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Starving Men
S.E. Finkielman
Finkielman’s thriller combines the simmering rage of Irish nationalism with a tightly plotted set of murder mysteries. Psychiatrist Michael Gleeson quietly treats traumatized ex-members of the Irish Republican Army while trying not to draw attention to their pasts. When he meets Turlough O’Sullivan, a particularly disturbed and lethal ex-IRA assassin, he concocts a plan of historical revenge. Through O’Sullivan, Gleeson leaves a trail of bodies who are connected to English villains of Irish history. He’s opposed by a brilliant young detective named Maggie O’Malley, various ex-IRA operatives, and the ghosts of his family’s past.

Finkielman effectively reveals pertinent facts to the reader while leaving aspects of this information open-ended. The plot twists in this increasingly exciting thriller build intrigue until the true, demented brilliance of Gleeson’s plan is audaciously revealed. Simultaneously, Gleeson’s understanding of his own family history is rocked by long-buried revelations, right until the end. There are times when the introductions of new characters are confusing, but Finkielman is able to right the ship each time. The ultimate banality of Gleeson’s father’s criminal history slows down the narrative, even if it does add a necessary dimension to the character, but the ending and denouement offer sly shocks that will leave the reader feeling deeply satisfied.

Gleeson is depicted as a murkily sympathetic figure, if a deeply disturbed one. He’s a loyal friend and an excellent therapist. The book explores the history of England’s abuses against Ireland through his eyes while also delving into how the IRA traumatized and killed its own members. Maggie is the only purely sympathetic character, and she’s an obvious rebuke to Gleeson, if one that represents a generation gap. Finkielman gives this murder mystery a powerful, personal context that is well researched, riveting, and even sadly poetic.

Takeaway: Readers interested in richly researched political, personal, and historical details will be drawn to the tense, taut storytelling in this post-Troubles Irish thriller.

Great for fans of Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man, Eamon Collins’s Killing Rage, Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home.

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

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Picasso's Motorcycle
Marc Sercomb
Humorous mishaps go hand in hand with an unflinching examination of life during WWII in Sercomb’s unputdownable historical novel. In 1936, orphaned Daniel moves in with his uncle Emile in the quiet village of Nulle, France. Being half-German causes unique challenges as Daniel adapts to life with his brusque uncle, but his situation improves after he befriends the local boys. The gift of a motorcycle that once belonged to Pablo Picasso sets Daniel off to pursue a career in racing amid the uncertainty of the German occupation. Needing money to pay the racing fees leads to a job in the circus, where Daniel accidentally joins the French Resistance.

Sercomb captures the reader’s imagination with the vivacious people of Nulle and their quirky daily routines. Emile’s efforts to purge Daniel of his “German-ness” are balanced by a stoic tenderness. Daniel’s escapades with his tormentor-turned-best-friend, Remy, are riotous. Village debates over the dangers of participating in a blood drive highlight the encroaching threat of war, although life retains some normality during the early years of German occupation—including Remy and Daniel’s pranks mocking the Germans.

The plot takes as many turns as a country road when Daniel leaves home to become a motorcycle racer. Pointed characterization, and crisp, uncluttered prose maintain good pacing with a a looming sense of the unexpected. Classic coming-of-age elements such as first love and acceptance into a community lead into a stark, touching examination of trench warfare from an unusual angle. Appealing characters, startling plot twists, and a liberal dose of comedy make for a historical novel that’s as fun as it is illuminating.

Takeaway: Fans of WWII historical fiction will be delighted by the unorthodox blend of humor and somber realities in this coming-of-age story.

Great for fans of Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine.

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

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Up From Adams Street
Larry Crane
Crane’s warm, vivid memoir of an extraordinarily ordinary coming of age in the twentieth century ranges from the ball fields and basketball courts of small-town Illinois to West Point, just north of New York City, where the author, a cadet, pitched relief in a 1961 exhibition game against the Mantle-Maris-Berra Yankees. Crane, a working-class kid, learned to view sports as his ticket to success in the world, especially as he often found himself struggling to speak his feelings aloud—a trait not uncommon in the mid-century Midwest that the adult Crane here movingly describes. In amusing dialogue scenes, his Illinoisans speak in short, vague statements that continually demand follow-up questions and clarifications.

