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Orpheus Rising: By Sam and his father, John/And A Very Wise Elephant/Who Likes To Dance
Lance Lee
Lee’s curious, myth-touched adventure, which reads like a blend of The Phantom Tollbooth, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and a modern-day Orpheus story, finds a lonely boy named Sam stuck in the middle of nowhere with a father, John, who grows greyer by the day. The two spend their time silently doing chores, and every night they share the same terrifying nightmare, though neither speaks of it. One day a mysterious book arrives, and Sam discovers that what happens in it can come true in real life. Inspired, he uses its strange power to change everything for himself and his father, opening the door to a dangerous world where nothing is as it seems. With the help of Sam’s imagination they team up—John somewhat reluctantly—with a wise and distinguished elephant who loves to dance. Together, the three embark on a quest to save Sam’s mother from the afterlife.

Though aimed at middle grade readers, Orpheus Rising at times feels like a mature philosophical contemplation of death, steeped in magical realism. There are also moments of true terror, and some of the imagery— coupled with the book’s fantastical yet ominous illustrations—might be unsuitable for readers who scare easily. At the same time, the stakes can be almost comically low, as when an enchanted object renders any conflict avoidable. Elements of the plot require a thorough understanding of the rules of poker and the intricacies of sailing.

Real emotion powers Sam and John’s adventure, their journey as much about the relationship between father and son as it is finding Sam’s mother. Sam and John begin the novel torn apart by her absence, which John spent his entire childhood refusing to explain. Their quest to save her teaches each about the power of honesty, trust, and love. Lee’s vivid imagination shines through each chapter of their quest, and his quirky characters will keep readers who appreciate fabulist adventure hooked throughout.

Takeaway:Imaginative and emotional, this underworld adventure offers thrills, chills, and insightful lessons.

Great for fans of: Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, Roald Dahl.

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

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Burnt to a Crisp
Michael O'Keefe
Hard-nosed NYPD detectives battle gangsters, each other, and their inner demons in this gritty police procedural, the third outing for Paddy Durr of the 83rd precinct. Durr has his hands full: he realizes an accidental fire is really arson; his wife, Mairead, has cancer; and politically connected police psychiatrist Dr. Levine has it in for him. To solve the case, Durr has to work with local mobster Bless, who may just go ahead and deal with the problem his way. Durr must also cope with memories of a love affair gone wrong as he struggles to tie all the threads together and capture a ruthless killer.

O’Keefe is himself a retired NYPD detective, and he imbues the thriller’s investigations with a persuasive sense of authenticity, peppering each account of a crime scene with fascinating technical details. Best of all is how O'Keefe brings to life the law enforcement milieu, with enough banter, friendships, and feuds to keep procedural fans happy, though the glimpses into the backstories of the characters sometimes go on so long that they drain the tension from the main plot. Readers should be aware that the realistic scenes of sex and violence edge toward the graphic. Still, the key investigations are strong enough to keep the narrative flowing.

The strongest element is the characterization of Durr himself. In addition to his tough-guy cop persona, we see his passionate tenderness with his ailing wife. O’Keefe paints their discussions about what they believe are her last days with a pained fierceness. He also elevates Durr above the usual "tough Irish cop" stereotype in a warm and amusing subplot focusing on Durr's close friendship with a lesbian couple and their wish to have Paddy serve as their sperm donor. Durr's growth as a family man and his exploits as a shrewd detective will keep readers invested until the last page.

Takeaway: Police procedural fans will revel in the exploits of Durr and the other tough but all-too-human Brooklyn detectives.

Great for fans of: Joseph Wambaugh, Ed McBain

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

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The Island of the Righteous
Stefanos Livos
Livos (A Life in a Moment)’s historical treasure hunt switches between the present and World War II-era Greece as a grandson seeks to uncover his grandfather’s legacy. When his grandfather and namesake dies, 28-year-old Pantelis recalls how his grandfather Pantelis Kokkinis twice spoke to him of a hidden treasure. As he unearths it on the island of Zante, the younger Pantelis is surprised at the contents of the treasure box: notes like part of a diary. In a parallel narrative, set on Zante during the World War II occupation by Italian forces, the elder Pantelis Kokkinis meets and falls in love with Violetta Dalmedikos, a Jewish woman. Though marriage between Christians and Jews is forbidden, Pantelis and Violetta embark on a love affair, determined to be together despite the risk of discovery. The grandson learns more about his grandfather as his Aunt Elpida details key events of the past, revealing tragedies, secrets, and the resilience of the Kokkinis family during the occupation and civil war.

