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The Last Moon Before Home
Barbara J. Dzikowski
Dzikowski continues chronicling the Trudeau and Ziemny families (introduced in The Moonstoners) in this emotionally turbulent novel. Young Willow Trudeau, a nursing-school dropout, seeks to understand her past as she heads to a tiny town in Indiana, searching for a father she only knows by name, Leon Ziemny. Leon, meanwhile, is struggling with his own problems: his father, Walt, a retired Polish steelworker turned innkeeper, has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. When Willow marches into the Ziemny family’s inn, she immediately takes to Walt, her nursing background giving her a way to forge a connection with him while she decides whether to tell him that she’s his granddaughter. As Walt begins to fray around the edges and Willow tries to find her place in a new family, the family’s connections, already brittle, will be tested until they reach their breaking point.

Drawing on her expertise as a counsellor for dementia patients and their families, Dzikowski creates a nuanced portrait of a family in turmoil. Walt’s descent into dementia is rendered with gut-wrenching accuracy, and his portrayal will resonate with readers who have firsthand knowledge of the effects of Alzheimer’s. Willow’s quest to find her identity while struggling with her family baggage will speak to 20-something readers who have faced similar challenges.

Dzikowski’s occasional reliance on stock phrases (“losing his marbles,” “big hairy deal,”) and meandering passages sometimes blunt an otherwise sharp narrative. However, her portrayal of an Eastern European immigrant family is suffused with color. Her realistic dialogue (Walt earnestly informs Willow “I’m afraid of ships” before abruptly pivoting to frank morbidity and adding, “I sure as hell hope I don’t have to go to heaven on a ship”) prevents the story from sinking into melodrama. Dzikowski brings a steady authorial hand to this poignant and approachable family tale.

Takeaway: Readers who have been personally affected by Alzheimer’s will particularly resonate with this poignant drama about three generations of a troubled family.

Great for fans of Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves.

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

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The Two-State Dilemma
Michael Dan
Peace activist Dan deftly uses mathematical game theory to examine the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling it “an unresolvable political paradox.” Dan simplifies mathematical models and philosophical concepts while using them to describe the history of the region and its peoples. Through the lens of game theory, he discusses how irrational and inefficient decision-making has persisted over time. Asserting the impossibility of independent states in “tiny Palestine,” he makes a strong case for mutual cooperation in a single state while acknowledging that such an outcome seems unlikely.

Dan’s approach of slowly introducing concepts and applying them to the history of the conflict allows him to build his case while providing background for the reader. He explores game theory not as a way of finding a solution but as an illustration of how different kinds of conflicts play out. In games such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma and Deadlock, illustrated in clear, simple charts, Dan explains the available outcomes as mutual cooperation, mutual destruction, or individual destruction. With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he builds to the conclusion that the only path to resolution is through rational self-interest that also seeks to protect others.

Dan, a Canadian Jew, is far from a dispassionate observer, making it clear that he has a personal and moral stake in the outcomes Israel chooses with regard to colonization, especially as Palestinian population growth is set to outpace Jewish population growth (and both populations are already higher than the region can support, he says). He fears the outcome of a true apartheid state, and urges both Jews and Palestinians to rethink finding ways to cooperate. A lack of objectivity does not imply a lack of rationality, however, and Dan’s thorough research on philosophy, history, and genetics reveals two peoples who are more alike than different. This unusual treatise approaches the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with compassion, wit, and a flexible philosophical framework that is both engaging and crystal-clear.

Takeaway: This is an evenhanded, compassionate, logical, and clearly explained must-read for those interested and invested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Great for fans of Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, Neil Caplan’s The Israel-Palestine Conflict: Contested Histories, Shlomo Ben-Ami’s Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.

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

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Help Keep Out: Volume 5
Robert Letters
Letters, the pseudonymous author of the four previous volumes of Help Keep Out, delivers another collection of mysterious and haunting poems first published on Twitter. The book moves among different narrative strands that could sound either historical or current, recursively exploring threats of violence and promises of glory in battle throughout history. Letters makes passing references to mythical epics (“His physical body was taken but/ his fate was to live forever in song”) as well as more contemporary conflicts, with lines about a man “standing watch/ on a wall whose intent was to terrorize” reminding readers about the timelessness of war.

