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The Ptolemy Project
Kate St.Clair
St. Clair creates a compelling, character-driven YA science-fiction thriller with mature themes that will reward contemplation long after the final page is read. Set in a future after humanity has colonized Titan, The Ptolemy Project centers on teenagers who wake up on a mysterious space station, a puzzling habitat that has been redesigned for some nefarious purpose. A wide variety of characters are trapped there, though the story focuses on fire-obsessed Lyra, sociopath Pollux, paranoid schizophrenic Zeke, and Aquila, a young trans woman with a split personality. In order to survive, they are subjected to a series of challenges. While their lives are in danger, it’s their mental health that quickly becomes their worst enemy. Together, they must navigate their new reality if they want to survive.

Sci-fi fans will enjoy this arresting premise and its escalating mysteries, as well as the crisp dialogue, fast pace, and the chance to get to know these characters. Occasionally, a flourish of prose—“There’s a flash in the firelight, a bead of reflection falling from Lyra’s hands to land on her thigh”—obscures rather than highlights the meaning of a passage, but the action sequences skillfully ramp up the stakes and tension as St. Clair’s diverse cast find a way to navigate the challenges and conundrums they face as a team. Those characters can be polarizing by design, especially Pollux, whose mental health concerns and backstory prove truly disturbing. Whether he or the others in the end find the redemption they seek will make for stimulating discussion.

St. Clair doesn’t shy away from heavy themes such the rehabilitation of society’s outcasts, that possibility of redemption for those who might have been deemed unredeemable, and the persistent debate between nurture and nature, played out in the budding friendship between Pollux and Lyra. There’s also hints of class struggles and inequities between characters as well as tight friendships and possible romances as St. Clair’s teens dig into their mind-bending situation—and as St. Clair digs into them.

Takeaway: Sci-fi fans looking for diverse characters facing high stakes mysteries and their own demons will enjoy this swift read.

Great for fans of: Marie Lu’s Warcross, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner Series.

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

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E. Z. and the Chikasha Warrior
Tony L. Turnbow
Turnbow’s second page-turning middle-grade frontier novel in the Fighting Devil’s Backbone series continues to follow E. Z. and David Perkins’s fight for survival along the Natchez Trace, dubbed the Devil’s Backbone, in the early 19th century after the death of their mother. Trying to escape Mr. Burton––the mysterious man their mother supposedly trusted their lives with if anything should happen to her but who may have ulterior motives––E. Z. and David attempt to earn acceptance from the Chickasaw Nation and local Chickasaw warrior Tashka. But when their friend’s family is taken by Muskogee (here dubbed “Creek Indians”), Mr. Burton is tracking them down, and the games of boys turn into the wars of men.

A break from non-stop action, this well-written and well-paced second book gets more into characterization of the main characters and slows down the plot, taking readers through several indigenous rituals as the boys prepare for hunting and battle and centering on themes of bravery, selflessness and self-sufficiency. New readers should know this follow-up does not entirely stand alone, but it is still easy to follow the overarching story. Turnbow’s depiction of indigenous peoples is non-stereotypical, sometimes even contesting familiar adventure story tropes, with respectful treatment of Chickasaw culture and rituals and Native American characters playing significant roles. That said, the plot ultimately casts as the bad guys the Muskogee, indigenous people who don’t want white men “buying” their land, and the Chickasaw as the good guys––indigenous people that cooperate with white men.

A pressing conversation about the Muskogee perspective (“This is our land. We do not want to change.”) gets cut off by a well-aimed Chickasaw arrow. That moment exemplifies the challenge of updating frontier adventure storytelling for contemporary readers who reject the term “Indian” (which appears in both dialogue and narration), which weighs over the book, including elements like the treasure map that E.Z. holds and Mr. Burton seeks. Readers today are likely to ask “whose treasure is it, actually?”

Takeaway: A well-paced coming-of-age frontier adventure that doesn’t fully update the genre for contemporary readers.

Great for fans of: Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Journey of Little Charlie, Stan Applegate’s The Devil’s Highway, Gary Paulsen’s Tucket Adventure series.