Livos adds extensive historical detail to the narrative, highlighting the different governmental factions at play before and during the second World War, when Greece was occupied by Italian and German forces. While that detail provides helpful and informative, adding context, at times its extensiveness slows down the storytelling. A family tree tracing the characters’ lineage provides a helpful reference, though readers may still face some confusion, as a number of characters share identical or quite similar names. The frequent use of pronouns without clear antecedents reduces clarity, forcing readers to rely on context to determine the identity of the person referenced.

That occasional challenge, however, does not greatly detract from the impact of a novel that is enhanced by well-developed, realistic characters and an engaging, intense depiction of life in an occupied country. Readers with an interest in Greece and its history will appreciate the convincing milieu and the magnetic story of Violetta and Pantelis.

Takeaway: A grandfather’s hidden treasure reveals gripping secrets about his family history in occupied Greece.

Great for fans of: Glenway Wescott’s Apartment in Athens, Stratis Haviaras’s When the Tree Sings.

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

Click here for more about The Island of the Righteous
Make Me: a memoir
Lisa stathoplos
Debut author and professional actor and teacher Stathoplos’s boisterous, energetic memoir offers revealing snapshots of her journey towards self-realization. Covering her early days as an awkward child with scoliosis and a penchant for activism to her career on the stage, Stathoplos combines humor and heartache as she bounds frankly through topics such as her family, religion, sexual assault, shelter pets, sailing, eating disorders, and the courage and perseverance it took to get through a “nightmare” of a dancing class. Along with the backdrop of major events like the Vietnam War, era-specific music adds color and texture to her story, along with rich details of growing up along Maine’s coast in the 1970s.

Stathoplos’s brash style brims with all-caps phrases and exclamation points. Her sarcastic sense of humor is a constant in a book that shifts rapidly from topic to topic and experience to experience. She marshals her considerable life experience into a confetti of short, readable vignettes, each preceded by a number of related photographs. These vignettes offer flashes of insight into both single moments and extended eras of Stathoplos’s life, blending her exuberant commentary with finely etched detail. Though fragmented, the casual, rollicking cascade of stories has the feel of a chatty friend telling stories over drinks.

Stathoplos’s memoir doubles as a love letter to theater. True to her contrarian nature, she challenges the assumption that an artist must leave home to seek fame and fortune in the big city. Instead, she forges her own path, without apology. While her performances and colleagues in Maine’s regional theater scene aren't household names, her sharply told accounts and anecdotes resonate, and her passionate support for local theater is invigorating. Similarly inspiring is Stathoplos’s dogged journey towards self-acceptance, both physical and mental, the book’s true heart. Readers will find the perspective Stathoplos offers on her life both on and off the stage honest, refreshing and often endearing.

Takeaway: This frank and spirited reflection on self-love and self-determination will especially appeal to lovers of the arts

Great for fans of: Jenny Slate’s Little Weirds, Chelsea Handler’s Life Will Be the Death of Me.

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

Click here for more about Make Me: a memoir
Slender Notions
Nicholas Antonopoulos
Its content amusingly at odds with its title, Antonopoulos’s swaggeringly ambitious debut sets an addicted young man, a mad Boston dreamer, and a hashtag against the dehumanizing aspects of existence. Not that any thumbnail summary can hold Slender Notions’ surge of ideas and observations, its impassioned declarations, tender doubts, and bursts of spirited play. It’s from that breed of big-swing novel that toasts its influences (Kerouac, Miller, Wallace), occasionally smashes rules of realistic fiction, and lets paragraphs run on for pages, caught in the drift of restless minds.

The first 100 pages find the two POV characters wandering around Boston and Franklin, Massachusetts, independent of each other, woozy with drugs but also books and epiphanies. They write poems, muse on sundry topics (what it means to make eye contact; why the late Beastie Boy MCA didn’t contribute a blurb to a reprint), and hunger for something more, until they meet at a Cambridge poetry workshop. A plot eventually kicks in, involving a plan to attempt to inspire laughter and a focus on happiness around the world, but the key is the characters’ negotiation of every moment. Antonopoulos renders the consciousness of Leo (“a bored, anxious, twenty-three year old with no direction and a total lack of motivation to find one”) as a buzz bin of nerves, his overthinking only soothed by a fix, the voice of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, or, eventually, public approbation.

