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Corona(tion) Year, Vol. 1
Genna Rivieccio
Rivieccio’s intriguing topical short-story collection is, in parts, an exaggerated reimagination of the Covid-19 pandemic. The sixty miniaturized accounts here are biting satires steeped in surrealism, reflecting above all else the moral deterioration of society, especially as it was exposed by the events of 2020. In “The Pop Star Who Said The Show Must Go On,” Mariposa is an entitled performer who insists on still holding her concert in the middle of the pandemic, while Meredith from “The New Strain” disregards all lockdown rules to vacation among “the pale, portly British husks” of England’s Dorset coast. Rivieccio deftly employs a dominant theme of societal hypocrisy to expose the uneven scales of capitalism, establishing an atmosphere of unmistakable despair.

Predominantly, Rivieccio’s stories adhere to a rigid narrational framework. They open to eerie settings, vaguely reminiscent of Murakami’s underworld, and slyly weave the protagonists into the fold. The characters inhabiting this collapsing world range from the peculiar to the quotidian: animals plot to assert their dominance in the canals of Venice; an “anti-abode gang” of homeless rally against the “civvies” who live inside; and a millennial reluctantly moves back with his parents when jobs dry up. But perceived through the lens of a sarcastic and cynical narrator, they rarely prove complex enough to stir reader empathy. The writing style is both refined and accessible, with crisp and witty prose, but the plot lines become repetitive, seemingly by design. A handful of graphic sequences will not be every reader’s cup of tea, true to the ethos of an author not afraid to shock or alienate.

Rivieccio tackles intense subject matters like racism while addressing the challenges faced by contemporary readers, such as dating during the pandemic and surviving Zoom calls. Readers accepting of allegories, dark humor, and those particularly interested in human-interest pieces with a dash of popular culture will enjoy this of-the-moment, darkly comic collection.

Takeaway: Rivieccio’s daring Covid-era short stories are as strange as their era.

Great for fans of: Doris Lessing’s London Observed: Stories and Sketches, Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It.

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

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Shakey's Madness: Does a mental disorder reveal the "real" William Shakespeare?
Robert Boog
Approaching the persistent mysteries surrounding William Shakespeare in the style of his favorite TV detective, the obsessive-compulsive Adrian Monk, Boog dives deep into conspiracy theories about the playwright’s true identity. His conversational book raises compelling questions regarding the bard’s mental health and whether the dominant themes in his works aren’t compatible with what historians know about his actual life. Why does Boog doubt the accepted history of the English language’s greatest playwright? To put it simply, the facts don’t add up. “I am a nobody and friends of mine have notes I wrote to them in the 9th grade,” he writes, but “for over 400 years, not one letter that [Shakespeare] wrote to his wife, colleague or friend has ever been found.”

Then comes the really interesting stuff: According to Boog’s research, “there is almost a 25 percent chance that when you watch a Shakespeare play, [a character] will faint on stage.” Boog suggests it’s possible that Shakespeare’s fascination with dramatic swoons wasn’t merely a physiological response to strong emotions. Instead, he asserts, it could have been an indication of epilepsy or bipolar disorder–and according to historical records, Shakespeare did not exhibit any symptoms associated with these conditions.

Boog backs up his claims with plenty of excerpts from the plays and sonnets–as well as a healthy dose of humor. He also makes an argument for why exploring the playwright’s true identity is important, even centuries later. “The search for the ‘real’ Shakespeare is not just a search for the truth, it has to do with expanding our culture,” he writes, arguing that revelations like the ones he’s after could provide inspiration for bipolar individuals who still encounter stigma and mistrust. While his litany of conspiracies at times can feel a bit rambling, Boog’s good-natured voice will keep more casual readers onboard, while enthusiasts of Shakespearian identity mysteries will find many points of interest.

Takeaway: A deep, sometimes funny dive into theories about Shakespeare’s true identity and mental health.

