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Chateau Laux
David Loux
This intricate novel of Colonial America by short story author David Loux blends compelling family drama with engaging historical detail. On a hunting trip up the Delaware river, Lawrence Kraymer, a Philadelphia brewer eager to build a name, encounters an aristocratic French family living on the edges of the frontier. Eager to court patriarch Pierre Laux’s daughter, Catharine, Lawrence elects to buy land and build a chateau near the Laux home, an attempt to prove himself worthy of her hand. Doing so, he sets in motion events that will fray the fabric of a tightly knit community.

Loux writes with panache. His characters are lively and well-developed, and his alternating of point of view chapters allows for nuanced portraits of Lawrence and the Laux family. Intimate historical details concerning Pierre’s upbringing in France and Lawrence’s life as a brewer lend the story immersive credibility. The courtship between Lawrence and Catharine is sweet and poetic, weaving hope through a narrative that depicts the at-times harsh reality of its era. Highlights include heartfelt moments of introspection as the young Jean Laux comes of age and finds his place in the world, as well as clear-eyed accounts of how “horrendously difficult” life can be. Laux persuasively steeps readers in 18th century minds, always attentive to the opportunities and dangers colonists faced.

For all the tender power of the prose, and the flashes of inspired character-driven drama, Loux’s story at times lacks a sense of urgency. The initial thrust of the narrative — Lawrence’s bid to build a chateau — pays off in the novel’s middle, and momentum then stalls, despite the appeal of each character’s personal quests. Still, Loux’s adept handling of Colonial place and detail, and the squalls of fate that waylay the protagonists, offers readers of serious historical fiction a striking journey into the past.

Takeaway: Colonial America comes to vivid life in this nuanced, engaging historical novel.

Great for fans of: Willa Cather, Amy Belding Brown’s Flight of the Sparrow.

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

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A Grim Light Rising: Book One of the Illuminariad
Joseph Burgo
Burgo (Grim) ambitiously juggles dozens of players in this epic fantasy tale coursing with psychological undercurrents. In the world of Messano, in the aftermath of a magical plague that robs people of their capacity for empathy (or “fellow-feeling”), the rich and powerful are consumed by their ambitions. Immortal king Nical chooses to conquer the world, a mysterious woman named Silvana builds a personal army with disturbing methods, and dark secrets threaten death and destruction. Yet it is a humble village boy who is sometimes a girl, known as Devian and Devianna, who will change the course of nations, all while forming an earnest, sisterly friendship with a runaway princess.

Fantasy fans will wallow in Burgo’s gritty and bleak world filled with unsettling attitudes—particularly around sexuality and gender— where consent is dubious and intimacy is callous. The story boasts a multitude of characters but a tightly woven plot, as the many narrative arcs regularly intersect, with the backstories of the many attention-grabbing personalities taking precedence over personal quests. The sprawling narrative’s occasional redundancy, and the lengthy monologues on medieval technology, are offset by plenty of sex and intense character passages, although discomfort tinges the sensuality more often than joy. With not one, but two, instances of magical gender change, the author quietly endeavors for gender inclusivity while shying away from directly acknowledging queer identities.

Burgo’s background as a psychologist informs his nuanced treatment of the ways magic would affect people. Narcissists (“Narsicans”), for example, literally drain away the life force of those around them. A Grim Light Rising plays rough as its cast vies ruthlessly for power, with brutal consequences facing those who fall prey to King Nical’s desires. But classic themes of courage and heroism leaven the darker elements in a satisfyingly unresolved ending, setting the stage for the follow up to this an appealing (albeit disquieting) epic.

Takeaway: Lovers of dark, character-driven fantasy will enjoy this epic’s intricate plotting and unique magic system.

Great for fans of: Brent Weeks's Night Angel Trilogy, Lois McMaster Bujold's World of the Five Gods series.

