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Isaac the Little Blue Dragon and the Stickiest Buns
Christopher A Sanders
A blue-scaled, happy-go-lucky dragon takes center stage in this confectionery delight. Isaac, a cheery dragon who lives with his mom in the teeming medieval town of Tudor (a note to readers points out it’s pronounced “Too+door”), thrives on sweets from his favorite bakery, the Soul’s Creamery. But his mood is dashed one sunny day when he rushes to purchase newly baked sticky buns–only to discover that the bakery has run out. Convinced that only sticky buns can “change his gloom,” Isaac dejectedly turns to leave–when he is stopped in his tracks by the owner, who promptly saves the day by producing two delectable sticky buns from her “magic pouch.”

Lucci’s charming art seems to burst off the pages, bringing vibrant life to Isaac’s seaside village and the mouthwatering lollipops, cakes, and doughnuts that are sure to capture readers’ hearts and appetites. Townsfolk are lively, illustrated in otherworldly forms with elfin ears and cyclops eyes, and Gary, the singing baker who takes Isaac on a detailed hunt for the missing sticky buns, proves charming in his attempts to save the day. Young readers will be spellbound by the town's marketplace—“truly a place no other could equal”—where kaleidoscopic scenery, magic tricks,and animal entertainers steal the show.

Parents, meanwhile, will appreciate how the story’s educational opportunities, like the measuring chart on Isaac’s wall, can spark learning discussions for younger audiences. Some readers will pause at some forced or repeated rhymes (store/Tudor appears two spreads in a row) and may wonder what the bigger message is behind Isaac’s quest for tasty delicacies, but the tale’s sheer gaiety wins out in the end. The author’s attention to emotions, namely Isaac’s crusade to preserve his tranquil mood, is a welcome and resonant theme. For those who crave frivolity and carefree indulgence, this upbeat story will hit the spot.

Takeaway: A delightful morsel of merrymaking, baking, and fantasy exploration.

Great for fans of: Anika Denise’s Baking Day at Grandma’s. Dee Leone’s Dough Knights and Dragons.

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

The Infinite Tree & The Rivers of Time: Time, Experience, & The Foundations of Reality
Marc Garner
“There is … no such thing as the flow of time,” Garner writes in a preface to this searching contemplation of our relationship to time in the wake of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which demonstrated that the linear experience of time—which Garner describes as “beating heart of existence”— that humanity perceives is far from the reality. Time is instead a matter of perspective, as Garner demonstrates through clear and inviting summations of the science, from time dilation to space-time to the brain-bending discoveries of quantum mechanics and, at last, to the question of how it all came to be.

“Somewhere in Spacetime, I am ‘right now’ living out the moment of my first kiss,” he notes. That playful spirit freshens Garner’s tour of science’s current understanding of existence. A lively guide suitable for an engaged lay reader but more resonant and philosophical than most science texts, The Infinite Tree & The Rivers of Time is duty bound, of course, to bring readers up to speed on conundrums like, as Garner wryly puts it, “things that had been thought of as fundamentally ‘wavey’ behaving like particles, and things that had been considered fundamentally solid behaving like waves.” The material can be heady, but helpful illustrations abound, easing readers through the explanations of superposition and the holographic principle.

But it’s in his consideration of the possibilities, though, that Garner’s work stands apart. His discussion of parallel worlds and timelines, for example, bloom into explorations of free will and ethics. Likewise, an exploration of the complexities of entanglement builds to a rousing proclamation of our humanity, even in an existence where multiple versions of each of us might co-exist: What links these “sequential states” of an individual named Bob together, Garner argues, is “the experience of being Bob.” Put another way, each of us is “the product of the differentials between the states of those things. We are the product of change. We are change.”

Takeaway: A head-spinning dive into relativity, quantum entanglement, the illusion of time, and how our humanity connects to it all.

Great for fans of:Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, Rainer Dick’s Special and General Relativity.

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

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What's My Superpower: Discovery
Delanda Coleman
This inspiring picture book explores the process of following and honing natural interests and abilities to discover individual strengths, all with a superheroic twist. Young Deshaun Prime comes from a family of superheroes–his father is strong, his mother is fast, and his sister, Janet, can fly. Amidst all of these exceptional abilities, Deshaun feels left out: “What about Deshaun’s superpower? He hadn’t a clue. In a family of superheroes, he had nothing to do.” With his parents’ encouragement, Deshaun starts honing his own innate skills, such as mathematics and physics, and he ends up building a robot that can help his super family.

