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Messing with Men
Christopher Brookhouse
This sweet and mournful story follows ageing residents in a Florida resort town as they fall in and out of love and lust with each other, dabble in local causes, and try to make sense of their lives. Ali, Landon, and Sam meet regularly at a local bar to reflect on their careers and sex lives. Along the way, lifelong bachelor Landon starts a new love affair and comes to terms with a long-ago relationship with a student, while everyone in the crew has an angle on a historic Victorian-style home slated for a controversial demolition. But despite a dozen threads, the real plot is the characters' attempts to achieve some inner peace in the final chapters of their lives.

Brookhouse elegantly portrays his characters' mating rituals, still uncertain although they're in their middle years. Landon and his tentative girlfriend Hannah go to a clothing optional beach and exchange coy words: "Is this going to be awkward? she asks. I mean, you have a choice…How much I want to see or how much I want to show?" But Hannah also muses about widows who "tolerate sex to make the loneliness to go away." Still, some literary conceits—a near-total use of the present tense and omission of all quotation marks—at times make keeping up a challenge.

The characters, too, aren’t always caught up in the plot, so lost in their thoughts that what happens in their here and now can seem to them secondary. Landon and Sam secretly bury a skeleton on an old estate in an ill-conceived attempt to save it, but that barely seems to make an impression on them. However, when Landon sees a mural that may save the house anyway, he becomes lost in the "leafy tongues and sinewy vines and the floral qualities in the figures.” In the end everyone is back in the bar, perhaps, like the reader, a little wiser for their reveries and misadventures.

Takeaway: These wryly reflective Floridian retirees, with their longings and regrets, will remain with readers.

Great for fans of: William Trevor’s The Old Boys, Deborah Moggach’s These Foolish Things.

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

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Liberating Jesus: What would Jesus say if he returned today?
Jane Powell Conscious Living Foundation
Jacobson, a spiritual teacher and author of Embracing the Present and Words From Silence, relates his story and explains his spiritual philosophy of life through a one-man play, followed by a recreation of the extensive question and answer sessions that followed performances during the play’s original run at the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica. A gripping introductory autobiographical sketch contextualizes the play that follows, telling the story of Jacobson’s six spiritual awakenings over the course of decades and how he attempted to learn from each and integrate them into his life. Some of these breakthroughs are refreshingly direct, as when Jacobson reports the voice of God beseeching him to “Tell the truth about Jesus!”

Jacobson’s play endeavors to do just that. The narrator is Jesus himself, who tells Jacobson’s conception of the truth about his life, stripping away miracles and theology as laid out in revelations Jacobson reports having experienced. Jacobson’s Jesus explains that his simple, humane philosophy has been corrupted and encourages the audience to awaken to the present and realize their true Oneness with all things and with God. The questions and answers, which take up the bulk of the text, are illuminating, filling in many questions the reader themselves may share. They are, however, repetitive, with similar As to similar Qs, such as Jacobson’s example of a flower (“Just be here as the flower is here”) to explain presence.

Jacobson warns that his teachings are not for everyone, even advising holders of traditional Christian beliefs not to read the book, lest he offend them. In contrast to many spiritual teachers, Jacobson is not interested in fighting the ego, even as he insists that it remains the chief obstacle to human awakening. Instead, he argues, one must come to a nonjudgmental place of peace and thus mastery of both mind and ego. Spiritual seekers will find these teachings fruitful in their practicality, specificity, and graciousness.

Takeaway: A play and teaching session offering a warm yet challenging new vision of Jesus.

Great for fans of: Erin Werley’s One Truth, One Law: I Am, I Create, Dr. Helen Schucman and Dr Bill Thetford’s A Course in Miracles.

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

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The Hidden Gospel of Thomas: Commentaries on the Non-Dual Sayings of Jesus
William George Duffy
In this extensive commentary, Duffy examines each saying attributed to Jesus in the non-canonized Gospel of Thomas against the framework of non-dualism, a philosophy—originally derived from Brahmanism—centered on the ultimate unity of all things. Duffy is careful to consider these sayings of Jesus within their own context, rather than relying on external understandings, and urges readers to approach this work independent of other gospels. Despite this emphasis on an original interpretation, Duffy also includes insights and principles from existing spiritual literature, particularly when it comes to textual concerns with this “lost” gospel first discovered in Egypt in 1945.