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

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Booked for Murder
R.J. Blain
In the first installment of R.J. Blain’s Booked For Murder urban fantasy series, the very bloody murder of Senator Godrin via exsanguination tingles the Spidey sense of bodyguard-turned-librarian Janette Asurellaworks for a number of reasons. He’s one of a half dozen high profile politicians to die in such a bloody manner, while she’s one of a handful of beings that possess the power to kill in that manner. Also pressing: His corpse lies on the stairs of her own library. She worries that her kind are being targeted, especially since the senator spearheads a broader effort to silence voices like hers. He had been pushing a bill crafted to severely compromise the magical population. Despite Janette’s efforts to trade her dangerous past for a more mundane present, she, like Michael Corleone, keeps getting pulled back in. Further complicating matters is that her former boss, the handsome bachelor Bradley Hampton, is brought in to sniff out who might behind the murder. Throw in much unresolved sexual tension and Blain kicks off a sequence of events that puts Janette’s life back in the fast lane.

A magical being with a penchant for fast cars, a background as a bodyguard, and the power to manipulate blood, Janette’s not your typical librarian. Blain’s treatment of her exsanguination abilities rivals any procedural’s blood-splatter talk. She’s also crafted an engaging, compelling protagonist, giving her a promisingly layered relationship with Hampton, who technically owns her as part of a for-life contract he insists she once signed despite her claims of amnesia.

Blain’s carefully detailed world abounds with twists and turns, all tightly and vividly drawn, all set inside a singular magical world. Her cast’s motivations prove compelling and even relatable, for all their magical prowess. For readers excited about magic librarians cracking a case, this will hit the spot.

Takeaway: A magic librarian sleuth takes on a compelling murder mystery in the first entry in the Booked for Murder series.

Great for fans of: Ilona Andrews’ Magic Bites, Shelly Laurenston’s The Unleashing

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

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Adventures of a Serial Entrepreneur: Achievements over Adversity
Fred Duffy
Duffy (Want to be an Entrepreneur?), a determined Irish entrepreneur, shares his attempts to make a name for himself in business while contending with ongoing tumult in his native country. With enthusiasm and warmth, he details his upbringing in Ireland during World War II, his early life as a radio operator, and his sales career at Shell. But Duffy’s high-paying job and occasional misadventure couldn’t satisfy his entrepreneurial spirit, and the narrative soon finds him embarking on a number of business endeavors — house flipping, tomato farming, oil recycling and health care — in search of existential meaning. In the background, the tense political situation in Ireland comes to a head, causing mounting impediments to Duffy’s business growth. After losing a large chunk of money on unwise investments, he must prove that his early success was not a fluke, as he builds another business from the ground up.

Although this is the memoir of a serial entrepreneur, entrepreneurship only gets thoroughly explored about halfway through, and the delicate balance between personal narrative, historical exploration, and business how-to is never perfectly struck. However, Duffy is a natural storyteller with plenty of material, and the wide-ranging anecdotes peppered throughout are the most intriguing parts of the book: a case of mistaken identity in a Liverpool police station, a competitor engaging in scare tactics, and pro-bono stints as an on-call scuba diver.

Duffy’s account spans decades, jumping back and forth in time with occasional repetition and confusion, as he doesn’t always specify years. Readers may struggle to keep track of his personal life, but for the most part this in-depth look at starting a business in a challenging environment is a story of perseverance, cunning, and ingenuity. Filled with the day-to-day realities of entrepreneurship, and interspersed with historical events, personal failures, and bits of advice, Adventures stands as an exciting, fast-paced memoir.

Takeaway: This adventurous memoir of an Irish businessman is perfect for young entrepreneurs or history buffs.