Raw and frank, the novel finds ugly beauty (Leo watches “the blood dance into the syringe like an animated matador’s cloth”) in its depiction of addiction but also ugly ugliness. As the characters’ campaign to spread happiness takes off, Antonopoulos proves both skeptical and hopeful, laying bare the contradictions and these men’s worst aspects while finding meaning in the mission. The novel’s onslaught—of language, games, authorial intrusions, intense disclosure—will by design prove off-putting to some readers, but enthusiasts of searching, daring literary fiction will find power here.

Takeaway: A sprawling lulu of a novel, centered on addiction and the liberating power of happiness.

Great for fans of: Sergio de la Pava, Garth Risk Hallberg.

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

Click here for more about Slender Notions
The Wicche Glass Tavern: Sam Quinn, book 3
Seana Kelly
The third novel in Kelly’s delightfully fun Sam Quinn series finds the owner of The Slaughtered Lamb Bookstore and Bar once again on a quest to harness her powers, to keep her powerful vampire boyfriend, now fiancé, and to stay one step ahead of the aunt who is still trying to kill her. The Slaughtered Lamb is once again under attack, and Sam makes the fateful decision to close it down for the safety of her loved ones. With her aunt on the warpath, Sam has only a short time to find someone willing and able to teach her necromancy–and when she succeeds, the results are explosive and deadly.

As in the first two books, Kelly again immerses readers into a shrewdly balanced paranormal setting, filled with the darkness of devastation but lightened by the humor and joy of complex, and sometimes twisted, relationships–particularly when Furies, demons and gorgons are involved. Sam’s burgeoning strength and confidence may come across to some readers as the familiar standard for an urban fantasy series, especially as she discovers a new connection to the fae, nearly completing her paranormal pantheon. However, Sam’s journey of discovery–everything involving powers, her family, and the friendships that have bloomed around her, even among the vampires–feels fresh and poignant, especially as it focuses on both self-reliance and the necessity of leaning on others.

Kelly builds the story–both in this installment and across the series–on engaging, believable interpersonal relationships, with each new book carefully expanding on the established mythos. Fans of the genre will be charmed by the novel’s deceptive simplicity–it has hidden layers and nuance, allowing readers to choose for themselves whether to enjoy it as something light and fluffy or to tease out the welcome depths of this new take on the hero’s journey.

Takeaway: Kelly’s latest rich, nuanced, and fun addition to the urban fantasy genre.

Great for fans of: Ilona Andrews, Katie MacAlister, Kim Harrison.

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

Click here for more about The Wicche Glass Tavern
To Iowa in the Back Seat
Kristi R. Bradbury
Through the observant lens of young Kay, Bradbury chronicles a family road trip (and a curious cricket who tags along) with evocative tenderness, enlivened by Joey Sotelo's delightful illustrations. A displeased Kay thinks it’s unfair she can't sit in the front of the car as her family makes their way from Colorado to Iowa to visit her grandmother. Careening across the Midwest, they leave behind the Rocky Mountains, take in the prairies, stop at their favorite burger stand, and cross the mile-wide Missouri river while singing “Over the River and Through the Woods.” (Sheet music is included.) Kay enjoys her grandmother's fried chicken at supper once they arrive and visits her grandfather's café for vanilla sundaes ("with chocolate sauce and a cherry on top"). When it’s finally time to head home, a wistful Kay reminisces while clutching a special souvenir from her grandmother.

In depicting Kay's developing awareness, Bradbury draws on her love for road trips and her twenty-year experience in special education. She affords Kay both hope and individualism, giving her room to resolve some complex feelings. Sotelo's sketches are consistent in character portrayals and scene continuities—they're pleasing and build the atmospheric energy necessary to keep readers invested. (It’s raining, for example, when Kay tears up on her trip back home). Readers will particularly enjoy the vivid and rich countryside details, the intriguing specifics of grandmother’s attic, the incidental glimpses at family dynamics (“Sue always gets to sit up front because she is the biggest”), and the clever touch of the cricket, too, visiting with its Iowa brethren, singing away with local crickets while the family eats.

Bradbury pulls at the heartstrings with an emphasis on domestic routines and the cherished bond between a youngster and a grandparent, maintaining a deft emotional momentum. Some sentences are flat or a touch wordy, but this wholesome picture book's accessible vocabulary, geographical elements, and big heart will surely engage young readers.

