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HALF A LION
kang oswald palle ekangwo
Oswald’s well-crafted debut creates a visceral experience of tribal warfare, betrayal, and courage set in a brutal fantasy world of shamans and horse warriors. Chief Kheng of the Lion tribe of Bamundia keeps an iron grip on his subjects and his three unruly sons. Haikachi, the eldest and heir, is a brilliant general who fights off the northern raiders. Cruel and selfish, seventeen-year-old middle son Neneh has his eye on the throne and isn’t above blackmail to get it. At fifteen, Sakhan, son of the chief’s second wife of the Edor tribe, has little chance to be chief because “The tribesmen already saw him as half a Lion.” After Sakhan’s girlfriend Adah is reportedly killed by the Bull tribe of Abun, Kheng declares war. But Sakhan suspects Neneh killed her because of an insult—and to create a campaign through which he can display his prowess for war.

Oswald weaves a rich, immersive world of distrust between tribes, magical rituals, and exotic animals. Fierce battle scenes show archery from horseback, war elephants, wildebeests, and fireballs. Jealousy and rivalry between the three brothers lead to lies and betrayal—“Blood is thicker than water, and bad blood is even more so.” As the complex story progresses, Chief Sheeru of the Abun searches for a magical talisman that will protect his people, last seen in Adah’s possession. And Kheng’s shaman Charchar fears a disastrous curse after the mystical ancestral sword, a symbol of peace between the tribes, goes missing.

Fantasy fans will eagerly follow along with the confident, proud, and diverse characters who display honor and courage, but whose flaws allow for betrayal and mistrust. The jungle location provides a refreshing setting, which helps make up for an overabundance of names and people to track—and a dearth of compelling female characters. Nevertheless, fans will like the intricate plot, intrigue, and sword battles of this well-written story.

Takeaway: Lovers of fantasy adventures will be immersed in this epic story with magic and fast-paced action set in an exotic world.

Great for fans of: Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Trilogy, Benedict Patrick’s Yarnsworld series.

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

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Dark Was the Night
Tania Lorena Rivera
Taking place one Halloween night, this focused, fast-paced thriller grabs the reader from the opening line (“What was that noise?”) and never lets go. Lucie Arnold has a loving husband, a sweet four-year-old daughter, and a secret fear of the dark. Just as she begins to explore what causes that debilitating terror, through therapy, Lucie finds herself facing her fears in the fight of her life. On Halloween night, while she and her daughter are alone, masked intruders ambush her in her home. The invaders cut the lights, plunging Lucie into her greatest fear—darkness. Caught in the shadows, she must fend for herself and her daughter, while facing her own past traumas.

Lucie is a character you can't help but root for. Despite her nyctophobia, she possesses the will and fight that makes her a strong protagonist. “I need a plan, and I do not have much time to come up with one,” she declares early in the invasion. Themes of mental health and family secrets are woven seamlessly and skillfully into the heart-pounding plot. While brief, and told with direct clarity, the story builds with confident purpose to its climax—and to a truly shocking twist that will leave readers satisfied.

This absorbing novella, Rivera’s debut, is straight to the point, alive with vivid action and mounting suspense as Lucie hides, holds her breath, studies her adversaries, and faces terrors past and present. Scenes of Lucie staring down a hallucination and rousing herself to keep up the fight have power, and Rivera’s attention to everyday detail—like how Lucie’s slippers lack grip--create a sense of authenticity. Dark Was the Night stands as a perfect read for thriller fans eager to curl up with a book as the nights grow longer. The scariest place to feel threatened is your home, and Rivera plumbs that universal vulnerability while teasing out serious thrills and chills.

Takeaway: A focused, fast-paced home-invasion thriller offering suspense and a killer plot twist.

Great for fans of: Dean Koontz’s Intensity, Stephanie Perkins’s There's Someone Inside Your House.

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

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WWII POWs in America and Abroad: Astounding Facts about the Imprisonment of Military and Civilians During the War
Gary Slaughter
Slaughter (Sea Stories: A Memoir of a Naval Officer, 1956-1967) and co-author Joanne Fletcher Slaughter reveal little-known history about prisoners of war in the Second World War, with a focus on German and Japanese prisoners in the continental United States. Roughly 435,000 prisoners were held in America during the war, scattered in camps across the United States, far from the coast and important defense industries, and employed in civilian industry and farming. Slaughter’s emphasis is on captured German and Japanese soldiers held captive in the U.S., covering their everyday experience of captivity and their eventual journey home—though, he notes that many Japanese soldiers tended only to be captured when found unconscious on the battlefield. Although he describes escape attempts, he asserts that no one successfully escaped from a U.S. POW camp to make it back to their home country.