The path to adulthood charted here is frank, circuitous, and touched with regret, especially in scenes of strained romance, as Crane the author sometimes laments the feelings that Crane the young man let languish unspoken. Still, Crane’s rendering of those long-gone days is often high-spirited, charged with a young person’s sense of promise when seizing a place in the world. Readers will be treated to insights about baseball, basketball, and golf (“Golf is for men whose hands don’t get dirty when they work, a game that meshes with the rest of their life, an extension of who they are”), plus memories of hitchhiking, freight hopping, and touring Europe guided by a copy of The Sun Also Rises.

The most moving passages often come in the form of letters written by Crane, his parents, and his sometime girlfriend, Ann, who in 1961 declared, “I want to just swallow up the world, take all its punches and abuse, eat up its beauty.” What this memoir might lack in a strong narrative throughline, it more than makes up for in endless delightful vignettes as Crane struggles through the hard times and finds his own joy.

Takeaway: This richly realized memoir of sports as a path to success will hit a homer with readers interested in baseball and mid-20th-century coming-of-age stories.

Great for fans of Harvey Frommer’s Growing Up Baseball: An Oral History, David Lipsky’s Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point.

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

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The Substance of All Things
Sam Harris
Faith in religion, family, and oneself is tested in this mesmerizing novel by Harris (Ham: Slices of a Life). In 1962 Oklahoma, six-year-old Theodore Dalton loses his mother in the car accident that leaves his hands damaged. Six years later, Theo’s summer is spent playing with his now six-year-old sister, Lily; navigating life with their father, who is still scarred physically and emotionally from the accident; and being dragged to church by his devout Aunty Li. Frank, a Vietnam War veteran shunned by the town, befriends Theo and helps him realize and use the healing powers of his injured hands. After Theo’s “gift” is rejected by his church as sorcery, his healing hands are exploited by self-serving individuals, testing Theo’s faith in himself and his family. Adult Theo, now a therapist in California, narrates this story, using his sessions with a new patient as a vehicle for exploring and coming to terms with the trauma and revelations of that summer.

Each of Harris’s characters is naturally and fully developed, making for authentic, engrossing characters that enrich the story. Young Theo is incredibly sympathetic, a sweet and innocent boy who deserves none of his trials. Equally heartrending is the powerful story that unfolds in adult Theo’s therapy sessions with a 42-year-old woman coming to terms with her own shocking childhood. Her journey seamlessly interweaves with Theo’s examination of his Southern heritage and the life-changing events of his childhood.

Harris’s descriptions, such as those of the congregations at the Calvary Baptist Church and God’s Hand Ministry, are strikingly evocative. His vivid narrative effectively captures the essence of the 1960s in a rural town, with themes of social and political prejudices and mores around race, religion, and politics that are intensely pertinent today. This heartbreaking, heartwarming story will win over any fan of the literature of the American South.

Takeaway: Poignant and devastatingly evocative, this story about faith, frauds, fear, and finding peace will especially appeal to fans of heartbreaking and heartwarming 20th-century Americana.

Great for fans of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie.

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

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Paris, Part Time
Lisa Baker Morgan
Morgan’s evocative memoir recounts a seven-year journey of rediscovery, beginning in 2006 when she survived a near-fatal illness in a Monegasque hospital. The former Los Angeles litigator and divorced mother of two small girls went to culinary school, taught, and worked as a private chef and blogger. She vowed to move to Paris, though her custody agreement required that she also maintain a home in Los Angeles, and created a home for herself and her girls by renovating a small Parisian apartment. The memoir delves into her travels throughout France, recounting how they inspired recipes, and her relationships—both romantic and platonic—with a series of often remarkable men.

Morgan sprinkles in italicized French words and phrases liberally and without translation, leaving readers to comprehend them from context (“Ahead of le goûter and fin de la semaine traffic, I arrive at the notaire’s office on Rue du Louvre at exactly 3:50 p.m. Je l’ai fait!”). Her black-and-white and color photos of people, places, and delicious foods, presented in two multi-page sections, are gorgeous even on their own, but readers might wish for them to be integrated into the text. However, these are small issues in a genuinely inspirational story of hard work, redefining one’s life, and adapting to changing circumstances.

Readers will savor the descriptions of gustatory delights, often comical and frustrating cultural differences, and language barriers. Morgan writes expressively but never in a flowery way, effectively conveying her purchase, design, and rehabilitation of a Parisian apartment. The book also revolves around motherhood often done long distance, and gives insight into a chef’s creative process while developing recipes in a tiny kitchen. Intimate writing, restaurant-quality recipes, and well-composed photographs result in a delightful memoir that will appeal to a wide range of readers.

