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Enchanted Everglades
Gail Kowatch
Filmmaker Kowatch brings larger-than-life characters and action scenes to middle grade readers in this highly visual mix of literary seriousness and fantasy adventure. Ocean River and Ellen Hansen, both age 12, are best friends—until Ellen’s father dies in a car crash and clumsy Ocean accidentally disrupts his funeral. When their parents take them on a vacation to the Everglades a couple months later, guilt-ridden Ocean isn’t even sure they can be friends again, and Ellen barely speaks to him. But their airboat crashes, and Ocean and Ellen must work together to find their parents and escape the dangerous swamp. On their journey they acquire supernatural talents and befriend an eccentric wood stork, a guileless soft-shell turtle, and Gumbo, a yoga-practicing, pacifist alligator who’s next in line to become king of the Everglades.

Kowatch’s descriptions and Shinn’s charming digital illustrations will leave readers feeling like they’ve stomped through the Everglades alongside Ocean and Ellen. The relationships are depicted with wonderful depth. Gumbo and his pals often meditate together, Ocean and Ellen talk about grief and growing up, Ocean’s parents share important lessons with him, and each character takes turns leading, encouraging, and sacrificing for the others in a way that feels sincere.

Yet all of these elements create a text that is sometimes busy and complicated. Chapters are told from various perspectives and the book blends Seminole mythology with Eastern spiritual practices, which may leave younger readers confused, uninterested, or just wanting more of the lively dialogue. However, the book’s quirkiness and cartoon-style illustrations, as well as its loose ends (perhaps left open for a sequel?), will likely keep them hooked. For kids entering adolescence in the 21st century, an adventure that includes real-life heaviness, environmental awareness and activism, meditation and affirmation, and a little bit of the absurd seems just right.

Takeaway: Tween readers (and their parents and teachers) will love the values, hardships, laughs, and learning in Kowatch’s thoughtful adventure fantasy.

Great for fans of the Magic School Bus series, the Magic Tree House series.

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

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Nephi's Courage
Rory McFarlan
McFarlan’s emotional contemporary romance debut grapples with being a gay believer in a hostile religious environment. Nephi Willard, a 30-year-old devout Mormon, loses his leadership role in his Pleasant Grove, Utah, congregation when he expresses his intention to start dating men. His first attempts stumble due to his deep naïveté and his continued attachment to Mormonism, both of which make his dates bristle. One date, Latino chef Alex, rejects a romantic relationship but agrees to help Nephi navigate gay culture. After causing a stir by bringing Alex to a church activity, Nephi takes in Bradley Hanson, an 18-year-old thrown out by his family for coming out. Nephi and Alex return from a hunting trip to an unfolding tragedy propelled by rumors, the rippling effects of which culminate in a bittersweet but satisfying ending.

McFarlan capably explores the contours of his characters’ inner lives and emotions, especially Nephi’s rigidity after years of closing off his sexuality. The dialogue is sometimes stilted (“I have been reflecting on my standing in the church as a gay man and my state in eternity”), and extraneous details occasionally drag down the pace of the story, but the characters’ strong personalities provide stable footing and enough gravity to keep events from slipping into melodrama.

Early chapters are weighed down by awkward explanations of Mormon practice, but McFarlan folds in some details more naturally, as when he depicts Nephi’s encounter with church discipline. The presence of Nephi’s boss, Mark Stone, who also serves as a major church leader, highlights the messy overlap of religious and professional lives in the insular communities of small-city Utah. McFarlan effectively contrasts the more tolerant but conflicted approach of Nephi’s family with the exceptionally harsh decisions of Bradley’s family. This romantic story will ring true to Mormon readers and help others begin to understand the depth and complexity of trying to reconcile sexual desire and religious beliefs.

Takeaway: This sympathetic exploration of the clash of sexuality and Mormon faith will have broad appeal for readers of contemporary romance.

Great for fans of Keira Andrews, Laura Stone’s And It Came to Pass.

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

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Something Wonderful
Matt Ritter
This beautiful and informative first children’s book from botanist Ritter (California Plants) explains the interdependent relationship of fig trees and wasps in a tropical forest. The story begins the moment a fig tree’s seed falls onto the branch of another tree. It eventually grows roots that overcome the host tree. Years later, the tree’s fruits become hosts to fig wasps, which lay their eggs while pollinating the seeds inside a fig, beginning their own life cycle inside. When grown, the males chew exit holes for the females to escape and carry pollen to the next fig tree. Finally, the figs are eaten by toucans who excrete the seeds.

