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Broken Pieces Behind the Mask
Ethel Mae
Mae’s short debut memoir, which recounts three decades of enduring abuse, neglect, and hardship, is painfully honest and leavened with sharp-edged humor. Raquel (the name Mae uses for herself) is a child of rape, born when her mother is only 20. In her childhood and teens, she is assaulted by boys and men and often beaten by her mother; at a school where she’s the only black girl, she endures racist aggression. Bouncing back and forth between England and Jamaica, she tries her best to make connections and protect herself, but the authorities refuse to help her, her friends abandon her, and her family is unsupportive. As Raquel reaches adulthood, she grows tired of being used by men and vows to use them instead, but all she really wants is to be loved.

After the exploration of childhood misery, the turn to gossipy romantic anecdotes is abrupt. The stream-of-consciousness narrative reads as though Raquel is talking to a best friend who will nod sympathetically even as she describes cheating on a boyfriend (who is himself cheating on his wife). She unapologetically puts her whole self on the page. “Circumstances had made her who she was,” she says as she forgives her mother, challenging readers to similarly empathize with and forgive Raquel.

The book ends with Raquel clawing her way out of suicidal depression and still struggling to build real connections. Some readers will be inspired by her grim persistence; others might prefer a more hopeful ending. A teaser for a sequel promises more romantic angst and fierce self-determination; it’s not clear whether Raquel will ever find peace or genuine love. Mae’s jokes and sarcasm (“Did he just lie there and, poof, a pregnancy materialized? Please!”) can be cathartic but may put off readers who find them too flippant. There’s much in her story that will resonate with those who are willing to accept Raquel as flawed but not unredeemable.

Takeaway: Readers looking for an inspirational story about surviving a painful and challenging life will sympathize with Mae’s tale.

Great for fans of Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, Kristina Jones’s Escaping the Cult.

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

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King Of The Blind
Caiseal Mór
In Ireland of 1788, young rebel Edward Sutler assassinates a British officer. Desperate to avoid pursuit, he hides in the cottage of illegal whiskey distiller Hugh Connor, whose offer of shelter comes at a price. Hugh insists that Edward compensate him for the trouble he’s caused, including the accidental death of Hugh’s treasured cow, Philomena. As Hugh considers Edward’s fate, he decides to educate him by telling the life story of his late master, renowned harper Turlough O’Carolan, a real historical figure about whom little is known. At first reluctant, Edward nonetheless finds himself absorbed in the tale of O’Carolan’s fortune and its origins in a pact made with the otherworldly Good People.

The legend of O’Carolan and the much more mundane reality Edward inhabits are equally entertaining. O’Carolan engages in a wild, lawless hurling match and elaborate pranks; Hugh plies Edward with whiskey and tries to set him up in an implausible romance with his granddaughter, Cait. Hugh’s account of O’Carolan’s life leaves room for readers to draw their own conclusions about whether his encounters with the Good People (“a fearsome warlike race of immortal beings,” not like “twee” English fairies) were real or dreams induced by a smallpox-related fever.

Although Hugh is presented as a knowledgeable narrator of O’Carolan’s life, this novel is clearly intended more as a celebration of music, adventure, and Irish culture than an attempt to peel away the many mysteries surrounding the real-life O’Carolan’s travels and compositions. References to events such as the Battle of the Boyne provide a clear grounding point, but the heart of the story is a celebration of of the traditional Irish harpist’s role and grief over its decline, which Hugh blames on the exile of the Irish aristocracy, poverty, and the rising popularity of European musical forms and artists. Mór’s tale is as whimsical as it is rich in historical detail.

Takeaway: This uproarious interweaving of harper Turlough O’Carolan’s life and compositions with late-18th-century plotting and shenanigans will delight anyone interested in Irish history, music, and lore.

Great for fans of Frank Delaney’s Ireland, Declan Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland.

