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Ollie Come Free
Timothy Patrick
A cattle ranching family faces the reverberations of trauma in Patrick’s sensitive and engaging first YA novel, a grounded exploration of recovery, resentment, and redemption. Surrounded by Southern California suburban sprawl, the Buck Ranch has been home to Bob Buckmeyer’s family for generations. Bob and wife Cathy work hard to maintain their bucolic life for sons Cody, a promising baseball player, and happy-go-lucky Ollie. All eyes are on Cody during a 1991 game rather than on his brother, who’s just a half-hearted outfielder, but when 11-year-old Ollie is struck by lightning, the Buckmeyers’ illusion of normalcy explodes.

After the strike, Ollie suffers a traumatic brain injury, becomes withdrawn, and begins compulsively–and prodigiously–sketching his surroundings in unerring detail. Ollie is eventually diagnosed with acquired savant syndrome, which has many behavioral similarities with autism. Patrick’s story focuses on how this new reality affects the family unit. Stalwart Bob and nurturing Cathy become even more so, but Cody, 18 months Ollie’s senior, turns into something like the family’s villain “when envy slithers in and wraps itself around an unprotected heart.” Over a dozen years, the characters experience some level of growth and healing, except Cody, who becomes more embittered, calculating, and manipulative.

Patrick (Tea Cups & Tiger Claws, Death of a Movie Star) explores regional history, class disparities, and the perils of celebrity in Ollie Come Free, incorporating a family legend about buried gold, Cody’s covetous thievery, and Ollie’s transformation from social outcast to celebrity artist (drawing city skylines from memory like real-life savant Stephen Wiltshire). Patrick doesn’t try to represent Ollie’s interior life, choosing to detail the externals instead: Ollie’s coping mechanisms and the ways loved ones find to reconnect. Young readers interested in a realistic depiction of artistic savant experiences will find resonance in this atypical coming-of-age centered on a protagonist whose future is tied to a past that always calls him home.

Takeaway: A teen savant draws on resilient allies to open up his path to a full and rewarding life.

Great for fans of: Gordon Korman’s Restart, Cass Tell’s The Savant, and C.G. Drews’s The Boy Who Steals Houses.

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

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Saxon Heroines: A Northumbrian Novel
Sandra Wagner-Wright
Historian Wagner-Wright’s (Two Coins) latest historical fiction transports readers back in time to the late seventh century, chronicling the lives of several powerful women from Northumbria. A newly minted Christian queen, Ethelberga, must rely on her grit to navigate court intrigue as she tries to turn her pagan husband toward her new religion before battle while. Hildeburg, the abbess of Streoneshalh, is determined to unite the Columban and Roman churches for the good of the kingdom. And Queen Ethelberga’s daughter, Princess Enfleda, grows up to marry a Northumbrian king and bears him a long sought-after son–but must learn to balance the pull of her pagan beliefs with opposing Christian forces.

Wagner-Wright imbues her characters with life, conveying a sense of this far-off time and place through arresting, mystical language: “He’s giving Egfrid to the water. The nymphs will take him.” Moments of wry humour and elegant scene setting carry the story, a complex interwoven web threaded with religious conflict and criss-crossing the whole of Northumbria. It’s a well-researched tale but driven by character, with flashes of poignancy and charm making the royal, historical cast convincing and relatable.

The pacing of this novel may divide readers–though it is a fascinating story of upheaval in early Britain, the historical complexities make it difficult to keep track of everyone, especially with such similar character names. Wagner-Wright includes a list of primary characters at the start, in order of appearance, that will help readers trace the extensive genealogy. In the same vein, the glossary of names, terms, and places at the end of the novel–such as “Elf-shot"–lend authenticity to this portrait of a time when people believed that the onset of an unknown disease could be caused by elves firing arrows into the afflicted. Overall, Wagner-Wright’s deft characterization and intricate plotting make this an absorbing read that will appeal to fans of layered, detailed historical fiction.