Letters keeps the poems in their original tweet format, with longer narratives broken up into small sections. Each is titled with the date of its original publication, spanning from 6/5/18 to 10/22/19. This can make it hard to track which poems concern the same characters or events. In the preface, Letters asserts that the poems are “informed by Asian forms” of poetry such as haiku and tanka but doesn’t dogmatically adhere to their constraints, potentially vexing those concerned about appropriation of or conformity to cultural tradition.

The most successful poems are also the most visual. Letters’s message and angle can be caught between critique and support, muddled in their intentions, in lines such as “to keep out/ the invading mothers/ and their phony children.” But the images of “Slow it down/ to see the small earth rotate” and “In your pale night dress/ you sang locust songs” are clear, personal, and easy to connect with. Letters’s collection will thrill readers who love the stark imagery and battles of epic poetry but want an update for the current national climate.

Takeaway: This meditative, minimalist collection of imagistic poems will appeal to readers looking for a contemporary poet blending experimental forms with social commentary.

Great for fans of Brian Turner’s “Here, Bullet,” Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems.

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

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Cockloft: Scenes from a Gay Marriage
Kyle Thomas Smith
Smith (85A) recounts the curious, mundane, and intimate moments of life with his husband, Julius, in this startlingly wonderful collection of autobiographical dialogues, vignettes, and personal essays. Smith’s writing blends campy memories with snappy wisdom from tumultuous times, including the lead-up to the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, as well as fallout from both events. He invites readers to accompany him on a disorienting night in Amsterdam, around his favorite writing spots in Brooklyn, and to the tech hub of San Francisco, all described with witty and writerly charm.

Smith’s collection taps into a very contemporary tendency toward both reflection and self-deprecation, awareness and ego. The text sometimes resembles a Netflix comedy special, using observational humor to deconstruct and recontextualize a personal narrative; at other moments, it’s more like a viral tweet with an unexpected punchline. It’s never without an undeniable core of cultured, bougie gayness, with references to Prince, meditation retreats, and socialism. In Smith’s afterword, in which he explains his writing process, the reader comes to recognize the years of study and intention that have gone into this assortment of everyday quips turned unexpected masterpiece.

Some readers may find Smith’s style too raunchy, political, or obscure. Though he and Julius lament their struggles under the Trump administration, they are still well-off white men, and it shows. But Smith turns his privilege and flaws into the book’s strengths. Such an intimate look into two men’s marital squabbles and joys—written only a few years after marriage equality became law in the U.S.—is timely and educational as well as touching. Smith’s quick, lighthearted, and tender quasi-memoir is a snapshot of queer America that will find its way into the heart of anyone with a romantic streak or a funny bone.

Takeaway: Smith’s funny, raunchy, and political musings on gay married life will delight trendy queer readers and anyone with a taste for vulnerable humor.

Great for fans of David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day, Sloane Crosley’s I Was Told There’d Be Cake.

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

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River of Blood
S O'Fuel
This brutal, philosophical crime novel spans generations in its examination of family myth, cycles of violence, and corruption and racism among police departments. O’Fuel (That Night Filled Mountain) traces the life of Sean Tower, a restless young man from a family of cops, from a childhood fascinated by violent comic books to years spent hoboing across America to eventual deployment as a police officer in an unnamed American city. Sean slowly develops a moral philosophy that places him at bloody odds with a police department infested with racketeers and white supremacists.

O’Fuel’s ambitious novel is an impressionistic swirl of past and present, especially in its first half, as passages of vivid family lore alternate with present-tense accounts of Sean’s childhood. The prose surges with anger, despair, and invention, but it’s not easily approachable. O’Fuel vaults among timelines and perspectives. Dialogue is scant, and at times the prose loses clarity as it strains for poetic effect: “Spooky details cloned in the repetitive scenes of spontaneous destruction will produce macabre moments of déjà vu.” O’Fuel’s scenes often fall into present-tense summary and focus on characters’ internal experiences, skimming through action that might have had greater impact if dramatized.