Takeaway: This memoir of becoming a chef and moving to Paris is recommended for Francophiles, foodies, and women of all ages.

Great for fans of Eloisa James’s Paris in Love, Elizabeth Bard, David Lebovitz, Frances Mayes.

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

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Sector Rotation: 21 Strategies
Tony pow
Chinese American investor Pow updates his lively, information-packed guide, originally published in 2014 and now in its fifth edition, to discuss how current global issues, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, have affected sector rotation, a theory of stock market trading patterns. From the outset, Pow demonstrates complete confidence in his 21 strategies in sector rotation, which include market timing (don’t buy stock when the market is plunging, no matter what pundits say) and momentum investing (in his case, buying five stocks based on momentum metrics and selling them within a month). Throughout the book, he earnestly attempts to convince readers that his financial methods beat those of every other financial guru.

After asking readers to evaluate their own comfort and skill with investing, Pow helpfully provides a chart advising which chapters a beginner, intermediate, or expert investor should read and which they can skip. But though he makes a valiant attempt at keeping explanations simple, Pow often drifts into complicated topics and assumes the reader already has a working knowledge of them (“If it is vastly overbought (RSI(14) > 70) and the volume is low, it could mean that there are no buyers for the ETF”). The pages are confusingly peppered with random photographs as well as more useful charts.

Pow’s advice is worth considering, but there are a number of distracting errors peppered throughout the book. Preempting critique, Pow notes the difficulty of writing in a second language, suggesting that anyone who has a problem with his English should try writing in Chinese. He has a point, but readers already struggling to understand these investing concepts may find the writing style presents an additional barrier to adopting Pow's techniques. This work is best suited for readers with a strong grasp of advanced investing concepts who can most thoroughly comprehend and evaluate its claims.

Takeaway: This information-packed guide to sector rotation investing will give seasoned investors some intriguing new tips.

Great for fans of Timothy J. McIntosh’s The Sector Strategist, John J. Murphy’s Trading with Intermarket Analysis.

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

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Anarchy of the Mice
Jeff Bond
This meaty debut, which launches the Third Chance Enterprises series, is a satisfying mix of action, romance, and anarchy. Molly McGill is a single mom who takes on temp jobs after her private business, McGill Investigators, fails. One morning, she has visitors: Quaid Rafferty, the charming and impeached former governor of Massachusetts; Durwood Oak Jones, a serious and resourceful former Marine from West Virginia, and Durwood’s elderly, obedient dog, Sue-Ann. They’ve founded a small freelance security service and beg Molly to join them in infiltrating and defeating the Blind Mice, a group of young hackers dedicated to “overthrowing the corporatocracy.” As important computer data on property lines vanishes, Bond creates a scary yet credible anarchist near future where looting and civilians carrying guns are all part of everyday life.

Many sections of the book drag on too long, padded by witty dialogue and confounding machinations. This flaw is redeemed by Molly, a likable character who uses her background in psychology to develop rapports with some of the more powerful Mice in the group. She gets particularly close to Piper Jackson, a 17-year-old African American computer whiz who facilitates the demands of the unhinged Mice leader, Josiah, in retribution for a white business owner setting up her brother to take the fall for the company’s misdeeds. By balancing Molly’s adventures with scenes of her life as a single mother, Bond makes her strength feel realistic and practical.

The crowded but compelling tale gets better when Quaid, Durwood, and Molly discover that the Blind Mice is conspiring with Fabienne Rivard, a power-hungry French heiress and CEO. The tough trio fight an uphill battle to return the world to normalcy. Bond uses classic spy thriller elements—including disguises, high-tech gear, and an underground lake full of piranhas—to produce a satisfying if overlong climax. Readers will be eager to see what will happen with Third Chance Enterprises’ next client.

Takeaway: This adventurous spy thriller with a touch of dystopia will satisfy readers who delight in memorable characters.

Great for fans of Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, Vince Flynn.

