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Relentless: Homeless Teen to Achieving the Entrepreneur Dream
Natasha Miller
In this inspiring memoir, Miller chronicles her life from experiencing homelessness as a teen with an abusive mother to becoming a successful musician, businesswoman, and loving parent. Growing up in Des Moines in a dysfunctional home with two younger brothers and a father she describes “stuck in the same storm as the rest of us,” Miller endured threats of stabbing, shooting, and psychiatric wards from her mother. For Christmas 1987, when she was 16, Miller did not receive a gift—instead she was kicked out of her house and placed in a local shelter for runaways. From there on, Miller, a talented violinist, was on her own.

Writing with clarity and insight, Miller acknowledges how circumstances like hers can foster despair and poverty, but her story becomes a showcase of resilience, courage, the drive to succeed–and ultimately, in the touching final pages, of empathy, as she strives to understand her mother. After landing musical scholarships, she married young and moved to California, where her daughter Bennett was born. It wasn’t all sunshine—Miller’s first marriage ended, followed by other heartbreaks—but she made the most of her musical gifts, performing standards and her own compositions, gaining famous fans such as Clint Eastwood and singer Frederica Von Stade.

Ultimately, Miller triumphed, founding a multi-million-dollar events firm and a record label, while befriending and recording with singer/songwriter Bobby Sharp. After winning Entrepreneur Magazine accolades, she participated in programs at MIT and Harvard. She reports these accolades with humility, and presents her journey as a coach might, reminding readers that it’s not victories that matter most–it’s “struggle and fight, the lessons we take from our scars.” Eventually, as she works “to break the chain of torment and abuse,” Miller even meets again with her mother. Readers eager for inspiration will be moved by Miller’s rise over adversity, a true testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

Takeaway: Miller’s inner strength and grit will stir hope in readers of inspirational memoirs.

Great for fans of: Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It, Lu Li’s Dear Female Founder.

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

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DIVISIBLE MAN
Howard Seaborne
Seaborne kicks off his ambitious Divisible Man series—which currently encompasses nine novels and a clutch of short stories—with this high-flying tale in which charter pilot Will Stewart survives, miraculously, the in-flight explosion of a plane, an incident that, waking up in the hospital after crashing to Earth sans cockpit, he can’t recall. His mind clouded by morphine, Stewart seems to recall his own body defying gravity, and even catches himself floating out of his hospital bed—surely, he thinks, a consequence of the medication he’s being administered by a medical team that seems to have some secrets. Soon, though, the truth becomes clear: Stewart has powers, to float in defiance of physics and to turn invisible, abilities he painstakingly learns to manipulate in a series of clever scenes.

Seaborne’s crisp prose, playful dialogue, and mastery of technical details of flight distinguish the story, which proves especially engaging in its first half. The disorientation of a hospital stay is adeptly described and exploited for suspense, and Stewart’s first real solo flight (aided by model airplane parts) is a legitimate thrill, a surprising burst of inventive fun that captures—not for Divisible Man’s last time—the dazzling surge of a flying dream. The action set pieces, especially flying scenes, remain strong throughout the novel, but the eventual conflict (involving a conspiracy plot that entails kidnapping, pedophilia, and opioids) that tests Stewart and his new abilities proves familiar.

Still, this is a striking and original start to a series, buoyed by fresh and vivid depictions of extra-human powers and a clutch of memorably drawn characters, like Stewart’s wife, Andy, a cop comfortable with a glock and capable of shutting people down with “a 40-millimeter anti-aircraft glance.” Even more than flight, that relationship—and that crack prose—powers this thriller to a satisfying climax that sets up more to come.

Takeaway: This high-flying thriller sets a pilot in flight against crime—without need of a plane.

Great for fans of: Dale Brown, Ward Larsen.

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

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The Vegetable Grows and the Lion Roars: My Peace Corps Service
Gary R. Lindberg
Lindberg recounts his heartening West African adventures in the Peace Corps of the 1960s in this memoir that illuminates the service experiences of American volunteers in the Ivory Coast, running health and agricultural education programs and working to build schools and gardens, while also offering insights into the place, people, culture, and era. Powered by Kennedy-esque optimism, Lindberg—known as “Monsieur Gary” in the Ivory Coast—taught and led residents of the Gagnoa region in the cultivation of jardins scolaires, or “school gardens,” a trial project created to encourage the eating of vegetables. Lindberg’s efforts emphasized local favorites tomatoes, okra, and eggplant.

