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Low-Code/No-Code: Citizen Developers and the Surprising Future of Business Applications
Phil Simon
With an eye toward efficiency and worker satisfaction, Simon, author of Reimagining Collaboration among many other titles, makes the case for businesses and organizations to empower tech-savvy employees (here called “citizen developers”) to develop low- and no-code business applications tailored to their and their team’s specific needs. Arguing that “IT departments face an untenable status quo,” Simon urges decision-makers to “democratize” the development of business applications. That doesn’t mean abandoning IT and development teams, though. Instead, it means embracing the opportunity presented by “user-friendly, affordable, and powerful tools” like Airtable, Slack’s Workflow Builder, and many others, to allow employees to let people create custom apps for custom challenges.

“All companies are tech companies,” Simon reminds readers. In that spirit, , in no-nonsense language, walks readers through the circumstances that have resulted in technologically astute employees having access to development tools—CMS systems, “spreadsheets on steroids”—that allow even non-coders to build powerful, low-cost applications. This rundown is brisk and engaging (one chapter is titled “A Comically Brief Overview of Conventional Business Technology”), as are Simon’s considerations of how to integrate citizen developers into established organizations, and his presentation of various Low Code/No Code philosophies and approaches, including the sound advice of generating “templates, examples, design guidelines, and a style guide.”

Simon deftly addresses potential reader skepticism, while real world case studies (including examples from his own work and teaching, plus Toyota, family businesses, a trucking company, and more) persuasively back up his contention that “citizen developers” are “subject matter experts” who understand better than IT departments the nuts-and-bolts basics of what individual applications must do to improve workflow. He argues, “Allowing proper software engineers to focus on more complex development projects represents an objectively better use of their valuable time.” Employees and management eager to unleash worker creativity will find much inspiration here.

Takeaway:The practical, persuasive case for empowering employees to develop custom apps in the workplace.

Great for fans of: Katherine Kostereva and Burley Kawasaki’s No-Code Playbook, Project Management Institute’s Citizen Development: The Handbook for Creators and Change Makers.

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

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Final Belongings
Sarah Beauchemin
Beauchemin’s singular, emotionally charged literary thriller centers on a contemporary woman named Juliet, mired in misery after her divorce from a philandering husband, and her Uncle Henry a generation earlier. Juliet is further burdened by the unexpected loss of her mother. As she goes through her mother’s house she discovers the remaining possessions of her Uncle Henry, a man she never knew who died decades earlier in Italy. What he left behind convinces Juliet that his death may not have been an accident, leading her abroad to unravel the mystery of Henry’s last days in Europe. The clues are frustratingly hard to unravel, and eyewitnesses are unreliable or unhelpful, forcing her to rely on new friend Alessio and any leads she can get to expose the truth. When her room is ransacked at the local B&B where she is staying, she realizes that she’s onto something. But there’s someone close by that wants the past to stay in the past.

Beauchemin’s genre-bending blend of historical fiction, mystery, traumatic character study, and dramatic search for identity will keep readers engaged both with the story’s unexpected twists and also the hearts of the protagonists, which Beauchemin lays bare in crisp, sometimes lyric prose Henry never fit in with his family, and a devastating event that splinters him from them—and from his love of photography—leads him on a surprising journey that includes a high-profile friendship, an eye-opening stint as an activist in LA, and work as a journalist in the Vietnam War. For as many travesties as Henry encounters in his brief life, the one that kills him may be the one thing he never expected.

IFinal Belongings aims for the stars, offering a compelling 20th century mystery, complete with an unexpected historical figure, but also dramatizing two rich, engaging lives. The richness of the material does not diminish narrative momentum, as Final Belongings is well paced and well plotted.

Takeaway: This dual timeline mystery has a woman piecing together her uncle’s illustrious but brief life and death.

Great for fans of: Simone St. James’s The Sun Down Motel, Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden.