For readers willing to disorient themselves in O’Fuel’s sweeping and outraged narrative, the novel offers accounts of war, policework both bizarre and mundane, life on the road, suicides and cop murders, and, eventually, the pulpy violence readers might expect from a crime thriller. Even then, O’Fuel bucks simple convention by penning the climax as a lengthy, ruminative colloquy, the text stripped of quotation marks, the scene feverish and unsettling. This ambitious exploration of systemic violence and moral philosophy has a lot to offer for fans of dense, cerebral crime fiction.

Takeaway: This thoughtful, vicious cop novel will jolt readers who crave moral inquiry in their crime fiction.

Great for fans of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, James Ellroy.

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

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Ring On Deli
Eric Giroux
Giroux’s somewhat autobiographical debut novel draws on the Market Basket protests of 2014 as he highlights the fractured relationship between two brothers. Ray Markham was 18 when his parents died in a car accident. He abandoned his college plans to care for his 11-year-old brother Patrick and took a job as a deli clerk at the Bounty Bag grocery store in Pennacook, Mass., a recession-hit town with a wild boar problem. In the five years since, Ray has risen in the ranks at Bounty Bag, while Patrick has become a rebellious teenager. Ray weathers the upheaval of workers planning a walk-out, and Patrick’s academic struggles are offset by his excellence in the state-required local history class. As Patrick’s high school principal anticipates an upcoming referendum vote on raising the tax cap to provide funding for a new school and tries to find her nephew a job, Patrick submits a college application for Ray, opening up the possibility of a brighter future for both of them.

Giroux’s witty writing enhances the cast of quirky characters, including deli manager Toothless Mary and a debauched coworker known as the Alfredo. He draws on his experience working in a deli to detail the inner workings of a grocery store and the hierarchy among the employees, and his work as an attorney for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission adds insight to his depiction of Bounty Bag management’s strategic attempts to retain their positions.

The fast-paced narrative includes witty descriptions of the town of Pennacook (“a kind of Brigadoon with malaise”) and its residents’ relationships and foibles. The element of humor is a welcome counterpoint to a character’s tragic death and Patrick’s often self-destructive behavior. With a steady authorial hand and dryly funny narration, Giroux crafts a memorable setting for this poignant story of people awkwardly trying to improve their ordinary lives.

Takeaway: This dryly funny, engaging novel will appeal to fans of small-town stories full of quirky characters.

Great for fans of Emma Straub’s All Adults Here, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.

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

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Cuppy and Stew
Eric Goodman
Creative writing professor Goodman (Twelfth and Race) merges memoir and historical fiction in this engrossing tale of love, tragedy, and perseverance. In Vancouver, during the spring of 1937, Suzanne “Anne” Kerr meets Stewart “Stew” Morgan and flirtation eventually leads to love. Stew’s wife and father refuse to let him leave his unhappy marriage, so Stew moves to South Africa with Anne to live as a couple. Their daughters, Sharon and Susan, are born there. They return to Canada in 1945 only to discover that scandal still hangs over their heads. A move to the U.S proves fortuitous, and the family thrives until the 1955 bombing of United flight 629 kills Anne and Stew, leaving Sharon and Susan at the dubious mercy of their estranged extended family.

Stew and Anne’s younger daughter—whose character is based in part on the diaries of Susan Morgan, the author’s wife—provides an engaging narrative voice for this seamless crossover of memoir and historical fiction. Descriptions of Anne and Stew’s more intimate moments are tasteful, though odd to hear about from their child’s perspective. Although the Great Depression and WWII both affect the narrative, historical events mostly fade into the background of the family’s personal struggles. Social norms of the period play a stronger influence on the story. Minor discrepancies arise during the time spent in South Africa.

An overriding sense of overcoming the odds unites the romance of part one with the more tragic circumstances of part two. Clear descriptions coupled with entertaining internal dialogue and concise, expressive characterization make the pages fly by. A marvelous narrator and eventful plot make for an entertaining and moving tale that’s sure to please readers seeking inspirational narratives about hard times in history.

Takeaway: Goodman’s unconventional blend of fact and fiction will be a hit with historical readers who like stories about overcoming adversity.

