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The Importance of Wives: Chronicles of the House of Valois
Keira Morgan
Morgan’s third novel illuminates the bold life and struggles of Anne of Brittany as the 15th century gave way to the 16th. Orphaned at 11, Anne inherits the feudal duchy of Brittany, situated between French Provinces, the Atlantic Ocean, and the English Channel, from her father and fights to be recognized as the de facto ruler. Though betrayed by her guardians, Madame de Dinan and Marshal de Rieux, who plot to get her married to the obnoxious Alain d’Albret, Anne refuses to be cowed, thwarting d’Albret’s self-interested schemes. In a clever counter move, she dares to have herself crowned and declares her opponents, rebels. But life and love remain complicated, and for Brittany’s welfare she is forced to marry by proxy Maximilian, King of the Romans, who promises to be there as Anne and Brittany face the direst of times.

Morgan’s language evokes an ambience of the gated cities, ducal castles, courtly intrigue, and “plump ruddy prince”s, conjuring rich detail without diminishing narrative momentum. Among the host of characters peopling the pages, the maternal figure Madame de Dinan, Anne’s gouvernante, stands out, offering support but perhaps uncertain loyalty. These only add to the demands made on Anne. As a pre-teen, she shows remarkable courage and intelligence in thwarting the underhanded moves of people whom she believed she could trust. Though her love for her land is idealistic, she exhibits pragmatism in her decisions about marriage.

The pace of the novel remains brisk to the end, even as Morgan’s research and her deep knowledge of the era and obvious love for her subject shine throughout. The curious custom of marriage by proxy will fascinate and amuse contemporary readers, but the fact that marriage itself was often rooted in political considerations among the ruling elite is explored without 21st century judgment. Morgan blends fact and fiction seamlessly and the result is an authentic story of a strong woman ruler determined to defend her right to rule and face the challenges of her situation.

Takeaway: Brisk, involving historical novel of Anne of Brittany, protecting her duchy.

Comparable Titles: Rozsa Gaston’s Sense of Touch, Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn.

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

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Everyone's Included at the Animal Party: : The Little Bear Learns to be Body Aware
Catie "Aunt Kiki" Greene, PhD, LPC
Greene’s third book in her Everyone’s Included at the Animal Party series (after The Little Girl Learns About Patience & Imagination) takes on the weighty topics of boundaries and body safety, as Little Bear learns how to play safely with his forest friends. “New to life [with] so much to explore,” Little Bear is delighted and bursting with energy to investigate the world around him, but that same zip that makes him so much fun to be with can get in his way, too. When a playdate with his friend Turtle ends with a cannonball gone awry, he learns the hard way why careful play is so important.

The theme is complex, but Greene skillfully simplifies it, offering reflection questions adult readers can use to guide discussion. As Little Bear practices interacting with his environment, a wise Frog serves as his mentor, prompting him to consider the impact his behaviors can have on others—a process that Greene mirrors through the adult-centered questions included throughout. When Frog explains the tangled concept of boundaries to Little Bear, adult readers are encouraged to have kids brainstorm boundaries Turtle can set in their play; when Frog details the “Animal Party Pact” of respecting others’ physical boundaries, adults are given prompts that explore why it’s crucial to ask others before touching them.

K.K.P. Dananjali’s brightly hued, entertaining illustrations bounce readers through a colorful, inviting world that, though sprinkled with some hefty learning moments, is a celebration of how exciting life can be with just a little forethought. Little Bear’s a quick learner, and he and Turtle eventually reunite with their other pals for a boisterous, pool-splashing romp that kids will love. Greene closes with a list of the top five body aware rules for young readers to master, alongside a gentle reminder that “when we’re having fun, our bodies should feel safe too.”

Takeaway: Delightfully crafted lesson on boundaries and safe play.

Comparable Titles: Jenny Simmons’s I Can Say No, Emily Nelson’s Can I Give You a Squish?.

