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Shadow: Run, but you can't hide
Gurpreet Kaur Sidhu
Sidhu’s ambitious, character-grounded thriller series returns, once again finding mystery and suspense where life and death edge against each other as past lives and a shadowy intelligence agency wreak havoc on a pair of parents-to-be. Evan Storm, the protagonist of Storm: It's a Curse to Remember, is haunted by recurring dreams of his family’s past as his wife Shadow takes maternity leave. Baby Bright is on the way, but the SEA—the corrupted Secret Eye Agency—and the psychopaths in its ranks is still out there, meaning the family’s not safe, despite the efforts of Evan’s father, Bruce, and his colleagues to shut it down. Bruce is facing a tough diagnosis, and some distrust over the secrets he’s kept, while Evan’s visions of the past suggest that Bright will be in danger of being taken away by the SEA.

Facing the danger and the past will involve courage, trust, and the revelation of dark truths, as tragedy touches their lives and Evan and Shadow must rely on Bruce for safety in a world where, as Evan muses, “people lurking in the shadows…would take innocent lives just for power.” Sidhu’s thrillers exhibit an uncommon interest in the humanity and connections of their characters, with much of this novel’s first half dedicated to warm domestic scenes—and some convincing arguments and expressions of regret—between Evan’s flashbacks to the 1930s and shorter scenes at the SEA. That big-hearted attentiveness to what matters in life ensures that the plot’s jolts, when they come, have serious impact, though readers who prefer their suspense tales lean and mean may find the pacing slow.

Sidhu proves adept at twining past and present while creating the sense that nowhere is safe—a set piece in which a character is heavily medicated in a hospital bed is chilling. Still, Shadow doesn’t forego the thrills of high-tech gadgetry and desperate action. Setting it apart, though, is its focus on all that its heroes have to lose.

Takeaway: A spy thriller with a big heart, visions of the past, and an emphasis on human connections.

Great for fans of: Melissa Caudle’s Never Stop Running, Karen Cleveland’s Need to Know.

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

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Like a Spark From Fire: Break Free from the Past, Shine Your Brilliance and Become Your True Self
Debra Berndt Maldonado
Writing for women who feel stuck or that they’re not realizing their full potential, Maldonado (Let Love In) lays out in clear, engaging language practical steps and philosophical precepts to help readers break free, “ignite” their lives, and move through the world with less stress, more self-compassion, and understanding of one’s persona, projections, patterns, visions, and personal spark. That “spark” refers to the unchanging core self, a “True Personality” that we’re each born with; occasionally, Maldonado argues, we experience “spark moments,” soul-deep flashes of clarity and truth that remind us “to remember who you are and reclaim your power.” Like a Spark from Fire offers tools, insights, and practical guidance to connect readers with that spark and (re)discover their essential nature.

“Let’s draw the curtains and see who you really are,” Maldonado writes. While she draws on Jungian concepts and Eastern mysticism, Maldonado writes with the tone of a coach or confidant, offering practical advice and insights, anecdotes from her own journey, exercises and meditation prompts, plus much spirited encouragement. (“As you express true feminine power, you can inspire other women to speak up as well, feel more confident, and consciously create a new, more loving world.”) Even chapters addressing how to identify and “integrate” one’s “shadow” remain clear-eyed and persuasive, neither sinking into vagueness nor getting bogged down in Jungian complexities.

Some readers may find Maldonado’s breakdowns of “persona type”s (The Lover, The Mother, The Mystic) too generalized, though she takes care to note that these are most often facets of personalities rather than the totality. Throughout, she reminds readers that what matters most is what resonates with them, as we’re all unique and complex. The result is an inviting guide that makes complex ideas simple, relatable—and, most crucially—applicable to a broad range of readers who are open to its ideas.

Takeaway: This guide for women to seizing their power by revealing their core self is inviting and adaptable.

Great for fans of: Shainna Ali’s The Self-Love Workbook, Catherine A. Duca’s Unmasked.

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

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How Did I Do That? : A Life of Risk and Reward
Bill Dutcher
Looking back on an eventful “life of risk and reward,”Oklahoma oil-and-gas entrepreneur Dutcher addresses the titular question of “how did I do that?” with thoughtful good humor, sometimes sounding a little surprised himself at how his life and the world changed between his Bartlesville childhood, in the days of the iceman and Our Gang, and today, as Dutcher has achieved success in the fossil fuel industry—and in his leisure time once almost got plowed into by Steph Curry at a crucial playoff game. Less a guide to doing all this yourself than an inviting rumination on a life well lived, How’d I Do That? digs into family, business, basketball, and more.