Great for fans of: James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, Ted Bacino’s The Shakespeare Conspiracy: A Novel About the Greatest Literary Deception of All Time.

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

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Profit First For Minority Business Enterprises: Transform Your Minority Business Enterprise From A Cash-Eating Monster To A Money-Making Machine
Susanne Mariga
Upbeat, practical, and written with persuasive power, Mariga’s guide to achieving profit and success as a minority business owner expands upon and refines the approach laid out by Mike Michalowicz in Profit First: Transform Your Business from a Cash-Eating Monster to a Money-Making Machine, the 2014 book that proved essential to the success of Mariga’s own minority-owned business (MBE). Mariga—a tax accountant, entrepreneur, and first-generation millionaire—reintroduces Michalowicz’s insights and precepts, such as his insistence that business owners prioritize their own profit and escape the trap of “entrepreneurial poverty” (poverty “of mind, money, time, and life”) that so often overwhelms business owners.

The “Profit First” system centers on business owners paying themselves first rather than living on whatever scraps of revenue are left over. A central insight: Toss out the classic equation that states Revenue minus Expenses equals Profit in favor of Revenue minus Profit equals Expenses. Mariga supplements clear-eyed, pragmatic advice about how to achieve that goal (you need at least five bank accounts!) with accounts of her own success story, enlightening interviews with other owners of MBEs, and consideration of issues specific to minority business owners, such as how to approach it when you “enter crowded rooms in which no one else looks like you.” Her advice is that of an accountant and a first-rate coach: “If you are invited into that room, then you belong in the room. So, you act like you belong in the room and you own it.”

Mariga offers wisdom on staffing, on when to turn down business, on the urgency of paying down debt and not living above your means. Even passages on familiar topics like setting achievable goals pulse with fresh insight. She’s an inviting, memorable writer who will make readers laugh with an on-point aside about dining at the Golden Corral and then, just pages later, drop truths about mentoring, target allocation percentages, and the 1919 Elaine massacre.

Takeaway: A standout guide to profitably running a business, aimed at minority entrepreneurs.

Great for fans of: Mike Michalowicz’s Profit First: Transform Your Business from a Cash-Eating Monster to a Money-Making Machine, Carla A. Harris’s Strategize to Win.

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

It's Come to This: A Pandemic Diary
Laura Pedersen
Pedersen’s memoir dives into the early days of 2020’s coronavirus pandemic, when the unthinkable quickly became the new standard. Pedersen, a former New York Times business columnist and author of Buffalo Gal and Life in New York, guides readers through the year that everything stopped, from rumors spreading of an invisible disease to the start of the global lockdown and beyond. She paints a portrait of Manhattan in a slow-moving tragedy, capturing the confusion of the “pause” order that preceded the shutdowns, the increasing strangeness of familiar surroundings—“Instead of lost scrunchies and balled tissues, [Central Park’s] bridle path was littered with latex gloves and face masks”— and horrors like hospitals parking gurneys in chapels and gift shops. Pedersen also tries to illuminate cause for hope. Capturing the era’s small moments, such as operas belted off apartment balconies and the worldwide BLM protests for George Floyd, she emphasizes our need to work together to survive possible extinction. She sums up a world gone haywire with enticing depth and wry humor, reminding readers of the “feral swine bomb” that hit the news just before election day, and relishing the marvelously obscene handwritten sign a liquor store posted establishing new rules for its customers. Pedersen continually likens living in New York during 2020 to being a frightened kid caught between a “Guv Dad” (Cuomo) and “Mayor Mom” (de Blasio) who continuously argue about how to handle the crisis. Such sharp humor might strike some readers as insensitive, but those on her wavelength will relish it. When her 83 year old mother, a former nurse, gets called out of retirement, Pedersen cracks “What did they want her to do exactly? I suggested she could be in charge of helping with crossword puzzle clues.” Pedersen offers readers–especially those locked down in the Big Apple–and the future a clear-eyed, cathartic recap of a devastating time.

