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American Blasphemer
John Matthew Gillen
This delightfully lecherous debut is a masterful exercise in debauchery, understanding religious interpretations, and coping with heartbreak. John has successfully escaped his religious, right-wing, abusive family and is now a struggling artist in New York City. He’s unable to get past breaking up with his girlfriend, a memory so painful that he refuses to say her name. On his quest to find ease from his feelings of isolation, John finds himself in unforgettable situations with people whose unconventional loneliness often mirrors his own, including a drug-fueled $5000 Christmas tithing with his brothers, a knife fight with a troubled nymphomaniac, and a storytelling session with a meth-addicted waitress. Perverse and critical, John continually keeps people at arm’s length, pushing others away under the guise of being unworthy of love and incapable of receiving it.

Though the book has no clear direction and sometimes feels rambling or disjointed, Gillen’s visceral imagery and uncensored candor offer more than enough entertainment value, especially when combined with his prolific, inventive use of profanity. Readers will forget about the lack of narrative drive as they immerse themselves in psychedelic rants and a fascinatingly bizarre, often quite blasphemous take on conventional Christian views as they apply to everyday life.

The beguiling, busy story comes to a strange end that encourages readers to question their own faith and personal beliefs, but it never comes across as preachy. While harkening back to classic gonzo works, Gillen’s first novel demonstrates his modern, entertainingly cynical voice. This deep dive into pain, self-righteousness, and degeneracy is sure to delight readers looking for the darker answers to life’s questions.

Takeaway: This unabashedly honest romp with heartbreak will satisfy readers who are looking for a story of self-discovery under psychedelic circumstances.

Great for fans of Irvine Welsh, Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski.

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

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They Eat Their Own
Amanda K. King & Michael R. Swanson
King and Swanson return to their Thung Toh Jig fantasy world for this thrilling, involved sequel to The Things They Buried. Duke Sylandair Imythedralin celebrates the Sower’s Festival aboard the luxury ship Ipesia, locked in a seemingly endless, drug-aided gambling contest with desperate Mayor Idra Carsuure, odious landlord Flark, and Flark’s acerbic ex-wife, Daisy. Sylandair hopes to win a coveted building from Flark, who has been demolishing apartments with inhabitants still inside. Meanwhile, Sylandair’s mate, the recently recuperated Aliara (also known as Rift), agrees to assist cocksure professional thief Dreg in recovering stolen goods from Flark’s apartment. Among those is an ancient death mask Sylandiar and Aliara need to protect from being misused by an old foe. As Sylandair navigates threats to his life and Aliara and Dreg arrive at the ship to complete their mission, Flark cajoles the gamblers into a dangerous wager.

The fleshed-out worldbuilding continues to impress, with hints of powerful ancient civilizations and a multitude of species and cultures. Complex card game rules fold in naturally amid ominous gifts, mysterious conspiracies, and carefully placed reminders of the unresolved problems from the first book. New slang hovers just beyond comprehension, emphasizing the setting’s strangeness. The horror elements found in the previous book are missing here, handily replaced by involved politics and layers of deceit that provide a slightly different, no less enjoyable reading experience.

The timing of events can be a bit confusing, as each chapter’s shifting perspective blurs the duration of the various plot arcs. When the characters come together, though, the action coalesces into a smoothly paced, often surprising tale. Readers will need to keep track of myriad details, but those who succeed in following all the threads will find this a well developed, satisfying, character-driven story that neatly sets the stage for subsequent novels.

Takeaway: Fans of elaborate worldbuilding will be swept up by the combination of heist action and games of chance in this intricate magicless fantasy.

Great for fans of K.J. Parker, Marshall Ryan Maresca.

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

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Holy Smoke: How Christianity Smothered the American Dream
RICHARD SNEDEKER
In this cogent and comprehensive work, Snedeker (3,001 Arabian Days) chronicles the influence of Christianity on the United States, from the earliest European settlements to the present day. He recounts decisions made throughout the nation’s history that were heavily based on religion, often in the guise of religious freedom. After detailing various Christian sects and their emigration in search of religious freedom, Snedeker chronicles laws rooted in Christian scriptural beliefs; how the faith deeply affected Native Americans, the institution of slavery, and the slaves themselves; and government and educational choices made with a Christian bias. He concludes with a plea to teach children to be more open, critical thinkers and a hope that humankind will eventually become “more rational, less religious.”

