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The New Eugenics: Modifying Biological Life in the 21st Century
Conrad Quintyn
In this sober and sobering consideration of genetic engineering, Quintyn, associate professor of biological anthropology at Bloomsburg University, examines the present and future of what he calls “the new eugenics.” If that term (which Quintyn defines as “the modification of any biological life form … to replace or repair its ‘defects’”) sounds alarming, Quintyn’s book offers few reassurances. Concerned with both the ethics and practice of these new fields, Quintyn warns that, when it comes to genetic modification, cloning, nanobiotechnology, artificial reproductive techniques, and more, scientists are “operating in the Wild West, with mostly good intentions mixed in with hubris, lucrative patents for their host institutions, fame, and Nobel Prizes.” Regulation, he notes, is lax, and we know far too little about the possible unintended consequences of efforts to engineer the very code of life.

Writing with clarity and purpose, Quintyn reports on the state of play in PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis), elective enhancements, the power of CRISPR gene-editing tools, and more, summarizing new developments and causes for concern in prose an interested lay reader can follow. The stakes are high, as Quintyn establishes with challenging questions about these technologies: Do we understand the short and long-term evolutionary effects of genetic engineering? What happens to a society, he asks, where “only the rich have access to genetic enhancements”?

Quintyn’s at his most persuasive when urging scientists (and regulators) to remember all that’s uncertain about how genes interact with each other. The well-intended altering one element of a complex system (say, eradicating malaria by altering the gene drive of mosquitoes) might impact the rest of that system. Especially upsetting: His linking of the forced sterilization techniques of earlier eugenicists to the future possibility of forced genetic modification. It’s impossible to discern, from The New Eugenics, whether such scenarios are likely, but Quintyn demonstrates that the warnings must be sounded.

Takeaway: This survey of the present and future of genetic engineering sounds a powerful, persuasive alarm to science-minded readers.

Great for fans of: Jamie Metzl’s Hacking Darwin, Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg’s A Crack in Creation.

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

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Frogs: Weird and Wonderful
Leah Ingledew
Quite likely, when many children imagine a frog, they think of similar, familiar small green specimens. Ingledew’s (Ugly Ollie) fun and educational children’s picture book will expand their options. Frogs introduces a bumper crop of colorful, surprising frogs from around the world, with Ingledew’s accurate and arresting drawings giving vivid life to her descriptions. Ingledew highlights the curious and dangerous, explaining just how poisonous the most poisonous of all frogs might be, and entertaining her readers by depicting the world’s smallest frog, from Madagascar, sitting on the head of the world’s largest, the cat-sized Goliath from Western Africa.

For all the fun, Frogs proves thorough, as Ingledew explains the life cycle of frogs--what tadpoles eat, when and how many eggs are laid, what stage they can leave the water and why--and memorably addresses key questions. Kids and adults needing to brush up on the definition of “amphibian” or the distinction between a frog and a toad will appreciate her efforts.

Ingledew is adept at guiding young readers through text, illustrations, and layout. Her inviting pages abound with realistic depictions of near-fantastical creatures like the strawberry poison dart frog, set amid bugs, leaves, and short statements of fact, both about frogs in general and each highlighted subspecies. She vividly highlights the organs visible through the thin skin of the South American glass frog and celebrates, in a spread that captures momentum and excitement, the athletic wonder that is Wallace’s Jumping Frog. The final pages hint at a message warning about the impact of water pollution on the world’s amphibians, but Frogs never quite addresses the issue. In addition to the welcome nature lesson, Ingledew dedicates a page to an activity for children to make their own frog by folding, with the option of cutting out bugs for the paper frogs to try to catch.

Takeaway: This gorgeous picture book celebrates the lavish diversity of frogs around the world.

Great for fans of: Irene Kelly and Margherita Borin’s A Frog’s Life, Martin Jenkins and Tim Hopgood’s Fabulous Frogs.

