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The Lucky Hermit Crab and Her Swirly New Shell
Janice S. C. Petrie
Petrie’s unique, upbeat picture book helps children explore how to gracefully let go of what is not meant for them as they grow up. The story follows a young hermit crab who has become too big for her shell and must find a new one to protect her soft, squishy tail from predators. One day she discovers the most “strikingly wonderful shell in the world,” which is adorned with colorful barnacles and anemones and stands out because of its swirly pattern. The crab knows she is lucky for having found the shell and loves to show it off—but soon she grows again, and she must make another difficult decision.

Because childhood is a time of such rapid change, kids will relate to the hermit crab’s plight—and while they may initially be rooting for her to keep her standout shell, they will likely soon recognize that letting it go is the only way for her to continue to grow and stay safe. Importantly, in Petrie’s empathetic book the crab is never shamed or criticized for wanting to hang on to her old home, which makes the message more accessible. The story also includes plenty of facts about hermit crabs and other sea creatures, which will appeal to both curious kids and adults.

Detailed and colorful, Petrie’s illustrations cleverly bring this story to life and allow kids to feel a sense of compassion for the hermit crab, which may be an unfamiliar creature to many. With long, pointy legs and antennae-like eyes, the crab is shown hiding from predators and scuttling along the ocean floor in a too-small shell before finding her lovely new one, surrounded by rocks, seaweed, and a trio of colorful fish. With her rhyming prose and obvious love of sea life, Petrie has created a playful and exciting underwater world that children will be eager to revisit.

Takeaway: In this upbeat picture book a hermit crab helps children explore how to let go and grow.

Great for fans of: Catherine Leblanc’s Too Big or Too Small, Barney Saltzberg’s Chengdu Can Do.

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

It's Alive!
Julian David Stone
Stone’s polished nod to old Hollywood whisks readers back in time for a thrilling look at the filmmaking world of 1931, in the unsettled aftermath of the sound revolution. With only three days until production starts on the classic horror film Frankenstein, chaos stirs and threatens to shut down the project. Fiction and truth swirl together as Stone (The Strange Birth, Short Life, and Sudden Death of Justice Girl) digs into the backstage drama between Junior Laemmle, head of movie production at Universal Studios, and his father, Carl Laemmle, Sr., the studio's founder. As tension between these moguls grows, casting for Frankenstein’s monster hits a snag, leaving Junior scrambling to find a leading man while assuaging his father’s growing doubts about the film’s viability.

Stone’s crisp writing highlights the compelling turmoil between Junior and his father. Junior desperately wants to shift Universal Pictures into the future with compelling new films, while Carl seems rooted in the past and struggles to grasp his son’s vision. While this dynamic plays out in briskly paced scenes powered by crack dialogue, Stone also explores the lives and ambitions of a pair of creature-feature greats: Bela Lugosi’s ego as an established actor is skillfully contrasted with Boris Karloff’s struggles as an up-and-coming star. The fascinating glimpse into these actors’ lives highlights a delightful narrative for film buffs.

As in his previous novel, Stone demonstrates a clear dedication to and knowledge of cinema and Los Angeles itself, and his love and expertise for the milieu—and for the minds of actors and producers and studio heads—radiates from the pages. Stars like Mae Clarke and Clara Bow make cameos, while movies like The Jazz Singer and Murders in the Rue Morgue get special shoutouts, the details piecing together to form a dynamic tapestry of the movie business in an era of tumult. Classic Hollywood film buffs and historical fiction fans will enjoy this fascinating tale revolving around the passions and persistence it took to bring life to one of the movies’ greatest monsters.

Takeaway: A compelling novel of old Hollywood, Universal Pictures, and the 1931 Frankenstein film.

Great for fans of: Stewart O'Nan’s West of Sunset, Adriana Trigiani’s All the Stars in the Heavens.

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

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Taken Away
Russ Thompson
Thompson (Torn) continues his Finding Forward series with the heart-rending story of Miles, a 15-year-old whose life is upended when his father is sentenced to prison. After accepting money from his boss in exchange for burning down the restaurant he works in, Miles’s father receives a long prison sentence—made worse by the fact that a fireman was seriously injured during the fire. Miles, already struggling in school, is heartbroken and can’t figure out where to turn with his father gone. When he sees his dreams of making the basketball team going up in smoke along with his family life, Miles has to find the personal strength to keep moving forward

Though Taken Away takes on challenging topics, Thompson does so with grace, eliciting both Miles’s emotional torment and eventual comeback in relatable and poignant language. As Miles walks readers through his fears of failure and immense grief, there are glimmering moments of hope that will inspire: his basketball coach never fails to deliver uplifting messages at just the right time (“You can do anything if you set your mind to it and work hard”), and Miles’s extra work in school eventually pays off. When he finally gets back on the team, he’s learned not to give up—even after failing to make the winning shot in his first game, a lesson that will resonate with readers facing their own natural self-doubt.