Drawing on diary entries and his own copious photos, Lindberg’s account provides a clear account of Peace Corps life and efforts, circa 1966, from training to teaching to implementation of ambitious plans, with upbeat acknowledgements of the challenges he faced (such as getting families to maintain their planche gardens) and cultural differences he encountered. (Ivorians, he notes, “thought Americans chewed gum all the time, carried guns everywhere, wore blue jeans, spoke in local dialects instead of English, and threw away cars instead of repairing them.”) Lindberg writes with warmth and empathy for the villagers he worked with, never condescending and always taking efforts to understand their perspectives.

Readers eager to understand the nuts-and-bolts specifics of early Peace Corps missions, and how volunteers adapted their aims and practices for specific populations, will find this a valuable contribution to the public record. Also memorable: Lindberg’s account of one colleague’s desire to protest the Vietnam War during a West African visit from Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Lindberg writes more to inform than with a storyteller’s sense of drama, though photos both illustrate the text and demonstrate a good eye for the arresting image, and for many readers what’s most engaging here will be Lindberg’s quick prose portraits of the people he meets.

Takeaway: This striking memoir offers a clear view of Peace Corps life and efforts in the Ivory Coast of the mid-60s.

Great for fans of: Peter Hessler’s River Town, Sarah Erdman’s Nine Hills to Nambonkaha.

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

The Secrets of the Kings
Nora Delzelle
In Delzelle’s solid debut supernatural thriller, a modern-day chemist inherits an ancient Egyptian relic that attracts a millennia-long vendetta amongst deities. Alex Kincaid is baffled by a letter she receives from a stranger named Amos Fowler, who bequeathed her a box of ancient Egyptian artifacts. Drawn to a golden funerary mask that she learns depicts Horus, the Egyptian god of order, Alex puts it on–only to find the mask turns invisible and imbues her with fighting skills and near invulnerability. Before she knows it, Alex is using those skills to fight the dark forces that have started hunting her.

Delzelle provides a squad of well-constructed characters who both help and hinder Alex as she navigates her mysterious and magical predicament. Chase, her blind date, mugs her, then hits her with a car, but claims he is being controlled by someone else–though his attack is particularly traumatizing given the devastating car accident Alex endured three years before, causing her to undergo a cornea implant. In her dreams, Alex meets the soul of the deceased Fowler, who tells her she is now the new mask bearer for Horus and must dedicate herself to the defense of order. But she is warned against the servants of Set, the god of chaos, who has been at war with Horus for over four thousand years: “from the very start, order and chaos were locked in a struggle for supremacy.” Helping Alex are her carousing best friend Emily, who seems to disappear when Alex needs her most, protective co-worker Lynn, and handsome co-worker Gabriel.

While the setup is familiar, this polished story’s mythology is teased out with steady pacing, crisp prose, and a variety of twists that will please readers of urban fantasy–especially those drawn to strong female protagonists–right up until the satisfying ending.

Takeaway: This polished supernatural thriller finds a young chemist caught up in a battle between the ancient Egyptian pantheon.

Great for fans of: Ilona Andrews’s Magic Bites, R.M. Schultz’s Eve of the Pharaoh.

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

Click here for more about The Secrets of the Kings
SEGMENT OF ONE
Michael Grigsby
Grigsby uses his career in marketing analytics to craft an intriguing scenario where a retired marketing executive named Nick Vanderoff aids in tracking down a serial killer. Vanderoff is a loner whose lack of sensitivity alienated him from his daughter and put him on suspension from his job as a teacher. However, he bonds with his granddaughter Holly, a 12-year-old math genius struggling to fit in after skipping two grades. The serial killer is a math teacher named David Bar David who lost his pregnant wife to a school shooting–and takes his bloody revenge by way of a particular spiral mathematical sequence called the golden phi. He works with his pedophile brother Solomon and calls himself the Gun Crier.

When Nick's statistical models correctly predict David’s target sites, the killer retaliates by kidnapping Holly. There's an unspoken similarity between Nick and David in that they both are more comfortable with numbers than people, but, ultimately, Nick fighting for his granddaughter's life and his efforts to awkwardly connect with others sets him apart from the psychotically broken David. The accounts of Nick’s efforts to predict and understand the killer are compelling, and when Grigsby focuses on him, Holly, and David, the narrative is lively and tense.