Although this commentary is not a close linguistic reading of the text, Duffy does still pay careful attention to the original language of the gospel, with quite fruitful results, as when he breaks down the complex meanings of a Greek loanword that appears in the English translation as solitary. Some of the sayings Duffy examines fit neatly with his philosophy of non-dualism, though the interpretations of some others seem strained. This is compounded by Duffy’s periodic reliance on scribal error or emendation to explain inconsistencies, as when he argues that the “perplexing” twelfth saying of Jesus in this text must not be “original to” the Gospel of Thomas. These concerns are difficult to resolve given the limited manuscript history available.

Still, Duffy acknowledges the philosophical lens through which he reads the text, and he does an excellent job of illustrating individual sayings, expanding its meaning of the gospel beyond a straightforward Gnosticism. His careful unpacking of complex sayings both illuminates the text and demonstrates the kind of deep contemplation he believes it takes to arrive at an enlightened reading. The spiritual seekers reading this commentary will not just learn about a lost gospel. Instead, they’ll also find ample encouragement to realize the ultimate unity of all things.

Takeaway: Spiritual seekers interested in non-canonized gospels will find this commentary fruitful and enlightening.

Great for fans of: Elaine Pagels’s Beyond Belief, Jean-Yves Leloup’s The Gospel of Thomas: The Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus.

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

Reduction Fired: concise, quiet and intense poems voiced over vibrant images of nature - reflections to ripple through the mind
Jennifer Yeates Camara
Camara’s debut poetry collection stands out in its sincerity and its expressive minimalism, its form and content united in short lines, free verse, and metamorphic styles. The author describes Reduction Fired as “architectural,” and much of the volume’s appeal comes from its diversity. The works within allude to maturity, security, acceptance of circumstance, and the uplifting possibilities of a turn toward the present, as in the “Winter” section: “for look — on this slope / the flowers here I’ve / never seen before.” The wrenching “Michelle” recalls watching a depressed loved one “drown”: “The more she weakened, more I sought / to cheer her from the shore.” While occasionally touched with personal narrative, Camara’s poems are mostly pared down to the universal, stirring a satisfying and enlightening effect.

The collection’s four sections, named for the seasons, are distinctive. In “Winter”’s poem “Estuaries,” she speaks in persona—“Eddies of them flow/past as bark mulch”—and expresses yearning toward an unidentified muse in “Autumn”’s vivid “Chalk Drawings,” writing “My deepest organs /now knead them / selves thin / to think I was / close enough / to touch your / face / arm / back but / held back enough.” At times, enjambment complicates clarity, but when Camara delves into longer lines and elevated diction (“jocund mirth”) meaning crystallizes: “while my love skulks in the shadows of your heart.” An author’s note explains her approach: “Lines are built only long enough to hold what is needed.”

Camara dives into spiritual themes in “Spring” and demonstrates power and eros in “Daydream” (“I find / my bones yet longing for your weight”), and imitates haiku in a sprinkling of smaller poems: “Waiting for winter / in August it seems better / to know than not know.” True to the economy of language of influences like Rabindranath Tagore, this grounded, spiritually curious collection offers an unpredictable inquiry into nature, relationships, and the styles that have inspired the poet.

Takeaway: Scrupulous in their minimalism, these poems still are alive with meaning and feeling.

Great for fans of: Myung Mi Kim, Lucille Clifton.

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

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Crown of Crowns Duology: Crown of Crowns & Godly Sins
Clara Loveman
Loveman’s fast-paced young adult fantasy series, collected in an edition containing the first novel and its sequel, tells of a privileged teen whose eyes are opened to how the rest of the world lives: mostly in poverty. In a futuristic world where robots have taken most jobs, and science has made most illnesses impossible, Kaelyn thinks everyone in the world is happy. She falls for Roki, who shows her it’s only the small handful of royal families that are truly happy. After her mother is murdered and Roki disappears, Kaelyn must turn heartbreak into determination, first starting a foundation in her mother’s name and then accepting that helping her people means marrying Prince Zawne and becoming king and queen.Then life gets complicated. (Readers eager to avoid spoiling the second book’s premise should skip to the next paragraph.) After she’s crowned, a deadly virus is released, and Kaelyn realizes that the only way to save her kingdom is to give up her own life and become a powerful spirit.