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

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Bull Shark Part 1
Chezdon Mitchell
In this loose follow up to Mitchell’s Innocence Waning duology, which detailed Australian Chezdon Morrison’s sexual awakening and coming out, Morrison, now 21, and his English boyfriend Louis are on holiday in Europe following Louis’s gallbladder surgery, when Morrison meets Oscar, an alluring young Scotsman, in a hotel bathroom. As the vacation progresses, Morrison strikes up a remote flirtation with Oscar, until Morrison finds an excuse to send Louis home and meet up with Oscar. Infatuated with the sixteen-year-old, Morrison struggles with how to dump Louis, even as he enjoys the company of his new boyfriend in bed and across Italy and France. Back in England and unaware, Louis battles his addictions and personal issues, until driven to confront Chezdon.

Mitchell showcases the messy complexities of relationships, the cost of lies and cheating, and the ways social media can impact our lives. There’s a raw, visceral quality to the way Morrison’s interactions with both Louis and Oscar play out and how they confront the world around them in scenes that draw out their respective pain and inner turmoil. Much of this installment focuses on Morrison and Oscar’s burgeoning relationship, making it easy to sympathize with them, especially as their trip takes a chaotic turn for the worse. When the novel pivots, in its final third, to Louis’s spiral into alcoholism and claims of sexual abuse, key scenes feel disjointed and less connected to the story, especially when culminating in an abrupt cliffhanger.

Unfortunately, technical issues undermine the storytelling, distracting readers from moments of genuine charm and dry humor. Although told through three different perspectives, the narrative voices seem interchangeable, hallmarked by awkwardly constructed sentences and an abundant use of passive voice. Meanwhile, several explicit sex scenes fail to connect on an emotional or erotic level. Ultimately, Mitchell’s stylistic approach may alienate some readers, despite this chaotic, in-your-face romance’s urgency and potential.

Takeaway: Ideal for readers looking for complicated gay romance featuring younger protagonists in the social media age.

Great for fans of: Zak Salih’s Let’s Get Back to the Party, K.A. Mitchell’s Getting Him Back.

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

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The Germ Who Would be King: A Ridiculous Illustrated Poem about the 2020/2021 Global Pandemic from One Canadian's Perspective
Jennifer Tremblay
Spinning a zany and energetic narrative, Tremblay (Freddie's Gift and The Sprightly Carrot's Dream) introduces a coronavirus germ who aspires to rule the world. The ambitious virus, abetted by “boogers,” finds himself bored sitting on his throne inside the nose of an intergalactic bat. Seeking adventure, and eager to infect billions, he heads to Earth to find a human host. Soon enough, the pandemic hits humanity with all-too-familiar consequences: Hospitals and morgues operate beyond capacity, economies collapse, political leaders evade blame, and the media struggles with misinformation and hearsay. However, with the introduction of vaccines and a commitment to exercising the necessary safety measures, the virus gets sent packing with a "prickled bum."

Tremblay employs amusing rhymes (farty/party, obscene/vaccine) and catchy action verbs (tickled, wheeze) while underscoring the pandemic's enormity and urgency. Her imaginative pairing of the intergalactic expeditions of a vile virus and a continuing global epidemic creates opportunity for careful hilarity, and her comic yet cluttered illustrations offer vivid colors and satiric detail, such as the Earth itself lamenting that COVID hit right when humanity was finally starting to take climate change seriously. The risk, of course, is that some will find the humor grim and insensitive, for adults and young readers alike, especially the provocative depiction of souls chatting as they depart dead bodies inside the morgue.

Tremblay peppers the busy illustrations with interesting factoids, such as Canadian Oil being cheaper than water in 2020. Her choice to let the antagonist drive this campy, eccentric plot offers a welcome respite from hero narratives. The playful storytelling never strikes a consistent tone and message, and parents will want to sample the potentially upsetting material before passing it along to young readers, but, despite missteps, The Germ Who Would Be King exhibits some ghoulish charm and wit.

Takeaway: This satiric, booger-y picture book dares to find gallows humor (and even some hope) in the pandemic

Great for fans of: Samantha Harris and Devon Scott’s Why We Stay Home, Christina van Deventer and Bragi Thor Valsson’s LOVE/HATE: A COVID-19 Picture Book For Adults.