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

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Gentleman's Club
NT Herrgott
In this engaging series opener, 17-year-old Luca Wexler is determined to follow in his father’s footsteps as the newest version of the San Francisco-based crimefighter known as the Avalon Knight. As an unlicensed hero who’s spent years secretly training behind his father’s back, Luca has a lot to live up to, and a lot to lose if he screws up, which is why so far he’s stuck to street-level crime like muggings. But when The Gentleman, a mysterious hacker, launches a campaign of blackmail and destruction across San Francisco while America’s A-list heroes are all missing, Luca must ally himself with a ragtag band of untested heroes in order to save the day.

Herrgott offers a fast-paced adventure, pitting his scrappy underdog protagonist against a host of superhuman threats. However, while the story primarily focuses on Luca’s attempt to prove himself a hero—or Vigil as they’re known here—Herrgott never loses sight of his human side. As a bisexual transmasc only out to a select handful of people, Luca wrestles with teenage hormones and debates whether he’s ready to reveal himself on a wider scope—something that weighs on his desire for a love life. Herrgott wisely avoids any deeper manifestation of angst or trauma, instead concentrating on the character’s confidence and positivity. With the intertwining of drama and action, this story definitely lives up to its comic book inspirations.

However, there are times when Herrgott’s world lacks a greater sense of development. In hewing so close to Luca’s street-level heroism and holding other elements at arm’s length, the setting doesn’t always feel like one where superhumans are an everyday thing. Numerous promising elements are hinted at but left unexplored for the moment. Luca’s narrative voice is sympathetic and energetic, suiting his nature, but occasionally comes across as a little too flippant or lax, especially when addressing the reader directly. Still, Luca’s heroic journey is satisfying, relatable, and encouraging.

Takeaway: Ideal for readers in search of a queer superhero story that normalizes the protagonist’s identity and emphasizes universal goals of heroism and resilience.

Great for fans of: Perry Moore’s Hero, C.B. Lee’s Sidekick Squad Series, April Daniels’s Dreadnought.

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

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Belluna's Big Adventure in the Sky : A Dance-It-Out Creative Movement Story for Young Movers
Once Upon a Dance
Being different is celebrated in the latest title in the mother-daughter writing duo Once Upon a Dance’s (after Brielle’s Birthday Ball) Dance-It-Out! Collection. Belluna, the youngest of the Noollabs, is like most kids her age–she loves to play basketball, goes on vacations with her parents and brother, and has a penchant for family game nights. There’s one thing that sets Belluna and her family apart: their heads resemble purple balloons, complete with the properties of helium balloons, such as buoyancy and a gravity-defying lift. Despite their unconventional appearance, the Noollabs find their heads helpful, keeping them from getting tired while swimming and even earningstraigtening out their posture. But tragedy strikes when the family is enjoying weekend apple picking and Belluna gets caught up in a windstorm, making her wonder if being different isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Though parents will appreciate the message that being unique is an advantage, the treasure of Belluna’s story lies in the interactive dance moves the authors have designed to go along with each page. The writing team, both deeply involved in the dance world, embellish this heartwarming tale with creative exercises that young readers can try out as they move through the adventure, guided in photos by a beaming ballerina named Korona. Whether it’s acting out the family’s favorite activities or physically exploring emotions related to the storyline, playing along is delightful.

Mongodi’s dazzling illustrations, alive with cool hues and watercolor backdrops, work in tandem with the dreamy motif, and readers will be charmed by the pictures’ intricate details, such as the tiny pet hamster hiding out in several action shots. Belluna wisely shares “[e]verything is scary in the beginning, but it always gets better.” The story’s ending feels a bit rushed, and readers may wish for more insight into exactly how Belluna overcomes her calamity, but this whimsical, interactive offering will be sure to please.

Takeaway: A fanciful tale of why being different is appealing, paired with interactive dance opportunities that match the story.

Great for fans of: Jessica Collaco’s Firenze’s Light, Ashley Bouder’s Welcome to Ballet School.

