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Shifted: Book One of the Shifted Series
KristaLyn A. Vetovich
In Vetovich’s (Pure Fyre) Beta-Siberia, some distant time into the future, the world is coming to an end thanks to greedy political figures, income inequality, and climate change. But Kade Buxton, a loyal and headstrong 20 year old, is destined to save it all--if only he would listen to his spirit guide, Anaya. Told from the frustrated and sarcastic view of an otherworldly being, Shifted offers a unique spin on the traditional hero’s quest, as Anaya nudges Kade to embrace the “Plan”--and to resist the distractions to that path offered by Jordin, a rival with his own connections to Anaya. Vetovich memorably tangles the journey up with good and evil, questions of free will, and the ways friendships evolve.

Due to its unique perspective, the story sometimes feels limited, especially in terms of access to Kade’s actual thoughts and emotions. That being said, hearing exclusively from Anaya’s viewpoint invites readers to feel just as frustrated as she does with Kade’s inability to hear or heed her messages. Vetovich seizes the opportunity for amusing reflections and asides, such as when Anaya brags about helping Joan of Arc live out her purpose. Anaya’s big picture mindset also opens the story to moral questions at a higher scale than Kade is capable of comprehending, questions explored in Anaya’s relationship with Jordin, her former best friend and soulmate, who has shifted to the enemy side of this war.

The world of Beta-Siberia is not rendered in vivid color or expansive detail, but fittingly so, as Kade only has access to his lived experience in his development, and the Association (the governing authority) doesn’t teach much history or geography. Even with otherworldly discussing philosophy and religion, Shifted is a fast-paced and absorbing fantasy adventure that’s sure to capture the interest of teens who enjoy fantasy with moral intrigue.

Takeaway: A fast-paced and unique take on the hero’s quest that grapples with political and moral questions.

Great for fans of: Gareth Hanrahan’s The Gutter Prayer, Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows.

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

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Lady August
Becky Michaels
Raised in an orphanage and trained as a governess, August Summer finds her quiet life upended by her unexpected entrée to the aristocracy in this charming historical romance. A solicitor named Samuel Brooks shows up at her door with the news that her father is a nobleman, and still alive—for now. The dying man wishes to meet his natural daughter and to bestow upon her a massive inheritance. Now known as Lady August Finch per her father’s final wishes, she finds herself thrust into a world she doesn’t know and a family that never knew she existed, resented by some (her half-brother and step-mother in particular) and welcomed by others (including a half-sister and her somewhat scandalous aunt).

As she prepares for her introduction to society, August finds herself developing feelings for Brooks, who takes responsibility for her well being and ultimately returns her affections—despite his assertion that “I will never marry. Unlike you, I find the idea of family vastly overrated.” The chemistry between them feels tepid, but he’s far from the only character who is instantly and inexplicably charmed the ascendant lady. Aside from those whose self-interests conflict directly with hers, August is almost universally accepted and supported by almost everyone she encounters, including the noblewoman mother who was forced to give her up at birth. These relationships and alliances seem to coalesce around August effortlessly, diminishing the story's tension and complexity, though for some readers this may prove appealing.

Despite the relative dearth of interpersonal conflict, Michaels’s (The Land Steward’s Daughter) romance structure is sound, the dialogue is crisp and polished, and the hero and heroine face legitimate obstacles to their budding relationship that they must overcome. Those who enjoy their romances seasoned with angst should look elsewhere, but readers seeking sweet, upbeat love story with a light touch and a dash of historical flavor will enjoy this Cinderella tale.

Takeaway: Readers looking for an uncomplicated historical love story will be satisfied with this literary confection.

Great for fans of: Sally Britton, Laura Rollins.

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

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Enemy Combatant
WINNER DAVID
In Winner’s darkly comic story of wartime misadventure, a pair of dissolute Americans try to find secret American military prisons—along with their own sense of purpose—while on a dark-humored pilgrimage through Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey in 2005. Peter, separated from his pregnant wife and battling various inner demons, has become obsessed with finding evidence of Bush administration war crimes. By dumb luck, he and his friend Leonard free an alleged terrorist and then try to make it home. The caper swings wildly from comic to tragic, on a journey that changes Peter forever.