Takeaway: Historical fiction readers will be absorbed by this intricate tale of memorable Northumbrian women fighting for change.

Great for fans of: Philippa Gregory, Sandra Gulland.

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

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Affirm The Word: The Spiritual Practice of Speaking & Living God's Word
J. Marie Jones
This impassioned compilation—a collection of biblical passages, secondary resources, and accounts of personal experience—has been crafted to “assist believers” looking to better understand the message of God. Targeting Christian readers, Jones guides her audience through biblical teachings by topic, choosing select quotes from the Old and New Testament for each subject. Jones offers concise, meaningful, spiritual guidance that covers a wide variety of topics: from affliction to sin, from divorce to boldness to child rearing. She endeavors to clarify complex or obscure concepts (like “binding and loosing”), offers prayer templates crafted to help readers internalize God’s message, and draws personal guidance from scripture.

While Jones does not proselytize, she assumes that her readers are already followers of Jesus to some extent (they may be wayward, but they are believers). That specificity is one of the book’s strengths. Jones draws from her own personal experience, selecting quotes, ideas, and prayers that are important to her—and that may prove important or impactful for those seeking to achieve peace through religion.

Jones pulls heavily from other texts and websites throughout each chapter; she’s not only an author—she’s a compiler. But the most compelling passages are not the biblical quotes or the prayers written by others. They are the personal anecdotes that Jones shares: how a period after divorce turned her into a true follower of God, how she learned to love her neighbor by first loving herself, how she has come to understand that “it is NEVER okay to behave in a disrespectful way toward others.” These sections, focused on the experience of a woman whose life has been changed by belief, are not only the book’s most engaging—they’re also its most urgent and persuasive. While some of the compiled material can be dry or familiar, these glimpses into the author behind the book are honest and memorable.

Takeaway: This inspiring collection of biblical quotes, prayer ideas, and anecdotes takes flight when it gets personal.

Great for fans of: Robert S. McGee’s The Search for Significance, Craig Groeschel’s Winning the War in Your Mind.

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

Core Drift: A Coruscant Novel
FX Holden
In Holden’s stellar second dip into the Coruscant series, readers dive into an exhilarating sci-fi mystery filled with expertly developed characters, unexpected twists, and a hint of forbidden romance. Core Drift is an inviting stand-alone thriller allowing readers unfamiliar with Deep Core, the first book in the series, to quickly feel at home in Holden’s dramatic universe. Fan Zhaofeng is a cyber—a hybrid human-artificial intelligence being with a cybernetically enhanced brain linked up to the Core, an AI platform that links all computer systems between two key planets. Fan is the lead suspect in a string of murders being investigated by Expositor Lin Ming. The more Fan claims his innocence, the more evidence surfaces that points to his guilt, and Lin won’t stop until she unravels the truth.

This sci-fi thriller wastes no time digging its claws into the mystery. Murder, threats of civil unrest, and debates of morality sprinkle the pages while a sweet romantic subplot between Lin and Fan provides readers the opportunity to catch their breaths from the high-stakes drama and stunning twists. Readers will quickly warm to this unusual partnership between suspected and cop: Fan’s mission to prove his innocence makes him a sympathetic hero, while Lin’s empathy and independent spirit leads her down a rabbit hole that will ultimately test her entire value system and loyalty to the government.

Holden is adept at guiding readers into his inventive universe. He clearly defines his world-building terms, and the convenient “Core Encyclopedia v201.b” serves as a resource for anyone needing a quick refresher as the story progresses. Holden has a lot to establish in the story’s opening chapters, which slows the pace, but, lovers of inventive action will relish the fast-paced incidents that bring the story to a wild resolution. Sci-fi fans will sink into this murder-mystery with dynamic characters and an unpredictable plot.

Takeaway: This cyber sci-fi thriller has a unique protagonist, vibrant world building, and thrilling twists.

