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Witches and Reapers
Steven Smith
An assassin must escape with his new-born daughter when he discovers that her mother plans to sacrifice the girl in Smith’s fast-paced erotic fantasy debut. Tobin is a reaper, a favored follower of Bytos, God of Assassins. Working undercover to secure Bytos a foothold in Snowbank Kingdom takes Tobin into the bed of Queen Marilynn but when he discovers that she’s a servant of the dark goddess, Seren, and intends to sacrifice their daughter, Tobin kidnaps the new-born. After hastily hiring Rene, a brothel wet nurse, to care for baby Dakota, Tobin flees for Crescent City with the wicked Queen’s soldiers on his heels.

Smith sets an electric pace as Tobin, Rene, and Dakota race to keep ahead of their pursuers. The world-building is immersive and littered with intriguing hints that connect this fantasy world to ours as the party secures passage across the ocean and heads for Tobin's hometown as part of a merchant caravan. However, those promising elements of the world-building remain mostly ambiguous in this first volume, suggesting that a link to our world may only play a major role in subsequent installments of the Merging Realms series. Readers who prefer clearly explained worlds and magic systems may be frustrated with Smith's immersive, mystery-tinged style.

Smith offers a variety of steamy scenes, which include loving partnerships, trips to a brothel, and dark rituals ending in human sacrifice. The sole non-consensual scene is neither gratuitous nor overly graphic. The heat level leans toward the milder end of the spectrum throughout, and Smith cleverly incorporates characterization and plot advancement into the most intimate scenes. Tobin’s portrayal as being a gifted lover can be heavy-handed at times, which is not entirely mitigated by his more tender traits. Some inconsistencies with character names cause confusion. Fans of dark fantasy and those who enjoy erotic fantasy will find much to enjoy in Smith's debut.

Takeaway: Erotic and Dark fantasy fans will enjoy Smith’s tale of an assassin on the run from a dark queen.

Great for fans of: S.J Sanders' Corruption of the Rose, Guy Gavriel Kay's Sarantine Mosaic, Lois McMaster Bujold's The Sharing Knife.

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

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Kill Signal
Zoran Basich
This gritty San Francisco police procedural follows an engaging group of troubled SFPD detectives who are caught up in a longstanding criminal conspiracy and trying to cope with the psychological scars it has left on them. The tense mystery follows several interrelated investigations as Inspector Marko Bell, still trying to come to terms with the murder of his wife in a mysterious massacre, believes he may have discovered a new lead. He looks into the suspicious death of an ex-cop who had gone on to serve as the mayor's personal driver—and who may have been planning to betray his boss.

Numerous dark plotlines twist through the novel, and although not all of them get cleanly resolved, the haunting, nihilistic air gets under the skin. Basich’s characters find themselves always fighting against their fates, usually without success: A selfish politician thwarts the attempt of an employee to obtain a taxi medallion from a friend with terminal cancer. Another character is stuck with memories of his parents murdered during the Balkan conflicts. One scene featuring the abuse of a sex worker reveals a character's moral rot, but is not for the squeamish. Basich also at times applies a lighter touch, as when he describes a detective's sweetly tentative romance with a medical examiner.

Vivid characterizations are the novel’s greatest strength, as these detectives leap off the page. As one makes awkward, heartfelt attempt to repair his marriage, Basich describes him as "terrified that he would run headlong into the reality that he was the only one who thought it could still be repaired." Bell's troubled relationship with his partner comes across in aching detail, as the two men's wounded psyches bring them close to destroying each other. Intricately intertwined subplots populated with all-too-human lawmen as troubled as the criminals they are chasing will ensure readers will keep turning the pages until the surprising end.

Takeaway: Hauntingly memorable detectives navigating through a linked series of crimes make this a must-read for fans of noir-flavored procedurals.

Great for fans of: Ed McBain, Joseph Wambaugh.