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

The Mountain Mystic
Russell W. Johnson
Johnson’s second West Virginia-set Mountaineer Mystery (after Moonshine Messiah) features Jasper County’s first female sheriff Mary Beth Cain, reinvestigating a cold case at the insistence of her son Sam, who has been inspired by a mystic. Maria Ruiz—granddaughter to Guadalupe, former housekeeper to the Cain family—disappeared without a trace several years ago. Mary Beth discovers her remains thanks to clues provided by the mystic and help from her deputy, Izzy Baker. She suspects the involvement of Maria’s ex-boyfriend Pedro Kowalski, now an orthopedist, but forensic analysis reveals a strand of hair on Maria’s remains, which leads Mary Beth to convicted criminal Octavio Silva, who reveals the involvement of Raul, Pedro’s brother, a former drug peddler. But Raul, after ratting on his cartel, has now fled to Mexico.

Narrated in breezy, conversational language with much local color, the novel is fast-paced, with action that never lets up, bringing life to a milieu of Waffle Houses, gravel roads, ramshackle wooden bridges, and bars specializing in bikini bull riding. Though on the outside Mary Beth is a hardened law enforcer, her own vulnerabilities regarding her son Sam, her confused loyalties and feelings of guilt regarding her late husband and some family members make her human and fallible, while her dialogue—calling a prosecutor “Boss Hogg,” for example—is charmingly expressive of her region. Izzy is a good sidekick to Mary Beth, restraining her when required and backing her up when the situation demands. Apart from the two, Princess, Izzy’s wife, and Sam, prove especially engaging, the kind of characters who reward readers over series installments.

Johnson’s story will test Mary Beth, with some personal complications at times seeming to keep her from seeing the truth of key matters—in fact, seasoned mystery readers might be able to guess at some secrets she misses long before the reveal. Still, this thriller is a brisk, tense read, pulsing with character, and it will hold reader interest till the last page.

Takeaway: A West Virginia county’s first female sheriff takes on an engaging cold case.

Comparable Titles: Julie Ann Lindsey’s Apple Cider Slaying, Rita Herron’s The Silent Dolls.

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

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A Grain of Hope
Melissa Cole
Cole sparkles in this meticulously researched young adult novel, her first foray into historical fiction, about a Soviet/Ukrainian clash at the hands of the feared Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. In spring 1931, 13-year-old Oksana Kovalenko is loving life in her Ukrainian village, working the family farm with her parents and older brother Peter and spending as much time as she can with her best friend, Anya. A chill runs through the village when Stalin’s army invades the tiny town, forcefully steal farms and systemically starve the villagers. As former friends betray each other to receive tiny portions of food, morale plummets—but so does the quiet heroism of resistance.

Cole evokes this fraught, frightening era with an eye for the telling detail, especially the “traditions and simple way of life” in Oksana’s village and how the Bolsheviks trample them. Historical context never slows the narrative, however, and Cole’s inventions, especially her characters’ choices and desires, make the past feel urgent for contemporary readers as they become engrossed by the injustices meted out by the cruel Soviet regime and its intense effort to erase Ukrainian culture. She also aptly demonstrates how war and persecution can drive difficult decisions, especially when Oksana’s friend Anya and her father Grigori join Stalin’s organizations in an effort to survive the conflict and not go hungry, even when Grigori plays a part in arresting Mikhail, Oksana’s father.

When Cole recounts the persecution and torture of Mikhail, and Dymitro, the town’s elderly baker, the unflinching details can be hard to stomach, and readers will feel the ache of hunger and despair right along with the characters. The story is all the more poignant given the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. While this expertly crafted tale may be geared for a younger audience, readers of any age should take Cole’s wise points to heart.

Takeaway: Heart-wrenching, meticulously researched tale about the Ukrainian Holodomor.

Comparable Titles: Erin Litteken's The Memory Keeper of Kyiv, Katherine Marsh's The Lost Year.