Balancing actions with consequences, Loveman makes this apocalyptic story complicated in the right way, reminding readers that people will be complex no matter how advanced the society. After making an epochal choice at the end of the first book, Kaelyn discovers that nothing will be as simple as she had hoped—her choices now ripple across her world and even her galaxy. Rather than clear good or bad guys, this series concerns shades of humanity, driven by love and desires.

Loveman creates an intriguing new world with varied continents, seasons, clans, social classes, and advancements in technology. As the story grows, it expands to an entire detailed and fascinating galaxy of different worlds, creatures, and the city at the center of it all, where spirits come together to influence–good or bad–the rest of us. The choices characters make in the final pages will stir reader debate, but the journey is certainly worth it.

Takeaway: A creative fantasy with a perfectly flawed heroine, the right amount of romance, and otherworldly surprises.

Great for fans of: Marie Rutkoski, Shveta Thakrar’s Star Daughter.

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

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Epidemic
Julie Boglisch
Set in an alternate America that closed its borders after the Vietnam War, the first book in Boglisch’s Elifer Chronicles series follows twins Maxwell and Karina as they attempt to find their mother, who has disappeared from their home years after their father was taken away by a man in a black uniform. Finding her means they must leave their small, safe town of Claremore alone and travel through the forests of New England to a place completely foreign to them: the city. Fortunately, they encounter the mysterious Lex, a survivor who immediately appraises the siblings as “idiots”—but who might offer the help they need. Making the journey more dangerous: They discover that a deadly epidemic is sweeping through the country.

Boglisch has crafted a compelling alternate reality with intriguing side characters, such as the morally compromised Antonio, and has layered aspects of the Covid pandemic into the narrative. “What are those masks for?” Maxwell wonders upon arrival at a bigger town, and a familiar sense of unease has settled on the population: Lex explains that the government “has been searching for the last few years to find a cure” before adding “Or at least, that is what we are told.” Boglisch’s epidemic has fantastical elements—violent “death throes” and sporadic infection time frames—but readers seeking an escape from real-world outbreaks won’t find that here.

Max and Karina are likable characters that are easy to root for, and at 188 pages, Epidemic is a quick read whose story keeps moving. Still, some plot points and character motivations, such as Lex’s, would have benefited from expansion, such as the children’s fear, as they leave Claremore, that they will be pursued, a suspenseful thread that gets dropped on the road. Overall, this is an interesting first installment in a new series with characters it is a pleasure to spend time with.

Takeaway: Readers who enjoy pandemic fiction and precocious children will find much to enjoy.

Great for fans of: Megan Crewe’s The Way We Fall, M.R. Carey’s The Book of Koli.

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

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Adrift
Lisa Lippiner
Aspiring restaurateur and OnlyFans content creator, twenty-five-year-old Penelope “Poppy” Smith surrenders into a relationship with suave, debonair hedge fund manager, Gabriel “Gabe” Chesterton in this sexy contemporary romance. After traveling from New York to North Carolina to reunite with a childhood friend, Gabriel is introduced to Poppy during a friendly yet flirtatious dinner that leads to an unexpected night together. Despite her apprehensions about Gabe’s playboy reputation, and her assumption that he would not appreciate her curvier figure, the two embark on a professional endeavor that quickly blurs the line between business and pleasure.

Jolie excels at weaving a story filled with romantic angst, keeping readers guessing about where this relationship will go right up until the end. Poppy’s sensitively handled body image issues (she says, of her OnlyFans customers, “they liked me with photo editing, good lighting, and at the right angle”) and Gabe’s at-first unenlightened attitude toward her occupation (he notes, in a point-of-view chapter, “I didn’t mean to be condescending, but in a manner of speaking, the girl used sex for a living”) start out as the core romantic conflicts, but relationships from Gabe’s past, notably his ex-girlfriend Caroline and old friend, Reed, add additional layers of drama to the plot.

Dialogue surrounding Poppy’s business is sex driven, but oftentimes humorous, as are the innuendo-laced exchanges between her and Gabe. The sexual tension around these exchanges intensifies when the two move in together as temporary housemates. The heat level of intimate scenes sizzles around moderate, despite numerous references to porn and prostitution. Uncomfortable events from Poppy’s past and details of Gabe’s impending Justice Department investigation disperse the steam and lighten the heat, while creating dramatic subplots. Full of steam, drama, angst, and vibrant prose, this story is ideal for readers who prefer a cat-and-mouse element to their romance.