Against a realistic backdrop, Winner masterfully sets absurd characters in absurd scenes, highlighting the confusion in the characters' lives as well as the insanities of war. An incompetent American soldier they sneak up on initially assumes, from their put-on accents, that they’re Arabs, so Peter starts channeling tough-guy talk he vaguely recalls from old Kojak episodes–and pauses to reflect on the odd fact that both he and the soldier originally come from Virginia. The duo’s freed prisoner turns out to be as lost, physically and emotionally, as they are, and the police Peter and Leonard come up against are not thugs, just men trying to get through the day. Winner offers readers no heroes and no villains, but the characters never fail to engage even though the storytelling occasionally falters with awkward flashbacks.

Peter comes across as especially complex and appealing. Even with his obsessions and addictions, he longs for his wife and favors the language of a poet, not a freedom fighter: He travels with "Sarah’s shirt, the one that smelled so reassuringly of the soap she used." Despite his poses, he can’t forget who he really is–"the man on Manhattan Avenue who played with the fat cat at the local bodega…" As Peter desperately tries to get home, Winner makes clear that the most rewarding journeys are those we take within ourselves.

Takeaway: The troubled characters in this brisk story of the absurdity of war will resonate long after readers finish the book.

Great for fans of: David Abrams’s Fobbit, Phil Klay’s Missionaries.

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

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Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind, Revised Edition: Leadership Lessons from Three Decades of Social Entrepreneurship
Alex Counts
Counts, the founder of the Grameen Foundation, has dedicated his life to alleviating poverty through microfinance and other innovations. This revised edition of Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind, which pairs accounts of Counts’ career in the nonprofit world with lessons for effective leadership and self-care, updates a book targeted at a specialized audience: nonprofit leaders fighting for societal change. Counts’ practical, engaging advice draws from his decades of experience, in the U.S. and abroad, in holding true to a mission and vision while wrangling grants, board members, staffs, and complex partnerships.

Setting the book apart is his focus on physical and mental self-care: “I’ve seen far too many middle-aged nonprofit leaders who were overweight smokers and whose cynicism and jaded perspectives lived right below the surface of their ossified idealism,” he writes. Attentive to the particular challenges facing leaders in his field, Counts urges readers to commit to hobbies, to “live generously” in their personal lives, and to practice gratitude, suggestions he illustrates with clear, compelling anecdotes. One breakthrough he recounts, in work and in life, has been learning to recognize that people are who they are: “I expected everyone to be motivated, demotivated, amused, saddened, inspired, and troubled by roughly similar things as I was,” he writes. This insight helped him grow beyond that assumption: “every person was a riddle to be solved, joyfully.”

This updated edition closes with a new chapter, inspired by the era of the coronavirus, that centers on nonprofit leadership in a society-wide crisis. Crucially, Counts encourages his readers to take the long view, avoid overreacting, and demonstrate grace and understanding to stressed or even angry supporters. Having faced crises every decade of his career, Counts suggests that nonprofit leaders should anticipate, during boom times, that a bust is inevitable and manage rainy-day funds accordingly. His book offers hard-won insight and guidance to nonprofit workers and leaders committed to living lives of meaning–but not lives of needless stress.

Takeaway: This practical memoir and guide balances nonprofit work with self-care.

Great for fans of: INCITE!’s The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, Dan and Chip Heath’s Made to Stick.

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

Lost Love's Return
Alfred Nicols
Former federal judge Nicols’s debut highlights the intricacies of wartime romance and the promise of love across a lifetime as it follows an American soldier who falls in love with his British nurse during World War I but then loses her afterwards. When he’s wounded in France on the front line, Mississippi native Peter Montgomery is sent to Edmonton Military Hospital in North Middlesex, England, in hopes of staving off a life-threatening infection. He promptly falls in love with his nurse, Elizabeth Baker, who senses something different about him and soon finds herself returning his affection. After the war ends and he is forced to leave England, Peter tries to send information about his abrupt departure to Elizabeth, but she never receives the message.

The novel spans decades. Peter’s return home is tumultuous–though he misses Elizabeth, one night of drunken sex back in Mississippi results in a crisis and a hasty wedding. Finally, many years after he last saw Elizabeth, Peter contacts her in hopes for a chance to reconnect. Nicols seamlessly depicts the historical events surrounding World War I and the debilitating conditions faced by soldiers on the battlefield, but despite ample physical descriptions of the characters and colorful accounts of their youthful exploits, he largely avoids exploring their emotional depth. However, the relationship between Peter and Elizabeth, a primary focus of the plot\, is well-developed as their innocent flirtation escalates into a full-blown romance.

