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Between Tads and Toads
Christine May
May’s whimsical illustrated poem is a parable for adults about the emotional price of focusing too much on appearance, told through the experience of Frederic, an anthropomorphic frog who lives in a community that surrounds a pond. As alternating pages of quatrains and illustrations explain, “pondling” society is made up of two groups: Frogs—who are beautiful, elegant, and perfectly proportioned—focus on being charming “living Art,” so they take ballet classes to develop their grace and abstain from treats to keep their figures trim. Toads, on the other hand, are highly educated, eschew too much physical activity, and love good booze, fancy vittles, and custom-tailored tweed suits. The pondlings go on fancy picnics, compete in swimming races, and carouse at nightclubs; Frederic participates, but inside he feels more and more empty, desperate, and self-critical.

May’s verse tends to be more musical than sensical, and includes some forced rhymes: “incomplex” to rhyme with “Sussex,” “aspire” used to mean “aspiration” for a slant rhyme with “bow tie.” (*At a few points, it’s difficult to understand the intended meaning: a swimming race is described with the sentence, “In three lanes, amphibs defile.”) But despite the occasional linguistic idiosyncrasy, the story is charming, and so is the amphibian society depicted: toads in tailcoats and frogs in ascots eating ice cream on park benches, being measured for bespoke ensembles, and skiing. The pen-and-ink illustrations are a highlight, as whimsical and elegant as the characters they portray. Frederic gazing at his reflection in a pond hearkens back to the myth of Narcissus, and the amphibians’ automobiles and swimming costumes evoke the early 20th century. A graceful frog waiter serving wine in arabesque position, Frederic dancing with a handsome toad, and tadpoles in earmuffs warming up after sledding are particular highlights.

The ending is more an implication than a fully realized denouement. Frederic ditches a ski outing and lies down in the snow to die. A pretty girl frog finds and revives him; he confesses misery, she counsels him that being beautiful isn’t enough to make one happy, and he realizes he needs to change his life. The reader doesn’t get to see how that happens, but the last image is of Frederic crossing a bridge with a little smile on his face, suggesting he’s headed for better things. This idiosyncratic will charm and intrigue readers.

Takeaway: This whimsical verse story for adults about a depressed amphibian playboy will charm and intrigue readers.

Great for fans of: Kenneth’s Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

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

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Everything That Came Before Grace
Bill See
See (33 Days: Touring in a Van, Sleeping On Floors, Chasing a Dream) details the trials and triumphs of a single father struggling with mental illness in this poignant, disarmingly honest novel. Los Angeles native Benjamin Bradford battles daily against depression and anxiety while striving to raise his daughter, Sophia, with the sense of safety and routine missing from his own childhood. Benjamin’s life changes when he receives an invitation to his college friend Keith’s wedding to Anna—Benjamin’s one true love. The invitation triggers a narrative segue to their college days, and in the present readers are immersed in the internal turmoil as Benjamin still pines for Anna and feels lonely as adult friendships wax and wane.

See captures the common struggles of single parenthood in pithy, poignant lines that convey how quickly the little mishaps of day-to-day living can spark a downward spiral of anger and guilt when mental illness is a factor. Benjamin is devoted to his daughter and single-mindedly committed to ensuring she grows up happy, healthy, and sane. Propelled by a determination to be different from his unstable mother or absentee father, Benjamin’s resolve to protect Sophia ultimately drives a painful wedge between them as she matures.

See captures Benjamin’s mental health struggles with unflinching clarity, detailing the creeping in of destructive thoughts and highlighting Benjamin’s use of music and compulsive routines to handle them. Benjamin’s enduring love for Anna and immovable belief that they’re meant to be together smacks of obsession; therapy sessions and advice from a colleague illuminate the underlying toxicity in the relationship when Anna and Keith rekindle their friendship with Benjamin. Readers who stick with Benjamin through these ups and downs will find their way to a satisfying ending. See’s tenderly frank portrayal of single parenthood within the miasma of anxiety and depression will have readers engrossed.

Takeaway: Single parents and anyone who’s had to cope with mental illness will find much they can relate to in See’s poignant and honest tale of parenthood on the rocks.

Great for fans of: Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, Mira T. Lee’s Everything Here Is Beautiful, Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone.