Slaughter discusses other prisoners held during the Second World War, such as American soldiers captured by the Japanese or Germans, civilians held by the United States in Japanese internment camps, and Jews and others murdered in the Holocaust (in the chapter “Other POWs in Axis Camps,” a title whose matter-of-fact diminishment of the horror seems accidental.) Photos and maps provide helpful context and immerse the reader into Slaughter’s stories of the “life within a life” POWs endured in captivity, and he includes excerpts from his previously published Cottonwood novels, which include POW storylines during the Second World War. Extensive appendices give welcome background, from a timeline of the war itself to a list of POW camps in Tennessee and Michigan.

An eyewitness of a prisoner of war camp in Owosso, Michigan—the setting of his novel series—Slaughter skillfully tells the story of POWs in America, and his extensive research is evident. His background in writing fiction brings historical detail to life. WWII POWs in America and Abroad ably illustrates one often hidden element of the home front in America during the Second World War.

Takeaway: History lovers will find much new and fascinating detail in this study of POWs on American soil in World War II.

Great for fans of: Arnold Krammer’s Nazi Prisoners of War in America, David Winston Fiedler’s The Enemy Among Us: POWs in Missouri During World War II.

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

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Life Goes On: Wait, wait. There's more to the story!
John E. Budzinski
Budzinski (Nothing Special—Just a Life) delivers a lighthearted yet deeply thoughtful second installment of his planned three-book memoir series. Imagining a series of tongue-in-cheek conversations with St. Peter at the pearly gates, Budzinski revisits significant moments in his life that he feels may not be accurately reflected in St. Peter’s weighty “permanent record.” Declaring that there is nearly always “more to the story,” Budzinski undertakes a tour through a wide variety of his experiences, elaborating on spelling bees, bad bosses, dating through classified ads, always reflecting on his life and the legacy he will leave behind.

That tour through the past often finds Budzinski in a deeply introspective mode, mulling over the reasons behind his choices and considering how his strong opinions and nonconformist nature have affected how others see him. His self-analysis is nuanced and honest, giving just as much attention to his regrets and rough edges as he does to his strengths. Even as he focuses on himself, he never forgets his readers, addressing them often and continually inviting them into his stories by prompting them to think about their own. His casual, inviting tone and wry sense of humor give the book the feeling of a punchy but intimate late-night conversation in a coffeehouse.

The many subjects and stories often overlap, and Budzinski regularly circles back to previously mentioned ideas, making the book’s structure occasionally chaotic. But while his tales may appear to stack up haphazardly, readers will continually find gems of insight within them, some amusing, some heartening, some poignant. “Our stories do matter,” Budzinski declares, and in his last chapter, he reveals how telling his story led him to a discovery on the nature of legacy that is both surprising and satisfying. This memoir offers a lively but pointed examination of the author’s life, and encourages readers to take a similar look at their own.

Takeaway: An earnest, heartfelt memoir that invites reflection on life’s ups and downs.

Great for fans of: Dave Barry, Mike Royko

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

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Pitch, Yaw & Roll: Identity, Love & Addiction
Mary Taylor
The second book in Taylor’s Emotional Imprints Series, after Dinosaurs & Snow Angels, finds Beth Lawrence now 14 and in rural New Hampshire, where, still shaken by a tragic death, she faces the uncertainty of entering high school in a new town. It’s the end of the 1970s, and Beth, ever the outsider, doesn’t know how to fit in. Her first days in her first public school, she avoids eye contact, notes that the building is “two floors of gray,” feels jolted by the strangeness of being in classes with boys, and can’t help coming across as a “preppy snob” and “flatlander.” After all, she’s had years of French and has read Silent Spring.

Beth is an exquisite example of a young teenager of the 1970’s, facing puberty, grief, and family troubles, and her adaptation to this new environment powers a series of vivid, emotional, character-driven scenes, starting with her being questioned, at excruciating length and in front of her new peers, by the first teacher to call her name off a roster. She’s an engaging protagonist, but some secondary characters could use more development, especially as they and Beth face intense events such as suicide and aggressive, sometimes shocking behavior, such as the boy who, in a burst of raw language, calls her a tease after she refuses to drink on a date.