Nicols’s use of rural Mississippi vernacular common during the early part of the 20th century is spot-on and adds realism, and his familiarity with small-town life gives readers a convincing window into the characters’ existence. The narrative is fast-paced and immersive, and while the language is not highly descriptive, its concision is welcome. Fans of long lost love will appreciate the sincere bond between Peter and Elizabeth as they navigate the ups and downs of rediscovering each other.

Takeaway: An endearing story of an American World War I veteran who, despite the passage of time, cannot forget a British nurse.

Great for fans of: Lauren Willig’s Band of Sisters, Ann Howard Creel’s Mercy Road.

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

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To Every Page a Turning: One Life's Journey
Carl Buccellato
This gripping autofiction follows an unnamed narrator looking back on his life after he stumbles onto a collection of old papers. Following a rough childhood in Brooklyn, the man joins the army and fights in Vietnam, suffering from abandonment and anger issues. He later finds success as a businessman, raises a family, and learns to forgive his cold, neglectful parents. Told in a series of non-linear, third-person vignettes, and occasionally including entries centered around old army buddies and their lives beyond the war, this is a well-written portrait of a man struggling through hardships to make something of his life.

While a few vignettes focus on other members of the narrator’s troop, much of the narrative is, by Buccellato’s admission, based on his own experience. This often works in his favor: The deeply personal chapters centered around Vietnam capture the cruelty of war with insight and even beauty, while his accounts of facing death—the sensory overload that comes with watching a friend die—are horrifying and resonant. He intriguingly blends fact and fiction, but what will matter to readers is the mastery over detail Buccellato demonstrates throughout. The narrator describes, during an evacuation, taping his dog tags together to make himself as silent as possible, a little moment that reveals so much.

The sections covering the narrator’s later life (focusing on his marriage, health issues, family, and monetary success) are sprawling and lack the specificity of his war-related episodes. The language becomes less clear, the anecdotes less compellingly connected, and extraneous details cloud the narrative. Buccellato’s time jumps can be confusing, and the choice to identify the narrator only as “he” results in some awkward sentences when other "he"s enter the picture. But despite some stylistic shortcomings, this is a powerfully intimate rendering of a man, his life after the war, and the ways in which it changed him forever.

Takeaway: This absorbing autofiction explores the effects of the Vietnam War through the eyes of an ambitious protagonist.

Great for fans of: Nico Walker’s Cherry, Rick DeStefanis’s Valley of the Purple Hearts.

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

Butterfly, Butterfly
CarrieAnne
CarrieAnne’s colorful debut children’s picture book introduces kids to different types of butterflies and the fascinating worlds through which they fly. With fun rhyming throughout, CarrieAnn establishes the kind of repeating, question-response structure that’s ideal for storytime with younger readers. One page will depict a “butterfly, butterfly in the sky,” with text inquiring what it sees; the next page offers a rhyming answer (“eight orange flowers and a rubber ducky”) illustrated by the author’s inviting and detailed watercolor paintings. To further engage children’s attention, the answer rhymes count upwards, one to ten, starting with a butterfly seeing “one red flower and a bumblebee” and increasing eventually to “ten blue flowers as happy as can be.” The butterflies, true to their nature, flit and flow across the page layouts.

Seamlessly combining charming yet realistic artwork, cute rhymes, and educational content, CarrieAnne has created a picture book that kids will want to read over and over. The book stays fresh despite its repeating structure: It asks the same question ten times, but to a succession of new, vividly rendered butterflies, who each offer an answer that’s alive with color and surprises. The final pages identify each of the butterflies (black swallowtail, great spangled fritillary) and flowers (purple snowpea, blue forget-me-not) depicted in the book, plus offer colorful count-along pages in which butterflies appear in rows correlating with the pages they upon which they first appeared.

As a children’s librarian, CarrieAnne understands how to grab and hold children’s attention at reading time. This work of love smartly offers repeating but not boring rhymes, eye-catching watercolors, a variety of vibrant natural subjects, and the additional fun of counting. A climactic illustration depicting a child isn’t as appealing or lively as the book’s abundant butterflies and flowers, but the author/illustrator’s passion for reading and the outdoors comes through splendidly.

