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Shadow Valley: A Novel
Nik Xandir Wolf
Poet and surfer Wolf makes his fiction debut with this ambitious ‘80s West Coast lovers-on-the-run thriller, an odyssey of blood and bullets, cartel killers and crooked cops, all centered on Heath and Rori, a pair of young Californians with bleak family lives who aren’t quite sure what they’re living for before they discover each other. Their relationship is born in warmth and empathy, qualities rare in their world, with Rori taking an interest in Heath’s sick mother. It’s also born in barroom violence, a dust-up with Central Valley bikers scored, in Heath’s vivid narration, to e.e. cummings.

That vital blend of connection, passion, brutality, and poetry powers the novel that follows, which finds the pair immediately on the run in Heath’s Crown Vic—turns out that biker whose head Heath cracked open was “connected.” Wolf invests this classic setup with tenderness and terror, a romantic’s love of doomed heroes trying to outrun their pasts, and a deep love of his milieu, as his leads, thrilled to be shaken out of their lives, relish the “new world” they share together. One glittering passage finds them taking time to ride an iconic Santa Cruz roller coaster, rising above the fog line to behold “the soft churn of white from the waves crashing over the black, shadowy shore.” Passages about surfing, sailing, cocaine, and downing shots at a beach dive bar boast that same pared-down lyricism, finding beauty in life without overstating it.

This is a thriller, though, with the threat of violence sharpening every reverie. The chatter and scheming of killers, cartel chiefs, and others hunting (and eventually setting a trap) for Heath and Rori is always sharply etched, but scenes without the leads lack the electric connection that powers the novel, settling instead into good crime writing rather than something more transcendent. The ending, though, is killer … and surprisingly heartening.

Takeaway: This epic late 80s Cali noir thriller finds lovers on the lam, seizing life in the face of death.

Great for fans of: Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source, Barry Gifford’s Wild at Heart.

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

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Domestic Arts: Sisters of Stella Mare Book 2
Annie M. Ballard
Ballard continues exploring life and love in the small coastal town of Stella Mare (after A Heart for the Homeless) with a gentle, aptly titled romance that celebrates the value of traditional practical folk art and of family traditions. Evie Madison returns home in the wake of a breakup which has made her realize she put her own art career on hold in service of her ex-boyfriend’s. Cleaning out her father’s generations-old house so he can downsize yields Evie some handmade rugs that connect her to family history, and also to Stephen Culpeper, who is collecting the stories of old maritime carvings while working at the art gallery of an old friend.

Ballard’s leads are engaging and worth rooting for, and she has planted some beautiful story seeds here, particularly around the connection between local towns and their traditional arts, giving this novel more substance than other love stories with similar settings. Readers expecting a focused romance should know that Ballard is as committed to her setting, its people, and their lives as she is to the kindling of love between the central couple. Stephen and his feelings are explored in less detail than Evie’s, as she faces much drama in her personal and professional life, including her father’s illness, some issues involving grant funding, and other dramatic elements that at times have her connection with Stephen on the backburner.

Ballard’s prose is easy to read, her dialogue feels natural, and the pacing of the story works well. Ballard teases some delightful magical realism as Evie reads her great-aunt’s hidden diary and dreams of her female ancestors giving her advice about belonging, though that promising element doesn’t get fully explored here, perhaps being left for future books. In the end, the emotional connection between the leads proves satisfying.

Takeaway: Ideal for romance readers who appreciate emotional connection and a rich coastal setting.

Great for fans of: Freya Sampson's The Last Chance Library, Addison Cole's Lovers at Seaside.

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

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Implied Consent
Keenan Powell
San Francisco attorney Maureen Gould is representing a client who is suing powerful movie producer Reginald Cleville for sexual harassment, while coping with complex family problems, in this absorbing legal thriller from Powell, author of the Maeve Malloy series. The case appears to be he said/she said, but Maureen soon finds the situation is deeper than suspected, involving murder. To make it worse, she finds herself opposing her own father in court, which brings up painful memories of her childhood. Maureen finds her twin goals of resolving both the case and her personal life become inextricably connected as they reach a simultaneous denouement that is both surprising and satisfying.