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

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My First Geography Book: The World Tour of Stuffed Toys around their Apartment
Igor Okunev
Okunev's vibrant chapter book encourages young readers to embrace the study of geography by introducing the science through the observant eyes of a youngster and his talkative stuffed toys. A commotion breaks loose as eager toys discuss the young narrator's favorite book, a world atlas. The menagerie is uninformed but curious: The rhino announces it would like to visit Africa, the penguin feels he would be comfortable in Antarctica, and the kangaroo insists they all make a trip to Australia, as it's less cold and less hot than the other choices. Having read more books than others, the owl announces that everybody should take care to learn geography, the science that, as he puts it, "studies our planet and everything on it." The toys study their “big home” (the Earth) and their “little home,” right down to their immediate surroundings -- the rules of geography can even help explain the organization of their apartment.

Katya Kolmakov and Olga Baron's evocative and charming illustrations suffuse Okunev's tale with splendor and warmth, and their vivid brushstrokes adeptly support the focus and intention of the story. Brimming with facts, information, and profound perspectives, Okunev's tale juggles several goals for his readers. At once, the book is an adequate introduction to geography and also a condensed ode to environmentalism, cartography, and imagination.

The unidentified narrator’s age remains ambiguous, but his tone and the maturity is inconsistent. Often, he is decidedly incisive and perceptive, but at other occasions, naïve and artless. The pacing suffers hiccups when the tale's premise is set twice within ten pages of each other, while sometimes laborious detailing of the characters and settings diminish the story's focus. Thought-provoking calls-to-actions at the end of all four chapters will engage readers and invite questions. Ultimately, this chapter book unfolds as an engrossing and informative read that mostly achieves its bold ambitions -- and in retaining the readers' attention.

Takeaway: Illuminating and often delightful, this picture book invites young readers to appreciate the world through the lens of Geography.

Great for fans of: Salvatore Rubbino’s A Walk in London, Kate Siber’s National Parks of the USA, Katie Wilson’s Landmarks.

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

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The Gods of Ahman-Tahk: The Prologue
Maria Mathis
This inter-planetary, multidimensional sci-fi epic opens in contemporary Oakland, where Danny, a member of the mysterious Shadow Clan, is being questioned by Paranormal Task Force Detective Ernie Benasco over the bombing of a witch coven. Danny’s brother, Tuyouk, is the chief suspect; Ernie wants answers, but rather than offer them up Danny recounts events from Tuyouk’s past--events that transpired on another planet, Ahman-tahk, centuries ago. There, Tuyouk was a mighty warrior fighting against an invasion of witches whose leader, Belall, decimated Tuyouk’s village and sickened the women of his planet, effectively condemning Tuyouk’s people to extinction. But it’s not until Tuyouk is captured by Belall that he realizes how monstrous and complicated she truly is, as he calls into question his role in the war and whether his hatred for witches has endured over such time and distance.

The far-flung premise and atypical elements—witches, aliens, and scientific experimentation—blend together surprisingly well, culminating into distinctive and well-constructed lore. The narrative momentum suffers, though, as the novel turns from the exciting timeline of Ahman-tahk back to Danny’s and Ernie’s interview, interjections that ground the story and offer novelty and character but also often are static. It takes a long time before the events of the distant past connect to the novel’s present. Fortunately, the crisp prose and energetic plotting otherwise keep things moving.

Mathis’s writing is witty and funny, and the chapters often end in cliff-hangers that pull readers in for more. An added plus is the focus on early black and brown societies, a welcome change for a genre dominated by white ones. This solid opener will likely lead to grander follow-ups, judging by the included excerpt of the second in the series, which takes off with the electric introduction of a new character. Though it has some way to go, this planet-hopping series has targeted its destination.

Takeaway: Fans of daringly eclectic genre fiction who like not choosing between fantasy, sci-fi, and detective novels will relish this series opener.

Great for fans of: Heather Graham’s Dreaming Death, Ivan Kal’s Broken Stars.