Using his extensive knowledge as a botany professor and natural history writer, Ritter crafts a riveting narrative about a relatively obscure subject, catering to young readers with an interest in the natural world. Some language may be difficult for younger audiences to understand without explanation (“The seed settled onto a branch and did what seeds do: it germinated”), but the book is ideal for reading and discussing with adults, who may also learn something new. Ritter includes fun and digestible fact sheets about the red-eyed tree frog and the chestnut-mandibled toucan that make appearances in the story.

Gonzalez’s detailed illustrations provide a perfect complement to the story, with colorful, engaging imagery that aids readers in understanding each stage of the life cycles Ritter describes. Going deep inside the fig, Gonzalez shows the female wasp laying the eggs, the eggs hatching, and the new female wasps gathering pollen while the males chew holes. Gonzalez’s clear diagram of the wasps’ life cycle is a helpful addition to Ritter’s dry fact sheet. A tree frog hidden on each page is a delightful addition, gamifying the learning experience. Parents and educators will eagerly share this vivid picture book with budding botanists.

Takeaway: Older children interested in ecosystems will enjoy this fun picture book about the interdependence of fig trees and fig wasps.

Great for fans of Rebecca Bielawski’s Bees Like Flowers.

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

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The Vibrant Landscape
Gary Paul Levinson
This breathtaking book collects two decades of Levinson’s natural and urban landscape photographs, with nearly 100 color plates showing both iconic and unfamiliar locations, including Joshua Tree, Yosemite, and Zion National Parks. Levinson’s photos of waterfalls and autumn foliage are especially beautiful; he captures the sheer intensity of the color in Zion’s mix of red rocks and bright leaves. Margaretta K. Mitchell’s helpful essay on the history of landscape photography contextualizes Levinson’s work.

The book is thoughtfully organized, often pairing complementary images. A shot of Lake Tahoe is next to one of Lee Vining in California; the Tahoe shot has water and mountains and the Lee Vining photo is dominated by shrubbery and a forest, but both make extensive use of foreshortening. Photos of the Montreal skyline and biosphere are followed by a lone blooming shrub in Joshua tree, and then the starkness of Death Valley. There are also contrasts of color, as in a sunset overlooking a lake in Alaska accompanied by a moonrise above California’s Mono Lake. They’re composed in the same way, with the emphasis on the horizon, but the juxtaposition of the colors is striking. Levinson’s shots of the New York and Montreal skylines give a different kind of contrast as they carefully balance water and greenery against the constructed urban background.

Thematically, Levinson leans toward an even split between foreground and background images and a deliberate balance of foliage, water, and rock. That creates cohesion from image to image as well as the book as a whole. He’s able to vary this formula enough so as not to be repetitive, keeping the conceptual elements static while wildly varying the actual subjects. The fluidity of the compositions across the book makes the natural colors pop even harder. Every page of this exquisite book is a new and exciting experience for the reader.

Takeaway: Anyone who enjoys beautiful, vivid, and varied landscape photography will treasure this book.

Great for fans of Q.T. Luong’s Treasured Lands, T.H. Watkins and David Muench’s American Landscape.

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

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Body Language
Marylee MacDonald
Difficult, temperamental characters face personal upheavals in this collection of 12 insightful stories from MacDonald (Montpelier Tomorrow). Death and aging are central themes in several of her best entries, including “Hunger,” “Voices,” “Year by Year,” and “The Blue Caboose.” Other stories revolve around characters realizing how they have misjudged others, as in “Mongoose,” “Body Language,” and “All I Have.”

Through the characters’ conflicts and revelations, MacDonald makes wider points about human nature. In “Hunger,” a self-sufficient narrator compares her seatmate on a first-class flight to the bullies she remembers from high school. When there aren’t enough first-class meals to go around, the elderly woman cries in “big, gulping sobs,” like the “thin-skinned, fragile girls with no defenses [who] grew up and never learned to fend for themselves.” In “Year by Year,” as Rolf dons his CVS assistant manager badge, his mother, Klara, notes that he is “so proud of so little.” Klara’s children are a disappointment to her; even worse, they want to move her into a nursing home. MacDonald paints an understanding portrait of a prickly older parent whose fears about her friends dying are partly rooted in her inability to make new ones “at my age.” In “Mongoose,” Gwen, testy and estranged from her dying father and his fourth wife, softens as her misconceptions about her father fade away. When her stepmother remarks, “There’s a lot of him in you,” Gwen looks at a photo of herself at age six, noting they share “bristly, fearless, determined” natures.