Takeaway: Young readers will adore learning about butterflies and counting with this watercolor picture book.

Great for fans of: Dianna Hutts Aston’s A Butterfly is Patient, Jerry Pallotta’s Butterfly Colors and Counting, Susan R. Stoltz’s Let’s Count Butterflies.

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

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Denied
Mary Keliikoa
Keliikoa’s second entry in the Kelly Pruett Mystery series finds PI Kelly Pruett recovering from a gunshot wound to the arm and eager to get back to work. Returning home from a stakeout, Pruett runs into a woman from her past, an old classmate named Stephanie Burnotas. Stephanie is pregnant and her father, Vince, is missing, so she hires Kelly, who at first is happy to take a simple missing persons case—but then she finds evidence that Vince was indebted to the mob and discovers a severed finger covered in maggots. Things quickly worsen when Vince’s car gets discovered at the bottom of a cliff, and the mob takes measures to stop Kelly from asking further questions.

This is an action-packed novel with a strong heroine, a likable cast, and an engaging central case. The pacing is strong, and the narrative possesses that ineffable quality that can only be called “readability.” Vince’s death is mysterious, and Kelly proves adept at thinking it through: “Had it been raining that night? There were no streetlamps. Nothing to illuminate the road except for two headlights piercing the void. The rubber of his tires leaving solid ground. Sailing. Dropping. Hitting tree limbs on his way down. The jolts waking him. Had he realized in that moment where his car would land?”

Keliikoa vividly draws these characters. It’s easy to like Kelly, who recently lost her father, and to feel why her mother—who faces some danger once the mob gets wind of Kelly’s investigation— means so much to her: “My mother didn’t say as much in words as in action. Reassurance came in the form of a longer hug, brushing my hair, one-sided conversations where I rambled on about my fears that I’d never be pretty. Or skinny. Or normal.” This swift, exciting thriller hits its marks in mystery and action, but the heroine is what will stick with the readers after the last page.

Takeaway: An appealing detective and nice twists and turns enrich this mystery.

Great for fans of: Jennifer Hillier, Shannon Kirk.

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

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Dutybound: Light Wings Epic Vol. 1
Mark A. Alvarez
When the province of Moz is attacked by a shadowy, demonic force, 18-year-old Lucia Sanoon, high maiden of Moz and sole heir to the governorship, is forced to flee, accompanied by Sir Leocadio Feral, heir to the neighboring province of Pinea. Heeding the advice of a letter left behind by Lucia’s long-missing father, the duo seeks refuge with Leo’s father in Pinea, only to be displaced after another attack. In search of answers, they venture forth to Aldric, the land of scholars, only to learn that they have been caught up in an age-old conflict between darkness and light--and that this new generation must pay for the sins of its predecessors. To save the world, they must uncover the secret of the Light Wings, a powerful artifact passed into Lucia’s safekeeping which grants her amazing powers, at a cost.

Alvarez brings to this epic fantasy an ambitious, philosophical bent, a resonant clash between generations, and a colorful, highly visual aesthetic. That emphasis, though, comes at the expense of deeper worldbuilding and character exploration. As his characters visit interesting locales, Alvarez paints vivid pictures with an eye for detail but neglects the cultural and social details that invited readers to feel invested in a living, breathing setting.

The same can also be said for his characters, who wax poetic about good and evil, light and dark, but never quite feel like real people. Instead, Alvarez uses them to explore his philosophical concern, a spiritually charged struggle between sin and virtue. The juxtaposition of religious and human elements makes for an interesting thematic core but doesn’t quite carry the narrative, which tends to skip quiet moments in favor of action and high drama. A sudden time jump late in the story may even leave readers wondering if they have missed some crucial developments. Still, the premise has potential and the author’s use of color throughout is impressive.

Takeaway: This philosophical fantasy will appeal to readers seeking vivid clashes between light and dark.

Great for fans of: Brent Week’s Lightbringer series, L. E. Modesitt Jr.’s Recluce series.

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

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MOMENT
Robert Abad
Abad’s debut collection of travel photography is a love letter to youth across the globe. Compiled with the help of his own daughters (ages twelve and fourteen), the book includes candid photos of the day-to-day lives of kids all over the world, providing insight into the cultures and people of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Focusing primarily on friend groups, families, and private moments, the collection is an introduction to destinations beyond North America, captured in a series of individual moments. Abad also includes shots of landscapes, temples, cities, and the Great Wall of China, exploring the commonalities and differences among his far-flung destinations, all interspersed with inspirational quotes (from sources like Confucious, Dr. Seuss, and Laura Esquivel).