When the narrative veers off into a burgeoning romance for Nick or the many other side characters, the dialogue feels less confident and the characterization two-dimensional, such as the FBI agent of Chinese descent who speaks in broken English. The danger to Holly is often uncomfortably lurid, serving to obscure the motivations and reactions of a villain who otherwise has a pained, interesting backstory. Still, the procedural aspects of the narrative are unique thanks to their reliance on statistical modeling, and much of the character-building goes above and beyond in creating fully-realized heroes and villains.

Takeaway: This surprising, occasionally lurid thriller finds a retiree tracking a killer through marketing analytics.

Great for fans of: Guillermo Martinez’s The Oxford Murders, John Sandford’s Rules of Prey.

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

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A Disturbing Nature
Brian Lebeau
Lebeau debuts with a gripping psychological thriller set during the mid-1970s. The story unravels through the eyes of its two protagonists, FBI detective Francis Palmer and a young college groundskeeper Maurice “Mo” Lumen. Palmer, estranged from his wife and daughters and surviving on coffee and cigarettes, finds his fate inextricably linked to Mo when the bodies of twelve young women are discovered around Rhode Island’s Bryant College. Mo’s role in the deaths is unclear, and his background of emotional trauma and intellectual disability immediately puts him on Palmer’s radar. Their paths inevitably converge as they are confronted with the horror of a mass murderer on the prowl while haunted by demons from their own past.

Through Palmer’s perspective, Lebeau offers a deep dive into the subject of criminal psychology. Palmer inhabits the archetypical “hardboiled” detective persona, an obsessive insomniac numb to the cycle of violence, trying to outrun his past. Meanwhile Mo, an orphan from Virginia with a developmental disability due to a grand mal seizure he suffered at age eleven, acts as a foil to the cynical detective. Mo has his own fair share of emotional trauma, having lost loved ones, but despite his harsh circumstances, the young man harbors an innocent naiveté and genuine affection for his friends, making him the heart of this unsettling story.

The novel frequently hurtles between past and present incidents with both main characters, and these transitions are initially jarring–however, later in the story they smooth out and are delivered with a confident, almost cinematic flair. Palmer is often an unlikeable cliché, casually objectifying the women he meets at bars while drinking his sorrows away, but Lebeau steers away from crime tropes when illuminating the pain behind Palmer’s actions. In the end, this is a successful thriller, keeping readers on their toes and serving a satisfying climax. Fans will eagerly await the second installment of this slated quadrilogy.

Takeaway: A solid crime thriller helmed by an antihero that delves into the history of American criminal psychology.

Great for fans of: Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls, Alex Michaelides’s The Silent Patient.

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

Click here for more about A Disturbing Nature
The Triple C Method: Gain clarity, boost confidence & build courage, so you can live life lit!
Ryan Spence
The three C’s of life coach Spence’s eponymous method—clarity, confidence, and courage—represent what it takes to lift one’s life from “lethargy to lit,” according to this invitingly breezy guide to the difference between surviving and thriving. Spence recounts his journey feeling stagnant in the employ of “BigLaw,” where people are “viewed as a resource whose worth is judged by how many hours you billed that week,” working up the courage to step out of this “soul-sucking” environment and live a life that fits his own values, on his own terms. Spence has crafted The Triple C Method as a tool kit to help others gain, build, and boost the clarity, confidence, and courage it takes to achieve the same.

In the conversational, encouraging voice of a coach, and drawing on stories from his and his colleagues’ and clients’ experiences, Spence lays out a clear framework for readers looking to make a change. Starting with “clarity,” his Cs emphasize gaining self-knowledge, asking at-times uncomfortable questions about who you are and what you want, urging readers “Don’t allow ideas of what is and is not realistic hold you back from going all out in creating and visualizing your dream life.” Establishing and end goal and finding a “Why,” he argues, are crucial work before attempting the next steps: Facing the “limiting beliefs” that diminish confidence, and then finding the courage that will power one’s efforts to arrive at the life they’ve envisioned.

Spence, an upbeat storyteller who occasionally flouts decorum with a heartfelt curse or jolting insight, proves adept at acknowledging and addressing the reasons many people fear to take action toward making a significant change. His guidance is sweeping, focused on the big picture of identifying what one desires and finding the confidence and courage to go for it. As a call to action, The Triple C Method is appealing and effective.