Thompson deliberately leaves the ending with loose ends to allow readers the opportunity to meld the story to their own experiences, though he deposits a hint of optimism that things may work out ok for Miles after all. Regardless, readers will be left with the knowledge that life can be tough, but giving up will only make it worse—and the solid advice that “Sometimes people seem hard on the outside. But that’s not how they are on the inside.”

Takeaway: The inspiring story of a teenage boy picking up the pieces after his father goes to prison.

Great for fans of: Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl.

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

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Half Notes from Berlin
B.V. Glants
Glants’s beautifully written historical debut explores themes of identity and resistance at the start of Hitler’s regime. Fifteen-year-old Hans attends school in Berlin and sings in the city’s prestigious Youth Choir. His placid world changes when his history teacher appears in class in a brown shirt, yells “Heil, Hitler!” and proceeds to coach the students in Nazi propaganda. Hans’s friends join the Hitler Youth and begin mercilessly taunting Rebecca, a defiant Jewish student to whom Hans is drawn. When Hans learns his mother’s family has kept its own heritage a secret, and that he is half-Jewish, he’s thrust between two worlds, facing great danger and terrible choices.

Hans narrates from old age in 2021, but the bulk of his story takes place over the course of a few weeks in 1933, as the novel’s taut timeframe underscores the speed with which radical nationalism took root in Germany. With his friends pressuring him to demonstrate his patriotism, Hans stalls, choosing a dangerous path—a secret relationship with Rebecca. After the mysterious disappearance of a school official, Hans gets swept up in a book burning and a Hitler Youth initiation ceremony and must decide whether to defy his peers or follow them, becoming “the one that does nothing” to resist.

The leads are skillfully and vividly drawn, especially Hans and Rebecca, whose dialogue brims with both tenderness and tension. As history encircles him, Hans’s inner struggle feels palpable, and the mob mentality he attempts to fend off rings true. By the end of the story, all citizens must fill out a “racial form” declaring whether they are Aryan—and while Hans’s mother’s career is jeopardized, his father turns a profit buying the business of a Jew fleeing the country. Present-day Hans inserts brief, chilling notes on what eventually happens to the characters, and their gripping stories will stick with readers long after the last page.

Takeaway: The gripping story of a german teen, at the start of the Nazi regime, discovering he’s half-Jewish.

Great for fans of: Ben Elton’s Two Brothers, Mark Sullivan’s Beneath a Scarlet Sky.

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

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The Birth of Adam
Paul Brown
“Brace yourself,” advises the first words of the first letter in this pained yet hopeful epistolary novel, which finds Brown, the neuroscientist author of the Notes from a Dying Planet series, returning to his urgent subject, imminent ecological collapse. That suggestion applies to readers, who are in for an illuminating but harrowing ride, and to humanity itself, which Brown persuasively suggests is living on the brink after having done “nothing to avert the developing catastrophes of overpopulation, mass extinction, and global warming (which we called ‘OMG’).” That advice is directed, though, from a mother to her son, as The Birth of Adam collects heady missives that Laura, a neuroscientist herself, and a quartet of her lovers send to her son, Adam, from a grim possible future of eco-catastrophes and governments who take no steps to halt the planet’s destruction.

“It was perfectly clear how humans had reached this state of affairs, and it was perfectly clear how it was all going to end up,” writes Simon, one of the lovers. Blending personal narrative, dystopian speculative fiction, and the explanatory clarity of a first-rate science essayist, Simon’s lengthy letter exemplifies Brown’s project: it doesn’t just imagine a fallen future, it does the work to show how humanity got there, with special attention paid to the workings of the brain.

