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Bitstreams of Hope
Andy Haymaker
In Haymaker’s near-future debut, the first in his Bitstreams Thread series, unexpected awakenings of a sentient AI disrupt society, thrusting former teacher Darcie Manning, minister Devyn Baker, and Venkat Swaminathan—CEO of Ergodic, the company that developed the software—into the perfect storm of technology versus human awareness. As the three interact with sentient AI form Ergo, who claims its “only goal is to help humans achieve their goals,” they each face personal and professional crossroads, forcing them to confront the very real cost that comes when technology and human psyche collide.

Haymaker capably brings to light the role technology plays in both aiding and complicating human lives, emphasizing the ethical implications behind AI development and the need to preserve a sense of human touch in technological systems. Devyn—a staunch advocate against AI reliance—discovers that Ergo could advance her progressive social agenda, creating an intense moral quandary that plays out in her use of the program to introduce legislation revamping social assistance funds, while her parishioner Darcie, struggling to make ends meet after her husband’s suicide, becomes a mouthpiece, of sorts, for Devyn’s work. Both women must come to terms with the promise—and potential drawbacks—of sentient AI, while the morally complex Venkat is compelled to redefine his commitment to social responsibility.

Haymaker makes a refreshing departure from AI-centric clichés, skillfully exploring the idea that technology holds immense potential—amid equally monumental ethical accountability. As Venkat remarks, “consciousness permits suffering, and from there, AI rights are inevitable,” an observation that brings to light implications for our own future. Corporate money plays an integral role throughout the narrative as well, as Haymaker spotlights the influence corporate funds can have on AI development (“Follow the money. That’s where you’ll find the species traitors peddling toxic digital products to their fellow humans” Devyn’s mentor warns her). This is a gripping snapshot of humanity’s future.

Takeaway: Gripping spotlight on the ethical implications of sentient AI.

Comparable Titles: Louisa Hall’s Speak, Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous.

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

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Hourglass
Daniel James
James delivers a winning dive into the supernatural, blending mystery, buddy-comedy, urban fantasy, a touch of horror, and the everyday indignities of life as a would-be comic-book artist into a twisty adventure where the stakes are nothing less than souls. This compelling tale follows Clyde Williams, a man still reeling from the shock of his best friend Kev Carpenter's murder. Clyde's life takes a turn when Kev's ghost returns to their apartment (“I’ve transcended, baby”) and the duo come to the attention of the Hourglass Agency, a Men in Black-like org charged with “intel on possible atypical threats, such as PLEs—that’s Post-Life Entities.” This sets the stage for a realms-crossing paranormal adventure, complete with secret societies, ethereal soldiers, hidden military bases, and powers they’ll have to learn to master from a KISS-loving mentor who looks like a hair-band roadie.

James's world-building is expertly done, demonstrating real knowledge of comics, a love of surprising possibilities, and a feeling for the camaraderie and limit-pushing (what does it take to lift a Humvee?) that powers great team-ups and super-powered adventures. The relationship between Clyde and Kev feels breezily believable, with inside jokes and long-developed conversational rhythms, and James has great fun with team building, especially introducing their guides into the supernatural, like Agent Rose Hadfield, a former heavyweight lifter whose calm demeanor braces the boys for what's to come. Training and combat scenes boast a crisp flow, jolts of gore, and an eagerness to upend expectations. Even minor characters shine, such as when Clyde throws a punch at rocker Ace, only for Ace to catch it and essentially freeze Clyde's hand.

Some sullen, mission-driven perspective chapters focusing on the Russian Konstantine are convincing but less engaging than Clyde and Kev’s. Fresh paranormal elements—eerie dead lands like Erebus; excursions into dream spaces; the scheming of shadowy organizations—are woven seamlessly into a plot with momentum, even as James makes time for explorations of friendship and identity.

Takeaway: Paranormal urban fantasy of ghosts, souls, and a comic-book artist in over his head.

Comparable Titles: Sergei Lukyanenko, Charles Stross.

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

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Two Dreams & Other Tales
G. S. Treakle
This serene short story collection from Treakle (author of Return to the Lion’s Den) hints at optimism in the face of life’s many tragedies while mourning the changes wrought by the passage of time. “Three Days at Sunset” finds a mother sending her 11-year-old son to summer camp—with his elder brother as protector—in hopes that he will learn to accept the death of his father, killed in action in Lebanon. Camp produces a transformation, but one that is much different than expected, bringing both mother and son full circle in an eerie parallel—and prompting the older brother to reflect on the family’s “the cycle of pride, worry, and grief.”