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

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Driven by Conscience
Rachel Goss
Goss’s inspiring debut historical novel follows a young man on a fraught journey through many dangers. In 1942 Berlin, young Uwe Johannes, son of political dissidents and protégé of physics professor Werner Heisenberg, is drafted into Hitler’s army. Before departing for North Africa, he devises a plan to hide Heisenberg’s research for a powerful new bomb inside his father’s old military cross. After his capture and subsequent internment in a POW camp in rural Arkansas, Uwe is ambushed and beaten by violent prisoners who despise his sympathy for the Allies. While recovering in the hospital, he’s recruited by the camp’s director to use his math skills for a top-secret assignment in a local family’s home. Uwe agrees and hides his cross in their home, but it’s soon stolen in a burglary. He goes searching for the cross with the family housekeeper’s daughter, Fredericka—but, as a mixed-race duo in a segregated Southern state, the two friends face additional dangers.

Goss sprinkles the story with maps, photographs, and handwritten notes that bring the era to life. Small-town North Little Rock and its close-knit neighbors—including socialite Imogene, legless veteran Charlie, and the indefatigable Fredericka—breathe life into the sometimes pallid prose. Young paperboy George and his faithful dog, Porter, steal the few scenes they’re in. But as the characters proliferate and FBI agents, Russian spies, and teen thugs mix with choir directors, victory girls, and well-meaning parishioners, the story becomes too convoluted.

Uwe is an almost too-impressive protagonist who’s saved from a lofty pedestal by his naiveté around women. His most powerful moment comes when American strangers bring cups of ice water to the hot train carrying prisoners to the camp, and he’s moved to dedicate himself to the Allied cause. Goss’s theme of the value of kindness and shared humanity will resonate with fans of uplifting historical fiction.

Takeaway: Readers looking for an uplifting story of kindness and valor amid WWII’s dangers will enjoy Goss’s tale of a conscripted German physicist who devotes himself to the Allied cause.

Great for fans of Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Georgia Hunter’s We Were the Lucky Ones.

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

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Valentine act I of II
Elliott Morreau
Morreau’s debut, the first half of a duology, is a frequently self-indulgent and deliberately provocative novel. Set in the 1990s, initially in Canada and then in a work camp in the U.S., it follows teen lovers Jack and Lia as they flee after murdering Lia’s abusive father. Within the first 75 pages, there’s murder, pedophilia, mob activity, hard-boiled detectives, racist and homophobic language, and frequent interjections by the author (“I look down at the empty pages that will soon be full of her story, and as I write this very observation, I feel as if she knows everything”). The bulk of the book consists of Lia trying to get past the her dead father’s caustic, corrosive voice in her head while attempting to build a life with Jack. Jack gets used to what is essentially indentured servitude but makes some bad decisions in order to make money. Lies and deceptions divide them while a man named Danny attempts to seduce Lia and detectives Rich and Claudia try to track Jack and Lia down while dealing with corruption. This volume ends with Jack and Lia consummating their flawed relationship at last, with many other threads still to be tied up.

Morreau veers between troweling on shocking events and creating an epic, sweeping, and ultimately doomed romance. The characters casually and frequently use violent language from “Belly, we get it your boyfriend’s a bitch. A fucking cuck!” to racist slurs. Violence against and abuse of women, including incestuous abuse, are constantly implied threats. Lia is stubborn but not especially smart; Jack is passionate but brutish. Everyone in the book behaves unkindly and dehumanizes others, and readers will struggle to find them sympathetic or worth spending time with. In the midst of this misery, the flowery language used around Jack and Lia’s relationship is jarring. The breaking of the fourth wall serves little narrative purpose.

This installment comes to a climax of sorts but is clearly half of a larger work. The biggest problem is that Morreau can’t seem to decide what kind of story to tell. The characters are too unsympathetic to appeal to romance readers; the plot is too sparse for mystery fans; there isn’t enough drama for a pulp novel. Without direction, Morreau’s book will struggle to find an audience.

