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Covid Orphans: Collateral Damage
Teri Peluso
Peluso’s of-the-moment debut novel centers on an imagined but utterly familiar contemporary tragedy. In the early days of Covid, the governor of Florida has issued a stay-at-home order, with only front-line “essential workers” exempt. Among them are single mother Chandra Powell, a worker at Oakbriar, a long-term care facility. Soon enough, like many of their patients, Chandra and the staff have fallen ill—in heartbreaking scene, a hospitalized Chandra can only speak to her oldest daughter through a window and her youngest children via FaceTime. Though 16 year-old Isabella, the oldest, calls their mom a “superhero,” the worst happens: Chandra dies, and the girls, desperate to avoid being split apart in the foster system, vow to take care of themselves.

Adults make that difficult, of course, both at the systemic and personal levels. Most worrisome is Lewis, a neighbor who watches the children’s apartment window and seems to know more than he lets on. (He calls Isabella “Bella Beauty” and makes declarations like “Just so you know, I keep secrets really good.”) As spring turns to summer, and Isabella tries to keep everyone fed and make sense of SNAP and unemployment benefits, Lewis grows creepier, the story grows darker, people from Chandra’s church begin sniffing around—and, reeling from shocks and trauma, Isabella and co. must face the possibility of discovery.

Throughout, Peluso demonstrates a firm command of how complex societal systems work (and fail), from Oakbriar to the state of Florida to a community-minded church and, ultimately, the justice system. She also understands the hearts and fears of kids, how daunting and inhumane those systems can appear from the outside, and the preciousness of stability and love. The storytelling tends toward a reportorial directness, as if she’s documenting a true case and trying not to editorialize. That approach distances reader from character, but it doesn’t diminish this scenario’s pained urgency—or ultimately hopeful conclusion.

Takeaway: A pained, realistic novel of children left parentless by the pandemic and vowing to get by on their own.

Great for fans of: Erin McKenzie’s Taking Chances, Cris Beam’s To the End of June.

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

Click here for more about Covid Orphans
Magician of Light
J. Fremont
Fremont debuts with a dramatic story of lost love, family secrets, and ancient magic. Lucinda Haliburton, granddaughter to a wealthy baron, comes from a family full of intrigue–including greed, betrayal, and whispers of madness. When she is sent to Egypt to spend time with her American father on an archeological dig being financed by her grandfather, Lucinda is thrown into the middle of family drama and dark magic. As her own mental health starts to deteriorate, she learns that her fate is inextricably tied to that of René Lalique, the famous young jewelry designer with his own dreams of fame and fortune.

This is a compelling, engaging tale of historical intrigue, and Fremont’s characters are immersive, though the complex plot at times overshadows them–particularly when it jumps timelines with little warning. While Lucinda fights visions of ancient Egyptian gods and fears of being consumed by the past, René becomes aware of cryptic prophecies that hint at his role in something far greater than he has ever imagined. The two embark on a journey of ill-fated love, and discover that nothing is as it seems–and the powers that be are doing their best to undermine their growing connection. Soon, Lucinda is launched down a path of no return and René drowns himself in his art, gaining notoriety and heartache along the way. Though neither can grasp the dizzying turns in store for them, both hold out hope they will one day be reunited.

Lucinda is equal parts innocent and flawed, characteristics that Fremont skillfully illuminates with the cast of dishonorable family members surrounding her every move, and René is portrayed as a loyal lover searching for meaningful ways to fulfill his destiny. Savvy readers will look beyond the surface romance to tease out the underlying themes of women’s justice and good versus evil, and the surprise ending will please those who prefer out-of-the-blue bombshells.

Takeaway: A memorable story of historical intrigue, jeweler René Lalique, and the relationships that inspired his art.

Great for fans of: Marie Benedict’s Her Hidden Genius, Michelle Moran’s The Heretic Queen.

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

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My Dad, My Rock: Children's Picture Book
Victor D. O. Santos
Oliver, a young boy who’s never met his grandpa, decides to imagine what it would be like to describe his dad to his unknown grandfather. Despite never having met or known his father, Oliver’s dad is clearly an incredible one—caring, affectionate, supportive—as told by Oliver. In gentle and simple prose, Oliver details the way his dad shows his love, including things he says that don’t make sense to him just yet, such as “He says hugs are food for the heart.” Accompanied by Forlati’s lush, beautifully textured illustrations with an understated but warm color palette, My Dad, My Rock is a heartfelt and moving ode to the father-son bond.