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

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Defeat of Nazi Germany: Flying with the 453rd Bomb Group in 1945
chester fong
A tailgunner on a bomber for the US Air Force in World War II, Fong writes with inviting clarity, offering up-close-and-personal accounts of each of the 22 missions that he flew in 1945 while also contextualizing how each fit into the wider mission of defeating Nazi Germany. In meticulous detail, he covers the widest objectives of the overall mission of the Allies while also focusing on the actual experience of what each mission was like. Among the revelations: how weather affected the sighting of targets and was the single biggest factor in whether a mission was even allowed to occur, as well as real-time changes in technology that altered the course of the war.

Fong covers all this chronological order, after opening with a brief account of his hopes of joining China’s Flying Tigers and fighting the Japanese invasion there, but a snafu led to him being sent to Germany instead. He briefly describes boot camp and training to be a crew member of the B-24 Liberator bomber before jumping into a detailed description of the desperate German offensive in Ardennes, later to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. In essence, the Allies had wiped out the German air force (the Luftwaffe) before the invasion of Normandy. Hitler, deranged in his final days, had ordered an all-out offensive to break through the Allied forces.

Touchingly honoring his heritage and the sacrifices and courage of Chinese-Americans, Fong details the challenge of destroying the industrial complex that allowed the Germans to build planes and tanks, as well as providing fuel for their vehicles, processes Fong played a part in disrupting in countless bomber missions designed to destroy airfields, factories, processing centers, and other industrial targets. Fong supplements his close-up and big-picture account with fascinating photos and maps that clearly relay military goals, plus a wealth of material in appendices. Readers interested in the fine details regarding the end of the war will be fascinated.

Takeaway: Revealing, moving account of 22 bombing missions in Germany at the end of World War II.

Comparable Titles: E. Samantha Cheng’s Honor and Duty, Philip Kaplan’s Escort Pilot.

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

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Heavy Metal Moon
Ronald Dean Lamberson
Lamberson (A Grave Invitation) creates a funny, profane, occasionally disgusting, ultimately humane SF adventure that takes fish-out-of-water tropes and turns them into an epic rock-and-roll rescue story where almost everything goes wrong. Youngish protagonist Garton Prog is regarded as the sole remaining human left alive after a mission from Earth to Alpha Centauri. Coddled by his adopted family after his own parents died, Prog indulges in rock star fantasies amid a variety of alien races mostly uninterested in Earth music.

Undaunted, he assembles a makeshift band (and chosen family) for potential gigs. Then he hears a life-changing rumor: another human, on a moon that's a lawless den of vice, being held captive by a brutal criminal who has sinister motives. That spurs a highly unlikely, amusingly ludicrous, and frequently lethal chain of events as Prog hires a vicious but principled criminal to guide him and his friends on a seemingly doomed rescue mission. Amidst befouled space cruisers that crash before even leaving the atmosphere, teleporters that might kill you, enemies everywhere, and a murderous, clone-hungry villain in the monstrous Croakus, Prog labors to protect not just his life but his sanity.

Written as the first volume of a potential series, Lamberson leaves some loose ends but brings this story to a satisfying end, though sometimes at the cost of having his hero get lost in the shuffle of so many colorful characters. Narratively, Lamberson switches perspective with each chapter in the second half, deepening characterization while sometimes slowing the momentum, but then he cleverly flips this technique by advancing the plot in surprising ways before rewinding to tell the story from a different point of view. Despite some proudly ridiculous story beats and the exaggerated comic features of many alien characters, Lamberson takes care to pay close attention to their feelings and individual personalities, while spinning a gripping story. Lamberson refusing to bow down to action cliches elevates the novel from a wild lark into something with more depth.

Takeaway: Teen angst, heavy metal dreams, and madcap science fiction escapades.

Comparable Titles: Jim C. Hines’s Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse series, Dennis Taylor’s Bobiverse series.