Powell draws on her experience as a lawyer to great effect: the courtroom scenes come alive in meticulous detail, although Powell never allows that detail to overwhelm readers or slow narrative momentum. For example, Maureen continually muses over the individual jurors, especially a pair of older women on the lookout for "sneaky lawyer tricks." We also see Maureen plan and update her strategies by simultaneously suing the offending producer and his company, balancing the risks. The nuances of nondisclosure agreements and arbitration clauses are deftly inserted into the story, lending an especially rich view of the legal process.

In addition to the legal theatrics, Powell has added another layer of mystery with Maureen's dark relationship with her father. The story unfolds neatly, and we get the first hint when we see that Maureen always calls him by his name, not "father." Their history infuses the story, building to a crescendo without ever turning preachy. But although Maureen is the compelling main focus, the rest of the cast is likewise well-drawn, especially bright and feisty paralegal Yolanda. And the courtroom case itself never disappears behind the family drama, which unfolds in horrific, heartbreaking detail. Powell has written a book that dares to be a legal thriller, family drama, and polemic. Remarkably, she succeeds at all three.

Takeaway: This inspired legal thriller digs deep into sexual harassment, courtroom drama, and more.

Great for fans of: Alafair Burke’s The Wife, Chandler Baker’s Whisper Network.

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

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Percivious Escape
JJ & AJ Cook
The Cooks conclude their near-future Percivious trilogy with an epic collaboration between species. Eight years after Covid-19 was contained, another pandemic mysteriously emerges—chronic insomnia that’s debilitating the world’s population, leading to fatal accidents on a massive scale. Proteus, a pharmaceutical company, is making billions with the wonder drug Noctural, but greedy company head Jon Cameron and drug developer Cooper Delaney know it doesn’t work. The sociopath Khalid Al Gamdi uses his immense wealth to kidnap Cooper and other scientists and force them to find a real cure that Khalid can use to control the world.

The Cook husband and wife writing team plows right into the plot of the third book, which follows the second book’s off-planet adventure with the XYZ, Earth’s original intelligent race evolved from whales hundreds of millions of years ago and then returned to Earth from an aborted colonization attempt on another planet, only to find humanity on the brink of extinction. The XYZ’s belief in percivious, or altruism, compels them to help save humanity. The story and ideas are complex—new readers should start with the first book, and even seasoned fans may find it challenging, at times, to keep up as the XYZ, whose enormous HELIX spaceship hides on the far side of the moon, send representative Herriden to Earth. He is able to transmit messages telepathically to human/XYZ hybrids, created to be humanity’s salvation, but Herriden’s mission is threatened when the HELIX is discovered and under attack.

A flurry of characters introduced well into the book distract from an unfolding, multifaceted plot that touches on fascinating conspiracies and Human Pinnacle Theory, the idea that humans have reached an evolutionary pinnacle, unable to further adapt to the environment. Nevertheless, all these threads eventually tie together, and patient fans of ambitious SF will enjoy a satisfying conclusion that celebrates altruism and teamwork. Readers will savor the uplifting conclusion to an ambitious saga.

Takeaway: Lovers of intricate SF will enjoy this finale that finds Earth’s two intelligence species teaming up.

Great for fans of: Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary, Alechia Dow’s The Sound of Stars.

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

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Leviticus: An alternate timeline scifi thriller (Dictates of the Servators Book 1)
Kallen Samuels
Samuels’ ambitious and exciting debut follows Leviticus Radix, a promising student at the Denmount Court of Learning—a school in the alternate timeline that this story takes place—specializing in pattern recognition, as two competing organizations attempt to recruit him. The Servators, a group following “the Maker’s Way” that believes in a prophesied coming flood, attempt to rescue Leviticus from recruitment by the Breachers, a group that seeks to cause chaos and suffering and to drive humanity away from “the Maker’s Way.” Simultaneously, we follow Nico and Kayla, people working on behalf of the Servators to hold the Breachers at bay, and Selica and Kade, slaves for the Breachers. The reader is left on the edge of their seat as they watch conflicts unfold between the Servators and the Breachers.

All of the characters are well fleshed out, fascinating to learn more about, and delightful to follow, from leads like Leviticus to adversaries like Decar Tosh, every character feels vividly realized, with unique personalities and narrative-driving backstories, their motivations driving this tale and rooting it in feeling. We see a sincere portrayal of Leviticus as a chosen one, a trope so often overused in sci-fi and fantasy but that here, buoyed by Samuels’s thoughtful characterization, feels fresh and engrossing.