Great for fans of Edward Rohs and Judith Estrine’s Raised by the Church, Lindsey Jane Ashford’s Whisper of the Moon Moth.

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

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Pay Back
D. Z. Church
Vietnam-era Navy veteran Church writes with authority and skill in her gripping third Cooper thriller (after Head First). Taking place over a week and a half in 1975 in the waning days of the Vietnam War, this suspense-filled novel toggles between Vietnam and the Michigan suburbs, bubbling with fresh intrigue at every turn, as Navy and Marine brothers Laury and Byron Cooper balance their own interests with the U.S.’s. They’re not the only ones with secrets: Laury’s new wife, Kate, has a history she hasn’t divulged, and his daughters, Jolie and Emilie, aren’t telling all they know about friends and foes. Multiple lives are at stake in nearly every chapter.

Church skillfully draws readers into her meticulously researched and fast-paced tale with skillful worldbuilding that allows readers to practically smell the gunpowder as dangerous battles rage. Her able plotting will encourage readers to overlook the occasional small error. The author also does a masterful job of exploring moral shades of gray in her characters, avoiding making any of them one-dimensional and encouraging readers to examine their own beliefs about right and wrong.

This novel can be appreciated as a standalone story, but readers will get more enjoyment from reading the whole quartet in order, as several subplots are continued from the first two installments and the suspenseful ending suggests more intrigue to come. Ideal for fans of wartime stories and sweeping family sagas, this taut tale delivers a heady mix of intrigue and history that will keep readers on the edges of their seats.

Takeaway: This wartime thrill ride turns the waning days of the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam into a pulse-pounding, smart tale of suspense.

Great for fans of Ellen Emerson White’s The Road Home, Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July.

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

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Ghost Cat
Helen Currie Foster
In Foster’s fast-paced sixth Alice MacDonald Greer mystery (after Ghost Next Door), the small-town Texas lawyer contends with feuding clients and dead bodies. Alice is still reeling from discovering a body at the edge of her land, but it’s otherwise business as usual. Her current clients include a former pro football player turned vintner who wants to buy out his partner, a new client wanting to set up a trust for her sister in a care facility, and a couple complaining about mysterious vehicles entering and exiting their neighbor’s property. When one client is found shot and another almost suffocated, Greer is desperate to find out why they’re being targeted, and by whom. Among her suspects are a solitary new resident whom neighbors call the Hermit, a cowgirl with a missing finger, and a client’s bull-headed, disgruntled partner.

Foster quickly sets up elements of mystery from the very first page, with the mention of a ranch hand’s missing sister and the potentially problematic gunshots heard nearby. The intrigue keeps building through the novel as Alice builds formidable list of possible suspects and uncovers new clues in this deftly paced and formulated plot. Poised and self-assured, Alice is a refreshing protagonist. Her quick comebacks, fearless sleuthing skills, and sensitivity in her quietly budding midlife romance make her a likable and well rounded heroine.

The engaging dialogue flows naturally and effectively brings out the personalities of secondary characters such as Alice’s indomitable secretary, Silla, whose liveliness adds lightness to the story. The uncluttered prose boasts several evocative turns of phrases, and the atmospheric descriptions are succinct and vivid, highlighting the rugged and bountiful landscape of Texas Hill Country. Foster’s skillful plotting, easy pace, and captivating characters will be a big hit for audiences craving a new mystery series to binge-read.

Takeaway: This sleuthing Texas attorney will hit the mark with readers who love mysteries featuring guns, cowboys, and a spunky female lead.

Great for fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series.

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

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Memory of Dragons
Michael G. Munz
Two worlds are tied together by memory, magic, and intrigue in this charming fantastical adventure from Munz (Zeus Is Undead). Austin Blanchard is on a pilgrimage to the Welsh coast to mourn the death of his girlfriend, Rhi, when a pickpocket steals a treasured keepsake: Rhi’s pendant. The young pickpocket, Corinna, later tracks him down, claiming that the pendant infused her mind with the dead Rhi’s memories. Corinna reveals that Rhi was a powerful wizard from another world, Rhyll, and had brought a malevolent dragon trapped in a crystal. Her description bears a startling resemblance to a crystal Austin found on his travels. A trapped spirit named Boden speaks from it, claiming that Rhi was trying to help him. Austin and Corinna also have to dodge a sorcerer from Rhyll who’s hell-bent on obtaining the crystal. Austin must decide whom to believe and trust, and the wrong choice could doom both worlds.