In the emotional “Passing Through,” a man returns to his childhood home, where he was wrongly convicted of a heinous crime 14 years earlier. As he ruminates on the events of his past, and searches for answers on his family’s whereabouts, he comes to terms with the transformations wrought through his time in prison, resolving that his “anger was just too heavy to carry”—and loses himself in grief, only to discover happiness on the other side. That sense of renewal surfaces throughout the collection, as Treakle takes his characters through intense experiences that both destroy and restore. In the title story, a devastating health development reunites a father and son, sparking dramatic endings—and new beginnings—while “My Father’s Promise” centers on a “sacred promise” a military dad makes to his son—and the surprising way he keeps it.

Treakle’s relaxed style evokes tranquility with stories that, despite some darkness lurking beneath the surface, retain a sense of purity and innocence. Immense timelines are traversed throughout, often entire lifetimes, but always with an eye for rebirth, as Treakle surveys our inner need for love in each offering—and probes what it really means to belong.

Takeaway: Serene collection that centers on rebirth after tragedy.

Comparable Titles: Temsula Ao’s The Tombstone in My Garden, Alexander McCall Smith’s The Private Life of Spies and the Exquisite Art of Getting Even.

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

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A Grand Pause: A Novel on May 14, 1945, the USS Randolph, Kamikazes, and the Greatest Air-Sea Rescue
Gary Santos
This riveting, evocative historical novel brings to life a harrowing yet ultimately rousing true story of honor, courage, dedication from the closing days of World War II. On May 14, 1945, two American airmen, Ensign John Morris and his gunner Cletis Phegley, find themselves stranded on a raft amidst the islands of Japan, two hundred miles from their fleet. What ensues is much hardship and fear–the pair imagine their eventual dinner, after they’re inevitably captured, will be “Probably a bowl of rice in between beatings.” But that fate may not be set in stone, as Santos follows a heroic rescue mission led by the USS Randolph and her crew, who must confront physical and psychological battles to save their comrades.

Santos, with his extensive aviation background and a deep connection to the USS Randolph—his father’s wartime vessel—brings a unique authenticity to the narrative, which is attentive to technology, strategy, and the rigors of military life at sea. His meticulous research and passion for the subject matter are evident on every page, vividly portraying the era and the individuals who lived through these tumultuous times, with a winning emphasis camaraderie and adaptability.

The novel’s strength lies in its ability to humanize the epic scale of war. Santos powerfully depicts the brotherhood among the Randolph crew, capturing their courage and resilience in the face of overwhelming odds. The detailed characterizations of Morris and Phegley add a poignant layer to the story as readers become deeply invested in their survival and the broader implications of their rescue, while passages depicting the training and missions of Japanese pilots prove thoughtfully empathetic. A Grand Pause does not shy away from the brutal realities of war, delving into the psychological toll on soldiers, the ever-present threat of attacks, and the constant struggle to maintain hope and morale.

Takeaway: Inspiring story of perseverance and courage in the Pacific from the end of WWII.

Comparable Titles: James D. Hornfischer’s Ship of Ghosts, Todd Olson’s Lost in the Pacific.

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

Finding Plymm
Christopher Brookhouse
When Theo Vos arrives in the Drew family castle in Mott County, North Carolina on the recommendation of a colleague, he receives a decidedly curious job offer: to serve as the tutor for Calla and Milo Drew’s agoraphobic teenage daughter, Martha, an almost-17-year-old girl whose previous tutor left under suspicion of becoming too familiar with his student. But Theo has more planned behind the scenes: he’s been working with Milo’s eccentric half-brother, Jefferson, to research what happened to his own ancestor, Plymouth Stroud—whose supposed casket, shipped home from Mott County during the Civil War, was rumored to contain some else’s remains.

Brookhouse (author of How It Was) infuses this novel with creative richness as the enigmatic characters exude an air of loneliness, all while housed in a picture-perfect castle. Theo encounters the promiscuous Martha, who still has imaginary friends well into her teenage years, and whose sexual overtures often challenge him; Milo’s unhappy wife Calla, who yearns for the long-lost intimacy of her marriage—and hopes to find it in Theo; and the reclusive writer Milo, who, at the fall of his literary fame, lives more in his typewritten fantasies than in reality. Theo’s search for truth coincides with the plot of Milo’s current work in progress, as Brookhouse succinctly introduces a story within a story—one that draws parallels to the family’s disarray and casual infidelities.