Takeaway: This small-town contemporary romance will draw readers in with its sexy storyline and relatable characters.

Great for fans of: Meghan March, Courtney Milan.

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

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Great American Women in Science and Environment
D. J. Mathews
Mathews (Let’s Run Our Schools Together) details the inspirational stories of notable American women in this homage to female grit and determination. Composed of separate biographies with similar formats and accompanying historical photographs, this hefty publication recounts the achievements of heroines like Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman doctor, and Grace Murray Hopper, an early computer programmer and naval officer, as well as the upbringings that both challenged and motivated them. With household names like Erin Brockovich and lesser-known greats like Chien-Shiung Wu, this can-do tribute covers a lot of ground, aiming to ignite curiosity and inspire young girls (and boys) to “help the world and make it a better place.”

Mathews writes conversationally, favoring informal language and even touching on her personal experiences to entice readers and keep them engaged. This style lends an air of familiarity to a weighty subject and invites readers to imagine the day-to-day lives of these women, but at the cost of a more authoritative tone. Uncited quotes, like Sally Ride’s husband saying “Have a ball up there!” before she went into space, are indistinguishable from the chatty conversations that Mathews invents between the historical figures and other people in their lives, a likely source of confusion for younger readers and parents navigating the distinctions between fact and fiction.

Though the addition of historical images, including photographs, creates a welcome opportunity for kids to see the women and some of what they’re famous for, like a hair product of Madame CJ Walker’s, the hand-drawn illustrations from the author do little to enhance the reading experience. This is ultimately a celebration of women’s accomplishments in science and the environment—areas that are historically lacking in female leadership—and an encouragement for kids of all genders to make a difference through their inquisitiveness and perseverance.

Takeaway: Young readers who enjoy a more casual approach to history will appreciate this tribute to women trailblazers.

Great for fans of: Marlene Wagman-Geller’s Behind Every Great Man, Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo’s Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women.

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

The Boy Who Illustrated Happiness
Victor D. O. Santos
Alive with heartwarming moments and a cheery blend of colors, Santos’s coming-of-age picture book features a budding artist keen on spreading happiness to others. Young Ben expresses his emotions, good and bad, through his art. He continually finds creative opportunities in everyday life, such as designing his breakfast plate with ketchup, squirting toothpaste on the bathroom mirror, and drawing on the foggy bus window. To share this joy with others, he creates the Happiness Club, a group whose members dedicate their time to making each other happy. Surpassing language barriers, the members communicate through drawings, origami, songs, and hand gestures. Ben and his friends soon realize that happiness is a powerful language that everyone understands.

While Ben's age remains vague—seemingly by design—Santos lends him ample agency and a big heart powered by the question “What can YOU do today to make someone happy?” Santos's writing is motivated by themes of compassion and unity, though verbosity and a leisurely pace diminish the impact of the narrative, and story developments concerning a pet and Ben’s eventual trajectory in adult life shift the focus from the inspired idea of the Happiness Club. The text tends to reiterate, in a font that doesn’t complement Eszter Miklós kaleidoscopic artwork, story beats and deeper meanings that the illustrations already convey or suggest.

Santos's portrayal of Ben's relationship with his parents and his pet fish, Jerry, is a laudable highlight that emphasizes the rewards of the kind of happy childhood that Ben is so eager to share. Readers will appreciate the attention to detail—such as the framed Caldecott honor alongside Jerry’s picture on Ben’s bookshelf—and the vibrant hues that characterize his blooming talent and enthusiasm for life. Meanwhile, Miklós's vivid illustrations and pleasing compositions effectively capture Ben's quest with nuance and effervescence. Overall, this delightful treat boasts an inspiring protagonist, diverse characters, and colorful settings.

Takeaway: A charming tale of a wunderkind that underscores the merits of love, respect, and acceptance.

Great for fans of: Kay A. Haring’s Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing, Joanne Liu’s My Museum, and Jeanette Winter’s Henri’s Scissors.

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

Click here for more about The Boy Who Illustrated Happiness
The Sweetest Therapy
Chase Cassine, LCSW
This tasty offering from Cassine, a therapist and clinical social worker in New Orleans, is as much a memoir as it is a cookbook. Cassine turned to baking as a form of consolation after his mother passed away from cancer. The Sweetest Therapy documents his transformative journey in photos, short personal essays that touch on his life and his city, and his family’s much-loved recipes, including simplified versions of New Orleans favorites like pecan pie (“In New Orleans, we don’t call it ‘PEE-can.’ Instead, we say ‘PA-kawn.’”) and one-layer chantilly cake.