Great for fans of: Rudy Rucker, J. Barton Mitchell, Greg Bear’s Queens of Angels.

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

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Lost Stories of the Great War
Rosalie Lauerman
Lauerman (Jockey Hollow) reveals a treasure trove of little-known World War I tales, detailing the exploits of a variety of heroes whose contributions have for the most part been left out of history textbooks. In keeping with the spirit of her first novel, Jockey Hollow, about George Washington’s forgotten army, Lauerman celebrates stalwarts like the Hello Girls, who risked their lives operating the switchboard for the front lines; the 370th Regiment, composed exclusively of African-American soldiers who fought to defend a country that had not protected them; and the Native American code talkers whose ancient language helped to turn the Allies’ luck.

Lauerman effectively sheds light on these neglected and overlooked female and BIPOC soldiers–many of whom were ultimately denied Veteran status by their government–without romanticizing the Great War and its tragedies. Despite the title’s emphasis on stories, the book’s tone and structure suggests an inviting textbook, offering sidebars and well-chosen illustrations that illuminate concepts like “no man’s land” or terms like liberty bonds. Like a textbook, this extensive, meticulously researched account at times places more emphasis on historical events than on the humanity of the participants. Words straight from the subjects themselves are illuminating but appear mostly as block quotes, so these insights and details aren’t woven compellingly into the storytelling. Lauerman leaves it to the facts, the photographs, and the feats themselves to sell the stories.

Overall, Lauerman’s lost stories uncover rarely heard chronicles of soldiers, linemen, “flying schoolgirls” and more, accounts that will open readers’ perspectives to the innumerable forgotten heroes of the era. For young students and World War buffs alike, Lauerman’s celebration of the “plucky” courage of individuals who “put their personal safety aside” and often “defied authority” will entertain and inform as it provokes further in these too-often unsung heroes.

Takeaway: An inviting celebration of forgotten acts of bravery by overlooked heroes of the great war.

Great for fans of: Michael Morpurgo’s Only Remembered, Tony Bradman’s Stories of World War One.

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

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Shifted: Book One of the Shifted Series
KristaLyn A. Vetovich
In Vetovich’s (Pure Fyre) Beta-Siberia, some distant time into the future, the world is coming to an end thanks to greedy political figures, income inequality, and climate change. But Kade Buxton, a loyal and headstrong 20 year old, is destined to save it all--if only he would listen to his spirit guide, Anaya. Told from the frustrated and sarcastic view of an otherworldly being, Shifted offers a unique spin on the traditional hero’s quest, as Anaya nudges Kade to embrace the “Plan”--and to resist the distractions to that path offered by Jordin, a rival with his own connections to Anaya. Vetovich memorably tangles the journey up with good and evil, questions of free will, and the ways friendships evolve.

Due to its unique perspective, the story sometimes feels limited, especially in terms of access to Kade’s actual thoughts and emotions. That being said, hearing exclusively from Anaya’s viewpoint invites readers to feel just as frustrated as she does with Kade’s inability to hear or heed her messages. Vetovich seizes the opportunity for amusing reflections and asides, such as when Anaya brags about helping Joan of Arc live out her purpose. Anaya’s big picture mindset also opens the story to moral questions at a higher scale than Kade is capable of comprehending, questions explored in Anaya’s relationship with Jordin, her former best friend and soulmate, who has shifted to the enemy side of this war.

The world of Beta-Siberia is not rendered in vivid color or expansive detail, but fittingly so, as Kade only has access to his lived experience in his development, and the Association (the governing authority) doesn’t teach much history or geography. Even with otherworldly discussing philosophy and religion, Shifted is a fast-paced and absorbing fantasy adventure that’s sure to capture the interest of teens who enjoy fantasy with moral intrigue.

Takeaway: A fast-paced and unique take on the hero’s quest that grapples with political and moral questions.

Great for fans of: Gareth Hanrahan’s The Gutter Prayer, Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows.