Whether writing about his experiments in youthful, James Dean-inspired rebellion (“At the time I had no idea of what I was rebelling against”), lessons learned playing basketball or the specifics of his industry (“no one blinked at 18 percent interest rates when loans were needed to drill deep gas wells”), Dutcher proves an appealing, incisive narrator. His story takes him from Bartlesville to military service to executive suites and lobbying and the booming 1980s, though it’s clear, even on a Concord flight or opening his own company, that he never forgets where he’s from.

“My enthusiasm for work easily tripled as I realized I was my own boss and responsible for making my business work,” Dutcher writes, one of many truths that he hits on telling his story. This memoir offers much clear-eyed business advice, especially in the later chapters, as Dutcher guides readers through the negotiation and closing of major deals. Just as urgent, though, in this telling: playing basketball well into his later years, relishing life as it comes, and, as he tells a coach, knowing that “it’s about knowing who you are.” He does. Readers fascinated by the lives of American businessmen will find much here that’s engaging and illuminating.

Takeaway: An inviting account of a life well lived, in business and basketball.

Great for fans of: Stephen A. Schwartzman’s What It Takes, Bryan Burrough’s The Big Rich.

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

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Traveling Freedom's Road: A Guide to Exploring Our Civil Rights History
John J. Hanrahan
Written with intentionality, passion, and precision, Hanrahan’s debut is both an historical account and a travel guide, published to illuminate civil rights and African American history by exploring destinations “where you can learn about the quest for equality.” Beginning with a candid foray into Hanrahan’s own journey through civil rights history, readers will gain a snapshot of the lives behind some of historical activists, the courageous people commemorated in the landmarks featured in this guide. Hanrahan also offers practical recommendations for travel planning, including sample checklists and trip itineraries, alongside meticulously detailed information about historical destinations located primarily in the southern United States.

Hanrahan packs this guide with powerful, black and white imagery to illustrate critical moments in civil rights history, adding to its beauty while making it inviting for readers to sift through for inspiration on important historic sites to visit. He also expertly lays out the gritty process of planning an intensive road trip, without shying away from some harsh travel realities—such as the pandemic’s impact on daily operations or the importance of understanding your own travel style prior to making elaborate plans. This guide is painstakingly detailed, offering more than some readers might need, but Hanrahan’s attention to minutiae will be welcomed by those desiring more comprehensive travel advice.

Hanrahan dedicates ample time to historically significant museums, buildings, monuments, and other sites, but perhaps the most impressive aspect is the incredibly specific and helpful pointers he provides about each location—including opening and closing hours, parking, descriptions of displays, and appropriateness for children. This impressive guide belongs on the shelves of historians, teachers, travelers, and any readers interested in taking a meaningful, life-changing trip through civil rights history.

Takeaway: An impressive guide that pairs travel advice with civil rights history, including must-visit locations and detailed suggestions.

Great for fans of: Deborah D. Douglas’s Moon U.S. Civil Rights Trail, Nikole Hannah-Jones’s The 1619 Project.

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

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Tarsier Sings His Song: Endangered and Misunderstood Book 4
Terri Tatchell
An adorable tarsier searches for his true love in this delightful fourth picture book of the Endangered and Misunderstood Animals series by Tatchell. Tarsie, who sings when the sun rises and sets each day, seems mournful to his friends –a bear cuscus, a hornbill, and a crested macaque who all live together in the jungle. When he explains his sadness is because he’s “waited for so long” for a female tarsier to join his duet, his pals vow to help him get noticed. Each animal friend has a special skill to teach—from the hornbill’s hint on flapping his arms to the macaque’s suggestions of kissing the sky between notes — that may give Tarsie the confidence he needs to finally find his partner.

Tatchell has created a skillful blend of education and entertainment on every page. Readers will learn intriguing facts about little-known animals, such as the cuscus bear’s love of cocoa plants and macaque’s preference for fresh fruit, but the fun doesn’t stop there. Tatchell’s appealing characters evoke the bond of friendship as they rush to help Tarsie discover happiness, and their unique advice lands him magical results. Tatchell’s lilting verses work to mimic the natural rhythm of Tarsie’s world, as when he playfully sings “I am a friendly tarsier/who munches flying things./I snatch them from mid-air because/I like to crunch their wings.”

