan is dispatched to rural Hunsford, Kent, to live with her aunt Charlotte, her beloved cousin Alicia, and her rector uncle William — but not before catching the fancy of formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who fashions herself to be Susan’s mentor. Shenanigans abound in Kent, including producing a play, secret engagements, and a surprising death, not to mention a reversal of fortune for several characters.

McVeigh’s Austenesque prose and plotting are pitch-perfect, and in fact many readers will forget they’re reading the words of a contemporary novelist. One chapter opens, “Lady Catherine, who prided herself on her timeliness, expected to leave for the country at half-eleven, and by half-ten was already harrying her servants, berating her coachmen and confusing her maids, while Susan sat quietly in the drawing-room, pretending to be immersed in a book.” Susan, of course, is a mischievous and clever heroine in the tradition of Austen’s pluckiest characters, and McVeigh populates her story with a cast of first-rate supporting characters, especially Susan’s cousin Alicia, who in the end provides the biggest surprise of the tale.

McVeigh’s depiction of Regency society and class castes rings true on every page, offering a clear picture of how restrictive circumstances were for anyone not rich, white, and male. (She also demonstrates the outrages that society allowed privileged men to get away with.) While this title will be catnip to dedicated Austen fans, even new initiates into her work will be captivated by this lively tale.

Takeaway:This exceptionally crafted Austen-inspired novel echoes the master herself.

Great for fans of: Jane Austen, Ibi Zoboi’s Pride, Jo Baker’s Longbourn.

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

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The Flower Boat Girl: A novel based on a true story
Larry Feign
Feign, the cartoonist and writer, immerses readers in this historical fiction based on the life of a nineteenth-century sex worker who is kidnapped by pirates—and later marries one of their number. In early 19th century China, Shek Yang is sold into prostitution by her father and eventually kidnapped by pirate captain Cheng Yat, the “a sea scum bandit” who forces her into marriage and gives her the name Cheng Yat Sou— “Cheng Yat’s honored wife.” She endures rape by her husband, becomes pregnant despite seeking preventive measures, and yearns for freedom. Cheng Yat Sou nevertheless uses her intelligence and business acumen to achieve tremendous success as his business partner in a profitable pirate confederation.

The fast-paced plotting, focused on the tenacity of a woman who survives horrific circumstances, and Feign’s evocative prose and attention to detail quickly makes the narrative compelling: “Maybe only prison was more colorless, boring, and worm-ridden than spending day after day on a moving ship, but at least prison offered shelter from late summer sun and squall,” the protagonist memorably declares. Feign endows his characters with persuasive voices, illuminating the driving forces behind their cutthroat choices and imbuing their histories with meaning and depth. Convincing historic detail regarding maritime life, the 19th century economy, and the story’s far-flung locations brings life to a world of seafaring danger and struggles for dominance. The abuse elements of the narrative are handled with sensitivity.

While some historical novels seem so rooted in the past that their relevance is not clear to present day readers, Feign shrewdly ties his narrative of 19th century China to contemporary life by focusing on how relationships are shaped by circumstance and experiences. References to poetry and thought-provoking insights (“You can’t sail backward, so why worry about the waves behind you?”) add lyricism as this story of a woman’s resilience surges toward a conclusion that will satisfy lovers of thoughtful historical fiction.

Takeaway: A compelling novel of the resilience of a 19th-century woman forced into marriage to a pirate.

Great for fans of: Lisa See’s The Island of Sea Women, Amy Stanley’s Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and her World.

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

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Mission in Paris 1990
Bill Pearl
Pearl’s sequel to Hearts on Fire, Paris 1968 again finds Robert Samberg at the center of real-world conflict between west and east, this time following the one-time student firebrand tasked by the U.S. government during the first Bush administration with a mission of reconciliation. Samberg, now a high-rolling radio tycoon, gets dispatched to Hanoi and then Paris to lead back channel negotiations aimed at restoring diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam, 22 years after having served as a secret go-between for Lyndon Johnson and Le Duc Tho. Complicating matters, as always, are politics, business, and the heart, as Samberg discovers that the representative of the Vietnam he will be facing is My Hanh, the Vietnamese woman who broke his heart in the ‘60s–and whose son, a young firebrand, has Samberg’s eyes.

Swift paced and committed to realism, Pearl’s follow-up boasts sharp, thoughtful dialogue pitting ideologies against each other. At an awkward meeting, An, Hanh’s son, denounces the “collective responsibility” and “rhetorical progressivism” of Americans, while Samberg, an anti-war Democrat, finds himself on the defensive, accused of culpability for a tragedy he risked his life to stop. “I grew up,” Samberg replies when Hanh asks how a leader of France’s 1968 student revolution could become a proud capitalist; the tension between Samberg’s self regard and how Hanh sees him adds nuance and power to their scenes.

Those scenes move so quickly, though, with shocking revelations and vituperative accusations, that the emotional beats don’t always land. Pearl reports what Samberg says in these tense moments, but doesn’t always plumb his mind and heart. Elsewhere, descriptive passages engaged with history pulse with emotion, evoking pain, weight, and even beauty of history. When the story turns violent, Pearl avoids fantasy, understanding that it’s the brutal risk of heroism that makes it heroic, a wise touch in a novel that will appeal to readers eager to face history.

Takeaway: A fast-paced and realistic novel of an American facing the legacy of the Vietnam War.

Great for fans of: Donald Anderson’s Aftermath: An Anthology of Post-Vietnam Fiction, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer.

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

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