Munz’s carefully crafted realm of Rhyll and its fantastic magical system are fresh and inventive; readers learn much about Rhyll through entertaining interactions between the protagonists and the displaced Rhyllians who inhabit Earth. Munz’s compelling concept of memory magic—transplanting people’s memories into objects or other people—comes with interesting ethical implications that are teased out through the narrative.

Austin and Corinna are an instantly likable duo. Corinna’s worldliness and quick wit are a perfect foil for Austin’s curiosity and occasional incredulity at his situation. Although at the times the exposition is heavy-handed, Munz keeps a suspenseful edge on his plot while suffusing his characters and Welsh setting with color. Fans of fast-paced, high-stakes fantasy will enjoy Munz’s work.

Takeaway: Dragons, memory magic, and the collision of the fantastic and the mundane will please portal fantasy readers seeking a new world to fall into.

Great for fans of Diana Wynne Jones, Genevieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library.

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

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Life Is Big
Kiki Denis
Denis (The Last Day of Paradise) tackles life, death, happiness, time, genetics, and consciousness in this smart, funny novel. Alma-Jane, an 11-year-old New Yorker, is doomed to die because of the genetic mutation that also resulted in her heretofore-unseen perfect Genetic Happiness score. Her brilliant 14-year-old brother, Ayrton, wants to save her. So does Raduska Smith, an old woman with a GH score of zero. From there, the novel sprawls out wildly, introducing Alma-Jane’s synesthete friend Alejandro, who thinks minds are made up of “little brain people”; Laszlo, a game designer with a piece of Einstein’s brain in a jar; Mighty-11, a mouse genetically engineered to be fearless; and immortal beings including Pablo Neruda, Scrabble inventor Alfred Butts, the cake-baking Death, and his brother OM (Obituary Man).

The book is a riot of philosophical debates and surreal details. Characters use the online Overall Happiness scale created by anonymous supergeek Cornelis; the chat site GreatImmortality.org, “where you go and communicate with any book hero or any dead, but important and famous person”; and MinorImmortality.org, “where common people are stored after death.” During one such chat, Albert Einstein mentions that he’s been spending a lot of time with Sabina from Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. One scene takes place at a scientific conference, another at a town meeting in the world of the dead.

The question of whether Alma-Jane will survive is just the jumping-off point for the declaration of a war against death, discussions about the role of fear and bravery in survival and how to define happiness, and revelations of unforeseen connections among the characters. The prose can sometimes be a bit stiff, many characters have similar voices, and the children are implausibly precocious. Nonetheless, this novel is clever, witty, inventive, and full of heart. Readers who love solving puzzles and eavesdropping on existential ponderings will eat it up.

Takeaway: This innovative and witty novel will delight logophiles and puzzle-solvers.

Great for fans of Tom Robbins’s Jitterbug Perfume, Robin Sloan, Jasper Fforde.

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

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This Book Is the Longest Sentence Ever Written and Then Published
Dave Cowen
Taking on the entertaining and grueling task of breaking the record of the longest single sentence ever published, Cowen’s hefty endeavor offers remarkable vulnerability alongside a strain of self-effacing humor. Cowen kicks off the book with good-natured jokes at the absurdity of his record-breaking labor, trying to prove that he isn’t a failed writer by competing valiantly against the likes of William Faulkner’s 1,288 word sentence in Absalom, Absalom! and the compelling 3,687 words in James Joyce’s Ulysses, but the 111,111 words of his book-length sentence soon incorporate enneagrams and virtues, mental health treatments, Cowen’s father’s kidney failure, and his fascination with rapper Kanye West.

The purposeful rambling gives Cowen license to explore odd connections and digressions among his wildly divergent topics, hopping from his father’s death to The Lion King to Paul Auster and back in one recursive tangent. He uses diagrams, social media screen grabs, and web pages (which he counts as a single word) to illustrate his points about the problems with Instagram (“the invasive proliferation of autobiography, of the diary, of self-preoccupation as a genre in and of itself”) or to launch into discussions of copyright usage. His single and singular sentence is impressively seamless, even when occasionally frustrating the reader.