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

Click here for more about The Germ Who Would be King
The Pale Wolf
Robert B. Warren
This high-stakes coming-of-age drama, set in Africa during the turbulent 1970s and 1980s, finds Asha growing up in the fictional kingdom of Umaga, which she describes as being “a proverbial coffee stain on the map sandwiched between the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.” Asha is unique amongst the other villagers. She was born with albinism, and her mother cautions her that she has magic deep within her, and to be on the constant lookout for predators. When Asha and her childhood friend Talib are brutally kidnapped and sold into slavery at a diamond mine, she is subjected to abuse after abuse. The duo eventually escapes the mine, finding refuge in Young Town, but after surviving an explosion at the local nuclear plant, Exert, Asha awakens to find that she has developed superpowers, including the ability to emit potent blasts of energy.

Asha must forge a new path for herself on the run from Exert security as she curries favour with rebel army and militias in a fractious land. Warren has crafted a compelling bildungsroman with a passionate, headstrong heroine. Warren captures the struggles and hardships of growing up an outsider, charting Asha’s development as she transforms from a terrified young girl into a cunning, adept warrior. Searing action sequences are tempered by moments of poignancy.

Warren frames the story as Asha penning her autobiography, a choice that enhances her relatability even as her powers give her access to “a fathomless sea of energy.” Asha’s accounts of what it feels like to wield that energy crackle with excitement. However, this approach also sets up an unnecessarily long prologue and several heavily expository passages–the Young Town sequence in particular delays an otherwise compelling story. Still, fans of action-packed stories of growing into power will find much to love in this bold page-turner.

Takeaway: A coming-of-age epic of revolution and super powers, full of feeling and set in a fictionalized Africa.

Great for fans of: V.E. Schawb’s Vicious, Naomi Alderman’s The Power.

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

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Murder in Dubrovnik
Zoran Basich
In this plot-twisting, character-driven second book in Basich’s (Kill Signal) Marko Bell Mystery series, San Francisco police detective Marko Bell is thrust into a world of Kremlin spies, billionaire oligarchs, and dark secrets as he attempts to solve the disappearance of his long lost love, the United Nations attorney Amanda Murphy. His off-the-books investigation sends him to Dubrovnik on Croatia’s Adriatic Coast, stirring repressed memories from his own past, while he maneuvers corrupt politicians, hard-nosed local law enforcement, and Murphy’s dysfunctional family in search of the truth.

From the opening pages in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, readers are thrown into Bell’s chaotic mind, jumbled thoughts, and troubled spirit--a protagonist with a tortured soul. This is followed by the introduction of Konstantin Berberov, CFO of a company on the verge of financial collapse, and a man just as troubled. The story alternates between Bell’s and Berberov’s perspectives, heightening the overall suspense. As Bell chases down leads, he crosses paths with Berberov’s boss, billionaire CEO Alexander Maximov, a former member of an elite Russian military unit. In crisp, purposeful prose, Basich moves the story forward as he seamlessly intertwines the troubled histories of these three characters in a way that will keep readers guessing, all while visions from Bell’s past, triggered by scents and locations, escalate the suspense.

The action is clear and convincing: “Marko executed a hard downward chop with his left arm to the bodyguard’s right wrist to separate gun from hand, then threw a hard uppercut that connected with his face.” Amid the mystery about Murphy’s disappearance are references to horrors committed in the conflict between Chechnya and Afghanistan during the Russian-Afghanistan War. Although Basich doesn’t dwell on the details, some readers may pause at the gruesome nature of Maximov’s war crimes. Fans of political thrillers and mysteries will enjoy this fast-paced, page-turning plot.

Takeaway: This globe-trotting mystery combines suspense, espionage, and action enough to please fans of political thrillers and police procedurals.

Great for fans of: David Baldacci, James Patterson.