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

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Lady Be Good: The Life and Times of Dorothy Hale
Pamela Hamilton
Immersed in the glitz and glamour of old Hollywood and New York City in the roaring 1920s and into the ’30s, Hamilton’s debut novel sheds light on the life and death of the socialite Dorothy Hale. Chronicling Hale's life from her early school days to the aspiring actress’s rise to fame and, finally, to her untimely death, Hamilton pieces together Hale's existence in a sweeping historical fiction that pulses with romance, drama, high society life, and tragedy. Touching Hale's encounters and friendships with luminaries such as Cole Porter, Fred Astaire, Fanny Brice, and George and Ira Gershwin, whose hit song provides Hamilton’s title, Lady Be Good combines character study, historical recreation, and the welcome fizz of a Hollywood tell-all.

Hamilton instantly captivates readers by dramatizing Hale’s death by suicide in “a black velvet dress from Bergdorf Goodman” in the opening chapter. Writing with beautiful detail, she delivers riveting insight into the events that culminated in that ending, especially Hale’s highly active life in old Hollywood and Manhattan. The elegant timeframe and high fashion of the era, replete with Broadway stars, jazz music, and roaring parties that would be the envy of Gatsby’s crowd. Hale was in the thick of high society life, and through big breaks and let downs, grand romances and heartaches, Hamilton paints a striking portrait of this extraordinary life much like Frida Kahlo did, too, when she immortalized the troubled socialite in one of her most famous paintings.

"The more success you have, the more people want to take you down," is Fred Astaire’s sage advice to Hale, a truth that captures the spirit of her fight to hold fast to her rising star. With precision and careful research, Hamilton reveals the story of a woman determined to make a name for herself in a world ruled by men and governed by money, power, and connections. Readers who love glamorous historical fiction will be mesmerized by the life of Dorothy Hale.

Takeaway: An entertaining and appealing account of Dorothy Hale’s life, full of pomp and old Hollywood glamour.

Great for fans of: Adriana Trigiani’s All the Stars in Heaven, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone.

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

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Journal of the Plague Year 20/20: : from Pax Americana to the Apocalypse
Michelle A Christides
Christides’s intimate, apocalyptic journal documents both hers and the world’s experience of that annus horribilis of 2020, from the perspective of a Jungian therapist who splits her time between Florida and France, covering the plague referred to in the title, keeping a running total of deaths as the year passes, and the bumptious events that shook the world at the same time, including what she calls “mass psychosis,” the U.S. election, the rise of “Q-Anon psychos,” and more. The journal extends into 2021, as she faces the refusal of President Trump (whom she dubs “our Mafioso boss”) and the January 6 insurrectionists to concede the election. Of the latter, she notes “It is an insidious, that is, gradual and subtler approach to sedition, which is to overthrow democracy because of the fear that America is losing its demographic identity with the European ‘race.’

Throughout, alongside such sharp-elbowed and at times despairing analysis, Christides reflects on news events and food for thought from sources as disparate as an interview with Paul McCartney or insights from Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind. One of the crucial threads tying all this together: Christides’s sense that “the Revelation of the Apocalypse is happening,” brought on by humanity’s choice “to impede our transformation or to accept the future responsibility to the planet the Cosmos requires of us.”

Christides contends that society, rooted in imperialism, has reduced life “to its material components,” cutting us off from each other, from “the planetary web of life,” and from the soul. These spiritual concerns, laid out with clarity, pulse through the book’s overwhelming beat-by-beat recounting of Covid-19, impeachment proceedings, relentless Trump headlines, plus all the corridors her mind journeys down while watching news, listening to podcasts, contemplating Hubble images of the Lagoon Nebula, and even reckoning with the darkness of history, the horror of the present, and even, on occasion, the hope that humanity can be more than this.

Takeaway: A blow-by-blow account of life during the era of Covid and political instability, from a Jungian perspective.

Great for fans of: Madi Atkins’s The Covid Diaries, Vic Lee's Corona Diary: A Personal Illustrated Journal of the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020 .