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

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The Seagull
Anton Chekhov, Anton Korenev
Thick with writers and actresses striving for love and recognition, Chekhov’s The Seagull has long reigned as one of the theater’s most incisive examinations of the thwarted ambitions of the creative class. This new translation from Korenev, the Russian director, actor, and New York City attorney, emerged from another set of daunting creative challenges. Korenev’s off-Broadway production of the play, performed in Chekhov’s original early modern Russian and featuring English subtitles, had been slated to open in April of 2020.

The long months of shuttered playhouses that ensued could only satisfy a soul like The Seagull’s Treplev, the dutifully radical young writer who insists, in Korenev’s sensitive and musical new translation, that theater is but “a routine, a superstition” staged for crowds hungry for “some minuscule, easy to digest moral that could be useful in conversation.” Korenev notes in a preface that the shutdown offered him the opportunity to dig deeply into the role of the character he’s slated to play in the revival: Trigorin, The Seagull’s other frustrated writer. Korenev took up this translation partially to understand the work that fills Trigorin up and utterly depletes him: writing.

The result is a nuanced, aching Seagull, attentive to the rhythms and melody of Chekhov’s own language, but unfussily direct in its English. “Life is rough!” declares Nina, the young actress, where earlier versions have opted for “It is a rough life” or “Life is crude.” Korenev’s version emphasizes its Russian-ness, right down to Chekhov’s insistence that this study of disappointment and suicide qualifies as comedy. Korenev’s sensitivities prove attuned to the desperate surges of feeling that grip Chekhov’s artists and lovers. In this rendering, the play’s monologues pulse with an aching vulnerability.

Takeaway: A new translation of Chekhov’s The Seagull pulses with an artist’s sensitivity.

Great for fans of: Sofia Khvoshchinskaya's City Folk and Country Folk, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of Chekhov's Fifty-Two Stories.

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

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Morning Star
Dorian Keys
Keys (Imprint Legacy) delivers 12 science-fiction stories evoking a hopeful future in space in this thoughtful collection. Captain Irene Deris is trapped on the derelict colony ship Morning Star, which is carrying 23 crew and 8,000 human embryos intended to begin a new life for humanity on the other side of the universe. With reserves of food, water, and oxygen, she settles down to wait for the rescue team led by her partner, pilot Adam Kacey, by reading a book of short stories he left behind. This connecting story sets the tone for what’s at stake in Keys’s detailed and engrossing stories.

Despite some less-polished writing and clunky language, the author has a knack for action-packed adventures that employ heroic achievers. In an inventive take on the cause of the Big Bang, “A Universe of Our Own” follows a pair of renegades in mecha suits escaping an oppressive society who steal an energy orb and throw it into a dimension breach. In the emotional “I.R.I.S.,” engineer David Friend must convince the artificial intelligence It Runs ItSelf (IRIS) to help Earth defeat an alien invasion.

Sympathetic characters in harrowing situations draw readers into game-changing decisions with the fate of Earth and humanity in the balance. In “Hansel,” after a young woman finds a human fossil on a terraformed planet far from Earth, she has visions of her ancestors letting their planet die due to carelessness about the climate. Readers will enjoy Keys’s range of stories. The steampunk thriller “The Fuse” sports cybernetic hearts and floating war platforms. In the story, the disgruntled daughter of a military commander challenges his desire to start a war with the subjugated outer colonies and refutes her arranged marriage to an abusive man. In the fantasy “This Is Not a Bedtime Story,” the king’s mage enchants a stuffed cloth bear to defeat Ommin, trapper of souls, and save the young prince. Readers will find themselves engrossed in this variety pack of sci-fi adventures.

Takeaway: Science fiction readers will be immersed in Keys’s space adventures filled with valiant characters on missions to save the Earth and all humanity.

Great for fans of: Rich Larson’s Tomorrow Factory, Samuel Best’s Another World.

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

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K3+
Erasmo Acosta
Acosta’s science fiction dystopia is a love letter to space exploration. Federico “Fedrix” Tarifa is on a mission to save humanity. As a member of the Space Initiative, a nonprofit organization with a mission to expand civilization into space, Fedrix lives on a spacecraft traveling the universe in search of perfect locations to build Dyson swarms, which are self-sufficient rotating habitats constructed around stars. Humans developed this advanced technology in hopes the rotating habitats would provide safe homes for humanity, which is on the brink of overpopulation and chaos resulting from climate change.

