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The Underers

Justin Christopher. Browns Ink, $12.40 paper (222p) ISBN 978-0-473-54865-0

After moving seven times in seven years due to her cop father losing his job, Journee Blake expects Millwater to be no different from every other place: she’ll be sharing a room in a strange new house with her obnoxious younger brother, school bullies will make fun of her weight, and they’ll soon leave yet another town. But a secret door at 88 Cabbage Tree Avenue leads down 101 steps to Shadow Edge, a sewer-laden land home to Chime, Panic, and Memory, three white, bloblike sentient creatures with antennae called Underers. As Journee navigates both frustrating classmates and gaining a new friend at school, she learns that the Underers are linked to the home’s ancient alarm—and that Shadow Edge houses dangerous secrets that threaten their realm and the human one above. Christopher’s supporting cast is one-note and the parental figures are comically absurd, but Journee’s burgeoning relationship with her new underground family makes for an endearing tale. Younger readers will delight in the creatures of Shadow Edge, along with the abundant crude humor, as Christopher’s whimsical narrative grounds itself in themes including grief, loss, and the occasionally scary nature of change. Ages 9–12. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 06/11/2021 | Details & Permalink

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You’re Making Other People Rich: Save, Invest, and Spend with Intention

Ryan Sterling. Lioncrest, $14.99 trade paper (228p) ISBN 978-1-5445-0750-7

Financial adviser Sterling, creator of the Future You Wealth blog, debuts with some savvy advice on managing one’s finances in order to maximize quality of life. When Sterling was going through a divorce and facing bankruptcy (despite a well-paid executive position and all the usual trappings of success), he realized he had fallen prey to the common mistake of spending money just because he had money. Feeling more burdened by the stress of maintaining wealth than enjoying it, Sterling decided to think past the formulas he used at work. After explaining the perspective shifts necessary to break one’s attachment to “the pleasure of money”—particularly defining wealth on one’s own terms and “gamifying” one’s spending habits to help with saving—Sterling outlines strategies for building wealth: consistently saving; investing in the stock market, real estate, and bonds; and managing risk. While the advice is familiar, Sterling’s explanations of various financial outlooks, accountability exercises (such as making lists of wants versus needs), and can-do attitude will provide readers with the confidence to change their thinking about money. Those interested in strategies for building wealth should take a look. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 06/11/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Boy King

Janet Wertman. Janet Wertman, $6.99 e-book (310p) ISBN 978-0-9971338-8-2

Tragedy and political machinations in England’s volatile Tudor court mark Wertman’s (Jane the Quene) elegant final installment of her Seymour Saga trilogy. In 1547 at age nine, Edward VI, the son of Jane Seymour and Henry VIII, is crowned king after the death of his infamous father. Under the strict eye of his uncle Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset, little Edward is a prisoner of interminable court rituals and a puppet of religious and political opportunists. Edward is determined to keep England Protestant, as his father wished, but his 18-year-old half-sister, Mary, threatens a return to Catholicism. Somerset is on precarious ground, surrounded by scheming nobles competing for power and prestige—including his disaffected younger brother, Tom—who believe the weak and sickly Edward can be overthrown easily. Kept mostly in the dark about the intrigue around him, Edward takes solace in his 13-year-old half-sister, Elizabeth, who has been branded a bastard unable to ascend to the throne. Wertman channels her expert knowledge of history into sumptuous details of strategic marriages, Edward’s coronation, and the everyday paranoia rampant during the boy king’s short life. Fans of historical fiction will enjoy this exquisite blend of fact and fiction. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 06/11/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Text Me on Tuesday

Whitney Dineen and Melanie Summers. 33 Partners, $14.95 trade paper (300p) ASIN B08WKKM3NN

The heat mostly stays in the kitchen in the fun but uneven first Accidentally in Love rom-com from Dineen (the Creek Water series) and Summers (the Crown Jewels series). Struggling chef Aimée Tompkins arrives at a much-needed corporate catering gig only to discover that one of the bigwig clients is allergic to her perfume. Luckily, there’s a shower on premises. Unluckily, the whole mishap culminates in her crashing into wealthy architect Noel Fitzwilliam in her birthday suit, leaving them both mortified, awkwardly turned on, and deeply irritated with each other. It’s a promising start with a lot of laughs, but the couple’s initial chemistry isn’t allowed the room it needs to grow. When Noel’s scene-stealing assistant, Byron, mistakenly gives Aimée Noel’s cell phone number, she thinks she’s texting Byron her frustrations about Noel’s rigid personality. Noel plays along, getting a kick out of hearing her unfiltered feelings—but the joke’s on him when they fall for each other and he needs to come clean about his deception. The resulting conflict drags on, leaving little space for the actual relationship; it’s all foreplay and fighting, with little heart. The witty dialogue will be enough to win over some readers, but many will hope for more depth in future installments. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 06/11/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Safekeeper