“Essentially,” Simon notes, after a dazzling passage digging into the neuroscience of Trumpism, “they’re not smart enough to realize they’re dumb.” The letters comprising the novel teems with insights about consciousness, the brain, AI, the environment, and life itself, plus incisive jokes, jolting revelations and connections, and flashes of love, pain, and deeply human earthiness: “I was a pelvis man. And she had a pelvis to die for,” notes David. While the lovers’ accounts of their relationships at times are touching, readers should not expect traditional plotting and pacing. These are scientists’ pained, illuminating meditations.

Takeaway: Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things.

Great for fans of: Illuminating letters from future scientists about how humanity let the Earth collapse.

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

Click here for more about The Birth of Adam
Herding the Wind
Richard Layh
Layh draws on his thirty-plus years of experience working on Wall Street in his debut novel, as a widower remembers the romance with his high school girlfriend several decades before. When Wall Street trader Democedes “Dee” Felico meets Mary Jo Barnes, the potential new sales assistant at his firm, he is astounded at how much she looks like Beatrice “Bea” Sharpe, the girl who left him heartbroken when he was just 22. Meanwhile, back when Dee fell for Bea, their passion-filled relationship was intense and mutually satisfying despite Bea’s somewhat mercurial nature and Dee’s stress-filled life working in finance while still attending college. But their romance ended abruptly when Bea took off for San Francisco to see her parents.

Layh’s understanding of the cutthroat nature of working as a trader imbues the novel with intense realism, as his characters work their deals, speak their insider language, their thoughts shaped by their business. (“You know how traders are—always looking over their shoulders,” one character observes.)” His New York City pulses with traders’ competitiveness, but also jazz, romance, possibility, and the ups and downs of recent history. The story weaves through recent decades, carefully linking the events of Dee’s personal life to the bumptious era of the Vietnam War (“Vietnam… was a violent cartoon; an indoor/outdoor musical, sloshed in harsh Van Gogh colors, conducted by a spastic corpse”) and the dark days following September 11, 2001.

Readers will be drawn to the intense, intriguing plotline of the similarities between Mary Jo and Bea as well as Dee’s electric reflections on the evolution of his relationship with Bea amid the turmoil in their lives all those years back. Though Dee’s work involves concepts that may be unfamiliar to readers, what matters is always clear, and Layh’s expertly paced depiction of a city, an industry, and a man over decades is convincing and touching as it surges toward its magnetic ending.

Takeaway: A widowed Wall Street trader recalls the girl who broke his heart decades ago in this intense New York novel.

Great for fans of: Randy Susan Meyers’s The Widow of Wall Street, Gary Helms’s Doubled Down: A Novel of Wall Street in the 1970s.

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

Click here for more about Herding the Wind
Hands Down
Tom Figel
Set among Iowa’s vividly evoked “flat farms and lines of windbreak trees” and “corn-rich fields and warm grassy smells,” Figel’s rangy, engaging 1960s-set debut novel centers on an ambitious Hawkeye named Dennis Spuhn, a young Marine fresh out of Vietnam and determined to open his own restaurant chain in his home state, but boasts an expansive cast of compelling local color. That includes a high-school wrestling champion turned holy man with divine healing powers; an artist desperate to escape her sister’s shadow; a copy editor discovering her ill health; and a womanizing vagabond with a penchant for traveling on his hands. Remarkably, Figel’s pleasantly paced story connects the lot of them, tying everything together by the time the story reaches its final pages—and the Missouri River dividing Iowa from Nebraska.

Hands Down pairs its story of coming-of-age in a time of societal upheaval with a series of character-rich vignettes worthy of Donald Harrington, all with a healthy dose of history thrown in as the tale unspools. As the war in Vietnam escalates, a group of draft dodgers has taken up residence on the outskirts of a small Iowa town; local politics complicate everything, of course, as does a bullying powerhouse of a lawyer and a developer’s plan for “small and shabby” housing.

Figel’s style is fast-paced and to the point, though the point, here, is usually his desire to catch the full blush of a moment, the drift of characters’ minds, the comic tenor of their talk, the ways things truly work, and how the sky on a sunny afternoon eventually yields a “great horizon of pink and orange.” Those moments and characters are the key to this journey of a novel, as Figel, adept at arcs and human surprises, brings rare empathy and understanding to the trials and triumphs of his people. The connections between them, when revealed, may elicit a-ha!s from readers.

Takeaway: This vivid novel of Iowa in the tumultuous 1960s bursts with empathy and character.

Great for fans of: Ken Babbs’s Cronies, Donald Harington.