That commitment to character, though, at times impedes narrative momentum, though readers who prefer to get to know a cast deeply will already be invested in the fates of Leviticus and co. even before things speed up around the story’s midpoint. From there, the action is plentiful. Whether following Leviticus as he practices his pattern recognition skills, Nico as he investigates clues relating to a message left by his father, Kayla as she attempts to find redemption after a fatal mistake, or Kade and Selica as they desperately try to find an escape from the Breachers, the stakes are consistently high, the cast compelling, and the story electrifying.

Takeaway: Character-rich and action-packed, this sci-fi adventure smartly balances prophecies, tech, and conflict.

Great for fans of: Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society, R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War.

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

Hold On to Your Muscle, Be Free of Disease: OPTIMIZE YOUR MUSCLE MASS TO BATTLE AGING AND DISEASE WHILE PROMOTING TOTAL FITNESS AND WEIGHT LOSS
Robert Iafelice
Functional nutritionist Iafelice examines the connection between muscle and longevity in this polished debut. Characterizing muscle as “the key organ in our bodies that drives robust health and healthy aging,” he offers an in-depth look at preserving it for the long haul, digging into the science behind why it may be the best predictor of fitness and exploring its role in preventing a host of diseases—including metabolic heavy hitters like Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Iafelice rounds out the book with dietary recommendations, tackling the carbs versus protein debate, and outlines the type of exercise most beneficial to building and sustaining muscle.

Iafelice sounds the alarm on several dangerous habits, the most prominent being a sedentary lifestyle, urging followers to get up and start moving (“Exercise is mandatory, not optional” he writes) but also cautions against wasting time with exercise that probably won’t produce the desired results. High-intensity interval training is his go-to recommendation, and he advocates for exercise when fasting to achieve the best results, with the warning that fasting may not be indicated for some populations (children, the elderly, and pregnant women, among others). Iafelice acknowledges upfront that some of his advice goes against the grain: he’s adamant that high-quality animal protein is superior to plant-based protein, and he works hard to debunk the myth that meat contributes to chronic disease.

Readers looking for hands-on help will appreciate Iafelice’s inclusion of sample meal plans and exercise options in the appendix, particularly the photographs that clearly demonstrate the correct way to perform each movement. His dedication to the science driving his theories shines through throughout, as when he dives into technical jargon like sarcopenia-the loss of muscle over time with aging-but does so with precision and finesse. This is a well-researched, energetic call to action, as in Iafelice’s own words, “we don’t slow down because we’re getting old—we get old because we slow down.”

Takeaway: A call to action detailing the link between muscle health and human longevity.

Great for fans of: Michael Matthews’s Muscle for Life, Austin Current’s Science of Strength Training.

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

The Taste of Light
Giovanna Siniscalchi
In the inspired second entry in her Winemakers series, Siniscalchi proves adept at both historical accuracy and crafting a set of believable leads rich with quirks. In a vividly rendered late 19th century Portugal, Anne and Pedro, forced together by a chance meeting and botched murder attempt on the king, must work together to prove Pedro's innocence, despite his appearance of guilt to those in power. With the past rearing its ugly head for Pedro, and the search for naive love clouding Anne's vision, these two must stumble together—and toward each other—in the fight for their lives.

Siniscalchi captures readers’ attention from the beginning, and her union of history with intrigue is a winning combination. At first, Anne and Pedro come across as an alliance that’s not just unlikely but unthinkable, especially given that Anne's brother and Pedro hate each other for transgressions of the past, and the pair are given little more than a chance encounter before being thrust into a dangerous situation, forcing them to place trust in each other. Siniscalchi wrings fresh tension and passion from the familiar setup of characters who simultaneously loathe and long for each other, and The Taste of Light will stir in romance readers a maelstrom of emotions as plots unwind and Anne and Pedro grow closer in their journey to prove his innocence.

Besides rich historical detail, vibrant prose, and engaging relationships, Siniscalchi offers a plot that never lets up, weaving a delicate tale of a man who believes he is undeserving of love and a woman—with “Atlantic eyes and cheeks flaming like port wine”—who doesn't know better than to expect love to be everything it is not. Readers of both regency and historical romance will find that this book grabs attention and keeps it until the very last page.

Takeaway: Regency and historical romance readers will love this tale of opposites proving a man’s innocence.