Takeaway: An illuminating and darkly humorous look at Manhattan life during the pandemic.

Great For Fans Of: An Sperry’s The COVID Chronicles: A Hermosa Beach Memoir, Lauren McKeon’s Women of the Pandemic: Stories from the Frontlines of COVID-19.

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

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Brain Storm: A Life in Pieces
Shelley Kolton
This harrowing tale of psychological trauma follows a medical doctor grappling with her Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), stemming from repeated sexual abuse, mistreatment, and torture as a child. For years, Shelley Kolton lived a “normal” life: She remembered her childhood fondly, graduated from college and medical school, and opened a female-centered medical practice in New York City. But after a series of debilitating panic attacks, Kolton learned that she had been dissociating into thirty-one different versions of herself: a host of different personalities, at turns competent and cruel, vile and protective. Kolton uncovers the truth about her childhood and learns to cope with her DID with the help of Yael Sank, her understanding therapist.

The subject matter is upsetting, as Kolton frankly addresses sexual abuse, infanticide, suicide, pedophilia, and more. Kolton herself, when under the influence of different “multiples,” is an emotionally abusive partner. But for those who can stomach hearing about such atrocities, Shelley’s story is remarkable—interesting, courageous, surprising—and the telling is engaging. Her DID journey is not easy, but readers will be enthralled by the descriptions of her different “sides” and the precarious balance of her alters. She includes emails, texts, and letters written from Kolton to Sank in different stages of psychosis and grief, offering a raw, clear-eyed sense of the turmoil of her recovery journey.

Kolton focuses the memoir’s fast-paced opening on life before her diagnosis. The introduction to her “gang” of alters is captivating, and she details how each one presents him/her/itself and what therapeutic tactics work best for them. At times, the story becomes repetitive, and ends rather abruptly, but in that the memoir deftly mimics the long process of therapy and healing without a definitive end. For readers interested in mental health, lessons on how to survive trauma, and personal resilience, this is a well-written, gripping, horrifying work.

Takeaway: A wrenching, enthralling memoir of a woman living with Dissociative Identity Disorder.

Great for fans of: Bill Clegg’s Ninety Days, Jane Phillips’s The Magic Daughter.

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

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A Whole-Life Path: A Lay Buddhist’s Guide to Crafting a Dhamma-Infused Life
Gregory Kramer
Kramer (Insight Dialogue) offers a holistic and comprehensive guide to implementing Buddhist wisdom in modern, chaotic lifestyles. Drawing from his own personal and professional experiences as a teacher of meditation around the globe, he elucidates the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, the eight-step approach to intentional living and navigating an ever-changing and stressful world. After detailing the basic tenets necessary to direct this path—always emphasizing an intensive, here-and-now presence grounded in early Buddhist precepts—Kramer dedicates a chapter to each of the path’s steps, including practical applications and reflections on these principles.

Readers will need a basic understanding of Buddhist concepts to fully understand and apply Kramer’s insights; though he helpfully includes multiple resources, including an index to search and clarify important Buddhist terms as well as supplementary websites and books, this treatise is equal parts challenging and enlightening. Entry level audiences will appreciate the clear-cut examples and illustrations Kramer offers—such as examining “right intention” in mundane tasks like washing the dishes or avoiding anxiety-provoking television commercials as a method of “right effort”—that offset some of the more labyrinthine passages. In each teaching, Kramer is fastidious in accuracy in language and in practice (“Dhamma rather than Dharma like kamma/karma, nibbāna/nirvāṇa, and sutta/sutra”) even going so far as to differentiate authentic language (use of the Pali word “sati” in place of mindfulness) to illuminate the most precise, concise meaning.

While Kramer’s knowledge may initially prove intimidating to some lay readers, his drive for “individual awakening, relational harmony, and a humane and just society” is clear and coherent throughout. He tackles bias and the need to eradicate harmful ways of interacting with self and others, increasing personal comfort to jumpstart awakening (simultaneously cultivating “effort and ease” among others), and argues that we all share a common need for “happiness that is infused with serenity.” While brimming with spiritual and whole-life enlightenment, this authoritative Buddhist guide is also punctuated with plenty of real-life direction and practical know-how.