My Dad, My Rock is a genuine delight but will hit home harder for fathers and sons of all ages. In depicting fathers as affectionate, openly hugging their sons, encouraging them to cry, and teaching their sons how to diffuse anger, Santos (author of the Little Polyglot Adventures series) depicts the small ways in which we can teach our boys and men that it’s safe and healthy to have, feel, and express their emotions.

Santos establishes the stakes of this short and sweet book quickly, moving so fast that Oliver is actually only named on the back cover rather than in the story itself. That small detail doesn’t detract from the power of the narrative, thanks to the story’s resonant heart. (One detail that might detract, though, is the size of the font on the page, which is small, and could be larger to ease the reading experience.) More than just a simple list of things a son does with his father, My Dad, My Rock is a profound meditation on the ways in which fathers have the power to positively shape their sons.

Takeaway: Fathers, sons, and anyone who understands the power of a supportive male figure will be moved by this ode to fatherhood.

Great for fans of: Zack Bush’s Made for Me, Miguel Tanco’s You and Me, Me and You.

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

Click here for more about My Dad, My Rock
Blue Zeus: Legend of the Red Desert
Carol J. Walker
Horse photographer Walker (Galloping to Freedom: Saving the Adobe Town Appaloosas among other titles) returns with another stunner of a collection capturing images of wild horses at liberty, this time tracking over four years the spotted roan pinto stallion Blue Zeus and his family in the Red Desert Complex of Wyoming. Decrying policies that have pushed wild horses to only “the poorest of lands,” and offering alarming data about their diminishing numbers, Walker recounts first encountering Blue Zeus near Crooks Mountain in 2018, taking note of his knotted mane, battle scars, and the tender communication between this “caring and nurturing stallion” and its family of grays, sorrels, yearlings, and foals.

As the seasons pass, subsequent visits would find the family caring for new foals and engaging in intimate behavior adeptly captured by Walker’s stirring photos, which capture the family’s comfortable closeness; the individual horses’ distinctive beauty, grace, and strength; and the rugged, ragged majesty of their home. facing the likelihood of getting caught in a Bureau of Land Management roundup, an eventuality that prompts Walker to take steps to ensure that, even if captured, the family would stay together.

The tension, as the helicopters circle, is heartrending, but thanks to the intervention of Walker and the hard work of an animal sanctuary the ending proves warm and satisfying. The bulk of the book, though, is Walker’s up-close-and-personal photos of these horses in the wild, living the way few horses are free to, their activities, interactions, and relationships, all captured by an expert eye. Readers primarily interested in photography may find the images repetitive, but horse lovers will be in heaven as Walker documents, with rare patience and with insightful writing about her observations, the group dynamics of Blue Zeus and company, capturing their nickering demonstrations of submission and occasional flattened-ear scuffles. Readers on Walker’s wavelength will find this as enticing as a carrot offered in an outstretched hand.

Takeaway: A photographer’s intimate portrait of four years in the life of a family of wild horses

Great for fans of: Roberto Dutesco, Lynne Pomeranz.

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

Click here for more about Blue Zeus
Lasting Happiness: A Guide for Teens and Young Adults
Dr. Doug Carnine, Mary Opalenik, Christina Cox, M.Ed.
Carnine and collaborators Opalenik and Cox adapt key ideas from How Love Wins, Carnine’s guide to “mindful kindness,” for younger audiences. Carnine’s focus is on “kindfulness,” a philosophy and practice that combines a mindful approach to daily living with the powerful human instinct to manifest kindness to self and others, here presented in an inviting workbook style fitting for younger readers. Drawing on his experiences working with youth and inmates, Carnine outlines a process of replacing “unkind habits” in thought and action, including self-directed ones like substance abuse and other-directed ones such as contempt and defensiveness, with more kindful alternatives—gratitude-infused habits (meditation and engaging in fun activities, among others) that will empower readers to become “Kindness Ambassadors.”

Carnine effectively converts simple, powerful concepts into a format that will encourage the development of mindful behaviors and prosocial habits in both individual and group contexts. He breaks the material down into easily processed chunks in line with teen levels of patience and focus, offering systematic skill-building with plenty of space for practice, including writing prompts and self-assessments in each chapter. Carnine treats his readers with profound respect, and even adults who appreciate workbook formats will find this guide useful. Readers need not work the entire program to benefit from Carnine’s writing, either: his compassionate explanations of how to make behavioral choices will help those who just want to learn how to better process everyday frustrations as well.