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

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The Divide of Nations: A Comprehensive Economic Analysis of the Underlying Causes for the Global Economic Gap Between Rich and Poor Nations
Rodrigo Mohr
This brief but baggy study from Mohr mounts evidence for an intuitive explanation of the persistent and “staggering” wealth inequality between nations over centuries. Mohr argues that the underlying cause of disparity is temperature, with nations’ position on the globe plus “atmospheric circulation, ocean currents, and local geography” playing key roles in shaping their “various economic and social outcomes,” including GDP, their Human Development Index (HDI), education level, students’ test results, and more. Mohr acknowledges exceptions to this simple but persuasive idea, digging into why a nation like Singapore has developed rapidly while its surrounding nations have not, or why the income gap has lessened between southern and northern regions of the U.S. have in recent decades.

The “revolution” of air-conditioning, Mohr argues, is a crucial driver in these cases, and his case is clear and persuasive. Of course, that comfort comes at a cost, and in a final section Mohr draws on an analysis of numbers of Cooling Degree Days around the world to demonstrate the extraordinary energy expenditure it will take to cool hot regions enough to become competitive. (Mohr is convincing when noting the necessity of air conditioning for growth and stability and the “formidable” challenge of providing it.) Mohr backs up his claims throughout with original analysis of nations’ (and sometimes their inner regions’) per capita GDP, HDI, and other factors, showing his work in easy-to-follow charts, demonstrating that “the availability of conducive academic and working environments where individuals can effectively work and study is crucial for economic development within a society.”

While the major contentions in The Divide of Nations have some persuasive power, the text itself feels padded and repetitive. Mohr explains basic ideas multiple times within a chapter or even a page, and continually identifies the analyses here—which feel like starting points rather than conclusive proof—as “comprehensive.” Still, Mohr demonstrates strong correlations between temperature and the strengths of nations’ institutions, and his crunching of numbers offers some understanding of why.

Takeaway: Original study arguing that wealth disparity between nations comes down to temperature.

Comparable Titles: Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson’s Why Nations Fail, Branko Milanovic’s Global Inequality.

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

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The Fallen Man
Cat Treadgold
Treadgold’s Fallen Man series, which has followed the romantic lives of the wealthy O’Connell family of Washington state’s Port Townsend, comes to a satisfying end in this final entry, bringing everyone together and tying up the strands of the earlier stories. Edward O’Connell has quietly left the Catholic priesthood and his Philadelphia parish, moving from celibacy to sexual profligacy. During a Thanksgiving visit to the family compound built by his musical superstar brother Joe, Edward becomes smitten with Lisette Manegold, the proprietress of a local restaurant, but soon discovers her reputation with his family, though limited, is less than stellar.

Though previous series entries work as standalone romances, and Treadgold offers context here for new readers, this climactic volume really targets readers of the whole series, structured as a family soap opera in which Edward and Lisette’s relationship is often sidelined to the follow ups for David, Maddie, and Liam’s movie pursuits, Ali and Liam’s drama about their addicted birth mother, and the return of the distasteful but still compelling yoga guru Kilo. The connection between Lisette’s past and the current O’Connell dramas overshadows the romantic story arc. Edward’s church backstory is shared almost entirely in exposition, so its emotional impact is lessened, and his disclosure of psychic predictive powers would feel more surprising if not for the family’s other supernatural gifts.

Still, the cast and holiday setting are presented with a casual mutual warmth, and the overall impression is an appealingly fuzzy one of a family coming together with love and mutual support, despite their wide disparities in life paths and backstories. Treadgold’s deep affection for her characters and understanding of their hearts, quirks, and concerns will reward fans of the series, though this entry isn’t a jumping-on point. Readers wanting more from protagonists of earlier installments get plenty of it, and overall the series comes to a satisfying conclusion.

Takeaway: Reunions, romance, and a warm holiday vibe power this series ender.