The meticulous details carefully interwoven into this fascinating future allow for a fully immersive experience. The existence described is in many ways utopian: technological advancements allow people not to grow old, injury is extremely rare, and people communicate through thoughts and levitate objects with their fingertips. No detail is forgotten; it’s even mentioned that the clothing is engineered to repel dirt. Several beautiful images help build the setting and give readers crisp illustrations of the Dyson swarm concept.

While at times this book’s extensive definitions of technology can read more like a textbook, hyperlinks are provided to allow readers a quick definition of key words. The need to step out of the story to read these definitions will put off some readers, but the desire to continue following Fedrix on his adventures pulls attention back to the plot. Acosta has clearly done his research on space exploration and Dyson swarms, bringing a high level of expertise to a fascinating subject. His authority reigns on the pages and creates a believable futuristic reality. Readers looking for a dense, technology-driven sci-fi will enjoy immersing themselves in this future in which humanity sets its sights on inhabiting the universe.

Takeaway: Science fiction fans will enjoy this technology-rich space exploration book with a meticulously crafted setting.

Great for fans of: Dennis Taylor We Are Legion (We Are Bob), Stephen Baxter.

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

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APEX
Tyler Michael
In Michael’s debut novel, a camping trip goes horribly wrong, and the three campers find themselves being hunted. Recent college grad Chris Arians, an experienced camper, is leading his friend Kate Alan and acquaintance Kevin Wu on a camping trip in the Northeast; Kevin’s paying Chris to teach him survival skills. After encountering Mr. Ranger, a fellow hiker, while on the trail, the three wake up in entirely new surroundings, each wearing a watchlike device they cannot remove. Chris, Kate, and Kevin soon discover that they have been transported to an island where they are the prey for hunters Mr. Black, Mr. White, and Mr. Blue, men who have paid a large sum of money to hunt humans. Chris, Kate, and Kevin must use all their survival skills to elude their pursuers and figure out how to escape the island alive.

The reader only learns brief biographical details about each character, but gets to spend some time in all their heads (including those of the hunters), experiencing how they think, what about the environment or other people jumps out at them, and how they respond to challenges. Readers won’t get deeply attached to them, but that’s not the point; the point is the puzzle Michael has masterfully crafted. In this deadly game of strategy and luck, which accidental discovery, unexpected misfortune, or moment of canny thinking will make the difference between life and death?

Michael’s narrative is intensely suspenseful from the very first page, with surprises, challenges, and suspicions popping up at a clip. True to his intention to bring the pace and excitement of video games to the page, this book moves fast and breaks things. This gripping novel will keep adventure fans on the edge of their seats.

Takeaway: This survival adventure will keep readers on the edge of their seats with their mental wheels turning.

Great for fans of: Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, Pamela Fagan Hutchins’s Switchback.

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

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The Prophetess
Be Be
Be gender-swaps the main speaker of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, which entered the public domain in 2019, in this modest feminist intervention “to present [the book’s] truths from the feminine point of view.” Ramla, a prophetess, plans to leave the city of Orphalese. At the urging of a seeress named Almitra, she addresses the questions of a crowd before departing and offers brief, poetic responses on topics such as love, giving, work, pain, and friendship that offer moral lessons through simple concepts. Readers familiar with the original will recognize potent aphorisms like “Work is love made visible” and “Consider your judgement and your appetite even as you would two loved guests in your house.”

In the preface, Be explains, “For eons, women have had to translate meanings and truths found in books written by men in order to see how they apply to women. Women relate better to life and the personalities involved when those relationships are presented from a woman’s point of view.” Be replaces masculine pronouns with feminine pronouns and substitutes inclusive terms like “humans” for gendered terms like “man” (for humankind). Other than these changes, helpfully italicized, the work is faithful to the original text.

Be Be’s 12 illustrations are the highlight of the book. The black-and-white portrait drawings, reminiscent of the portrait on the cover of the first edition of Gibran’s original, lovingly depict individual women and girls, each wearing a headscarf and looking at the viewer with various expressions. Readers who don’t share Be’s view of relatability and gender may find this version difficult to distinguish from the original, aside from the drawings. But woman readers who agree with Be will find this project does exactly as it promises.

Takeaway: Be’s project gender-swaps the references in Kahlil Gibran’s original and includes new illustrations.

Great for fans of: Paulo Coelho, Marianne Williamson.