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

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Sometimes You Just Know
Bill VanPatten
VanPatten (Looks Are Deceiving creates an engaging and likable protagonist in this romance of self-discovery. At 30, Arnie Violet is an insecure loner, timid at work and “steamrolled” in his romantic relationships, until an invitation to dinner with his boss and mentor leads to an introduction to Peter Jordan, a mature eighteen-year-old with whom Arnie shares an instant mutual attraction—the title says it all. On the fence about starting a relationship with a man 12 years his junior, Arnie finds himself getting advice and forging new friendships that ultimately help him find the encouragement to truly believe in himself. Readers will enjoy following Arnie on a journey to finding confidence, love, and a family of his own creation in this engaging, upbeat novel.

The story is fast-paced and heartwarming as Arnie battles his self-doubts and confidence, while falling in love with Peter, his boss’s nephew. Struggling with the new dynamic of being embraced by his boss’s family, concerns over Peter’s age, and ongoing trouble with a workplace rival, Arnie at last is on path to taking control of his life and possibly finding happiness—or letting it all slip through his fingers. VanPatten keeps alive the possibility that something could go wrong, adding welcome tension. Accounts of Arnie's childhood and everyday routines—gym, Starbucks, local bars, driving with pop radio playing, all now haunted by the “ghost” of Peter’s kiss—both deftly establish character while giving readers reason to root for Arnie’s growth.

While this romance is a page-turner, it is a slow burn full of tension-building character encounters and plot twists, all set in convincingly real world and lives and building to a satisfying (yet somewhat unexpected) conclusion. Fans of character-driven contemporary fiction with strong romance angles will find much here to enjoy. This is a story that will tug at heart strings and inspire readers to just "lean into" the happiness and loved ones that life can bring.

Takeaway: A charming character-driven romance about finding confidence and love.

Great for fans of: Jude Sierra’s A Tiny Piece of Something Greater, Morgan Rogers’s Honey girl.

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

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The Tea Drinker's Guide to Adventure: 3 Women, 2 Dogs, 1 RV: On the Road Trip gf a Lifetime
Andrée Jannette
Jannette’s debut follows three older women on a journey to spread their friend’s ashes at Georgia O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch that comes with unexpected bumps along the way. Cathy, Betsy and Linda have an unexpected encounter with a dog while traveling in an RV across New Mexico that leads them to seek out a veterinarian. Peter, the local police chief, directs them to a local RV camp where one lives. The ladies find themselves charmed by the area and community of people in the camp, but finding the dog is only their first adventure. During their stay they are faced with a multitude of challenges to overcome, both from the environment and people around them.

Jannette does a good job of bringing together three different women through a shared connection, and showing how a lifetime of experience can bring both a willingness and reluctance for change. Just as in real life, the change Cathy, Betsy, and Linda encounter may not necessarily be the change they were prepared for. But Jannette’s storytelling makes the heartening case that it’s while facing hurdles that the women open their hearts, learn to share their fears, and form new friendships within the community. Some of those changes will require a leap of faith and changing their lives for good.

The challenge of making a change is thoughtfully dramatized, even as the story gets wilder. The RV camp sounds like a dream, though the succession of adventures they experience over the course of a week, any of which could have served as the climax, can feel over-the-top. Still, the novel is consistently entertaining, boasting memorable dialogue and characters, plus loads of heart, wonderfully described dogs, and a reminder that life is to be lived. “Just because I have Parkinson’s and am in my sixties doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a good-looking man,” Betsy declares early on, setting a tone that Jannette keeps going until the satisfying final pages.

Takeaway: Three women’s journey to Arizona brings fun, life-changing adventures and opportunities.

Great for fans of: Maddie Please’s Old Friends Reunited, Vicky Zimmerman’s Miss Cecily's Recipes for Exceptional Ladies. .