Comparable Titles: Lydia Michaels’s Almost Priest, Nora Roberts’s The MacKade Brothers series

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

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I'm Not Dead ... Yet: How I turned my misfortunes into strengths
Dr. Joshua J. Caraballo
This thought-provoking debut memoir begins with a compelling dissection of childbirth, as psychologist Caraballo muses "some of the most wonderful things in life are achieved through pain" and recounts the physical damages his birth caused to his mother. Springing from this “suffering-happiness dichotomy,” Caraballo confesses his nagging feeling that he must earn his existence. The son of devout Jehovah's Witness parents, he succumbs to typical teenage rebellion and later describes his gay identity as “part of what the religion regards as sinful.” From there, Caraballo embarks on a life lived in secret, out of fear of rejection—the antithesis of the inner freedom he seeks.

That motif of freedom permeates the narrative, one that Caraballo describes as "not entirely an illusion" but is "the result of all that has been done." When he’s diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin's lymphoma at 18, he believes the disease is sent from God as his divine punishment. With a matter-of-fact, stoic voice, Caraballo relives grappling with shame and self-blame—”two years of torture” from cancer and chemotherapy, momentarily falling into the bleakness of addiction, and later on, incarceration for “violating the rules of a DUI sentencing.” Of his life in prison, Caraballo writes "so many of the challenges you face are brought upon you by others, although the reminder that your own actions put you there remains with you almost constantly."

Caraballo reconciles the murky aspects of shaping his identity, self-perception, and life choices with a nod to how his early religious upbringing may have affected his concept of freedom. Throughout, he uplifts, enlightens, and encourages a clear-cut view of his experiences as an homage to resilience and inner strength. “The average person shouldn’t ever have to live through so much turmoil in order to better themselves,” he writes, “and yet, each of those experiences was something I needed to have happen.”

Takeaway: Observant account of resilience through cancer, addiction, and imprisonment.

Comparable Titles: Allie Bailey’s There Is No Wall, Brandon J. Wolf’s A Place for Us.

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

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The Cicada Spring: A Potomac Shores Novel
Carolyn McBride
McBride’s assured debut launches her Potomac Shores series with a turbulent but uplifting romance centered on a trifecta of serious concerns (mid-life crises, whirlwind courtships, COVID lockdown), ultimately positing that the only way to navigate rough waters is by taking the helm. At 48, Katherine Young is everybody’s steady Katie: dutiful daughter, protective parent, faithful friend, exemplary employee. After dropping her daughter at college, the single mother feels unmoored, but that’s not an unfamiliar sensation. Katie loves escaping land to explore the waterways of her native Virginia, and envies her brother, who lives on a yacht, and proclaims, “Home is where your anchor drops.”

After accepting a tempting job offer in Miami (a professional upgrade to IT infrastructure manager), Katie is swept off her feet by the exuberant bon vivant J.C., James Conrad Bland III, a D.C. high-society fixture who offers just the kind of freewheeling life Katie craves after decades of stifling stability. She rides his romantic wave, which crests at their October 2019 wedding, but McBride doesn’t send Katie crashing onto the rocks just yet. Marry in haste, repent at leisure: Katie’s wish-fulfillment fantasy melts away drop by painful drop, heightened by stupefying grief and COVID isolation.

McBride, a former National Geographic magazine staffer, imbues The Cicada Spring with a profound love of nature and infectious curiosity about the Occoquan River and Virginia’s history, going back to its ancient inhabitants. Deftly capturing the forced introspection of the 2020 shutdown era, she steers Katie toward her core values, including faith in American institutions (like the government agencies that converge to address environmental devastation). The pandemic shifts Katie’s perspective to the long view, from selfless people-pleaser to steward of the land and its generations of inhabitants. While the cultural shifts from COVID still reverberate, McBride’s briskly told story proposes, with persuasive heart and wisdom, that it’s the recalibration of individual lives that will power our collective future.

Takeaway: Uplifting middle-age romance alive with wisdom and love of nature.

Comparable Titles: Rachel Hanna’s The Beach House, Pamela M. Kelley’s The Nantucket Inn.