Takeaway: This mix of romance, suspense, and grit is most likely to find a home with truly omnivorous readers.

Great for fans of V.C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic.

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

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Repo Girl: A Fun Action Adventure Romance (Repo Girl Series Book 1)
Jane Fenton
In Fenton’s funny debut, which launches the Repo Girl series set in contemporary Roanoke, Va., Andrea “Andi” Sloan copes with money woes, a complex love life, and murder. Feisty, junk food–loving Andi, who has recently taken up a job as a car repossession agent, meets charming, flirtatious Cooper Barnett, v-p of his father’s financial planning company by day and a rock star by night, at a local bar where he’s playing with his band. There is obvious attraction, but Cooper is shocked when Andi, who has sworn off love, rejects his advances even after further chance meetings. Curious to learn more about Andi’s job, Cooper convinces her to let him ride along on one of her gigs. The job goes awry when Andi slams the repoed car into a deer—and a dead, naked body from the back seat lands on her lap. When all evidence points to Andi as the prime suspect, she’s determined to prove her innocence and begins her own off-the-books search for the killer.

Andi’s fearlessness and independence make her very enjoyable to read about. She does some amateur sleuthing by disguising herself and attending the murder victim’s memorial service, and when the police repeatedly warn her to stay out of the investigation, she doesn’t even flinch. Fenton smoothly balances this mystery plot with a sweet, playful romance. Cooper is protective of Andi and persuades her to stay at his condo after her home is raided. Although they don’t have sex, the flirty moments the two share are fun and leave much to the reader’s imagination (“He’d like nothing more than to... toss her back on his bed to kiss away that sassy expression”).

Fenton’s eclectic ensemble of secondary characters adds humor and depth to the story. All the characters are well developed and integral to the plot, including the handsome and stern Detective Kendricks, who jails Andi for the murder but is also attracted to her; Liz, Andi’s fierce but friendly cellmate, whose background as a tattoo artist helps Andi make a break in the case; and Ben, Andi’s supportive and slightly stereotypical gay best friend, who helps designs her sleuthing disguise and facilitates her relationship with Cooper. This thoughtfully crafted, complex story strikes a perfect balance between mystery and romance.

Takeaway: Fans of PG-rated contemporary romance with a suspenseful subplot will enjoy this well-constructed mystery, which boasts memorable characters and a brave, sassy heroine.

Great for fans of Meg Cabot’s Size 12 Is Not Fat, J.D. Robb’s Eve Dallas series.

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

Things They Buried
Amanda K. King & Michael R. Swanson
King and Swanson pack their absorbing debut horror fantasy with brisk action, acute tension, and detailed worldbuilding in a land full of various humanoids. Aliara Rift and her mate, Duke Sylandair Imythedralin, both members of the gray-skinned chivori species, spent their childhoods enslaved by the abusive karju Kluuta Orono. After two decades, they escaped, and Orono was thought to have died in an explosion in the island metropolis of Dockhaven, willing the mansion in which their enslavement took place to Syl. Twenty years later, rumors of missing children near the site of the explosion lead Aliara and Syl to wonder whether Orono actually survived. When their reconnaissance (aided by their skittish, greedy sidekick, Schmalch, a small, hairless puka) turns up inconclusive but disturbing evidence, they decide to claim the mansion and explore it for more clues. This unearths understandably painful, unresolved memories for Syl and Aliara, who call in a hired hand to expel and study the hideous monsters lurking in the building. The revelation that they are nightmarish genetically modified creatures sets the stage for a gruesome, violent endgame.

Readers who appreciate dense worldbuilding will be gratified by the complexity of King and Swanson’s work. This novel boasts a dizzying number of species, a unique calendar system, guns that rely on magnets, and unusual slang (cool things are “gloss”; a drunk man is “high-seas”). The authors deploy these details naturally and leave readers wanting to know more.