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

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Frank the Painter: A Novella
Joshua Kaplan
Kaplan’s satiric picaresque imagines a Cleveland painter’s absurd, semi-Quixotic quest for self-actualization, a spiritual and physical journey that will transport him from his native Cleveland all over the world and back again. When he’s not replicating the Sistine Chapel on the ceilings of his clients’ garages, talented house painter Frank stalks an employee, Carla, at the local stationary store. After one of his customers, Marissa, wins a million dollars, she takes Frank on a worldwide journey “to cultivate his talent” that ends with their marriage and adoption of a daughter from China. Frank embarks on a variety of bizarre schemes, such as founding a cult and assisting a start-up circus, all while trying to discuss spirituality and religion with a wide range of people.

In the midst of Kaplan’s narrative, a terrorist incident leaves Frank with another child, Jayden, who is reported to have psychic powers and becomes the central inspirational figure for Frank’s “cult of disbelief,” whose followers get called “Non Believers.” Kaplan adds peculiar twists when Carla kidnaps Jayden in revenge for Frank’s stalking and when Frank takes on the underground forces threatening Cleveland, all while dealing with his own mounting mental health crisis.

Kaplan’s lampooning of self-actualization narratives often hits its target, as when Frank joins a group of vigilante do-gooders who, with no training or qualifications, attempt to treat drug addicts. Yet Kaplan’s narrative is so overstuffed with that it loses focus, making it difficult to ascertain his perspective, which is critical in satirical writing. Readers will likely struggle to understand whether some offensive ideas (Jayden being named a “hermaphrodite”; Frank’s certainty that a Chinese man wants to eat his dog) are being parodied or presented in earnest. Frank is best when it slows down and explores a character’s interiority. Readers who relish playful satire will find Frank's adventures thought-provoking.

Takeaway: Lovers of the absurd will find plenty to cheer about in this overwhelming satiric novel.

Great for fans of: John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus.

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

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The Power of Vision: Principles and Practices to Help You Become Extraordinary
Oluwaseun Oyeniran
In this impassioned, provocative treatise, Oyeniran (Live Love Learn Grow), the founder of OyES Education, challenges readers to develop and actualize a personal vision as an opportunity to “become extraordinary” and build the future they desire. He argues that the true visionaries among us—the few who fully tap their innate potential for “uncommon greatness”—ultimately manifest personal visions for the betterment of humanity itself, rather than solely focusing on personal success. He urges readers to develop and dedicate themselves to grand personal visions, leaving behind lives of minor significance or impact for something greater.

The Power of Vision aims for greatness, studying the lives of Walt Disney, Masaru Ibuka, Helen Keller, Henry Ford, Nelson Mandela, and other historical figures (and perennial examples for self-help authors). Oyeniran delineates the route taken by each famous idealist, chronicling their hard work and perseverance, often in the face of denigration, failures, and danger (“Ibuka built Sony during a crisis, despite many failed attempts and almost being bankrupt experimenting with different ideas”). The true visionary, he notes, bears the responsibility to “challenge existing norms” and attempt to create a more noble world, a call-to-action that demands great focus and character. That may sound daunting, but Oyeniran insists that intense focus on “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” can make every reader a habitual change agent.

There’s power in Oyeniran’s insistence that the truly visionary approach is to better the world rather than just one’s own circumstances. The work’s first half becomes repetitive, with some chapters closely echoing each other in sentence structure and word choice, and some sections lionize the idea of a vision rather than offer clear guidance to help readers develop their own. Oyeniran’s focus tightens as he considers questions of leadership, character, and whether visionaries tend to be tyrannical. This enthusiastic guide poses challenging questions for readers eager to explore the possibility of visionary thinking.

Takeaway: This eager treatise challenges readers to develop ambitious personal visions not just for personal gain but for the advancement of humanity.