This book would be ideal for folks who are new to the art and science of baking, though formatting and style consistency throughout the book present some issues. Some sections have white text superimposed on a black background, which can be difficult to read, and some numerals are interchanged with numbers that are written out, which can confuse a reader who is elbow-deep in flour.

Readers will be drawn in by Cassine’s easygoing, conversational tone: “If only you knew how much begging, pleading, and petitioning it took for me to acquire this recipe from my paternal grandmother, Althea, then you would be both shocked and amused!” Cassine’s warm personality even informs the instructions in his recipes. “Pour your crust into a 9-inch Springform pan,” he writes, of a sour cream cheesecake, “but don’t trip if you don’t have one.” The photographs bookending the recipes, showcasing scenes of second line parades, offer a taste of his city’s vibrant culture, while photos of the dishes themselves are clear, bright, and appealing. Readers will really come to know Cassine through his introduction and reminiscences. His battle with grief is poignant, and his refreshing honesty (describing his struggles with emotional eating and negative self-talk) will be a balm to those also struggling with the same issues.

Takeaway: An appealing guide to healing through baking, New Orleans-style.

Great for fans of: Robbie Montgomery’s Sweetie Pie’s Cookbook: Soulful Southern Recipes, from My Family to Yours, Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House.

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

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Bruce and the Long Spider
J.C. Martin
On a normal day spent playing with his toys in his room, Bruce encounters a spider, who quickly becomes part of his imaginative play. Readers are swept up in the ride as Bruce tries everything he can think of to scare the spider away, utilizing his trusty toy box and the greatest weapon of all: his imagination. Full of expressive digital illustrations and humor, this amusing excursion into one child’s fancy will delight daydreamers and creative kids. Is the spider friend or foe? Only Bruce can decide, and his only limit is creativity in Martin’s playful debut.

Though the narrative of this enthusiastic tale moves at a quick pace, not much actually happens. Martin’s cyclical storyline—Bruce comes up with a persona he can inhabit to scare away the spider; he dresses up for the part and imagines the spider in costume as well; then he moves on to his next inspiration—quickly becomes predictable. The spider is characterized as an enemy, but with only one scene where it and Bruce actually make eye contact, there’s not a great deal at stake. The abrupt ending sets the stage for a rematch, but also solidifies the feeling that something is missing, as Bruce has neither triumphed, failed, nor learned to live with a spider in his room.

The book’s strength lies in the quirkiness of its main character. Bruce possesses traits that all kids will identify with: creativity, imagination, playfulness, and a willingness to transform fear into an opportunity to be the hero. Though his ingenuity is the main draw, Bruce’s decisive metamorphosis into a crusader (“No. It’s time to be BRAVE”) is endearing. Whether young ones are afraid of spiders or just like imagination-fueled adventures featuring them as the main character, they are sure to find some laughs in this spider-scaring escapade.

Takeaway: Creative readers will enjoy this playful journey of a young boy facing down his fears.

Great for fans of: Julie Fogliano’s A House That Once Was, Sara O’Leary’s This is Sadie.

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

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Leading for Justice: Supervision, Hr, and Culture
Rita Sever
In this clear-eyed, practical guide, Sever, an HR professional, urges managers and HR teams to take the “time, energy, focus, and leadership” to ensure that organizations committed to working for justice in the world develop a culture and practices that also foster justice within the organization itself. She lays out practical steps for how justice-minded orgs can “walk the talk,” while also offering impassioned accounts of why doing so is vital: “The more staff feel seen, respected, empowered, and safe to be who they are, the more likely they will be to do their best work— which will in turn directly impact the mission of the organization.” Sever demonstrates that an org that lives up to its mission on the inside—practicing equity in hiring; confronting issues of power, privilege, and bias—has a greater chance in achieving its mission in the world.

Sever offers revealing anecdotes from her career and invaluable suggestions for hiring, onboarding, and valuing workers of diverse backgrounds. From her “Ten Questions for Supervisors on the Path to Justice”: “What do I identify as a ‘good work ethic’ and ‘professional conduct,’ and how do I react to people who don’t exhibit those qualities?”