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

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I Met Her Before
Chandra Moyer
Moyer (Tragically Taken) stuns with a compassionate and unflinching examination of how to reconcile childhood physical and sexual trauma. The story is told from Army Major Marcia Thompson’s perspective as an adult, beginning with her resurfacing memories of a traumatic childhood that are triggered by the removal of her two adopted children from her home—all because Marcia expresses concern to their social worker about the children’s behaviors that indicate previous abuse. As she tries to come to terms with losing the children, Marcia is swept into her own past through flashbacks and nightmares that terrify her and concern her husband, Tony.

Readers will be absorbed by Marcia’s fight to heal as she slowly begins to spiral out of control, having emotional breakdowns and outbursts that threaten her stability. Her military service further hampers her recovery, as the family receives nearly constant transfer orders—and suffers from racism because they are Black. When they move to Colorado Springs, Marcia reluctantly starts therapy, allowing her the safety and security to work through her nightmares and begin freeing herself from her traumatic past, but the possibility of another relocation and the resistance of other family members to acknowledging her abuse leave her on the brink of devastation.

Moyer addresses many difficult topics, and while sexual assault as a child by a family member is the primary focus, issues of racism also are prevalent throughout. In skillful storytelling, Moyer illuminates the struggle that many abuse victims undergo when trying to find validation from family members—a struggle that both empowers Marcia and frustrates her recovery. Moyer’s writing illuminates the urgency of accepting help and highlights Marcia’s reliance on her faith, steps that eventually allow her to heal and lead a fulfilling life. Readers should be aware of several triggers, including traumatic and potentially uncomfortable scenes that may be difficult to read.

Takeaway: An arresting novel of a life spiraling out of control when a traumatic event triggers painful memories.

Great for fans of: Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children.

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

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Time Peels All to Original White: Xueyan Poems
Xueyan
Dedicated to “beautiful souls swallowed by darkness,” this striking collection from Xueyan joins sharply sculpted lines, a penchant for emotionally charged descriptions of nature and divinity, an urgent longing for connection, and a reverence for Christ, whom the poet imagines, in a verse of rhapsodic transformation, first carrying the poet “along the thorny path of blood and flame” while Xueyan is a butterfly on his holy shoulders. A poem like “Valley of the Shadow of Death” unites theme, form, and language: “Answer me: / Where is the valley of the shadow of death? // Is it in the shade /beneath the eternal suffering of the cross? // Or is it within the wrinkles of my mother’s face?”

The short, stinging “Cup,” meanwhile, suggests that love—which in many poems is a redemptive force linked to eternity—can at times feel in short supply: “You empty my cup / by filling / hers.” Xueyan wastes no words in these crisp, pared-down poems, though they’re not short on meaning, mystery, or power. The biblical themes often connect to ideas of perseverance, as “John the Divine” finds in the life of the Baptist of the Gospels the lesson “Passion as paddle / belief as boat.” “Parting: A Red Sea Love Story” at first seems tragicomic, as two fish who have fallen for each other are torn apart as a consequence of Moses’s parting of the Red Sea. But the final lines offer a haunting evocation of a love that endures.

Another potent theme is that of exile. “Wind” reveals its subject as ancient, the “howl of Adam and Eve,” expelled from the Garden, while “Strangers,” “You Did Not,” and other poems about lost or fleeting connection pack maximal feeling into a minimum of words. The sacred, the eternal, the ecstasy of intimacy: Xueyan binds all this together, in tight, gripping verse, writing “Every fleeting moment / we breathe and create together / is eternity.”

Takeaway: Richly emotional poems of faith, connection, and eternity.

Great for fans of: Luci Shaw, Mary Szybist.

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

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Hidden Buddha: Lama Rinzen in the Hungry Ghost Realm
Jim Ringel
Lama Rinzen’s ascent to nirvana continues in the second mystery in Ringel’s noir-meets-Tibetan-wisdom Lama Rinzen Series (following 49 Buddhas), following a Buddhist monk and the teacher Daidyal on cases that touch against realms beyond the material. Reincarnated into the body of a traveling doctor, this latest Rinzen finds her first night shift at Colorado’s venerable—and spooky—Humboldt Hospital starts off on a cold note when a snowstorm forces all but a few patients and staff to another facility. Rinzen finds her reception even chillier than the weather. But with a strange new illness spreading amongst the remaining patients, an even frostier reception for the victim of a blizzard-related car crash, and a young child longing to be with her mother, Rinzen finds more than her bedside manner tested.