Though the lack of finishing punctuation or breaks sometimes makes the text difficult to decipher, the through-line narrative comes across as meditative and honest in an intentionally disarming way. Cowen’s humorous narration and collage storytelling give readers a raw, unguarded look into his mind. An ambitious experiment in form, Cowen’s unfiltered journey is a rewarding read for fans of avant-garde literature that blends confessional writing and criticism.

Takeaway: Readers undaunted by literary experiments will find wholesome vulnerability and contemplative humor in this self-consciously record-breaking novel.

Great for fans of Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn.

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

Kuskovo: A Spy Novel
Rick Marshall
This debut novel of Cold War espionage is suffused with technological and political detail. In 1970, Alex Zoravar leads a top-secret project at the U.K.’s Atomic Weapons Research Establishment and suggests that they collaborate with the U.S. to work on a global positioning system of satellites to control intercontinental ballistic missiles. Samantha Endel, an American computer scientist, is tapped to lead the project, and the attraction between her and Alex quickly leads to a torrid affair. When Alex gets the news that Samantha has died in an explosion, he’s devastated—until he realizes that her lipstick’s GPS transponder is active and in the Soviet Union. Not sure whether she’s a spy or a kidnapping victim, he risks his life to lead a team to Moscow in hopes of finding her.

Marshall’s knowledge of the Cold War and its technology adds realism to the novel, with lengthy passages about alliances and highly detailed specifications of weaponry. That level of detail will appeal to fans of technology and history. Readers hoping for more spy-vs.-spy action may be confused by the nuances of radio triangulation positioning, but they’ll appreciate the rescue mission. The danger faced by the Westerners in Soviet Russia is palpable and believable, quickly immersing the reader in their peril.

Marshall’s characters are well developed and given lengthy backstories that slow the early part of the story but provide insight into the characters’ present-day behavior. His focus on Alex’s military background adds credibility to Alex’s shift from engineering to espionage. Once Samantha vanishes, the pace is crisp. Though the novel concludes abruptly, the intense narrative overcomes many shortcomings. This novel about the inner workings of Cold War espionage will please history buffs yearning for more realism and technological focus in the spy thriller genre.

Takeaway: Fans of well-researched historical spy stories with elements of romance and tragedy will be drawn to this Cold War espionage thriller.

Great for fans of Jack Arbor’s The Russian Assassin, Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War.

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

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Freydis
gunhild haugnes
Norwegian author and journalist Haugnes (Daughters of Norway) delivers a historical tour de force with this irresistible Middle Ages romantic saga that spans nearly a century. Adventurous and fiery Freydis Eiriksdatter doesn’t accept the limitations placed on women in Greenland in the 1000s. Like her father, Eirik the Red, Viking chief of Greenland, Freydis longs to discover and explore new lands. She’s also not averse to exploring other experiences, and sleeps with whom she wants when she wants. She eventually gives birth to two sons—neither one fathered by her husband, the long-suffering Torvard Einarsson, whom she’s fond of but doesn’t love. At last she persuades him to bring her to the new land, called Vinland, discovered by her brother Leif—but nothing can still her restless spirit.

Haugnes has obviously done extensive research on the Vikings, and she doesn’t skimp on the gory realities of living in the Middle Ages. There are bloody battles (which quite literally send heads flying), voyages full of raping and pillaging, and frequent deaths: Freydis loses a beloved brother in battle and her newborn second son to the sea during a violent storm. Haugnes also ably portrays the dissent fomented when Christianity was first introduced to the Viking population.

As Haugnes ably spins her tale, she paints vivid word pictures (“the murmur from the mountains sounds like harp music, the stream gurgles merrily and the wind sings along”) that easily transport readers to the Greenland of more than 1,000 years ago. The scenes of passion are vivid and erotic. Readers who enjoy Norse mythology, strong heroines, and romantic passion won’t be able to put down this delightful, fast-paced story.

Takeaway: This impeccably researched and expertly plotted tale will give fans of Viking sagas a vibrant heroine to love.