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

Click here for more about Shifted
Lady August
Becky Michaels
Raised in an orphanage and trained as a governess, August Summer finds her quiet life upended by her unexpected entrée to the aristocracy in this charming historical romance. A solicitor named Samuel Brooks shows up at her door with the news that her father is a nobleman, and still alive—for now. The dying man wishes to meet his natural daughter and to bestow upon her a massive inheritance. Now known as Lady August Finch per her father’s final wishes, she finds herself thrust into a world she doesn’t know and a family that never knew she existed, resented by some (her half-brother and step-mother in particular) and welcomed by others (including a half-sister and her somewhat scandalous aunt).

As she prepares for her introduction to society, August finds herself developing feelings for Brooks, who takes responsibility for her well being and ultimately returns her affections—despite his assertion that “I will never marry. Unlike you, I find the idea of family vastly overrated.” The chemistry between them feels tepid, but he’s far from the only character who is instantly and inexplicably charmed the ascendant lady. Aside from those whose self-interests conflict directly with hers, August is almost universally accepted and supported by almost everyone she encounters, including the noblewoman mother who was forced to give her up at birth. These relationships and alliances seem to coalesce around August effortlessly, diminishing the story's tension and complexity, though for some readers this may prove appealing.

Despite the relative dearth of interpersonal conflict, Michaels’s (The Land Steward’s Daughter) romance structure is sound, the dialogue is crisp and polished, and the hero and heroine face legitimate obstacles to their budding relationship that they must overcome. Those who enjoy their romances seasoned with angst should look elsewhere, but readers seeking sweet, upbeat love story with a light touch and a dash of historical flavor will enjoy this Cinderella tale.

Takeaway: Readers looking for an uncomplicated historical love story will be satisfied with this literary confection.

Great for fans of:Sally Britton, Laura Rollins.

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

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Enemy Combatant
WINNER DAVID
In Winner’s darkly comic story of wartime misadventure, a pair of dissolute Americans try to find secret American military prisons—along with their own sense of purpose—while on a dark-humored pilgrimage through Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey in 2005. Peter, separated from his pregnant wife and battling various inner demons, has become obsessed with finding evidence of Bush administration war crimes. By dumb luck, he and his friend Leonard free an alleged terrorist and then try to make it home. The caper swings wildly from comic to tragic, on a journey that changes Peter forever.

Against a realistic backdrop, Winner masterfully sets absurd characters in absurd scenes, highlighting the confusion in the characters' lives as well as the insanities of war. An incompetent American soldier they sneak up on initially assumes, from their put-on accents, that they’re Arabs, so Peter starts channeling tough-guy talk he vaguely recalls from old Kojak episodes–and pauses to reflect on the odd fact that both he and the soldier originally come from Virginia. The duo’s freed prisoner turns out to be as lost, physically and emotionally, as they are, and the police Peter and Leonard come up against are not thugs, just men trying to get through the day. Winner offers readers no heroes and no villains, but the characters never fail to engage even though the storytelling occasionally falters with awkward flashbacks.

Peter comes across as especially complex and appealing. Even with his obsessions and addictions, he longs for his wife and favors the language of a poet, not a freedom fighter: He travels with "Sarah’s shirt, the one that smelled so reassuringly of the soap she used." Despite his poses, he can’t forget who he really is–"the man on Manhattan Avenue who played with the fat cat at the local bodega…" As Peter desperately tries to get home, Winner makes clear that the most rewarding journeys are those we take within ourselves.

Takeaway: The troubled characters in this brisk story of the absurdity of war will resonate long after readers finish the book.

Great for fans of: David Abrams’s Fobbit, Phil Klay’s Missionaries.