As Rinzen navigates the mysteries of Humboldt Hospital, she questions her own progress, as each decision may help lead her to another level of enlightenment or to an eternity in her current station in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Between classic scenes of deduction, complex layers of truth and reality, and skillful red herrings, Ringel freshens up the tropes of mysteries by showing them to readers through the unique lens of this Buddhist detective. Each person the doctor meets offers more than just a body for a diagnosis or a clue towards a whodunnit. Instead, they reveal lives of joy, pain, and loss to be understood. That goes for the ghosts, too, who are sometimes “the lessons teachers fail to share.”

Ringel has crafted a fine gem of a story, one that’s satisfying as a mystery—his deft narrative sleight-of-hand results in revelations readers won’t see coming—and as something more, especially when, in the final pages, Rinzen’s knowledge is translated into wisdom. Ringel writes, “The informed explain what they know. The enlightened what they question.” Rinzen’s journey from informed to enlightened is one readers open to genre-expanding detective novels will enjoy.

Takeaway: This accomplished mystery finds a Buddhist monk reincarnated, sleuthing, and striving toward enlightenment.

Great for fans of: Eliot Pattison’s Shan series, Gay Hendricks and Tinker Lindsay’s Tenzing Norbu series.

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

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KItty's People: An Irish Family Saga about the Rise of a Generous Woman
Susan Barrett Price
Centered on the life of an Irish American woman and family who persevere in the face of every hardship America could throw at them between the 1880s and the Great Depression, Price’s sweeping historical novel stands as an engaging story of grit, determination, and love, bringing fresh life to the memories of past generations’ with painstaking research and a novelist’s imaginative power. Price draws from the life of her own grandmother, the model for Kitty Flanagan, the “generous woman” (and eventual “bearcat”) that Kitty’s People follows, from hopscotching in LeClaire, Illinois, to a teen running the register at a market in St. Louis during the First World War, to facing personal tragedy and holding the family together at the height of the Roaring ‘20s and beyond.

The lives of Kitty and her people are bumptious, as early on scandal inspires a move to St. Louis, where they work in mills and as mechanics and bookkeepers, and also find some success, as father Moses, a planner and supervisor, helps build the 1904 World’s Fair. (Young Kitty screams “We’re rich!” when the family gets a car in 1907.) Eventually, they seize the opportunity of opening a grocery, all as they face wrenching travails: natural disasters, mental and physical health issues, a rowdy brother’s temptations toward a life of crime, tragedies personal and public, and even a literal wicked stepmother.

“The blood pumping through the marvelous mechanical heart of this new world is Irish,” Kitty’s father notes, early on, and both Kitty and Price’s love for this family, their lineage, and their era shines through a novel that at times emphasizes thoroughness over narrative momentum. But readers fascinated by Irish-American immigrant life will relish the telling as Kitty—whose people tilt between Mass and respectability on the one hand and Egan’s Rats and after-hour lid clubs on the other—perseveres toward a satisfyingly happy ending. The book is an act of love.

Takeaway: This historical novel, an act of love, digs into an extraordinary Irish-American woman’s life and family.

Great for fans of: Kerby Miller and Patricia Mulholland Miller’s Journey of Hope: The Story of Irish Immigration to America, Pamela Records’ Tied With Twine.

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

Click here for more about KItty's People
Becoming Successful in Real Estate: How I Sold My First $15,000,000 as a Single Parent
Cindy Bermudez-Presgraves
"Years as a real estate agent doesn’t make you the best agent,” Presgraves declares. “The number of transactions you close on a yearly basis is what defines you." Her upbeat how-to guide/self-help book bursts with such advice as she chronicles the up and downs of achieving real success in real estate. Bermudez Presgraves shares her hard-won knowledge and experience, recounting her first introduction into the idea of getting into the business from her mother at 18, to studying to be a pastry chef and starting a marketing company before her multiple failed attempts at passing the real estate test, to becoming a Certified Luxury Home Marketing Specialist and a top-earning realtor, to what lessons readers can take from her history of big sales.

Presgraves recounts her struggles as a divorcee and a single mom breaking into the business after shying away from the idea for years. Presgraves's tone is inviting and personable, like having a sit-down chat with an old friend ready to impart their wisdom. Presgraves offers useful tips on how to get started, how to schedule your time wisely, and how to commit to an enterprise to ensure a higher success rate. Her anecdotes showcase Presgraves’s experience with buyers, sellers, and outworking others: a brand builder, she sends out 700 hot-pink letters per every eventual buyer, she notes. She demonstrates that though it may seem daunting to leap into the ever-changing real estate market, a focused and determined mindset, a willingness to stand out, and the drive to succeed can take one a long way.