Deshaun’s story is told in pleasing, unforced rhyming verse, accompanied by clever and relatable illustrations appropriate to the superheroic milieu. Bowen Jiang’s drawings are sharp, colorful, and expressive, with the characters’ faces displaying clear emotions that enhance the impact of the text, particularly for children and young readers. When Deshaun is sulking in his room over his lack of superpowers, his mother gets down on his level and places her hand on his cheek while his father kneels behind her, his face concerned yet comforting. The skillful depiction of nuanced emotions, along with playful bursts of comic book-style action, make this appealing title stand out. There’s a lesson in it, of course, but young fans of superheroes will also find it fun.

The Colemans, a husband-and-wife writing team, have dedicated this book to their own daughter, and have crafted the story with the goal of inspiring children of color to explore concepts and careers in science, technology, engineering, art, and math. After reading, parents and children will want to discuss their own strengths–especially because just like Deshaun, their most important gift might not be what they first imagined. “I knew it all along,” Deshaun’s father tells him. “Your power is your mind” –and the ability to think deeply and create might be the most vital superpower of all.

Takeaway: This inspiring story of a superhero family’s son without (apparent) powers encourages heroes-to-be to hone their talents.

Great for fans of: Keith Negley’s Tough Guys Have Feelings Too, Aviaq Johnston’s What’s My Superpower?.

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

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Zither!: A Crazy Mars Candiotti Mystery
Jeffrey Hanlon
Hanlon’s off-the-wall detective caper finds Bay Area private investigator and not-so-successful mystery novelist Mars Candiotti is hired by a farmer, Pappy, in rural California to solve his next case: who stole 1,783.78 gazebos from Pappy’s farm? Mars sets out to crack the case, and if that doesn’t work out to finish his novel and finally achieve literary glory. His best friend and inept sidekick, Pete, and endless nuisance Celeste, pile in to Mars’s Yugo to join the detective’s absurd quest. Relying on shoe leather clue-gathering and the guidance from their wise (and proudly strange) IHOP waitress, the team find love, international intrigue, and discover just what in the world a gazebo is.

With a singularly playful narrative style, part hardboiled detective and part stand-up act (“What's the difference between a golf ball and a Yugo? You can drive the golf ball 200 yards”) Hanlon delves into the chimerical mind of “super-sleuth” Mars. Mars works tirelessly to become the hero worthy of a detective novel, but, at the same time, he’s often entirely deluded. Mars breaks the fourth wall of the narrative to speak directly to readers about the novel’s progress, his confusion, and his woes while also explaining these same things to his characters. Though the reader knows that Mars’s perception of reality is questionable, some interactions and thoughts still prove mind-bending--and occasionally tough to follow, with moments where it’s unclear what’s literally happening and what’s in his head.

The plot is truly whimsical: Hanlon himself makes a cameo from writer’s prison, Steven Seagal films are literal bombs, and John Travolta is a champion snorkeler and air guitarist. Some metafictional conceits, in this case an actual book-within-a-book, might throw off some readers, but with persistence, those open to a dada mystery will find Mars’s friends, imagination, and world utterly hilarious. Hanlon’s humor shines bright and will leave fans of such madness wanting more.

Takeaway: This mind-bending detective comedy delves into playful metafiction as a sleuth investigates the case of the missing gazebos.

Great for fans of: John Swartzwelder, Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

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

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Trine Fallacy: The Kinderra Saga: Book 2
C.K. Donnelly
Donnelly’s immersive second volume in the Kinderra Saga follows 16-year-old Mirana Pinal’s journey to protect her world of Kinderra from destruction. Mirana is a Trine—“One who possess all three powers of the Aspects”—and must save her people by finding her ancestor’s watchtower, built to defend Kinderra before it falls into the Dark Trine’s hands, while also learning about her own powers from the legendary Light Trine, Tetric Garis. Meanwhile, 16-year-old Teague Beltran, Mirana’s childhood friend and love, seeks the Dark Trine to avenge his parents’ deaths, using his skills as an herbsman to fight against the Dark Trine’s followers, the Ken’nar. But all is not as it seems, and Mirana struggles to learn who she can trust in her battle for survival.