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

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How My Brain Works
Barbara Koltuska-Haskin
Neuropsychologist Koltuska-Haskin's illuminating debut can be characterized as two self-help guides in one, delineating the elements of neuropsychology and laying out a practical model for bettering brain health. The first section of this thorough guide touches on the history of clinical neuropsychology, effective evaluation methods, and the importance of reliable medical examinations, particularly for attention deficit disorders and traumatic brain injuries. Koltuska-Haskin clearly explains the stages of a neuropsychological evaluation for clients, taking into account differing circumstances. Outlining technical procedures in unobtrusive detail, she delves into trickier aspects of medical care, such as insurance and the privacy of medical records under HIPAA. The second half of the book offers a variety of suggestions for boosting one’s own brain health by attending to sleep, exercise, meditation, and other practices.

In unembellished prose, Koltuska-Haskin shines a light on the common hurdles accompanying a neuropsychology diagnosis. She avoids recondite jargon and patiently breaks down terms and procedures for the uninitiated. Readers will appreciate the enlightening case studies from Koltuska-Haskin’s experience as a neuropsychologist and the emphasis on how patients, their caregivers, and their medical teams can benefit from an all-encompassing neurological investigation. In the second half, her take on nutrition is ably bolstered by easy-to-prepare recipes, and she offers tips on gardening, mindfulness, and other ways to maintain a sound supply of "emotional vitamins." For readers who have trouble meditating, she suggests a helpful roadmap to achieving a calmer state of mind and alleviating emotional and physical pains.

While the prose can become repetitive at times, it only drives the points across more clearly, and Koltuska-Haskin sustains a confident and calm voice throughout while enthusiastically guiding her audience toward realizing their cerebral potential. Offering a readable interpretation of a complicated topic, this informative guide gives an engaging, digestible account of the human brain’s workings and ways to improve mental and physical health.

Takeaway: This easy-to-follow, informative guide will help readers understand the discipline of neuropsychology and how to improve brain functioning.

Great for fans of: Catherine M. Pittman and Elizabeth M. Karle’s Rewire Your Anxious Brain, V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee’s Phantoms in the Brain, Thomas Armstrong’s The Power of Neurodiversity.

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

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A Forever Story
Cathleen Lynn Boyle
Based on real events, Boyle’s fictionalization of her daughter, Skylar’s, death by GHB poisoning follows Sofia O’Brien, a student at San Francisco’s College of Marin in 1998. Sophia has a chance encounter with the married-but-separated Dr. Luke James Du Bois after injuring her wrist, and they begin dating. On April 4, 1999, Sofia and her friend, Bella, meet up with her former on-again-off-again romantic partner, rapper Aamon Painter, and his friends. Sofia is rendered unconscious and dies after ingesting GHB; Bella lingers in a GHB-induced coma for 15 years. Fast forward to 2014, when prosecutor Nicole Du Bois, the now ex-wife of Dr. Du Bois, prosecutes a second-degree murder case against Aamon and Jesse for the drugging, with Bella’s help. Sofia’s brother Finn and mother Ellie stay in San Francisco for the trial and wrestle with the question of whether or not to take justice into their own hands.

Boyle’s characterization of Sofia as a talented, caring young woman magnifies the tragedy of her death. The use of flashbacks within the novel, beginning with Ellie’s presence in 2014 San Francisco and traveling back to the circumstances surrounding the catalyzing event in 1999, expertly captures the devastating impact on Sofia’s family and those who loved her. The author capably moves between the two time periods, which are clearly delineated in the narrative.

Despite occasionally awkward prose (“He’s worse than criminal, for he only masqueraded as law enforcement, Nicole cogitated” about a shady cop), the portrayal of emotional turmoil experienced by a mother facing her daughter's untimely death is spot-on, highlighting Ellie’s quest to find justice for her daughter while noting the impact it has on her own physical and mental health. The suspense surrounding Ellie’s plans to shoot Sofia’s killers if justice is not forthcoming via legal means propels the novel swiftly forward toward the climactic conclusion. This tragic book brings to painful life the ripple effects of a death.

Takeaway: In this tragic novel, a mother pursues justice for her daughter, killed by GHB poisoning.

Great for fans of: R. Read She Too, Lois Duncan’s Who Killed My Daughter?.