Great for fans of: Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog, Richard Branson’s Losing My Virginity

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

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All Things That Deserve To Perish: A Novel of Wilhelmine Germany
Dana Prinz
Mack’s (The Assault on Parenthood) vivid and incisive historical novel, set in Germany and Austria in the 1890s, finds a Jewish pianist and heiress, Elisabeth von Schwabacher, caught between the promise of new freedoms for women in the coming century and the persistent expectations of her class, all as a socially acceptable anti-Semitism simmers around her. A pair of noble suitors vie for Elisabeth’s hand in marriage , yet she’s not eager to wed, fearing the loss of her freedom or the men’s intentions. Still, she’s not immune to passion, and amid a glittering milieu of balls and royalty, Elisabeth surprises herself—and a paramour—with a bold request: “Would you make me your mistress?”

The fallout comes quickly, though Mack proves more invested in examining the characters’ milieu and attitudes than in dramatizing each beat of this promising melodrama. A vicious postcoital eruption between the lovers gets rapidly summarized, without inviting readers too far into Elisabeth’s head or heart, and much of the subsequent storytelling is epistolary, as Elisabeth and company pen artful, engaging letters. Those circumspect missives invite readers to guess at the width of the gulf between Elisabeth’s written words and actual feelings, especially once this defiantly independent woman, a musician invited to perform for Otto von Bismark himself, elects to marry.

Mack’s prose often soars, and her scenes and letters pulse with witty remarks and jolts of hard truth. Elisabeth’s promise, so brilliant in the opening pages, gets dulled away by the novel’s ending, which poses resonant questions about the limited choices that talented women have faced throughout history. The story’s power is diminished by a lack of scenes in the final third—and a lack of Elisabeth’s arresting presence—though there is some thematic weight in the choice. It’s as if, in the end, as she’s swallowed by a conventional life, Elisabeth’s lost to the reader, too. But readers invested in the milieu or in historic domestic tragedy will find much to relish.

Takeaway: Lovers of historic fiction may savor this evocative novel of a woman’s romances and ambitions in 19th century Germany

Great for fans of: Irmgard Keun’s The Artificial Silk Girl, Miklós Bánffy’s The Transylvanian Trilogy, George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

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

The Gorge
Ronald M. Berger
This sharply crafted outdoor suspense debut introduces smart, no-nonsense criminology professor Richard Carlyle, who keeps a toe in his beloved central New York river rafting community by guiding the occasional guide trip for a friend’s outfitter company. When two seasoned guides meet fatal accidents within the same week of flood season, Carlyle takes on the role of investigator to discover who is sabotaging his friend’s outfitter operation. Carlyle brings to the case his specialized knowledge of how perpetrators think, the river gorge’s geography, and his own intuition, as well as his hard-earned credibility among the rafting community and the toughness it takes to face wilderness tracking work himself.

Carlyle is an appealing hero, with convincing and engaging relationships with the outfitters and guides who join him on the rafting trips his investigation entails. The antagonist, motivated by the outfitter’s overreach in developing the area, also proves compelling, taking actions that, though extreme, make enough internal sense to stir in readers an uncomfortable frisson of relatability, even as they root for Carlyle’s crew to end his schemes. Carlyle’s relationship with his wife, though, strains plausibility, as he mostly leaves in the dark about the details of this dangerous work.

Berger’s love of nature and deep knowledge of river rafting shines throughout the novel. His prose is invitingly rich without being overwrought, and readers drawn to the theme of rafting will be satisfied by his arresting and accurate description and action. Berger also eschews jargon and extraneous technical detail, offering a story that’s inviting to readers without a rafting background as well. Devotees of police procedurals may find the dynamics on the law enforcement side in this story somewhat vague, though the climactic scene in which Carlyle gets to negotiate is in classic style for the genre.

Takeaway: Fans of backwoods suspense will find this thriller strikes the perfect balance of tense excitement and opportunities for testing their deductive skills.