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

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The Bastard of Colonia: Volume One of The Song of the Francs
T.J.S. Hayes
Hayes’s historical epic, the start to the “Song of the Francs” series, centers on the figure of Charles Martel, destined to become the epochal Frankish general, hero, and statesmen—and the grandfather of Charlemagne. As the title suggests, though, this first volume finds this “bastard of Colonia” growing up. striving to master his own life, and the complications of family and royalty and power, well before the days when he’ll master the seventh century itself. A framing device finds Charles, on his deathbed, reflecting back in an engaging first person voice, recounting with a storyteller’s zeal his arrival as a child in the walled city of Colonia (“Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined something so grand, so massive, so alive”).

The cousin of King Clovis IV, and the illegitimate son of the true force behind the throne, Pepin of Herstal, Charles grows up acquainted with power but not welcome to it. The first time young Charles meets Pepin of Herstal, the Duke of the Franks and Mayor of the Palace of Austrasi, the headstrong child attacks the duke for laughing rudely at Elfida, Charles’s mother. That impresses Pepin, and in crisp prose alive with historic detail, Charles makes a home at the palace of Colonia, determined to prove his quality. “Even if I don’t rise to power, a bastard can still become a great soldier,” he declares.

Raids on Burgundia and conflict between Pepin and the “boy-king” Clovis will afford that chance. Hayes’s telling is lengthy but assured, as committed to political machinations and extraordinary conflicts as it is to capturing the spirit of everyday life: “So my first night of adventure as a warrior was spent preparing food,” Charles notes. “My weapon was a knife for peeling and my enemies were vegetables to thicken our rabbit stew.” That exemplifies Hayes’s project: historical fiction dedicated as much to the way people of the past lived and thought as it is to how they fought.

Takeaway: A richly imagined novel of the early years of Frankish hero Charles Martel.

Great for fans of: Hillary Mantel, J. Boyce Gleason’s Anvil of God.

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

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Shadowgraph
John C. Wunsch
In his wide-ranging first published book of poetry, Wunsch offers melodic examination of the human experience, often with an emphasis on nature and our involvement with it, in verses of varied form and subject. Much of the collection reflects on life as it’s lived, with inspired musings on farmland (“the knotted corrugations / of stalk and leaf”), cityscapes (“Chicago’s hand-stuffed cornucopia”), freezing winters (“runnels of glistening ice, / diamond-faceted like reticulated glassware”) and relentless heat (“The wind-sharpened / growl of summer.” At times, an ominous voice rises even from poems with apparently hopeful themes: “Saturday Street Music,” which concerns Mozart and a toy piano, closes with reference to “the unseen gaze/ and surveillance of an all-observant eye.” Elsewhere, Wunsch dares to dream beyond the everyday, incorporating relatable experiences with those that can only be imagined.

A scrupulous, beautiful vocabulary showcases the poet’s skill and depth. Though some of the pieces can be verbose, it’s clear the intention is wonder, not obscurity. That means the work is accessible enough that even inexperienced readers of contemporary poetry will find pieces like “Cryptarithm”—which finds the poet contemplating his choices in the penning of a poem—somewhat challenging but worth the effort, even if they do not apprehend the full richness of the allusions, structure, and metaphor. Readers from the Midwest especially will find much here familiar yet fresh: “our tracks have disappeared /in curls of buffalo hair and deerskin” he writes, in a paean to back-roads driving.

Wunsch deftly handles formulaic structures as well as freeform styles, exhibiting a firm grasp on poetic devices and deft use of ambiguity. He skirts away from revealing the deeply personal instead choosing, at times, to minimize, and in the same turn universalize, experiences. The spark of imagination that nature and the heavens nature inspire in the poet are worth the cover price, as his work invites us deeper in concrete imagery, sympathetic feelings, and fruitful metaphor.

Takeaway: A talented poet with a relish for nature and the human experience offers a strong, skillful poetry debut.

Great for fans of: Wendell Berry, Alice Oswald.