Great for fans of: Cheryl Bolen, Emma Linfield, Bridget Barton

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

Click here for more about The Taste of Light
The Bone Records
Rich Zahradnik
Former journalist Zahradnik (Lights Out Summer) entices with a chilling mystery in which a son newly reunited with his father ends up trying to solve his father’s murder. Working two jobs to make ends meet, police academy dropout Grigg Orlov is selling his father’s Little Odessa house, six months after the older man went missing. But when Grigg’s father comes home, saying that he is leaving for Russia, an assailant comes for the Orlovs—and the father ends up dead. Grigg’s only legacy seems to be a black tube containing a rolled-up, disc-shaped X-ray of a skull. As his search for a killer leads him to connecting his father’s experiences in Leningrad with the brutal murder, Grigg gets help from Katia Sokolov, his one-time girlfriend, whose own father grew up with Grigg’s.

Zahradnik’s knowledge of New York quickly immerses the reader in this deftly plotted thriller. Also fascinating: Grigg discovers that these bone discs were used by bootleggers in the Soviet Union to play banned records, though he has no idea of the importance of this disc or how it’s connected to the life his father left behind. As Zahradnik draws a contrast between Grigg’s father’s restrictive life in Leningrad and the freedoms he enjoyed in the U.S., Grigg realizes how little he knew about the man, and how much is lost forever.

Grigg’s quest to find the murderer and keep himself and Katia alive also is a quest for closure—and for finding his place in the world. As the mystery ramps up and Grigg discovers some flash drives and plenty of cash hidden in a shipping container, he tries to fit the pieces together. Just who has been tailing the duo, and are Russians secret service agents (SVR) involved? Can they trust the FBI agents who bring them in for questioning? The twisty suspense and the certainty that no one is as they appear keeps the pages turning.

Takeaway: A twisty, emotionally resonant thriller sends a son investigating his Russian father’s death and life.

Great for fans of: Joseph Koenig’s Little Odessa, Ben Coes’s The Russian.

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

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Medicine Goes Corporate: My Tale of Corruption, Injustice, and Greed
Jack Spenser, M.D.
An outraged true-life story blending clear-eyed explanations of complex systems with elements of a medical thriller, Spenser’s eye-opening account exposes the pressure placed on medical professionals by corporations obsessed with metrics, quotas, and profits—and the punishment those corporations will exact on those who prioritize patient care. Comparing healthcare systems to coral reefs that must maintain a delicate balance for every life that depends on it to thrive, pathologist Spenser (Diary of a Malpractice Lawsuit) argues that the U.S. medical system is in fact dying, thrown out of whack by corporate consolidation. In Spenser’s telling, that means doctors experienced “various subtle and not so subtle measures” to make sure they “did all they could to make things lucrative.”

Spenser first encountered this in 2015, when emergency room services at Excel Pinnacle Hospital were contracted out to Benevolent Holdings. (He changes proper nouns throughout the book, often with a satiric spirit.) Now doctors felt pressure to admit more E.R. patients to the hospital proper, “especially if the patients admitted had good insurance and could pay their hospital bills.” Meanwhile, under new rules crafted to keep physicians efficient, quality of care declined, with the powers that be mostly neglecting to address complaints. Soon other departments went the way of the emergency room, with crucial staff let go, longstanding contracts canceled, and patients literally dying without seeing doctors.

While this compact page-turner doesn’t name names, it still reveals harrowing cases, systemic failures, and the Orwellian corporate doublespeak that greeted his and others’ efforts to enact change. Especially chilling is Spenser’s account of going to “war” with the Merciful Insurance Company, which, he reports, would eventually attempt to “bully my pathology lab into insolvency.” He illuminates the complexities of billing, insurance, and government programs that companies are incentivized to exploit—and he always emphasizes the devastating impact this has on the individual and collective health of Americans.

Takeaway: The harrowing story of medical professionals facing corporate power that puts patients last.

Great for fans of: Elisabeth Rosenthal’s An American Sickness, Jonathan Bush’s Where Does it Hurt?

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

Click here for more about Medicine Goes Corporate
Shadelands
Rachel Randall
Inspired by her years of living in Latvia, Randall gathers elements of folklore from that country—especially kidnapping devils who drag their prey through the forest and to other worlds—and reinvents them to spin a shivery tale in this clever middle-grade debut. In the unrelenting dark of the Shadelands, twelve-and-a-half year old Nia is trapped by regrets and despair, longing to return to her home, the Sunlands, and hearing negative thoughts (and a repetitive lullaby) from her imp, Pester, poison her mind. When a charismatic boy from her world, Tanni, offers to lead Nia back to the Sunlands, she finally jumps at the chance, with Pester giving chase. But after Tanni is captured, Nia fears she will be stuck in the gloomy dark realm for good.