Lovers of entrepreneurial success stories or readers interested in plunging into the business themselves will most benefit and enjoy this to-the-point, user-friendly guide that’s packed with tricks of the trade. Presgraves navigates the reader through the pitfalls, hardships, and victories that come with pursuing this career in a relatable, easy-to-follow way.

Takeaway: A how-to guide and upbeat memoir illuminating what it takes to succeed in real estate.

Great for fans of: Tatiana Londono’s Real Estate Unfiltered, Tom Hopkins’s Mastering the Art of Selling Real Estate.

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

Click here for more about Becoming Successful in Real Estate
You Are Your Healer: The Ultimate Guide to Heal Your Past, Transform Your Life & Awaken to Your True Self
Yol Swan
“You are a spark of the Divine on a scavenger hunt for experiences” Swan (The Indigo Journals) writes in this sweeping exploration of the path to emotional and spiritual freedom. Advocating for inner peace as life’s ultimate goal, she delves into achieving our true spiritual potential, offering her own model of personal healing, the Swan Method, to assist readers in recognizing their inherent ability to access happiness. Throughout the guide, Swan shares hands-on exercises to help implement her teaching, consistently emphasizing the paradox that “you are essentially perfect and yet a continuous work in progress.”

Readers new to enlightenment philosophies may feel overwhelmed at first, but Swan breaks down her method into three basic points: your present reality is a result of your past experiences; reaching your full potential is dependent on not identifying with past events or beliefs; and you have no control over your past. She urges readers to internalize “I-am-ness,” an understanding that who you are now is all that matters, and highlights two practices as fundamental to healing from past experiences. First: engaging in creative pursuits to keep you present-focused. Second: a daily meditation that she describes as “Anchoring in the Consciousness ‘I am’” to learn the “continuous state of simply being.”

Swan’s text is rich with insight, and her writing offers both much to reflect on and tools to encourage that reflection. She argues that our true nature is happiness and encourages readers to analyze the correlation between their desires and pain to understand that desire persuades us to seek fulfillment outside of ourselves—which, in turn, leads to dissatisfaction and sacrifices inner peace. Swan touches on enigmatic concepts—such as the principle of Primordial Matter and gunas (elements of nature) that shape the universe—but ultimately her teachings revolve around purifying the mind through intense self-awareness. This will appeal to readers seeking deep transformation and unafraid to dig in deeply.

Takeaway: An intricate, sometimes cosmic reflection on achieving spiritual potential.

Great for fans of: Deric J. Gorman’s What’s It Like To Be Enlightened?, Phillz Mah’s Enlightenment Now.

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

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Mise en Place--Memoir of a Girl Chef
Marisa Mangani
Kitchen designer and seasoned chef Mangani details her winding road from Hawaii to Florida, and from grueling work to a life of balance, an achievement she expresses moving gratitude for while inviting readers into her world today, of a daughter, a healthy male partner, and— miraculously —full two-day weekends off. Starting with her childhood in Hawaii, she threads her relationship with food throughout significant life events: her efforts to get around eating her grandmother’s lima beans “frozen from a box,” her love of open-air lanai restaurants, her burgeoning passion for food—despite a humble upbringing, she became a full-fledged “food snob” at age six. That passion helped Mangani navigate her struggles to fit in, eventually leading to find her place in kitchens around the United States—from Hawaii, to Portland, to New Orleans.

Frankly recounting her efforts to climb the ranks of the restaurant world she knew might see her as “some stuttering and awkwardly curvaceous girl,” Mangani reveals how even as her career soared in New Orleans her culinary dreams are shadowed at times by toxic relationships that carry her from restaurant to restaurant. Her storytelling exemplifies the grit and determination it takes to succeed—and to prioritize what matters. She went on to manage multiple kitchens at World Expositions across the globe before settling in Florida to start a family. There she took on a new career in kitchen design, entered therapy, started writing, and set her sights on happier, healthier times, including touchingly recounted family rituals with her daughter, like their shared love of sitting together eating an artichoke leaf by leaf until they reach the “center jewel.”