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

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The Changed Man
Cat Treadgold
Resurrecting the delights and dishy pleasures of epic family sagas, Treadgold immerses readers once again in the O’Connell family in this fourth Olympic Peninsula series love story (after The Magic Man). Jake O’Connell, the storied CEO of the family empire, is no stranger to taking care of business; he was the sibling who stayed behind after their father’s death—while his estranged twin Joe went on to country music stardom—to take over the lucrative family business. Jake’s path granted him wealth, wine, and women, but now, on the brink of finding it all too superficial, Jake returns, quite unexpectedly and as a decided outsider, to the family fold.

Treadgold skillfully teases out the complexities of multigenerational relationships, twisting the individual threads of the O’Connell family into one immense, labyrinthine tapestry that hums with the conflicts and interplay expected from a large, high-powered family. As his siblings find their way to their happily-ever-afters, Jake finally grasps the opportunity to follow his own dreams: becoming an author, something he sacrificed to fulfill his father’s legacy. His family reunion isn’t quite as sweet as expected, and, as Treadgold plumbs the intricacies of jumbled family dynamics, Jake surveys his own life choices and struggles to make sense of his instant attraction to Chiara, the Italian guardian of his brother’s child.

Jake and Chiara—a fellow outsider who’s currently embroiled in a loveless marriage—make a spirited couple, as they face nearly impossible challenges, both paranormal and not, on their road to happiness. Treadgold leaves readers guessing throughout, weaving a suspenseful will-they-or-won’t-they with rapid perspective changes and rich descriptions of her characters’ luscious lifestyles. That chaos makes the threads challenging to track at times, but, in the end, this is a satisfying escape into the lives of the rich, the famous, and the wounded.

Takeaway: High-powered family saga with a hint of the paranormal.

Comparable Titles: Bobbie Jean Huff’s The Ones We Keep, Lisa Kleypas’s Dream Lake.

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

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Tuned In - Memoirs of a Piano Man: Behind the Scenes with Music Legends and Finding the Artist Within
Jim Wilson
Celebrated pianist, recording artist, a “piano tuner to the stars” Wilson chronicles his unexpected rise from a “music-obsessed miscreant from a broken home” in a rough-and-tumble Texas town to a pianist who headlines PBS specials and serves as a behind-the-scenes fixture for some of music’s biggest names—and isn’t shy about admitting to being star-struck when asked to “install an adapter in Paul McCartney’s piano and show him how to work it.” (Four hours of playing, chatting, and laughing together follow.) Music always was a savior for Wilson, helping to lift him from a hopeless cycle of dead-end jobs and poor decisions.

While upbeat, briskly told, and alive with charm and life lessons, Tuned In never shies away from personal hardship, especially early in Wilson’s career. He recounts leaving home as a young man, dropping in and out of schools, and navigating a series of mostly failed relationships and moments of despair. Performing, meanwhile, had its humiliations: playing his “pensive” original compositions at the Hotel Bel-Air, he was asked by a patron for “something from Cats.” A turning point came when Wilson enrolled in piano-tuning school. Soon after graduation he began getting business from local musicians, and his reputation grew, eventually leading to tuning a piano for classical pianist Van Cliburn. Wilson proved up to the task and soon began tuning pianos for Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Carole King, Elton John and more. Lively anecdotes abound.

Drawing on lessons “baked into [his] DNA from [an] act of self- determinism,” Wilson became adept, as he matured, at seizing an opportunity, helping, in the 1980s, to develop the first MIDI-adapter for acoustic piano before collaborating with Spectrasonics, a creator of virtual-instrument software plug-ins. It was during this time that four of his recordings earned spots on the Billboard Top 20 and he became something more remarkable still: the kind of star who could hire a world-class piano tuner. Tuned In hits the right notes, with wit, surprises, and winning enthusiasm.

Takeaway: A pianist and piano technician’s surprising story of success with music’s greatest names.

Comparable Titles: Andrew McMahon’s Three Pianos, Franz Mohr’s My Life with the Great Pianists.