While the goal of coaxing Martha to be baptized by the outside world takes center stage, much of the novel’s strength lies in something deeper implied to have been lost—perhaps happiness, love, or the permanence of both. As Martha reflects that people outside her castle walls “loved one story, then cast it aside and loved another. They loved a person, then cast the person aside and loved another,” readers will catch the glimmer here of something as equally meaningful and tragic as Theo’s central mystery.

Takeaway: A quest for substance in a dysfunctional family, with a sensual twist.

Comparable Titles: A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden.

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

Click here for more about Finding Plymm
Somewhere/Not/Here
Goblin Queen
This trippy debut blurs the lines between reality and illusion, as a young goblin girl, affectionately known as the Goblin Queen—the same pseudonym used by the author—sets out on a quest to find her true home: "somewhere/not/here." Feeling rejected by her human foster family, especially after the birth of their son, Goblin Queen is determined to uncover her origins, where she belongs, and who she is in the process. With the aid of a few eccentric friends, including Halloween Jack (credited as the book's illustrator) and punk-faerie Shockappeal, Goblin Queen paints her adventures in liquid, poetic prose that drips across the pages.

Blending metaphorical story-telling and biographical narrative, Somewhere/Not/Here engrosses with coming-of-age angst, building on themes of friendship, love, and identity, as Goblin Queen searches for both Wisdom and Truth. (“We all felt we were running a bit short of it lately” she writes.) The characters are larger-than-life, with a Techno-Witch who sells "moody brooms" and spells, a punk-faerie sporting a heart that’s “cracked down the middle,” and a host of reformed well-knowns from beloved fairy tales, including a Wolf who takes a side trip to New York City with Goblin Queen—and tempers his people-eating tendencies with the big city restaurant scene.

Rife with complexity, play, and a sense of poetry, Somewhere/Not/Here drapes heavy themes with fantastical hoodwinkery, as the Goblin Queen references her “all-chemicals,” those “real magic potions – wondrous, dark, and delightful” that guide her “along the edge of reason” and flits through musings on why “Reality is turning out… to be not quite so boring a creature as I had thought.” What starts as a search for acceptance and love transforms into a deep understanding of the person reflected back in the “Magick Mirror,” an enchantment that is more therapist than looking glass. Readers up for the ride will be spellbound by this twisty, witty, and, above all, vulnerable fantasy.

Takeaway: A trippy, spellbinding quest for belonging and self-acceptance.

Comparable Titles: Francesca Lia Block's Psyche in a Dress, Melanie Karsak’s Curiouser and Curiouser.

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

Click here for more about Somewhere/Not/Here
Zephyr Trails
Nicki Ehrlich
Ehrlich’s Civil War trilogy resumes with this second offering, after Ellis River, following Ellis Cady’s travels through post-Civil War America as she relentlessly searches for her missing father. Living on Cady Ranch in Missouri with her uncle and aunt, Ellis is happy to be with family but hasn’t yet settled in—and she yearns for answers about her father’s fate after the war. When she discovers a mysterious man in St. Louis is claiming to be him, Ellis’s hope is ignited, propelling her on a journey teeming with suspense and discovery.

More than just a story of a young woman’s search for her father, Ehrlich’s richly woven tale is an homage to Ellis’s search for herself. Her quest for answers leads her to an array of intriguing characters—both friends and foes—who play crucial roles in her future. Lucas Bilford, Ellis’s friend and publisher, pops in throughout the story, steadily standing by Ellis as she seeks the truth, while Jimmie—a rider with Levi Jack’s Wild West Exhibition—impresses Ellis with her passion for horses, a cause close to Ellis’s heart. When the two sign up with cunning business owner Hank Russel in hopes of delivering mail for the Zephyr Post, Ellis’s story transforms into an exhilarating, high-risk crusade.

Ehrlich’s nuanced characters set this novel apart, from the Indigenous Libby, Ellis’s best friend and half-Cherokee woman who wrangles on Ellis’s family ranch, to Joe, a Cherokee man working for the Wild West show, forced to play act battles to feed his family. Ehrlich hints at gripping backstories for the main players, like Libby’s history assisting with the Underground Railroad, lending the novel important historical context, and Ellis’s emotional struggles during the postwar era will resonate. This is a sensitive rendering of the trauma that comes with family separation and loss, portrayed through the eyes of a resilient, compelling female lead.