Great for fans of Morgan Llywelyn’s Grania: She-King of the Irish Seas, Catherine Coulter’s Season of the Sun.

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

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Around the Sun
Eric Bovim
Bovim’s emotional debut centers on a man whose success in business is both due to and overshadowed by his personal tragedies. Mark White is the CEO of White & Partners, a high-profile D.C. public relations firm, but his success comes with a high cost as he mourns the death of his wife, artist Monica, and frequently leaves their eight-year-old son in the care of a nanny. Mark agrees to manage the fallout for a statutory rape scandal facing a startup company that developed an app to translate Mandarin into English. Then Mark over-medicates with his anxiety medication and passes out during a televised interview, and the mismanagement of the startup scandal damages his business. He must manage the fallout and repair his fractured relationship with his son.

Bovim draws on his personal experience as the managing director of a D.C. public relations firm to give Mark a strong, believable voice. He expertly describes the high stakes and pressures of the business, magnified by the speed at which success can be diminished by poor decision-making and missed opportunities. The depictions of the cut-throat nature of the public relations world are chillingly realistic, illuminating the dark side of fame and fortune.

As the layers of Mark’s personality slowly peel back, Bovim shows how the perfect image he projects to the world is fractured. The globetrotting persona, complete with expensive hotels and world-class restaurants, is one that readers will envy until they see beneath Mark’s exterior and the pain he endures from the loss of his wife and his inability to bond with his son. Bovim’s detailed descriptions of Monica's paintings are compelling on their own and show the depths of Mark’s character and his connection to his wife’s profession. Readers with a taste for character-driven family dramas will be drawn to this narrative about the ruinous weight of denial and grief.

Takeaway: This wrenching, immersive novel will appeal to fans of character-driven dramas that reveal the hidden sorrows of people leading seemingly perfect lives.

Great for fans of David Baldacci’s The Whole Truth, Corban Addison’s The Tears of Dark Water.

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

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Amelia's Gold
James D. Snyder
Snyder (Five Thousand Years on the Loxahatchee) crafts a heartwarming chronicle of a Southern belle’s travels during the Civil War. In 1829, dirt-poor 16-year-old Will Gaskins dives off the North Carolina coast and retrieves Spanish gold from a wrecked ship. In 1864, Gaskins, now respected cotton distributor William Beach, enlists his trustworthy but untested elder daughter, Amelia, to transport the treasure to the Bahamas so it won’t be confiscated during the war. Capt. Charles Timmons escorts her to Nassau, where she runs afoul of opportunists and begins learning how to interact with free black people, many of whom educate her about the abolitionist cause. Amelia and the gold turn back toward Wilmington, N.C., dodging destructive Northern blockade ships as well as blackmailers and swindlers. After a shipwreck, she winds up at a deplorable marine hospital where she nurses both Confederate and Union soldiers. Encounters with personable Union officer Benjamin Hawkes lead her to rethink her romantic interest in Captain Timmons.

Fans of Civil War history, Caribbean seafaring, and coming-of-age stories featuring strong, capable women will delight in Snyder’s attention to detail and effortless descriptions of 19th-century wartime life. The sights and smells of tropical islands are immersive, and Snyder mines history for details of clothing, social etiquette, banking, wartime economics, racial discrimination, yellow fever, and nauseating medical treatments to further draw readers into the era.

The gold, which converted orphaned Will into a wealthy merchant, is a catalyst that transforms Amelia just as drastically. The pampered 24-year-old “spinster” becomes an exceptional businesswoman and compassionate nurse who confronts romantic entanglements, the horrors of war, and a hurricane with equal aplomb. Snyder gracefully breathes life into genuine characters who embody desperation, patriotism, ambition, and resourcefulness. Readers will relish this energetic adventure as they root for plucky Amelia.

Takeaway: Civil War buffs and fans of strong heroines will enjoy this epic tale of a spirited young woman’s Caribbean travels and wartime nursing travails.

Great for fans of Julian Stockwin’s A Sea of Gold, Randall Peffer’s Seahawk trilogy, Sandra Merville Hart’s A Stranger on My Land.

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

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