Takeaway: This finely tuned teaching of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path offers deep exploration and practical steps.

Great for fans of: Jack Kornfield’s The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s The Buddha & His Dhamma.

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

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The World Without Mirrors: Confessions of a Peace Terrorist
Nick Bruechle
Bruechle (The Psyman) enthusiastically interrogates the morality of American warfare through the story of a small group of college students who decide to fight back against American warmongering and greed. When NYU junior Jayne Silver moves off campus to a house in Brooklyn, she spends most nights partying hard with her three new housemates and her best friend Abby. Abby soon convinces them to form a pacifist group called Patriots Opposed to War, or POW, to “‘wake up the sheeple and expose the truth about war.’” POW’s activism starts small with anti-war graffiti, flyers, and social media posts, but their tactics soon escalate, risking far more serious consequences.

The dark progression of POW is driven by Abby, who holds her compatriots in thrall with her charisma and sex appeal. As the group’s activities stray further and further from its pacifist roots, sensitive readers will find the lurid and gory descriptions of violence disturbing. Jayne, whose utter devotion to Abby rivals her infatuated male housemates, embraces POW’s ominous mission creep and relates their violent exploits with gleeful relish, creating a jarring juxtaposition and discordant tone that will keep readers both unsettled and engrossed.

Although Abby’s frequent strident speeches and Jayne’s dogmatic rationalizations infuse the book with philosophical and political commentary, The World Without Mirrors never feels stuffy or gets bogged down. Instead, the plot surges along, with its steadily rising tension intermittently disrupted by genuine shocks. Bruechle’s playful language, occasionally tinged by his Australian roots, belies the story’s serious subject and imparts an energy to the narrative that makes for inviting reading. Though the story tends toward the sensational and outrageous, it nevertheless proves thought-provoking and insightful. This fiery critique of American foreign policy is a page-turner that is bound to shock, fascinate, and challenge its readers.

Takeaway: Open-minded readers up for a hard look at America’s involvement in foreign wars will find this novel an exciting read.

Great for fans of: Laleh Khadivi’s A Good Country, Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, Cory Doctorow’s Radicalized.

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

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Runaway Train
Lee Matthew Goldberg
Goldberg’s (Orange City) emotional coming of age story mixes 90’s nostalgia with a rebellious teenage protagonist on the verge of hitting rock bottom. Nico Sullivan worships Kurt Cobain, constantly skips school, and spends her time getting wasted with her friends. Her secret desire to become a singer stalls out due to severe insecurities stemming from continual comparisons to her picture-perfect sister, Kristen. But Kristen unexpectedly dies, and Nico makes a hasty decision to run away, taking off on a turbulent road trip, with the hopes of fulfilling her bucket list.

Nico is a relatable teen who pumps up the radio to drown out her pain and struggles to express her emotions in healthy ways. Alcohol and drug use are prevalent themes as she grapples to come to terms with the loss of her sister, and the characters she meets on the road steer her path towards self-discovery, though some fall into neat stereotypes. Goldberg doesn’t shy away from heavy topics such as addiction, abortion, and suicide; however, some readers will feel the topic of suicide (described by Nico as “the easy way out”) and Nico’s distaste for therapy could be presented to a young adult audience with more compassion and empathy.

Just as the title evokes Soul Asylum, each of Goldberg’s chapters is named for a vintage rock cut, and the manuscript is divided into “Side A” and “Side B,” a welcome motif for readers who spent their formative years rocking out to grunge. Nineties references pepper the story, from Nico’s “MAC Viva Glam Taupe Lipstick” to her Sony Sports Walkman to the Liz Phair classic that closes a chapter with an emotional punch. Goldberg’’s storytelling is heartfelt, assured, and polished. Readers wanting to relive the alternative rock scene of the era will immediately bond with Nico as she struggles to step out of her grief and into the light.