While targeted specifically at organizations committed to social justice, Leading for Justice offers insights and advice that would benefit any supervisor and HR professional committed to an inclusive workplace. Sever identifies herself as a cisgender white woman who must continually listen and learn to understand the experiences of minorities laboring within systems that haven’t traditionally valued them. She scoffs at the thought of not learning new language that individuals prefer: “If that helps someone feel included, instead of excluded, why wouldn’t I say/do that? Why would I intentionally choose not to care about people who are feeling alienated?” This vital guide, peppered with provocative questions and insights, will aid any supervisor or organization eager to work to live up to their mission.

Takeaway: An invaluable guide for HR professionals and leaders committed to social justice.

Great for fans of: Charlotte Sweeney and Fleur Bothwick’s Inclusive Leadership; Elaine Congress, Allan Luks and Francis Petit’s Nonprofit Management : A Social Justice Approach.

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

Click here for more about Leading for Justice
Nunchuck City
Brian Asman
A pair of modern-day ninjas battle an evil ninja army in the fictional Turbo City in this frequently violent, always funny send-up of the martial arts genre. Nunchuck “Nick” Nikolopoulos is a former ninja master who has now taken a vow of pacifism and is pursuing his dream of opening a fondue restaurant. However, he is forced to take up arms again when the evil Kundarai Saru appears along with an old flame, fellow ninja Kanna. With the help of some amusingly incompetent locals, they battle for the future of Turbo City and Nick's restaurant.

Asman (Jailbroke) has a pitch-perfect ear for the tropes of martial arts movies, which he uses to mock them again and again. We first meet Nick when he is apparently battling an opponent trying to strangle him with a rope—but it turns out he's simply trying to fasten a Windsor knot in his tie. He is then attacked by a local street gang, who set themselves apart with houndstooth jackets and argyle socks, and an invalid warrior cared for by elderly villagers drinks soup provided by old women, "who also peed in it." The gross and adolescent humor alternates with horrific violence, but for those hungry for this, Nunchuck City offers a feast.

The novel is populated by a series of caricatures used to create humorous vignettes. We meet Skip Baxter, the allegedly all-powerful founder of a martial arts school (but who is easily beaten by a five-year-old child), and the Turbo City mayor: "A lifelong politician, the concept of helping people was as foreign to Mayor Joe as advanced calculus to a Lhasa Apso." And there's a running joke about the stereotypically evil Saru, who thinks his name is Japanese for "glorious warrior," but really is "shitty monkey." Readers will enjoy laughing at the ongoing takeoff of actioners all the way to the cheerful conclusion.

Takeaway: Fans of martial arts movies will find much to laugh at in this lively lampoon.

Great for fans of: Harvard Lampoon, John Swartzwelder.

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

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The Caped Countess
Judith Lynne
A reporter on the trail of a secretive vigilante finds himself falling for the courageous woman behind the façade in this highly unusual Regency era romance. By day, Donnatella plays the empty-headed Duke’s daughter, but by night she dons a cape laced with gadgets and prowls the streets dressed as a man to foil petty criminals and avenge her mother, who died in a botched robbery years before. When a man connected to a crime she stopped turns up murdered, Donnatella—Tella to her friends—goes on a hunt for the culprit, and in the process uncovers a conspiracy that reaches all the way into the society ballrooms of her daily life.

Tella is used to relying only on herself, and the man who jumps in to interrupt a fight is at first a liability, then an annoyance as he refuses to leave her to handle her investigations alone. When they begin to work together instead of in parallel, dashing Lord Henry Fitzwilliam (“The raw bones of his face fit together in a way that was handsome; and the nose was regal enough to match that posh voice”) eventually learns Tella’s true identity and shocks her by treating her no differently—at least until a proposal of marriage complicates everything.

Despite Fitz’s assurances that he doesn’t want her to change, Tella remains afraid of commitment: She refuses to end her nighttime adventures because she blames herself for her mother’s death, and she’s convinced that anyone who gets close to her will be put in similar danger. This attitude of martyrdom persists through most of the book, making Tella a slightly frustrating heroine, but Fitz’s charm, warmth, and increasing ardor more than balance it out. Though historical accuracy is questionable at best, those who enjoy some whimsy and fun in their historical romance will love this adventurous tale. If you’ve been searching for a gender-bent Regency era Batman in love, this is your book.