The book’s title and description give an unfortunate impression that the work attacks Christians or Christianity, but the text is straightforwardly factual and even deeply devout readers will find most of it unobjectionable. Very little of the author’s personal opinion is incorporated until the concluding chapters, and he suggests that lessons in critical thinking can complement religious beliefs, noting that “There are mortal dangers to being unaware that our myths can seamlessly masquerade as reality.” Snedeker is also sympathetic to how deeply rooted Christian beliefs can be and how difficult it is for leaders to completely separate church and state.

Clearly heavily researched, Snedeker’s work is both informative and entertaining. Readers may be surprised to learn how many Christian elements go unnoticed in today’s American culture: Christian references are imprinted on currency, visible in national holidays, displayed on government vehicles and buildings, and widely present in school buildings and the curriculum. The book immerses the reader in an examination of American history from a perspective that most textbooks omit (or incorporate without acknowledging it). This clear and factual work will intrigue a wide variety of readers and encourage them to see familiar elements of American culture in new ways.

Takeaway: Readers interested in religious history and American history fans will be captivated by this informative view of Christianity’s influence on America.

Great for fans of Jon Butler, Grant Wacker, and Randall Balmer’s Religion in American Life: A Short History, Thomas S. Kidd’s America’s Religious History: Faith, Politics, and the Shaping of a Nation.

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

Ethan's Healthy Mind Express: A Children's First Mental Health Primer
Emily Lane Waszak & Erik Bean, Ed.D., Illustrator Gail Gorske
This wide-ranging picture book introduces young children to supporting one another through mental challenges. Various troubling emotions and psychological conditions are described sympathetically from the children’s perspective and never labeled with diagnoses. Loneliness, difficulty focusing, short tempers, and oscillating moods are all treated as problems that are worth taking seriously and addressing. Children are shown helping one another, sometimes directly and sometimes by seeking help from an adult (“This isn’t tattling,” the authors assure concerned readers), and those who are struggling are encouraged to reach out to “whomever is comfortable for you.” A brief final section discusses the dangers of online predators.

Waszak and Bean’s nonjudgmental approach is laudable, but they may confuse readers by juxtaposing many different experiences with different origins that need to be differently addressed. Putting signs of ADHD and cyclothymia side by side with a boy’s anger over being teased or the sadness of an ostracized wheelchair user can inadvertently imply that those are all serious psychiatric issues, passing moods, or social problems with social solutions. Adults with little knowledge of psychology may struggle to articulate the nuances to children they read to, and children reading on their own could reach some incorrect conclusions.

Gorske’s marvelous collages are the highlight of the book, illustrating each concept with wonderfully evocative portraits that show diverse ethnicities, settings, and feelings. The children’s body language is clear and evocative, from the lowered brows of an insecure athlete to the wild hair and eyes of a child caught in an uncontrollable urge to act out. The rhyming text can feel stilted and the rhythm isn’t always sharp, but the fluidity of the artwork carries the day. This book is best suited to teachers looking to start classroom conversations about the different ways people think and feel.

Takeaway: This beautifully illustrated picture book about troubling thoughts, feelings, moods, and urges will help teachers start conversations about supporting friends through mental and emotional challenges.

Great for fans of Elizabeth Swados’s My Depression, Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree.

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

Supreme Realization
Anthony Nayagan
Nayagan’s first work is a complex account of his journey through traditional religious doctrines into Christian mysticism. He explores Christian mysteries while pursuing an intimate relationship with God by applying principles of Eastern religions and quantum physics that can be made relevant to modern Christianity. Nayagan provides hope on many levels for individuals challenging the current teaching methodologies of traditional churches, with a strong emphasis on journeying through different levels of self-awareness to find true spiritual achievement.