Great for fans of: Mark W. Johnson and Josh Suskewicz’s Lead from the Future, Joyce Schwarz’s The Vision Board.

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

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Helen's Orphans
Ron Fritsch
Two orphans of the Trojan War seek to discover the true nature of the relationship between Helen of Troy and Paris in this engaging historical novel. Timon and Lukas, growing up in the same orphanage that Helen and her sister Clytemnestra once did, are befriended by Helen, who has recently been queened after her return to Sparta. Helen spends considerable time visiting with both orphans, answering their inquiries about Paris and the Trojan War, and freely discloses her memories of the destructive events. Fritsch’s uses flashbacks from Helen’s perspective, intermingled with present-day narration by Timon and Lukas, to reveal an alternate ending to the Trojan War.

Despite appearances from the likes of Achilles, Nestor, and Menelaus, Timon and Lukas emerge as the ensemble’s most compelling characters. They share touching moments, such as when they sing together and discover a mutual love of music, and their eagerness to question Helen (“Did you find Paris attractive?”) is relatable. Fritsch (The Lord Chamberlain’s Daughter) crafts a detailed and immersive fiction that is charming in its minute detail, though some readers will be disappointed by a lack of dynamism in prose. A tendency toward the pedantic diminishes the drama, as even battles at times read more like a history essay than an engrossing tale: “The few archers the Greeks had room for inside Troy could only fire their arrows upward at Trojan archers.”

Timon and Lukas are fresh air in this history lesson. Those familiar with the Odyssey and the myth of the Trojan War will find few surprises in Fritsch’s characterization of Helen, Paris, and Clytemnestra, but Helen’s point-of-view passages give the legend charm and agency--and even make her relatable. With an appeal to audiences versed in Greek myth, Fritsch’s new spin on a timeless tale will draw in readers with his sympathetic characterization and occasional original inventions.

Takeaway: A novel approach to an established classic, with an alternate ending that will please fans of Greek mythology.

Great for fans of: Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles , David Gemmell’s Lord of the Silver Bow.

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

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Fall: A Leaf Story
Thomas Ashley
Ashley's debut picture book warmly observes the timeless notions of love, compassion, and sacrifice through Bud, a floret who is not yet a leaf. Bud blossoms on a solitary branch, far away from other branches, and comes to dote on Holly, an early bloomer on another bough. Ashley and illustrator Laura Ashley depict growth and change to young readers by depicting Bud and his other friends blooming into lush, green leaves as the weather turns. Readers are also meet Bud's friends: the grumpy Mr. Bark (and the army of ants who bite him), and Elmer, a leaf just like Bud who does not mind the nibbling of Chewey, the caterpillar. As the days get colder, Holly transitions to a "beautiful golden color” and eventually gets swept away by the wind and lands on the ground. Bud endeavors to drift down next to her. Will Bud make the fall and reach Holly?

Populating the tale with amusing characters, Ashley imbues Bud's world with the poignancy of inevitable change. He depicts a leaf's lifecycle without sermonizing to or infantilizing his readers. Striking, distinctive words like "squinty" and "grumpy" pepper the narrative, an opportunity for playful cadences from anyone reading the book aloud. However, Bud's relative isolation, which seems essential to the premise, goes undramatized, making the story’s stakes unclear. Some verbosity creeps into the prose near the ending, reducing the story’s sense of immediacy, and Bud overshadows the charming secondary cast.

Lauren Ashley’s winsome and captivating illustrations amplify the innocence and quirkiness of Bud's surroundings and enliven the story. Not only delightful, they seamlessly blend text with paintings in the page designs, greatly serving the pacing. Still, the tale eventually blossoms into a sweet triumph of love and friendship in the face of challenge and change, linking the cycles of nature to the sacrifices we make for our loved ones.

Takeaway: This charming picture book will delight and invite lively questions from young readers with its take on love, sacrifice, and the lives of leaves.

Great for fans of: Edward Monkton’s A Lovely Love Story, Oliver Jeffers’ Lost and Found, Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s The Snail and the Whale.