Not all of MacDonald’s well-wrought characters inhabit stories worth telling. In “Ink” and “The Memory Palace,” characters fail to connect with one another, mixing so much like oil and water that the result is dissonance and reader frustration. Luckily, those two entries are outliers. This strong collection draws the reader in with sympathetic portrayals of aging and human connection.

Takeaway: This collection will suit fans of contemporary short fiction with a focus on human connection, aging, and mortality.

Great for fans of Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness, Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You.

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

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Talisman
Tam DeRudder Jackson
In Jackson’s jam-packed debut, a contemporary romantic fantasy, grad student Alyssa Macaulay discovers her Celtic mythology research has more personal significance than she had imagined. After strange noises outside her remote Montana home send her to security consultant Rowan Sheridan, warrior Rowan identifies her as his talisman, or fated mate. He tells her she has inherited paranormal powers needed for a mythic battle against the goddesses Maeve and Morgan, whose curse kills any warrior who fails to marry his talisman before he turns 28. Their sexual attraction beguiles Alyssa despite her initial doubts, and additional discoveries about her family history reveal their connection is vital to the cause. Alyssa must learn to use her powers, navigate her relationship with Rowan, and fight for their lives.

The novel’s grand scale, straightforward prose, thorough scene-setting, and detailed worldbuilding are its strong points. However, the dialogue can feel unwieldy, particularly when used to communicate large chunks of background information about warriors, talismans, and their goals. The same information is repeated, with similar wording, throughout the book. The action scenes are brief, with most fighting happening offstage or ending quickly; the emphasis on conversation and descriptive passages slows down the pacing and renders the protagonists’ ultimate victory somewhat less thrilling.

Alyssa’s personal journey includes learning more self-confidence as she takes responsibility in battle, but her total ignorance of the world she was born into means she’s subjected to endless lecturing by Rowan and others, limiting her ability to define herself. Rowan’s dominance at the start of their relationship causes communication problems between them that aren’t addressed until the very end—and Rowan never apologizes for his errors, instead blaming Maeve for making Alyssa feel insecure and unlovable—so the romantic resolution feels rushed. Though billed as a paranormal romance, this novel is best suited to fantasy readers who will love the setting and won’t mind the romance being more of an afterthought.

Takeaway: Fantasy readers with a taste for intricate worldbuilding and centuries-old drama will enjoy this tale of curses and fated love.

Great for fans of Leigh Ann Edwards, Kathy Morgan.

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

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Trauma Town Dispatch
Suzann Kale
This darkly comic novel dabbles in philosophy, romance, friendship, and the nature of existence, all in the unlikely setting of a small-town hospital. Sabine is a middle-aged switchboard operator at Trummel Hospital; her working life is plagued by intensity, and she might just be falling in love with the disembodied voice from a police scanner. She strikes up a friendship with an emergency room patient, Juliet, her next-door neighbor and a Vietnam War veteran whose aloof personality and mysterious love life intrigue Sabine. When a woman shoots a teen hospital patient, Sabine feels a strange connection to the victim and is determined to understand what draws them together.

The budding friendship between Sabine and Juliet is where Kale’s writing really shines; Juliet’s worldliness and effortlessly cool demeanor are the perfect antidote to Sabine’s anxiety-fueled stream-of-consciousness narration. The novel is underpinned by a much deeper exploration of Sabine’s personal existential crisis, which includes such philosophical problems as the fluidity of existence and the nature of death. The narrative never gets too heavy; Kale balances out the morbidity with a wry sense of humor. Scenes at the hospital, where Sabine interacts with her workmates Glo and Aja, are especially amusing, playing out like a classic comedy of errors.

Some heavy-handed pop culture references and literary allusions can be a whimsical reminder of time and place, but often they drag or stall an otherwise enriching narrative. For instance, the description of a character’s voice as a “soft Uma Thurman Henry and June art film voice” feels uninspired. This stylistic choice distracts from Kale’s impressive ability to create likable, three-dimensional characters. This inquisitive look at personal connection in a disorienting setting perfectly captures the weirdness of hospitals and the importance of human vulnerability and authenticity.