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

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Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind, Revised Edition: Leadership Lessons from Three Decades of Social Entrepreneurship
Alex Counts
Counts, the founder of the Grameen Foundation, has dedicated his life to alleviating poverty through microfinance and other innovations. This revised edition of Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind, which pairs accounts of Counts’ career in the nonprofit world with lessons for effective leadership and self-care, updates a book targeted at a specialized audience: nonprofit leaders fighting for societal change. Counts’ practical, engaging advice draws from his decades of experience, in the U.S. and abroad, in holding true to a mission and vision while wrangling grants, board members, staffs, and complex partnerships.

Setting the book apart is his focus on physical and mental self-care: “I’ve seen far too many middle-aged nonprofit leaders who were overweight smokers and whose cynicism and jaded perspectives lived right below the surface of their ossified idealism,” he writes. Attentive to the particular challenges facing leaders in his field, Counts urges readers to commit to hobbies, to “live generously” in their personal lives, and to practice gratitude, suggestions he illustrates with clear, compelling anecdotes. One breakthrough he recounts, in work and in life, has been learning to recognize that people are who they are: “I expected everyone to be motivated, demotivated, amused, saddened, inspired, and troubled by roughly similar things as I was,” he writes. This insight helped him grow beyond that assumption: “every person was a riddle to be solved, joyfully.”

This updated edition closes with a new chapter, inspired by the era of the coronavirus, that centers on nonprofit leadership in a society-wide crisis. Crucially, Counts encourages his readers to take the long view, avoid overreacting, and demonstrate grace and understanding to stressed or even angry supporters. Having faced crises every decade of his career, Counts suggests that nonprofit leaders should anticipate, during boom times, that a bust is inevitable and manage rainy-day funds accordingly. His book offers hard-won insight and guidance to nonprofit workers and leaders committed to living lives of meaning–but not lives of needless stress.

Takeaway: This practical memoir and guide balances nonprofit work with self-care.

Great for fans of: INCITE!’s The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, Dan and Chip Heath’s Made to Stick.

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

Lost Love's Return
Alfred Nicols
Former federal judge Nicols’s debut highlights the intricacies of wartime romance and the promise of love across a lifetime as it follows an American soldier who falls in love with his British nurse during World War I but then loses her afterwards. When he’s wounded in France on the front line, Mississippi native Peter Montgomery is sent to Edmonton Military Hospital in North Middlesex, England, in hopes of staving off a life-threatening infection. He promptly falls in love with his nurse, Elizabeth Baker, who senses something different about him and soon finds herself returning his affection. After the war ends and he is forced to leave England, Peter tries to send information about his abrupt departure to Elizabeth, but she never receives the message.

The novel spans decades. Peter’s return home is tumultuous–though he misses Elizabeth, one night of drunken sex back in Mississippi results in a crisis and a hasty wedding. Finally, many years after he last saw Elizabeth, Peter contacts her in hopes for a chance to reconnect. Nicols seamlessly depicts the historical events surrounding World War I and the debilitating conditions faced by soldiers on the battlefield, but despite ample physical descriptions of the characters and colorful accounts of their youthful exploits, he largely avoids exploring their emotional depth. However, the relationship between Peter and Elizabeth, a primary focus of the plot\, is well-developed as their innocent flirtation escalates into a full-blown romance.

Nicols’s use of rural Mississippi vernacular common during the early part of the 20th century is spot-on and adds realism, and his familiarity with small-town life gives readers a convincing window into the characters’ existence. The narrative is fast-paced and immersive, and while the language is not highly descriptive, its concision is welcome. Fans of long lost love will appreciate the sincere bond between Peter and Elizabeth as they navigate the ups and downs of rediscovering each other.

Takeaway: An endearing story of an American World War I veteran who, despite the passage of time, cannot forget a British nurse.

Great for fans of: Lauren Willig’s Band of Sisters, Ann Howard Creel’s Mercy Road.