Ivan Sulima’s illustrations are deep, harmonious reflections of survival in the wild. In the night-time scenes particularly, Sulima’s cool palettes conjure the mystery of jungle life, and his bold graphics will quickly grab readers’ attention. True to the story’s conservationist bent, Tatchell includes fast facts at the end about the featured animals as well as how-to instructions for sketching them. Any fan of endangered species—or animal lovers in general—will cherish this uplifting tale.

Takeaway: A young tarsier learns to sing his true love’s tune with the help of his endangered friends.

Great for fans of: Thyra Heder’s The Bear Report, Rosanne Parry’s A Whale of the Wild.

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

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More After the Break: A Reporter Returns to Ten Unforgettable News Stories
Jen Maxfield
NBC New York journalist Maxfield crafts poignant and heartfelt follow-up stories from ten incredible news events over her twenty-year career. As a reporter with a tight deadline, she usually conducts brief interviews that are quickly edited and presented on the nightly news. “I’ve always liked the quote ‘news is the first rough draft of history,’” she writes. “I would add that the drafts I’ve written are not just rough; they’re incomplete.” Sometimes, she notes, the personal stories and perspectives of those involved in news stories get forgotten. On an assignment in 2021 about getting illegal guns off the street, Maxfield interviewed, for the second time, the grandmother of a fifteen-year-old who was murdered in a drive-by shooting in 2015. Maxfield had not heard from her since and was struck by the fact that, so often, reporters tell people’s stories but rarely learn what happened next.

With curiosity, humility, and respect, Maxfield follows up with ten remarkable people, promising “Their story will be an integral part of our community’s shared history.” Maxfield revisits Paul Esposito, who lost both legs in the Staten Island Ferry crash in 2003, and now teaches about living independently with a disability. Maxfield also follows up with Yarelis Bonilla, who as a five-year-old with leukemia needed a bone marrow transplant, but her sister in El Salvador was refused a tourist visa. Other subjects include children who survived a Paramus, New Jersey, bus crash; a Hurricane Katrina survivor; and an Ivy Leaguer who was imprisoned on drug charges under harsh mandatory minimum sentencing.

Maxfield presents these harrowing stories with nail-biting intensity while affording her subjects the space and humanity to discuss their lives and how their ordeals affected them. She also offers welcome insight into the news gathering profession, the impact of social media, and the role of local news to report information pertinent to small communities. Readers of real-life stories of overcoming trauma will find these inspirational tales impossible to put down.

Takeaway: Maxfield’s poignant follow-up interviews with everyday news makers reveal humanity and optimism.

Great for fans of: Clarissa Ward’s On All Fronts, Craig Taylor’s New Yorkers: A City and Its People in Our Time.

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

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Pekolah Stories
Amanda Bales
Bales’s accomplished debut collection presents a standout portrait of small-town life in a straightforward, occasionally lyric style as it lays bare, in interconnected stories, Pekolah, Oklahoma, a world of trout rivers, church sanctuaries, and a pervading sense of decay. Within this setting, Bales achieves a range of subjects, themes, and approaches, not shying away from dialect or creative risks. The first story, “Fair Enough,” explores the limits of morality in a stagnant town: Ruth and Kendal are lovers who face harassment and opposition. “A Hard Thing But True,” a tale of murder that pairs with “The Gods of Men,” unstintingly considers masculinity, and rhyming, lyric prose distinguishes “At the Fourth of July Potluck,” which contrasts gay and straight sexuality and its effects on women.

The varied approach offers surprises, like ‘A School Gunman’s Letter…,’ composed entirely of hymn titles and the lyrical, almost surrealist ‘“Bunny Town, USA,” though even there these lives, backgrounded by NCIS and George Strait posters, are delineated with sensitivity and convincing detail–but also without illusions or sentimentality. On issues of politics and culture, Pekolah Stories is serious and surefooted, interrogating the complex intersection of far-right politics and Christianity, and other dynamics shaping small-town life.