Abad’s best work is illuminating and memorably composed, offering vivid glimpses into the intimate moments of others’ lives. But the collection offers little in the way of a throughline — in addition to photos of children, there are photos of buildings, cityscapes, and even aerial views. An introduction makes clear that the book is intended to introduce children to new cultures, experiences, and ways of living, inspiring a love of travel and a curious nature in young “trail-blazers, dreamers, and problem-solvers.” In the digital era, of course, people are far more global than ever; children are likely to have seen material similar to the images contained in this book.

The most engaging photographs here offer uncontrived looks at the countries of his travels, suggesting something of the essence of the everyday. Occasional photos of Abad’s own kids add a nice personal touch. His city photography in particular is striking. Abad’s collection combines humane and tender portraits of families, children, and locals with impressive landscape work. For those interested in glimpses of youth culture in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, this offers a welcome point of entry.

Takeaway: This book of travel photography, focusing on children around the world, will appeal to globetrotters and curious kids alike.

Great for fans of: Steve McCurry, Brandon Stanton’s Humans.

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

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Picnic for Parrots
Allison Sojka
In Sojka’s playful storybook, a colorful group of parrots has gathered in the jungle for a picnic. Each bird has brought a dish to share, but Red, the picnic’s host, only wants to eat pineapple cupcakes with kiwi cream icing. Unfortunately, Red is too shy to get up and snag his own treat, so he asks his friend Blue for help. In the middle of her own meal, Blue misunderstands Red, thinking he wants a pineapple cupcake with jellybean icing. When Blue can’t find this type of cake, she whispers to another parrot for assistance, leading to a cute and silly version of the popular children’s game, Telephone.

Children will find some of the parrots’ snacks amusingly gross–cherry breads with roaches, for instance, as well as cantaloupe pudding and cricket cookies. Young kids will also laugh as the birds repeatedly misinterpret each other, as by the time the message reaches the yellow parrot it has gotten garbled into “lime bowl cupcakes topped with chilies and beans.” There’s a good chance this goofy tale will spur a real-life round of Telephone with family or friends, making it an appealing choice for keeping youngsters entertained on long, lazy afternoons. The rhymes are a bit forced or awkward at times (eat/sweets, icing/green), but preschoolers are unlikely to notice.

Sojka’s simple, cheery illustrations rely on simple shapes and do not incorporate much detail or depth. Young children will easily recognize the parrots and their food, but the images are presented without context, with each page utilizing the same vaguely leafy, dark green background. Although parents will appreciate the story’s message about friendship, what matters most is this tale’s sense of fun and whimsy, which will inspire the kids to play their own games and make them want to read the book more than once.

Takeaway: This whimsical storybook about a colorful group of parrots having a picnic offers a playful take on a favorite children’s game.

Great for fans of: Mac Barnett's Telephone, Courtney Dicmas's Harold Finds a Voice.

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

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You Have Your Way
Hannah Larrew
In this eccentric thriller combining elements of the legal and crime genres, Glenn (Friday Calls) reintroduces protagonist Eddie Terrell, a flamboyant trial attorney willing to go to extraordinary means to get justice for his clients-- and presently on the verge of a mid-life crisis. After a bad breakup with his live-in girlfriend, Terrell runs to Montana to escape his personal problems. There, he meets sultry hair stylist Mikey Riewey, and after an exciting night together, he hatches an illegal investment scheme that will ease his boredom, test his skills, and score them both a “good pile of money.”

The story unfolds as Terrell puts into motion complex plans that skirt the law and demand Mikey attempt “some role playing, some being somebody else.” Although well-respected and known for holding high ethical standards, Terrell has no problem navigating between Southern high society and seedy, criminal elements. As the plot grows more complex, Terrell encounters a diverse cast of quirky characters, notably independent insurance investigator, Gigi Faye Erin, and bartender Val, whose speech is “a thesaurus of profane combinations.” The interaction between Terrell and other key characters makes for lively, uniquely Southern dialogue: “She’s seen me get my ass handed to me so many times, it’s got calluses deeper than leather knobs on it.”