King and Swanson have a real skill for describing and deploying psychology. The horrors Syl and Aliara endured are slowly revealed and the contrast between the polished, heartless personas they project and their lingering internal trauma feels genuine. The point of view shifts between chapters increase tension by delaying the revelation of threats, especially during fight scenes in which characters in different rooms of a building react to the same creature. The sections narrated by minor characters occasionally distract. The plot sometimes flags as characters struggle to understand what is happening, but these slower passages add real emotion and stakes, and the conclusion nicely sets up a sequel without feeling unfinished. Horror elements and surprise twists will propel readers through this smooth, diverting fantasy.

Takeaway: The creepy threats and fierce fights in this densely imagined novel will gratify fans of dark fantasy, especially those who want real depth in between thrills.

Great for fans of Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains, C.S. Friedman, Joe Abercrombie.

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

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Goodnight Firehouse
Jennifer Drez
Drez (Goodnight Dallas) pays tribute to firefighters in this charming picture book while explaining to young readers the equipment and materials needed to fight different kinds of fires. In action-packed scenes, friendly-looking firefighters, introduced before their features are hidden behind their gear, are shown racing along a roadway as vehicles make way. They then carry out responses ranging from caring for an elderly woman to fighting a raging wildfire. Illustrations of the elements that lead to a fire (heat, oxygen, and air) as well as different kinds of materials used to fight fires (foam, sand, and water) add extra detail to a familiar topic. The large assortment of firefighting vehicles, however, is the highlight.

The book is far more informative than the typical picture book on the topic, and easy-to-understand fire prevention and other safety information provide adults the opportunity to discuss fire safety with children. However, the order of information is a bit haphazard, and the text and the illustrations do not always match up well: for example, “Firefighters stay on duty at the firehouse” shows the crew at a supermarket. This may confuse young readers, though fire truck aficionados are unlikely to object.

Clay’s obvious knowledge of firefighters and their equipment shines through in his colorful illustrations. The accurate information and an unusually wide array of fire equipment will please young fans of emergency responders. Despite some stumbles in the text, Drez’s soothing prose ensures that this picture book will be a bedtime reading hit, using a familiar format—wishing firefighters goodnight—to assure children they are safe at night.

Takeaway: This instructive and detailed book introduces young readers to firefighters, firefighting equipment, and the basics of fire safety.

Great for fans of Chris L. Demarest’s Firefighters A to Z, Leslie McGuire and Joe Mathieu’s Big Frank’s Fire Truck.

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

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This Will Never Stop
Joan Spilman
Spilman’s multigenerational tale of four women in a rural West Virginia family (“stuck in the middle of no place with nothing”) is rich with secrets and sorrows. In four sections, each woman narrates her own story. Lorraine is an embittered wife and mother who has never forgiven her mother, Carmen, for abandoning her when she was a child. Decades after that traumatic event, Carmen writes a letter to Lorraine explaining why she left and never came back. Lorraine’s adolescent daughter, Jenna, struggles to deal with the letter’s fallout. The fourth voice belongs to matriarch Lizzie, Carmen’s mother, whose choices cast long shadows over her descendants. Each narrative is a page-turner, and Lizzie’s astonishes from beginning to end.

Spilman (Sansablatt Head), winner of a PEN Award and author of four young adult novels, shows full command of her characters and ability to spin a yarn. Fans of Southern fiction and women’s fiction will gobble this one up, but some hunger may remain because Carmen’s letter and Jenna’s actions all pave the way to a momentous event that never happens. The author uses dark humor to effectively draw out the next step, but without the expected payoff. There are other small niggles: for instance, Lizzie’s story has a shocking final twist, but a revelation that’s intended to be dramatic falls victim to excessive foreshadowing. Nonetheless, there’s plenty here to enthrall the reader.