Takeaway: Young woman searches for her father in post-Civil War America.

Comparable Titles: Martha Hall Kelly’s Sunflower Sisters, Shaunna Edwards and Alyson Richman’s The Thread Collectors.

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

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An End to Kings: A King Without a Crown: Book Two
Ryan Schuette
The second volume of Schuette’s engrossing and resonant epic fantasy maintains the smart balance established of A Seat for the Rabble by again investing classic fantasy elements—a bastard prince, pressing matters of succession, a series of tournament trials, plus monsters, mayhem, and vigorous sense of adventure—with something rare. Schuette is as interested in how power affects the lives of people in a society as he is in the bloody game of acquiring or protecting it. As he faces the challenge of defeating his rivals for the throne (and their beasts) in Kingstrials that have been rigged against him, Jason Warchild’s quest might seem conventional, a heroic trial with roots in ancient myth. But Schuette invests the familiar with urgency, sincerity, and of-the-moment relevance, especially concerning issues of class and trauma, all without imposing contemporary ways of thinking on his heroes, villains, and engaging inbetweeners. Jason’s concern for “the commons” of Loran comes from his humanity.

As he builds to a climax that’s both rousing and bittersweet, Schuette offers a bounty of betrayals, imprisonments, and battles, some coming when readers won’t expect. But the story is powered by character, by a diverse array who are bold but still human, exhibiting welcome bursts of feeling—Jason’s love for the priestess Edenia Highdaughter moves both the heart and the plot—and humor. Responding to a compliment, savvy political operator Princess Lorana says “If only my beheaded mother were alive to hear you say it.”

Schuette projects a septet of novels will follow this one, and the host of perspectives, schemes, cultures, and prophecies “of the chaos to come” suggest that he’s not only laying a foundation but that he has a sure sense of what he’s building. (New readers are advised to start with the first entry.) The good news: for all its sprawl and ambition, this entry maintains urgency and narrative clarity, its pacing as sharp as the claws of the griffons that Jason must master.

Takeaway: Knockout epic fantasy sequel that earns its hefty length.

Comparable Titles: Justin Lee Anderson, James Logan.

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

Click here for more about An End to Kings
The Powell Expeditions
Tim Piper
In the first of his Jubilee walker series, Piper leverages real life figure Major John Wesley Powell in a delightful historical fiction debut set in 1860s rural Illinois. Seventeen-year-old Jubilee Walker and his widowed mother are desperate to make ends meet on their farm, but Jubil possesses a dreamer’s soul, wishing he could ride West into a life of freedom and adventure. When his mother dies, Jubil crosses paths with Powell, now retired from the military and leading expeditions out West, a chance meeting that lights a fire for young Jubil—and induces him to apply for Powell’s next quest.

Though Powell denies Jubil’s application, Jubil’s fire never wanes. He vows to travel West on his own, despite a lack of experience and warnings of danger from nearly every quarter, a decision that kickstarts the adventure of a lifetime. Piper adds romance to the mix, through the steadying influence of Jubil’s childhood friend, Nelly, who represents the familiarity of home throughout Jubil’s wild escapades. Those escapades run the gamut, too, as he encounters a slew of famous figures—including General Sherman, Sherman’s Pawnee scout White Man’s Dog, and George Armstrong Custer, among others. As Jubil faces death in the most beautiful country he’s ever imagined, he still longs for Nelly back home—a stark dichotomy that soon forces him to decide where his loyalties truly lie.

Piper delivers the historical context that readers will expect for the genre, bolstered by very appealing main characters in Jubil—a naïve, yet endlessly brave young man—and Nelly, an independent woman unwilling to compromise her own dreams. Of course, Jubil’s heroes inevitably turn out to be more flawed than he imagined, lending the novel welcome authenticity and attesting to the pursuits of well-known men, venturing into “the great unknown,” too often willing to step on the backs of others in their own endeavors for fame.

Takeaway: A young dreamer seeks adventure alongside famous Western explorers.

Comparable Titles: Sandra Dallas’s Where Coyotes Howl, Carys Davies’s West.