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

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The Bootlegger's Mistress
Marc Curtis Little
In this stunning historical tour de force, Little (Don’t Blink When God Calls) deftly examines the Great Migration—the decadeslong mass exodus of six million African Americans from the South to life in the supposedly better Northeast—through the eyes of a whip-smart teenage girl. Carrie Lacey is working for a bigoted, sexist bootlegger when, fearful for her safety, her father arranges for her to skip town. At 95, Carrie—who has been living under the alias Dicie Caughman and has become a noted journalist in New Jersey—is recalled to South Carolina (where she grew up, and where there’s no statute of limitations), and put on trial for the murder of her former employer, Tommy Joe Butler, nearly eight decades earlier. But just when it seems like she might be convicted of the crime, an unlikely culprit emerges.

Little’s painstaking research on the decades covered in this story, from the 1940s to the present, is evident, and the narrative is clear-eyed about the scourge of racism. After Carrie’s father has a confrontation with a group of threatening white men, her mother and siblings depart for safety in another state; “the plan was that Daddy and I were going to meet them…. That never happened.” Carrie is clear-eyed about power relations, too: “Though Daddy knew I was a learned young lady who commanded respect, he still believed that a male human was predisposed to do life’s heavy lifting.” The author pulls no punches in dealing with intense topics, from to Carrie’s rape by Butler to the casual cruelty of Southern whites during this period. It will be hard for readers to remain dry-eyed as they experience the injustice leveled at the book’s Black characters.

Little also has a deft hand with plotting (particularly when Tommy Joe’s actual murderer is unveiled) and a talent for creating memorable characters, especially Dicie’s adopted grandson Baby Boy and her colorful lawyer, Louis Bilal, who scorns Dicie’s anonymous accusers by quipping, “I hope the rattling of their cheap dentures won’t be a distraction in the courtroom.” This outstanding novel will have readers ensnared from the first page to the last.

Takeaway: This outstanding novel, examining American racism through the experiences of an exceptional woman, will ensnare readers.

Great for fans of: Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, Alex Haley’s Roots.

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

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Darkness Drops Again
Melissa E Manning
In this exhilarating debut legal thriller, Manning crafts an intriguing tale of mystery and redemption. Attorney Maeve Shaw is a woman on a mission to save both her marriage and career, as she reluctantly joins the defense team on a high-profile murder trial. With two young children and a marriage on the rocks, the last thing Maeve needs is more work or more stress—but that’s exactly what she gets after discovering a salacious text message on her husband, Patrick’s, phone and being thrust onto the “murder squad” to defend Tammy Sanford, a pageant mom accused of strangling her only daughter.

Manning’s gripping read is a refreshing spin on the courtroom drama, with a fast-paced plot told from Maeve’s point of view. Flashbacks to Maeve’s dark childhood, with a mother incapacitated by alcoholism and a father raging about it, add depth and motivation to her character. Manning’s legal background lends authenticity to the story as readers are thrust into Maeve’s world of billable hours, heavy caseloads, and the challenge of finding a work-life balance. Pop culture references and witty dialogue show the lighter side of Maeve’s personality—“I sing the line [from Drake’s song “God’s Plan”] about only loving my bed and my mamma to Seamus in the bath to make him laugh. I’m hard like that.”—and soften the story’s more intense subjects, such as opioid addition, alcoholism, self-harm, and suicide.

This suspenseful thriller is part courtroom drama and part cozy mystery, with a dash of women’s fiction and above-average prose. Manning carefully constructs a flawed, yet acutely relatable protagonist in Maeve, and as the drama unfolds in the courtroom, so does her character. Revelations about the murder trial and Shaw’s personal life are expertly written into chapters that end on cliffhangers, coaxing readers to keep turning the pages. This story, with its twisty plot and drama both in and out of the courtroom, will resonate with mystery fans.

Takeaway: This fast-paced legal thriller is perfect for cozy mystery lovers who adore flawed protagonists.

Great for fans of: Marian Keyes’s The Mystery of Mercy Close, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series.

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

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Secrets Of The 800+ Club
Terrell Dinkins
Dinkins’s second straight-talking financial advice publication (the follow-up to 2015’s One Bucket at a Time: A Woman’s Guide to Creating Wealth) affirms her zeal for truth-telling and protecting her audience from scams. Dinkins was inspired to create the guide when she witnessed a sales pitch from a speaker at an Atlanta Wealth and Wine event who “didn’t seem to care much about the problem so many Americans are having with their credit.” Dinkins wasn’t having it. “People are taking advantage of others’ misfortune and lack of knowledge,” she laments. She vowed to craft an affordable alternative for readers eager to better understand and manage their credit scores.