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

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ETERNAL VIGILANCE: GUARDING AGAINST THE PREDATORY STATE
Ralph L. Bayrer
The title of Bayrer’s impassioned, deeply researched study refers to the price of freedom: the “eternal vigilance” demanded of those who would protect the “Free Extended Order” (a mutually beneficial economic system in which individuals freely enter voluntary transactions while government protects private property) from what Bayrer calls governmental or political “predation.” Bayrer writes, “The last century has shown how the FEO can be smothered by misguided universal utopian programs or continuously undermined by regulations and taxes that pander to special interests.” In that spirit, Eternal Vigilance champions free markets and small government and calls for the defense of both from efforts to drive up government spending or “soak the investor class” by running “the old leftist playbook about income inequality.”

Bayrer shores up his case with much fresh argument and analysis, stretching back to the founders (“Buchanan’s criterion that state activity is justified only to remove external diseconomies that prevent individuals from accomplishing objectives through voluntary contractual relations”), plus Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, and more, and on to consideration of recent history, especially countries’ approaches to FEO. Those nations most “aligned” with FEO principles eschew the “singular weakness” of representative governments, a “tendency to overpromise benefits and impose regulations supporting special interests.” Bayrer draws cautionary examples from the “utopian temptations” and “profligate behavior” of Greece, the EU, Argentina, and more.

While the thrust of the arguments is familiar, Bayrer offers original research, unique and persuasive examples, and a welcome tendency toward clarity, guiding readers in approachable prose. Despite his use of terms like “predation” to describe, say, the implementation of regulatory frameworks, Bayrer acknowledges that most people concerned more with inequality than the purity of FEO operate from good intentions or a surfeit of sentimental feeling. His arguments and analysis will buoy free market fellow travelers but likely not engage those who believe government should level playing fields.

Takeaway: A thorough, impassioned defense of free markets, small government, and resisting “utopian temptations.”

Great for fans of: Jane A. Williams and Kathryn Daniels’s Economics: A Free Market Reader, David F. DeRosa’s In Defense of Free Markets.

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

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The Voyage: Part I
Robert Vincent
Vincent’s tense maritime drama centers on issues of justice at sea. Jedediah Brown, a young crewman aboard the USS Hayes, a ship under the command of the enigmatic Captain Gellins in 1832. In between hosting foreign dignitaries and navigating the Indian Ocean, Jedediah and his shipmates’ days pass with backbreaking labor and spirited camaraderie. When crewmate Pat Tobin is wrongfully accused by Jonas Penderghast, their fellow shipman, everything changes on board the Hayes. Penderghast, readers learn, has similarly condemned several other men to the fate that Tobin faces—death by lashing. Tobin’s punishment, the crew decides, crosses a line, and Jedediah quickly gets swept up in a ship-wide conspiracy to murder Penderghast without tipping off Captian Gellins. But the bloodthirsty Penderghast won’t be easy to outsmart, and Jedediah learns that there may be some forces beyond any man’s control or understanding.

Lovers of historical fiction and tales of the high seas will find much to love in Vincent’s epic adventure, including some surprise elements. Jedediah is advised to “keep yer ears open and yer bonebox shut” as the plot against Penderghast touches up against aspects of fantasy and horror that will keep readers on edge and thrill mature audiences with iron stomachs. The vivid, irresistible opening pages make clear that The Voyage’s genre moorings are complex and, more pressingly, that Vincent is committed to period language and detail: “Someone had to kill Jacob Penderghast. All five hundred aboard knew it, long ere they roused Pat Tobin from his bed and spread-eagled him on the spar for his anointing.”

That commitment means that some of these sea dogs’ dialogue can be challenging to parse. Still, Vincent deftly captures the rich yet somehow raw tone and style of nineteenth-century literature—think Melville meets Lovecraft. Part dark fantasy, part modern spin on the novels of the past, The Voyage is a page-turning thriller perfect for the Halloween season.

Takeaway: This hair-raising high seas adventure will keep fans of historical fiction and horror gripped to the last page.