Takeaway: A call to action about the clarity, confidence, and courage it takes to live the life you may want.

Great for fans of: Bill Burnett and Dave Evans’s Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, Dale C. Bronner’s Change Your Trajectory.

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

Click here for more about The Triple C Method
"HOUSE BOY"
Lorenzo DeStefano
DeStefano’s novel about human trafficking and atrocities is a horrifying tale of cruelty in the name of caste, ranging from Southern India to suburban London. Vijay Pallan, a Dalit–or “untouchable”–boy from Tamil Nadu, a rural state in southern India, goes to Chennai searching for a job to earn money for his sisters’ dowry. In Chennai, he falls into the clutches of Santhana Gopalan who works for a dubious agency that “supplies” household staff to rich Indian families in Britain. Vijay is elated at the prospect of more prosperous times for him and his family but on reaching the household of Binda Tagorstani, he finds the conditions are inhumane and atrocious.

DeStefano exposes, with empathy and striking prose, the slavery, assault, and general horror visited upon the poor not just in India but persisting in western cities just out of sight. Still, readers familiar with Indian life and culture may find some details distracting, especially in the Tamil Nadu sequences. The title character is called Vijay Pallan, though it’s unlikely someone from the Dalit community would add their caste to their name for the simple reason that they don’t want to be discriminated against, and the portrayal of Vijay’s family and their poverty lacks dimension. Vijay’s desperation and fear, though, are persuasive, and the manner in which he’s seduced (“we feel an obligation to offer certain exceptional individuals like yourself the option of working abroad”) into leaving his country is chilling.

But once the narrative shifts to Britain, the novel stands on firmer–and more convincing– ground. DeStefano’s depiction of Vijay’s long hours of work, near-starvation, and humiliation at the hands of Binda and her son Ravi—as well as Vijay’s crime—starkly highlight the power dynamics between the oppressor and oppressed. In tense courtroom scenes the reader is treated to some scintillating dialogue.

Takeaway: Ranging from India to London, this saga of international human enslavement is an intense, revealing read.

Great for fans of: Brenda Barrett’s The Pull of Freedom, Ailish Sinclair’s Fireflies and Chocolate.

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

Click here for more about "HOUSE BOY"
Aeturnum: Evolving Elizah Book 2
C.J. Hall
Pairing science-fiction thrills with apocalyptic, character-driven suspense, Hall’s sequel (after Evolving Elizah: Initiatum) takes flight in media res, in 2059, on the Green Grow 3, a farm ship originally created to feed the survivors of disasters on Earth but now, after the New Generation terrorist attacks in the first book, is “catapulting into deep space,” billions of miles from home. Its current destination: a “turnaround point” that will offer the Green Grow—and its inhabitants, including children—opportunity to return to their ash-choked terrestrial home. Shaken by loss, divided by secrets, and queasy from the G forces of interstellar travel, the survivors must make hard choices about who to trust, especially once Liz, the hero who saved the day in the first book, begins hearing in her mind a mysterious presence that makes declarations like “I am divinely created from the great black womb of nothing!”

Hall proves adept at action, tension, and suggestion, offering enticing alien mysteries that suggest there may something more terrifying in the cosmos than human betrayal and terrorism. Still, much of this follow-up’s power comes from the interpersonal, as Liz must choose whether to trust her brother, the apparently power-mad Jackson, New Generation leader who insists that he knows how to save them all—but only if the Green Grow’s council accepts his curious orders.

The story’s significant suspense comes from the terror of uncertainty, especially who (or what) to trust when the stakes could not be higher. The Green Grow proves a pressure cooker as Hall’s people scheme and spy. Liz proves a memorable hero, but wily, unpredictable Jackson continually steals the show, getting under his (apparent) adversaries’ skin, charming children and the mother of Liz’s lover, urging the ship toward the distant planet Omega for reasons only he knows—and toiling on a mysterious machine. The suspense (and the answers) prove so engaging that that may appeal even to readers outside the science fiction fold.

Takeaway: This tense S.F. thriller will appeal to readers who relish character-driven suspense and intergalactic mysteries.

Great for fans of: Elizabeth Bear’s Dust, Emma Newman.