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

Click here for more about The Tea Drinker's Guide to Adventure
The Support Staff at Your School
Andrew Kirkpatrick
Schools are made up of more than just students, teachers, and a principal. There are bus drivers, cafeteria staff, custodians, office staff, and more, and Kirkpatrick highlights some of these lesser-often-celebrated but no-less-appreciated school staff in The Support Staff at Your School, a quick introduction for younger readers still getting used to school and its people. Paired with Marsee’s colorful digital illustrations of smiling faces, this book offers a chance to recognize and better know all the different roles and jobs that go into keeping a school functioning, even if they’re not seen on the day to day, like a bus mechanic.

Simple descriptions of what each job entails give context to the position, but may not be particularly useful if readers don’t already know the meaning of certain words, like “Coordinator” and “Administrative.” Context clues assist in understanding, and Kirkpatrick clearly lays out the distinction between “teacher aides” and “teaching assistants,” but at times some further explanation would have been welcome. The book is also relatively short, meaning only a few jobs are highlighted, which could perhaps be a function of it being crafted to serve as an introduction, but there are even more jobs that could have been named, inviting a chance for discussion.

These staff members deserve to be spotlighted, and giving kids names for the people they see in the school every day helps to build a feeling of community—and is a good step toward teaching respect. In fact, the book in many ways is a conversation starter, inviting readers and grownups to discuss the variety of functions a school serves, the variety of needs students and teachers have, and how it takes many people’s work to make it all happen. Best suited for young readers still getting used to the school environment or for parents and guardians looking to broaden their student’s understanding of the school environment, The Support Staff at Your School is a worthwhile starting point.

Takeaway: This picture book spotlights jobs within a school to show how much work goes into education.

Great for fans of: Lindsay Ward’s Helping Hospital, Kathryn Heling and Deborah Hembrook’s Clothesline Clues to Jobs People Do.

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

Click here for more about The Support Staff at Your School
Going, Going, Gone!: A Baseball Novel
Steve Hermanos
In this charming swing for the fences, Hermanos explores the ultimate fantasy-league puzzler: how would today’s highly professionalized baseball stars fare against the game’s scrappy earlier players? And what could they learn from each other? Going, Going, Gone opens with rousing recounts of a pair of (fictional) Giants/Yankees World Series games, with Hermanos nailing, in crackling prose, the action on the field and in the locker rooms as Giants players Johnny Blent, a rookie, clashes with star first baseman André Velez, a prima donna who, rather than fly with the team, favors a private jet, complete with masseuse. A post-game San Francisco earthquake upends everything, though, somehow flinging Blent, Velez, and manager Bucky Martin back to the era of another epochal S.F. catastrophe: 1906.

After failing to dig up the “wormhole” the trio believes they fell through, Martin gets the players to get back to what they do best: playing ball, in the “dead-ball” era, first for the St. Louis Cardinals and then for other, increasingly unexpected teams, as the novel playfully establishes witty alt-history surprises. Hermanos contrasts present and past in lively, exciting scenes, The novel’s heart—it’s got heaps—is in how the game changes these men, and how they change the game, as they subsist on meager wages, and face spitballs, scratchy underpants, and Ty Cobb himself. The history is rich and the pacing quick, with scenes driven by sharp dialogue that blends contemporary profanity with old-time decorum—and occasional reminders of the past's racial viciousness.

Hermanos wisely doesn’t shy away from issues of race—the mixed-race Velez pretends to be Native American to play—but the novel, as it charts the men’s new careers and relationships, tends toward the upbeat, the love of the game, and the learning of lessons about past and present, our ancestors and ourselves. The baseball action is clear enough for casual fans but persuasively sufficiently detailed to appeal to the Bill James set.

Takeaway: Today’s MLB players strive to make it in 1906 in this rousing sports time-travel epic.

Great for fans of: Michael Sharra’s For Love of the Game, Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel. .