Though this book is initially described as giving alternatives for readers frustrated with current teachings of the Church, it carries more weight as a higher-level guide for those already familiar with the fundamentals of Christian mysticism. Nayagan combines science-based metaphor (“We are split and entangled particles in the awesome field of God’s conscious energy”) with Eastern theologies (“Detachment from desire is an important spiritual ideal in many faiths... We must detach from everything except for God”) to support the concept of transformation of consciousness as a spiritual quest. He provides ample mystical techniques to provoke meaningful self-exploration. Individuals seeking profound alternatives to traditional religious teachings will find Nayagan’s work intricate and fascinating, but it’s a bit too convoluted for readers in the beginning stages of unorthodox spiritual exploration. His journey is vast and at times overwhelming, even as it describes an intimate and personal theology.

Nayagan uses historical examples and extensive biblical citations throughout to concretely illustrate principles of Christian mysticism. Readers may wish for additional examples of his relevant personal experiences to make the high-level concepts more tangible. Those looking for an advanced framework for personal journeys into Christian mysticism will appreciate this comprehensive overview of several stepping stones to spiritual growth, presented in a way that encourages constant movement toward self-actualization and closeness with the divine.

Takeaway: Knowledgeable readers seeking to implement advanced principles of Christian mysticism into their spiritual journeys will find this personal account informative.

Great for fans of Carl McColman, Richard Rohr.

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

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The Secret Sign of the Lizard People
Kevin E. Buckley
Buckley’s zany, go-for-broke lampooning of police procedurals will have readers in stitches. It teems with goofy character names, such as Special Agent Justin Case and homicide detectives nicknamed “Beefy” and “Leafy” Abbott and Costello–worthy verbal misunderstandings (“Hugo Fürst... with an umlaut.” “You go first with an omelette?”); and outlandish plot twists (the title offers a clue). The mystery kicks off with the mainstay of L.A. noir: a corpse of a would-be starlet. Buckley relishes the exaggeration of familiar plot beats, so Dahlia is discovered naked in the Y of the Hollywood sign, and as Detectives Beefy and Leafy try to find her killer, they get mixed up with gangsters, ufologists, and the world’s first lie-sniffing dog.

As they work the case, Beefy and Leafy entertain themselves with elaborate patter, their routines equal parts vaudeville and postmodern dada with thinly veiled references to current events (“If POTUS and FLOTUS went riding in a Lotus, would SCOTUS even notice?”). At times the protagonists (and the novelist) seem more invested in the chatter than the mystery. Though this novel is indisputably funny and boasts many smart observations and sharp lines, the narrative doesn’t invite much involvement, and readers may wonder how literally to take the funny business.

Buckley’s emphasis on the gag above all else limits the material’s urgency, especially when Beefy and Leafy stop misunderstanding each other and instead seem to be improvising routines to amuse themselves. Still, there’s no question that Buckley has serious comedy chops and the doggedness to hustle through several neighborhoods in order to chase down a punch line. Witticism aficionados and longtime fans of crime fiction will happily ride along with these crack-up cops as they spar, snicker, and incidentally solve a mystery.

Takeaway: This hilarious parody of L.A. noir will delight mystery fans who enjoy discursive comedy and poking fun at the genre they love.

Great for fans of Mel Gilden’s Zoot Marlowe series, John Swartzwelder’s Frank Burly novels.

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

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Goddess Rising
Jay Hartlove
The conclusion of Hartlove’s Goddess urban fantasy trilogy (after Goddess Daughter) blends religion, magic, and myth in an ambitious tale of suspense and hidden identities. Desiree Macklin, a victim of an unethical human cloning experiment, visits Ireland to explore her Irish roots. To her shock, she encounters the Egyptian angel Joseph, who informs Desiree that she is an avatar of Isis. Desiree realizes that her sense of self is coming undone at the seams, as she is being used by Isis as a pawn in a revenge plot involving a number of warring gods. Aided by her psychiatrist friend Sanantha Mauwad and ghost-hunter Alec Doogan, Desiree must take ownership of her psychic and magical powers for her own sake and the sake of the world.

Hartlove makes a slight misstep in setting up too many concepts for a conclusion to a trilogy. Desiree’s need to master the spiritual practice of tai chi and achieve the enlightened state of satori derails an otherwise tightly woven story. The characters often have colloquial conversations about warring gods and the fate of the universe (“This is his final play to snuff out the pantheon”), which are entertaining but sometimes tonally dissonant.