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

Click here for more about Murder in Dubrovnik
The Family Bible
Stephen Johnson
In this novelistic meditation on family history, Johnson, a former mechanical engineer with the Army’s Special Forces, draws on his and his mother Dorothy’s research of a 250-year-old family Bible that has endured in his family for seven generations. The sprawling narrative begins in 18th century Scotland, when Scott Jemison, a wagoner, crosses the countryside delivering Bibles published in Edinburgh. One makes its way into the hands of Robert Ramsey, who works as a seaman and eventually moves to Charleston, South Carolina, where he meets the woman, Tabitha Beaver, he will eventually marry in Tennessee. Robert passes the family Bible to his daughter Elizabeth, who becomes a teacher and marries John McKenzie, and she passes the Bible to her own daughter, and on and on, until at last Dorothy, having inherited the Bible from her Aunt Zelma, works to unearth its history while searching for the truth about radiation exposure at the Nevada nuclear test site where her husband Glenn--who died of cancer--once worked.

Johnson capably segues from generation to generation as he details the Bible’s--and the family’s--journey. Details and stories about its owners’ lives and beliefs add intrigue to the history, though Johnson’s tendency to switch from past to present tense within a paragraph, which occurs throughout the book, impedes the narrative flow. The reproduction of actual pages from the titular Bible are a welcome addition.

Johnson reimagines his family members' narrative, dramatizing incidents, inventing lively conversations, and filling in gaps in the factual record. At best, he brings the past to life: Readers who study the Bible will appreciate the attention Johnson gives to scripture in the irresistible passages where James Love, fired up with the spirit, renounces the whiskey he used to peddle and becomes a traveling revival preacher, evangelizing to his former customers. The material edges between general interest and family history, but Johnson’s evocation of the past often has appeal for those beyond the family fold.

Takeaway: This lively novel, based on family history, follows a real-life Bible from 18th-century Scotland up through the American present.

Great for fans of: Patti Callahan’s Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis and Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love.

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

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The Greatest Hoax on Earth: Catching Truth, While We Can
Alan C. Logan
Logan (Self-Styled: Chasing Dr. Robert Vernon Spears) goes for the jugular in this painstakingly researched exposé of the truth behind Frank W. Abagnale Jr., the subject of Steven Spielberg’s hit Catch Me If You Can. Although Abagnale has gained international fame as a self-styled con artist, one often depicted with a romantic flair, Logan unveils a deeper level of deception, debunking established accounts of Abagnale’s story through well-organized data, timelines, eyewitness accounts, and documentary evidence. While skewering Abagnale’s image as “The Great Imposter,” Logan ruthlessly flogs gullible media outlets for perpetuating falsehoods and virtually ignoring Abagnale’s true victims.

The Greatest Hoax on Earth holds mostly true to its purpose, building a case out of cold, hard facts. Logan parcels out a chronology that discredits Abagnale’s claims, and he gives voice to the (often neglected) targets of the con artist’s manipulations–including Paula Parks, a stewardess whose family supported Abagnale in the early years, and Mark Zinder, Abagnale’s booking agent, who says of his time in thrall to Abnagle, “The only way I can describe it is like Stockholm syndrome.” Logan’s evidence is clear cut and convincing, though his serpentine timelines can be disorienting--this is not a book for browsing. Still, this uncompromising airing out of a decades-old deception is refreshingly straightforward, even as the quotes sprinkled throughout from people who contributed to Abagnale’s celebrity (including Spielberg) provoke deeper consideration of, as Logan puts it, “how powerful a story can be in transforming reality.”

Logan has a flair for drama, evident in his metaphors (“[Abagnale] appeared to be collecting ideas and shiny fragments like a magpie”) and his incredulity about the culpability of media outlets. Towards the end, he slides into some excessive campaigning against the press, but overall he allows his evidence to speak for itself. Anyone who enjoys uncovering misinformation and deflating urban myths will revel in his case.

Takeaway: Readers who relish unearthing the truth will be fascinated by this exposé debunking the myth of con man Frank Abagnale, Jr.

Great for fans of: Jon Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit, John Perkins’s Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.