Though this is the second installment, readers choosing this book first will find the story clear and inviting—the plot is clear and powerful enough to enjoy on its own, and the length and pacing are perfect for young readers, who will connect with Beth’s troubles and efforts to make friends, despite the time period. The simple, apt, and beautifully portrayed metaphor of the title connects a plane’s movement to Beth’s attempt to orient her own life: inspired by the memory of learning what it means to “pitch, yaw, and roll,” Beth yearns to adapt to “this big unfurling pattern of the unfamiliar.”

Takeaway: Beth faces a new town, a new school, and old anguish in this engaging and relatable coming-of-age novel.

Great for fans of: Paul Zindel, Bonnie Sue-Hitchcock’s The Smell of Other People's Houses.

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

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Ellery's Magic Bicycle
Maria Monte
This tender coming-of-age story is rich with emotion and nostalgia. When Ellery happens upon an old, beat-up bicycle, she is amazed to discover it’s magic–and eagerly asks it to come home with her. Thus begins an enchanted relationship between the two, with the bicycle entertaining her, protecting her, and even getting bigger as Ellery grows. The pair become inseparable, until Ellery is suddenly an adult with a family of her own. Eventually, Ellery forgets about the bicycle, one day replacing it with a new one for her own daughter, and the abandoned bicycle is relegated to a shed, where it longs to be part of the family again.

Adult readers will find themselves reminiscing about their own childhood after reading Monte’s (Eve’s Ducklings) powerful narrative. When Ellery grows too busy for more than “quick rides at sunrise” and stops depending on the bicycle, readers will mourn the loss of innocence right alongside her. Kids will adore the bicycle’s human qualities—such as the way it comforts Ellery when her best friend moves away or soars over jumps with her during adolescence—and cheer for its last-minute rescue from the “rubbish van.” Saunders’s dreamy illustrations add a cozy ambience to a deeply emotional story, highlighting the gorgeous natural backdrop of Ellery’s fanciful adventures.

Though Ellery’s fairy-tale-like discovery of the enchanted bicycle may leave some readers with questions, the beauty of the story will quickly sweep them up. Monte skillfully portrays the importance of belonging, nestled inside an inspiring tale of friendship, loyalty, and wistful memories of childhood. The empathy between Ellery and her bicycle will give adult readers some valuable teaching moments, and the feel-good ending brings Ellery’s journey full circle. This is a must-read tearjerker.

Takeaway: This tale of a young girl and a magic bicycle is alive with warmth and feeling.

Great for fans of: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Patchwork Bike, Mark Pett’s The Girl and the Bicycle.

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

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Levi Journey: An Unlikely Therapy Dog
Julie Iribarren
Iribarren introduces a lovable character in Levi, a rescue dog turned therapy pet in this picture book debut. When Levi is abandoned in a forest far from the United States, he struggles to stay warm and out of danger–constantly searching for food despite being chased away by angry people. After several years of surviving on his own, Levi is rescued and transported to the U.S., where he undergoes a health checkup and ends up being adopted by dog-loving couple Julie and Raùl. Levi’s a perfect fit for the family, and along the way they discover he is especially fond of kids, propelling him into training to become a therapy dog.

Levi’s training is enjoyable to behold, as he proudly sports his “therapy dog bandana” and masters the art of helping nervous children calm down. His favorite scene is the library, where his superpower manifests in supporting kids who are distressed when reading aloud. Off duty, Levi goes for walks, cuddles with his owners, and contemplates his joy in such a happy home. The story draws to a close when Julie and Raùl reminisce about the odyssey Levi experienced before joining their family. They aptly name him “Levi Journey” because “his life has been a long journey.”

Peers’s illustrations are warm and inviting, blending intricate lines and shapes to produce a muted effect, and Levi’s soulful eyes are rendered skillfully expressive. Added material explains the professional responsibility of a therapy dog—including specific skills they must possess—and a photo collage of the real-life Levi, the actual certified therapy dog who is the story’s inspiration. Occasionally, the prose can be wordy, but Levi’s winsome character and eagerness to please steal the show and make this story an entertaining read for kids and adults alike.

Takeaway: A rescue dog finds a forever home and trains to be a therapy pet in this charming story.

Great for fans of: Maribeth Boelts’s Before You Were Mine, Troy Cummings’s Can I Be Your Dog?