Conviction makes murder righteous in the wrenching “The Gods of Men,” and death-writ-large is recurring theme throughout: “It’s a helluva thing, dying like that,” one narrator muses. “ Made me understand why Dad ate his gun.” Bales likewise proves adept at examining gender and sexuality, presented with satirical bite in “At the 4th of July Potluck the Year She Moves Back Home,” but also with deadly seriousness in stories touching on the institutional violence of police stops and conversion centers. Bales’s prose illuminates larger systems of belief without losing its earthiness, its connection to everyday characters and events. Readers of literary fiction and clear-eyed portraiture of American lives will do well to seize these bruising, finely wrought stories.

Takeaway: Bracing, clear-eyed stories of small-town America, alive with memorable detail and insight.

Great for fans of: Lynn Lauber, Melissa Faliveno’s Tomboyland.

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

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Accountability : Facing the truth to discover self-empowerment
Laura Strobel
Blending elements of memoir and self-help, this ultimately hopeful debut digs into the author’s experience of being accused of committing domestic violence, her enrollment in a mandatory Domestic Violence Prevention program, and her own journey towards accountability–or “accepting responsibility for yourself and your actions.” In a bizarre incident one evening, after he slaps their toddler son, Aurora strikes her husband with “fierce viciousness,” drawing blood. Stunned, she dials emergency services but hangs up before the call goes through. Sometime later, the events take a darkly farcical turn when she is arrested for assault, kept in jail for two days, and eventually allowed to return home, contingent on her completion of a 26-week diversion class.

Strobel tells the story in the third-person, assuming the name Aurora, a choice that creates distance between author, protagonist, and reader. The sense that this all seemed to be happening to someone else is exacerbated as Accountability recounts Aurora’s experience of the DVP classes, where she feels like an outsider, telling herself that, never having experienced intimate partner violence, she’s not one of "those" women. Her descriptions of what happens in the classes is valuable, as she shares valuable insights gained through the information shared in each session and recounts moving from states of shock and denial toward acceptance.

Though interesting, the author’s account of her arrest, detention, and release could have benefited from tighter editing. Although Aurora herself may not have believed that she truly needed these diversion classes, the startling lessons she encountered will be eye-opening for readers, as they continually circle back to accountability and empowerment as methods of breaking cycles of violence. It reinforces that domestic violence is ubiquitous and those who don’t experience it are indeed lucky. This story will resonate with readers who have experienced domestic violence as well as those just seeking a safer world.

Takeaway: This memoir of an “outsider” facing mandatory domestic violence prevention classes recounts a journey toward acceptance.

Great for fans of: Nicole Strycharz’s The Love that Hurts, Adwoa Akhu’s Metamorphosis.

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

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The Stealing
S. A. Sutila
Sutila’s accomplished debut, a paranormal YA gothic romance, distinguishes itself from the first pages with vivid characters, storytelling, and prose, all in a haunted 1980s setting touched with the uncanny but more interested in hard truths about the era than easy nostalgia. On the Delaware coast, beneath the abandoned Port Mahon lighthouse, an arresting world of sea turtles and shucking houses, high school senior Sarah toils on her father’s fishing boat, the Outlaw. Sarah feels trapped, especially when her father tells her “Girls don’t need to go to college” and demands she get back to what he believes she exists to do: make nets. Feeling alone and hopeless, shaken by memories of her father’s abuse of her late mother, Sarah attempts to end her life – but she’s saved by the timely intervention of powers beyond her understanding.

Sarah faces unbearable choices best left unspoiled. Suffice it to say, her early plunge into the Atlantic does not end her story, and after complications involving her “spirit” and the attentions of a mysterious and controlling figure named Max, Sarah is caught between living and death—and also between love interests, with taloned Max demanding a promise from her. Meanwhile, in this mortal realm, her heart yearns for Grant, a neighbor who is, in Sutila’s inimitable phrase, “jeans-commercial handsome.

Such striking language abounds in The Stealing. Readers will taste the salty sea air as Sarah strives to take control over her life—and Sutila layers on rich, convincing atmosphere and detail. The prose edges toward the dense at times, diminishing narrative momentum, but often achieving what fans of gothics want most from the genre: the chance to soak in powerfully evoked feeling. Sutila evinces a welcome revisionist spirit, affording Sarah 21st century agency while honoring the gothic tradition and the not-quite-enlightened 1980s, but what readers will remember most is the novel’s briny milieu.

Takeaway: An arresting modern gothic whose heroine gets caught between life and death, sea and land.

Great for fans of: Eve Bunting’s Forbidden, Caitlin Starling’s The Death of Jane Lawrence.