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

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Who's at the Door?
JC Bratton
Bratton’s brisk debut novella takes readers on a suspenseful journey involving a haunted mirror. Recent high school graduate Jamie, at home alone, is spooked at 3:33 p.m. when her front door motion sensor goes off but no one is there. She recalls that just before she crashed her car a few weeks before, she saw the face of Mary Montgomery, a missing 13-year-old girl, in her rearview mirror at 3:33 a.m. Jamie and her ex-boyfriend, Mark, visit Mary’s classmate Beth and discover she owns a mirror that Jamie’s parents sold years ago. Then, at 3:33, a spectral hand reaches from the mirror and grabs Beth. After talking with Sheriff King, who turns out to be an expert in the occult and links the mirror to another long-ago disappearance, Jamie and Mark deduce that Mary was drawn into another dimension through the mirror—and there might still be time to rescue her.

Bratton capably intertwines the mirror-as-portal concept with the Bloody Mary urban legend, grounding it in Beth’s use of "Bloody Mary" to taunt Mary after she gets her first period. Jamie’s eerie family history, including connections to the time 3:33, adds suspense to the tension-filled novel. Mark and Jamie’s sleuthing efforts go improbably smoothly, from the sheriff’s ready acceptance of the supernatural to clues and specters appearing as they’re needed; older teen readers may balk at the ease with which answers turn up. However, this lack of obstacles lets the story fly by.

The conclusion of the investigation is somewhat diminished by Jamie fainting at a crucial moment and only learning afterward what transpired, but an eerie final page will leave the reader with chills. A swift pace and genuinely spooky atmosphere are the high points of this suburban ghost story.

Takeaway: This eerie novella and its smart adolescent sleuths will appeal to younger teen fans of spooky stories.

Great for fans of R.L. Stine’s The Betrayal, S.A. Hunter’s Scary Mary.

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

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The Lord of Salamander
T.H. Alexander
Alexander’s young adult portal fantasy has few surprises but a fair bit of charm. Thirteen-year-old Elijah Pendleton lives under the thumb of his “dominating, cruel, malicious” aunts, Mae and Faye. One day he sneaks away to follow a mysterious black cat to its owner Aura’s house. Aura reveals that Elijah is the prophesied savior of the mythic land of Salamander, where despotic enchanter Theodoric has imprisoned Elijah’s parents. Elijah slips through a portal with the cat, Cloe, who transforms into a talking panther and agrees to be his guide. They soon team up with siblings Jesse and Dustin Donovan, who provide rudimentary magical training, and Asthenia, an impulsive young enchanter, to infiltrate Theodoric’s castle and rescue Elijah’s parents.

Elijah’s story progresses nicely through discrete action sequences. Some descriptions are wordy and stilted (“as though he had just stepped into a lush Bob Ross painting littered with impeccable detail of briars, brambles and tall shrubs flanking the trail before him”), and there’s an unfortunate tendency to make good people pretty and bad ones “thoroughly repulsive.” The exposition primarily relies on Elijah listening to lectures from other characters. The final battle between Elijah and Theodoric rushes past and strains believability: despite Elijah’s very recent discovery of any magical abilities, he casts a level ten spell, a metric of magical difficulty that is never fully explained.

Despite these blips, the novel is entertaining and endearing. The blend of references to various mythologies (sasquatch, wingless dragons, giants called Nephilims) and nods to more recent works (a flying broom, a golden compass, faux-Latin spell names) makes a complicated world with lots of possibilities that are only hinted at. Unresolved questions, incomplete reunions, and a new quest nicely set up the sequel. Teens who enjoy seeing a prophesied hero stumbling into power and wandering across a fantasy map while making friends will be pleased by Alexander’s debut.

Takeaway: This is an enjoyable diversion for teen fans of traditional portal fantasies.

Great for fans of Rick Riordan, Suzanne Collins’s Gregor the Overlander series.

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

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Knight in Retrograde
Lee Hunt
Doubt, grief, and maturity now weigh upon the once-eager young science-magicians of Hunt’s Dynamicist Trilogy (which opened with Dynamicist and Herald), but the thoughtful fantasy series’ sprawling and ambitious final volume finds their creator telling their story with new confidence and clarity. As Robert Endicott and his cohort of dynamicists take up the ancient quest for a lost bridge and barrel toward a final showdown with Nimrheal, the demon that has turned the world against new ideas and technology, Hunt expands the scope of his saga to include a mature treatment of sex and loss. Several chapters chronicle gumshoe police work in a fantasy city so entertainingly that they could inspire their own novel.