The novel as a whole describes rural life in 20th-century West Virginia in an almost gothic manner. The horrors are not ghosts or spirits but poverty, alcohol, neglect, religious excess, and men’s casual mistreatment of women. Hallmark themes of Appalachian fiction play out in a riveting fashion, illustrating moral ambiguity and the shades of gray found in human nature. Vivid descriptions and emotional intelligence create a lasting impression.

Takeaway: This powerful work of Southern women’s fiction brings to life the struggles of four generations of women in a 20th-century West Virginia family.

Great for fans of Fannie Flagg, Pat Conroy, Sue Monk Kidd.

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

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Prayers of My Mother
Carolyn L. Austin
Austin’s reassuring debut guides Christian readers through life’s trials and tribulations with inspiring Bible verses, uplifting prayers, and relatable life stories. In the touching preface, in which she credits her mother for her strong faith in God and devotion to prayer, Austin explains that she realized her own calling as a “prayer warrior” only after she began to send daily prayers to several friends to help them through difficult emotional experiences and life events. Austin continues her mother’s work by sharing her faith, hoping to facilitate readers’ relationships with God and provide guidance and hope to anyone encountering obstacles in life.

Austin divides this affirmative book into five sections. The first, “Blessed Trinity,” is primarily about finding a spiritual calling and interacting with God. The second, “Identifiable Characteristics,” discusses fate and free will. The rest cover loosely defined themes such as “life’s relationships” and “spiritual challenges” and are subdivided into chapters that address concerns such as poor self-esteem, financial struggles, boundaries, heartbreak, and illness. Within each chapter, there is a primary Bible verse that serves as a springboard for stories culled from the author’s life, quotations from other sources, and advice that highlights Austin’s faith and positive attitude.

The variable formatting and margins, inconsistent fonts, and substantial use of bold type can be distracting and weigh down the narrative. However, Austin’s message is powerful and inspiring. Her tone is casual and warm, and most readers will find something to relate to in her experiences concerning work, parenthood, divorce, and emotional dilemmas. Although devout Christians will be most comfortable with the numerous references to Jesus, Bible passages, and quotes from Christian spiritual books, the genuineness of Austin’s heartfelt and uplifting words may appeal to other readers looking for support during difficult times.

Takeaway: Devout Christians facing life’s challenges will find enrichment and encouragement in Austin’s edifying prayers.

Great for fans of Joyce Meyer’s Trusting God, Day by Day; Joel Osteen’s Daily Readings from Your Best Life Now; Maria Shriver’s I’ve Been Thinking.

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

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HEART to BEAT
Brian Lima
Heart transplant surgeon Lima, the child of Cuban immigrants to the U.S., turns his talents to self-help with his slightly corny but sincere first book, an encouraging work intended to inspire readers to overcome mediocrity and live their best lives. “Lackadaisical effort leads to lackluster results and lukewarm reception, a vicious cycle set on auto loop,” he counsels. “This self-fulfilling prophecy comes to define our life.” Instead, Lima counsels his readers to try the “HEART” way—his acronym for the slightly disjointed set of “hard work,” “eager,” “aligned,” “resolute,” and “thoughtfulness.”

After six memoir-style chapters recounting his journey from working-class New Jersey to the halls of Cornell and Duke Universities, Lima buckles down with valuable life advice gleaned from his own experiences. He notes that fear can paralyze even the most capable of people, and he doesn’t believe getting over it is easy. He also advises throwing the idea of being “well-rounded” out the window, saying that laser-focusing on one key ambition is the key to success. “Visualize. Actualize. Repeat. Never give up!” His fondness for memory devices is sometimes excessive, as when he advises that people facing their failures should be careful not to accuse, blame, criticize, or defer (ABCD); the advice is sensible but the mnemonic is forgettable.

Lima scorns being pigeonholed by other people (“Never mind staying in your lane”), second-guessing decisions (“The should’ve, would’ve, could’ve’s will drive you insane if you let them”), and hesitating (“If you don’t believe in yourself or feel certain that you’re a sure bet... how the hell could anyone else?!”). He believes nearly anything is possible with hard work, confidence, and determination, and his enthusiasm is contagious. Some readers will find the descriptions of heart surgeries a bit too graphic, but this is otherwise a cheering and encouraging work.