Carnine displays a deep sensitivity to youth experiencing challenging life situations, such as being incarcerated, having an abusive home life, or facing discrimination. He affirms that teens choosing negative behaviors due to trauma are still good people capable of positive change. His belief in the desire of humans to be kind to one another, even when they have been marginalized, poorly treated, or have a difficult history, is palpable and will ring true with teen readers.

Takeaway: This powerful workbook clearly and appealingly guides young readers toward habitual practices of mindful kindness.

Great for fans of: Diana Winston’s Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens, Thich Nhat Hanh’s A Pebble for Your Pocket.

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

Click here for more about Lasting Happiness
Balloon: Altitude
Christopher Keith
The kickoff to Keith’s Balloon series is an enthralling contemporary sci-fi thriller that quickly hooks readers. Will, along with a group of scientists, sets out on a historical mission to be the world’s largest helium balloon to reach the edge of space. For project leader Will, this expedition marks the beginning of space tourism, though the mission quickly goes awry: the team’s electronics go dark as something deadly unfolds on Earth. Now, as they must work out how to safely return home before their oxygen runs out, they face a terrifying question: If they land safely, what will they find when they arrive?

In crisp, propulsive prose, Keith weaves a dynamic post-apocalyptic thrill ride complete with compelling speculative elements, practical problem-solving, and promising mysteries, all centered on a crew of memorable characters. Will brilliantly leads his competent crew consisting of Peta, an abuse survivor, self-centered Donovan, NASA pilot Ariane, and Lloyd, the designer of the balloon who happens to be terrified of heights. Each member of the team offers unique skills vital to the mission, and the group’s interpersonal dynamics create compelling conflict and realistic suspense, though the extensive passages detailing personal backgrounds at times slows the narrative momentum; however, this shouldn’t discourage sci-fi fans from diving into the drama or missing the payoffs as the devastating truth of this crew’s situation tests its survival and resolve in an exciting sequence of events.

The specifics of Keith’s timely plot revolving around space tourism and a global threat are best left for readers to discover. There’s a steady flow of nail-biting action and plenty of surprising twists, and Keith proves adept at seeding mysteries and leaving his audience eager for the next installment. Sci-fi fans interested in post-apocalyptic surprises and the adventure–and specifics– of travel to the edge of our atmosphere will relish this high-tension thriller.

Takeaway: Space exploration enthusiasts looking for a white-knuckle thrill ride into a post-apocalyptic world will enjoy this sci-fi thriller.

Great for fans of: Andy Weir, Poul Anderson.

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

Click here for more about Balloon
Strung
⟅R̫o̮s̫k͚e̫
Centered on the gowns-and-gentry and solstice promenades world of Lady Lysbeth Haywood, as well as the politics of engagement and the jolting revelation that creatures of the Fae exist after all, Roske’s bold, vividly realized genre-crossing romantic fantasy reveals its ambition in both form and spirited detail. Strung takes as its structural conceit the movements of a symphony. First comes a tune-up and a grabber of an overture establishing the themes and stakes, including the announcement of the capture of a creature out of “Fayetale”s on behalf of the Earl of Dorsit, who hopes the precious catch fulfills his ambition of, as one old salt puts it, “bedding a Haywood.” Then come the movements, as the world of Iodesh and the lives of the Haywoods and the Fae are both revealed and upended, complete with reprises, interludes, and a coda as Roske’s epic—and the slow-burn romance at its heart—swells to its conclusion.

Intoxicated with music, fairy language, and Regency-era romantic convention, Roske’s debut is a novel for readers with those interests to get lost in. Here the epistolary courtship drama of Austen-inspired romances meets the full-bodied magic and worldbuilding of Susanna Clarke; Roske proves adept at weaving the uncanny into society, and exhibits a keen sense of the allurements of fae. Introduced wearing “an elegant filigree of resplendent silver—which leaves little to the imagination” and soon revealed as a master of the pianoforte, the Fae at first known as Evyn introduces Lysbeth to new (and ancient) ways of thinking and feeling—as Lysbeth instructs in the finer points of dancing and Avon society.