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

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Stop Drifting: Become the Switch Master of Your Own Thought and Pivot to Positive
Angelle Chase
Ibarra’s debut blends familiar lessons from the business self-help genre with the narrative of a man looking to change not only his business but also his life. Tom Stanley—slightly overweight, generally unhappy, and no longer enjoying work at the Chevrolet dealership that he owns—has fallen into the practice of sleeping in every morning and then panicking about being late. Tom’s days are characterized by “dissatisfaction with himself and everyone around him,” and he feels he has “become adrift at sea,” with each problem at work a crashing wave that takes “away a part of his boat.” All of this changes for Tom during a late breakfast with fellow car dealership owner Daniel Santos at Tom’s favorite diner.

During their conversation, as Daniel questions Tom’s routines and draws a diagram of the process of positive thinking, Tom realizes that the source of his stagnancy is his frame of mind. In the following months, Tom changes his life, his diet, and his business by focusing on Daniel’s lessons. “When you’re in a Positive-State-of-Mind you’re a believer and positive attracts positive,” Daniel says. “The same goes for negative.” Daniel’s crystal-clear message of enthusiasm shapes the narrative.

Despite some repetitive passages, Stop Drifting benefits from strong pacing and Ibarra’s appealing use of dialogue as a tool for imparting lessons. The book demands some suspension of belief during moments when Tom talks to himself, and a critique of college education for failing to teach the “power of theming and the science of success principles” detracts from the theme. Still, the work otherwise is persuasive in presenting the power of the mind to affect everyday reality and examining how we can train our brains to achieve. Grounded in self-help appeal for those seeking tips on how to change their approach to life, Ibarra’s compact novel zeroes in on positive thinking and transforming momentary changes into lifelong habits.

Takeaway: This inventive debut shares its motivational teachings in a fast-paced narrative about a businessman rediscovering his direction.

Great for fans of: Stephen Covey and Napoleon Hill.

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

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PushBack
Richard Rose
Rose’s eloquent collection, subtitled “Selected Poems of Resistance,” touches on a wide sweep of topics with a singular sense of rhythm and musicality that enriches even some of the book’s most inaccessible pieces. Though it’s presented as a collection of the poet’s thoughts over two years, PushBack also contains “a lifetime's poems, hums,/and somewhat spiritual songs.” Rose is also a composer whose eighth opera, Monte & Pinky, was performed at the Black History Museum of Virginia in 2018. That facility for music plays a major role here as the break lines dictate rhythm at and alliteration grants certain poems an unequivocal sense of melody: “The Tour” goes into factories “where whirr and whip and wince” combine to create; “Planning an Iranian War” happens “all pumped with purpose and pomp”; and “Threats” contemplates dreams and “deadlines, and demands, and deals.”

Through it all, at the center of everything, stands the “poet searching for a word.” Those words come, and they’re at times obscure, like coacervate and annular. When they’re clear, though, the message shines through, undiminished by the limitations imposed by the various rhyme schemes. The forceful “And Less Enthusiasm, Please:” declares “Howl if you wish./Even yelp. Publish./Scream at the mike. Brandish words. Strike/down with a slash/comma; tense. Smash/common sense; dullness/everywhere. Guess/what you meant. I won't.”

Rose’s poems about racism and war, thoughts and dreams, are accompanied by a series of amateurish drawings that add a personal touch and put faces to the individuals mentioned in the verse. At once difficult and personal as well as rhythmic and engaging, this collection walks a fine line between meanings only the poet will fully grasp and thoughts that communicate with clarity and power. This challenging collection will appeal to fans of poetry that touches on pressing issues and rewards careful reading.

Takeaway: These poems of resistance will appeal to anyone who enjoys challenging poetry with great rhythm and urgent beauty.

Great for fans of: Ted Hughes, Jay Parini.

