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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great for fans of: Ian Fleming, Len Deighton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ten Thousand Rocks
Ndirangu Githaiga
Githaiga’s (The People of Ostrich Mountain) honest, unflinching portrayal of a struggling marriage mixes drama with deliberation. Tired of working long hours as a doctor, William Young accepts a job as a medical director at an insurance company. His wife Laura is dismayed by his sudden decision and his failure to discuss it with her beforehand. Will soon discovers the ugly truth of his new position: the more medical procedures he denies coverage for, the more money he makes. He finds himself trying to maximize his earnings, but just as he is starting to upgrade his lifestyle to match, a twist of fate upends the couple’s lives.

Githaiga sketches the many challenges in the Youngs’ relationship—lack of communication, differing priorities, family tension over their interracial relationship—with both realism and sensitivity. While the couple’s marriage is the story’s primary focus, Githaiga also incorporates a large cast of diverse, carefully drawn secondary characters. These differing perspectives add variety, but they also pull the story away from Will, and some readers will be frustrated by the lack of insight into his reactions to the story’s major events. However, Laura’s perspective is consistent and revealing throughout, a sympathetic presence that readers will feel for her as she struggles to cope.

The plot offers dramatic twists and legitimate surprises. Some of these events link together in unexpected ways, forming an intriguing web of cause-and-effect, both logistical and emotional. The intersections Githaiga finds in these characters’ lives strike a unique balance between kismet and karma. As Will and Laura navigate the shifts in their fortunes, Githaiga reveals deeper insight into who they are and what they value about their lives and their relationship. A moving testament to the importance of our connections to each other, Ten Thousand Rocks illuminates how adversity can spur resilience in life and in love.

Takeaway: This understated portrait of a marriage will satisfy readers who prefer grounded romance that doesn’t shy away from hardship.

Great for fans of: Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage.

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

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The Ghost Princess
M. Walsh
The first installment in M. Walsh’s Graylands series is a high-stakes drama set in a helter-skelter world of magic and brutality. Katrina Lamont, a fallen hero, finds solace roaming the Graylands, a lawless country between two empires. Although she’d rather be drinking her troubles away, she finds herself swept up in a new quest when she learns that the dark sorcerer Jacob Darendin is on the hunt for a missing princess to sacrifice. The princess holds the key to Darendin’s ultimate plan to achieve godlike powers. With the fate of the world hanging in the balance, Katrina joins in the hunt for the young woman, crossing paths with the enigmatic demon Lily Blackthorn and the legendary renegade Krutch Leeroy. But can Katrina overcome the ghosts of her own past to secure the future?

Walsh’s characters brim with life. Fallen from grace, Katrina is embittered and rough around the edges. Krutch Leeroy is delightfully unsure of himself, his legendary status constantly getting the better of him. Lily Blackthorn’s humanity shines through, despite her demonic nature. Walsh takes a standard fantasy quest, complete with sacred daggers and a storied villain named The Enforcer, and breathes fresh life into it, with crisp action, cliffhangers, and ideas. A world where pirates battle dragons (“But I bet you’ve never taken a bullet, have you, you big bastard?”) is nothing if not inventive.

Some seasoned fantasy readers may find Walsh’s world-building to be a little uneven. Inconsistent naming choices—names like Krutch, Cypher, and Kader butt up against Lily, Katrina, and Jacob—may pull readers out of Walsh’s otherwise finely crafted world. Still, fans of high-stakes fantasy will appreciate what Walsh adds to the genre. His keen eye for detail and memorable scene-setting is bolstered by a wry humor. Walsh has already penned a sequel, which readers will no doubt seek out after reading this series kickoff.

Takeaway: This rousing fantasy abounds with character and inventive action.

Great for fans of: Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood, Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names.

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

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Because the Sky is a Thousand Soft Hurts
Elizabeth Kirschner
In this haunting debut, Kirschner delivers a raw and intense collection of intricately layered short stories that touch on recurring themes of sexual violence, domestic abuse, mental illness, and addiction. Her experience as a memoirist and master gardener is evident as she illuminates the human struggle and the natural world with lush and vivid descriptions, while her background as a poet informs her evocative style: “because I might as well let every moment ache, I pour myself a drink while watching the sky rinse off its pulp.”