Great for fans of: Peter Heller’s The River, Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter

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

Click here for more about The Gorge
Finding George Washington: A Time Travel Tale
Bill Zarchy
Zarchy’s sprawling and suspenseful time-travel thriller finds General George Washington mysteriously vanishing from Valley Forge in 1778 and stumbling into a San Francisco dog park in the summer of 2014. Thrown into the deep end of a new reality, Washington encounters unsuspecting twentysomething Timothy, and his dog, Nevada. Timothy extends his hospitality, introducing Washington to toilets and Miller Lite, but soon faces the tragic truth: Sinister powers and unforeseen forces are at play, and it is up to Timothy and friends to transport the first president back to his own time before all hell breaks loose. Righting the destiny of the world means facing assassins as cities collapse. Will they ever make it in time?

Zarchy takes full advantage of the premise’s opportunities for poignancy and hilarity. Washington is thrown, for example, by newfangled words like delicious, and declares during a discussion of burritos, “You know I have become partial to the food of Mexico so prevalent in this area. And I recognize that you are using a French word, I believe, to indicate tastiness.” Exchanges between Washington and the citizens of 2014 also touch on dark historical truths, including the oppression of minorities and Washington’s ownership of slaves. Despite Zarchy’s sincere interest and supporting research, these discussions pepper the story unevenly, without much room to convincingly evolve.

Engaging action sequences bridge major twists, though the pacing flags due some extraneous detail. Zarchy parallels the heroes’ efforts at sending Washington back to the past with recaps of the 2014 World Series, in which the San Francisco Giants bested the Kansas City Royals. Baseball is a dominant motif throughout, lending convincing texture to the story but never quite connecting meaningfully to the narrative’s themes. Still, Zarchy’s crisp prose shines from the get-go as he manages to map a sophisticated tale of time travel with significant tension and memorable characters.

Takeaway: This alluring mix of time-travel, American history, and baseball will rope in readers of socio-political thrillers.

Great for fans of: Mike Chen’s Here And Now And Then, Bee Ridgway’s The River of No Return, Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays.

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

The B Words: 13 Words Women Must Navigate for Success
Tricia Kagerer
In this practical, inviting guide, Kagerer, an executive and speaker specializing in risk management who has often been “the only woman in the room,” lays out clear-eyed career advice for women. Her aim: to encourage the next generation of women professionals with frank advice and discussion about issues women persistently face in the workplace (bullying, condescending nicknames like “kiddo,” propositions, being judged on voice and appearance). Crucially, Kagerer also focuses on the “limiting beliefs” that she argues often hold women back, including still-pervasive myths about women being less analytical than men or being better suited for clerical or HR jobs than management.

While her subject is urgent and often complex, Kagerer adopts the encouraging tone of a coach, emphasizing action steps and real-world strategies to help readers break through inhibiting barriers, face their inner critic, or understand unconscious biases in individuals and organizations. Kagerer has arranged her material into 13 chapters, each titled for a B word: beliefs, balance, babes, babies. (An initial chapter covering how individuals can and should arrive at their own definitions of success boasts no alliterative title.) The chapters’ organizational logic isn’t always clear, and readers in a hurry might not intuit that Kagerer’s clarifying discussion of the rules of handshakes comes deep in the chapter titles “Babes.”

The book at times is playful—”Bitches” and “Badasses” get their own chapters—but Kagerer’s suggestions are nuanced and thoughtful, often illustrated by case studies of professional women or in well-told anecdotes from the author’s own life. Kagerer takes care to honor and address a diverse array of possible readers, including those whose idea of balance includes a traditional family and those who elect not to have children. The B Words is uncommonly helpful and candid.

Takeaway: This guide to success in the workplace for women offers frank, encouraging advice.

Great for fans of: Alicia Menendez’s The Likeability Trap, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s The Confidence Code.