Takeaway: A charming bedtime read about a family's road trip across the country.

Great for fans of: Roger Eschbacher’s Road Trip, Cynthia Rylant and Stephen Gammell’s The Relatives Came, Natasha Wing and Julie Durrell’s The Night Before Summer Vacation.

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

Click here for more about To Iowa in the Back Seat
How to Live Forever: A Guide to Writing the Final Chapter of Your Life Story
Kimberly Best
In this moving and compassionate guide, nurse and family mediator Best imparts knowledge and wisdom on end-of-life issues, urging us all to be proactive and make plans (legal, medical) sooner than later. Best wins reader trust right away by acknowledging the common tendency to avoid thinking about or discussing death (“Why do we glorify the start of life but deeply fear its end?”). But, she reasons, “death is a given,” and in increasingly profound chapters, she urges readers to take control of our endings: execute documents and estate planning; decide where to host your funeral; communicate the stories of our lives; and, ultimately, recognize that “the biggest regrets that we can have… will likely be around hurt relationships.”

The chapters on relationships prove especially strong, offering clear-eyed, forward-thinking insights on handling conflict, offering apologies, and enacting forgiveness so that we might “finish well.” Noting that “family conflicts are the biggest threat to estate planning,” and never downplaying the truth that these conversations are difficult, Kim advocates for mediation, persuasively demonstrating that it “helps to have help.” Prudently chosen evidence and citations lend credence to her arguments, and intimate anecdotes pulled from Best’s own experiences as an RN give the material some narrative power: “As I sat with this woman during her last moments of life, I looked at her, and I was struck by the realization that life is like a book,” she writes. Best urges us to consider our life in such terms, and take control of how we want to write the story.

Even in the face of death, Kim’s tone is hopeful. This inviting, inclusive book, crafted to appeal to anyone facing the most universal of challenges, insists that much undue end-of-life suffering is avoidable, and that few relationships are too broken to be fixed before the end. “As long as we have breath,” Best writes, “there is still time to change our course.”

Takeaway: This inviting guide offers universal, insightful lessons on the difficult subject of ending a life well.

Great for fans of: Kathy Butler’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Sherwin B. Nuland’s How We Die: Reflections of Life's Final Chapter.

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

Careless Love
Steve Zettler
Writer/director/actor Zettler (author of the Joe Bradlee thrillers) wows in this fast-paced, expertly characterized tale of a decades-long lie and the painter who tries to make sense of it all later. The mother of the novel’s unnamed narrator, reveals that the man she divorced years ago is not actually, as she had always claimed, the narrator’s father. On her deathbed, Grace, the mother, encourages the narrator, a painter, to piece the truth together in Hawaii. There Grace Rolston, vacationing with her philandering Hollywood husband, first met and fell in love with Lee Corbet at a tony Oahu beach club in 1979.

Other pieces of the mystery involve Mitchell Slack, who in ‘79 was breaking up with his girlfriend and coming to terms with his homosexuality, and his malevolent older brother Ray, a mysterious hood who played some role in Grace and Lee’s short time together—and in whatever event changed everyone’s lives forever. Over multiple trips to Hawaii, the painter uncovers as much of the truth as possible. Setting the narrative largely in 1979, revealing what the narrator has uncovered, Zettler skillfully presents characters that are neither good nor bad but persuasive shades of gray, with the compelling exception of Ray, whose eventual encounter with karma proves satisfying. Unhappily married Grace, who can’t quite kick smoking, has packed a .38 revolver in her suitcase, while Vietnam vet-turned-restaurateur Lee, still coming to terms with his war experiences, learns that he knows Grace’s husband only after he and Grace have relished stolen hours together.

In sharp, memorable prose, Zettler deftly ties a bundle of story lines into one gripping narrative, teasing the final revelations in a way that will have readers itching to arrive at the truth at last. This glimpse of late-70s Hawaii rings true, and readers interested in the mysteries of convincingly real people will be captivated until the final page is turned.

Takeaway: A skillful, emotional dive into late ‘70s Hawaii and a mother’s secret past.

Great for fans of: Liane Moriarty’s The Husband's Secret, Jasmin Darznik’s The Good Daughter.