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

Click here for more about Aeturnum: Evolving Elizah Book 2
Maya the Clothes Maker and Ramon the Button Maker
Gigi Carunungan
In the town of Whatever, where people think they don’t understand math so they avoid it altogether, Maya is a clothes maker, and her friend Ramon is a button maker. Maya uses Ramon’s buttons to create her colorful and unique clothes, but they run into an issue when a shirt Maya has made doesn’t have enough buttons. Luckily, Bikoy, a visitor from the city and lover of math equations, enters the shop just in time to show Maya and Ramon how math can help solve their problem. Maya the Clothes Maker and Ramon the Button Maker features accessible writing, colorful and expressive illustrations, and a plot that drives the math concepts being taught.

Carunungan and illustrator Jessica Liou imagine an eye-pleasing, bustling town and tale with six algebraic concepts (“Sets are groups of the same types of objects”) woven through–and a host of cheerful, diverse Whatever residents, kids and adults both, to apply them to clearly described situations. Readers (called “MathXplorers”) are invited to work out the puzzles with the townies, of course, and given space on the pages to do so. At times the layout, which often includes multiple concepts on one page or one concept repeated multiple ways, can get cluttered, and it isn’t always as intuitive and clear as the written explanations. Several clever activities are included, like a game involving buttons and dice to help design shirts; these can run multiple pages, interrupting the flow of the narrative. Repeat readings will likely make the book and its think-along math challenges more inviting.

Still, having a child-centered and interactive book that explains math concepts is something that could help even the most math-averse kids. Carunungan offers an engaging, colorful, and interactive resource for teaching younger kids math concepts through character examples.

Takeaway: The town of Whatever’s diverse characters and colorful illustrations help engage young readers in basic math concepts.

Great for fans of: Eve Merriam’s 12 Ways to Get to 11, Dayle Ann Dodds’s Minnie’s Diner.

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

Presumed Guilty: A Novel
Alexandra Shapiro
Shapiro draws on her experience as a criminal defense attorney in this gripping debut. New York hedge fund manager Emma Simpson commutes to her Manhattan office daily by train from her home in the Hudson Valley, leaving behind her husband and two children. When her firm schedules an outage in order to transition to a new server, Emma sends out a precautionary email reminding employees of the company’s document retention policy–but a reference in it to discarding investment idea notes lands her in the crosshairs of a tenacious federal prosecutor when the company’s Boston office is investigated for possible insider trading.

At first the prosecutors seem not to discover anything sinister, but her relief is short-lived when FBI agents storm her home and arrest her. She is forced to defend herself and her seemingly innocuous email against a lack of concrete evidence, with a lengthy, drawn-out trial that illuminates the stark realities of such an investigation. Shapiro’s expertise, notably her success in defending clients of criminal insider trading cases, shines through, providing great verisimilitude, convincing and fascinating detail, and a welcome sense of realism throughout, all without overburdening readers with technical jargon.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the novel is Shapiro’s emphasis on Emma as the victim, especially when media focus during insider trading cases often hints at–or outright presumes–the guilt of the accused in such cases. Shapiro has skilfully created a portrait of a woman who, though working in a high-powered position, is similar to many women trying to juggle career with family while facing the challenges of parenthood–and her attention to the issues Emma faces after her arrest, including family and financial stress, is emotionally resonant and makes the consequences of the investigation all the more disturbing. Backstories for the prosecutors’ motivations are compelling, delivering a well-rounded, intense legal thriller that will electrify readers.

Takeaway: An innocent woman attorney becomes the focus of a crusading prosecutor in this riveting, realistic legal thriller.

Great for fans of: Scott Turow, Stacey Abrams’s While Justice Sleeps.

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

Click here for more about Presumed Guilty
Capuche
Hotse Langeraar
A richly detailed historical epic, Langeraar’s Capuche follows the life of Welsh noble Morvran ab Moel Llywarch as he battles religious tyranny in thirteenth century England. Morvran leaves his life in Wales to pursue scholastic ambitions, and during his travels across Europe he discovers the teachings of the Cathars–a religious sect deemed as heretics by the Catholic church for their beliefs, which opposed established religious teachings of the time. Morvran quickly emerges as a leader and protector of the Cathars, nurturing secret communes across England, and during his journey he falls in love with a Catholic nun. A forbidden romance simmers, but Morvran and his lover are destined for a tragic end.

Langeraar’s novel offers all the trappings of a great historical romance, with lush descriptive prose and larger than life characters based on real historical figures, albeit reimagined as fictionalized versions. As a Cathar leader, Morvran acquires the nom de guerre “capuche,” the French word for “hood,” and the references to Robin Hood escalate from there: Morvran frequently raids ecclesiastical institutions and redistributes their wealth to the masses, and his lover, Sister Maria, appears to be the namesake of folk heroine Lady Marian.