Her clear-eyed guide demystifies the world of credit agencies, delineates which activities can affect a consumer’s score, and lays out well-defined and concise steps they can take to improve their credit ratings—from savvily timing payments to using only a small percentage of available credit. Dinkins is adamant, in her warm and approachable way, that readers should never pay hundreds of dollars to third-party companies to monitor and improve their credit scores.

The title, of course, refers to Dinkins’s own hard-won and much treasured credit score. She details how she achieved a rating above 800 and the advantages that elite ranking affords her. But her book’s appeal is not just for those aspiring to the top of the heap; it is also relevant to everyday earners. “Your three-digit credit score stands between you and a yes or no to many of life’s pleasures,” she notes, and she’s frank and persuasive about the urgency of improving one’s score, limiting debt, and creating wealth. Her action steps for achieving this are clear and practical. Readers seeking the financial freedom that comes with a high credit score will value the hard-work attitude and easy-to-follow suggestions in this authoritative guide.

Takeaway: This guide to credit score boosting is comprehensive, detailed, and empowering.

Great for fans of: Lynnette Khalfani-Cox’s Perfect Credit: 7 Steps to a Great Credit Rating, Anthony Davenport’s Your Score: An Insider's Secrets to Understanding, Controlling, and Protecting Your Credit Score.

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

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Hermit
Joel R. Dennstedt
Dennstedt’s novel limns a chance meeting that alters one man’s solitary existence. Gabriel lives alone in a small home, on a cliff overlooking the sea, with only his cat for company. He follows the teachings of a deceased guru. When his bag of groceries breaks while walking home from the store one day, Therese, a young woman, stops to help him. Upon entering Gabriel’s home, Therese is fascinated by his extensive library of spiritual books. She and Gabriel spend a memorable day together, discussing spirituality and hiking the ocean cliffs near his home, leaving Gabriel to readjust painfully to solitary life once she leaves.

Dennstedt’s knowledge of various religious philosophies enriches Gabriel’s character, creating a man whose extensive spiritual studies enable him to deeply appreciate all facets of his life. Gabriel’s meeting with Therese is richly complex; there’s a physical attraction between them, but Gabriel focuses on his desire to share with Therese how to live in the moment and comprehend nature's wonders. The scene in which Therese reveals she will be leaving the beach following her summer break from school exceptionally captures the human longing for connection.

Dennstedt’s depictions of the landscape outside Gabriel’s home are lyrical, and his description of the ocean ("he could hear not only the crash of its assault on the rocks, but also the rippling hiss of its retreat") adds texture to Gabriel’s love of the ocean’s rugged beauty and the world around him. And Dennstedt explores the depths of Gabriel’s personality, depicting him as an authentic character with a flawed past who is determined to leave his past mistakes behind him and ready to embrace a brighter future. This philosophical novella will touch readers’ hearts.

Takeaway: In this touching, philosophical novella, a solitary man embraces his spirituality when a chance meeting with a young woman changes his lonely existence.

Great for fans of: Andrew Zimmerman’s Journey: A Spiritual Novel, Andrew D. Himmel’s The Reluctant Healer.

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

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Evolving Elizah: Initiatum
C.J. Hall
This unsettling sci-fi debut follows the crew of a space farm as they root out traitors from an enemy organization. Liz Goeff is a shuttle pilot aboard the Green Grow 3, a floating farm that provides food for those on Earth, now an ashy wasteland. The Green Grow team faces opposition from the New Generation, an ecoterrorist group that attacks food stores, steals produce, and slaughters survivors on the ground. Liz’s hatred of the New Generation is personal: her brother was an early recruit who disappeared after the organization descended into radicalism. When Liz makes the reckless but altruistic decision to bring 52 refugees onboard, she earns the ire of her superiors and must fight to prove that every life is worth saving. Then the ship is thrown off course and sent speeding away from Earth. The morality of the council and crew shifts, and Liz begins questioning Green Grow’s apparent complicity in the suffering below.