Kirschner’s characters are often cruel and inhumane, with parents speaking in riddles to their abused children. The narrators are all women, usually unnamed, who have a lost, dissociated quality to them, as the details of their lives seem to fray. “My prom dress was turquoise covered in white lace,” one notes. “Or was it white dotted Swiss with orange accent flowers, the color of churned butter?” As the stories develop, some of these narrators find love and normalcy, though not always happily. Kirschner crafts extraordinary similes and metaphors, though at times moment-to-moment meaning can get muddied: “I try to pick the flowers off my peach bedspread. To pick one would disturb the stars, but even stars, like fruit, rot from the inside out, just like a woman’s body.

That lyricism, though, paints full, complex portraits of tormented people coping with trauma, as each story reveals some fresh stretch of the underbelly of human nature. Violence pulses steadily throughout the collection, making it at times difficult to stomach, but Kirschner knows when it is time for the horrors to give way to beauty, like salve on a wound: (“Under the shaking aspens, butter weather, but cold like herringbone, and in the brain’s eternal lodgings”). Standout stories like “A Lattice of Filaments” and “The Shipwrecked World” reveal the breadth and power of Kirschner’s poetics, but literary-minded readers will cherish the striking final sentences of each.

Takeaway: Dynamic, poetic storytelling of women, trauma, and resilience.

Great for fans of: Carson McCullers, Sharon Olds, Joyce Carol Oates.

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

The Clovis Dig
Teri Fink
Fink (Invisible by Day) marries the genres of romance and suspense in this history-exploring tale of Claire Courtney, a bereaved orchard grower in East Wenatchee, Washington, who turns up not only ancient artifacts of the Clovis people but also a body buried on her farm. When Claire calls Washington State University, her alma mater, to report the artifacts, she is reluctant to allow Joe Running to come see the “Clovis points,” but permits him to set up a preliminary dig. Word of the authenticity of her findings quickly spread to, among others, handsome archaeologist Spencer Grant and the Colville Confederated Tribes. Soon, Courtney’s orchard is a bustling archeological site filled with scheming characters, budding romances, racial tensions—and, eventually, that body, and an attempt at arson. When the drama finally ceases, the novel retires to develop its main romantic storyline.

Claire is a compelling if distant protagonist who scratches at the restrictions of traditional femininity. Despite her strength, she frequently steps out of the way so that Spencer or the Sheriff can take the lead in a story as concerned with contemporary property rights as the ancient history being excavated. That said, with the help of her stubbornness, the novel’s resolution offers a glimmer of hope for a satisfying relationship just outside the societal norm.

The historically accurate backdrop of the 1987 Clovis Dig is intriguing, but characters drive the story: in conflict with each other for prestige, or love. Most of the leads are written convincingly, often with a touch of local color to represent where they come from, though Fink at times missteps when writing Native Americans, the “huge hombre” crime boss known as “El Gordo,” or the graduate student in anthropology who casually refers to her migrant worker parents as “illegals.” Otherwise, A Clovis Dig skillfully delivers on its murder mystery plot as well as its romantic and suspenseful subplots.

Takeaway: Excavating the past digs up romance and danger.

Great for fans of: A.C. Fuller’s Alex Vane Media Thriller series, Shining Light’s Saga.

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

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Gone Daddy Blues: A Grace Street Mystery
Sally Jane Tesh
Tesh’s seventh book in the Grace Street Mystery series (after 2018’s Death by Dragonfly) fuses classic gumshoe legwork with mysterious hints from beyond the veil. When tough teenager Doreen Padgett asks private investigator David Randall to find her absent father, Randall is reluctant to track down yet another deadbeat dad. But after his own deceased daughter Lindsey contacts him and urges him to help, he agrees to take the case. As he searches for Arliss Padgett, Randall finds himself embroiled in the hunt for a serial killer. Randall must convince his friend Camden, a powerful but reluctant psychic, to re-embrace his powers and help track down the murderer.

The book’s fine-tuned details and smooth dialogue will transport readers to the center of the action. Randall’s point of view reveals not only the creative, methodical mind behind his sleuthing strategy, but also his sharp sarcasm and frequently critical, even harsh attitude towards others. Although he has compassion for Doreen and a deep love for his girlfriend Kary, some readers will be puzzled by Randall’s lack of empathy towards his friend Camden, as he continually badgers Camden to stop feeling sorry for himself and use his psychic powers to help with the case even though Randall himself feels similarly ambivalent about his detective work.