This middle-grade fantasy will draw in readers who love mystery and magic from the first page. Randall’s tight plotting and skillful characterization power the story, and a clever plot twist involving the amusing imp Pester will keep them guessing about the loyalties and secrets of the various creatures who cross the heroes’ path. The Shadelands themselves, meanwhile, are an evocative, spooky creation, alive with sprites and drudges and surprises, a place close to the fairy-tale roots of fantasy. Nia suspects, among the dull gray light, that “the trees were whispering dark thoughts to each other overhead.”

Nia’s pluck and perseverance is a continual delight, as are the author’s world-building skills, replete with clever imps (some, surprisingly, with unexpected moral compasses) and sprites, gloomy drudges, scary forests, and yawning portals to alternate worlds. Randall makes readers feel Nia’s naked hope, her intense desire to return to her home and loved ones, even though she originally left because after a family fight, she felt like a burden to all. While geared toward middle-grade readers, adults who love fantasy stories tinged with darkness but light in approach will also devour Randall’s tale.

Takeaway: Drawing on Eastern European folklore, this debut will delight middle-grade fantasy lovers.

Great for fans of: Gary Paulsen’s Northwind, Juliana Brandt’s Monsters in the Mist.

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

Click here for more about Shadelands
The Healer
Brown Mohamed
Mohamed’s debut, a crisply told paranormal thriller with science-fiction elements, revolves around Mark, the general manager at a tech company whose life, despite his occasional demonic nightmare, is progressing pretty much on track until the death of his wife, Rachel, and Mark’s jolting discovery that he’s a healer. Soon he’s caught up in a battle between dark forces who have larger purposes that are a complete mystery to Mark. Among those forces: a shadowy group called The Establishment, who isn’t above murder to get what it wants; the opposing group the Alliance; and mysterious figures like The Professor and Apollo, the latter of whom instructs Mark in healing and suggests that people with psychic powers control the economy and other aspects of our lives.

What Mark does know is everyone’s trying to manipulate him for their own purposes, and he has to figure out a way to hold his own before it’s too late. Aptly titled, the twisty novel hinges on Mark’s absolutely rare ability to heal people using his own newly discovered psychic powers. Mohamed is fascinated with the mechanics of how he does this, spinning elaborate accounts of energy, imagination, and dreamscapes, which seethe with mystery and tension. There’s also psychokinesis, mind control, astral projection and divination. Despite its attention to how these powers work, the novel is fast paced, hurtling forward from one psychokinetic scene or revelation to another.

At times, the plot can become convoluted, and some readers may feel there are too many parallel intrigues to keep up with. The material is thoughtful, but for all the flashbacks and explanations, Mohamed also doesn’t skimp on action, with surprise gunplay and even a dreamscape robot battle. The kitchen-sink approach makes sense within the narrative, as Mohamed does justice to the heady ideas and paranormal thriller genre. All in all, lovers of this genre will enjoy this book, which moves fast and boasts big revelations.

Takeaway: This paranormal thriller boasts psychic powers, big revelations, and a spiritual heart.

Great for fans of: Dan Simmons’s Carrion Comfort, Stephen King’s The Institute.

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

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The Hawk's Flight: Book Two of the Three Brothers Trilogy
Elizabeth R. Jensen
In the action-packed second entry in Three Brothers Trilogy, Jensen continues the story of the Wolfensberger family’s three promising fighters caught in the thick of the wars that have come to two of the borders of the land of Etria. Again demonstrating a sure hand for adventure and mounted combat, Jensen follows Jules, Kass, and Borus in classic middle-book fashion, their stories spreading throughout the kingdom while the root themes remain the relationships between the brothers, their masters, and their individual selves and burgeoning strengths. Each brother, all teenagers, finds their talents tested and honed, as Jensen links excitement and character development by dramatizing every challenge, hardship, and triumph—all as the brothers deal with knights, sorcerers, priestesses, mythic beasts, surprising magical dangers, and a standout companion named Sir Horse.