Esther Archer Lakhani. Bowker, $9.99 (188p) ISBN 978-1-73587-821-8

A sentient house named Gigi, an interesting play on alien invasion, and a resourceful heroine who learns she has a special connection to all of it distinguish this creative debut from Lakhani. Sophomore Macy Steward, 15, who has reddish-brown hair and dark blue eyes, lives with her parents at the Greenmont Grith Retreat Center in Las Aves, Calif., where they host vacationing aliens who temporarily take over the bodies of compounders—humans with a bit of alien genetic makeup. When a strange, black-haired, hazel-eyed new senior, Nick Pendigon, arrives at Las Aves High with too many questions, Macy must determine what he knows and whether he is a threat to the five offworlders at the Center. While the visitors adjust to their borrowed bodies, Macy must come to terms with Gigi’s sudden revelation of communicative abilities—and simultaneously, Macy’s identity as the Center’s Safekeeper. An alien assassination team, a missing “unofficial ‘guard crow’ ” named Clio, and Nick’s mysterious background compound Macy’s problems. The book’s short length inhibits character development, but Lakhani’s worldbuilding and vivid cast bolster a fun series starter for those seeking a fresh speculative twist. Ages 12–up. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 04/09/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Damaged Goods: Erica Jensen Mystery #1

Debbi Mack. Renegade, $11.99 trade paper (206p) ISBN 978-1-7341094-1-2

Erica Jensen, the heroine of this sterling series launch from Mack (the Sam McRae series), survived her deployment to Afghanistan in 2011 as a member of a team of female Marines “who performed valuable back-up to the ground troops and intel-gathering duties.” But the concussion she received from an explosion left her addicted to painkillers, a condition that barred her from later getting a PI license in Maryland. Instead, Jensen takes on research assignments from clients with their own reasons for not going to someone with official credentials. Her latest such job comes from Stuart Blaine, an affluent real-estate developer with a drug-dealing conviction, whose college student daughter, Melissa, has been out of touch for four days. Blaine fears something bad has happened, and Jensen agrees to spend a little time tracking down Melissa. Her discovery of a murder victim connected with her employer raises the stakes. Mack never makes her lead’s work feel anything but realistic and captures the psyche of an addict’s struggles. Fans of flawed but empowered female detectives will be pleased with this exceptional mix of character study and detective work. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 04/09/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Evangeline Goes West

Julia DeBarrioz. Julia DeBarrioz, $12.99 trade paper (196p) ASIN B08MVTHYBH

DeBarrioz (the Dakota del Torro series) delivers a moving tale of personal empowerment. When Evangeline Everett’s husband, Jared Wassler, becomes physically abusive, Evangeline takes her savings and runs, heading to her childhood best friend’s ranch in Wyoming. But she’s not expecting hot young ranch hand Chase McCoy. Their attraction is immediate, but Chase is 20 to Evangeline’s 29, and the traumatized Evangeline uses their age difference as an excuse to avoid exploring their connection. As Evangeline rediscovers her love for horses and art, however, she and Chase grow closer. Evangeline’s marriage has taught her never to compromise who she is again, and she’s frank with the more conservative Chase about her views on abortion, gun control, and religion. Chase, in turn, opens up about his difficult childhood. There’s only so long flimsy excuses can keep these two apart—and DeBarrioz pushes it past the point of believability. Still, Evangeline’s humorous, folksy narration makes the meandering will-they-won’t-they work. It’s inevitable that Jared catches up with Evangeline just as her relationship with Chase takes off, but after the leisurely opening, the blazing finale—which features abductions, gunfights, and bear attacks—feels out of left field. Still, the scenic descriptions, steamy sex scenes, and gutsy heroine make this a solid pick for cowboy romance fans. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 04/09/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Love Is Free. Guac Is Extra: How Vulnerability, Empowerment, and Curiosity Built an Unstoppable Team

Monty Moran. Lioncrest Publishing, $10 e-book (318p) ASIN B08DT4HBRV

Moran, former co-CEO of Chipotle, debuts with an inviting inventory of the tactics he used to transform Chipotle into a national brand. After being recruited from his position at a law firm to help lead the growing eatery chain in 2005, Moran focused on empowering the company's employees by restructuring the hiring process and visiting locations to interact one-on-one with as many team members as possible. Curiosity, respect, vulnerability, and honesty, he writes, are the cornerstones of his leadership style, and while Moran believes "one's capacity to be fully human is perhaps the greatest prerequisite to being an effective leader," he doesn't shy away from delivering tough messages: "Don't fall for the morale trap... the only way to create a culture not in need of morale-boosting actions is to build a culture of empowerment." While some will find Moran's perspective a bit rosy, his down-to-earth style will appeal to managers looking for ways to engage their workforce. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 04/09/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Bell Hammers

Lancelot Schaubert. Lancelot Schaubert, $27 (334p) ISBN 978-1-949547-02-3

Schaubert recounts a mischievous man's eight decades in Illinois's Little Egypt region in his rambling picaresque debut. In 1941, six-year-old Wilson "Remmy" Remus cuts the tension in his classroom following news of the attack on Pearl Harbor by peeing in a bucket, launching a life of constant schemes and pranks and a lifelong feud with classmate Jim Johnstone, whose notebook was splashed in the act. Told in snapshots, the narrative recounts stories of Remmy unleashing pigs in the high school, dumping cow manure for neighborhood kids to play in, and deploying devious punishments for his children, such as sending his 15-year-old daughter on a circuitous Greyhound ride after she complains during a family vacation. He starts a home-building company with an eye on building a Camelot for a band of friends, but his plans run afoul of the local oil drilling company Jim works for. After a storm fells a derrick on his land and pollutes the well water, his petty squabbles with Jim ramp up. The aftermath of a particularly foolhardy prank in 1977 involving some makeshift medieval weaponry proves consequential. While the hodgepodge of anecdotes doesn't offer much in the way of plot, the tone of this particular old man's reminiscences about his greatest hits has some appeal. At its best, this is a hoot. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 04/09/2021 | Details & Permalink

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