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

The Strange Tale of the Trilobite Liberation Army
Edward Ringel
This brisk, funny science-fiction head-spinner, Ringel’s follow up to I Look Forward to Further Collaboration Between Our Species, blends an ongoing future-Earth first-contact story with playful, sometimes biting satire and a commitment to both science itself and all that’s worth loving in our civilization, like pizza and British TV mystery procedurals. The story is a continuation, but new readers should have no trouble jumping right into the madness as, a year after encountering aliens from the planet Lattern, the Earth of the 22nd century faces an unexpected consequence: humans’ abuse of Kleptrons, dragonfly-like brain suckers from Lattern who, given the chance to penetrate a human skull, will rouse a person to brief, intense pleasure while feeding on their memories.

People being people, stolen Kleptrons are being put to nefarious ends. The story kicks off with Latternian biobots’ cockeyed solution: introduce to Earth the bioengineered predator that handled Kleptrons on Lattern. Unfortunately, these Flektanians turn out to be “meter-long creatures that look remarkably like dung beetles.” Complicating matters, as they help Maine doctors Ed and Helen Gilner track down Kleptrons, the Flektanians spit out radical speeches about resurrecting the reign of the trilobites, even vowing “to make arthropods great again.” As that suggests, Ringel’s satire edges at times toward the wacky, but like all good conjurers of speculative fiction his world is internally consistent, no matter how off-beat. Nothing here is scattershot, and despite the silly stuff the novel offers a smart, twisty investigation of how the powers that be use Kleptrons, complete with insights into 22nd century American politics and business.

The science, too, is dead serious despite the fun. The crisply told narrative, spiked with sharp comic dialogue and diplomatic crises, builds to real surprises and thoughtful ideas, demonstrating in the end that “A civilization's understanding of theoretical physics is far and away the best indicator of its overall maturity.” Ringel’s own blend of maturity and its opposite is idiosyncratic, but lovers of oddball comic SF will be on board.

Takeaway: Truly funny science-fiction satire, alive with ideas and fun.

Comparable Titles: Keith Laumer, Robert Sheckley.

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

Ex-Mas Song
Jeffrey Cummins
The carol becomes a song in this surprising and heartfelt riff on Dickens’s beloved Christmas ghost story, updated for an era of antidepressants, big box stores, and soul-crushing cubicle jobs. But as in the Victorian era, faith, hope, charity, and the possibility of changing one’s heart offer a troubled individual a path forward. Rather than a miser, the Scrooge figure is Justin R., a divorcee whose attempt to end his life lands him in a St. Louis recovery center during the holidays. As his meds calm him, and an ex-wife insists they’re now back together, Justin is visited by a beloved figure from his past, his grandfather, and faces visions, at bedtime, of Christmases both long ago and trailer-park contemporary. What’s in doubt is his future: can he commit to living when he feels “small,” like there’s nothing he “loved enough to be dedicated to and excel in for its own sake”?

Lovers of Dickens will enjoy picking out surprising correspondences and Easter Eggs (a “Boz” haunts the pages). Unlike many authors inspired by A Christmas Carol, however, Cummins avoids a point-by-point recreation, instead finding fresh approaches to familiar beats and favoring meds over ghosts, all while still embracing Dickens’s themes and eye for social problems, as Justin contemplates the desperation of addiction, adults’ ambivalence for Christmas (“But we knew the truth. It was for kids”), the lives of other patients (one man is “an empty pit of metabolism”), and more.

Ex-Mas Song is hefty in length, and Cummins can’t resist chatty characters and some repetitive prose. But it moves swiftly as Justin, in brisk and unfussy prose, plays Christmas trivia games with other patients, contemplates his childhood in a therapy session or considers the faith of King David, and eventually finds his way to committing to a life worth living. The “song”’s final verse inevitably involves a cemetery, but Cummins upends expectations as the story makes its way toward the traditional transformative ending.

Takeaway: Heartening Christmas epic of finding faith and hope when life doesn’t feel worth living.

Comparable Titles: Annie Rains’s Through the Snow Globe, Richard Paul Evans’s A Christmas Memory.