Great for fans of: William Hope Hodgson’s The Ghost Pirates, Dan Simmons’s The Terror.

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

Click here for more about The Voyage
Nexus Point: Book #1 of Time Ranger series
Krista Pimpinella
Pimpinella debuts with an action-packed sci fi-adventure through time. Engineered to have superhuman strength, and shaped by his emotionally distant father to become the perfect soldier, Kai Sawyer has always known it was his destiny to become a Time Ranger, whether he wanted to or not. Time Rangers are responsible for tracking down "Runners"—people who travel through time illegally in order to change the past. From the sinking of The Titanic to the assassination of JFK, by the time he leads his first team Sawyer thinks he has seen it all. But when his first command mission—to pick up a doctor in 17th Century France who is attempting to advance medicine ahead of its time—goes dangerously awry, leaving his team possibly stranded. Sawyer soon learns there’s a greater conspiracy at play, and that he and his father are at the center of it.

Pimpinella builds on popular historical settings with lesser-known references—for instance, the obligatory visit to The Titanic includes a nod to the attempted rescue by The Carpathia, while the world of the future abounds with interesting details combining time-travel technology with space travel. While the latter part of the story flows with purpose, the first chapters have a disjointed feel, with flashbacks without clear relation to each other or the present. Once the France mission starts, however, the story gains welcome momentum: the team's race to find their target is nicely tense, while Sawyer's grappling with his traumatic past offers a compelling emotional dimension.

Many big questions will go unanswered until later books, so the ending is not as satisfying as it could be, but this is a saga worth keeping an eye on. Readers who want a speedy action story with angsty supersoldiers and the fascinating convolutions of time travel will find everything they are looking for here. Despite its uncertain start, this thriller delivers solid action and well-crafted settings in an intriguing start to a new series.

Takeaway: This time-travel thriller kicks off an exciting new series that lovers of the genre will relish.

Great for fans of: Jodi Taylor’s Time Police series, Connie Willis.

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

Click here for more about Nexus Point
COMPOUNDING, THE WIZARD OF WEALTH BUILDING: A Complete Guide to Compounding & Wealth Building
Jacob Sebastian
Engineer and real estate investor Sebastian walks readers through the complexities of compounding, the exponential growth of money, and how to use the mathematical phenomena to generate wealth in this exhaustive financial guide. With simple language, relatable anecdotes, and an abundance of revealing charts to illustrate complex financial concepts, Sebastian thoroughly examines the fundamentals of compounding, while laying out for the average reader practical steps to making the compounding techniques of the wealthy work for everyone. He urges readers to plan for the long term—and to aim big.

This first volume in Sebastian’s Highway to Riches series begins with a list of specific concepts and strategies covered in the book (“How investing in some stock markets abroad can increase your net worth manyfold”), followed by a brief, inviting explanation of common financial terminology and Yieldometer, a software program developed by the author to calculate formulas discussed in his books. Sebastian goes on to demonstrate the fundamentals of compounding, exponential growth, and why percentages should never be trusted, all while using real-world and contemporary examples that touch on the global spread of Covid-19 and the progression of food decay to depict yield rates. The bulk of the guide provides detailed examples of how interest rates, time, net worth, and the global banking system can be manipulated to propel wealth-building, and Sebastian also takes time to demystify systemic issues in the economy, such as the hard math behind the ever-expanding wealth gap between rich and poor, offering six persuasive reasons that “wealth always flows from the bottom to the top.”

Sebastian’s advice is direct and straightforward. He states: “the secret to building huge wealth lies not in having an abundance of money to invest but in investing whatever amount you have for the highest possible yield rate and the longest possible time period.” Investors and readers interested in improving their financial position will appreciate Sebastian’s forward, unflinching analysis of compounding for wealth-building.

Takeaway: Novice and seasoned investors looking to capitalize their investments will find this in-depth guide eye-opening and inspiring.

Great for fans of: Ramit Sethi’s I Will Teach You to Be Rich, T. Harv Eker’s Secrets of the Millionaire Mind.