Complex characters draw readers into the intricate world of demons and angels, many of whom have multiple names. Desiree’s struggle to reconcile her new powers with a strong sense of self is poignant; the cagey Joseph, the ambitious Alec, and the caring Sanantha round out the appealing central cast. Hartlove gives readers a sumptuous fantastical realm for readers to get lost in, a world where ancient Egyptian gods, Celtic spirits, and Catholic saints collide. His ability to suffuse each ancient deity with a distinct personality gives the narrative a delightfully human edge that will keep the pages turning.

Takeaway: Readers who enjoy thought-provoking fantasy will appreciate this complex final installment of Hartlove’s urban fantasy trilogy about warring gods.

Great for fans of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, Nalini Singh’s Archangel series.

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

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EMPIRE PALADIN: Realm of the Dead
M. S. Valdez
In Valdez’s action-packed historical fantasy debut, it is 1241 in the Holy Roman Empire and a battle is brewing between good and evil. Paladin warriors, charged with upholding God’s laws, have been blessed with the power to heal mortal wounds. But when a leading Paladin, Lord Vhaldrynn Malleus, discovers his village attacked and his family burned to death, he is convinced God is no longer worth the fight and vows to destroy the world. With a little help from Lucifer, he turns his healing powers into necromancy and creates an undead army. It is up to paladin Lady Camila Chastaine and her compatriots to stop this new Lord of the Dead.

Readers will feel each character’s trials and anguish as Valdez shows how far they will go in pursuit of their beliefs. Malleus lived his life in God’s service, and when he feels that God has wronged him, his torment and anger quickly turn to deep irrationality. Camila believes that she speaks for God and the laws of men are irrelevant to her; no matter how cruel the punishment she doles out, she believes it is acceptable because God gave her the power to do it. The parallels in their stories are powerful, illustrating the necessity for checks on power no matter how well-intentioned the wielder is.

Valdez effortlessly drops readers into the middle of fierce, often gruesome battles, as paladins and magicians fight a giant army of undead and demons. As fireballs fly and weapons clash, Valdez emphasizes the fears and anxieties of the people who are fighting for their lives as well as for a greater cause. Each location is clearly painted, each demon horrifyingly detailed, without bogging down the heart-pounding story. The mix of bloody action, inner torment, and potent faith will reward any reader of grimdark fantasy.

Takeaway: Fans of dark historical fantasy will be drawn to the emotional turmoil and gripping action in this novel of the paladins of the Holy Roman Empire battling demons and the undead.

Great for fans of Rex Jameson’s Age of Magic series, K.J. Parker.

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

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THE JUICY FRUIT MAN
LaMar Going
Going’s thriller about stoner and Vietnam veteran Declan Noakes plunges readers into a world of action and betrayal. Declan returned home from the war with a head full of trauma. In between flashbacks, he rides trains and sells large quantities of Juicy Fruit, a potent Thai marijuana he smuggled during his second tour. All is going well until Ben Fisher, a war buddy turned drug dealer, tries to take a cut of the Juicy Fruit action and force Declan into selling cocaine for him. When Declan refuses, an epic standoff begins between Ben and his crew, dirty cops, and Declan and his deceptively tough cousin Rachel.

Going writes in a slang-filled and hardboiled style, and his protagonist mixes old-school stoner references with action-movie machismo. His prose is full of original and startling descriptions: “Morning skies were angry-red and gray, and full of vinegar.” “The old house was fond of its own voice.” However, the narrative voice sometimes misses the mark with off-putting racial and sexual humor, such as the offhand observation that Declan “had been babe-candy since junior high.”

Fast pacing and fight sequences are where Going excels. The last third of the book is one long standoff that will keep readers hooked and anxious for the final explosion of gunfire. “Courage is a lie, a children’s tale,” the narrator asserts, yet Declan and Rachel show otherwise as they fiercely fight for their lives. Despite the book’s dark outlook on corruption and disloyalty in the military and law enforcement, Declan maintains his honor. Though a flawed hero, he realizes the distinction between himself and Ben: “I’m not evil, and I never will be.” Going’s thrilling tale of this morally gray Vietnam vet is perfect for those who enjoy gunfights and confrontation but aren’t afraid to laugh a little.

Takeaway: This action-filled novel will thrill readers who are looking for gunfights, cynicism about the military’s dark side, and edgy humor.