Takeaway: Readers with a taste for philosophy and absurdity will enjoy this darkly comic tale of mishaps and friendship in a small-town hospital.

Great for fans of Richard Hooker’s MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

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

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Confidence Lost / Confidence Found
Kathleen McGuinness
Executive coach McGuinness’s engaging and inspiring guide is based on her own efforts to develop lasting confidence. After she was abruptly fired, got divorced, and suffered financial losses, McGuinness’s sense of self was shattered. Emerging from this desperate time in her life, McGuinness realized that lack of confidence is an all-too-common issue for women and became determined to help others develop and sustain belief in themselves. Her guide outlines ways for women to build resilience and self-acceptance, and to reframe their perceptions of themselves.

McGuinness makes some attempt to invoke neuropsychological and sociological underpinnings for low confidence and self-esteem in women, but readers are unlikely to be persuaded by unscientific-sounding statements such as the assertion that women have more neurons “in the region [of the brain] known as the worrywart center.” (The book’s endnotes give sources, but magazine articles and self-help books outnumber peer-reviewed scientific studies.) However, McGuinness’s exercises are sound. She recommends deliberately taking note of moments of personal success, such as using an achievement as small as fixing a printer’s paper jam to fight back against a critical inner voice that says “I’m bad at mechanical stuff,” and developing confident body language. She skillfully gives depth to commonplace tips on dealing with situations such as interviewing for jobs and speaking in public.

McGuinness’s advice and drills are practical, and she’s always mindful of the issues many women face in their efforts to overcome their own inner doubts. As useful as all the material is, readers might wish for less densely packed pages, as each one sometimes feels full to overflowing with information and suggestions. Readers who recognize their own struggles in these pages will find that many of McGuinness’s methods make upcoming challenges easier to face.

Takeaway: Women who struggle to believe in themselves will discover many useful tips in this practical guide to building and sustaining self-esteem.

Great for fans of Nathaniel Branden’s Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, Jen Sincero’s You Are a Badass.

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

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With the Courage of a Mouse
Donna Sager Cowan
Sager Cowan’s twisty middle grade debut features unexpected friendships and a delightful mix of mystery and adventure. Simon Cheddar, a quick-thinking, resourceful mouse, is escaping from a hawk when he runs into Catt, a skittish cat who’s been abandoned by her humans. Impulsively, Simon invites Catt to join him on his first day at Superhero School, a class for young animals who want to be heroes. Catt and Simon quickly become best friends, and Simon cautiously introduces her to his friends and family in hidden Mouseville. Everything is going well until other cats attack Mouseville. The mice blame Catt and banish Simon, who sets out to prove his friend’s innocence.

Economic anxiety drives the story. Catt is traumatized by life as a starving alley cat, impoverished city mouse Ricky despises and envies the “soft” country mice of Mouseville, and meerkat butler Nigel longs to be his own boss. It’s not clear why this anthropomorphic paradise is so riddled with inequality and privation. No one questions the school’s peculiar policy barring orphans from attending, even when it puts Catt—who “refused to be property again”—in an impossible quandary: allow a cat she doesn't know to become her adoptive parent, or give up on school and live on the street. Homelessness is treated as a plot point, not a societal ill. Given the constant mentions of wealth and poverty, the lack of analysis beyond compassion being good and greed being bad feels like an oversight.

Sager Cowan makes the many characters distinct, aided by Reid’s sometimes clumsy but colorful illustrations. Superhero School classmates Patty Porter, a tech-savvy pig, and Freddy Flickerson, an agile frog, help Simon crack the case. Without pontificating, Sager Cowan clearly teaches readers about accepting and trusting others who come from different backgrounds. This series starter is filled with mystery and a lot of heart.

Takeaway: Tween readers will enjoy this warm-hearted mystery’s memorable animal characters and imaginative setting.

Great for fans of Gigi Priebe and Daniel Duncan’s Adventures of Henry Whiskers series.