Young adult readers will be drawn to Mirana as she fights to find her place in “war, the endless cycle of hate” threatening her people. Her journey to understand and believe in the source of her own power is painful at times, yet often moving, and she rebels against trusting herself, as in her own words—“using the Power from Without isn’t a selfless giving of one’s life force from within the Aspects, it is taking.” Also compelling is Teague’s conviction that “my anger and grief are all I have left” as well as his desperation to be able to physically fight his enemies.

Donnelly includes a glossary of relevant terminology that, while helpful, can also overwhelm, as it charts suffixes and linguistic matters. However, that dedication to invented languages, and the maps and appendices, invite readers to delve as deeper into Kinderra as they care to; fantasy fans especially will be pleased with the convincing world that Donnelly has taken such pains to build. Naturally, this vivid voyage into a well-established realm and its ongoing battle between Light and Dark builds to cliffhanger— and exemplifies its genre.

Takeaway: Young adult and fantasy readers will relish this world of magic and war, with characters facing grief and self-doubt.

Great for fans of: Cinda Williams Chima’s The Warrior Heir, Megan Bannen’s Soulswift.

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

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Book Endings - A Call Numbers novel: Loss, Pain, and Revelations
Syntell Smith
Smith’s followup to Call Numbers again unveils “the not so quiet lives of librarians” in the 1990s as the staff of Manhattan’s 58th Street Branch Library, still reeling from the scandals and schisms and romances of the first book, now face the loss, pain, and revelations promised by the subtitle. Spralwing but hyper-localized, the approach is reminiscent of Adam Langer’s Chicago novel Crossing California or a Frederick Wiseman documentary, with Smith criss-crossing myriad subplots and characters into a vivid kaleidoscope of lives and longings, the whole of it studded with striking details of a long-gone New York City.

Book Endings picks up right where Call Numbers left off, and, despite building to a satisfying climax, leaves threads to be picked up in the next book. Smith includes a glossary of library terms, a detailed dramatis personae, and a “previously on. . .” summary, but new readers are advised to start with the first book, as the story begins in media res and then surges ahead, told in brisk, brief scenes from the perspectives of many of Smith’s diverse ensemble cast.

Smith’s sharply observed dialogue powers the story, though his characters often chattering for the reckless pleasure of it. Robin is nominally the protagonist, and his romance with Shinju, a woman he meets on the 6 train, is sweet and engaging, but Smith’s interest in all the people of his library set this series apart from other coming-of-age slices of life. Drama, passion, and wisecracks unite and divide the 58th’s staff, whose work and personal lives are captured in convincing particulars. Sometimes the novel’s riotous, as when a patron complains that her son checked out Madonna’s notorious Sex book, but even a scene like that considers the complexities of culture and the library’s mission. This series’ gush of stories and people be exhausting, but it bursts with life, capturing a workplace and a city with rare vigor.

Takeaway: This fleet, vivid novel finds winning drama in the lives of 1990s New York City library workers.

Great for fans of: Adam Langer’s Crossing California, William Ottens’s Librarian Tales.

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

Antlands
Genevieve Morrissey
Morrissey’s immersive epic, an adventure set a thousand years in the future, presents the grandeur of a world at peace with nature amid the threat of violence. Three races mistrust each other and live in fear of war: the aggressive, urban dwelling Men; the dark-skinned communal Foresters, who live among the trees in harmony with nature; and the grunting Ants, identical blond people whom humans created long ago as a source of labor. Called Ants because they work in silent unison, with no noticeable form of speech, they now raid and kill Men and Foresters on sight, never leaving survivors.

During a recent attack on Men, the Ants unexpectedly left alive a wounded nine-year-old orphan girl named Anne. Deer, a Forester captain, finds her and reluctantly brings her home to heal. Eight years later, during an Ant attack, the Foresters capture one to study, and are shocked to find out that Anne can hear what the Ant is thinking, sparking their discovery that the Ants communicate telepathically. The Forester Master, Posthumous, gives Deer and Anne the mission of learning more about the Ants, discovering how to defeat them—and how to bring the volatile Men on board to finally deliver peace to the land.

Morrissey creates a gripping, character-driven story set in a lush world with some engaging fairy tale elements and emphasis on the rich culture, traditions, and languages of the peaceful Foresters’ way of life. When Deer confronts the irascible John Seaborn—the Men’s Scholar— to share what the Foresters know of the Ants, the culture shock threatens to derail an alliance. The story’s somewhat slow, with minimal action, but readers open to thoughtful fantasy will relish the emotional layers of the plot, the focus on family life, the tension created from the mystery of the Ants, and the message of hope and redemption.