This is the longest book of the series by far, but also as its most arresting and pleasurable. The characters seem more real now that they’re no longer schoolkids, and Hunt cuts nimbly among this epic’s many interwoven protagonists, quests, and mysteries. The climax is suitably epic, though the wrap-up afterwards ends abruptly. Hunt still relies on sound effects for excitement in his action scenes (expect a lot of “CRRRRRRAAAK”), but the conflicts here don’t need all that extra noise. They’re tense and exciting already.

The previous books plumbed complex ideas, with an emphasis on economics, agriculture, and the morality of the violence that fantasy films and games too often present as simple escapism. This volume adeptly balances Hunt’s deeper interests with the pacing of an exciting story, and disquisitions on abstruse topics no longer slow the storytelling. The passages that probe Endicott’s regrets over a fallen comrade, or that lay out the mathematical logic behind dynamicist techniques, rise compellingly from narrative and character. Rather than detract from the action, they illuminate it. This is a sterling end to a rich, concept-driven series.

Takeaway: This trilogy finale will thrill readers who want thoughtful, inventive fantasy powered by ideas.

Great for fans of Seth Dickinson, Daniel Abraham.

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

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Regaining Paradise
Paul Corson
Using an intriguing blend of hard science and spiritual belief, Corson challenges common assumptions about the incompatibility of faith and science in this follow-up to Touched By God: A Search for Higher Truth (2004). After numerous metaphysical experiences beginning when he was a child, he became convinced that there is a world beyond this one, and he sets out to prove it, in part through empirical science. His goal is more experiential than intellectual: he wants to help readers achieve “the state of Paradise that you experienced at birth” that will provide “the inner strength you need to work through these turbulent times and still feel joyful.”

Corson lays a solid foundation of scientific and philosophic principles on his way to trying to demonstrate the divine. His stirring, if decidedly offbeat, case for a higher being is underpinned with quotes and theories from a star-studded lineup of prominent scientists such as Albert Einstein and philosophers such as Plato and René Descartes. Even Nobel laureate Max Planck, the father of quantum mechanics, puts faith in the theory that science and spirit coincide, Corson argues, quoting Planck's assertion that “We must assume behind [the origination of matter] the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind.” He argues that science and religion support each other in a demonstration of how dualities pervade the universe, and says that humans ourselves embody duality, being “composed of both natural biological energy and energy of a higher realm.”

In an engaging and straightforward tone, Corson unapologetically writes with the courage of his convictions, realizing not all readers will agree with him. His strong belief that death of the body marks a point when readers will begin to experience the ecstatic “never-endingness of eternal time” will provide comfort to those brought up with fire-and-brimstone beliefs, and his logical analogies will help readers visualize complex concepts. Corson’s quiet eloquence will stick with readers and encourage them to see the harmony in different ways of trying to understand the puzzles of the universe.

Takeaway: Anyone who has wrestled with seeing religion and science in conflict will find comfort in Corson’s holistic perspective.

Great for fans of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and The Business of Heaven, Todd Burpo’s Heaven Is for Real, James Van Praagh’s Talking to Heaven.

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

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Optics
Gail Reitenbach
Reitenbach’s smoothly written debut novel follows seven friends and their struggles navigating the professional world as middle-aged women. Kris is an intelligent, creative marketing director for Klassik Eyewear, a small company in Albuquerque that makes cheap, boring eyeglasses. The obnoxious new owner, Roger, is tanking the company, and she and several other women over age 50 are laid off after they refuse to either shut up or quit. Commiserating with her friends about the ageism she faces while looking for a new job, she learns they’re all having similar hardships. After a shocking event, Kris and her friends are given a chance at creating their own dreams.

Writing primarily from Kris’s point of view while occasionally diverging to other characters, Reitenbach gives readers a deep understanding of the difficulties these women face in dealing with both ageism and sexism. Kris’s great ideas are ignored by Roger, whose father bought him the company, and she struggles to obtain financial backing and isn’t taken seriously when she tries to purchase the company herself, even though she has a detailed, well conceived plan. Kris’s friend and colleague Diana is regularly ridiculed for her weight by both Roger and her boyfriends, and her talents are overlooked in her receptionist job.