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

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The Empress of the Clouds
Desiree Ultican
Ultican’s enjoyable American steampunk adventure features a sterling heroine. When Evaline Amstel’s husband, Heinz, is murdered in 1896 Joplin, Mo., she’s left in a dire situation. Heinz, an inventor, racked up significant debts, stole from her personal funds, and quietly paid for the upkeep of Bettina, his daughter from his secret first marriage—which never legally ended. Evaline decides to forge her own path forward, determined to care for Bettina and rescue Heinz’s failing airship company. After Evaline confirms that Heinz was involved in shady dealings, she’s stalked by spies, kidnapped, and forced to labor on the doomsday device her husband had unwittingly begun to build for megalomaniac Erasmus Marchand. Only once she escapes is she able to turn her focus toward stopping Erasmus’s plot to assassinate the president.

The cast is strong and diverse, and the white protagonists have an almost modern acceptance of and respect for the nonwhite characters. Unfortunately, that depiction is undermined by some questionable narrative choices, including eye dialect, period-accurate racist language, and characterization derived from caricature. People of color are used as props for white people’s characterization—a Chinese-American surprising a white man by speaking fluent English, an enslaved teen girl being sexually exploited by Erasmus—and vanish from the story as soon as the point is made.

The tale is ripe with drama and daring feats, but the telling is dry and matter-of-fact (“She brought the lever forward as smoothly as possible to abruptly halt the craft from diving into the landscape below”), reducing the tension in otherwise exciting events and making it hard to emotionally invest in the wellbeing of the characters or the relationships they form with one another. Nonetheless, the well-constructed plot creates a real sense of adventure. Evaline is an inspiring heroine for anyone who longs to see a bold and self-reliant woman stare down danger and do what’s right.

Takeaway: Steampunk fans will admire the bold and self-reliant heroine of this airship adventure.

Great for fans of Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, Gail Carriger.

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

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Desperately Seeking Novelty
Sandra Arnau-Dewar
Freelance editor Arnau-Dewar’s gritty and inspiring debut memoir chronicles the challenging experience of parenting children with ADHD—and eventually being diagnosed with it herself. After her children, Cindy and Eric, were diagnosed with ADHD in the 1990s, Arnau-Dewar became a fierce advocate for them. Finding upsides as well as downsides to their way of thinking and interacting with the world, she searched for a way to view ADHD as something other than a mental disorder, eventually coming to see the condition as a product of evolutionary biology.

After an introduction that feels more like a scientific paper, complete with nine footnotes, Arnau-Dewar shifts smoothly into memoir mode and expertly toggles back and forth between the 1950s and the 2010s, unflinchingly examining her nomadic childhood as the only child of a single mother. She also lays bare her family’s other mental health issues, including the suicides of both her parents. She pulls no punches about the difficulties of raising children with ADHD—her marriage was among the casualties—but painstakingly details the joys of “restless energy and exuberant curiosity,” “passion and optimism,” alongside the challenges of dealing with teachers, doctors, and sometimes self-destructive kids.

Woven into the recollections are a variety of references to scientific studies on ADHD. “Remember that natural selection occurs when a change (mutation) in the genetic code favors survival,” Arnau-Dewar writes, theorizing that hyperactivity, impulsivity, and aggression allowed humans to avoid predators. She does a masterful job of compiling studies to back up this hypothesis and suggests that the condition be called “executive function adaptation” to reduce stigma and recognize the positive aspects of ADHD mental wiring. Meticulously researched and skillfully written, Arnau-Dewar’s memoir does double duty as a brutally frank instructional guide for parents of children with ADHD.

Takeaway: Readers raising children with ADHD will greatly benefit from Arnau-Dewar’s blend of memoir and science.

Great for fans of Thom Hartmann’s Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perception, Blake E.S. Taylor’s ADHD and Me.

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

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Ballast Point Breakdown
Corey Lynn Fayman
Musician and author Fayman’s fourth Rolly Waters mystery (after Desert City Diva) takes private investigator Rolly on a quest to find Butch Fleetwood, a former Navy diver who’s been missing for over two decades. Environmental activist Janis Withers crashes her boat into the Admiral’s Club ballroom in San Diego, pours gasoline everywhere, and dies in the subsequent fire. Her fellow activist Melody Flowers asks Rolly for help finding Butch, whom Janis claimed was Arion, the dolphin king, and the inspiration for the Lemurian Temple that Melody and Janis founded for dolphin worship, which Janis’s parents plan to sell. As Janis once ran the fan club of Rolly’s former band, he agrees to help Melody. Soon he’s mired in a mystery involving a water park, a wealthy painter, a secretive government contractor, and the elusive Harmonica Dan. As people linked to the investigation die mysteriously, Rolly forges ahead to solve the puzzle of Butch’s disappearance while eluding a cunning killer.