Terrell’s personal and relationship problems come across in vivid prose: “Lee Ann had become a frenetic harpy and Eddie had become a workaholic, self-possessed, schizoid, a ducking and diving bastard.” With historical events and knowing references to Chapel Hill, Myrtle Beach, Fort Sumter, and other Carolina landmarks, Glenn crafts a tale that oozes with distinct Southern charm; if the pacing is at times erratic, it mirrors Terrell’s own wandering mind. Still, the spicy dialogue, witty innuendo, and details of Terrell’s scheming and love life will keep readers glued to the final page.

Takeaway: Fans of crime and legal thrillers will savor this novel’s eccentric Southern flavor and an enticing big-score plot.

Great for fans of: John Grisham, Carl Hiaasen, Janet Evanovich.

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

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Star-Spangled Panties
Carol Ann Strickland
Strickland's cheery guide to the superhero Wonder Woman is also an exuberant manifesto about the Amazon’s meaning and depiction. Drawing on decades of DC comics, she carefully explicates the character's origin, friends, powers, love interests, equipment, and enemies in chummy, breezy language. Rather than simply informing the reader of the twists and turns of Wonder Woman's eighty years of existence, she highlights the eras that most faithfully stick to themes of empowerment, discarding everything else. Strickland espouses an ideal version of the character, and one consistent with the thinking of creator William Moulton Marston, as a symbol of feminist empowerment.

Strickland argues that Wonder Woman’s Amazonian training prioritizes peace and personal improvement rather than violence, and that the hidden Amazon society that created the hero should have no connection to the patriarchy. Her tone is unapologetically fannish, sometimes suggesting an insider posting to other diehards rather than a guide for general audiences. Indeed, the prose is at times message-board casual: The writing is digressive, with abundant personal asides, and Strickland gleefully employs internet abbreviations like “imho” and often uses her catchphrase of “nevah happened” when discussing stories and interpretations that she dislikes. That said, she makes many compelling arguments about how inconsistent storytelling has hurt the character and how it’s diminishing to Wonder Woman to depict her enemies as motivated by simple misogyny. (“Ugh. Nope, nope, nope. No misogyny in the Wondie mythos, please.”)

Strickland's passion is clear, and she works hard to persuade readers of the righteousness of her take on the character. In the end, this is a celebration of Wonder Woman's history, but it's also a condemnation of how recent comics as well as movies and television have let the character down. For Strickland, a Wonder Woman who doesn't work hard for her power and fails to present herself as a role model is joyless--and simply cannot be the world's greatest superhero.

Takeaway: Wonder Woman fans will enjoy this highly opinionated take on what makes the Amazon the world’s greatest superhero.

Great for fans of: Jill Lepore's The Secret History Of Wonder Woman, Tim Hanley's Wonder Woman Unbound.

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

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MOON CHILD
Gaby Triana
In this eerie Florida Gothic tale, a young woman finds acceptance and fellowship in a coven of clairvoyant teens, only to question the ultimate purpose behind their rituals. Increasingly uncomfortable with her Cuban-American family’s Catholic faith and the pressure to conform, 18-year-old Valentina “Vale” Callejas rejects a position of leadership in her youth ministry and goes to stay with her half-sister Macy in the small town of Yeehaw Springs. There, a mysterious wolf leads her to a long-abandoned sanitarium, and its inhabitants– a quartet of teens with half-formed psychic powers who welcome her as their anticipated fifth member. As they strive to channel the area’s mystical energy, they tamper with forces beyond their control, opening the door to disaster.

Triana’s tale hovers on the border between dark fantasy and outright horror, drawing upon the creepiness of Florida’s forgotten corners to infuse the setting with a sense of loss, decay, and impending doom. Vale’s struggle to reconcile her wavering faith with a newfound affinity for Tarot and spiritualism makes for a compelling personal arc, especially when it brings her into conflict with family and friends. Triana is careful to balance both sides of these disagreements, encouraging personal exploration while condemning hypocrisy and closed-mindedness. She strongly emphasizes found family, as Vale slowly learns to trust her new friends–a refreshingly diverse group which includes Haitian-American Wilky, non-binary Mori, and lesbian Fae.