Great for fans of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, Philip M. Derrick’s Facing the Dragon.

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

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The Ultra Betrayal
Glenn Dyer
Conor Thorn, a spy for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, and Emily Bright, his counterpart in England’s MI6, reunite for their richly detailed second WWII adventure (after The Torch Betrayal). In 1942, the Allies' greatest weapon may be Ultra, the deciphered German codes, so when Swedish cryptographer Gunnar Lind disappears from England with intimate knowledge of them, Thorn and Bright team up to slip into neutral Sweden and find him—before the Germans do. Double crosses abound as the spies vie with Germans, Swedes, and Russians. There are personal agendas as well, especially for Thorn, who learns that his late wife may have been raped by a man he knows, and the intersections of private and public obligations add exciting twists to the plot.

Dyer keeps the story moving with short chapters that bounce quickly among various locations. Most chapters contain some kind of action—the torture scenes are not for the weak of heart—and end on cliff-hangers, keeping the reader’s blood pumping. The international cast is large and lively. Indeed, many minor characters come and go so quickly it's often hard to keep track of them. However, Thorn and Bright and the other main characters are fully fleshed out, with a wide array of virtues, faults, and motives that help to develop the tension.

The author's nimble integration of historical and fictional characters puts the spy story in context and amps up the suspense. Winston Churchill, Heinrich Himmler, and OSS chief “Wild Bill” Donovan all make appearances, including in intimate scenes such as one of Himmler forming a curious relationship with his physical therapist. The Swedish setting is unusual for a WWII novel and lends a welcome freshness. Vibrant descriptions and meticulous historical details do much to make this an especially rewarding and believable spy story.

Takeaway: Fans of WWII suspense novels will be thrilled by this action-packed story’s richly detailed settings and complex characters.

Great for fans of Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone, John le Carré.

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

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Naked (in Italy)
Misty Evans
Blogger and humor writer Evans writes brilliantly about traveling around the world to find herself in this candid memoir. Evans regularly felt like an outsider as a child. She was raised in Utah as a non-Mormon, with an American mother and a Persian immigrant father who separated when she was young. Depressed and jaded after the unexpected death of her younger brother, she moved to Florence, Italy, to attend art school and start anew. She ran into self-doubt, imposter syndrome, and difficult professors but also found inspiration and lifelong companions. When she began dating an Italian man with demanding parents, her newfound confidence and vulnerability were put to the test.

In a series of vignettes, Evans describes her many embarrassing moments and triumphs with vivid emotional detail. Readers will cringe when she’s the only student with nothing to present on her first day of art school, and they’ll cheer with admiration when she drunkenly asks out her future boyfriend while standing on a table at her favorite bar. Most notably, Evans shares lessons that are hard to learn growing up in dysfunctional families: People who love each other can fight without it being the end of the world, and there are some people worth trusting.

Evans is unapologetically sexual and feminist. She paints vaginas for her art program, uses alcohol as a coping mechanism, and remains defiantly herself while learning how to mature. Her European adventure is characteristic of many a middle-class American’s self-discovery journey, but she keeps the reader turning the pages thanks to her descriptive writing (the Tuscan feasts are mouthwatering) and willingness to chronicle her own mental illness. Though it takes place (mostly) in Italy, this memoir is less about travel and culture clash and more about establishing personal identity and believing in relationships. Sensual, entertaining, and raw, Evans’s work is is a testament to global, complicated, grown-up love.

Takeaway: Evans’s raunchy feminist memoir of romance and travel will appeal to anyone who feels both jaded and hopeful and longs for a change of scene.

Great for fans of Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, Sally Rooney, Samantha Irby.

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

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Dollops Of Dreams
Rajshri Rajasekaran
This socially conscious debut romance novel details the cross-cultural relationship between Ryan Richardson, an American doctor in India, and Geethanjali Vasudevan, an Indian hospital administrator from a traditional family. Geetha begins working in the Chennai hospital’s administrative department and meets Ryan after helping with the sudden illness of Ryan’s visiting Aunt Agatha. Geetha and Ryan are both divorced and romance-shy, but they keep being drawn together. Through shared personal philosophies and devotion to service, they find the courage and strength required for healing and renewal, despite significant challenges.