Their attraction is irresistible, and Roske’s inventiveness—magic, revels, politics, adversaries with viciously clever designs, occasional beasts and bursts of action—keeps the novel engaging despite its length. Readers fascinated by the possibilities of love between wildly different cultures will relish th Lysbeth and her Fae companion discovering each other and each other’s worlds.

Takeaway: A sumptuous romance of ladies, fae, society, and two inventively realized worlds.

Great for fans of: Susanna Clarke, Nissa Leder.

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

Click here for more about Strung
The Wild Fields: A Fight for the Soul of Ukraine
Paul D. LeFavor
LeFavor (God’s Man) draws on his extensive military experience in this of-the-moment novel highlighting the pervasive unrest in Ukraine’s Donbas region. In the coal mining town of Zolote, the cease-fire seems to exist in name only as another young man is dead, and town resident Pavel Koval is considering moving his family to safety elsewhere. Pavel, who works as a butcher with his father, fears for the safety of his children and grandchild. Not only does he witness the danger in his everyday life, but he vividly recalls the horrors he experienced after being conscripted into the Soviet Army in the 1980s. Before long, Pavel discovers that because of his work with the militia, he is in danger from the anti-government operatives in Ukraine. Despite the continued bloodshed and tragedy, Pavel embraces the possibility of a brighter future when his daughter Savka decides to marry American Thomas Wade, a soldier of fortune working with the Ukrainian National Guard.

LeFavor skillfully portrays living under the brutal conditions of a war zone. His narrative is richly enhanced by historical references to combat and continued conflicts between Russia and Ukraine, which is especially apropos to present-day life in the area. The banter between Wade and his fellow soldiers, as they strive to survive and defeat the enemy despite the constant threat to their lives, is richly detailed and persuasive, their wit a vital deflection from continuous peril. While that richness and context at times slows the pace of the narrative, LeFavor draws readers into Pavel’s life with trauma-induced reminders of his service in the Soviet Army.

Readers will appreciate LeFavor's uniquely memorable descriptive language. Yet what will likely resonate most is how The Wild Fields immerses us in the lives of Pavel and his family as they overcome tragedy and seek to find a measure of peace despite the fractious world they inhabit and fight for.

Takeaway: A powerful story of living in war-torn Ukraine, as a man must choose between his homeland and a safer existence for his family.

Great for fans of: Pete Carlson’s Ukrainian Nights, Anna Reid’s Borderland.

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

Click here for more about The Wild Fields
It Burned Me All Down
Erin Durant
Durant lays out how law management and organizations can recognize signs of burnout in their employees and how people can recognize burnout within themselves. Durant is persuasive and educational about the effects of burnout–the result of “chronic workplace stress” that has “not been successfully managed”–within individuals and its impacts, with results including energy depletion, mental distance from one’s work, negative feelings about one’s job, and “reduced professional efficacy.” Drawing on her own experiences working at one of Canada’s largest law firms, Durant details how to tell if a place of employment is detrimental to one's mental health, and calls on employers to understand the risks and warning signs and to supply the resources for employees not to get to a state where they reach burnout at work.

It Burned Me All Down offers a highly intimate look into the mental health strains on lawyers or other high-performance professionals. As a law firm partner, Durant found herself highly successful in her career, but spiraling into depression and burnout in her personal life. The stress of working as a lawyer during the pandemic and the little time she had to work on her own mental wellbeing took a toll that eventually caused her to leave her high-profile position. This raw, candid book chronicles Durant's journey back from darkness and into a more balanced personal life and career.

It’s also a resourceful guide for management of high-stress professional organizations, for individuals finding themselves facing the symptoms of burnout, and for anyone who may not fully recognize the signs. Durant's story is an inspirational first-hand account of facing the darkness of burnout and depression, and then taking the best steps for one's mental health and setting healthy workplace boundaries. This quick read is packed with insightful guidance for high-performance employers and employees.

Takeaway: An intimate, firsthand account look into professional burnout and how to cope with it as an employer and an employee.

Great for fans of: Amy Shah’s I'm So Effing Tired, Beverly Potter’s Overcoming Job Burnout.

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

Click here for more about It Burned Me All Down
Connection: Gifted Book Two
R.L. Merrill
Merrill continues her Gifted series (after Healer) of paranormal romance thrillers with former Army Ranger captain Jack Howe using his extraordinary gifts to help rescue a kidnapped woman. Jack officially works as an art teacher at Havenhart Academy in Arkansas, a school for kids impacted by tragic circumstances, but he is more than just an art teacher—he also excels at using psychic abilities to heal others. When Cassidy Mackenzie, a charter pilot and best friend to Havenhart’s school counselor Delaney, is abducted by Gerald Rains, leader of a powerful religious cult, Jack volunteers to rescue her. Jack has his own history with Rains, and as he reconnects with a former Ranger buddy to save Cassidy, he knows nothing will get in his way.