Takeaway: A heartfelt story of a teenager on the verge of a breakdown discovering her strength on a 90s grunge roadtrip.

Great for fans of: Elizabeth Keenan’s Rebel Girls, Meagan Macvie’s The Ocean in My Ears.

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

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Bullshit to Butterflies: Lessons in Breaking Cycles, Living Your Best Life, & Dying from Cancer Anyway
Sheila M Burke
Burke’s forthright memoir of her husband Shane’s cancer treatment is infused with compassion and generosity, and succeeds in honoring a man who embodied these virtues. Much of the book is drawn from Sheila’s contemporaneous journal entries, which chronicle the eleven months between Shane’s diagnosis of Stage IV small cell lung cancer (SCLC) in October of 2019 to his death at home, surrounded by family. It’s a clear-eyed look at the physical and emotional toll on Shane and Sheila, married for 31 years, as well as the impact on their three grown children and the long-term friendships he had lovingly cultivated.

The diary’s real-time format proves key to the memoir’s emotional impact. These entries (detailing chemotherapy, radiation, and hospice) capture wrenching shocks and joyous respites, the confusion caused by the information dispensed by different doctors, and the immense guilt Sheila experiences with every decision that suggests a terminal outcome, like starting palliative care. Observations about mundane matters such as Shane’s food consumption demonstrate how, during a health crisis, routine actions become frustrating struggles, and Sheila’s exasperation escalates into understandable fury when she realizes that his weight loss and incessant hunger–paired with the inability to eat–are treated by the medical establishment as a side effect rather than a vital quality-of-life issue.

A prolific author, Burke has written self-help guides (including Zen-Sational Living and Booyah! Spirit) that promote positive personal growth, and in this book’s opening biography of Shane, she movingly illustrates how much he appreciated the simple pleasures in life. But here her journals reveal herself feeling around for the answers. The raw anger that pulses in this account, at insensitive doctors and casual cruelties (like the mask-less golfer who declares that the immune-compromised should be sacrificed to COVID-19), is more resonant and powerful than advice. The immediacy and frank messiness of this memoir mirrors the chaos of loss, which knocks the living onto unfamiliar terrain.

Takeaway: This intimate and practical memoir will aid readers facing a cancer diagnosis or end-of-life decision-making.

Great for fans of: Deborah Ziegler’s Wild and Precious Life, Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye.

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

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A Simple Thought of Sanity
C E Huntingdon
This impeccably written allegory, Huntingdon’s debut novel, evokes a stark, apathetic dystopia and the inevitable revolution that follows. Citizens of the City go about their lives in strict conformity, their food provided for them, every building identical. Everyone must hide their true feelings behind the mechanical white Face that each must wear, a face that displays the appropriate smile at the appropriate time. Office worker Brutus, numbed by a life spent filing forms, meets the enigmatic Lucian who lures him to a secret club filled with colored lights and dancing. After Brutus’s boss berates him for not being a team player, Brutus becomes more susceptible to Lucian’s goading to break the rules. Brutus then commits a brutal act, sparking a runaway revolution that, in the manner of revolutions, might not ultimately be for the better.

Minimalist, surreal, and graceful, this parable reveals a disposable and sterile culture on the verge of demise. Rampant capitalism promises more and better products to a population devoid of emotion, and anything out of place or deemed dangerous is removed by the Cleaners. A catalyst for change, Lucian, whom Brutus thinks is obscene for wearing a Face with the bottom half removed, takes humanity from one extreme of constraint and compliance, but he pushes it toward another extreme of immorality. True to his name, Brutus betrays his City by declaring at the revolution, “For it was a simple thought of sanity that brought about the new age.”