Takeaway: Lovers of immersive fantasy will appreciate this novel’s lush world and intelligent characters working together to understand an adversary.

Great for fans of: Richard F. Weyand’s Arcadia, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

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

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A Mountain of Evidence
Kristin Mehus-Roe
Lewis’s debut, the kickoff to a new series, will intrigue mystery readers from the opening lines. Frazzled and feeling watched, a young business woman leaves her job in Chicago and doesn't resurface until she’s in the mountains of Colorado, set on living a new life, under a new name and identity. Kim Jackson intends to live quietly, far from corporate fraud—and the murder she was framed for while working as an accounting manager for a Fortune 500 company. Her plan for a simple, low-key lifestyle is upended when Jackson finds herself involved in yet another homicide investigation.

Fast-paced and diving right into the thick of the plot, A Mountain of Evidence weaves an intricate mystery sure to keep readers engaged and guessing until its satisfying conclusion. Protagonist Kim is smart and well-developed, a fully fleshed out character that readers will root for as Lewis does an excellent job of building up the tension and suspense while teasing out insight into her past and present lives. Kim seems to settle into the small town life quite easily, making friends and discussing literature at the Montrose Community Center, while remaining hyperaware of her surroundings, what she says, and who is watching her—which serves to keep the reader on edge as well. That’s especially true once Kim starts poking around in the apparent murder of a local girl.

Lewis writes with vivid detail, capturing her heroine’s psyche and milieu and fleshing out secondary characters, while the parallel story lines—Kim's backstory and the new homicide investigation—offer enough action to keep things moving. The murdered girl, too, has a singular voice, through her notebooks and poetry. With themes such as small-town murder, corporate backdoor dealings, and starting over this layered, plot-driven story is a strong beach read, building to a satisfying yet open-ended conclusion that will appeal to fans of stand-alones and series both.

Takeaway: A fast-paced, plot-driven, suspenseful mystery thriller offering both small-town murder and corporate intrigue.

Great for fans of: Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, Jess Lourey’s May Day.

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

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GREANDE BOUQUETS: Runaway Train Book II
Lee Matthew Goldberg
This hard-rocking sequel to Goldberg’s Runaway Train sees the return of Nico Sullivan in another eventful chapter of her life in the 1990s. Not long after the death of her sister, Nico becomes part of a grunge band, Grenade Bouquets, created by her guitarist boyfriend, Evan. Their music eventually catches the ear of an agent from Grouch Records, and from that moment her life becomes a cycle of performances, booze, and recognition they never would have imagined. But the upper reaches of the music world demand a high price for admittance, especially for a young woman. Facing the challenges of keeping the band relevant and original while maintaining the peace with the other members, Nico and company must keep it together to prevent Grenade Bouquets from being just another shooting star.

Nico lives up to the previous book’s title; despite being on track, this runaway train’s speed is often destructive, especially with her other band members. One scene finds her conspiring to kick out the lead singer, Clarissa, who also happens to be her boyfriend’s ex. In Machiavellian style, Nico petitions their agent to oust Clarissa with the reasoning that she’s no longer good for the band; this comes back to haunt Nico down the road as her luck begins to run out.

Goldberg’s take on a young woman approaching stardom is appealing and hits the right notes (and chords)about the temptations and hardships of possible fame and fortune. Savvy about how the industry actually worked, and laced with shout-outs to the rock of the era (“Gavin Rossdale singing about an ending, a break-up. Is that where this is all headed for me too?”), Grenade Bouquets invites readers to live this fantasy, for a brief moment. Nico’s descent proves explosive while offering hope that maybe, despite her rise and fall, there is a new stage for her to explore that won’t leave her defeated.

Takeaway: YA music lovers will be fully onboard with this encore performance in Goldberg’s grunge-era novel series about a young rock star.

Great for fans of: Tara Kelly’s Amplified, Sarah Nicole Smetana’s The Midnights.