Despite his roadblock with Camden, Randall’s connections with the story’s other characters spice up the sleuthing. No lone wolf, he is assisted by Kary and other roommates and friends in his quest to find the elusive killer. The group’s tight-knit, if occasionally fraught, relationships feel authentic and familiar, and inside jokes and references to their past adventures abound. Readers familiar with these episodes from previous books in the series will feel like one of the gang. This well-paced, multifaceted mystery offers readers an engaging story with an exciting paranormal twist.

Takeaway: Part procedural, cozy mystery, and supernatural thriller, the latest Grace Street Mystery offers crime fiction fans much to love.

Great for fans of: L.L. Bartlett’s Jeff Resnick Mystery series, Scott William Carter’s Myron Vale Investigations series.

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

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Don't Floss
DeLeon DeMicoli
DeMicoli’s latest comic mystery novella (following up on 2017’s Les Cannibales) follows Hugo Picoli, a bitter, laid-off cop turned private investigator just outside of Oakland, California, as he navigates divorce, psilocybin mushrooms, gold fillings, and a plethora of Hawaiian shirts. Farrah Mason comes to Hugo’s failing business with just the thing that might end his string of bad luck: a new case. Her husband, Jolly Mason, is missing––and Farrah just wants Hugo to find him before the police do. But when protests erupt in the streets (led by none other than his ex-wife) and Hugo discovers another missing person, this simple case gets more complicated. Hugo’s misadventures as he tries to figure out what’s going on will involve corrupt cops, shady dentists, and a cartel. Will Hugo be able to figure out what really happened––and more importantly, what will doing so cost him?

While this light, quirky PI comedy is clever enough to have readers guessing until the very end, its ambitions at times chafe against its novella length. Several characters are introduced too quickly, with names that it’s easy to confuse (Farrah and Frida, Mill and Moss and Miller and Mason), which makes it difficult for readers to gain their bearings. The narrator’s consistently sardonic tone de-emphasizes important backstories, while the revelation of Hugo’s own past reads like an afterthought rather than a driving force in his narrative.

Still, DeMicoli’s dry, concise prose enables him to build a convincing contemporary world in just 120 pages––complete with its own unique pop culture references. DeMicoli’s crisp, repetitive syntax sets up his punchlines well and keeps the story moving. His prose and plot border on minimalist: every detail is essential (even if this isn’t initially evident). Simply put, this is no generic mystery. Fans of flawed, middle-aged detectives will love Hugo and his misadventures as he struggles to pick a side: pro-cop or pro-people.

Takeaway: An offbeat comic caper that delivers as a mystery.

Great for fans of: Carl Hiassen, Tim Dorsey, Donald Westlake.

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

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Backstory
William Ried
Ried spins a compelling page-turner about the perils of trying to rewrite one's own personal narrative. Starting with a dramatic night late in the tenure of “the McYanks,” a group of six tight-knit friends studying at Dublin's Trinity College, Ried explores how secrets never stay buried and the past is never truly past. Focusing on sleazy Ansel Tone, a rock star among historians, and frustrated novelist Charlie Piedmont, Ried presents his characters as complicated, flawed, and human. Ansel is a womanizer who sleeps with students and plagiarizes their work; Charlie marries Ansel's girlfriend from Trinity and decides that his next novel should be about him winning the girl. That kicks off an escalating series of events that includes infidelity, manipulation, lies about the past, and eventually murder.

Readers interested in metafiction, roman à clefs, and morally complex character studies will thrill to Ried's deft writing and clever plot complications. Backstory shrewdly compares the theme of rewriting the past to bolster one's own narrative to the concept of “fake news,” as the narratives that Ansel and Charlie choose for themselves aren't just self-delusional but actually harmful. Lies pile on top of lies and, in a tense and exciting sequence, at first seem to trap narcissistic cad Ansel, but soon Charlie and the tireless detectives searching for the truth get caught up in distractions.

Ried's characters are all given an opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them. Ansel, who writes best-sellers on the concept of revisionist history, believes he can spin his way out of anything but eventually faces up to hard truths. His friend Dutch is the book’s moral center, courting an employee of Ansel's while providing support to the other McYanks. Tess and Molly feel less developed than most of the men, though both have their moments. This exciting thriller finds betrayals, alliances, lies, and secrets all shaken until the truth comes out at last.