Readers who enjoy dystopian worlds will immerse themselves in this bleak, totalitarian society coated in an eerie tone of dread and dismay. The third act trails into despairing territory, and some events don’t logically follow the earlier premise. Nevertheless, Huntingdon (the pen name of a married couple) presents a cautionary tale of foresight and warning that some constraint is necessary for a species capable of much darkness.

Takeaway: Readers of dystopian fiction will enjoy this dark commentary on conformity and the consequences of breaking free.

Great for fans of: Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.

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

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IN THE BLACK
ANDREW CERONI
This gripping and violent thriller follows American, Russian, and Israeli agents as they use their wits and weaponry in a worldwide fight over a defecting scientist in present-day Russia. A secret Russian program called "Black Diamond" is turning American agents into traitors and leading to the death of assets abroad. To counter this, the CIA sends crack agents Dave McClure and Tony Robertson to extract Dr. Armand Mishenkov, a physicist already attempting to make a solitary escape to the West. Russia dispatches its own team to catch Mishenkov, while Israelis are secretly protecting him. As each side becomes more desperate, the violence ratchets up.

Ceroni (Special Means)—who has a background in counterespionage and antiterrorism—is a master at crafting action scenes in all their bloody glory. In one fight, a "blow cracked across [his] throat, his esophagus splintering" followed by "blood and torn flesh burst out in a red spray." Other scenes are more high-tech but no less visceral, as when a thermate grenade chars flesh and scorches lungs. A car chase is beautifully staged, and a setpiece involving a hungry bear is not for the squeamish, and although the emphasis is mostly on action rather than character a scene in which an agent takes personal revenge is genuinely chilling. A few plot twists strain credulity, but the story zips along so swiftly, it scarcely matters.

Ceroni works in calmer incidents between the hostilities well, adding depth to the action-packed storyline. Before departing Russia, Mishenkov shares a warm moment with Yakov, an elderly friend. Yakov's moving act of sacrifice creates an effective counterpoint to the violence. Even McClure and Robertson’s break to discuss a few Hungarian delicacies in the same lavish prose as action scenes is refreshing—still, in every case, there's another fight around the corner. Aficionados of red-blooded actioners will eagerly follow McClure and Robertson's adventures until the hair-raising denouement.

Takeaway: Fans of fast-moving spy thrillers with sumptuously choreographed violence will not pause until the last page.

Great for fans of: Ian Fleming, Len Deighton.

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

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Crossfire
Robert Valletta
Valletta’s (A Foreigner’s Heart) latest novel is a world-trotting thriller dangerous cover-ups, secret agendas, advanced military tech, and murder. After his family is murdered, United States Marine Corps First Lieutenant Nicholas James Gallagher learns from his uncle that the deaths are connected to those of five “scientists who were involved in security-related research for the Department of Defense.” Gallagher learns about a plot to steal the Crossfire, an “electro-optical imaging and military reconnaissance satellite,” a possibility so terrifying that eventually the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the president get involved. Gallagher must get to the bottom of it before the Crossfire—and the possibility of mass casualties— ends up in the wrong hands.

A contemporary international espionage thriller that takes readers to places as diverse as New Jersey, Albuquerque, North Korea, Moscow, and the Persian Gulf, Valletta’s novel has a cinematic feel that, coupled with its short chapters and combination of espionage and military action, will satisfy thriller fans. While the pacing is mostly strong, excessive modifiers and descriptive passages at times impede the narrative, especially of weapons and military hardware, but also of quotidian details, too: “Kayden stroked his clean-shaven jaw absentmindedly” and “Anastasia quietly scanned the neatly printed pages within the folder, attempting to mentally prepare himself for the oncoming discussion.” There’s a lean, propulsive novel in here, but the gristle around it dilutes its power.

The energy picks up in action sequences, such as a scene of air combat among three nations described with a crisp clarity and technical precision. The Russian heavies are suitably scary, and the plot-—involving satellites, lasers, the tinderbox of Middle Eastern politics, and high-tech surprises—proves true to its genre, splitting the difference between the plausible and the cartoonish. A hybrid that bridges the gap between a whodunit, a military action narrative, and a spy story, Crossfire will satisfy lovers of military thrillers.