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

The Devil's Safe
M.J. Holt
A targeted woman and a framed man must run for their lives in this action-driven thriller debut. Stella Fargo finds herself at the center of a deadly mystery with one just ally, Egan Bogart, a man she barely knows and hardly trusts. The two are knee-deep in a drug-fueled mystery thanks to the murder of Egan’s drug dealer friend Augie, who got killed before a big drop off. Now, the bad guys think Stella and Egan have the missing merchandise, and they’ll stop at nothing to get it back.

After a somewhat protracted opening, Holt crafts an intense game of cat-and-mouse, with danger and betrayal powering the narrative forward. Stella proves a formidable protagonist whose courage and inner strength grows over the course of the story. Not only is she facing down drug dealers--she’s also being stalked by her manipulative boss, whom she once dated, a subplot that keeps the stakes and tension high. Though she isn’t looking for a man to swoop in and save her, she finds comfort and companionship with Egan, who is determined to clear his name and keep both of them alive. Some readers may find that their mutual trust develops too quickly, but they both reveal themselves as strong characters with chemistry that lights up the pages.

Tucked amid the engrossing action are occasional interjected conversations about sexuality and gender that seem out of place, and a few scenes prove repetitive. One unsettling plot thread concerns a friend of Egan’s who wants to “mold” an addict into a “loving companion” for himself as she rehabilitates, making him her “savior”--unless Egan wants to “challenge” him for her. The surprise: Stella and Egan voice no objections. Still, the duo’s survival instincts will keep readers turning the pages and hoping for a happily ever after. Any crime thriller fan who loves a mystery will enjoy Holt’s sharp twists and turns.

Takeaway: This on-the-run crime thriller offers mystery fans dynamic leads, intense action, and surprising twists.

Great for fans of: Ann Cleeves’s Vera Stanhope series, Tana French.

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

Click here for more about The Devil's Safe
An Evil Trade
kenneth eade
This dark and twisty spy thriller, the latest in Eade’s Paladine Political Thriller series, portrays a team of battle-hardened agents as they combat international conspiracies in a world where betrayal lurks around every corner and shadowy groups pull everyone's strings. Robert Garcia, who does black ops work for a mysterious agency, is assigned to stop an ISIS plot to traffic in human organs. He accomplishes this with horrific efficiency, but a sudden betrayal sends Garcia in a new direction, in what increasingly looks like a suicide mission--and he can trust no one.

Eade puts the emphasis squarely on spy tradecraft in this series: Everyone uses burner phones destroyed after each use, webcams are disabled before laptops are accessed, and even smart TVs are suspect. Indeed, agents access a wide range of tools and weaponry, including high-tech listening devices, state-of-the-art firearms. and Garcia's beloved Glock, nicknamed Mr. Reliable. A last-minute disguise ploy of Garcia’s is shockingly fascinating. Some readers will find the armory discussions and professional details overwhelming, and some plot threads get tangled, but technothriller fans will relish the engaging action scenes.

Although the focus is largely on action, Eade doesn’t forgo character development. Garcia remains a chilling cipher: After a scene of appalling violence, he "slipped back onto the beach, swung the Valkyrie into the water, and walked slowly to his car." Indeed, his actions seem to be defined by his damaged psyche--"Robert had never questioned the orders of his superiors. He never asked himself whether a certain kill was right or wrong." Adding a little relief to the violence is his relationship with his elderly Greek friend Dimitri Galanos, who is "able to tame a part of Robert’s savageness with an education on the Zen art of fishing." Readers who like coolly competent killers plying their trade with unadorned prose will find themselves quickly turning pages until the end.

Takeaway: Fans of hard-edged spy thrillers who revel in well-choreographed violence will enjoy delving into this dark, conspiracy-laden world.

Great for fans of: Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum.