Takeaway: Lies, betrayals, and morally complex mystery as friends from Trinity College face the past.

Great for fans of: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter.

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

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By the Light of Fireflies: A Novel of War Hero Sybil Ludington
Jennifer Walsh
Walsh (I Am Defiance) again brings a powerful woman from history to life with this middle-grade adventure featuring 16-year-old Revolutionary War hero Sybil Ludington. Based on true events, By the Light of Fireflies takes on George Washington’s inner spy ring in the heat of the battle between Patriots and Loyalists, spotlighting the role that young Sybil played during an all night, 40-mile ride through colonists’ territory to muster the militia against an impending British attack. In Walsh’s spirited depiction, Sybil is a courageous, quick-thinking Patriot who dreams of growing up to be something more than a farmer’s wife–and realizes that ambition is within her reach through the fight to advance the revolutionary cause.

Sybil’s father, Henry Ludington, is a Loyalist captain in name only and spends his free time helping Patriots spy on the British. When pressures mount, he enlists Sybil and her sister, Rebecca, to help decipher code written with invisible ink on letters bearing crucial information about the British army, its troops, and their planned maneuvers. This opportunity is a dream come true for Sybil, who idolizes Paul Revere and hopes for her own chance to prove her mettle–a chance that emerges when she gets asked to ride all night in a terrifying crusade to save her family and her country. “I didn’t realize it was weird for me to want to be brave or daring or courageous like a man was,” she memorably declares.

Walsh’s easy, flowing prose breathes life into colonial America. Readers will find themselves in the thick of the Revolutionary War as well as eighteenth-century living: Walsh uses period appropriate language (“Mama shook her head bigly”) and detail, such as a family strategy game of “Nine Man’s Morrice in the parlor,” to capture the feeling of the past, and her handling of the long ride is crisp and suspenseful. History-minded young readers will be roused by this stouthearted protagonist’s unflinching dedication.

Takeaway: Middle-grade historical fiction fans will be swept up in the bravery of one young woman’s fight to save her country against a British attack.

Great for fans of: Celeste Lim’s The Crystal Ribbon, Pam Munoz Ryan’s Riding Freedom, Augusta Scattergood’s Glory Be.

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

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Creeples!
Patrick D. Pidgeon
Pidgeon’s wildly entertaining debut brings together three unlikely friends who accidentally create some new friends in a science lab at school. Johnny Spignola (“Spigs”), Theresa Ray (“T-Ray”), and Pablo Torres (“Peabo”), three very different teens, are chosen to be the coveted Lab Rats, working on genomic research under Professor Sally Bodkins. However, not long after embarking on this adventure, they learn that the dean of the school has decided to discontinue the genomic department altogether. The trio knows that the professor’s work is important, so they decide to secretly raise money to complete it. Aiming for crowdfunding attention, they borrow a 3D bio-printer to whip up a real monkey ear. But when they don’t have everything they need, Spigs improvises with a secret serum—and doesn’t tell his friends when something goes wrong. The result is six troll-like beings they aptly name “Creeples.”

The Creeples bring the mania, humor, and constant action that kids love in a middle grade story. Each with their own personalities and magical abilities, causing constant mischief, they’ll keep kids glued to the page, wondering what catastrophe they’ll cause next, what inanimate object they’ll next bring to life. As the Lab Rats chase them all over campus, Pidgeon balances the fun with scary mystery, inviting readers to wonder what the dean and his goons are up to, and what will happen if he catches the Creeples first.

While middle-grade readers will be greatly entertained by the antics of all the fantastically created characters, some dialogue and concepts will be difficult for some younger readers to understand, such as a description of how the bio-printer works, or the inner-workings of the Dean’s plot, and a secret society. However, the sometimes challenging material doesn’t detract from the fun and can offer opportunity for discussing and learning with an adult. Middle-grade readers looking for wacky and fun science experiments gone wrong will adore the Creeples.

Takeaway: It’s science-lab mayhem as kids accidentally create troll-like Creeples.

Great for fans of: John Kloepfer’s Monsters Unleashed, Jennifer L. Holm’s The Fourteenth Goldfish.

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

Click here for more about Creeples!

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