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

Click here for more about The B Words
Make it a Double: More poems from my 10-year bender inside heaven's dive bar
Randall McNair
Author of Dispatches from the Swinging Door Saloon and proud “Poet Laureate of the Absurd,” McNair returns with a second batch of “Bar Poem”s in Make it a Double. The verses within loudly assert the author’s masculinity, as noted in the collection’s poetic “Disclaimer”: “This is not / your mother’s poetry.” With titles like “Beer Battered and Twice Cooked” and “The Disease of our Existence Shrouds the Moon,” McNair’s writing eschews effete and delicate aesthetics in favor of drunken philosophizing and tales of debauchery.. Yet for all its gestures toward convictions and ideas, the collection is truly, as with any good dive bar, more about atmosphere and feeling. As one poem proclaims, “baby, I feel things / deeply, right from the gut.”

McNair acknowledges a deep stylistic debt to Charles Bukowski, a towering figure among poetically inclined barflies, even naming a poem “Channeling Bukowski.” As in Bukowski’s work, McNair’s speakers have healthy egos, declaring “The poet is best when he is most godlike” or “I am Iron Man.” Like bravado-laden hip hop or heavy metal, the machismo of McNair’s narrators works best when the reader feels invited to pump their fist right alongside them. Yet the emotional pendulum swings every few pages to self-loathing, with despairing lines like “I need to quit— / the writing, not the boozing.” These dueling impulses make for a compelling tension.

McNair declares that this collection is “written by a man for men.” Titles like “An Ode to Tits” or “Whiskey Dick” will satisfy some readers’ cravings for transgressive bodily humor and candor, but will no doubt offend others. The poems relish this divergence, the stark division between love and hate, often for the same person or action. McNair’s speakers yearn to capture a wide range of experience, “a million good choices / wiped clean with the dirty rag of living.”

Takeaway: This collection of raunchy but imagistic poems will appeal to young readers with a taste for the blue.

Great for fans of: On Drinking by Charles Bukowski, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell by Tucker Max.

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

Click here for more about Make it a Double
Anathema
Rich Yoder
Spanning from the Middle Ages to near modern day, Yoder’s debut fantasy novel follows a vengeful sorcerer who casts a curse on his sworn enemy, binding their families together for generations. When Jonathon Egan, overlord of the shire of Bothington, is summoned by King Richard to fight in the Crusades, his absence creates a dangerous power vacuum. The once-exiled Melsafar, an evil wizard with the backing of Satan, has total control of the townspeople. Gwain, Melsafar’s long-lost son, attempts to reject his father’s evil ways, but finds himself trapped in a plot to create a monster bearing the Egan name. Generations later, descendants of Gwain and Jonathon band together to save their descendants from eternal damnation.

Magic features heavily throughout. There are enchanted hallucinations, otherworldly battles, and a modern-day shootout with a hellish twist. However, the world’s rules are not always well-defined. Exactly how the magic works is left up to interpretation: who can use it, what it does, and who grants the power. This lack of clarity can make the plot somewhat difficult to follow, and although the twist at the end is surprising, it also feels a bit out of the blue.

The novel’s construction is episodic: there is no single protagonist and no clear, overarching goal. The third-person narration follows Melsafar, Jonathon, Gwain, James, and servants alike—heroes, villains, and everyone in between. This is both a strength and a weakness. While the novel is fast-paced (years are spanned in sentences, generations crossed through chapters), no one character is developed at length. Often, characters die before their full potential is explored. Even though there is no single hero, however, there are well-defined villains throughout; the reader always has someone to root against (be it Melsafar or the Devil himself). And, as lean as it is, this entertaining book covers a lot of ground and touches on some very serious philosophical questions in the process. Fans of genre-bending epics will find much here to sink their teeth into.

Takeaway: This philosophical fantasy novel combines the medieval and the modern-day, perfect for fans of genre-bending epics and moral conundrums.

Great for fans of: Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Teresa Frohock's Miserere.

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

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KOBANI: This is the Future of War
FX Holden
The high-octane fourth book in Holden's Future War military thriller series (after Orbital) provides a gripping drama of land and air combat fought with the best in futuristic weaponry. In 2030, Russia is strengthening its role in the Middle East by offering support to Syria in its offensive against Turkey to reclaim their northern territories. A coalition of American, Australian, British, Turkish, and German troops operate out of a NATO base in Incirlik, Turkey, while a force of only 300 American Marines are holed up in a Kurdish-backed safe zone in Kobani, Syria. Syria wants the coalition out of Incirlik and Kobani, but if Kobani falls, the Russians gain a political coup.