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

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Wisdom: : A Very Valuable Virtue That Cannot Be Bought
Jason Merchey
Merchey’s wide-ranging examination and celebration of that most hard-won yet often undervalued of virtues digs deep into what exactly it means to be wise, for an individual as well as for a society and even a species. Arguing that a renewed love for this multifaceted virtue marks a vital step toward addressing a national “state of deterioration and decline,” Merchey, author of the Values of the Wise series, sees in the cultivation of wisdom an embracing of empathy, open-mindedness, patience, and self-discipline, habits of mind that all contribute to the likelihood of living “a life of value.” By this he means a life not ruled by tribalism or the acquisition of wealth, but one of both self-fulfillment and commitment to “making positive differences in the lives of other individuals, the community, the nation, and the world.”

There’s more to the pursuit of happiness, he argues, than the acquisition of material goods, noting that the wealthy tend not to be much happier than those making a median income, and that a life of value can come about “from learning, philosophizing, commitment, conscientiousness, and practice.” Reading this hefty yet welcoming, even conversational, volume represents much time engaged in all of those, as Merchey teases apart the “nuanced, subtle, context-bound, and perspectival aspects of wisdom” and makes the case that the oldest of truisms—that wisdom cannot be bought—is actually true.

One aspect of wisdom Merchey reveres is “intellectual humility,” a trait that, to his credit, he demonstrates throughout the book. He presents himself not as the final authority on his subject but as a thinker making sense of it all, drawing from philosophy, literature, the sciences, and more. He can be flip—an offhand dismissal of the Jonas Brothers does not demonstrate the open-mindedness he elsewhere calls for—but more often this thoughtful, illuminating volume exemplifies his arguments: like any of us, he’s a work in progress, striving for wisdom.

Takeaway: A searching, illuminating consideration of the urgent value of wisdom, for individuals and for society.

Great for fans of: Richard E. Simmons’s Wisdom: Life’s Great Treasure, Barry Schwartz’s Practical Wisdom.

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

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Raccoon Love: A Memoir
Stephen Akey
In this bittersweet memoir Akey (Culture Fever) shares the love story of meeting his years-long partner, Lucy Ha Kung, “at the sundial in front of Low Library on the campus of Columbia University in the spring of 1980” and then building in Brooklyn a love akin to that of raccoons: “creaturely, warm, furry, and clinging to each other for love and security.” Looking back at the 1980s and 1990’s, Akey recounts the couple’s meeting, dating, and building a life with a “fretful, colicky” baby, writing with insight and candor even when the difficulties of marriage take its toll. Akey paints Lucy as a singular person, someone intimate and substantive, while also showering her with adoration and dropping enough hints, early on, to make the ultimate painful end seem inevitable.

Akey’s story-telling is highly enjoyable. The minutiae of a romantic, loving relationship are keenly described, and with welcome candor addresses the experience of being a Playboy-ogling suburban white kid who goes on to marry a Chinese woman in an era when Caucasian-Asian relationships were rare. Together, the two faced the challenges of trying to make it in the arts, which Akey describes with incisive wit, noting that in “the literary/publishing world…you couldn’t get established unless you were already established.” He characterizes the choice faced by Lucy, an artist working in apartment-filling tapestries and then large abstract paintings, with empathy: “She could choose to be quietly satisfied or clamorously frustrated.”

“I remember every kiss, every caress,” Akey writes, and his account of being completely lovesick and then seeing passion give way to a working partnership and eventually a breakup is intense, precise, and alive with feeling. Even familiar feelings–”I still loved looking into Lucy’s limpid brown eyes. She, apparently, took no such pleasure in gazing into my muddy greenish ones”–have a freshness and power. Readers of memoir or late 20th century New York or American lifestyle history will enjoy this romantic, realistic narrative.

Takeaway: A touching account of an interracial romance in 1980s Brooklyn, alive with feeling and insight.

Great for fans of: Gabriel Cohen’s Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky, Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know.

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

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Bridges
Linda Griffin
This sweet and simple May-December romance novella, featuring a marriage of convenience blossoming into love, centers friendship, philosophy, and a fondness for classic literature. Mary Claire DeWinter, eighteen years old and blind, arrives at her grandfather’s deathbed at his Westfield Court estate. Mary Claire strikes up a quick friendship with house chauffeur Neil Vincent, in which they talk about books and religion. When the household is shocked by the will offering Mary Claire the house and entire fortune, provided she is married within the year, Neil offers to marry her without any conjugal rights so that the arrangement can be annulled when she finds a more appropriate match. But neither Mary Claire, nor Neil’s lover, Jane, are able to believe in the marriage as merely a facade.