Jack’s a compelling character, and his vividly described psychic sight is the underlying current powering much of the narrative. He stumbles onto Cassidy’s abduction through his clairvoyance, in the process discovering Gerald is still alive–despite Jack believing he was dead after his team previously prevented Gerald from kidnapping his own daughter, Joanna, who happens to attend Havenhart. Jack’s psychic Connection with Cassidy is his strongest yet, leading him to risk everything for her recovery. Merrill’s focus on her characters’ paranormal abilities creates a unique attachment between them as well as glimpses of their inner workings, and Jack’s narrative is both authentic and insightful—particularly when he delves into his past psychic experience with his father’s death by suicide.

Merrill’s view and development of The Maker’s Plan Community is disturbingly real and reminiscent of famous cults in history. The community resides in the vast and almost undetectable swamplands of the Florida Everglades, which lends credibility to the isolation and indoctrination of its members. An ever-present element of suspense reinforces the story’s rapid pace, and Merrill delivers a riveting conclusion that will entice readers with the possibility of future installments.

Takeaway: A former Army Ranger with intense psychic abilities relies sets out to rescue a woman abducted by a religious cult.

Great for fans of: Gregg Olsen’s The Hive, Matt Miksa’s Don’t Get Close.

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

Click here for more about Connection: Gifted Book Two
Zionism and Palestine: How and Why It Happened
Alex Markman
In its introduction, Markman’s concise and clarifying examination of the historic roots of Zionism and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict vows not, like many other treatises on these subjects, to use “not-so- sophisticated logic to prove the validity of the author’s emotional attitude toward the conflict.” Instead, Zionism and Palestine: How and Why it Happened examines the rise of Zionism and its goal of establishing a homeland in Palestine, starting in the 19th century, an era for European Jews of ghettoes and rabid anti-Semitism but also increasing social mobility, especially in the form of a new middle class—which itself became a target. From there, Markman moves from topic to topic, asking why the world invests such interest in this one conflict among so many others, contemplates Arabs’ and Zionists’ perspectives on the conflict with a welcome sense of historical reality, and clear-eyed considerations of Israel’s relations with its neighbors and the rest of the world.

Once an active zionist who in the 1970s endured three years in a Soviet prison camp for his commitment to the cause, Markman at times reveals his own “emotional attitude”s, though he takes the time to justify via the historic record assertions like “The international community, personified by the UN, treats the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as the biggest of all. In reality, it is one of the smallest.” He makes the case that silence in the global media about “the dictatorial regimes of Gaza and the West Bank”—which passes little of its financial support to the Palestinian population—constitutes active support.

For the most part, though, this account is uncommonly clear-eyed, even empathetic, in its portrayal of the conflict’s many stakeholders, especially in Markman’s convincing geopolitical analysis or his tracking, over pages, of the course of beliefs among populations over decades, whether it be the Zionist promise of Palestine or the way active, nefarious misinformation flares and spreads anti-Semitism.

Takeaway: A mostly clear-eyed examination of the roots of Zionism and the reality of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Great for fans of: Meron Benvenisti’s Sacred Landscape, Shlomo Sand.

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

Click here for more about Zionism and Palestine
Rise: Poetry for Lovers and Thinkers
Henry Lee Thomas
Thomas establishes the tone of this wide-ranging and impassioned collection in the opening of its second poem: “I do not know about you,/ but I’m having a love affair with poetry./ It turns my warm body on/ like I do not know what.” That demonstrates his enthusiasm, plainspoken clarity, and willingness to take risks in self expression, tendencies that dominate the several dozen works that follow: “In case you didn’t get the memo,” he writes a hundred or so pages later, in a section dedicated to “Philosophical & Social” concerns, “Real men are sensitive too.” Other poems in that category speak hard truth about the hate encountered by the participants in an interracial relationship (“If we bow down to the haters,/the world can’t ascend”) or call for an end to deadnaming with this potent declaration: “So stop impacting my well-being/ and call me by my chosen name.”