The sections about Kris’s friends and what they face are rich and well written but unfortunately brief, while those about Kris are light on emotion and heavy on the Klassik Eyewear day-to-day. Those interested in an in-depth look at how small production businesses are run will enjoy the details of Kris’s challenges as she rebrands the company, shifts to targeting the luxury market, and tries to undo Roger’s damage; they’ll also enjoy the many scenes where she earns lavish praise from her colleagues for her design sense, collaborative approach, and smart decisions. This low-key story is pure wish fulfillment for older women in the corporate world.

Takeaway: Fans of older women fighting to have their talents recognized will cheer for this novel’s charming heroine as she reinvents the company she loves and her own future in the business world.

Great for fans of Anne Tyler's Clock Dance, Elizabeth Berg's Night of Miracles.

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

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The Influencer
R. T. W. Lipkin
Lipkin (Nothing Lost) explores themes of consciousness and identity, blended with a gentle critique of modern consumerism, in a fabulist futuristic tale of a constructed fashion influencer striking out on her own. Claude Ryerson creates a beautiful virtual woman named Ash to sell luxury products through broadcasts from her small room in cyberspace. Ash’s minor deviations from Claude’s script soon develop into a range of emotions, a drive to learn, and a rebellious desire to understand herself and exist as a complete person outside of Claude’s control.

Lipkin taps into a plausible future where gossip columns push the buzz around wholly artificial celebrities and the rich pay for exclusive virtual experiences. Unfortunately, her human protagonists run toward stereotype: Claude responds to Ash’s growing desire for independence with abusive behavior to maintain control, while human influencer Quinn falls in love with Ash’s image despite knowing nothing about her real self. The “Before” section of the novel, in which Claude’s time at an exclusive academy yields close friends who become his investors, feels like a distraction from the main story arc of Ash’s self-actualization.

Far more delightful is the wondrous tale of Ash’s liberation. Claude’s cat, Devil, and his mouse friend, Bobby, guide Ash to freedom, escaping through a window that Claude never intended to exist and navigating mystical labyrinths. As Ash creates a life for herself in the real world, she struggles to move from her self-diagnosis of amnesia into a real understanding of what it means to be a sentient but constructed person. Ash’s eventual decision to settle down with Claude, who has been presented as her parent, her abuser, and her jailer, is a disempowering if technically happy ending. Readers interested in exploring the construction of the self and reading soft, dreamy prose will find Lipkin’s story enchanting.

Takeaway: This dreamy tale of a constructed woman escaping the bonds of her code will appeal to readers at the intersection of romance and magical realism.

Great for fans of M.T. Anderson’s Feed, Greg Dragon’s Re-Wired.

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

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Bradley's Dragons
Patrick Matthews
This imaginative middle grade adventure by writer and game designer Matthews (Dragon Run) blends coming-of-age soul-searching with high-stakes fantasy action. At age nine, Bradley had a run-in with a would-be kidnapper, an incident that left him with debilitating anxiety. When he turns 12, his parents explain that he’s about to undergo a magical transformation into a dragon. Bradley’s parents, also dragons, have been waiting for centuries for a child who displays the gallu draig, the power to transform or “hatch” into a dragon. Before he can begin to discover the central purpose that will shape his unique draconian form and powers, Bradley is once again targeted by the kidnappers, evil fae who drain the gallu draig from unhatched dragons. They threaten to wipe out Bradley’s entire dragon clan. Bradley’s parents and aunt try to protect him, and his fear paralyzes him, but in the end it still falls to him to save the day.

The premise of a preteen protagonist being thrust into a magical world will be familiar to seasoned fantasy readers, but Matthews puts his own stamp on it, focusing on the inner conflict of Bradley’s yearning to be respected and take action even as he feels terrified and weak. Unfortunately, the confusing power abilities and restrictions of different dragons and fae complicate an otherwise intriguing premise, and the dynamics of various alliances are briefly sketched or left for readers to puzzle over.

Teen readers will connect easily with Bradley’s quests to graduate from his safe but stifling childhood into a brave and active adulthood, master his panic attacks, and discover his passion. Those readers’ parents will appreciate the minimal violence, few and bloodless deaths (defeated fae vanish in a pop of light), and warmly present family. Bradley’s watchful mother, gruff father, clever aunt, and adorable younger sister are a pleasure to spend time with. A compelling cast of characters with rich backstories round out this fantastical story of a scared kid learning to stand up to bullies and be true to himself.

Takeaway: This good-hearted transformation fantasy about finding the strength to overcome fear will appeal to readers on the cusp of adolescence.