Takeaway: Mixing espionage and military action, this thriller peaks when the action starts.

Great for fans of: Brad Thor, Joel C. Rosenberg’s Without A Warning, Jack Mars’s Our Sacred Honor.

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

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Harry Harambee's Kenyan Sundowner: A Novel
Gerald Everett Jones
In Jones’ entertaining novel, She's Come Undone meets Eat, Pray, Love but told from a male perspective and featuring a male protagonist. Harrison Gardner is a semi-retired publisher who is still adjusting to the death of his wife two years later. Harry's life has become stagnant and lackluster, until Aldo Barbieri, a “too-slick” Italian tour operator, sells Harry on a trip of a lifetime to Kenya, a vacation where Harry can partake of the land, the sights, and the women. (Barbieri puts special emphasis on the latter). Harry has every intention of this just being a two or three week vacation, but once in Kenya he sparks up a mutual attraction with Esther, a widowed Kenyan bookkeeper, and opportunities—or temptations—arise for Harry to take advantage of questionable business dealings. In a quest to live a little in his later years, Harry finds himself wrapped up in intrigue while questioning his morals and the true price and meaning of love.

Jones writes with clarity and precision, offering a convincing study of a man taking risks and exploring new relationships with an almost childlike view on the world he’s thrown into. In relatable fashion, Harry soon gets in over his head for the attention of a woman or the thrill of the deal. Esther sums up his character best: “Mister go-along. The fellow who’s happy to ride in the back and look out the window.”

The convincing, well-rounded characters offer a few stereotypical barbs about African culture, which is realistic considering their perspectives, but otherwise the Kenyan backdrop offers an inviting element for readers to explore with the protagonist. Readers looking for engaging contemporary fiction with an emotionally available adult male lead—"Grand passion is fleeting, also blinding," Harry notes—will quickly be pulled into Harry's fast-paced adventure, a memorable (literal) vacation read.

Takeaway: A relatable male protagonist finds new romance and intrigue in an African vacation.

Great for fans of: Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, Eric Jerome Dickey’s Thieves’ Paradise.

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

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Injustice: Hidden in plain sight the war on Australian nature kangaroo, koala, emu... hunted, sold, homeless... where lies truce, healing?
Maria Taylor
Taylor’s investigative history, studying Australia’s treatment of native wildlife, is an indictment of her country’s destructive and oftentimes cruel practices. Beginning with early colonial settlers, she examines the massacre of kangaroos, koalas, emus, and other Australian creatures, as the English colonists established farming practices and built an export economy. Turning to the present day, she explains kangaroo quotas, explores the government’s flawed rationale for massacring wildlife, and interviews former hunters who have changed their ways. As she pleads for habitat restoration and a return to environmental equilibrium, Taylor looks to conservationists and aboriginal groups who have had some success in preserving these dying animals.

A compendium of quotes from experts (both for and against hunting practices), excerpts from the works of early conservationists, and timelines of past government actions and activist groups, Injustice often reads like a textbook, albeit one with a passionate argument. There’s occasional overlap in information—facts and figures get repeated throughout. But although the work can feel academic, it’s also authoritative, a great resource for anyone who wants to learn about Australian wildlife from a preservationist’s perspective. And despite her scathing condemnation of the Australian government, Taylor concludes the book on a high note, presenting the success of landowners who have embraced the promise of ecotourism and proven that native wildlife and domesticated livestock can peacefully coexist.

The most compelling passages directly focus on the humans fighting for animal rights and ecological conservation. One highlight involves a surgeon who tends to injured wildlife; his descriptions of nursing animals back to health imbue the text with welcome personal depth and urgency. Taylor’s love for these animals shines through despite the book’s rigid structure. The harrowing tales of abuse are enough to shock any wildlife lover, and the testimony of those working to combat animal cruelty provide hope.