Takeaway: A swashbuckling Regency romance alive with adventure, passion, and secret identities.

Great for fans of: Donna Thorland’s The Rebel Pirate, Lisa Kleypas’s The Ravenels series.

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

Click here for more about The Caped Countess
The Cat in the Window Murders
Frank Gertcher
Air Force veteran and scientist Gertcher charms in the third Caroline Case mystery series (after The Blind Pig Murders), set in Paris immediately before the stock market crash in 1929. Private detective Caroline Case Jones and her new husband, Major Hannibal Jones, set sail from the U.S. aboard the luxury ship SS Isle de France hoping for a relaxing vacation. Instead, they help the ship’s officers solve an on-board murder. After the ship docks, Hannibal and Caroline are all set for a proper holiday—until bodies start dropping from Le Havre to Paris and beyond. Soon, the stylish duo are tapped to help solve the murders—if they can do so without ending up dead themselves. Their madcap adventures stretch from cathedral to countryside farm to Gabriele “Coco” Chanel’s chic salon, with the death toll rising at every stop.

Gertcher’s loving detail throughout about late twenties fashion–Chanel, Lanvin and others—will captivate vintage fashion buffs (and, likely, make them drool with envy at Caroline’s access to couture). The clever title is a reference to the nickname the French Gendarmerie gives the detective—the elegant black cat in the window. Supporting characters, especially Annette, the granddaughter of a mob boss, who Caroline meets during an eventful appointment at Chanel’s salon, add appealing depth to the storyline.

While generally well-edited, a few clunkers distract, and some of Caroline’s internal dialogue tells more than it shows. Still, Gertcher’s clever storyline, well-drawn characters, and excellent pacing will enchant historical mystery fans (especially those who are fans of Chanel, Schiaparelli, and Lanvin) leave them eager for the Hannibal and Caroline’s next adventure, tantalizingly teased at the end of this one. This historical mystery provides an irresistible glimpse into the past, with a hero and heroine readers (especially fashionistas) will adore.

Takeaway: An irresistible historical mystery married fashion and murder in prewar France.

Great for fans of: Mary Higgins Clark, Agatha Christie.

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

Click here for more about The Cat in the Window Murders
FATHER'S DAY PART II: THE SECRET OF LA SANGRE
Gary Kyriazi
In Kyriazi’s tragic if somewhat tangled follow up to the literary morality tale Father’s Day, a small town grapples with dirty secrets and religious zealotry in the 1980s. Sal Satori, a local preacher who fights self-doubt and recurring nightmares, is facing the skeletons of his past while his wife, Connie, is tired of their permanent struggle to grow past Sal’s affair with Jessie Malana–a troubled young woman who suffered a shocking end. At the height of their conflict, a harrowing interaction with an outsider breaks open a string of scandals that rock the foundation of the town.

As they come to terms with their messy pasts, La Sangre’s inhabitants discover unsettling connections that turn relationships inside out and force some residents to redefine who they are. Sal’s stepson, Corey, leans about the truth of his conception and launches into a sex-filled bender as a truck driver instead of sticking to his plans to attend Bible college– and gets caught in the cross hairs of Jessie’s tormented older sister, Maria. Dr. Ralph Owen, Jessie’s one-time psychiatrist, pitches headfirst into danger when he plays detective to unravel her death. Surveying so much violence, abuse, and rage, Father’s Day Part II will appeal to readers comfortable dwelling on the seedy, miserable aspects of small-town scandal, like the temptations of frontage-road adult book stores or truck-stop sex.

Kyriazi attempts to illuminate these lost characters’ motivations by shedding light on their pasts, though awkward dialogue and some implausible actions muddy the plotting and key thematic elements, such as the impact of abusive relationships. For these characters, lust and guilt are twined up, puritanism fighting passion, a thematic tangle that occasionally gets histrionic, as when Doyle, after a tryst, becomes convinced that Satan is personally out to claim him. Still, the unexpected ending will give readers satisfactory closure, and Kyriazi’s fallen souls engage in intriguing discussions of how to make sense of so dark a world.

Takeaway: Seamy secrets, abusive relationships, and death all collide in this small-town tragedy.

Great for fans of: Elizabeth Strout's Anything is Possible, Richard Russo's Empire Falls.

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

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