The characters, refreshingly, demonstrate honesty, integrity, and even a vulnerability too often uncharacteristic of masculine heroes, as all three care deeply for their friends, family, and kingdom. The brothers’ skills allow for a variety of types of fantasy action: Jules, the only “weather mage” in Etria, explores the techniques and application of magical powers in striking scenes, while Kass’s apprenticeship with a knight master gives him the rare opportunity to gain skills unforeseen for squires of the era. Meanwhile, Borus, the eldest, wields his sword and leadership skills with increasing alacrity. Jensen emphasizes throughout that this kind of heroism demands commitment and hard training.

While the brothers and their journeys are vividly detailed, this volume leaves it to readers to fill in much of the social, economical, and especially physical landscape of the lands in which the Wolfensbergers train and battle. Still, the eloquent writing and courtly dialogue (“It is not always the enemy outside the walls that is the worst one, it is the enemy inside your head”) as well as the serious treatment of boys maturing into heroes results in a rich, engaging read that takes young people seriously.

Takeaway: This chivalric trilogy emphasizes character, training, and adventure.

Great for fans of: Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Greystone Secrets series, Diane Magras’s The Mad Wolf's Daughter.

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

Click here for more about The Hawk's Flight
Delaware Before the Railroads: A Diamond Among the States
Dave Tabler
Tabler debuts with a visual feast introducing readers to the First State before the golden age of the railroad. Drawing on photographs of locations, reconstructions, and historical objects, together with brief captions and rigorous notes, Tabler weaves a rich tapestry of industry, politics, and faith. He organizes the photographs roughly chronologically, tracking Delaware’s development from Swedish settlers to American independence, and dedicates space to images that reflect Delaware’s Native American history, as well as tracing the impact that enslaved people had on the state’s historical development.

Rather than a traditional narrative history related in text chapters, Delaware Before the Railroads offers a vivid mosaic, driven by illustrations, the layout brimming with insights and illuminating facts delivered in captions and occasional more in-depth paragraphs. History buffs may wish for a timeline or map to pin down aspects of Delaware’s intriguing background, but Tabler’s snippets of life and culture will appeal. Readers will learn about homespun clothing and colonial clockmaking, about hints of undiscovered gold at the bottom of Delaware Bay, and how 18th century plantation owners—in an effort to appear wealthy—often mimicked marble by painting the wooden lintels above their windows in a similar pattern.

The photographs are a standout, providing a genuine sense of the physical culture, built spaces, and locations that comprised this era of Delaware’s history. Tabler includes anecdotes to add texture and avoid dry recitation of historical details,ranging from the processes behind colonial clockmaking to antiquated medical practices (“Tooth drawers’ sometimes used such painful practices as string pulling and hot coals to get teeth out“). The choice to zero in on the pre-railroad era smartly enables Tabler to dive more deeply into a relatively limited time frame, allowing a greater emphasis on often lost details. Fans of photography, history lovers, and anyone fascinated by the material life of the past will relish this chronicle of early Delaware.

Takeaway: A lavishly illustrated history immersing readers in Colonial Delaware life and culture.

Great for fans of: Kim Rogers Burdick’s Revolutionary Delaware, John A. Munroe’s History of Delaware.

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

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A Coffee with Archangels: Light Coaching for a better life
Isa Millot
Millot debuts with an impassioned study on self-actualization through communing with archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel. She opens with her childhood, sharing the challenges she faced when ostracized by peers and facing family turmoil, and details the reassuring presence of her archangel “friends” throughout, such as her first vivid experience with them in a dream and her fear of announcing their presence to others. To help readers “dare to be yourself no matter what the circumstances,” Millot offers a step-by-step process to engage the archangels and embrace their guidance, by crafting structured and intentional letters to each of them individually.

Spiritually minded readers will soak up the almost-lyrical devotion Millot evinces: “Life is like a symphony whose tempo adapts to the passing of time,” she writes, “this great journey that transforms matter into a trail of powder.” To prompt self-awareness, she describes the persona of each angel (Michael displays a natural authority, while Uriel is the “mature child” who will elicit a sense of magic in life) and outlines the process of “light coaching”—14 structured letters, each written to one of the four archangels, to prompt progressive growth towards the goal of empowerment and wholeness. Millot includes sample letters to crystallize her guidance, and key elements to address in each one, all welcome additions given the complexity of her subject.