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

Click here for more about Going, Going, Gone!
Never To Forget: The Promise Of Love
Carlos Alvarado
Retired ER physician Alvarado (author of Tujunga) draws on his experiences as a doctor and his up-bringing in a Costa Rican Catholic family in this potent novel based upon the true events of a woman’s life in Costa Rica. Growing up in 1930s Costa Rica, Bertelina Solis dreams of being able to enjoy the same pursuits as men and wants to be a soldier, eventually ending up participating in the revolution. She is drawn to Julio Alderete, a Panamanian diplomat she is planning to marry, until she is raped by Oscar, a friend of Julio’s brother Nestor, and is forced to marry Oscar instead. Fast forward years later, Bertelina, who is divorced, lives in California and suffers from dementia, leading her to believe that her children want to have her removed from her home. When diagnosed with terminal cancer, her children come together to rally around her and support her in her last days.

Alvarado immerses the reader into revolutionary Costa Rica, as Bertelina becomes involved in the revolution, filled with the promise of equality for women. Alvarado depicts with persuasive power the struggle of the country’s women in the 1930s. He highlights how women had little choice about furthering their educations or even voting while deftly exposing the paradox of Bertelina’s quest for equality resulting in her rape and forced marriage to Oscar, who continued to abuse her throughout their marriage.

As Alvarado fast-forwards to present-day California, he capably exposes the tragic circumstances of Bertelina’s life as she fails to understand the impact of her dementia, while also being faced with the difficult diagnosis of terminal cancer. The culmination of the novel, which is its true apex, occurs when the author brings his story full circle, as the woman who spent a good portion of her life working to make her circumstances better for her and her children, discovers fulfillment in her final moments, while surrounded by her caring children who symbolize one of her greatest achievements.

Takeaway: A striking historical novel of women and the Costa Rican revolution.

Great for fans of: Gabriela Garcia's Of Women and Salt, Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War.

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

Click here for more about Never To Forget
Florida Retirement Is Murder
Courtney
In the wake of the murder of the HOA president, the denizens of Florida's Sun Gate Retirement Community come together to investigate her death and other local mysteries in this gently comic cozy. Stewart Johnson, the newest resident, is secretive about his past, but shows some surprising skills. He gradually makes friends, especially with his neighbor Kathy, who warns him that "[t]hese social butterflies will eat you alive and not all of them can fly!" But then another resident is found dead and the sharp-eyed Stewart begins to notice subtle and not-so-subtle problems. Fortunately, although Stewart and Co. may be getting old, they still have their wits about them.

Courtney has a wonderful eye and ear for the retirement community life, the friendships and petty squabbles such as the sneaky way the residents get around the no-pets rule by classifying them as emotional support animals. There's a running joke about Leda, a resident, who is always making bundt cakes. Stewart keeps missing them, one of many amusing and touching details that help bring this tightly knit world to life. Sometimes, the various side plots seem to take precedence over the main murders threads, but the residents and their lives are so charming that it hardly makes a difference.

Although the book is well-stocked with interesting characters, it is really Stewart's story, and Courtney deftly manages his growth while maintaining an air of mystery. We learn that Stewart "had a lifetime of experience with hardnosed men unwilling to take criticism." In several scenes we see him with his grown daughter, and their exchanges come across as funny and real, as their close relationship adapts to Stewart's aging. Although he's a widower who clearly misses his wife, by the end of the book this self-contained man is open to new relationships and even a possible romance. The wrap-up brings him, and his friends, a comfortable and sweet conclusion—but not without an ending that's both darkly amusing and appropriate.

Takeaway: Retirees show they're not past their prime when they face murder and other shenanigans.

Great for fans of: Patricia Rockwell’s Essie Cobb Senior Sleuth Mysteries, Allen B. Boyer’s Bess Bullock Retirement Home Mystery Series.