Holden arms both sides of the conflict with a bevy of high-tech futuristic weapons that generate intricate, exhilarating battle sequences that Holden brings to vivid life, making readers feel they’re right in the middle of the action. Russian Lieutenant Yevgeny Bondarev commands a squadron of Su-57 Felon lethal stealth aircraft directed by AI simulations and data from orbiting early warning systems. The Russians also utilize Okhotnik unmanned combat aircraft that are virtually invisible to radar. The coalition’s Flight Lieutenant Rex King has Perdix microdrones guided by AI and carrying grenades, along with BATS combat drones that work in concert with stealth F-35 fighters to flush out the enemy and coordinate air maneuvers. Sniper assassinations, explosions, chemical weapons attacks, and cyberwarfare pull the two sides into a rapid-fire face-off.

The number of characters, plots, and combat arenas can be dizzying, but Holden balances this with intricate backstories and motivations for his capable and steadfast characters, offering up fleshed-out human stories amid all the high-tech toys. Military thriller fans, war buffs, Middle East politics junkies, and sci-fi enthusiasts will immerse themselves in Holden’s epic tale of regional politics and potential for worldwide conflict.

Takeaway: War buffs and Middle East politics enthusiasts will immerse themselves in nonstop aerial assaults guided by futuristic weaponry.

Great for fans of: Mike Maden’s Drone Threat, James Rosone’s Rise of the Republic series.

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

Click here for more about KOBANI
Princess Quest: An Adventure into the Forbidden Lands
Chandra Jerome
Princess Kira of Latavia is not one to be messed with. She’s quick to draw a sword, has spent her whole life training to be queen, and will do anything for her kingdom. Jerome’s (Sully the Spider Learns to be Nice) Princess Quest follows teen princess Kira as she faces her toughest challenges yet: bonding with her new younger brother Alec and saving him after he’s been kidnapped. Complicating matters is the fact that she’s suspected as the kidnapper.

A colored pencil illustration opens each chapter of this spirited adventure, but there’s otherwise scant description of the physical landscape of Latavia or anywhere else that the heroes journey, which limits the opportunity for immersion in the world. Readers also get few glimpses into the minds and hearts of the characters, so their actions tend to feel reactionary or abrupt, since there’s little indication of how or why they make the choices they do. Upsetting events like the loss of a horse to a monstrous snake pass with little attention paid to the emotional impact on the young protagonists.

While the novel at times is thinly developed, Jerome still executes a compelling quest narrative, complete with trolls, knights, royal intrigue, and fantastical surprises like the mountain that literally needs to eat. The dangers alternate between comic and just scary enough. Most importantly, like all the best quests, Princess Kira’s ultimately becomes a journey of self discovery, despite the novel’s limited interiority. Even if they’re not royalty themselves, young readers will likely enjoy this narrative of how a young princess must find her true strength. Also memorable: the honest (if sometimes a touch harsh) portrayal of sibling dynamics. Fast-paced and full of action,and boasting a feisty lead, Princess Quest sneaks in a bit of heart along the way.

Takeaway: Young fantasy readers will enjoy this fast-paced quest and its strong-willed and feisty main character.