Takeaway: Heart transplant surgeon Lima’s practical advice will inspire readers looking for direction and a confidence boost.

Great for fans of Sean Whalen’s How to Make Sh*t Happen, Mark Goulston and Philip Goldberg’s Get Out of Your Own Way.

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

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Safety-First Retirement Planning: An Integrated Approach for a Worry-Free Retirement
Wade Pfau
Pfau, a professor of retirement income at the American College of Financial Services and a principal and director for McLean Asset Management, switches topics from the riskier investment approach of his first book (How Much Can I Spend in Retirement? A Guide to Investment-Based Retirement Strategies) to more fiscally conservative strategies in this information-rich, jargon-heavy guide. For retirees who are worried about making their assets last for decades and hold up during times of economic uncertainty, probability-based strategies can become excessively stressful, the author counsels. An alternative is a “safety-first” approach that integrates investments with insurance. Pfau provides a compelling reason for taking this option: the risk pooling of insurance requires retirees to put in less money up front, as they no longer need to plan in anticipation of the worst-case scenario.

Pfau exhaustively and expertly explores all investment possibilities, including fixed-income assets; stocks and diversified investment portfolios; income, variable, and fixed income annuities; and life insurance. He discusses fitting income annuities into a financial plan and planning to leave a financial legacy for loved ones. He also warns of the dangers of loss aversion (fearing a loss more than wanting to make gains), overconfidence, and hindsight bias.

Readers with finance-phobia may be intimidated by Pfau’s dry, academic prose (“Low-volatility assets are generally viewed as less risky, but this may not be the case when the objective is to sustain spending over a long time horizon”) and deep dives into complicated investment options. However, his advice is both comprehensive and logical, and the liberal use of well-designed charts and real-world situations aid in comprehension. This sensible nuts-and-bolts retirement planning guide will satisfy readers interested in exploring their long-term financial options.

Takeaway: Readers looking for peace of mind during their golden years will find Pfau’s retirement planning guidance valuable.

Great for fans of Dave Ramsey, Jane Bryant Quinn.

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

The Bend in Redwood Road (Missing Pieces Book 1)
Danielle Stewart
Told in the distinct voices of two very different women, Stewart’s viscerally poignant novel examines the stark realities of pregnancy, adoption, parenthood, and romance. Gwen Fox is a happy 25-year-old graduate student with a loving family, good career prospects, and an ache in her heart: the knowledge that she’s adopted. Her field is genetic counseling, but trying to research her own ancestry sparks a panic attack that makes her realize how desperate she is to find her birth mother. Meanwhile, Leslie Laudon has sacrificed career advancement to support her husband and raise her three children. As her youngest goes off to college and the cracks in her marriage deepen, she can’t stop thinking about the baby she abandoned. Leslie and Gwen, troubled and determined, set out in search of each other, but their quests send shock waves through both their families.

Gwen and Leslie are initially challenging to spend time with, as Gwen covers up her brittleness with brashness and Leslie hides her depression with platitudes, but readers will come to care deeply for both women and sympathize with their struggles. Gwen’s prickly nature is, at first, a stark contrast to Leslie’s confident supermom persona. Yet as the story slowly unfolds, it’s easy to find points of commonality between the two women as they both grapple alone with what they fear are life-altering secrets.

Stewart (the Piper Anderson series) balances the intense emotions with healing balm provided by Gwen’s adoring parents; her irreverent best friend, Griff, who quickly becomes her love interest; Leslie’s best friend, Claudette; and Leslie’s warmhearted 17-year-old daughter, Kerry, whose half-sibling DNA match with Gwen kicks the tension into high gear. There are also hints of mystery involving a sketchy for-profit adoption agency. This deeply moving story and its captivating characters will keep readers enthralled.