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

Click here for more about Careless Love
The Timepiece and the Girl Who Went Astray
Ollie Simmonds
Simmonds’ delightful fantasy debut follows William Wells, a bright but somewhat directionless American in London who, in 1984, accidently comes into possession of a powerful timepiece that allows its wearer to travel through time. Wells purchases it from the enigmatic Frenz but has no idea what he’s got until he presents it to his girlfriend, Abigayle, as a gift—and she vanishes. Distraught, Wells returns to Frenz, who fears Abigayle has gone astray in time. Wells is brought into the half-dissolved Time Travel Agency, a bureaucratic government department so secret that not even the queen knows about it. His mission: to protect the Timepiece from rogue agents willing to kill for it, and to find Abigayle, who just might be more involved with the TTA than Wells ever could guess.

Simmonds’ time-crossed romp leaps through the Londons of the 1800s, 1940s, and 1980s, moving swiftly but always finding time for evocative London period detail, such as peasoupers, unused passenger transit tunnels, and the frankly disgusting history of the River Thames. Wells, a college dropout from La Claire, Iowa, is a likable every-Yank bumbling about London, and the cast around him is fully realized.

Witty dialogue (“The love of my life is missing, and we’ve got a gang of, what? Villainous, homicidal travel agents after us?”) bring a lightness to the story that will appeal to readers who don’t ordinarily read heady time-travel fiction. While the prose is inviting, outside of the occasional awkward sentence, Simmonds’ affection for detail sometimes slows a story that’s already lengthy, as do some expositional passages covering the mechanics of time travel. Still, Simmonds manages the intricacies of time-hopping well, creating a consistent set of rules comprehensible to the reader while maintaining a sense of humor and excitement that keeps the story and its Londons fresh.

Takeaway: A lovable everyman leads a page-turning, decade-vaulting jaunt through London’s past and present.

Great for fans of: Mike Chen’s Here and Now and Then, Tara Sim’s Timekeeper.

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

Searching for Sarah
Phillip Vega
In this introspective drama, Vega (The Captain & the Queen) essentially tells two intertwined stories about Dominican-American siblings on separate paths in life. Following the sudden death of his beloved older sister Nina, Tomas Ruiz is shocked to learn that she was gay—a secret Nina kept from him for many years. Appointed executor of Nina’s estate, Tom must settle her affairs and plan her funeral. Her will dictates that he work with Sarah, her long-time partner, a woman whose whereabouts are a mystery. While trying to track Sarah down, Tom studies Nina’s journals, gradually uncovering the parts of her life she never shared with him, including her journey of self-exploration and acceptance.

Nina is the story’s heart, as Tomas and readers discover her attempts to balance her personal life and her career as a lawyer, especially the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated profession and a lesbian coming to terms with her sexuality. Told through engaging flashbacks, Nina’s story unfolds from her own perspective, shedding light on her distinctive odyssey. As a result, Tom’s own arc, serving as both a framing device and a postscript to Nina’s life, feels less explored and not quite as gripping. The journal entries, although an entertaining conceit, threaten to keep readers removed from the intimacy of Nina’s own experiences.

However, Vega does an excellent job of infusing the story with telling personal details, allowing readers to get a feel for the Latin culture that ties the Ruiz family together during their trials. While Vega’s narrative voice for Nina’s segment of the tale is sometimes shaky, and the excerpts from her journals not as compelling as the full-fledged flashbacks, her development as a character is persuasive. The romance between Nina and Sarah is moving and believable, making the inevitable tragic conclusion all the more heartbreaking. Overall, Searching for Sarah is a polished, entertaining work.

Takeaway: This tale of love and loss will appeal to readers looking for a character-driven, family-focused, lesbian romance.

Great for fans of: Terri de La Pena’s Margins, Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath.

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

Click here for more about Searching for Sarah
The Artist and the Innkeeper
Alan Ioffredo
The painter Bernardino Luini stars in this fictional portrait of art, politics, and rivalry during the height of the Renaissance. Luini, a contemporary of Italian masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, was as prolific as his peers, but his life, death, and work continue to be a mystery in the five centuries since he lived. Ioffredo’s fictional portrait of Luini is arranged into three parts, ranging from his beginnings in Varese, to his work with da Vinci on The Last Supper, to his complicated love affair with the daughter of a noble family.