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

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To Every Page a Turning: One Life's Journey
Carl Buccellato
This gripping autofiction follows an unnamed narrator looking back on his life after he stumbles onto a collection of old papers. Following a rough childhood in Brooklyn, the man joins the army and fights in Vietnam, suffering from abandonment and anger issues. He later finds success as a businessman, raises a family, and learns to forgive his cold, neglectful parents. Told in a series of non-linear, third-person vignettes, and occasionally including entries centered around old army buddies and their lives beyond the war, this is a well-written portrait of a man struggling through hardships to make something of his life.

While a few vignettes focus on other members of the narrator’s troop, much of the narrative is, by Buccellato’s admission, based on his own experience. This often works in his favor: The deeply personal chapters centered around Vietnam capture the cruelty of war with insight and even beauty, while his accounts of facing death—the sensory overload that comes with watching a friend die—are horrifying and resonant. He intriguingly blends fact and fiction, but what will matter to readers is the mastery over detail Buccellato demonstrates throughout. The narrator describes, during an evacuation, taping his dog tags together to make himself as silent as possible, a little moment that reveals so much.

The sections covering the narrator’s later life (focusing on his marriage, health issues, family, and monetary success) are sprawling and lack the specificity of his war-related episodes. The language becomes less clear, the anecdotes less compellingly connected, and extraneous details cloud the narrative. Buccellato’s time jumps can be confusing, and the choice to identify the narrator only as “he” results in some awkward sentences when other "he"s enter the picture. But despite some stylistic shortcomings, this is a powerfully intimate rendering of a man, his life after the war, and the ways in which it changed him forever.

Takeaway: This absorbing autofiction explores the effects of the Vietnam War through the eyes of an ambitious protagonist.

Great for fans of: Nico Walker’s Cherry, Rick DeStefanis’s Valley of the Purple Hearts.

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

Butterfly, Butterfly
CarrieAnne
CarrieAnne’s colorful debut children’s picture book introduces kids to different types of butterflies and the fascinating worlds through which they fly. With fun rhyming throughout, CarrieAnn establishes the kind of repeating, question-response structure that’s ideal for storytime with younger readers. One page will depict a “butterfly, butterfly in the sky,” with text inquiring what it sees; the next page offers a rhyming answer (“eight orange flowers and a rubber ducky”) illustrated by the author’s inviting and detailed watercolor paintings. To further engage children’s attention, the answer rhymes count upwards, one to ten, starting with a butterfly seeing “one red flower and a bumblebee” and increasing eventually to “ten blue flowers as happy as can be.” The butterflies, true to their nature, flit and flow across the page layouts.

Seamlessly combining charming yet realistic artwork, cute rhymes, and educational content, CarrieAnne has created a picture book that kids will want to read over and over. The book stays fresh despite its repeating structure: It asks the same question ten times, but to a succession of new, vividly rendered butterflies, who each offer an answer that’s alive with color and surprises. The final pages identify each of the butterflies (black swallowtail, great spangled fritillary) and flowers (purple snowpea, blue forget-me-not) depicted in the book, plus offer colorful count-along pages in which butterflies appear in rows correlating with the pages they upon which they first appeared.

As a children’s librarian, CarrieAnne understands how to grab and hold children’s attention at reading time. This work of love smartly offers repeating but not boring rhymes, eye-catching watercolors, a variety of vibrant natural subjects, and the additional fun of counting. A climactic illustration depicting a child isn’t as appealing or lively as the book’s abundant butterflies and flowers, but the author/illustrator’s passion for reading and the outdoors comes through splendidly.

Takeaway: Young readers will adore learning about butterflies and counting with this watercolor picture book.

Great for fans of: Dianna Hutts Aston’s A Butterfly is Patient, Jerry Pallotta’s Butterfly Colors and Counting, Susan R. Stoltz’s Let’s Count Butterflies.