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

A Gathering of Broken Mirrors: Memories of New York Survivors
Anthony E. Shaw
Shaw (Wolfe Studies) paints a lively series of New York City character portraits over a 60-year timespan, each from an entirely different point of view. Shaw notes “though none of them is me, they are all in me,” as he delves through the city's history and his own experiences to craft these two dozen stories, each fixed in a specific time and place—“(Howard Beach, Queens), March 10, 1979”—parenthetically identified in the title. These are stories of togetherness, like the Sunday dinners, told in lavish culinary detail, of a Sicilian uncle described as a “stone-cold gangster” who deeply loved his family. The narrator writes without judgment, as this is a work about people who did what they needed to in order to survive.

Shaw introduces other colorful, fascinating figures: tough wiseguys and the particulars of their practice, kids getting in nearly lethal situations when gambling, a toxic seductress being compared to Satan, a bartender who saves an old schoolmate from a loan shark. In the case of a long-suffering couple who have come to despise each other, he presents both the unique points of view; in every case, there's a bit of bluster and hyperbole, reflecting these people’s self conception, as well as more than a little sentiment for some of the times past: “[h]is father’s life was centered on three things: his family, his Church, and his job… [y]ou could call it the greatness of America.”

Shaw's portraits are overwhelmingly sympathetic, no matter his subjects’ sins or crimes, though he also never sugarcoats them. That sympathy is earned through his acute eye for detail, like the traditional Neapolitan dishes served at a mob-frequented restaurant, or the intricacies of converting stolen bail bonds into cash. The tales all share a pattern of storytelling cadence despite their frequently disparate subject matter as Shaw celebrates the rhythms of the city itself—and those who find ways to survive in it.

Takeaway: These short stories about tough guys, shady deals, and deeply held traditions will appeal to anyone who loves New York City's history and character.

Great for fans of: Brandon Stanton’s Humans, Catherine Burns’s The Moth.

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

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Overcoming the Emotional Stigmas of Infertility: Barren But Not Ashamed
Frances Jones
Jones’s relatable and straightforward memoir-with-purpose details her faith-grounded, emotional transformation: after years of secretly harboring grief, embarrassment, and self-judgement because she was unable to conceive, she arrived at a newfound perspective of value from an unexpected life path. Jones describes the emotional trials of navigating the roles of step and adoptive parent while feeling the absence of a biological child, as well as the financial stress that came with pursuing fertilisation treatments. Jones’s advice leans on developing a “right mindset,” encouraging readers to reframe negative self-defining beliefs, and let go of the idea that having children makes a “real woman.”

Jones favors plain, accessible language, and she keeps her self-reflection in the realm of common-sense, approachable thinking without diving into psychological theory. This, together with her stated identity as an African American woman from a large family of sharecroppers, means her story will connect with an audience that understands the desire to appear strong while managing internal pain—readers who may not find appeal in expert-centered approaches that presume whiteness as a default. Jones’s honesty about the emotional conflicts that arose through her step parenting experience is particularly touching. Basic exercises at the end of the book offer less guidance than readers may need in order to use them effectively, but the frankness with which Jones shares her own struggles makes her ultimate recommendation of a count-your-blessings approach to life sound intentional.

Jones’s placement of blame on her own negative thinking about her endometriosis as a primary cause for her infertility is a hard sell in the context of self-care or causality, and she walks an awkward line in touting the power of positive thinking and faith while simultaneously categorizing that her thought-induced trauma as irreversible. Readers looking for hard data on the prevalence of infertility—or hearing about new technology—will miss this in Jones’s strictly personal approach, but those who appreciate authenticity will applaud her bravery in telling the story.

Takeaway: This true-life story will make readers facing infertility feel heard and understood.

Great for fans of: Anne-Marie Scully’s Motherhoodwinked: An Infertility Memoir, Sarah Kowalski’s Motherhood Reimagined.