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

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THE POPE'S BUTCHER: Based on the True Story of a Serial Killer in the Medieval Vatican
Joseph C. Gioconda
In this taut historical drama set in the late 15th century, Gioconda offers an intriguing and gut-wrenching look at one of the Inquisition’s most infamous characters, the inquisitor Heinrich Institoris, the “Grand Inquisitor” who, as Gioconda puts it in an author’s note, stands as “perhaps the most prolific serial killer in human history.” Institoris summons the young novice Sebastian and dispatches him on a Church mission to research witchcraft and magic in all its forms. While Sebastian realizes that the women who practice the “witchcraft” that Institoris detests merely have a deep respect for nature, he still gets pulled into the hellish world of satanic worship. With the inquisitor’s presence and dark deeds looming over him, Sebastian finds himself torn between his beliefs and bringing the inquisitor to justice.

Sebastian’s characterization is one of the novel’s brightest spots. His desire to learn more about witchcraft and his admittedly anachronistic attitude toward women (he’s shocked to discover that Institoris’s book, The Malleus Maleficarum, is deeply sexist) will draw readers in to the grim milieu. Gioconda writes with a painterly sensibility, steeping readers in the milieu and its mysteries: “Eyeless generations of monks’ skulls gazed down at him,” he writes, of the inside of a crypt. With evocative prose and careful research, he captures the nuances of medieval Church politics and the frank realities of the prejudices of the time.

Gioconda’s use of modern expressions (a priest refers to a recently published book as “crazy”, and Institoris’s use of the term “field researcher”) and an emphasis on the alluring qualities of the bodies of the female characters are jarring additions that diminish the immersive intensity. An extensive bibliography and that letter from the author offer helpful context into the actual history behind Gioconda’s fictionalized account. For fans of the darker aspects of historical fiction, especially western religious history, The Pope’s Butcher will resonate.

Takeaway: A dark, well-researched story centered on the Inquisition’s most notorious killer.

Great for fans of: Theresa Breslin’s Prisoner of the Inquisition, Mitchell James Kaplan’s By Fire, By Water.

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

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Red Magnolia: Nightgarden Saga #1
Lucy Holden
This inspired paranormal romance, the first book in Holden’s Nightgarden Saga, introduces 17-year-old high school student Harper Ellory as she struggles with mysterious occurrences at her new home while coping with the recent loss of her twin sister, Tessa. Devastated by her sister’s death, Harper and her newly appointed legal guardian, Connor, purchase the Marigny mansion, a decayed Gothic-style estate along the Mississippi River. Connor secures a restoration grant in the hopes of building a home where they can be a family, a place they can always come back to. However, the mysterious Antoine Marigny, a descendant of the original landowners, stands in the way of their dream, along with a curse and the spirits of two vengeful vampires. To save her home and break the centuries-old curse, Harper teams up with Antoine—only to find herself enamored of the man who unsettles but fascinates her in equal measure.

Holden sets a fast pace, starting with a prologue that thrusts readers into Harper’s grief-stricken world. The momentum continues as mythical elements surrounding Harper’s new home are quickly introduced, and Holden establishes what’s at stake for Harper and Connor. As she hears voices and wonders about Antoine’s motives, Harper’s character proves wise beyond her teenage years, moving the story into new adult territory, as does the complex, distinctive relationship she and Antoine develop.

With a seeming effortlessness, Holden constructs a plot that weaves together elements of mystery with young adult romance and Southern Gothic fantasy. The heat level is mild at best, and while there is a significant age gap between Harper and Antoine, Holden cleverly keeps the steam appropriate yet intense. Although at times the romance takes a backseat to fantasy elements in the plot, fans of these genres will quickly become engrossed in this paranormal saga of ancient magic and generational curses.

Takeaway: This young adult romance combines paranormal and Southern Gothic elements into an intriguing, unconventional love story.

Great for fans of: Lauren Kate, L. J. Smith.

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

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Points in Time: A story of Faith, Family, Friendship, Forgiveness, Love, Life and Death
J. Nolen Clements
Clements’s deep dive into mid-century Mississippi offers a coming-of-age story that follows the growth of two boys, Daren Whaid and Jayson Chastain, from adolescence, through young adulthood, marriage, and parenthood, right up until their retirements. Through their childhoods, the boys' experience the trials common to many young, white men of their time and place: making good school grades, coming into their Christian faith, working part-time jobs, playing sports, meeting and wooing girls, facing the shadow of war, and growing conscious of the inequity of segregation. Even as rifts develop between them, Daren and Jayson continue to return to each other's sides as constant sources of friendship.