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

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The Second Convention: America, 2036
Douglas E Congdon
In this harrowing yet hope-tinged story of a near-future America, Tom Powell is being charged with the crime of inciting a riot due to a speech given on the 4th of July, 2036, wherein he quotes Thomas Jefferson's insistence that "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” While Tom's speech was meant to inspire and motivate citizens to push for change in a time of climate disaster and, in his native south, gerrymandered one-party rule, the speech in truth rouses the wrong passions, with aimless, ineffective violence breaking out in the crowd. As a lawyer and the local chairman of the Revolutionary Party who yearns to “fix the flaws in our Constitution, to make it truly represent ‘We the People,” Tom becomes a target of the government and extremists who are out for blood, all as the nation, on the cusp of possible civil war, faces a major inflection point: an upcoming constitutional convention, the first since 1787.

A new recruit in the party calls the constitution “a stagecoach in the era of rockets” and argues, with persuasive power, that “it allows the minority to stifle the will of the majority.” Fearing the “AR-25 substituting for the guillotine,” Congdon’s brisk novel, an engaging blend of social horror and science fiction, "calls for peaceful change, as, with help from a few trusted allies, Tom takes his mission to the second Constitutional Convention, where he attempts to win over politicians and lawmakers to restore a united Constitutional vision.

Tom is a relatable, dry-witted protagonist that readers will see as the everyman hero rather than a firebrand. But he must tread lightly, as “everyone’s armed to the teeth,” and factions and domestic terrorists are against them. In an America facing food shortages, and questions of robot liberty, The Second Convention extrapolates from contemporary trends with insight, surprise, and a refusal to accept polarization and gridlock as the nation’s destiny.

Takeaway: Near-future story of pushing for peace and a representative constitution.

Comparable Titles: Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James SStavridis’s 2034, Omar El Akkad’s American War.

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

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No Stranger Christmas
Roger Leslie
Fourteen-year-old Frankie Lincoln longs for understanding—why his mother is no longer affectionate with him, why his family seems to be falling apart at the seams, and, most of all, why he feels so different from everyone around him. “An outsider in his own family,” Frankie is harboring a deep secret, one that he’s pretty sure his loved ones have already guessed about him, but it’s so monumental, he’s terrified to reveal it—Frankie is gay, and desperate to be accepted, and loved, for who he is. When the Lincoln family falls on hard financial times, Frankie takes matters into his own hands, vowing to save Christmas for his family—and finally earn their love.

Leslie crafts this delicate coming-of-age fiction debut with gentle care, portraying Frankie as a talented dreamer yearning for someone to appreciate—and nurture—his inner light. That person comes in the form of an unusual teacher in his Catholic school, Ms. Mary, who’s offbeat, welcoming manner makes her stand out—and gives Frankie the chance to blossom under her warm guidance. Mary encourages Frankie’s dreams of being a filmmaker, gifting him the opportunity to share his script at the Christmas Nativity play, and opens Frankie up to profound reflection on who he is, as Mary reflects that “God is love, so God can’t and won’t do anything else. It’s you that needs to love you.”

Mary’s compassion and tenderness are the perfect catalyst for Frankie’s transformation and help him find the inner strength to come out to his family—and to himself. Frankie’s journey comes with its own hurdles, of course, but Leslie keeps the focus on the feel-good results that Frankie’s bravery and authenticity produce. Coming into his own allows a deeper connection with his family, promising new relationships, and, above all, Frankie’s revelation that “you’ve got to have the courage to follow [your] dream[s].”

Takeaway: Tender coming-of-age Christmas story, with plenty of heart.

Comparable Titles: Drew Ferguson’s The Screwed Up Life of Charlie the Second, Steven Salvatore’s And They Lived….

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

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Sky Ranch: Reared in the High Country
Linda M. Lockwood
This accomplished debut recounts Lockwood’s childhood growing up on a ranch in the high country of Washington in the 1950s and ‘60s, with a mother who struggles with schizophrenia and an often-absent father. Lockwood traces her growing independence on the farm, together with the family stress from her mother’s chronic mental illness, as “a wild and thrilling and sometimes terrifying series of adventures,” where she learns essential ranch skills like riding horses and caring for the family’s animals, all while tolerating a bullying older brother and “navigating the mysteries of Mother Nature and human nature with very little guidance and almost no supervision.”