Great for fans of Sarah Nicolas's Dragons Are People, Too, Marc Secchia.

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

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The Means That Make Us Strangers
Christine Kindberg
This powerful debut YA novel, set in the turbulent American South in the 1960s, captivatingly recounts the ostensible homecoming of 16-year-old Adelaide Henderson, the daughter of a white American anthropologist, who grew up in an Ethiopian village along with her two sisters. The book kicks off in 1964 as her family is moving back to Greenville, S.C., not long after the death of a fourth sibling in infancy. Adelaide promises her Ethiopian boyfriend that she’ll return when she turns 18. In Greenville, she feels like an outsider until she befriends the first five Black students recently accepted to her school. Though they’re sometimes reluctant to trust or confide in her, she learns through them how dangerous it is to be Black in Greenville; even though she doesn’t feel she fits in with other white kids, she is still treated much better than her Black friends.

Kindberg portrays the transition to American life in luminous detail, using each scene to explore another facet of the unfamiliar norms, sensations, and experiences of the Hendersons’ new home: soft beds, single braids instead of cornrows, attending school, seeing Shakespeare plays, driving, movies, the ocean. Adelaide is shocked by the racist way her friends are treated. Frederica tells her about the Klansmen who routinely sow terror in her neighborhood, and Nathan’s speech about Black rights is unfairly cut short by a teacher. After Lion is unfairly fired, Adelaide quits her job in solidarity. All the while, she saves up money for her return trip to Ethiopia, even as she becomes more attached to her American friends and the prospect of college.

Cleverly drawing readers into Adelaide’s life, Kindberg illuminates the injustice of segregation and racism without being preachy or didactic, portrays characters of various ages and backgrounds with dignity and tenderness, and expertly structures the plot. She draws this principled, independent, loyal girl so realistically that readers will feel they’re talking to an old friend. This beautiful novel will move readers as it immerses them in Adelaide’s coming of age and gently teaches ways to stand up for what’s right.

Takeaway: Teen readers interested in the civil rights era will be enthralled by this nuanced story of race relations in the 1960s American South, seen through the eyes of a white girl raised in Ethiopia.

Great for fans of Susan Follett’s The Fog Machine, Kristin Levine’s The Lions of Little Rock.

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

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Orbital
FX Holden
Holden’s nail-biting third Future War military thriller (after Okinawa) gives readers a front-row seat to an international tactical assault on a devastating orbiting weapon. In 2034, the blind, disfigured, and unstable Russian scientist Anastasia Grahkovsky develops a kinetic bombardment satellite weapon system that mimics the destruction of meteor strikes. She names it Groza, meaning thunderstorm. When Saudi Arabia refuses to curb oil production, Groza obliterates the country’s largest oil processing facility to boost the price of Russian oil and revitalize its economy. The Russians then escalate, targeting a Chinese pipeline and Cape Canaveral. American, British, and Chinese forces unite to destroy Groza’s 16 orbital platforms before more people die.

Futuristic exoskeletons and artificial intelligence bring a speculative edge to the story, which is grounded by international political maneuvering and old-fashioned espionage. Holden populates this political blockbuster of a novel with a cast of sympathetic and intriguing characters. Col. Alicia Rodriguez of the U.S. Space Force joins forces with Scotland-based Lt. Meany Papastopoulos, who leads the R.A.F.’s suborbital missile launch system. Cpl. Maqsud Khan, charged with deploying Groza, must balance Grahkovsky’s orders against his pacifist beliefs, humanizing the antagonistic side. Holden only stumbles with the characterization of Grahkovsky, which unfortunately falls into stereotypes of a disfigured and disabled sociopath.

Though the nonstop action is sometimes tiring, readers will be captivated by Holden’s deft battle sequences and his characters’ constantly shifting strategy. Holden expertly pulls from recent military history, technology, and international relations to fuel his prescient epic about the militarization of space. While keeping an eye on the big picture, he also delves into technologically driven warfare’s devastating effects on individual lives. Thriller readers with an interest in the future of politics and warfare will find a lot to chew on in this exciting and thoughtful novel.

Takeaway: Military enthusiasts and science fiction fans will delight in this action-packed political thrill ride set 900 miles up.

Great for fans of James Rosone’s Into the Stars, Matthew Mather’s CyberSpace.

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

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