Griffin’s lead characters are complex and fascinating, and the discussions between Mary Claire and Neil are deep, engaging, and intimate while not at all flirty or sexual, keeping the age difference from becoming too creepy up front. But some other key characters feel familiar, sometimes even stereotyped, and the 1960’s milieu can feel out of step with the story itself, as the household setup and plot feel much more like that of a Regency romance.

Griffin regularly celebrates the books his couple reads and discusses, which range from Nietzche to Jack London. Bridges movingly presents literature as a means of communication and connection between these thoughtful protagonists–in fact, it’s where their ardor seems most powerful, as the story’s resolution is surprisingly abrupt, with little buildup, tension, or heat before expressions of mutual, monogamous love, and then little exploration of the tenderness or awkwardness of the shift from friends to lovers. Still, this gentle, bookish romance will appeal to readers who relish Regency concerns of titles and inheritance and portrayals of companionable love.

Takeaway: A bookish romance of surprise inheritance, companionable love, and slowly discovering each other.

Great for fans of: Georgette Heyer, Alison Goodman.

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

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Drone Child: A Novel of War, Family, and Survival
David H. Rothman
The horrors of war and resiliency of the human spirit are the dual themes of this harrowing novel set in a dystopian Democratic Republic of the Congo in the near future. Lemba reflects back as a 15-year-old growing up on a farm with his twin sister, Josiane. They leave home to seek their fortune in Kinshasa, and although they get good work in an Internet café, Lemba is forcibly conscripted into the Purifier army—a twisted, violent revolutionary group that uses his technology skills to weaponize drones. Meanwhile, Josiane faces her own mortal peril, and Lemba seeks to escape and find her.

Rothman (The Solomon Scandals) does a brutally effective job of displaying the appalling conditions in this broken society, seen through the eyes of a man reflecting on his boyhood: for example, soldiers give a 13-year-old-boy a rifle and force him to kill—or face death himself. The warfare becomes almost surreal, as when Lemba must help hijack a freighter. The Purifiers negotiate a fee for the return of the ship while feasting on lamb chops and leaving armed children in charge of the prisoners. Some readers may find the level of brutality off-putting, and some plot turns strain credulity, but scenes of good people trying to survive in a sick society are deeply engaging.

Also memorable are some of the principal characters. Purifier general "Demon Killer" is an astonishingly effective portrait of a sociopath—a vicious man who has created a bizarre worship ceremony surrounding guns. We see through Lemba's eyes his fellow child soldier Mpasi, a dark reflection of what Lemba might have become: “You can be a victim and still be a bad person," he notes. And Lemba himself, whose chillingly emotionless recollections of his violent childhood highlight the extent of his damaged personality. Thanks to his ability to remember, we get a disturbing ringside view of the worst horrors of modern Africa.

Takeaway: A gripping, brutal account of a near-future African war, narrated by a young soldier.

Great for fans of: Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Patricia McCormick’s Sold.

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

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A Girl's Guide to Puberty and Periods
Marni Sommer
The authors break down the intimidating process of puberty for girls in this cheerful and educational guide. Developed to ease anxieties and explain natural processes, and paired with input from adolescent girls from across the United States, this inviting volume teaches girls the ins and outs of menstruation, what changes to expect during puberty, and how to appreciate their bodies. The authors address with welcome clarity topics that can often be difficult for young readers, and their supportive, gently humorous approach makes the material as engaging as it is informative.

Sommer, et al., dive right into the facts that every girl needs to know, including a breakdown of the menstrual cycle, the effects of hormones on the body and mood, and many more sensitive topics—like breast development and body odors—in a way that normalizes the experience for readers. The entertaining and diverse graphics inject warm humor in all the right places and helpfully break down complex matters, like the basics of finding the right-sized bra. In an effort to keep the tone lighthearted, the authors share fun facts throughout the text–such as different period nicknames from girls in the U.S. and an amusing illustration of the emotional rollercoaster that accompanies mood changes.