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

Click here for more about Butterfly, Butterfly
Picnic for Parrots
Allison Sojka
In Sojka’s playful storybook, a colorful group of parrots has gathered in the jungle for a picnic. Each bird has brought a dish to share, but Red, the picnic’s host, only wants to eat pineapple cupcakes with kiwi cream icing. Unfortunately, Red is too shy to get up and snag his own treat, so he asks his friend Blue for help. In the middle of her own meal, Blue misunderstands Red, thinking he wants a pineapple cupcake with jellybean icing. When Blue can’t find this type of cake, she whispers to another parrot for assistance, leading to a cute and silly version of the popular children’s game, Telephone.

Children will find some of the parrots’ snacks amusingly gross–cherry breads with roaches, for instance, as well as cantaloupe pudding and cricket cookies. Young kids will also laugh as the birds repeatedly misinterpret each other, as by the time the message reaches the yellow parrot it has gotten garbled into “lime bowl cupcakes topped with chilies and beans.” There’s a good chance this goofy tale will spur a real-life round of Telephone with family or friends, making it an appealing choice for keeping youngsters entertained on long, lazy afternoons. The rhymes are a bit forced or awkward at times (eat/sweets, icing/green), but preschoolers are unlikely to notice.

Sojka’s simple, cheery illustrations rely on simple shapes and do not incorporate much detail or depth. Young children will easily recognize the parrots and their food, but the images are presented without context, with each page utilizing the same vaguely leafy, dark green background. Although parents will appreciate the story’s message about friendship, what matters most is this tale’s sense of fun and whimsy, which will inspire the kids to play their own games and make them want to read the book more than once.

Takeaway: This whimsical storybook about a colorful group of parrots having a picnic offers a playful take on a favorite children’s game.

Great for fans of: Mac Barnett's Telephone, Courtney Dicmas's Harold Finds a Voice.

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

Click here for more about Picnic for Parrots
You Have Your Way
Hannah Larrew
In this eccentric thriller combining elements of the legal and crime genres, Glenn (Friday Calls) reintroduces protagonist Eddie Terrell, a flamboyant trial attorney willing to go to extraordinary means to get justice for his clients-- and presently on the verge of a mid-life crisis. After a bad breakup with his live-in girlfriend, Terrell runs to Montana to escape his personal problems. There, he meets sultry hair stylist Mikey Riewey, and after an exciting night together, he hatches an illegal investment scheme that will ease his boredom, test his skills, and score them both a “good pile of money.”

The story unfolds as Terrell puts into motion complex plans that skirt the law and demand Mikey attempt “some role playing, some being somebody else.” Although well-respected and known for holding high ethical standards, Terrell has no problem navigating between Southern high society and seedy, criminal elements. As the plot grows more complex, Terrell encounters a diverse cast of quirky characters, notably independent insurance investigator, Gigi Faye Erin, and bartender Val, whose speech is “a thesaurus of profane combinations.” The interaction between Terrell and other key characters makes for lively, uniquely Southern dialogue: “She’s seen me get my ass handed to me so many times, it’s got calluses deeper than leather knobs on it.”

Terrell’s personal and relationship problems come across in vivid prose: “Lee Ann had become a frenetic harpy and Eddie had become a workaholic, self-possessed, schizoid, a ducking and diving bastard.” With historical events and knowing references to Chapel Hill, Myrtle Beach, Fort Sumter, and other Carolina landmarks, Glenn crafts a tale that oozes with distinct Southern charm; if the pacing is at times erratic, it mirrors Terrell’s own wandering mind. Still, the spicy dialogue, witty innuendo, and details of Terrell’s scheming and love life will keep readers glued to the final page.

Takeaway: Fans of crime and legal thrillers will savor this novel’s eccentric Southern flavor and an enticing big-score plot.

Great for fans of: John Grisham, Carl Hiaasen, Janet Evanovich.