Takeaway: Any fan of women’s fiction will be enthralled by this powerful, emotional story of a young woman, her biological mother, and their quest to be reunited.

Great for fans of Nora Roberts, Lori Foster, Bella Andre, Kristen Ashley.

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

A Circle of Firelight
Curtis Edmonds
Two sisters struggle to connect across the borders of a dreamworld in this homage to fantasy coming-of-age stories. Ashlyn Revere is driving from her home in New Jersey to a job interview in Manhattan when she discovers her teenage sister, Penny, hiding in the backseat. Ashlyn isn’t thrilled with Penny’s demand to tag along, as Penny’s cystic fibrosis makes any venture out of the house a challenge, but a car crash cuts short their argument. Ashlyn awakens in Summervale, where her thoughts and emotions manifest in alarming ways. (“That’s what happens when you lose it and get really angry, you know. Dragons. Sea monsters. Big scary scaly things coming at you.”) Meanwhile, Penny wakes in the hospital to the news that Ashlyn has suffered a traumatic brain injury and her survival is anything but certain. Ashlyn must confront a Dark Lord made of her “anger and fear and hate” while fearing that her physical life hangs in the balance.

Edmonds (Snowflake’s Chance) positions this tale somewhere between a paean to fantasy novels and a pastiche of them, studding it with dozens of pop-culture and literary references. Ashlyn’s journey feels paint-by-numbers at times, and her quest leaves a few unanswered questions. Summervale feels underdeveloped, a blank canvas for a collage of allusions. The real-world aspects of the novel—Penny’s fear for her sister’s survival, the Reveres’ struggles with Penny’s fragile health—are much clearer and more fraught.

Though the premise is a bit clunky, the execution is for the most part charming and clever, with lively dialogue, easy pacing, and fleshed-out protagonists. Although secondary characters can seem sketchy by comparison, Edmonds deftly captures the friction and love between two sisters who are constantly at odds but have each others’ backs. This culminates in a touching scene between Ashlyn and Penny, with their usual roles of caretaker and patient reversed. Edmonds’s novel evokes the magic of portal fantasies while grounding it with emotionally resonant relationships.

Takeaway: Fans of YA portal fantasies will enjoy this story of two sisters supporting each other through a challenging quest.

Great for fans of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle.

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

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Yoga at the Zoo
Teresa Power
Power (The ABC’s of Yoga for Kids) charms with the adventures of the unlikely best friend duo of Little Mouse and Mr. Opus the cat, as they visit the zoo and learn yoga poses from the animals. Little Mouse and Mr. Opus spend afternoons after school together, sometimes watching Tammy, the little girl Mr. Opus lives with, doing yoga with her mom. When Tammy’s school goes on a field trip to the zoo, Little Mouse and Mr. Opus go too. Little Mouse has never seen other animals and is excited to meet them. As Little Mouse meets each animal, he sees that they do yoga-like poses too. Little Mouse is on a serious quest for knowledge, while Mr. Opus provides some comic relief (such as falling asleep during his favorite yoga pose).

Young readers will enjoy Allen’s expressive and fun illustrations of Little Mouse and Mr. Opus’s antics. The illustrations have just the right amount of detail to draw in the reader, adding to the story without distracting from the text. It will likely not be clear to young readers whether the book is meant to teach yoga poses or just show fun things that animals do. However, the description of Little Mouse’s experiences with yoga fit the target age group well, as the poses are simple and presented as a regular, calming part of daily life.

As Little Mouse copies poses from other animals and sees how yoga relaxes them, young readers can imitate Little Mouse in turn. Power has a fine sense of which poses are suitable for children, and adults who aren’t deeply familiar with yoga can comfortably lead kids through the various poses. The emphasis on yoga as a daily practice will resonate with busy families looking for easy ways to relax and be in touch with their physical selves.

Takeaway: This simple, fun approach to yoga as a source of calm in everyday life will appeal to young readers and their parents.