Great for fans of: Shannon and Dean Hale’s The Princess in Black, Ursula Vernon’s Hamster Princess series, Cornelia Funke’s The Princess Knight

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

Click here for more about Princess Quest
Lemons in the Garden of Love
Ames Sheldon
Sheldon (Don’t Put the Boats Away) transports readers to 1977 through the eyes of Cassie Reed Lyman, a PhD student in Women’s History at the University of Minnesota, in this novel that’s part feminist history, part journey of self-discovery. While searching Smith College’s archives for guidance toward a dissertation topic, Cassie stumbles upon the diaries of her great-great-aunt, Kate Reed Easton. Cassie is immediately hooked, diving into journal entries covering Kate’s work as a suffragist, birth control advocate, and artist in the first half of the twentieth century. Sheldon models Kate’s experiences on the real life of Blanche Ames Ames, the artist and activist, and skillfully weaves past and present together. Sheldon sets Cassie’s efforts to face the family skeletons unearthed by her research, plus navigate fraught relationships with her husband and her mother, all against the backdrop of preparations for her sister’s shotgun wedding. Sheldon creates a moving portrait of the struggles and successes of first- and second-wave feminism.

Aside from minor editing issues, Sheldon’s evocative prose and compelling sense of the sweep of history grabs attention from page one right up until the final chapter, which rushes to a premature conclusion lacking the nuance of earlier pages. Careful research infuses the story, which abounds with surprising detail, though Sheldon glosses over the strain of eugenics that underpinned much early birth control advocacy, a lacuna made more obvious given Margaret Sanger’s many cameos throughout.

Sheldon’s relatable and emotional saga serves as a stark lesson about women’s lives before the right to reproductive freedom was achieved. Some will be put off by Kate’s scathing criticism of the Catholic Church’s injunctions against birth control, but readers invested in history, women’s rights, and cross-generational family sagas will find that Lemons in the Garden reveals the life-changing power of a woman’s right to determine her reproductive future.

Takeaway: Ames Sheldon brings two waves of the women’s movement to life in this compelling work of historical fiction.

Great for fans of: Fiona Davis’s The Lions of Fifth Avenue, Diane Atkinson’s Rise Up Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes

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

Click here for more about Lemons in the Garden of Love
The Dagger: The Madigan Chronicles Book 1
Marieke Lexmond
The opening chapter of Lexmond’s Madigan Chronicles, a series centered on a family of witches, blends clever magical spells and some proudly disagreeable characters with centuries-old conflict and a present-day urban fantasy backdrop. Detective Bridget Madigan rejected the drama of her witch relatives in New Orleans in favor of the magic-free life of a cop in Boston. Investigating a death, Bridget and her partner get attacked by an elderly woman identical to Bridget’s grandmother, Tara. Seeking answers, Bridget reluctantly returns to New Orleans and discovers that Tara’s twin sister, Lucy, had been banished from the family after being found unworthy to inherit its prize heirloom, a powerful wand that wields the elemental forces of fire. Lucy has returned, and Bridget’s Aunt Diane, whose power is precognition, foresees the destruction of the world itself if Lucy acquires the wand and three other elemental items. When Tara chooses Bridget to be the family’s champion and successor, the detective brushes up her rusty powers.

The Dagger’s elemental spellcasting is engaging and inventive, but the novel’s elaborate story of dark secrets and powerful magics often becomes repetitive, especially in its scenes of distrustful sniping among the Madigan sisters, brothers, aunts, and uncles. With their sarcasm and long-held grudge, these eclectic but minimally developed family members bog down the narrative and also the pleasure of getting acquainted with Lexmond’s promising history of American witchcraft. Tara’s tight lips about ancient secrets ensure that crucial information dribbles out slowly. Also disrupting the pacing: the various Madigan brood who traverse the country with stopovers in Utah and the land of Fairy.

The editing is poor, with frequent repetition and grammatical errors. Still, fans of fantasy and urban paranormal fare will enjoy the magical displays, the prominent women characters, and the satisfying final (for now!) battle between good and evil.

Takeaway: In this story of American witchcraft, enchanting magical spells and strong female protagonists somewhat alleviate a meandering plot.