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

Click here for more about You Have Your Way
Star-Spangled Panties
Carol Ann Strickland
Strickland's cheery guide to the superhero Wonder Woman is also an exuberant manifesto about the Amazon’s meaning and depiction. Drawing on decades of DC comics, she carefully explicates the character's origin, friends, powers, love interests, equipment, and enemies in chummy, breezy language. Rather than simply informing the reader of the twists and turns of Wonder Woman's eighty years of existence, she highlights the eras that most faithfully stick to themes of empowerment, discarding everything else. Strickland espouses an ideal version of the character, and one consistent with the thinking of creator William Moulton Marston, as a symbol of feminist empowerment.

Strickland argues that Wonder Woman’s Amazonian training prioritizes peace and personal improvement rather than violence, and that the hidden Amazon society that created the hero should have no connection to the patriarchy. Her tone is unapologetically fannish, sometimes suggesting an insider posting to other diehards rather than a guide for general audiences. Indeed, the prose is at times message-board casual: The writing is digressive, with abundant personal asides, and Strickland gleefully employs internet abbreviations like “imho” and often uses her catchphrase of “nevah happened” when discussing stories and interpretations that she dislikes. That said, she makes many compelling arguments about how inconsistent storytelling has hurt the character and how it’s diminishing to Wonder Woman to depict her enemies as motivated by simple misogyny. (“Ugh. Nope, nope, nope. No misogyny in the Wondie mythos, please.”)

Strickland's passion is clear, and she works hard to persuade readers of the righteousness of her take on the character. In the end, this is a celebration of Wonder Woman's history, but it's also a condemnation of how recent comics as well as movies and television have let the character down. For Strickland, a Wonder Woman who doesn't work hard for her power and fails to present herself as a role model is joyless--and simply cannot be the world's greatest superhero.

Takeaway: Wonder Woman fans will enjoy this highly opinionated take on what makes the Amazon the world’s greatest superhero.

Great for fans of: Jill Lepore's The Secret History Of Wonder Woman, Tim Hanley's Wonder Woman Unbound.

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

Click here for more about Star-Spangled Panties
MOON CHILD
Gaby Triana
In this eerie Florida Gothic tale, a young woman finds acceptance and fellowship in a coven of clairvoyant teens, only to question the ultimate purpose behind their rituals. Increasingly uncomfortable with her Cuban-American family’s Catholic faith and the pressure to conform, 18-year-old Valentina “Vale” Callejas rejects a position of leadership in her youth ministry and goes to stay with her half-sister Macy in the small town of Yeehaw Springs. There, a mysterious wolf leads her to a long-abandoned sanitarium, and its inhabitants– a quartet of teens with half-formed psychic powers who welcome her as their anticipated fifth member. As they strive to channel the area’s mystical energy, they tamper with forces beyond their control, opening the door to disaster.

Triana’s tale hovers on the border between dark fantasy and outright horror, drawing upon the creepiness of Florida’s forgotten corners to infuse the setting with a sense of loss, decay, and impending doom. Vale’s struggle to reconcile her wavering faith with a newfound affinity for Tarot and spiritualism makes for a compelling personal arc, especially when it brings her into conflict with family and friends. Triana is careful to balance both sides of these disagreements, encouraging personal exploration while condemning hypocrisy and closed-mindedness. She strongly emphasizes found family, as Vale slowly learns to trust her new friends–a refreshingly diverse group which includes Haitian-American Wilky, non-binary Mori, and lesbian Fae.

Triana skillfully ramps up the tension as her characters explore the sordid history of Sunlake Springs and how it relates to their personal lives. Even Vale discovers a surprising connection, and in a chilling subplot, Wilky confronts a lingering legacy of racism when he uncovers his great-uncle’s fate. The subtle influence of the supernatural on the story becomes more blatant near the end, but the end result is a powerful tale of personal discovery and dark secrets that will appeal to readers looking for an unsettling escape into the unknown.

Takeaway: This dark fantasy blends Florida atmosphere and witchy suspense.

Great for fans of: Hannah Abigail Clarke’s The Scapegracers, Amy Rose Capetta’s The Lost Coast, Shea Ernshaw’s Winterwood.

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

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