With great detail,Clements transports readers into these young men’s world, though his deep interest in side characters and heavy use of exposition to set scenes and establish the milieu leads to a story that’s more ruminative than a page turner. Clements is fascinated by the mundane or trivial activities of everyday life, such as what it was like to work at a Kreme Kone restaurant, which reinforces the title’s suggestion that it’s focus is on “points in time.” The novel’s often formal tone and grammar—most characters speak without contractions in their dialogue—may keep some readers from connecting to Clements's people, as may the fact that a pronounced Southern dialect (“What y’all pay?”) mostly only comes from the mouths of the Black characters, such as the young men Daren is eager to invite to join his football team.

Most alluring is Clements’s narrative structure. The mystery and suspense of the story rivets the reader as they bounce in between alternate timelines, which in the end ties the book’s theme of the sanctity of life together well. Clements’s scenes, character development, and contemplation of moral issues are the book’s heart. The bucolic towns and familiar tensions of growing up will tug at the heartstrings of readers seeking a glimpse of mid-century Americana with an emphasis on faith.

Takeaway: A deep and idyllic escape into mid-century Americana, powered by a sweet friendship of two boys and the complexities of life.

Great for fans of: John Grisham’s A Painted House, David Halberstam’s The Fifties, Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees.

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

Click here for more about Points in Time
Daisy and the Duke
Elizabeth Cole
A former lady of gentry turned spinster, twenty-year-old Margaret “Daisy” Merriot is pursued into an unlikely and highly improper courtship with the physically and emotionally scarred Tristan Brooks, the newly appointed Duke of Lyon, in this sweet yet slightly steamy regency romance. Daisy never imagined she would be left with “no title, no dowry, no expectations,” but that’s exactly where she finds herself when her father, Baron Rutherford, remarries and dies soon thereafter. Left wounded and severely scarred after a near-death experience, Tristan is convinced that only women looking to land a duke would show him any romantic interest. While out exploring his newly inherited estate, he meets Daisy during a chance encounter. concealing his true identity. This ignites a romance while setting into motion a series of events that will reveal long-lived secrets and lies.

In this first book of the Wallflowers of Wildwood series, Cole (author of, among others, the Secrets of the Zodiac novels) constructs a story that combines marriage-focused Regency high society with some classical fairy tale elements. Daisy is Cinderella–a woman scorned by her wicked stepmother, Lady Rutherford. Although reduced to a servant’s position and stripped of her birthright, Daisy maintains her kindhearted nature, especially with her perfect, calm stepsister, Bella Merriot. Cole presents a flawed Prince Charming in Tristan, who not only suffers physical scars, but exhibits aspects of PTSD and imposter syndrome, while inheriting an estate that is on the brink of financial ruin.

Written with sound romance structure and era-appropriate language, Daisy and the Duke finds its lovers facing convincing internal and external conflicts they must overcome. Still, the attraction between hero and heroine is instant and their budding relationship is straightforward, and despite Tristan’s trauma this isn’t a love story filled with angst. Readers wanting a sweet, no-fuss romance will enjoy this polished and accomplished Cinderella love story.

Takeaway: This sweet love story weaves together aspects of Regency romance with classic fairy tale elements and adventure.

Great for fans of: Lorraine Heath, Elizabeth Hoyt.

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

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The Mrs. Tabor
Kimberly C. Burns
Burns’s debut sparkles with the wild wonder of the mid-1800s Colorado gold and silver rushes. Lizzie McCourt, the daughter of an Irish merchant from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, arrives on the scene amid thousands of men and women with dreams of wealth from the mines. Lizzie’s a woman who knows what she wants and goes for it – namely, the most eligible bachelor in town, Harvey Doe. Thus begins an almost fantastical tale of love and loss, triumph, and tragedy that turns simple Lizzie McCourt into the infamous Baby Doe, the most beautiful woman in the West–a literal, and figurative, gold digger.

Baby’s plight–from the wife of an unambitious, bitter drunk to mistress, to riches then back to nothing–highlights the role of women during this harsh time in American history. Baby was primed to be a good wife to Harvey, but he was ill-prepared to face a life of mining in the mountains, leaving it up to her to either pick up the slack or fail–and her grit refuses to let her give up. Liberally studded with tidbits of history that breathe life into the story, Burns’s narrative offers a rush of emotion in its portrayal of a time of contradictions, when the wave of moralistic movements was lapping at the mountains and making it challenging for women just trying to survive.