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

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Byron
Robert M Tucker
Tucker’s evocative, at times outraged novel of life and intolerance in 1960s Louisiana charts the development of Byron MacKenzie, a headstrong young woman who will grow from “know-nothing swamp rat”—that’s her words—to a Harvard scientist. Her story, she announces, is shaped by catastrophes, mostly man-made. That means that as they engage in exciting adventures in swamps and at school, Byron, who is white, and her diverse crop of friends must face “virulent” racists. Byron herself takes after her open-minded father, who risks hiring Black men to work at his mostly white mill, and she’s disgusted by local intolerance.

That includes challenges to the spirit of free inquiry in education, as Byron’s beloved Yankee science teacher, Mr. Maher, persists in teaching the theory of evolution despite the town’s growing agitation. This thread is the book’s most urgent, as Maher is, according to a friendly Vodoun with whom Byron enjoys a revelatory chance encounter, “a man … at the crossroads, the kalfou.” (That means a dangerous place “where there is conflict and great change is about to happen.”) That change is man-made, of course. Byron and her friends would rather be selling pralines in a vividly described Shantytown, but their turbulent decade won’t let them alone: parents strive to get the Mr. Maher fired, and Klansmen make it know that Byron’s Black friend Aristophanes is risking his life spending time with her.

Tucker handles issues of bigotry and proud ignorance with persuasive, unstinting historical detail and a current of fury, even as his treatment of race and class is thoughtful and empathetic, attentive to every character’s humanity. His young people’s chatter is fresh and engaging, the varied bayou cultures are depicted with nuance, and Byron proves a wise and winning protagonist, daring to face the worst of humanity, and ultimately understanding of the masks her friends must wear.

Takeaway: A young woman comes of age amidst bigotry on the vividly described bayou.

Great for fans of: Jimmie Martinez’s Summer of Haint Blue, Ruta Sepetys’s Out of the Easy.

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

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HA! (Humanity's Absurdities)
Remo Perini
Subtitled “Volume VI” (it isn’t) and claiming its author is the recipient of the “Insignificance Award for Unknown Literature” (the what now?), Perini’s collection of comic essays, parodies, and absurdities is powered by a prankish sense of play, from its thirteen (!) prefatory/introductory throat-clearing passages, to its account of the discovery of Universal Field Theory (by a young girl eating a grilled-cheese sandwich and working out the physics on an Etch-a-Sketch), to its insistence that, down the hall from Perini’s orthodontist is a “polkadontist”’s office where patients’ mouths get filled with colored dots. Unclassifiable except perhaps by terms like “bonkers” and “engagingly upbeat,” Perini’s miscellany ranges widely and wildly, standing as a compendium of often-inspired nonsense.

Faux-authoritative rundowns on subjects like “The Science of Kindness” or near-death experiences suggest the daft compendia of John Hodgman or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as Perini presents, in accomplished literary deadpan, many assorted “facts” (Learn how Hoagie, the chef for the Earl of Sandwich, accidentally invented the corndog), new coinages (“fignorance” is “ignorance about figs”), and a host of advertisements (including solar-powered flashlights and for a university in a parallel universe.) Especially amusing are the abundant footnotes, an inscrutable quiz, a series of “Missed Connections” personals, and Perini’s lists of standard, hidden, and anonymous acts of kindness, which edge between goofy (“Offer to go clothes shopping for your children’s school principal”) and cheerful dada: “Late at night, put cream cheese on the low hanging leaves of a cherry tree.”

The only clear throughlines are Perini’s straight face and restless invention, which means HA! is best taken in brief reading sessions, one short essay or section at a time. This is a book to browse, laugh at, puzzle over, and let surprise you. Readers who relish poker-faced parody from authors whose humor tends toward a frisky oddness—and eschews the divisive and mean-spirited—will discover much here that stirs a smile.

Takeaway: A truly funny compendium of invented facts, ads, advice, and other madness.

Great for fans of: John Hodgman, Merrill Markoe’s Late Night with David Letterman: The Book.