Though this can be a challenging theme to share and fully comprehend—Millot acknowledges the judgment of others has interfered at times with her own understanding—her passion and desire to help is evident throughout this guide. Cautioning that “spirituality is supposed to be an environment of tolerance and love,” Millot’s advice is warm and intimate, a comforting balance of abstract and precise. She closes the book with a helpful listing of requests readers can make of the archangels, along with situation-specific instructions,and gentle encouragement to “go forward without fear.

Takeaway: An inviting how-to for believers on communicating with archangels.

Great for fans of:: Linda Pendleton’s Softly With Love, Joanne Brocas’s The Power of Angels.

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

Click here for more about A Coffee with Archangels
THE BEACH HOUSE HOSTAGE
RUBEN O ELUSTONDO
A high stakes kidnapping with multiple suspects and motives forces a detective and her partner to uncover the clues and rescue the wife of a millionaire in the third novel from Elustondo (author of Turtle Creek). The Beach House Hostage ratchets up the intensity early on with the kidnapping of Lisa Walker, wife of Houston businessman James Walker. Detective Alyssa Anderson quickly discovers that many people close to Lisa are keeping secrets, and more than one could stand to benefit from holding her hostage. Son Andrew is drowning in gambling debts—and harboring an Ivy league secret. Lisa’s best friend has been rekindling an old relationship with James behind Lisa’s back, James’s business rival would gain if James doesn’t submit a bid for a major construction project. And James himself, never one to hesitate on using down-and-dirty tricks to get ahead, could be behind the kidnapping himself.

Low on violence, and high on classic whodunnit puzzles, this polished mystery will appeal to readers who enjoy a good crime puzzle without the gore—but with a welcome connection to the real world. As Lisa tries to find a way to escape her kidnappers, Anderson and her partner Ramon work to hunt down leads that will bring her home safely, before narrowing in on someone the reader may not suspect, all as Anderson must navigate a world where she has to state directly to people “You’re not the first to act according to stereotypes regarding women, especially women of color.”

Elustondo deftly establishes multiple motives for Lisa’s kidnapping, all of which feel plausible. A lack of cooperation, and clues that point at multiple suspects help maintain the possibility that anyone could be the kidnapper up until the very end. The storyline of Andrew’s gambling debts feels less compelling than the others, but Anderson and her partner Ramon Reyes prove compelling detectives, and Elustondo brings the twisty case to a satisfying conclusion.

Takeaway: A polished, high stakes whodunnit finds Houston detectives facing a clever kidnapping.

Great for fans of: Chevy Stevens’s Still Missing, D.J. Palmer's My Wife is Missing.

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

Click here for more about THE BEACH HOUSE HOSTAGE
Becoming A Hero
Cyndi "Go Go" Merritt
Merritt (Becoming Santa) offers an uplifting story about inclusivity and treating people with a disability with respect, providing a valuable lesson for young readers. Sandy-haired Daniel is a typical middle school student who kids around with his friends in class. His teacher, Mrs. Harper, assigns the children to write an essay about someone they consider a hero. Daniel puts off writing his essay, and instead helps his bespeckled friend Charlie with his math homework, defends Charlie against a dark-haired bully, and at recess plays catch with him with a baseball, even though Charlie isn’t very good at it. Daniel also takes care of his little cousin, Amelia, and makes sure she’s safe on the bus. Charlie remarks often that “Daniel was just being nice.”

Merritt portrays Daniel as helpful, cheerful, and strong of character, fending off bullies and devoted to his friends and family. The revelation at the end of the story is that Charlie is in a wheelchair, the result of an unnamed disease. When Charlie reads his essay in front of the class, he declares that Daniel is his hero, saying, “He sticks up for me and treats me like I’m just a normal kid.” Merritt highlights that children can learn to be respectful, accepting, and kind to others who may have physical limitations.

Illustrator Oliver Kryzz Bundoc uses simple drawings boldly colored to show the happy children active at school and at play. Bundoc uses subtle hints to deftly incorporate Charlie’s wheelchair into the scenes. Occasional discontinuity might confuse some readers, such as when the text mentions peanut-butter crackers while the illustration depicts chocolate-chip cookies, and the story at times is wordy. Still, the important message about showing people with disabilities understanding and kindness is imparted with clarity and warmth, and the book will resonate with parents teaching their children life lessons.

Takeaway: Parents will find the lesson of treating people with a disability with respect and kindness valuable.

Great for fans of: Aneta Cruz’s Juan Has the Jitters, Bob Sornson’s Stand in My Shoes.

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

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