Burns pays loving attention to period detail, and her extensive research and investment in what it would actually be like to live in this milieu gives a nice balance to sometimes unlikable characters. While Baby’s determination is admirable, the coldly calculating aspects of her personality and her sense of entitlement may leave some readers with an uncomfortable sense of schadenfreude. However, the story’s twists and turns and larger-than-life personalities will leave fans of historical fiction breathless while offering a welcome glimpse into a captivating past

Takeaway: A whirlwind tale of triumphs and tragedies celebrating the Colorado gold rush era through the eyes of an infamous lady.

Great for fans of: C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold, Francine Rivers’s Redeeming Love.

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

Click here for more about The Mrs. Tabor
Children of Violence
Luke Gherardi
Brutal yet somehow compulsively readable, Gherardi’s brisk debut certainly does not pull its punches. Each of the connected short stories in this hybrid of novel and collection either directly or indirectly recounts the turbulent lives of four main characters: Gracie, whose dad is a rather prominent mobster; Reeves, whose parents are religious to the point of extremism, calling television “the devil box”; Cole, whose father is veteran and stuck in the glory days; and Robbie, whose mother is an addict and whose mother’s boyfriend is a pimp. Taken together, this very adult collection of vignettes is not for the faint of heart, exploring how the worst of humanity lives—and, more importantly, how their children do, too.

Troubling topics and triggering language abound in this tight, potent collection, as do strong opening lines and cliffhangers: “So at a garage sale awhile back Paw Paw and I got a cast iron skillet for two bucks,” one chapter starts, exemplifying a prose style that remains conversational no matter how heavy the subject matter. Gherardi’s characters often talk about each other but only rarely dive into their own emotions as they endure the book’s relentless succession of traumatic events. At times, though, that tendency and (for the most part) a lack of connection between those events and how each of the protagonists ultimately ends up serves to obscure greater themes beyond shock and disgust.

However, that’s not true for all of Gherardi’s children of violence. Robbie’s arc is terribly affecting as it's clear how his situation affects his treatment of his little brother, his own life choices, and, ultimately, his end, as the conclusion to his story doubles as the book’s smart and heartbreaking final chapter. Readers will find themselves having to fill in some emotional and thematic gaps in this series of proudly sordid narratives, but spotting the threads that connect these lives does prove satisfying.

Takeaway: Fans of short, gritty stories that are unafraid to touch on almost every heavy subject will want to brave this succinct collection.

Great for fans of: Nelson Algren, Kate Walbert’s His Favorites.

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

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The Dark Tetrad: A Kori Briggs Novel
AP Rawls
A team of elite agents battles a mad genius in this lively feminist take on the international spy thriller subgenre. Kori Briggs works for the mysterious "Rampart" agency, which comes up against an opponent that has succeeded in building a nuclear bomb. Briggs must race to uncover her target, as well as a possible traitor in their midst, as she pairs up with her Russian counterpart Anya Kovalev on a globe-crossing adventure that moves from Tel Aviv, to Paris, and more. Meanwhile, she has to manage a romantic relationship—and an overly solicitous mother who thinks her daughter is a business executive.

Rawls keeps the plot briskly moving with neatly choreographed action scenes, from physical fights to airborne warfare. There's little gratuitous violence, and the tone is lightly humorous: a subplot finds a pair of semi-competent CIA agents stumbling onto Rampart's activities, and Briggs's colleagues find an amusing way to misdirect them. Rawls crafts running jokes about the donuts at Rampart staff meeting and how Briggs's fellow agents assume Kovalev, a woman, must be a man. Occasionally, some plot points strain credulity or edge toward the stereotypical, but the story zips along with no lulls.

Best of all are the characters, more three-dimensional than usually found in spy thrillers. Especially vivid is Briggs herself, a refreshingly modern feminine take on James Bond. She enjoys the casual relationships that have long been the prerogative of male action heroes and even finds time for flirtations in the middle of her investigations, while she and Anya humorously discuss how hard it is to keep a boyfriend without revealing their double life as super spies. And she always has time to soothe her worried mother, with increasingly elaborate lies explaining why she can't talk right now, even while she's saving the world from a nuclear holocaust. The always engaging Briggs paired with the lean plot will grab readers and keep them looking forward to further adventures.

Takeaway: Fans of spy actioners will revel in this swift-moving adventure and its delightful heroine.

Great for fans of: Stella Rimington, Ian Fleming, Rosalie Knecht’s Who is Laura Kelly?.

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

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