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

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The Twitter President: a novel in tweets
Mark Schreiber
This over-the-top political satire, written in Tweet form, follows the surprising rise and staggering fall of a paranoid, populist President through his own outlandish social media posts. When Carl Rumble, a narcissistic infrastructure mogul, gets elected President of the United States, he begins broadcasting his every thought, leaking government secrets and sharing intimate details of his personal life. Rumble ranges from incompetent to unhinged: He suggests moving Mount Rushmore to New Jersey, attempts to climb Mount Everest in a bid to make Nepal the 51st state (“A hundred Sherpas are getting Secret Service training as we speak”), and openly advocates for war between China and Taiwan. But when an investigation into a faulty bridge in Boston gains traction with the FBI, Rumble’s oversharing presents a real threat to the Republic.

The format for this comic rebuke of tribalism and online discourse hinders the narrative and message. Writing in Tweets may suit short-form fiction pieces, but over the course of this longer work character development, dialogue, and emotional depth all become secondary to the form. Schreiber occasionally includes full dialogue scenes, accounts of spoken conversations between characters broken into traditional but Tweet-length paragraphs (“‘She’s not the same sex, Mom,’ Cindy shouted. ‘The idea of just two sexes is so yesterday’”), and it’s difficult to tell whether these are meant to be threads actually shared with the public or something more private.

The plot is entertaining and unusual. Although unlikable, Rumble’s an intriguing main character, a bombastic narcissist who descends into a hallucinatory panic. While some Trump-era satires can feel either too on-the-nose or too timid to match actual headlines, Schreiber elects to leave reality entirely, leaving behind current events while still managing to say something fresh. The Twitter President never feels boring or overdone, even as the denouement edges into the absurd. Readers looking for formally inventive satire will find pleasure in this quick, ambitious novel.

Takeaway: This satiric novel-by-Tweet marries political satire with absurdity and formal daring.

Great for fans of: Robert Sears’ The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump, Christopher Buckley’s Make Russia Great Again.

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

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Liberty-Loving Lafayette: How "America's Favorite Fighting Frenchman" Helped Win Our Independence
Dorothea Jensen
Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Tony award-winning Hamilton made household names of historical figures audiences previously hadn’t known much about. Jensen carries the torch with her second book for young readers (after the YA novel A Buss From Lafayette) about the hero of the American Revolutionary War. In engaging rhyming verse possibly inspired by the musical, Jensen details how the French marquis wound up in the American colonies and got caught up in the war. She peppers the text with modern slang (“bro”) and French phrases (“mal de mer”) while historic paintings, portraits, maps, and engravings (Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s sumptuous study of Marie Antoinette; Emanuel Leutze’s dramatic Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth) bring to life the tale’s cast and milieu.

The lighthearted storytelling still underscores the subject’s significance–“Without him we would not have won our Independency,” Jensen writes, rhyming with independency with liberty. However, the balance between historical authenticity, approachable language, and rhyme scheme fidelity can be precarious and sometimes gets lost. The text refers to Lafayette by multiple names (Gilbert, “the marquis”) which can be confusing given the plethora of characters, both British and French, featured in the story. Page layouts and the positioning of the period images often interrupts that most crucial element of rhymed, rhythmic storytelling: the flow.

This narrative is meant to be read aloud—and would be a valuable companion for classrooms and projects—showcasing its enjoyable blend of history and rhythm. Jensen proves scrupulous in keeping the text factual, digging into the political realities behind revolutionaries like George Washington embracing a French aristocrat, and her detailed end notes, offer concise explanations (“The French government feared having a ‘celebrity’ like Lafayette join the fight on the side of the Americans”) that will help alleviate any audience perplexity. Young history lovers and fans will savor this playful rendition of Lafayette’s biography, centered around historical documents and works of art.

Takeaway: Young history buffs will enjoy the rhyming text and historical art in this lively biography of the French hero of the American Revolution.

Great for fans of: Jean Fritz’s Why Not, Lafayette?, Selene Castrovilla’s Revolutionary Friends.