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

Gallant: The Call of The Trail
Claire Eckard
In the first of the Gallant trilogy, children’s author Eckard (Bentley and the Magic Sticks) details the heartwarming adventures of Gracie and her first love, an Arabian foal named Gallant. When Gallant is born on five-year-old Gracie’s ranch, Gracie creeps into his stall and nestles against him. Their bond strengthens over years until an accident causes Gracie’s parents to send him to a trainer. At first traumatized, Gallant won’t cooperate—but a trustworthy boy named Jack offers him a second chance, developing Gallant into an exceptional endurance racehorse before the all-important 100-mile Tevis race. However, a jealous, abused horse named Flash determines to beat Gallant, even by violent means, as the destinies of Gracie, Jack, Gallant, and Flash come together across some of the American West’s most challenging trails.

Eckard, who volunteers with homeless animals, describes a close-knit community devoted to horses’ wellbeing. The writing’s sentimental bent matches the novel’s dare-to-dream-of-greatness elementary grade genre, raising tension, evoking tears, and rewarding heroes at all the right moments. An abrupt cliffhanger ending will either exasperate readers or make them crave the sequel. Gracie is a wholesome and upbeat role model, but her submissiveness lacks nuance; when she at last shows some assertiveness the narration labels it as “sneaky and underhanded,” a point readers might debate. Regardless, readers will appreciate her intelligence, admirable sportsmanship, and faithfulness.

Endurance riding, which requires harmony between horse and rider, gives Eckard the opportunity to share numerous life lessons. Especially potent is the central theme: to complete any race is a victory, regardless of placement. Eckard juxtaposes the abuse and disposal of unwanted horses—never made graphic—beside ideal animal care to inspire activism in her audiences. Most enjoyable are the specific sport techniques she details, as well as the delightful imaginings of horses’ conversations. Phylicia Mann’s skillful, black-and-white illustrations complement pivotal scenes. Gracie and Gallant’s indomitable love and integrity are the stuff of legends, sure to enchant horse lovers.

Takeaway: An exciting horse drama with a contagious passion for endurance riding that young readers and horse enthusiasts will love.

Great for fans of: Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet, Valerie Tripp’s Love and Loyalty: A Felicity Classic.

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

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BE BRAVE: Uncensored Motivational Quotes
S.Sulianah
Sulianah offers a compendium of original maxims, thoughts, and advice for readers eager for continual inspiration, with the promise that, even when the material gets frank or challenging, the author will resist the urge to censor. Sharing a few lines or even short paragraphs on each page on a host of topics, Sulianah urges readers toward self love and acceptance (“Believe in yourself even though others do not believe in you”), overcoming self doubt (“You can overcome anything in your life. The question is whether you want to”), and understanding and even exiting unhealthy relationships (“Do not make compromises when others devalue you as a person.”)

The result reads like the advice a friend might want to offer to someone caught in an unhealthy relationship or situation but at times, out of politeness, might soft-pedal. No soft-pedaling here, though: “If someone cannot accept who you are, why are you desperate to be who they want you to be?” asks Sulianah, whose experience as a poet shines through in the crisp, direct, at times epigrammatic prose. While generally upbeat and encouraging, Sulianah’s straight talk at times comes with sharp elbows: one chapter is titled “Confidently Respond to Certified Idiots,” which addresses situations like the boss who won’t listen, acquaintances who ask to borrow money, and how to respond when someone raises their voice.

The thread tying the at times loosely organized advice together is “be brave,” and in entries that range from a couple quick, sharp lines to ones that share a personal anecdote and spread across a couple pages, Sulianah identifies familiar, relatable real-life situations and practical, self-preserving guidance for how to handle them. Throughout, the imperative to be courageous and to protect one’s self worth shines through: “Not even your parents are allowed to make you feel down about yourself,” Sulianah declares, and readers seeking encouragement will find much to buoy themselves here.

Takeaway: These clear, practical, original inspirational quotes urge readers to prioritize their self worth.

Great for fans of: David D. Burns’s Ten Days to Self-Esteem, Shad Helmstetter’s What to Say When You Talk to Yourself.

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

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