Fayman quickly draws the reader in with the boat crash scene, which couples dry humor with fiery drama. The story is fast-paced and intensified by the myriad of twists and turns, each establishing another character who had a reason to want Butch dead. Fayman craftily ties together the mystery behind Butch’s disappearance and the present-day deaths. Though Fayman clearly outlines the characters’ motives and how they connect to one another, readers must pay close attention to the details to have a thorough understanding of the intricately woven web.

Fayman expertly underscores the ups and downs of a musical career, and his use of the San Diego area and the influence of the naval base there adds elements of realism and authenticity. Mystery fans will quickly warm to the affable Rolly, a genuine man who, though scarred by events of his past, has embraced the present to live one day at a time. This standalone installment will satisfy both newcomers and series fans with a fascinating mystery and colorful cast.

Takeaway: This music-themed murder mystery will draw fans of old-fashioned gumshoes, vivid characters, and twisty, layered stories.

Great for fans of Robert B. Parker’s Crimson Joy, James Patterson and James O. Born’s The River Murders.

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

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Nikolai Delov
James Dante
Dante (The Tiger’s Wedding) provides a slice-of-life peek into the complicated mind and life of wealthy businessman Nikolai Delov as he navigates the complexities of life in post-Soviet Russia. Nikolai, who owns a large trucking company, is driven, occasionally ruthless, and determined to make his mark in the newly privatized nation. As a father, he struggles somewhat—especially with his grown son, Valentin, whose love of art and hatred of capitalism are at odds with Nikolai’s approach to life. As a lover, he’s drawn to charismatic and idealistic Inessa Zorina, a social worker who helps young woman escape the horrors of human trafficking. When all of these elements intersect, he’s forced to examine himself and his choices even as he faces treachery in business and his personal life.

The descriptive and flowing narrative style conveys a deep understanding of all things Russian, including glimpses of life from before the fall of the Soviet Union through the rise of the Russian Federation. The characters are vibrant, though inconsistencies in dialogue and scene transitions occasionally muffle their voices, as does a heavy reliance on narrative exposition throughout the first several chapters. Esoteric word choices and the many forms of address for one person may be jarring for those unfamiliar with Russian culture. At several points, the plot seems like little more than a very loosely connected series of vignettes (some of which tend to meander), though the purpose of each one is eventually revealed.

The subject matter, particularly human trafficking, is handled with sensitivity and respect and never feels exploitative. The way Nikolai’s various identities intersect, even as he tries to keep them compartmentalized, will strike a chord with readers. This richly developed story, in which one man’s inner journey is mirrored in the sociopolitical changes surrounding him, thoughtfully entertains.

Takeaway: This richly developed story of a man’s quest for identity in post-Soviet Russia will entertain and enthrall readers of slice-of-life literary fiction.

Great for fans of Arthur Miller, Anton Chekhov.

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

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The Meaning of Life
Nathanael Garrett Novosel
This inviting mix of philosophy, science, and self-help dives into a question that thinkers and teachers have pondered for thousands of years: What is the meaning of life? While considering how this complex question can be viewed through the lenses of growth, experience, desire, belief, emotions, ethics, support, and choice, Novosel encourages each reader to independently develop a sense of purpose and direction. He grounds the quest in research into human psychology and the microbiological origins of life, asserting that the scientific “how” of life and the philosophical “why” of life are entangled rather than distinct and making analogies between the growth of living organisms and the personal growth that gives life value.

A brief introductory quiz asks readers to rate statements such as “I appreciate what I have in life” and “I live my life with a sense of purpose.” After each chapter’s introduction, there is a lengthy explanation of each core concept. These sections can read like scholarly articles (“With more time, effort, and attention, humans maximize their abilities”), but they’ll appeal to readers who are moved by scientific analysis. Pragmatic tools at the end of each chapter help the reader make more personal connections to each of the eight concepts. At the end of the book, the reader returns to the initial questions to see how their understanding of the meaning of life has changed.