Although this tale is artfully pieced together with elements borrowed from medieval legends, Langeraar creates a distinct historical world by engaging with the forgotten history of the Cathars and imagining Morvran as a scholar and archivist, allowing him to illustrate the art of bookmaking as well. Langeraar dedicates the novel’s first part to establishing the socio-political context, and despite a constant shifting between the gripping inner lives of his main players, Capuche soon finds its rhythm and seamlessly weaves that context into the characters’ lives, while offering visceral imagery that will transport readers directly into a mesmerizing time and place. Historical fiction fans will be swept into the trials of Morvran and his tribe.

Takeaway: This accomplished historical epic weaves romance, medieval English folklore, and religious tyranny.

Great for fans of: Sharon Penman’s The Land Beyond the Sea, Megan Campisi’s The Sin Eater.

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

Click here for more about Capuche
The Devil's Calling
Michael Kelley
Kelley’s ambitious follow up to 2021’s science-meets-spirituality thriller The Lost Theory stands as another literate cosmological epic, this time finding its professor heroes—Sean McQueen, literature, and Emily Edens, quantum physics—facing the fallout in 2027, both good and terrifying, of their adventure nine years before, which involved the discovery and sharing of a murdered poet colleague’s world-changing “theory of everything.” The good: Raising kids, relishing Emily’s Nobel nomination, running a new college for women, and adjusting to a world that they’ve fundamentally changed. Their first brush with the bad comes from telepathic messages (“They come like coded packets of information that then bloom into a knowing within my mind”) received by Ting, the sister of their missing spirit guide, Juno. Has Juno ascended to a higher plane—or perhaps been abducted by beings we have no better term for than “aliens”?

From there, Kelley offers a sprawling, thoughtful epic involving intelligence agencies that the heroes bested in the previous book, a terrifying secret society, a “brain-mapping quantum computer” capable of controlling the human mind, and the tantalizing truth, teased early on, that “Our science fiction was the government’s secret truth.” Thriller readers should be aware that, among the many surprises on offer, Kelley favors thinking through the spiritual and philosophical implications of his ideas over fisticuffs and chases, though bursts of action (such as a set piece involving a wildfire or a showdown involving a branding) are handled with crisp clarity.

The second in a projected trilogy, The Devil’s Calling again centers the romance between its leads, and their embrace of spiritual practice—they meditate more often than they throw punches. That emphasis (and a luminous ending) will please readers who share that inclination, though the near-future technology is not developed to the standards of tech-thrillers. Refreshingly, narrator McQueen actually thinks like a lit prof, offering “a prayer that Dickens, not Kafka, would be the author of my ending.”

Takeaway: An ambitious thriller, blending science, spiritualism, advanced AI, and possible alien abduction.

Great for fans of: Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies, Ramez Naam’s Nexus Trilogy.

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

Click here for more about The Devil's Calling
Mystified
Julia Ash
Ash’s intriguing mystery is set against the backdrop of the cutthroat junior beauty pageant world. Fifteen-year-old Juliette (Jules) Annabella Parker is the darling of the pageant circuit, under strict watch by her overbearing mother, Constance. Imprisoned in a gilded cage, the only thing keeping Jules going is her friendship with her new neighbor, Truitt Windsor, who has a few secrets of his own. When Jules mysteriously drowns in her pool, she comes back as a ghost desperate to identify her killer.

Ash (author of the ELI Chronicles bioterrorism series) exhibits a keen eye for detail when it comes to characterization. Jules is an immediately likable, if precocious, teen heroine, whose headstrong demeanor will resonate with young readers. Constance, Jules’s mother, is delightfully over-the-top: Readers may be reminded of Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. (Decrying an autopsy for her daughter, Constance declares “Mourners will expect an open casket. My God, Finn! Juliette was a beauty queen.”) Although the novel opens with Jules’s death, Ash relies heavily on flashbacks to set up the tale, not revisiting Jules’s death until a third of the way through the book, diminishing the narrative momentum.