Ioffredo breathes new life into this long-overlooked historical figure through multiple perspectives in this debut, including Padre Castani, Luini’s childhood priest and first patron, and Caterina, the daughter of a Serono stonemason, as well as numerous side characters such as da Vinci’s father and the Milanese artist Argento. This dizzying cast at times may overwhelm readers interested in the mystery of just who Luini might have been, though their perspectives offer a richly illuminated sense of issues of class and gender—plus spiritual concerns—in fifteenth-century Italy. Perhaps to aid audiences not already steeped in the milieu, Ioffredo invents scenarios and conversations that seem out of place for the era (use of “okay,” for example), but the world he crafts is compelling and thoroughly imagined.

Ioffredo pulls no punches in challenging the pervasive cultural myths surrounding major figures of the Italian Renaissance: his Leonardo da Vinci is equal parts calculating, selfish, ambitious, and brilliant. Set against the backdrop of war between the city-states of Italy and the nation of France, Luini’s journey from Varesan youth to Milanese master involves the political machinations of the ruling Northern Italian Sforza family, tensions between Italian nobles, an epic love story, and offbeat anecdotes. While Ioffredo’s narrative of course must be speculative, his reimagining of Renaissance Italy is sure to entertain history and art buffs.

Takeaway: An entertaining summer read that brings life to Renaissance Italy, with star-crossed romance and artistic intrigue.

Great for fans of: Ross King’s Brunelleschi's Dome, Stephanie Storey’s Oil and Marble.

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

Click here for more about The Artist and the Innkeeper
Careering: The Pocket Guide to Exploring Your Future Career
Tamara S. Raymond
Leadership coach Raymond debuts with a compact guide to assist readers of high school age in setting themselves up for career success. Motivated by her work with students, she advocates for thinking outside the box when it comes to gaining experience—including utilizing extracurricular activities as a funnel for learning new skill sets and establishing references—and offers concrete steps to take in different stages of job hunts. With an emphasis on “putting in the work to reach your career destination,” Raymond encourages setting the bar high when it comes to what she calls “careering,” a term she defines as “taking progressive action in pursuit of a profession or venture.”

While Raymond chiefly targets readers in later adolescence or young adulthood, much of her succinct career advice and vocational support tools can apply to almost any entry-level job hunter. Organized into easy-to-grasp steps illustrated by plenty of examples, her guide offers up commonsense measures like setting up practice job interviews and exploring personal interests before deciding on a path, plus fresh insights like a rundown of what to anticipate in virtual interviews, tips on creating a separate email address to consolidate career correspondence, and the need to not post anything online that would look bad if publicly exposed. Raymond also breaks down networking into clear, simple actions, discussing who to approach for references and suggesting common local events that can yield networking opportunities.

Though some information is fairly basic (paying attention to hygiene prior to job interviews, for example), sections like the one laying out sample interview questions (including that puzzler “Give an example of a goal you didn’t meet and how you handled it”) and effective responses will well serve first-time job seekers. For those overwhelmed by where to begin in establishing a career path, this efficient guide meets its goal of jump-starting intentional professional behaviors.

Takeaway: High school students and entry level job seekers will appreciate this succinct guide to exploring professional interests and establishing initial career success.

Great for fans of: DK’s The Careers Handbook, Roadmap: The Get-It-Together Guide for Figuring Out What To Do with Your Life.

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

Ravens In The Rain: A Noir Love Story
Christie Santo
A drifter who goes by the name Pru inserts herself into the life of a wealthy but aimless man in Santos’s ominous debut romance. Pru sees Carney, the homely son of a former Hollywood heartthrob, as a potential source of comfort and security, and hides much of her background from him in order to maintain a mysterious facade. That mystery is shattered when a motorcycle accident that Carney walks away from without a scratch leaves Pru with a shattered leg and no way to hide the fact that she’s alone and destitute. Entranced with the idea of being her savior, Carney swoops in to take care of Pru and pay for her medical treatment, setting off a rocky melodrama of obsession and distrust.

Although the book is categorized as “romance,” the combination of unreliable narration, vague motives, bad behavior, and the possible lack of genuine affection between the hero and heroine more suit a hardboiled psychological thriller. Carney sums up the distinctive dynamics when he informs Pru “We’re not normal.” As the two orbit each other, readers will be left to wonder whether the romantic feelings are genuine or just a cover each maintains to get their needs met, an unsettling noir convention. The relationship escalates quickly but unnaturally, as both's motives are mysterious, and the chemistry proves more volatile than steamy. Even the couple’s eventual declarations of love feel potentially manipulative rather than genuine.