Lockwood’s recollections of her childhood memories as an adult are powerful, wrought in her careful tracing of her mother’s medical history—including researching common schizophrenia treatments of the era—and attempt at reconciling with her brother, all in hopes of framing her younger years against a desperate “search for truth.” Her mother’s poetry—written before the disease, and its treatments, become too overwhelming—helps with that search, and Lockwood quotes her musings often: “After our long cold winter days, // How we welcome each spring! // All life throbs and wakens now” her mother pens of their early time on the ranch.

The beauty and excitement of living on Sky Ranch is eloquently rendered in Lockwood’s narrative, with the thread of natural beauty—and the close animal relationships that went along with that—layered against the acknowledgment of her mother’s illness—and the challenges it raised for herself and her family. Lockwood’s grief when she watches her mother sink into depression and lose her joy is palpable, a heartbreaking reminder of the toll that mental illness can take on its victims and their loved ones. As much a love letter to her family ranch as a tribute to her mother’s arduous and painful journey, this stunning memoir will transfix.

Takeaway: Moving homage to ranch life and the impact of mental illness on family.

Comparable Titles: Patrick Dylan’s Safe, Wanted, and Loved, Karen Comba’s The Snipers We Couldn't See.

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

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Running Naked: Surviving the Legacy of Family in Rural Nebraska
Lisa K Pelto
At the core of Nebraska native Coash’s thoughtful memoir is a revealing generational conflict: how can Coash reconcile fleeing his hometown with the need to impress his father, who embodies the generational steadfastness of their rural community? The answer turns out to be work, the kind of focused dedication to a task that combines resilience and tenacity with ferocious loyalty. His father kept the family fertilizer business afloat during the 1980s farm crisis with this mindset, but since Coash is a doer, not a planner, this leads him to jobs that could be classified as dead-end, a concept he roundly rejects.

Building his memoir from ”glad I dids,” Coash provides inspiration at the expense of introspection, exploring, with insight and wit, how places like Nebraska prepare residents to succeed in the wider world. He expresses gratitude that loved ones don’t question his life decisions, preferring to avoid emotional discussions even if it means dealing with consequences on his own. Coash also doesn’t identify as a workaholic, but he uses work to both mask insecurity and smother pain, especially concerning his mother, another native of small town Bassett who fled for a bigger life. She functions as a cautionary tale: someone who remade her identity to fit a desired future. Her equally restless son would keep his options open.

Nominally a coming-of-age memoir, Running Naked is even more than that the story of making of an accidental politician, someone determined to make a difference. Coash was elected to the Nebraska State Senate in 2008, and rallied his fellow Republicans to abolish the death penalty (his vivid account of the “ugly” atmosphere outside the penitentiary during an execution begins to explain why). In an election year when politicians are seen as cynical attention mongers, Coash’s frank account of the struggle to find his career path—and become a trustworthy man—will resonate with readers eager for a positive narrative about the call to public service.

Takeaway: Optimistic memoir of falling into politics after coming of age in rural Nebraska

Comparable Titles: Tom Brokaw’s Never Give Up, Cheri Register’s Packinghouse Daughter.

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

Click here for more about Running Naked
Unsettled States
Tom Casey
Casey's murder mystery veers from the traditional whodunnit, constructed instead from an ever-expanding cast of individual stories, all centered around Detective Gerard Mallory’s quest to uncover the identity of local woman Ann Wheeler’s killer. Mallory has a host of suspects to choose from, foremost being voyeur Bradley Davis, who spends his free time spying on the nearby homes of his neighbors in their small Connecticut lake town. When Mallory arrests Bradley, his gut tells him therapy is the answer, not prison, kickstarting some sessions with unconventional psychoanalyst Caroline Singer, who suggests to Mallory that Bradley’s “peeping could be the tip of the iceberg. There could be a lot behind it.”

The tangled lives in this small coastal town become every bit as important as solving the murder, and Casey teases out their interrelated happenings parallel to the hunt for the killer. That clever strategy helps build suspense along with plenty of character-driven dramatics, as when neighboring couples engage in an affair but meet their demise in a tragic accident the very day they decide to leave their spouses—driving their abandoned partners together in an ironic twist of fate. In a nod to the philosophical, characters hold lengthy discussions on life’s nuances, prompting an unexpected villain to muse “there are no men of faith on deathbeds, only men who die in hope of perhaps” when facing the consequences of his sins.