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

Click here for more about HA! (Humanity's Absurdities)
Creating Superfans: How to Turn Your Customers into Lifelong Advocates
Brittany Hodak
"If you do your job correctly, your customers will talk about you" writes entrepreneur Hodak in her accessible debut. Created as a practical yet inspiring template for readers to launch their business to new heights, Hodak fills the pages with eye-catching graphics that back up her tried-and-true methods to increasing customer satisfaction. Contending that “you can’t buy superfans, you can only create them,” she lays out a how-to blueprint for readers to develop their existing customer base —through shrewd tweaks to advertising campaigns, employee interactions, and more—and level them up into superfans—those “loyal, enthusiastic customers who will keep buying from you again and again.”

Hodak’s star player is the customer experience, and she notes that regardless of what a business says about its brand, the customers’ word of mouth is the most efficient way to spread brand awareness, even in the social-media age. Hodak continually emphasizes that a brand is molded “in every interaction with every customer,” debunking, in persuasive examples, the notion that it’s the end products themselves that speak the loudest. She writes with the authority and enthusiasm of a coach. Practical tools include her Ladder to Superfandom, which clearly lays out seven key steps businesses should endeavor to guide their customers through: apathy, awareness, attraction, action, adoption, affinity, and finally advocacy.

Organized for clarity and quick reference, and boasting a host of graphs, diagrams, and catchy acronyms, Creating Superfans is an easy-to-follow guide full packed with general knowhow, real-world examples, and telling personal anecdotes relating to customer experience and brand building. Hodak closes each chapter with a bite-sized, comprehensive overview of that chapter’s information in the "Superquick! Rewind" infographic, offering snapshots for quick reference. Readers will be entertained by this aesthetically pleasing, informative reference guide that they will be able to refer back to for multiple uses and a motivational refresher when branding and growing their businesses.

Takeaway: A savvy guide to turning customers into loyal advocates.

Great for fans of: Raving Fans by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles; Heart and Hustle by Patricia Bright

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

Click here for more about Creating Superfans
Erift's Journeys: Secrets of The Sealed Forest
J.T. Tenera
Best friends Joseph Erift and Eric Castis find themselves at the heart of a quest filled with magic, science-fiction, and revenge-seeking mushrooms in Tenera’s delightful adventure, the kickoff to a series. Joseph just finished eleventh grade and is ready for summer nights of munching pizza and playing video games with Eric, but fate has different plans. Joseph receives a mysterious letter promising an island vacation and a sneak peek at an awesome new video game. He’s even encouraged to bring Eric along for the excitement, but it sounds too good to be true. It is. When they arrive for their holiday of gaming and tropical relaxation, they realize they’ve been duped. The man behind the ruse, Professor Benjamin Thessit, offers the teens something even more tantalizing than on-screen action: a magical reality where they are the heroes.

Tenera balances Eric’s exuberance and youthful energy with Joseph’s cautiousness and maturity making them a formidable dynamic duo to battle the dark forces as, with their world flipped upside down, Joseph and Eric discover the connection between science and magic and learn that there are strange forces at play, threatening Earth. Whether they are exploring secret passageways, outsmarting fantasy creatures, or navigating through a shadowy, enchanting forest, the two friends stick together and prove that friendship can combat any challenge, their relationship grounding the novel.

The fantasy elements and the young men’s bond will spark young readers’ interest, though at times the story tests plausibility, such as when the teens elect to sneak out of their homes and jet across the globe without consulting their parents, or their choice to stay on the island once Professor Thessit admits to luring them under false pretenses. Still, supporting characters briefly jump onto the page, whetting the readers’ appetites to learn more about these intriguing individuals in potential future books. Young readers fascinated with magical worlds will enjoy the adventure

Takeaway: Best friends jet off to an island for magical adventure and an epic fantasy quest.

Great for fans of: Diana Wynne Jones’s Eight Days of Luke, Will Wight.