There are moments when Jules’s new life as a ghost is funny and inventive—Jules acting as an unseen force disrupting her own autopsy and arguing with her mother from beyond the grave are two such moments—but since the next world proves so similar to our own, complete with intelligible conversations between the dead, the story loses some tension and mystery. Jules has no trouble communicating with those in the realm of the living, and her materiality as a ghost tests a seasoned reader’s suspension of disbelief. Still, Mystified is an engaging read that will pull fans of dark fiction, fantasy, and mystery into a compelling character’s life and death.

Takeaway: This ghostly mystery offers a glimpse of the afterlife and the ugliness of the junior pageant world.

Great for fans of: Jessica Hamilton’s What You Never Knew, Colette McBeth’s The Life I Left Behind.

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

Click here for more about Mystified
Abby the Crabby Tabby: Discovers Gratitude
Andrea Lane
In her relatable, rhyming picture book for young children, Lane introduces Abby the crabby tabby, a persnickety longhaired kitty with a yellow bow on her head whose litany of complaints is endless and all encompassing. Abby starts each day by moaning about her breakfast of salmon and cheese, then moves on to whining about her “boring” toys, and finally her “small and lumpy” bed. Her lighthearted sister, Olivia Kathy, doesn’t understand why Abby is so miserable until one day she has a revelation: “‘Happiness,’ she thought, ‘why it’s all in your head!’”

When Olivia Kathy rushes to share this truth, telling Abby that “happiness isn’t a place that you find,” but rather “a thing you create with your mind,” the curmudgeonly cat is on her way out the door to find a place where she can “get what [she wants] right away.” But soon Abby finds her journey abruptly cut short and begrudgingly realizes Olivia Kathy is right, electing to stay home and choose gratitude. Kids will find Abby’s issues both humorous and relevant, as they’ve likely felt bored with their own toys and food or argued with a sibling at some point as well. Learning to look inward to find joy and peace and appreciate what one already has is a valuable lesson at any age, especially in an era of instant gratification and excess, and Abby the Crabby Tabby communicates it with engaging clarity.

Heather Bousquet’s detailed, expressive illustrations bring Abby’s journey from cantankerous to thankful delightfully to life. Abby is frequently shown scowling and rolling her big blue eyes while Olivia Kathy smiles, helping kids visualize the difference between choosing to see the water bowl as half full versus half empty. Ultimately a grinning and content-looking Abby is shown enjoying the same food and bed she used to deride, making a clear and important case for the power of gratitude.

Takeaway: The power of gratitude shines through this engaging story of a spoiled tabby.

Great for fans of: Karma Wilson’s Bear Says Thanks, Matt de la Peña’s Last Stop on Market Street.

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

Click here for more about Abby the Crabby Tabby
Honey Trap
Tony Brenna
Graphic violence and passionate couplings highlight this lively actioner that jumps from corporate boardrooms to the lairs of drug kingpins. Reporter Mike Delano is captured while covering the war in Iraq, and after a daring escape writes a bestselling book that leads to fame. Meanwhile, media czar Lord Rothenberg considers Delano as editor for a tabloid. Delano takes the job, but soon starts an affair with Rothenberg's unhappily married daughter, Rachel. Their relationship lands them in the middle of multiple conspiracies involving murderous gangsters, an out of control movie star, and Middle Eastern terrorists. The resulting maelstrom threatens to destroy the lovers, and everyone in their orbit.

Brenna's background in tabloid journalism, covering Hollywood, stands him in good stead in describing both the glamorous and seamy side of those businesses. And he does so with great vigor—the sex and violence are frequent and graphic: "his blade slashing at the guard’s skinny throat. Blood pulsed over him; the deluge pleased his soul." Even the sex is forceful: "Mistress Giana Gallina…. was an expert with whips for lashing and paddles for spanking." The plot gets a little convoluted with a lot of motives and double-crosses, but the action never lets up for a minute, with a continual string of cliffhangers.

Passion is the one constant that ties together all the characters, whether it's for money and power, as with Lord Rothenberg, or a political ideal with Muslim terrorists. The focus is mainly on Delano, who does show some growth as his passions change. At the start, he's a devoted journalist, but later becomes consumed by revenge before finding an intense, if troubled, relationship with Rachel. She has her own issues, with an extreme love-hate relationship with her family despite her father's mistreatment of her. All these emotions eventually boil over into several final revenge scenarios. Readers open to outsize passions themselves will likely be breathless.

Takeaway: Fans of hard-edge action will revel in characters who never hesitate to act on every thought of hate and lust.

Great for fans of: Harold Robbins, Alistair MacLean.

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

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