The sizable cast helps to round the story out, and some very difficult family members contrast with a few wonderfully supportive ones. As Geetha and Ryan’s relationship slowly develops, they assist aging relatives, volunteer at an orphanage, and struggle to save their financially endangered hospital. Geetha’s opposition to a second arranged marriage pushes against the power of her family elders, but she and Ryan also benefit from the affectionate meddling of their aunts, who encourage their relationship. The virtues of selfless giving and attention to health emerge as significant elements in the journey that leads them closer to each other.

Lots of dialogue and close-ups of facial expressions make the short chapters feel like episodes of a TV series, and sometimes come at the expense of setting the scene. Readers unfamiliar with India might benefit from descriptions of architecture and art or the marriage hall, and fans of romantic beach scenes will wish the ones in this novel were more detailed. However, the well-constructed story draws readers to empathize with the main characters and ponder the issues they face. This thoughtful romance holds considerable appeal for readers interested in social and familial concerns as well as love stories.

Takeaway: Fans of contemporary multicultural romances who prefer relatively chaste novels with a focus on familial and social concerns will enjoy this slow-burn love story.

Great for fans of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Arranged Marriage: Stories, Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s The Golden Son.

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

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First Justice - Vigilante Justice Thriller Series 1 with Jack Lamburt
John Etzil
In Etzil’s exciting suspense series launch, one man’s quest for vengeance leads him to take on a secret mission for the CIA. Jack Lamburt, founder of a government agency that gathers surveillance data on U.S. citizens, is still reeling after the death of his wife in a terrorist attack that he survived. He agrees to help his ex-girlfriend, CIA assassin Frankie Shelley, kill Berengaria Gonzalez, a Cuban terrorist suspected of plotting an attack on par with 9/11. Jack kills a man in Berengaria’s home, but he and Frankie fail to extract Berengaria, and their flight out of Cuba is shot down into the ocean. After their rescue near Key West, Jack learns the man he killed was Fidel Castro. Gradually convinced that Castro’s death was the real purpose of their mission, Jack and Frankie are pursued by Russian assassins, leading them to believe there is a mole intent on tying up loose ends. Their new goal becomes to kill the man who set them up.

Etzil’s fast-paced narrative will grab the reader from the very first page. Suspense pervades Jack and Frankie’s perilous experiences of surviving a plane crash in the ocean and dodging assassins. Etzil’s explanations of the technical aspects of flying are on target, with just enough description to engage readers without miring them in overly scientific details. Though Jack and Frankie’s frequent narrow escapes can feel implausible, Etzil’s capable plotting adds credibility to their dangerous encounters.

Etzil develops his characters with brief backstories but doesn’t delve deeply into their innermost thoughts. His character development works well, with quick short chapters leading to cliff-hanger conclusions. The suspenseful pacing promises thrilling future series installments. Espionage thriller fans will enjoy suspending their disbelief for Jack and Frankie’s headlong adventures.

Takeaway: This twisty and bloody thriller will appeal to fans of espionage mysteries starring cutthroat operatives who work on the dark side of the law.

Great for fans of Mike Maden’s Tom Clancy: Firing Point, Lee Jackson’s Target: New York.

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

The Natural Trajectory of Human Consciousness: Ten Speculative Stories
William W. Chan
Chan’s first speculative fiction collection is an elegant meditation on the nature of the human mind, death, and memory. He distills immense existential questions down into eerie, weird tales, leaving those questions unanswered while provoking the reader’s interest in exploring them. He excels at mining the implications of each story’s foundational concept, questioning the purpose of existence or musing on the nature of the self.

“Dreams of Life and Death” follows a man who wanders through a dream world, aware that he’s dreaming and learning about facets of his own mortality. In “A Sky that Rains Numbers,” a dying woman dreams of trading her soul to hell so her nonverbal son can be made “normal”; in “The Woman Who Woke Up,” another dying woman grapples with her life and the implications of memory. “Inherent Emptiness” follows K.T., a hospital patient whose body grows scales and vomits up aspects of his self. “Clinging, Mourning, Magic” sees the deterioration of a relationship between a boy and his father as the father gradually loses his grip on reality.