The stakes are raised when Carney’s need to be Pru’s champion drives him to dangerously confront her past, compounding their already unorthodox relationship. Finally, a twist involving the hero’s history might leave readers wondering if the couple’s metaphorical ride into the sunset is more of a horrific kidnapping, a noir touch. Readers seeking a conventional love story will want to look elsewhere, but lovers of dark, suspenseful couplings may find the danger and uncertainty enticing.

Takeaway: This somewhat chilling not-quite-a-romance will satisfy readers looking for a mystery with a side of sexuality.

Great for fans of: Kaira Rouda’s Best Day Ever, James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.

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

Click here for more about Ravens In The Rain
The Last First Kiss
Walter Bennett
In this warm and reflective septuagenarian love story, Bennett (Leaving Tuscaloosa) brings readers to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for the intimate beach-house tale of long-ago sweethearts rediscovering each other as a hurricane bears down on the coast. At age 75, widower “Ace” Sinclair meets his first love, J’nelle Reade, at his family vacation home, the first extended encounter the one-time couple has had since high school. Tentative at first, their weekend of wine and lost time soon finds the pair facing both their shared and individual pasts, their own looming mortality, the feelings that have never quite gone away, and the possibility that maybe, despite all that’s messy and resolved in their lives, they can open themselves to each other.

Bennett proves adept at stirring together past and present, plus feelings of doubt and trust, in an evocative natural setting. As “the squeal of the wind around the eaves and distant boom of the surf fade away” the couple find themselves dancing despite Ace’s nervousness about how she’ll respond to his trembling hands and aged flesh. With exquisite tenderness, Bennett writes, “And then she does that thing she used to do that melted the space between them and transfigured everything, that erased time: that soft sigh of her body into his.”

Much of this short, affecting novel’s page circles those feelings of “erased time”: As Bennett’s protagonists look back on their short time together long ago, and face together all the life and love that each experienced in the interim, the gulf between youth and age never quite vanishes. It can’t, and Bennett is wise enough a writer to acknowledge the challenges this possible couple faces. But the joy of that coupling, and their long-ago comfort and arousal in each other? That’s the same as it ever was, dramatized with a lyric power that will thrill readers of grown-up romance.

Takeaway: This stirring grown-up romance finds old flames rekindling a full lifetime later.

Great for fans of: Anne Tyler, Pat Conroy.

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

Click here for more about The Last First Kiss
At The End of Everything : The Relevation Trilogy Book 2
Gary Luck
Darkly real but classically fantastical, this latest installment of Lücke’s adult fantasy series follows Tom, Thaly, and Grin as they flee from Prince Adalwolf’s attempt to steal Tom’s soul and gain immortality. Once on the run, the trio is forced apart by a storm and embark on their own journeys— Tom to Bindari, the resting place of the grells, to find the answers that might take him back to Earth, while Grin and Thaly endeavor to rejoin Grin’s family and stop the grells’ sacred pilgrimage in order to save them from slaughter by Prince Adalwolf and Malphas. Should anyone fail, many will die in the land.

Packed with thematic descriptions and evocative prose (“Caeli looked up through the forest canopy covering the sacred site like a baldachin, staring at the glimmer of stars as if they were actors performing the story of her life”) , this fantasy is engaging, with many inspiring characters to root for. However, while Lücke does a good job of establishing each character’s end goals and all that’s at stake, the plot is spread thin between the cast, and readers may wish for the opportunity to spend more time with their favorites. No standout character drives the plot, and most of the major players end up simply trying to get from one place to another,. It’s a somewhat familiar second book phenomenon: While everyone faces challenges in their individual journeys, the novel’s far-reaching view of Enthilen doesn’t quite reach climactic emotional heights.

For those who want more realism in their fantasy, Lücke isn’t afraid to tackle darker topics such as rape, suicide, the impacts of slavery, and drug use. Couple this with a rich history and many cultures—including a fair bit of diversity of female and gay characters, and some low-brow humor—and the world feels almost palpable. All in all, this is a solid entry into the fantasy canon, pushing its series forward.

Takeaway: Fans of fantasy with a darker bent, multiple viewpoints, and a sprawling world will find a wealth of material in this second book.

Great for fans of: Steven Erikson, Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels.

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

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