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

Click here for more about Erift's Journeys
Jesus, The Treasure of Heaven: A Devotional For Any Season: 15 Weeks of Morning and Evening - 210 People, Places, and Things in the Bible that all Link to Jesus
Susan-Louise Henning
In 15 weeks of twice-daily scripture and insights designed to suit any season, Henning’s uplifting devotionals center the foundational belief promised by the title: that Jesus is a treasure and gift who offers “hope for us to receive a resurrected, spiritual body” suitable “for eternal habitation with holy God.” In classic devotional format, each page-long entry offers a Bible verse or two and then fresh, inviting text explicating the verses and connecting them to contemporary life and concerns, sometimes with context from outside sources. A Saturday morning entry headed “Moses,” for example, quotes the Gospel of John to kick off a brief discussion of God’s law and the old and new covenants, building to a clarifying rhyme from John Bunyan.

Despite varied topics and wide-ranging scriptural inspiration, though, Henning’s clear, engaging devotionals always return to that idea of Jesus as treasure, creating a strong sense of cohesion and continuity. Whether discussing the five different types of sacrifices given to God, the comfort and trust Mary Magdalene felt for Jesus, or the resurrection of Lazarus, the short essays are written with warmth and grace, crafted to welcome and nourish readers. Most entries build to a joyous declaration: “When you sin, repent and be restored to God, he is faithful to forgive,” Henning writes, after a of Uriah the Hittite, the first husband of Bathsheba.

That an entry focus on Uriah offers a sense of Henning’s range of inspirations, as she plunges deep within both testaments to reflect upon surprising figures like an Ethiopian eunuch from Acts, or Achsah, the daughter of Caleb, whose inheritance of land (told of in Joshua) launches a discussion of a larger inheritance, that of the kingdom of heaven for God’s believers. Throughout, Henning balances the familiar with the less well known, broadening her readers’ command of biblical figures while always connecting each reading to her heartening throughline.

Takeaway: Clear, encouraging Christian devotionals applicable to any season.

Great for fans of: Sarah Young’s Jesus Listens, J.I. Packer’s Knowing God Through the Year.

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

Forged of Fire: A New Adult Fantasy (The Forged Series Book 1)
Stacy Von Haegert
Von Haegert follows up the White Rose trilogy of historical romances with this passionate urban fantasy, the kickoff to a steamy and bloody urban fantasy series in which a brace of immortals—oracles, angles, vampires, wielders of elemental magics—upend the life of a mortal New Orleans college student who is fated to bear the child with the power to rule every supernatural and mortal realm. But the student, the gorgeous-but-not-quite-aware-of-it redhead Kielyn, knows none of this, not even that it was her own suppressed elemental powers that saves her from a trio of rapists—“barbecued” them, as Von Haegert puts it. Ancient fire dancer and reluctant potential ruler Ashdon LaGoryen, who believes he could never love a mortal but feels enticed by Kielyn anyway, must teach Kielyn who she truly is, as the vampire horde of Dante hunts her.

Von Haegert builds her story around compelling characters with complex, often conflicting motives, with lust and love scorching through their veins. Ashdon stands as a grand creation, a Mazerati-driving immortal who refuses a kingship and whose voice purrs like “the sound like velvet over steel.” Kielyn, meanwhile, spends much of the book’s first third observed at a distance or unconscious. But soon she’s commanding, making bold choices—including participation in a blood ritual that showcases the book’s strengths: it’s dark, sexy, dangerous, epic.

At times the prose can edge toward the florid, especially in scene-setting descriptive passages, but the action zips along, the dialogue is sharp and often funny—warned that a ghost will haunt him if he takes a decisive action, Ashdon snaps “As long as your ghost wears deodorant.” Scenes involving blood, sex, magic, and power all pulse with welcome vigor. The story is sweeping, but Von Haegert keeps the scheming, betrayals, and varied magic sets clear and engaging, right up to climactic revelations that promise even more magical beasts in the follow-up.

Takeaway: This steamy fantasy thrusts a mortal woman into war among vampires, angels, and more.