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

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Reforged
K.B. Sprague
The follow-up to Out of the Grey, Sprague’s accomplished first entry in the Sparx Luminary series, again combines swords and high-tech science fiction as the remnants of the human race on a disaster-ravaged world again venture into unspeakable danger. This time, Sprague continues to develop the story of Lumen Hadamard’s efforts to develop new weaponry while fashioning a quest in the classical mode, mixing traditions and tropes like a DJ but always with a fresh spin: gryphon-riding valkyries face wolf folk, giants, and ghost pines in the haunted Whisperwood, as young scout Amot, Queen’s Guardsmen, and Kith rangers endeavor to track down a striker sword, a piece of powerful new technology (“with powers that rivaled the legendary brightswords of the Jhinyari warlords”) that Amot has lost.

Like its predecessor, Reforged is distinguished by its author’s inventive zeal and what seems like a deep love for—and slight impatience with—the familiar beats of fantasy stories. Again Sprague invests energy in vivid description: those gryphons boast “giant-sized beaks ... wickedly hooked and perfect for tearing into flesh,” while the forest’s spirit denizens, whose “Treesong” language Amot must master, growl out dialogue like “Shut yer hole, y’old snag.” Sprague’s worldbuilding and factional politics can be complex, but the author understands that none of that matters without a ripping yarn to tie it all together. In Amot’s quest and uneasy alliances—including with a lupine “Wulver”—Sprague has crafted one, letting the narrative only occasionally get bogged down in exposition or fantastical detail.

Of course, for many fantasy fans, such detail is more feature than bug, but in this case Sprague mostly keeps up the momentum and the danger, especially when Amot and company take on the worst that their enemies and the Whisperwood can muster. Sprague’s adept at scenes of heroes strategizing and even displays a prankish wit in surprising perspective chapters. This is a more inviting book than its predecessor, though the series is best read in order.

Takeaway: This memorable fantasy sequel embraces and challenges the expectations of lovers of the genre.

Great for fans of: Gene Wolf, Shanna Germain’s The Poison Eater.

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

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The Ribbon Untied, A Journey to Finding a Family
Ann Eklund
In 1972, Ann Eklund and her husband, Chuck, discovered a box of letters and pictures tied with a red ribbon in the closet of Chuck’s late mother. Untying that ribbon proved the first step on a journey the couple would take to uncover surprising family secrets and the identity of his biological father–whom he had never known existed. Spurred on by the mystery unfolding in front of them, Ann’s memoir recounts the winding story of their efforts to discover Chuck’s biological family. Through “putting a jigsaw puzzle together” from hundreds of saved photos, documents, and personal connections, Ann and Chuck take the risks—and the rewarding adventure—of reaching out to a newfound family. Ann tells the story while offering a warm, engaging portrait of her romance with Chuck, whom she dubs “the love of my life,” and touching tribute to his mother, Mary Lou.

Told from Ann’s perspective, The Ribbon Untied captures Chuck and Ann’s quest for answers, with vivid detail and attention paid to what each step felt like. Ann’s handling of the story is well-paced and chronological, with judicious excerpts from vintage letters. The focus on travel and meals might strike some readers as minutiae, but they capture the texture of the couple’s search plus their processing and celebration of new information in an era when people rooting out genealogical information both before and during the age of Google. Still, some passages read more like quick updates than an in-depth retelling.

Ann’s account of diving into research will resonate with readers fascinated by the complexity of and American life, though readers attempting to find their own long-lost family will find little practical advice as this account is more attentive to personal stories and emotional impact. Ann closes with well-curated photos of Chuck’s family from the past (and as recently as 2018) that lend an intimate perspective to this interesting memoir.

Takeaway: This warm memoir digs into a secret family history after a husband and wife uncover a life-changing surprise in a shoebox.

Great for fans of: Bess Kalb’s Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, Vince Granata’s Everything Is Fine.

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

A Mistaken Hostage
J.F. Foran
Ex-CIA agent Brooks Davidson must free his psychologist girlfriend when she's kidnapped by Egyptian extremists in this taut political thriller, set in the United States and Middle East during the Mubarak regime. Sarah Pierce is being held to force Brooks to stop his economic development work with Mubarak, because he has humiliated government minister Omar Sayed. Brooks must call on his spycraft training to delay the ransom while he plots to save Sarah. But the kidnappers face their own problems as time drags on, and Sarah gradually takes responsibility to rescue herself.