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

Click here for more about Liberty-Loving Lafayette
Loving and Dying in Notchey Creek
Liz S. Andrews
East Tennessee native Andrews continues her Harley Henrickson mystery series with this winning third installment (after The Ghosts of Notchey Creek). Series hero Harley, a whiskey distiller in Notchey Creek, discovers a charred car with a burned body inside it. She promptly notifies Sheriff Jed Turner, but the body count rises when Bethany Carmichael, editor and restaurant review columnist at The Notchey Creek Telephone, is murdered. Police initially suspect bakery owner Tina Rizche, since her business supplied the poisoned cupcake that killed the critic. But after wealthy socialite Jessica Westlake is also poisoned (and police arrest Westlake’s estranged husband Ryan for the murder), Harley once again takes to sleuthing, determined to unearth the true killer.

Andrews’s extensive cast of quirky characters enhances this cozy mystery, and her quick, clear descriptions unobtrusively bring new readers up to speed about relationships and backstories. The host of likely suspects also lends intensity to the story, while the return of Harley’s crush– Eric Winston, an Ivy League medical pathologist who performs autopsies on the bodies and is, in Harley’s estimation, “out of her league economically, physically, professionally, and socially”– adds welcome sizzle to the lighthearted intrigue. Their longing looks and heated, memorable dialogue will offer strong incentive to readers to pick up the next installment.

The appealing characterization doesn’t end with Notchey Creek’s human residents. Andrews stirs laughs and warmth with her attention to pets, including Harley’s pig Matilda, all decked out for Valentine’s Day; Ozzy, a rescue dog with wheels powering his back legs; and Petie, the often insulting therapy parrot. In crisp, engaging prose, Harley’s methodical clue gathering finds the hero investigating her town’s love triangles and a blackmailing scheme, while Andrews keeps the pages turning with twisty plotting, clever red herrings, and local color as distinct as the recipes for whiskey cocktails that close out the book.

Takeaway: This lighthearted mystery in small town Tennessee blends an amateur sleuth, a splash of romance, and an appealing cast.

Great for fans of: Eve Calder, Maddie Day.

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

Click here for more about Loving and Dying in Notchey Creek
Your Next Big Idea: Improve Your Creativity and Problem-Solving
Samuel Sanders
In this practical, well-organized debut, Sanders draws upon his business startup acumen (which includes co-founding Wundershirt) to examine the fundamentals behind generating new, meaningful ideas. He sets lofty goals, promising “By the end of the book, you’ll be equipped with the skills to come up with 100 meaningful ideas a week that you can apply to your career or personal life.” But readers will be pleased to find that the advice is down-to-earth, easy to implement, and applicable to just about every area, business or personal, anyone may be working to enhance.

Sanders emphasizes the concrete, offering exercises and activities to drive home his concepts, and focuses heavily on problem identification (“You need to be able to identify problems in order to come up with productive ideas”). He encourages the development of analytical techniques to differentiate between needs and wants, while urging readers to discover the root of the glitches in their lives. Your Next Big Idea covers some advice readers may already be familiar with–such as identifying your habits and learning the importance of asking “why”–but nudges toward deeper self discovery. Sanders advocates fresh approaches to creativity like attempting to combine multiple solutions instead of aiming for just one sensational idea,and he offers an original “feasibility check” to apply to new ideas.

Some readers may balk at his idea that “Your life is the only thing you can totally control,” but most will appreciate the back-to-basics approach of this motivating handbook. Entertaining illustrations and almost riddle-like exercises (such as a problem to solve involving a fox, a chicken, and some corn) keep things lighthearted while still nurturing creativity, while Sanders excels at technical suggestions and hands-on activities. Early entrepreneurs and those seeking personal encouragement will find this an enjoyable way to cultivate basic business sense and enrich their originality.

Takeaway: Prospective entrepreneurs and self-improvement seekers will find this a helpful, entertaining guide to generating ideas.

Great for fans of: Dan Heath’s Upstream, Erik Qualman’s The Focus Project.