Great for fans of: Sarah J. Maas, Leigh Bardurgo.

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

Book of Days: Thirteeen days that made a thousand years
Douglas Bullis
Sweeping in scope and lavishly illustrated, this ambitious title from Bullis imagines daily life in continental northern Europe over the course of a millennium, inviting readers to walk in the shoes of—and discover the work and rituals of—members of the Lefief family for one day in each century, from 1003 to 1905. Inspired by the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry, and the Christian prayer book Book of Hours, Bullis examines the lives of “ordinary people doing ordinary things in much the same way as we go through our lives today.” The journey starts, though, in 1889 France, when a young man, Gerard Lefief, on the verge of disowning his family name, ponders the Lefiefs: who were they? What unfolds from there is an immersive historical pageant.

Bullis was inspired to write the book when he stumbled upon a studio portrait of a couple from 1905, at a flea market in France. The portrait convinced the author to source his story with visuals, rather than just text. History is carefully teased out from these well-sourced illustrations, as Bullis establishes, with clarity and engaging detail, the social setting of his characters, covering in the 1399 chapter alone sundry topics like winemaking, rat-killing, bloodletting, the filling of inkwells, and all the ways an abbey and its waterwheel use the local river. Fascinated with manual trades and skilled work, the author describes the details of plowing, tanning, breadmaking, carpentry, and many more, with each entry’s narrative bursting with surprise. (The illustration accompanying a line about a man purging, in 1599, is a jolt.)

The author’s take on the everyday weaves a resonant narrative rich with revelation and even social commentary. The penultimate chapter takes place in 1788, at the cusp of the French Revolution, showcasing the harsh realities of the Ancien Régime. Book of Days is singular in form, and a potent reminder that history belongs to the people.

Takeaway: A lavishly illustrated survey of everyday life in Europe over the last millennium, rich in insights.

Great for fans of: Paul B. Newman’s Daily Life in the Middle Ages, Frances Gies’s Life in a Medieval Village.

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

Click here for more about Book of Days
Chiral Mad 5
Michael Bailey
The striking fifth entry in novelist Michael Bailey’s Chiral Mad speculative fiction anthology series bursts with talented voices and stories and poems that delve into the darkness of humanity—but for a good cause, as, once again, proceeds benefit Down Syndrome charities. Each entry explores the world we live in taken to Black Mirror extremes, such as Koji A. Dae’s standout “Lifetimes,” which plumbs dark aspects of motherhood, and how women can find themselves saddled into it despite their aversions. Dae imagines government-mandated virtual simulations that determine if couples are fit to be parents. “Pruning a person toward goodness takes more time and energy than turning him into a man,” notes Shauna, a woman running her first simulation.

What’s most unnerving—and often, as above, insightful—about these rich entries is how close they are to our own reality, often reading less like tales of fantastical terror or allegorical cautions than straight-up foreshadowing. Wrath James White’s poem “Colorblind” delves into calls for society to be more colorblind in response to overt systemic racism experienced the world over, with the final line being, “I wish / I was never reminded / that you / and I / are different.” Elin Olausson’s stinging “Swan Song” turns on a surprising glimpse of life–and danger–in a dying land.

Horror fans will be excited to see Stephen King himself offering “Strawberry Spring,” a story that faces what lies beneath the masks we all wear, while Bird Box author Josh Malerman’s “There Are No Basements in the Bible” finds tension, resonance, and crack dialogue in a child’s forced playdate—and a staring contest. These big names are welcome, but one shivery pleasure of the series is Bailey’s championing of new talent, as up-and-comers offer many of this edition’s best. Bailey notes in an introduction that this anthology will be his last. While readers will inevitably find some entries here hit or miss, the hits outnumber the rest—here’s hoping he relents.

Takeaway: A strong collection of horror-tinged stories that urge us to look at the world anew.

Great for fans of: Pellucid Lunacy, The Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories.

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

Click here for more about Chiral Mad 5

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