Thoroughly and consistently covering every aspect of the quest for the meaning of life, Novosel helps readers to walk away with a concrete sense of personal discovery. He neither leans on nor tries to refute religion, making the work accessible to readers from the staunchly atheist to the deeply devout. Whether readers are struggling in difficult times, experiencing uncertainty, or living their best lives, this book will help them find their footing and develop unique individual concepts of direction, purpose, and meaning.

Takeaway: Anyone curious about the history of the quest for meaning or in need of a personal sense of purpose will benefit from this thorough guide.

Great for fans of Maxie McCoy’s You’re Not Lost, Misty Edwards’s What Is the Point?, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans’s Designing Your Life.

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

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Does It Hurt?
Burton Moomaw
Moomaw, a licensed acupuncturist, effectively demystifies acupuncture in this beautifully presented and informative debut. He gives detailed responses to eight common questions about acupuncture, including “Does it hurt?”, “Does it work?”, and “What health problems does it treat?”, and explains how hair-thin needles, inserted into the skin and muscles, manipulate the body’s chi (energy) flow. For those still intimidated by acupuncture, Moomaw briefly introduces other common Chinese medical treatments. He also discusses how imbalances in the body can affect health, and analyzes some of the contrasts between Chinese medicine’s qualitative science and whole-body-approach and Western medicine’s quantitative science and treatments based mainly on pharmacology and surgery.

Moomaw’s organized and succinct writing make this a comprehensive look at the practice of acupuncture as well as Chinese medicine’s other energy-focused treatments. He fairly portrays the strengths and weaknesses of Chinese and Western medical systems, encouraging readers to make informed judgments on their options for medical treatments. Straightforward language and the use of highway metaphors to describe the interconnectedness of the body’s energy meridians make it easier to understand and visualize the flow of the chi.

The crisp photographs clarify the descriptions in the text, showing how fine an acupuncture needle is, how it’s inserted, and where the energy channels are located in the body. The images in the book are monochrome, but Moomaw helpfully provides a link to view the same images in full color. Diagrams and charts such as the map of the tongue and how the five elements relate to various organs help readers understand the body’s relationship to chi and how acupuncture can affect it. Successfully educating readers about acupuncture and Chinese energetic medicine, this book will also stimulate discussion of medical treatment options and is an excellent starting point for further research.

Takeaway: This is a perfect introduction to acupuncture and Chinese medicine for the curious newcomer.

Great for fans of Andrew Weil’s Spontaneous Healing, Steven Cordoza’s Chinese Holistic Medicine in Your Daily Life.

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

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The Midnight Hour
Bud Harris, PhD
In this “message-driven memoir,” Harris (Students Under Siege: The Real Reasons Behind America’s Ongoing Mass Shootings and How to Stop Them), a Jungian psychoanalyst, asserts that an American addiction to “positive thinking” has resulted in not being able to acknowledge a fear of personal or financial misfortune, leading to a decline of empathy for those who experience such misfortune. His own devastating losses in the 2008 financial crash put him on the receiving end of this empathy gap and shocked him into political awareness. He encourages readers to view this time of sociopolitical change as an opportunity to employ creative citizenship, develop empathy and understanding, and move beyond division in order to reclaim the essence of American democracy.

Blending the psychoanalytical and the political, Harris segues between transformational experiences in his personal life and relevant observations regarding the American body politic, scolding politicians regardless of party. He employs the recurring motif of “shadow,” an element of Jungian psychoanalytic theory, to explore the concept of a crisis of empathy within a fractured and factionalized America. Harris also includes literary and social science perspectives that bolster his case for the need to recreate a nexus of citizenship and shared humanity.

Some readers might benefit from a few introductory paragraphs on the basics of Jungian analysis, but the text is mostly accessible to a general readership. Harris’s considerations are timely, relevant, and incisive. He describes himself as “full of rage and pain and heartbreak” while maintaining compassion for others, and he clearly renders some potentially complex concepts, such as the individual responsibility to create a better collective society. This memoir provides a graceful yet challenging vehicle for the positing of some pointed observations and difficult questions regarding the meaning and responsibilities of American citizenship and membership in the human race.

Takeaway: Readers craving meaningful civic engagement and a well-functioning American democracy will value this insightful and challenging call for empathy.

Great for fans of Sahar Ghumkhor’s The Political Psychology of the Veil: The Impossible Body, James Hollis.

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

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