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

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99 Erics: a Kat Cataclysm faux novel
Julia Serano
Serano (Whipping Girl) drenches readers in satire and absurdity in this “faux novel” written from the perspective of Kat Cataclysm, a wannabe author who decides to jumpstart her career by introducing more conflict into her life -- in the form of dating 99 men named Eric and novelizing the experience. With light chapters that recount Kat’s dates and failed relationships, the tone akin to conversational journal entries or letters to friends, Serano delves into issues of city life and contemporary romance, such as how money destroyed San Francisco or an analysis of Kat’s annoyance when straight men assume bi women will want a threesome

The fourth wall is not so much broken as dispensed with altogether, with the various vignettes presented as if the narrator has stepped outside the story to present to readers a slideshow on particular incidents, down to dialog presented in a script format and dry run downs of quirky dates: “He immediately started complaining about how the place was a bit too ‘divey’ for his tastes, even though there was no piss all over the bathroom floors.” This clinical approach, while comic, creates distance not only between Kat and the events she’s recounting, but between readers and the story’s emotional elements, as do Serrano’s leaps into metafictional comedy— Kat describes a room full of child actors stabbing her date to death to prove that she’s the all-powerful narrator.

The appeal, here, is in Kat’s noxious encounters with Erics and how she heroically mines them for witty considerations of the absurdities women face when dating -- and even occasional catharsis. Still, readers looking for more traditional emotional release, though, will face frustration. Even Kat’s breakup with her longtime non-monogamous partner, which she describes as causing “all the feelings,” is related in dispassionate and jokey tones. In the end, 99 Erics fully embraces the ludicrous and rides it into the sunset.

Takeaway: This meta-fictional satire in which a woman dates 99 Erics will please readers who favor pointed absurdity over emotion

Great for fans of: Daniel M. Lavery’s Something That May Shock And Discredit You, Spike Milligan’s Puckoon.

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

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The Summerlands: A Mystical Tale of Angels, Elementals, the Afterlife, and Souls on Missions
Susan Butler Colwell
Debut author Colwell hits the ground running with this quirkily endearing magical metaphysical fantasy that delves deeply into nothing less than the construction of the universe. At twenty-one, Sera Parker finds her way from the palatial Sherman Hill orphanage of her youth to Leesburg, Virginia, guided by the only mother-figure she’s known, Celeste, and her own intuition. Upon arrival, she finds herself among curiously familiar strangers until the day her true memories and self come back to her -- in truth, she’s surrounded by people she’s loved since time immemorial. What follows is a thrill-ride of discovery as she faces the mysteries of who she is, why she’s missing memories, and just what, exactly, her role will be in the battle between the forces of light and dark.

In an epic feat of world-building, the author delicately balances action with herculean amounts of exposition. While some of the large swaths of information, covering angels, demons, elementals, and souls, can be overwhelming, bogging down the narrative flow, Colwell takes exceptional effort to ensure readers are fully immersed in Sera and her journey, even when the story meanders. Interactions in the Summerlands and some situations -- telepathically chatting over ice cream with an elder in the form of an Earth-plane dog, for example -- may come across to some readers as over the top, though it’s just that embrace of possibilities that marks the boundaries among the realms.

One of the most appealing aspects of the novel, aside from its beautifully rendered expressions of emotion, is the unique blend of science fiction and somewhat simplistic metaphysics combined with the relatable psychology of a person rediscovering and exploring their own identity. That, in conjunction with the artfully sketched cast of secondary characters, helps create the start of a series as endearing as it is thoughtful. Cleverly added musical and pop culture references also add a pop of surprise delight.

Takeaway: This debut novel, first in a planned series, offers an engaging blend of science-fiction, metaphysics and fantasy centered around the exploration of self.