Chan’s characters are ordinary; there is no one particularly heroic or wise. Bewildered (or erroneously certain they know what’s going on), they fight and flail against an onslaught of strange situations. Chan’s poetic turns of phrase (“What was so pitiful about being seventeen? But you are only seventeen. Those five little words were like five little cancers, five little tombstones”) underscore the meditative quality of his stories, which lack a certain definition. However, the reader simply does not get to know enough about Chan’s characters to gain a foothold through caring about them, costing the narrative some of its thrust. Even when philosophizing outweighs characterization, these works are a fine example of the more existential end of weird fiction.

Takeaway: Chan’s work is perfect for seasoned readers of weird fiction who like horror with a side of existential dread.

Great for fans of Michael Kelly, Sam Weller.

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

Starving Men
S.E. Finkielman
Finkielman’s thriller combines the simmering rage of Irish nationalism with a tightly plotted set of murder mysteries. Psychiatrist Michael Gleeson quietly treats traumatized ex-members of the Irish Republican Army while trying not to draw attention to their pasts. When he meets Turlough O’Sullivan, a particularly disturbed and lethal ex-IRA assassin, he concocts a plan of historical revenge. Through O’Sullivan, Gleeson leaves a trail of bodies who are connected to English villains of Irish history. He’s opposed by a brilliant young detective named Maggie O’Malley, various ex-IRA operatives, and the ghosts of his family’s past.

Finkielman effectively reveals pertinent facts to the reader while leaving aspects of this information open-ended. The plot twists in this increasingly exciting thriller build intrigue until the true, demented brilliance of Gleeson’s plan is audaciously revealed. Simultaneously, Gleeson’s understanding of his own family history is rocked by long-buried revelations, right until the end. There are times when the introductions of new characters are confusing, but Finkielman is able to right the ship each time. The ultimate banality of Gleeson’s father’s criminal history slows down the narrative, even if it does add a necessary dimension to the character, but the ending and denouement offer sly shocks that will leave the reader feeling deeply satisfied.

Gleeson is depicted as a murkily sympathetic figure, if a deeply disturbed one. He’s a loyal friend and an excellent therapist. The book explores the history of England’s abuses against Ireland through his eyes while also delving into how the IRA traumatized and killed its own members. Maggie is the only purely sympathetic character, and she’s an obvious rebuke to Gleeson, if one that represents a generation gap. Finkielman gives this murder mystery a powerful, personal context that is well researched, riveting, and even sadly poetic.

Takeaway: Readers interested in richly researched political, personal, and historical details will be drawn to the tense, taut storytelling in this post-Troubles Irish thriller.

Great for fans of Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man, Eamon Collins’s Killing Rage, Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home.

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

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Picasso's Motorcycle
Marc Sercomb
Humorous mishaps go hand in hand with an unflinching examination of life during WWII in Sercomb’s unputdownable historical novel. In 1936, orphaned Daniel moves in with his uncle Emile in the quiet village of Nulle, France. Being half-German causes unique challenges as Daniel adapts to life with his brusque uncle, but his situation improves after he befriends the local boys. The gift of a motorcycle that once belonged to Pablo Picasso sets Daniel off to pursue a career in racing amid the uncertainty of the German occupation. Needing money to pay the racing fees leads to a job in the circus, where Daniel accidentally joins the French Resistance.

Sercomb captures the reader’s imagination with the vivacious people of Nulle and their quirky daily routines. Emile’s efforts to purge Daniel of his “German-ness” are balanced by a stoic tenderness. Daniel’s escapades with his tormentor-turned-best-friend, Remy, are riotous. Village debates over the dangers of participating in a blood drive highlight the encroaching threat of war, although life retains some normality during the early years of German occupation—including Remy and Daniel’s pranks mocking the Germans.

The plot takes as many turns as a country road when Daniel leaves home to become a motorcycle racer. Pointed characterization, and crisp, uncluttered prose maintain good pacing with a a looming sense of the unexpected. Classic coming-of-age elements such as first love and acceptance into a community lead into a stark, touching examination of trench warfare from an unusual angle. Appealing characters, startling plot twists, and a liberal dose of comedy make for a historical novel that’s as fun as it is illuminating.

Takeaway: Fans of WWII historical fiction will be delighted by the unorthodox blend of humor and somber realities in this coming-of-age story.

Great for fans of Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine.

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

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