Triana skillfully ramps up the tension as her characters explore the sordid history of Sunlake Springs and how it relates to their personal lives. Even Vale discovers a surprising connection, and in a chilling subplot, Wilky confronts a lingering legacy of racism when he uncovers his great-uncle’s fate. The subtle influence of the supernatural on the story becomes more blatant near the end, but the end result is a powerful tale of personal discovery and dark secrets that will appeal to readers looking for an unsettling escape into the unknown.

Takeaway: This dark fantasy blends Florida atmosphere and witchy suspense.

Great for fans of: Hannah Abigail Clarke’s The Scapegracers, Amy Rose Capetta’s The Lost Coast, Shea Ernshaw’s Winterwood.

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

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52 - A Tale of Loneliness
Johnny DePalma
A singular whale with a mysterious tale inspired this contemplative picture book that dives deep into the ocean’s vast beauty and the rewards of a solitary existence. The real-life whale 52 was identified by Navy technicians who were monitoring sound waves in the Pacific Ocean, and detected an unusually high-pitched (52 hertz) whale song that always went unanswered by other whales. Since whales communicate on lower frequencies, 52 was unheard (and thereby invisible), and was eventually called “the loneliest whale in the world.” DePalma (The Raindrop Keeper) skips over this origin story, focusing instead on this pensive creature resigned to living without companionship.

Illustrator Kyle Brown, in his third collaboration with DePalma (after The Night Parade and Krampus: A Holiday Message), opts for expressive personality over species authenticity. 52 is jaunty and soulful (“It’s true I’m happy, / and yet blue.”), with cerulean skin and a white ridged underside that curves into a jutting lower lip. Shifting the whale’s position and features, Brown imbues 52 with an impressive emotional range that perfectly complements the text’s meditative musings. A lighthouse keeper’s poetry serves as an introduction, but young readers could just as easily plunge right into the whale’s point of view.

DePalma makes a repeating motif of “the ocean is a beautiful thing,” and this sentiment is emphasized by Brown’s glorious, textured pastels and watercolors. 52’s environment is full of plant life, rock formations, and other sea creatures, and the light shifts from sharp shafts slicing through water to glowing eddies floating on the dark ocean floor. While happy to someday play with other whales, 52 finds real joy in focused exploration (“There’s more to see when you’re alone”). The winsome, self-aware whale of this “tale of loneliness" will encourage young readers to view isolation as an opportunity to observe and reflect without distraction.

Takeaway: The lonely whale that intrigued scientists and inspired artists offers young readers encouragement to pursue creative alone time.

Great for fans of: Lynne Kelly’s Song for a Whale, Anna Pignataro’s The Heart of a Whale.

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

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CoinciDATE
David R. Low
In this dark, semi-satirical novel, Low explores an utterly depraved exaggeration of hookup culture. Miranda is an employee at CoinciDATE, a shady dating service that, for a price, will stalk anyone’s desired partner. Many who sign up are maladjusted, violent, or struggling to cope with day-to-day existence. As Miranda abandons her morals for a chance at a better life, her clients become more and more desperate. Barry, a self-pitying incel, obsessively pursues (and glorifies) an uninterested acquaintance. Doug, an unfaithful, misogynistic pervert, hires Miranda to follow an underage girl.

With a cast of brutally immoral deviants, and acts of senseless and sexualized violence, the novel is by design no easy read. Upsetting and bleak, the novel focuses on the worst of humanity: pedophiles, stalkers, murderers. It offers readers nobody to champion—even the sympathetic characters take a turn for the awful. Still, the story is suspenseful and fast-paced, with a multi-perspective narration that chops the oft-grotesque material into bite sized pieces. And readers with the stomach for it may find something horrifyingly compelling about watching the characters descend into darkness. From a school shooting in the first chapter, the tone never lets up; Low is upfront about the book’s nature.

There are so many names, places, and plotlines that it can be difficult to keep track of who’s who, and in taking on the depravity of the worst sectors of the internet, such as incel culture, Low runs into the tricky dilemma of how to parody something that is itself already over the top. And sometimes the novel simply goes off the rails: the late addition of a pyramid scheme, an unbelievable deus ex machina, and a touch of science fiction. But for the most part, this is a well-crafted, morally ambiguous, utterly depressing satire, with plenty to say about relationships, loneliness, violence, and misogyny–from the perspective of some truly revolting people.

Takeaway: This grim, violent satire of online hookup culture demands a strong stomach.

Great for fans of: Nick McDonell’s Twelve, Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex 1.

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

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