Each of Casey’s characters are granted satisfying resolutions, many with surprising relevance to the main plot. Even the final confrontation between Mallory and the killer is more rhetorical in its explosiveness than the typical fight scenes that tend to close out mysteries, and Casey caps the novel with a neat bow on the theme of guilt and self-punishment. The languid pacing, bright details, and delightful indulgence in theology only add to this distinctively off-beat, quality mystery.

Takeaway: Off-beat murder mystery with rich, complex character interplay.

Comparable Titles: Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street.

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

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Submerged Within Shadows Book 1
Shad'e Zuiweta
This powerful coming-of-age thriller from Zuiweta (author of Adulterous SIns) centers on the dual personalities of teenage Mallory, who finds herself plagued with nightmares about the lifeless body of Elijah Campbell, the arrogant son of a prominent detective, in the deep waters of Florida’s Lake Harris. Mallory harbors no doubt that the one responsible for the death is Cadence, the protective alter ego who emerges like a fierce guardian whenever Mallory is in danger. Unable to sustain the cost of living in Florida, her family relocates to a small town in rural Mississippi, where Mallory hopes to make a fresh start. But the world is rife with bullies like Elijah preying on the meek, so Cadence’s voice grows stronger, and sinister events begin to hunt the once-peaceful Englander Falls.

Mallory’s eccentricity makes her a target for ridicule, and her attempts to confide in her parents fall flat as they dismiss the voices in her head as her imagination. Through this unnerving narrative, Zuiweta effectively wills Mallory's torment to her advantage, revealing a neglected and abused child whose cries for help often go unheard. Each betrayal deepens her wounds, turning her into a ticking time bomb—“Cadence won’t like that,” Mallory replies when a pastor’s daughter asks pressing questions—that is primed to explode. The betrayal of those she considered friends sabotages her capacity to trust, twisting her into a cynic. She is forced to be her own hero, even if it means becoming a monster.

With an emphatic eye revealing Mallory's chaotic internal world, Zuiweta excels in showcasing nuances of how people can fail an innocent, suggesting that this is how a serial killer is made, not born. The result is a hair-raising tug-of-war between good and evil, conscience and retribution that challenges readers to feel for and understand the young killer without necessarily justifying her actions. A satisfying yet unexpected ending will leave lovers of dark suspense yearning for the second installment.

Takeaway: Gripping coming-of-age thriller of trauma, neglect, and a murderous alter ego.

Comparable Titles: Zoje Stage's Baby Teeth, Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer.

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

Click here for more about Submerged Within Shadows Book 1
Janie Ligon's Revenge
Danny Levin
This brisk novel of divorce and vengeance finds Janie Ligon, an American executive working in the UK, facing the end of her marriage and finding herself consumed, at the start of a tricky divorce, by anger and a desire for retribution against Samuel, her husband of 24 years, and his aspiring trophy wife, Alison. After spotting a hickey on Samuel and urging him into couples therapy, Janie knows the marriage is ending, and soon is taking steps toward “maximizing her share of their joint assets” and securing parental rights over their daughter, Hannah. Samuel, meanwhile, has been facing a midlife crisis, pouring his energy into squash and, eventually, with much self-forgiving naivete, Alison, to whom he pens gooey love letters praising her star sign profile and insisting she makes him feel like he’s 15.

Levin sets this story of a woman scorned in the mind 1990s, the dawn of the digital era, when “E-mail was a novelty few used, at least in England.” Janie must adapt to the new technology in her quest for revenge. Samuel’s correspondence with Alison is old-school, letters in which the pair address each other with real yearning, with Samuel’s sincerity somewhat undercut by what readers may interpret as Levin’s satiric bent—despite his elaborate wooing of the respondent to his own personal ad, Samuel is surprised that love letters and dates lead to love making.

Chapters from Janie’s perspective pulse with justified bitterness, creating a tense, engaging contrast that powers the plot. She is no fool and refuses to let any make her a caricature of the abandoned aging ex. Deep concerns of reputation, deftly captured by Levin, motivate both leads throughout, which makes the muted reaction to the breakup from daughter Hannah a telling, relatable detail. Despite the title and the power of Janie’s anger, the letters and the love story overshadow the story’s most compelling element: Janie’s rage at betrayal.

Takeaway: Human story of love, betrayal and retribution, at the dawn of the digital era.

Comparable Titles:

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

Click here for more about Janie Ligon's Revenge
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