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

Click here for more about Your Next Big Idea
Through a Forest of Stars: Space Unbound Book 1
DAVID C. JEFFREY
In this apocalyptic science fiction debut, Jeffrey depicts human civilization two hundred years from now, after a catastrophic global “Die Back”: Earth is dying, which has led to a resurgence of Celtic pagan-inspired Earth worship, while the megacorporation TerraCorp fights to control all of the known universe’s natural resources. Meanwhile, the United Earth Domain and the Allied Republics of Mars compete for survival. Protagonist Dr. Aiden Macallan, second-in-command on the corporate survey vessel the Argo, spends his days alternating between solo missions on new planets to find resources and resenting Terra Corp’s exploitation of these worlds for profit. Everything changes, however, when Terra Corp discovers Silvanus, the first Earth-like planet humanity has encountered in space, and issues orders to Aiden and his crew (including the gruff-but-honorable Commander Stegman and Aiden’s best friend, the enigmatic scientist Roseph Hand) to claim it for company control.

Things get complicated when the governments of Earth and Mars intercede, thanks in part to Aiden’s lover Skye Landen and her colleague, Elgin Woo. With the future of humanity riding on his discoveries, Aiden must uncover this new planet’s many secrets. Some readers will be distracted by Jeffrey’s verbosity and word-choice--in one scene, “tall, muscular clouds” create “a moody tapestry of dancing velvet light”--interruptions that inflate Aiden’s adventure to fifty long chapters. At other times these descriptions are where the novel shines: Each of the worlds Jeffrey depicts--the burning deserts of the Amazon Basin, the moon’s populous Luna colony, the lush and mysterious Silvanus--are so vividly detailed that sympathetic readers will feel transported.

Simultaneously a critique of twenty-first-century politics as well as a hopeful vision for the future, Through a Forest of Stars will capture readers’ imaginations thanks to its blend of classic science-fiction tropes, New Age elements, and compelling characters. SF series readers will be eager for the next installment.

Takeaway: Sci-fi fans won’t regret diving into the first volume of Jeffrey’s detailed, imaginative epic of humanity’s interstellar future.

Great for fans of: James S.A. Corey; Aer-ki Jyr’s Star Force series.

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

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3,001 Arabian Days: A Memoir: Growing up in an American oil camp in Saudi Arabia (1953-1962)
Rick Snedeker
In this vivid memoir, Snedeker (Holy Smoke) recounts his childhood as a U.S. citizen living in Saudi Arabia. In 1953, Snedeker’s father relocated their five-person family to Dhahran, joining a growing community of Aramco employees. There, Snedeker and his siblings experienced an idyllic childhood, combining the best parts of suburban America with exposure to an exciting locale and culture. As an adult, Snedeker feels drawn to Saudi Arabia, and finds that many so-called “Aramco brats” feel the same way. When he moves back to the Dhahran area as an adult, he is surprised by what has changed since his youth—and what has remained exactly the same.

Snedeker offers evocative descriptions of Saudi Arabia, the Aramco neighborhood, and the cast of colorful expats populating the town. He examines his childhood with a measured hand, psychoanalyzing his relationship with his parents and assessing the ways his Saudi upbringing affects him as an adult. The prose is detailed; Snedeker proves expert at finding the interesting in the mundane. By focusing on the specifics of his upbringing (shooting straw wrappers at a diner ceiling, the acquisition of a new family blender, the setup of an alleyway kickball court), he presents a compelling vision of a bygone era, each anecdote alive with feeling.

Snedeker has lived in Saudi Arabia three separate times over the course of his life, though he primarily concentrates on his childhood years. This emphasis allows for a vivid and thorough depiction of that era, but it narrows the focus. Snedeker occasionally touches on intriguing cultural issues—such as the presence of servants in the Aramco camp, the changes in religious acceptance in Saudi Arabia, or post-9/11 relations—only to move quickly on. Still, as a snapshot of a particular moment in time, experienced through the eyes of a young American and also his engaging adult self, it’s a resounding success.

Takeaway: This detailed memoir, following a young American’s childhood in Saudi Arabia, is perfect for those interested in cross-cultural 1950s history.

Great for fans of: Tim Barger’s Arabian Son, Ahmed Abodehman’s The Belt.

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

Click here for more about 3,001 Arabian Days: A Memoir

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