Despite the comforting approach, this guide packs a serious educational punch. Readers will walk away with how-to knowledge on just about every puberty-related issue for girls, including hands-on instructions for personal care and hygiene. An added bonus is a brief rundown on what boys experience during the same stage and a glossary of health terms at the end. The authors are careful to emphasize that every body is unique and develops on its own schedule, and the firsthand stories of what to expect from different girls will put readers at ease. This guide may look playful, but it's powerful.

Takeaway: A helpful, inviting breakdown of what puberty looks like for girls, with an emphasis on the uniqueness of every body.

Great for fans of: Valorie Schaefer’s The Care & Keeping of You, Sonya Renee Taylor’s Celebrate Your Body.

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

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A More Perfect Union (Briefs): Reimagining the United States as a European Union-style Federation
Alexander Moss
Moss leaps into the breach in this examination of the prospect, increasingly common in political rhetoric, of the United States breaking up into smaller independent nation states. Citing polling showing key constituencies on the left and right more amenable to the idea, and taking into account the depth and bitterness of U.S. political divisions, Moss plays what-if with the scenario, arguing that dissolution could be an alternative to civil war—but noting that his thought experiment is a “bit of science-fiction.” But, like all good SF, A More Perfect Union is attentive to both the causes of change of over time and their everyday impacts.

Rather than call for the nation’s crackup, Moss examines the fault lines that could lead to the breaking point, the constitutional and political steps it would take to bring it about, considerations that would ensure it’s done equitably, and—this is the fun part—a proposal of possible new nations, broken down in terms of population, GDP, and other factors. Pacifica runs from San Diego to British Columbia, represented by six senators and 68 congressional reps; the “fiercely independent” territories that make up Independence constitute Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

Gwyneth Paltrow once faced comic scorn for referring to her divorce as a “conscious uncoupling.” That’s essentially what Moss presents, a road map to making a painful measure as painless as possible. He addresses and attempts to counterbalance his biases, and considers issues like minority rights, the impact on commerce, the fate of the nuclear arsenal, and the necessity of a “Ten Year Cooling Off Period,” during which the new nations would pledge to cooperate as the existing federal government would wind down. This brief volume outlines basic steps it would take to achieve this, but not in great detail; a concluding chapter calling upon interested parties to organize to achieve change belies the insistence that this is all a bit of play.

Takeaway: A dispassionate consideration of what it would take to break up the United States into independent nations.

Great for fans of: F.H. Buckley’s America Secession, Richard Kreitner’s Break it Up.

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

Click here for more about A More Perfect Union (Briefs)
The ForestGirls: A Journal, A Journey
Sissel Waage
Inspired by the strength and science of trees, Waage (Ignition What You Can Do to Fight Global Warming and Spark A Movement) and illustrator Ivana Josipovic have created a thoughtful and beautifully guided journal for younger teen girls. Waage’s text is knowledgeable and approachable, presenting trees as a metaphor for heightening self-understanding and sparking ideas for future goals. Combined with Josipovic’s minimalist yet richly inviting illustrations, this journal delivers a perfect canvas of stimulating prompts while leaving room for readers to find their own voice and cultivate their inner artist.

Though nature journals are not a new concept, Waage’s readers are in expert hands here. Tree facts precede each journaling prompt—such as details about Mycorrhizae, a fungal root network that grows around trees and is used to illustrate the importance of support networks—and showcase Waage’s insight as an environmental scientist and skill as a writer. Josipovic’s choice to use a limited color palette of black, white, and green allows the text more impact and leaves room for younger readers to add in their own handiwork–and thought-provoking moments like examining the heartwood of a tree and likening it to personal convictions will spark intense reflection for readers.

This journal is permeated by a reverence for nature and mutual respect for readers. Dr. Waage writes, “Perhaps a sense of wonder is\ The same\ That every living being feels,” and the text is not only visually gorgeous, but also rife with emotional resonance. Readers will find dreamy inspiration on every page, and the journal concludes with the hope of “A vibrant future\ Where all living beings,\ Everywhere,\ Can breath, and\ Thrive.” Ultimately a visionary journal for introspective, nature-loving teen girls, or readers looking to incorporate more of nature’s wisdom into their own lives, The ForestGirls distinguishes itself as a standout.

Takeaway: A journal rich with environmental inspiration and scientific facts that will appeal to nature lovers and young writers.

Great for fans of: Katie Daisy’s How to Be a Wildflower, Nina Chakrabarti’s Hello Nature.

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

Click here for more about The ForestGirls: A Journal, A Journey

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