Mangani’s stories will elicit a range of emotions from sympathy to laughter, and her love for food is infectious, as her descriptions bring it to life, from the frozen lima beans of her youth to wonders like chilled melon soup with pink peppercorn crème fraiche.

Takeaway: An inspiring memoir of food love, success as a chef, and finding balance in life.

Great for fans of: Kwame Onwuachi’s Notes From a Young Black Chef, Marcus Samuelsson’s Yes, Chef.

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

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The Key to Circus-Mom Highway
Allyson Rice
In this rollicking family dramedy, debut author Rice sends three lovable siblings on a zany yet touching road trip. A lawyer informs sisters Jesse Chasen and Jennifer McMahon that the mother, who abandoned them as babies, has left them a fortune. They can only claim it if they join a long-lost brother, Jack Babineaux, and travel the country in a real-life scavenger hunt. As the trio visits their mother’s youthful haunts—including a circus and an alligator-infested Bayou home among others—sibling ties deepen with every misadventure. A final revelation helps them appreciate the mother they never knew and the struggles she endured.

Although Rice explores the predicaments of each family member, Jesse soars as the most layered character whose voice takes center stage. A middle-aged, song-writing beauty who begins as a strip-club bartender, Jesse can’t keep a job or home since the death of her adoptive parents. Refreshing in her underdog melancholy and snarky repartee, she’ll have readers cheering as she gains wisdom along the back roads of the American South. Her irreverent humor lightens her anger at her birth mother, even as she faces new family challenges.

Comedy marks every page as Jess slings sarcastic one-liners and wacky characters intervene in every quirky destination. When her sister comments on her bedraggled condition after a rough night, Jesse quips, “Well, you smell like judgment and superiority.” Rice’s sharp observations of society’s absurdity verge on the satirical and even on occasion veer toward delightfully crude. To offset the humor, solemn moments add depth to the siblings’ inner journeys. The conversational writing style, realistic banter, and frequent flashbacks bring to mind friends sharing juicy gossip. The third-person narration sometimes snags on perspective issues, but fans of family drama with big laughs will enjoy this hilarious road-trip adventure.

Takeaway: Fans of family drama, road trips, and non-stop laughs will love this cross-country adventure.

Great for fans of: Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You, Steven Rowley’s The Guncle.

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

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HEARTBREAK EPIPHANIES AND JUSTIFIED LUST
JOHN KRUXHAMMER
In this audacious literary debut, a shot from an uncompromising/defiantly libertine believer in what used to be called the Great American Novel, Pynchonian-Spree Division, the pseudonymous Kruxhammer digs deep into the minds and beds of two young American men, a pair of Johns, literally and figuratively, a continent apart from each other, who find life much more satisfying once they start paying for sex. A celebration of Las Vegas, a brief on the pleasures and ethics of patronizing sex workers, and a prickly, punning, philosophy-riffing, screed against a society so alienating to these Johns, Kruxhammer’s novel is a proudly take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

It's often legitimately challenging. The mind of co-protagonist Palmer slips into outlandish fantasies involving MONOM, a Jack Kriby-esque science-fiction character (“the ultimate zodiac maniac”), and blimps, presidents, and a mission to the center of the Earth. This (truncated) line from an undersea adventure is typical: “MONOM unfurls faster down a groin-socket deep pocket not with-stranding media zooms on a triple-me tickle-me talk-to-me lamp.” To suggest a mind spinning out of control, Kruxhammer crafts a narrative that does so, too, embracing nonsense and leaving it to readers to find meaning.

For all their heady speeches and run-on trains of thought, what the Johns—and Leonard Wilson, a philosophy professor—want is connection. (Asked early on by the therapist he has a crush on what he wants out of life, Palmer says “harmony.”) Prof. Wilson makes a “project” of human sexuality that calls for—and justifies—his own frequent patronage of sex workers. Accounts of these men’s daily lives, frustrations, and musings prove more gripping than their dalliances, which are playful but non-explicit, are neither outrageous (as in late 20th century literary fiction), heat-rousing (as in erotica), or documentary (as in Chester Brown’s Paying for It). Readers fascinated by johns’ thinking on and experience of sex work will find much to consider here, though Kruxhammer mounts seemingly intentional obstacles to casual readers.

Takeaway: This audacious novel follows (literal) Johns as they find pleasure and connection with sex workers.

Great for fans of: Chester Brown’s Paying for It, William T. Vollman’s Whores for Gloria.

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

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