Those searing lines, though, are the pointed exceptions in a collection that often is as buoyant as the hot air balloons depicted on its cover, as Thomas celebrates all that makes life worth living and fighting for, from hydrangeas (“Their blooms last longer than a social media vine”) to departed greats (“Reign on forever, my purple Prince”), to the interconnectedness of creation explored in the ecstatic “One With Nature,” which opens with “My skin is like the Black Dirt region of a Hawaiian beach” and builds to the inimitable “My tears are like the falling waters at/ Frank Lloyd Wright’s UNESCO/ World Heritage House.”

Such striking connections power Thomas’s most compelling work, inviting readers to contemplate the possible meanings. Other poems, especially on spiritual or inspirational topics, tend toward the didactic or proscriptive, lacking such mystery (“If you find your life going off course,/ stop the car and pull out the map,” though they’re still touched by the poet’s inimitable wisdom, clarity, and sense of hope.

Takeaway: A rousing collection of poems that celebrates all that makes life worth living and justice worth fighting for.

Great for fans of: Ruben Rivera’s ​​Z is for Zapatazo, Shamir Kali Griffin.

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

Click here for more about Rise
Goods & Effects
Al Schnupp
Playwright Schnupp’s (Zero) character-rich road-trip novel revolves around Hannah Mercer, a free-thinking widow who forges a new life for herself after the death of her husband and two children. A lifelong adherent to the Mennonite church, Hannah upends her life by eschewing her faith and farm life and takes to the road. Traveling across Missouri, she starts selling goods out of the back of her truck, and in the process meets a number of unforgettable characters—from deaf child artist Darla to the passionate Bible scholar Hugo—and forges some truly long-lasting friendships.

The main thrust of the narrative is derived from the sturdy simplicity of life in Hannah’s small Missouri town of Adele. This simplicity is best represented by the people Hannah meets as she travels the countryside: whether it is Naomi, the wife of Deacon Stahl, who rebels against her husband by dyeing all her curtains red, or Wanda, who runs a retail store but actually wants to become a stunt pilot, the characters in this book are warm, vulnerable, and spirited, just like Hannah herself. Schnupp presents them with persuasive detail and feeling, drawing readers into their journeys and the ups and downs of rural life in the Show Me state, while always demonstrating a playwright's mastery of memorable, revealing dialogue.

Schnupp offers a direct, straightforward account of day-to-day life attentive to shared humanity and individual idiosyncrasies; it’s a thoughtful, empathetic novel, though readers who prefer plot-driven fiction may find, if they stick with it, action enough to keep them invested in the characters’ fates. There are points when the story bubbles over with unexpected drama or pierces readers with heart-wrenching tragedy, and Schnupp does a great job of illuminating these scenes without being melodramatic, while successfully preserving the novel’s quotidian simplicity. Lovers of unpretentious country life and piquant characters will enjoy this pure and insightful story.

Takeaway: A newly widowed woman leaves her small town life to start a new journey–and meet fascinating characters–in this insightful story.

Great for fans of: James Welch’s Winter in the Blood, Alan Bennett.

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

Click here for more about Goods & Effects
A Grownup Guide to Effective Crankiness: The CrankaTsuris Method
Steven N Taurke Joseph
Joseph (The Last Surviving Dinosaur: The TyranCrankaTsuris) vows to redefine the very idea of crankiness in this playful-yet-serious guide to facing, understanding, and managing anger. Encouraging readers to embrace their irritation, he likens it to a “CrankaTsuris”–drawing on his Jewish heritage to incorporate “tsuris,” the Yiddish word for problems, with the metaphor of a dangerous internal dinosaur brimming with uncontrolled anger. Joseph runs through the different ways our inner CrankaTsuris can crash into our lives—like when we unfairly criticize loved ones or believe our problems are worse than others’—and offers readers The CrankaTsuris Method as an answer to controlling it and even putting it to use: acknowledge the issue of anger as universal and learn how “to be heard in a safe and meaningful way.”

Joseph relies heavily on allegories to drive home his message, and despite adding entertainment value, some become puzzling. The story of Shmulie Shmendrick, a man selling ointment with flies in it, concerns the value of feeling some discomfort as an impetus for change, but readers may find the tale more confusing than enlightening. He is more successful when using kryptonite’s effect on Superman to illustrate the importance of never giving up: even when under duress, Superman never said “I can’t do this crime fighting thing anymore,” and Joseph’s invitation for readers to recognize their own kryptonite and talk candidly about it is clear, refreshing, and helpful.