Great for fans of Susan Verde’s I Am Yoga, Mariam Gates’s Good Night Yoga series.

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

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Sprinkles
Katherine S Stempel
Stempel’s sweet debut picture book blends cupcakes and bonsai trees with kindness and community. Sky, a girl who looks about 10, makes a batch of mini cupcakes, hoping to sell them to raise money for her suburban neighborhood’s animal shelter. As Sky and her mother set off with the cupcakes, they encounter their crotchety neighbor, Mr. Conway, who brusquely turns down the sweet treats before continuing with his evening walk. At the local nursery, Sky strikes a sweet deal, trading some cupcakes for an adorable little bonsai tree. Mr. Conway arrives as they’re leaving and also winds up with a bonsai tree—but in order to take care of it, he has to let Sky teach him about listening and love.

Children will instantly warm to Stempel’s pint-size protagonist (and her luscious cupcake flavor combinations, such as double chocolate with marshmallow frosting, graham cracker sprinkles, and a caramel drizzle). Spunky Sky doesn’t take rejection personally, and, through her generosity and kindness, she cares for and supports her community. Sky’s open and caring nature shines through in every conversation, and Stempel’s sensitive narrative shows how the briefest of interactions can hurt and the smallest of selfless gestures can change someone’s life for the better.

Stempel, a volunteer with a program that delivers food to the homebound elderly, underscores the importance of companionship with older neighborhood residents, shown in Sky’s burgeoning relationship with widowed, gray-haired Mr. Conway. Hershey’s dynamic digital illustrations evoke Sky’s bouncy energy, Mr. Conway’s gloom, and the contrast between Sky’s happy, well-loved tree and Mr. Conway’s sad, wilting one. Occasional words pop and swoop out of the text to convey changes in mood, adding emphasis and whimsy.

Takeaway: This sweet and touching illustrated story conveys important lessons about intergenerational connections and will be meaningful to both children and adults.

Great for fans of Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Jane Dyer’s Cookies: Bite-Size Life Lessons, Diane Alber’s A Little Spot of Anger: A Story About Managing Big Emotions.

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

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Fourth Trait
Benjamin A. Bryan
Bryan’s debut is an intermittently absorbing but frequently confusing political science-fiction epic set in 2095. The hero is Raile Alton, a cynical scientist working for the UEA, the provisional government that took power after the global Great Catastrophe killed off most of the world’s population. Those who survive possess heightened mental powers but are plagued by ghosts called “unattached.” When an unattached actually murders a human being, it triggers a sprawling series of events as the UEA and their opponents in the resistance engage in byzantine schemes, double crosses, and power grabs. Quests for sex, revenge, eternal life, power, and simple human comforts underlie the more metaphysical aspects of the conflict.

The frequent betrayals amid detailed military operations become wearying after a while, as do the many undefined, distracting neologisms related to mental powers and the afterlife. Some of the characters are better developed than others: Alton proves to be complex and vulnerable underneath his world-weary veneer, and Delva Brownson, the daughter of a resistance leader, is another nuanced character whose doubts about her place in the world make her far more interesting than her mother, a rabid caricature. The pacing, dialogue, and plot twists form a fluid narrative, though the vague, cliffhanger ending is unexpected and unsatisfying.

Bryan has clearly put a lot of thought into building this world and its metaphysical underpinnings. The story is as much about the mysteries of the afterlife as it is about the schemes of its desperate characters. Bryan notes that the traitors to the resistance are desperate for a taste of easy living and that the UEA traitors are angry about the corruption inherent in the system. For some of these, the end justifies the means, but the narrative embraces a more humanistic approach beyond simple comfort and revenge. This near-future story of discontent in life and after death leaves readers with much to think about.

Takeaway: This metaphysical murder mystery will appeal to fans of more philosophical and conceptual science fiction and horror.

Great for fans of M. John Harrison’s Light, Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

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

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