The novel is fast-moving, jumping from one crisis to the next, but it’s most successful when it slows down, and focuses on building suspense around the identity of the onboard traitors. There are many competing plotlines: the identities of “Liz’s Fifty-Two”; her relationship with Seth, the ship’s captain; her lifelong search for her brother; and the insubordination of the rest of the Green Grow executive council. Because there is so much going on, not every story line gets the attention it needs. For example, the 52 refugee passengers become a side plot after the first half of the book.

But Hall has a knack for worldbuilding: the destruction on Earth is detailed; the purpose of Green Grow (to provide food for those in need) is well-defined; and the futuristic technology introduced, including a teleportation device and an implanted chip that illuminates a hidden tattoo, helps develop a rich atmosphere. There is more than enough material for a sequel, and a solid foundation upon which to build. Readers will be drawn in by this suspenseful sci-fi story and its moral quandaries.

Takeaway: This unsettling sci-fi novel is great for fans of mystery, suspense, and space travel.

Great for fans of: Iain M. Banks’s Consider Phlebas, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy.

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

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Tales From an Odd Mind
Nom D. Plume
A collection of story beginnings, interweaving narratives, and poetry, this eccentric work lives up to its name. After an introduction by Death personified, the book has three sections. The first includes nine unrelated chapters, introducing characters whose stories are never continued: a boy named Darren meets a ghost while traveling with an otherworldly mentor, a guard is captured aboard a rebel spaceship, two siblings run a detective agency and work with witches. The second section follows a group of reincarnated souls who find ways to meet, life after life. The third includes two poems and a realistic piece of prose work about a recent graduate who finds it difficult to abandon her troublesome brother.

This is an entertaining and creative book; with so many setting, style, and genre changes, it’s impossible to grow bored. However, it can be frustrating to read so many pieces without a definitive conclusion. While the disconnected stories offer something for everyone to love (mystery, fantasy, sci-fi), they can be uneven. Some tales, such as “Box of J.O.Y.” and “Keen and Keen Inc.,” are so immersive that the decision to cut them off after only one chapter shortchanges the reader. Others, like “Project Kage,” are less immediately gripping.

The three sections feel like three separate works—there isn’t a thread that ties them together. The first section, despite its abrupt nonendings, is the strongest. It allows readers to keep thinking about each story long after they’re done reading, filling in their own interpretations and endings to each chapter. The second section, although offering a more complete narrative and well-drawn characters, still feels unfinished. These stories are so narratively rich that readers will feel something is lost when they end midstream. This collection will draw in and intrigue a wide array of readers.

Takeaway: This collection of mystical, eerie, thought-provoking tales is perfect for imaginative readers.

Great for fans of: Louis Sachar’s Wayside School series, Daniel Handler’s Adverbs.

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

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Sol Invictus
Ben Gartner
The second installment in Gartner’s Eye of Ra series sees siblings Sarah and John return again to the past—this time to ancient Rome. During a family trip to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C., Sarah and John are ambushed by their former nemesis, Aten, with a proposition for a mysterious quest: the siblings must journey to ancient Rome to unite the emperor Constantius with his Alemanni enemy, Crocus. With the fate of their world hanging in the balance, Sarah and John learn how to make diplomatic allies, compete in chariot races, and survive life in the unforgiving Alps to achieve their goal.

Some elements here will be too reminiscent of Tolkien for a seasoned audience, such as John’s eye of Ra amulet and its similarity to the One Ring. But Gartner has a knack for action and creating compelling historical personalities; the portrait of the future Alemanni king, Crocus, makes a distant age more relatable for modern readers. The book’s energetic writing captures the growing pains of both protagonists—Sarah as she pulls away from her family in adolescence, and John as he comes to terms with his role as a younger brother—along with rich historical detail on the ancient Roman empire, including its conflicts with Germanic peoples.

The Roman setting is brimming with bustling life: lively depictions of Saturnalia celebrations, vicious gladiator combat, and even slavery in Roman society, give suitable, nuanced color to this historical time period. Still, Gartner never lets the harsh realities of ancient Rome bring down his story too much: he keeps it light for his middle-grade audience with callbacks to the present (John whispering the Spiderman theme as he traverses the wall of a Roman fortress is a delightful example). This spirited story will appeal to eager young historians.

Takeaway: Middle school readers who treasure ancient history with a side of adventure will welcome this fantasy story.

Great for fans of: Caroline Lawrence’s The Roman Mysteries series, Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Treehouse series.

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

Click here for more about Sol Invictus

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