Great for fans of: Lydia Sherrer’s Love, Lies, and Hocus Pocus, Alix E. Harrow’s The Once and Future Witches

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

Click here for more about The Dagger
Factor-7
J.D.May
May's wide-ranging thriller blends together conspiracies, terrorism, romance, personal betrayals, and the possibility of an engineered pandemic as it unveils its complex web of characters. Set in modern-day Houston but soon sprawling out, the narrative centers on ER trauma doctor Dr. Sam Hawkins, whose friend, Bill Roberts, has died of a mysterious mutant virus. Hawkins must unravel the mystery not just of Factor 7, a virulent disease designed to kill, but also of the mysterious Keepers Collegium, a secretive organization as ancient as the Freemasons. With his unlikely ally, an Italian physician named Rainee Arienzo, Hawkins pieces together clues from Roberts's widow and faces surprising betrayals, a devil's bargain with the head of a drug cartel, and the stirrings of romance. The duo’s moral compass even against dires odds helps them survive.

May has developed a credible and terrifying biological profile for Factor 7. Her depiction of a centuries-old cabal whose mission is to root out evil and destroy it is fascinating, as is the idea of a renegade cell willing to unleash destruction to “cleanse” the sins of the world, convinced that the ends justify the means. However, this thriller’s focus shifts from these pressing issues to the personal lives of the protagonist, slowing the narrative momentum and diminishing the suspense of the Keepers’ targeted pandemic. Passages detailing the extended end of Sam's marriage or the awakening of feelings for Rainee blunt rather than ground the urgent intrigue of the espionage and conspiracy elements.

A series of anticlimaxes abruptly settles key characters and plot points. What seem like important villains get quickly dismissed, and a subplot involving an archenemy of Sam’s languishes unresolved. While May offers a compelling premise and explores a number of fascinating and timely topics, including COVID-19, Factor-7’s tendency to dilute its thriller elements ultimately results in a mixed bag as a reading experience.

Takeaway:Thriller lovers will enjoy this uneven novel’s take on virus outbreaks and secret societies.

Great for fans of: David Koepp's Cold Storage, Richard Preston's The Cobra Event, Mark Terry's The Devil's Pitchfork

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

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Tough: Building True Mental, Physical and Emotional Toughness for Success and Fulfillment
Greg Everett
This energizing real-talk guide from Everett (Olympic Weightlifting), an Olympic weightlifting coach, transforms the lofty ideal of toughness into a tangible, easy-to-grasp goal. Everett’s rousing words urge readers to develop four core elements to achieve “true toughness": character, capability, capacity, and commitment. Everett encourages readers “to be capable of feeling what we feel without ever becoming victims of those emotions” while also admonishing followers to clearly differentiate between merely acting and actually being tough.

Helpful “Focal Points” summarize the central views of each chapter—such as “Capability is what allows self-reliance and independence”— and action steps challenge readers to put Everett’s insights into play (“List what you currently depend on others for that you can reasonably learn to do yourself.") Everett draws heavily on his athletic prowess and experience, liberally flexing his sports analogies repertoire (“If we’ve spent the last several years religiously watching boxing or MMA and have never been in a fight, it’s easy to believe ...”) and providing an abundance of training templates, perhaps more than most readers will need. Still, his direct voice and strong, common-sense approach will likely propel sympathetic readers into action.

With a repeated emphasis on staying cool, calm, and collected, Everett teaches preparation for adversity and healthy risk-taking (“the truly tough have the confidence, security in their identities and belief in their values to make the kinds of choices others fear”) while neatly laying out his four Cs in a clear and practical roadmap toward becoming “truly tough.” Everett admirably argues that personal values and identity must match up with life choices, demonstrates that for the truly tough violence must only serve as a last resort, and tasks readers with staying committed to their goals, even in the most drudging of circumstances. Readers hungry for inspiration and straight talk about toughness will find much to savor.

Takeaway: Sports aficionados and self-help fans will find plenty of motivation and advice in this guide to acquiring true toughness.

Great for fans of: Judy Ho’s Stop Self-Sabotage, Damon Zahariades’ The Mental Toughness Handbook

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

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