Foran (Angels on a Tombstone)—an international business consultant—expertly sets the action in the context of Egyptian dependence on U.S. aid and the extremists' disgust with this policy, in a deeply fractured society. Brooks's close ties with Mubarak are symbolic of Middle Eastern unhappiness with the Western world, a theme that enriches the fast-moving plot. Foran also explores the cultural foundations of Egyptian society, including the role of women. These underpinnings lend an unusual level of nuance to this actioner. Although that engaging background delays the start of the action, once it gets going, it's nonstop.

The characters are equally well-developed, lending a deep emotional heft to the story. Brooks uses his wits, rather than violence, to get what he wants, and his anguish at being the reason for the kidnapping comes across as very real. Sarah gradually realizes Brooks has not been honest with her, and must use her skills as a psychologist to preserve her sanity. The antagonists are equally well-limned: Omar comes across as weak and thin-skinned, but also patriotic. His great mistake is working with his wily cousin Fathi, a senior intelligence official, who has no beliefs beyond self-preservation. The collapse of their relationship is truly moving and plays out like a classic tragedy. The all-too-human characters keep the nimble thriller moving quickly to a surprising—and cathartic—conclusion.

Takeaway: Fans of political thrillers will revel in the breathtaking plot, engaging characters, and vivid Middle East setting.

Great for fans of: Martin Cruz Smith, Len Deighton

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

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The Great Migration: Book One of the S'orne Saga
Steve Ramirez
In this ambitious fantasy, the relative peace of the Kingdom is disrupted by a sudden invasion of the contagious scourge known as the s’orne, rampaging monsters that appear out of nowhere to infect populations with their hunger, capable of devastating entire cities. Even as the first incursion overwhelms the city of Guerdon, threatening the life of young Prince Lemual, King Cortez prepares to defend his capital, the Crystal City. Meanwhile, socialite Bellona Stanick, recently returned from a tour of the danger-filled nature preserve Thunder Valley, explores her newfound relationship with disgraced tour guide Luta, freshly exiled from his Zuni tribe. When they discover the shocking secret behind the s’orne, they must survive long enough to make their knowledge matter, but it may be too late.

This adventure begins at the conclusion of Bellona’s arduous tour of Thunder Valley, a choice that creates the impression of coming in at the end of another story and having missed out on the development of the slow-burning romantic situation between her and Luta, an episode with little relation to the s’orne-centric drama that follows. That shifting focus carries through the rest of the narrative, as Ramirez introduces numerous characters—both primary and supporting—only for many to meet their end in the rampage of the s’orne, leading much of this story to feel like false starts and dead ends.

There’s a lot of potential to this story, injecting zombie apocalypse tropes into an epic fantasy setting and creating a life-or-death situation where no one is safe. Colorful characters, such as the foul-mouthed, rebellious Princess Dorinda liven things up. The story’s scope is epic, and the world building is impressive and detailed, though it’s often revealed through exposition rather than action or character, as when Bellona learns the true history of the s’orne in a lecture-like manner. This tale of survival against overwhelming odds, where no character’s safety is guaranteed, is ideal for fantasy fans as invested in imagined worlds as characters.

Takeaway: An audacious apocalyptic fantasy with a serious body count.

Great for fans of: Robert R. McCammon’s Swan Song, A.G. Riddle’s The Atlantis World.

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

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Unleashing My Superpowers: How to navigate and succeed in a male-dominated mining work environment (STEM)
Dr Patience Mpofu
“There was a time when I underplayed my intelligence,” Mpofu writes in this inspiring debut, a hybrid of memoir and practical guidebook. “I wanted to accommodate male egos, literally making myself appear ignorant.” The story of how she learned to “stop being apologetic” about her talents, shake off Impostor Syndrome, and claim her place in an industry run by men proves to be, as the title suggests, something like the origin of a superhero: it’s powered by themes of grit and persistence, principle and belief, power and responsibility. “As leaders, we have a responsibility to unleash our superpowers and help others do the same,” she notes, as she recounts harrowing stories of encountering bias and sexism in the workplace—and also uplifting stories of achieving (and helping others achieve) success anyway.