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

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All I Ever Wanted to Be Was An Ad Man
Anthony Eglin
Despite the promise of its title and some memorable stories from the ad game, Eglin’s memoir reveals a host of things he wanted—and managed—to be over the course of a surprising life. He offers a vivid retrospective of his remarkable journey spanning over five decades. Eglin's narrative resonates with precision and intimacy, from his formative years in war-torn Britain, where he faced bomb attacks and sugar scarcity, to his diverse array of occupations: competitive cyclist, clarinetist in a London-based, New Orleans-style jazz band, filmmaker, bakery owner, and a gardener. His recollections of childhood antics, the camaraderie among schoolmates, his experiences serving in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, and his involvement, as an advertising man and business owner, in efforts like Sam Wanamaker’s 1970 campaign to rebuild the epochal Globe Theatre, all come together in a rich tapestry of memories.

The “banshee howling” of the Blitz proves formative, as Eglin recounts discovering the talent for art that would bring him into advertising, marketing, and design as a boy hunkered “underneath the shelter of our sturdy table," awaiting the all clear. Building and re-building are themes throughout—London and the Globe; bands and businesses; eventually his beloved gardens. The memoir also chronicles Eglin's transition into adulthood, his ad adventures, and his eventual move to Canada with his wife, Barbara. Small details, like traveling by Greyhound bus for the first time, strategizing a plan for a newspaper’s biggest advertiser, and obsessively researching how to create a hybrid blue rose highlight Eglin's keen eye and curiosity.

What sets Eglin's memoir apart is his attention to detail, capturing not only the significant milestones but also the seemingly mundane moments that shaped his journey and the factors that powered his decision making, from accepting job offers to moving to a new country. All I Ever Wanted to Be Was An Ad Man is a testament to a life lived to its fullest potential.

Takeaway: A London ad man’s life of adventure, from the Blitz to the garden.

Comparable Titles: Fred S. Goldberg’s The Insanity of Advertising, Dave Buonaguidi’s Blah! Blah! Blah!.

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

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War and Sex
Morty Shallman
Lusty, outraged, and so over-the-top it can see your house from up there, Shallman’s horned-up satire of war and sex, American style, has been crafted to shock, offend, provoke, and—from those open to its spirited sex and spearing of taboos—stir laughs and maybe insights, too. Shallman (author of The Tyranny of Desire) announces his audacity from the go-go get-go, opening with a burst of Iraq war-era Top Gun pastiche that quickly proves to be the most homoerotic action parody this side of Philip José Farmer’s A Feast Unknown. Sex, torture, and official commendations follow, until Shallman moves the action to the Obama era, with protagonist Rod Solo now suffering PTSD (that’s “Post-Traumatic Sex Disorder”), spending his days piloting murderous drones and his nights unable to rouse himself for his wife.

Soon, Rod’s vigorous workplace sex with fellow drone jock Honey results in the accidental bombing of a Karachi school, and he and Honey are dispatched to Pakistan to kill the target they missed the old-fashioned way: undercover as Canadian DJs eager to discover the local talent. Shallman’s novel is a proudly take-it-or-leave-it affair, though the prose is crisp, the outrages inventive, the sex scenes vigorous, and the surprises, when they come, legitimately surprising, especially an of-the-moment third section in which Rod, from the vantage point of 2024, announces he’s had enough of Shallman and will tell his story himself.

As in the work of Chuck Tingle, the sex is vigorous, graphic, and explosive but always tinged with clever absurdity, though Shallman’s scenes involving torture and his explicit linking of Rod’s desires to “waves of enemy infantry strafed into oblivion” ensures the book repulses more often than it arouses. Witty prose and the wilder twists reward readers on Shallman’s wavelength. One jawdropper: Rod’s unexpected connection with a woman who witnessed the school’s destruction and an audition from a Pakistan man whose talent is the “silent scream” of the vestigial twin visible in his bare chest.

Takeaway: Proudly scabrous and sexually graphic satire of 25 years of American war.

Comparable Titles: Chuck Tingle, Philip José Farmer’s A Feast Unknown.

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

Click here for more about War and Sex
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