Great for fans of: Devon Monk’s Ordinary Magic series, Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series

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

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No Birds Sing Here
Daniel V. Meier, Jr.
In this humorous rebuke of faux intellectualism, two misguided individuals set out on a journey to discover what it means to be an artist. Beckman is a wannabe author and psychokinetic who spends his time re-reading his own work, dreaming about the future, and causing trouble. Malany is a poet with manufactured success who maintains a devoted asceticism, abstaining from all forms of excess. Both are fleeing their former lives: Beckman refuses to follow in his lawyer father’s footsteps, while Malany avoids her doting, wealthy husband. The two embark on a transcontinental odyssey, pretending to be established writers in small towns across the U.S. From disapproving rednecks to shallow and hedonistic academics, the couple encounter a cast of characters as lost as they are, unhappy with their circumstances but unable to transcend them.

Meier (The Dung Beetles of Liberia) has written a scathing satire, a critique of empty artistry. Through Beckman and Malany, he explores the identities of two annoyingly inauthentic people. Although a self-professed writer, Beckman never produces anything throughout the story, waiting for the “right” experience to spark his inspiration. Malany, though devoted to her work, is not the radical she appears to be, hiding her true origins to maintain a façade of independence. Because the two main characters are so self-serious, the book is often funny. Even more minor characters put on airs to an amusing extent: A pool shark’s crafted machismo hides the secret of his sexuality, while a professor’s wife playacts as various literary figures. No one is likeable, which limits the novel’s audience but also seems to be the point.

The prose can be flowery (“He sat on the edge, shivering for a long time, steeped in wordless disgust at his present condition in life”), but with Beckman as the protagonist, the oft-pretentious descriptions play as comic. However, less successful sentences (“He pretended anger, but Herschel, with omnificent impenetrability, looked as insular as a priest who had just performed Mass”) can be choppy and difficult to read. For the most part, however, the satire lands, and the story is fast-paced and thought-provoking.

Takeaway: This satirical novel’s social critique swipes amusingly at writerly pretensions and small towns full of secrets.

Great for fans of: Virginie Despentes's Vernon Subutex, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout.

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

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AfterLIFE: Waking Up from My American Dream
Carlo Pietro Sanfilippo
Sanfilippo’s debut reconstructs his life story, approaching it with focused intention, self-understanding, and joy -- and using it as an example to inspire others to get off autopilot. After a divorce and the loss of both parents, Sanfilippo realized that the apparent triumph of having accumulated the hallmarks of success—the house, the car, a booming financial planning business—were not the manifestation of his true dreams. Instead, they stood only as remnants of the life he thought he was supposed to live. AfterLIFE recounts his diving into art, mprov, travel, and therapy, and finally finding what he feels is authentic growth and deep satisfaction with his world.

Sanfilippo writes straightforward and relatable prose that persuasively communicates the delight he now finds in building furniture, performing with others, and connecting with clients. He’s less successful, though, when framing his story as practical advice for readers. The book at times occupies an uncertain no-man’s-land between letting Sanfilippo’s experience passively serve as an inspiration and offering a self-help guidebook with structured lessons. Readers with fewer resources and opportunities than Sanfilippo may feel disappointed that much of his advice targets reasonably well-off people whose challenges come primarily from internal expectations and not outside factors.

Sanfilippo powerfully affirms the value of a “mid-life crisis”—a process of realignment that too often is culturally minimized—and of the possibility of finding new meaning and ways to relate to others. Some suggestions in the memoir expose parochialism, such as his assertion that, when out of the country, saying “please” and “thank you” in a foreign language yields special treatment to someone perceived to be respecting culture. His elevation of the “yes and” concept from improv to life philosophy is broadly applicable, as is his belief that being unhappy does one’s children no favors, but Sanfilippo’s chief strength is his skillful grounding of personal experiences in self-love and self-trust, with an air of vulnerability that will appeal to readers.

Takeaway: Adult readers discovering that the “American Dream” is not offering satisfaction will find Sanfilippo’s story a gentle nudge for pursuing personal growth.