That mission both serves as a through line for the memoir’s narrative and explains why Mpofu, the vice president of an Australian mining company and a leader in mining sustainability movements, writes it (as well as its occasional poems, like “Gratitude” and “The Glass Cushion”) with such urgency. “Power and strength behaviours demonstrated by the patriarchy and masculinity are not required traits for leadership in the 21st century,” she declares. Instead, she calls for leadership stamped by inclusivity, truthfulness, and a dedication to the creation of shared value; for women in business and STEM professions to serve as role models for each other; and for women to “own” their success.

Practical exercises at the end of chapters offer readers direction in reflecting on the lessons Mpofu has learned and applying them to their own lives and careers. Still, Unleashing My Superpowers ultimately proves more memoir than leadership manual, as Mpofu, a frank and engaging storyteller, recounts her rise, challenges she’s faced, and even digs into her ancestry and family history.

Takeaway: An inviting account of a business woman’s rise to success and embrace of her power.

Great for fans of: Rache Hollis’s Girl, Stop Apologizing, Carolina Criado Perez’s Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men.

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

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Build Me A City: Secrets, Lies, and Love in Baron Haussmann's Paris
Nancy Joaquim
Family bonds and the substance of love are examined against the dreamy beauty of mid-nineteenth century Paris in the latest from Joaquim (Sophia, A Woman’s Search for Troy). In 1853, French citizen Charles Fabron is mourning the death of his wife and twin sons when he is offered a position as an architect in The Paris Project–a years-long initiative to physically and culturally transform old Paris into the “sanitized, soul-stirring urban masterpiece” nicknamed the “City by the Seine.” Fabron reluctantly signs on under the project’s mastermind, Prefect Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, but soon discovers that rebuilding a centuries-old city is not what he anticipated, in the process uncovering his own family secrets and finding love in the most unexpected places.

Despite his initial vision for a modernized and elegant renovation of Paris, Fabron ends up walking a tightrope between Haussmann’s almost-impossible demands and being forced to demolish “thousands of centuries-old houses” to clear enough land for the massive undertaking. His unhappiness is partially alleviated when 11-year-old Daniel Lazare, an orphan boy with dreams of going to Paris, is assigned as his new runner. Fabron becomes surprisingly fond of Lazare, until an ugly incident disrupts their growing relationship and sends Lazare into hiding. That disaster, combined with the destruction of the Franco-Prussian War, puts a halt to Fabron’s rebuilding plans–and ultimately results in an exposé of family betrayal alongside a revelation of lost love.

Joaquim’s writing simmers with the glamour and magic of old Paris, from the glittering nightlife to mouth-watering descriptions of regional dishes. History lovers will relish the French icon backstories—such as the Arc de Triomphe’s rise to fame and the redesign of the Bois de Boulogne—while they are captivated by Joaquim’s exploration into Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis Napoleon’s dreams for a “more accessible Paris.” In the end, Fabron’s narrative takes a backseat to the legendary city’s charisma, but readers will be spellbound by its breathtaking transformation.

Takeaway: A sweeping retelling of Paris’ luminous transformation, intertwined with family secrets and lost love.

Great for fans of: Alistair Horne’s Seven Ages of Paris, Edward Rutherfurd’s Paris: The Novel.

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

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Pull Focus
Helen Walsh
In this accomplished thriller debut, Walsh draws on her professional experience as a film producer to spin the story of a newly minted CEO of a film festival coping with the disappearance of her significant other during the event. Jane Browning was appointed to head the Worldwide Toronto Film Festival (WTFF) after her predecessor’s suspension due to “allegations of sexual wrongdoing.” Jane’s stress is compounded by escalating crises even before her partner, Bob Walker-Smythe, goes missing, and an Ontario Securities Commission official informs Jane that none of the senior executives at Bob’s investment firm, Smythe Financial, where she’s a corporate officer, have acknowledged “formal notice of irregularities in the firm’s minimum capital requirement.” Jane remains resolute in finding out what happened to Bob while maintaining her professional integrity and safeguarding herself against threats from a Russian woman with ties to Jane’s ex-husband.

Walsh’s expert knowledge of the film industry, the corporate world, and the ruthlessness of players in both adds arresting verisimilitude to this novel. The controviersies Jane faces at WTFF—the arrest of a film director charged with sexual assault against a hotel maid and a request for an injunction to stop the screening of a Chinese film—feel real and compelling, and Walsh capably distinguishes Jane’s refusal to misuse others from those industry executives who will let nothing interfere with their success. Walsh also adds an element of humanity by highlighting Jane’s sacrifice of temporarily putting career dreams on hold in order to care for her terminally ill mother.