Takeaway: A scathing indictment of Australian animal mistreatment that lays out a hopeful future of wildlife preservation.

Great for fans of: Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, Douglas W. Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope, Janet Foster’s Working for Wildlife.

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

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Call Me Cali: Book 1: Blooming
Lana Gold
The first novel in Gold’s cotton-candy light, sexually charged coming-of-age erotica series is filled with fun and spice. Cali is eighteen, free, and set loose in New York City with two goals in mind: Make enough money to pay tuition at her dream art school and expand the sexual horizons constricted for years by her holier-than-thou mother and alcoholic, abusive father. Her adventures begin almost before the bus makes it halfway across the country and kick into high gear once she hits the mean streets, as she bounces from calamities to outrageous situations, managing to maintain her equilibrium while encountering a varied cast of miscreants-with-hearts-of-gold.

The novel’s lighthearted tone balances nicely with more thoughtful moments, as Cali takes her first steps into a world light-years different from where she began. The dichotomy of her parents’ abuse and the protective nature of the seemingly seedy friends she makes, Ned and Tony, for example, offers an intimate glimpse into the mindset of a young woman on the cusp of independence and adulthood. In contrast, the Peyton Place-esque antics of the residents of the Hotel Gram-Irving offer drama of the absurd and laughable nature–especially with Darla, the drug addicted stripper with a mean streak.

That lightheartedness that’s one of the book’s great strengths is also a weakness. While Cali’s adventures are pure fantasy, they also promote dangerous, ill-thought-out behavior heedless of consequences. From her sexual assault of a dentist back in her hometown to her allowing a strange man intimate physical liberties on a cross-country bus, she acts with a decidedly unrealistic, implausible abandon. However, the novel’s loving attention characterization, no matter how shallow, and the focus on being young and attaining a long-held dream will enchant readers of fun erotica.

Takeaway: This light erotic novel eschews traditional romantic tropes in favor of a flirtatious (and dangerous) sexcapade through New York.

Great for fans of: Katrina Jackson’s Grand Theft N.Y.E. , Alice Clayton’s Wallbanger, the Misadventures series.

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

Click here for more about Call Me Cali: Book 1: Blooming
Patriot X
SETH SJOSTROM
A motley collection of soldiers, working for a shadowy group, pursues terrorists in both the United States and Middle East in this violent and fast-moving military thriller. Marine Gunnery Sergeant Chris Masters returns from a mission only to find his wife and daughter killed in a terrorist attack. He subsequently joins the "Cadre" and proceeds to go on a series of missions against other terrorists and also against U.S. officials and journalists whom he finds complicit, achieving some sort of resolution.

Sjostrom has a flair for staging battle scenes in all their bloody glory: A dying soldier "sat against a wall, futilely tugging a long piece of desk that transformed into an airborne dagger… Fallon mercied the man with a shot to the forehead." The action has strong political connotations, however, frequently stressing that the privately employed soldiers must take action when proper authorities refuse to. A representative of the Cadre describes it as "concerned citizens who prefer to pursue and enforce liberty in ways the government cannot or is too afraid to." Readers not convinced of the righteousness of militia-dispensed justice will find these themes unpersuasive or offensive, and the politically charged resolution strains credulity.

The focus is mostly on action, but Sjostrom shows Chris mourning his wife and daughter. Also nicely described is Chris' relationships with his fellow soldiers. Most fully developed is the friendship with Cait McBride, an ex-IRA operative. A particularly gripping scene has Chris risking his life to save Cait despite orders to abandon her, and their eventual romance provides an unusual "meet cute" story. However, it's hard to invest much feeling in Chris after he tortures an unarmed journalist in the belief that the reporter may have been too sympathetic to the terrorists. Action fans disposed to such dark viewpoints will enjoy this fast-paced combat story.

Takeaway: This testosterone-fueled private militia thriller will please fans of well-staged firefights.

Great for fans of: David T. Maddox, Ian Slater.

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

Click here for more about Patriot X

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