The most effective passages come near the end, when Joseph summarizes steps for transforming your CrankaTsuris into healthy emotional regulation. He emphasizes the need to give three-dimensional weight to anger and outlines how to develop a support system for expressing it in safe ways. Most importantly, he concludes with the need to “spend every day finding things to marvel about.” Though it falls short of straightforward answers to managing anger, this eccentric offering does give readers something to think about.

Takeaway: An offbeat guide to transforming anger into healthy emotional expression.

Great for fans of: Luvvie Ajayi’s I’m Judging You, Samantha Irby’s We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.

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

Snoodles, Kidoodles, Poodles and Lots and Lots of Noodles
Steven Joseph
Playful, imaginative, and unapologetically silly, Joseph’s picture book for young readers imagines a not-so-distant future where all of the cars–called “SnoodleMobiles”–are powered by noodles. As a result of this invention, the air is always clean and the skies blue, and after a day of driving, the automobile produces “a fresh and delicious bowl of noodles and sauce … ready to serve a family of four, just in time for dinner.” The only person unhappy about this invention is Sour Croodleman, creator of an earlier vehicle that ran off sauerkraut and made everyone extremely smelly and cranky. To get his revenge, Croodleman smears kimchi on a famous work of noodle art, which is later licked clean by a sauerkraut-loving poodle.

The plot of this wacky tale can feel a bit jumpy at times, as it doesn’t focus specifically on any one character’s journey or emotional experience. It’s unclear, for example, exactly why Croodleman is happy again at the end, and famous art restorer Pierre Le’Toodle at first seems to have wandered in from another book. This randomness, however, proves one of the book’s strengths. Anyone who has listened to an elementary school kid tell a story knows they often dart from point to point and introduce characters and ideas that draw from multiple influences, so they will feel right at home visiting a “ramenoleum” station or Le’Toodle’s high-rise, paint-splattered studio.

Case’s colorful, action-packed illustrations help bring this zany world to life. The pictures show people zipping along in noodle-powered cars and admiring pasta-based artwork. They also show Croodleman defacing the art museum and Le’Toodle hard at work cleaning it up. The detailed, progressive illustrations feel a bit like reading a comic book–and Joseph’s enjoyably absurd, lively prose make this the type of bedtime story that will lead to equally entertaining dreams.

Takeaway: Joseph’s playful, imaginative, and unapologetically silly picture book imagines a noodle-powered future.

Great for fans of: Rowboat Watkins’s Rude Cakes, Rachel Dutton’s The Moose Who Loved Noodles.

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

Clouds Float South: Short Stories
Paul A. Broome
Broome (Girls Who Don't Believe) thoughtfully binds together ten short fictions with a shared protagonist and a strong sense of bewilderment at life for all its joys and heartaches. Each of the interlinked stories can stand on its own, but joined together they build into a profound and tender coming-of-age story of a boy from a southern family in the mid-twentieth century. Readers first meet young Alan Smith in “The Sassafras Tree,” as his family is caught in its darkest hour upon discovering the sudden death of his father, and will part from him in “The Smith Family,” when Alan returns to his hometown of Nashville to earn his master’s degree in English, after an unhappy time in his first adult job.

The cumulative nature of the narrative serves to highlight the character of the Smiths and the aftermath of their actions–the battle of wills between Alan's headstrong mother and the school bus driver in “The School Bus: Part One” reverberates in a follow-up, where Alan and his older siblings still face repercussions. In particular, it serves to map Alan’s changes, developments, and reversions. Though early story “The Kiss,” find Alan struggling to understand his white mother’s anger over the fact that he and a Black girl kissed while playing house, later stories, like “The Gravel Pit,” show him succumbing to prejudices himself, and “The Real World” demonstrates such a drastic shift in him that he, himself, is alarmed.

Broome turns everyday dramas–like the return of a neighbor from Vietnam in “Walter Lee,” a school scandal before a big football match in “The Big Game”–into case studies of the ties that connect people–and divide us. Balancing those heavy subjects is Broome’s incisive, inviting prose and Alan's blend of incredulity and youthful acceptance of those around him. That makes this an engaging read offering an undiluted reflection on life.

Takeaway: A sharp but warm examination of human nature through stories of a southern boy coming of age.

Great for fans of: Lewis Nordan’s Music of the Swamp, Chris Offut.

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

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