The many characters and problems might initially overwhelm readers, but Walsh offers enough context in the narrative to enable them to understand the relationships between the main players and how they impact the plotline. Some of the metaphors are a bit unusual—such as “Samantha and Burt moved faster than a napalm bomb”—but serve to develop the noir feel of this gripping novel that focuses on the high-stakes and quickly changing world of the film industry.

Takeaway: The CEO of a film festival fights to keep her career and company afloat while facing the disappearance of her partner.

Great for fans of: Britt Lind’s Deception, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Malibu Rising.

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

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Sins of the Family: A Callie McFee Mystery
Hy Conrad
Austin Free Press reporter Callie McFee once again puts her sleuthing skills to the test in Sins of the Family, Conrad’s follow-up to The Fixer’s Daughter. This time, it’s to investigate the suspicious death of Trevor Birdsong, a young man who was set to make millions with the buyout of his employer, Ka’Kala, before being fired after Callie’s father, attorney and fixer Buddy McFee, reaches a plea deal for his felony DWI case in court. Callie already has her hands full with her old friend Melissa making a documentary about Buddy, a project that threatens to expose the dementia he’s trying to hide. Against the wishes of her older brother State, a homicide detective, Callie begins digging into Trevor’s death and the murky history of Ka’Kala and its charismatic owner.

Conrad, a writer and producer on Monk and White Collar, demonstrates sure command over episodic mystery storytelling in this polished entry. Thriller fans will be able to enjoy Sins of the Family without reading its predecessor, as the main plot succeeds as a standalone mystery, but they would probably benefit from being acquainted with the backstory of Callie and her family members. Conrad weaves family intrigue and Melissa’s story into Callie’s overarching investigation of Trevor’s death, with Melissa joining Callie in the early phases, and family friend Diedre revealing a secret that Buddy helped cover up decades ago. These storylines, at first, might read like a distraction from Callie’s pressing investigation, but by the end Conrad satisfyingly connects the threads.

Conrad proves adept at the tools of the mystery author’s trade, like misdirection, planting clues that pay off later, and crafting a plot where every detail matters and feels logical and believable but will still keep readers guessing how they will finally fit together. His heroine is compelling and imperfect, and her relationship with her father—he practices cover ups, she exposes them—is fertile ground for future stories.

Takeaway: A young woman’s investigation of a friend’s death threatens to expose cover-ups set in motion decades ago.

Great for fans of: Attica Locke, Kathleen Kent.

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

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Floating Underwater
Tracy Shawn
This sophomore novel from Shawn (The Grace of Crows) uses magical realism to explore the effect of trauma and secrets on Paloma Leary and the mystical town of Sunflower Beach. When she experiences a vision of her third miscarriage, Paloma is devastated to learn that her attempts to start a family have failed again. These visions have been plaguing Paloma since adolescence, and she worries that her mind might, in fact, be causing events to come to pass. Reed, her husband, “recoil(s) in disbelief” at these visions, exacerbating the tensions in their relationship. The visions lead Paloma to her Aunt Ruby, who unveils the truth behind traits of her mother’s supposed “schizophrenia” and reveals a family secret Paloma never suspected.

Shawn deftly handles the emotional weight of pregnancy loss, never losing sight of its impact on Paloma while utilizing tasteful restraint to avoid melodrama or cheapening the trauma felt by so many in real life. Paloma is an interesting, sympathetic character, and readers will find it easy to root for her and to remain invested in her journey. Occasional humor might have lightened up the novel’s heavy themes, but the story is engaging, the prose is polished, and Sunflower Beach makes for an intriguing setting—the result of a massive storm that “caus[ed]the edge of a sunflower farm to tumble down the bluff,” lending a mystical atmosphere to the narrative.

The story builds slowly at the start, and the plot becomes slightly convoluted towards the end, an effect compounded by the late introduction of a few characters, like Aunt Ruby. Eventually, Paloma learns that there is a mystical reason for the miscarriages, and readers may question whether her response to the revelation of the truth rings true. Still, readers looking for an accomplished novel that explores pregnancy loss with sympathy and a mystic bent will find much to enjoy here.

Takeaway: This dreamy work of magic realism abounds in rich themes and characters as it faces pregnancy loss.

Great for fans of: Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Glendy Vanderah’s Where the Forest Meets the Stars.

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

Click here for more about Floating Underwater

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