Great for fans of: Julia Cameron’s It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again, Patricia Ryan Madson’s Improv Wisdom

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

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Avocado the Turtle : The One and Only
Kiara Shankar, Vinay Shankar
In this uplifting tale of personal acceptance, a boisterous turtle, rejected by her peers, finds a new group of friends by being herself. Avocado was born different from the other turtles around her: Her name is peculiar, her extroversion pushes others away, and her attempts at conversation fall flat -- turtles prefer to hide in their shells. When her community chooses to banish her, she responds by finally trying to conform to their standards, hiding inside her own shell. But a chance encounter with a new group of friends, who like her exactly as she is teaches her the power of owning her uniqueness.

Avantika Mishra’s illustrations add a 3D pop and a welcome splash of color, capturing the emotions of Avocado’s banishment, her period of exile, and her happy life with her newfound friends. The lushly colored backgrounds, cute animals, and appealing nature imagery give children a lot to look at, though as the story goes on both the story and the illustrations veer into the repetitive, such as the several pages of Avocado visiting and strolling with a giraffe, a pig, and a bee.

The Shankars, a father-daughter writing team, have imbued this short tale with a lot of heart. The story of a dejected turtle regaining her confidence is easy to understand and relate to. Unfortunately, with subject matter that is so well-covered, the narrative often lacks the engaging specificity of the best picture books. The tale, told from a removed third-person perspective, concerns the ways that animals treat each other in conversation, but Avocado the Turtle offers few instances of dialogue and no direct interactions between Avocado and the other turtles, whose choice to exile her is breezily summarized. Still, the lesson is as important as ever, and Avocado’s journey to acceptance is a helpful and heartfelt reminder for children of all ages.

Takeaway: This simple tale of a misfit turtle offers a charming lesson to children about the importance of self-acceptance.

Great for fans of: Dan Bar-El’s Not Your Typical Dragon, Leslie Helakoski’s Woolbur, Helen Lester’s Tacky the Penguin.

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

Click here for more about Avocado the Turtle
Future Widow: Losing My Husband, Saving My Family, and Finding My Voice
Jenny Lisk
A polished heartbreaker touched with wit and insight, the debut from Lisk, the host of the Widowed Parent podcast, recounts the harrowing months after the discovery of her husband Dennis’ brain tumor – and then how, after the funeral, how Lisk and the couple’s two children have found their way forward. A grim diagnosis found the Lisks facing surgery, frequent ER visits, radiation, and the side effect of “cognitive confusion,” which Lisk likens, in one of the book’s many piercingly frank moments, to making her feel as if she lost her husband twice, once eight months before his actual death. All through the ordeal, Lisk, feeling that she wore an “FW” (“Future Widow”) like Hester Prynne’s scarlet A, strived to find the healthiest way to guide their children through the traumatic experience, to connect with Dennis (Mariners baseball proved invaluable), and to manage family affairs.

Key passages come from Lisk’s public posts updating friends and family on Dennis’ condition. Fascinatingly, Lisk often follows these with accounts disclosing what she left out and what she wasn’t yet ready to face. In crisp, inviting prose, Lisk finds surges of feeling in sharply rendered moments, such as the day she told the kids that their father likely would not survive. “Is he going to live to see me graduate?” asks her eight year old daughter. Then: “Will he live until Christmas?”

Lisk has taken up blogging and journaling, and she’s adept at short, essasyistic considerations of behavior and feeling. One incisive passage address the options a grieving person has when asked “How are you?”; another mines persuasive insight from Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.” Her short chapters and reliance on public posts means the book works better as a collection of glimpses and thoughts than as a narrative, but those glimpses are moving and those thoughts certain to buoy anyone experiencing (or facing the likelihood) of grief.

Takeaway: This incisive memoir of the death of a husband faces grief with purpose and love.

Great for fans of: Kelly Corrigan’s The Middle Place, Nina Riggs’s The Bright Hour.

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

Click here for more about Future Widow

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