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NAKED TRUTH or Equality, the Forbidden Fruit
Carrie M Hayes
Hayes fleshes out the scandalous lives of sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin in this debut dramatization of Gilded Age history. Victoria and Tennie, born into a family of con artists, work as mediums and spiritualists to ingratiate themselves with wealthy clients, using those connections to become publishers and stockbrokers. Jealous family members threaten them with blackmail, and their activism for women’s suffrage and muckraking earns them the ire of powerful people, leading to their arrests for criminal libel and sending pornography through the mail.

Hayes’s fertile imagination transforms the historical truths at the heart of this story, enlivening the clash of emerging feminism against the oppressive moral politics of the late-19th-century United States. As the first female presidential candidate, Victoria is the more recognizable name, but Hayes focuses on Tennie’s doomed romances with business magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt and newspaperman James Gordon Bennett. Vanderbilt’s son William alternately lusts after and despises Tennie, while moralist Anthony Comstock practically twirls his mustache as he plans to arrest the siblings for publishing a story about the adulterous behavior of revered preacher Henry Ward Beecher. They also clash with Beecher’s sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was diagnosed with hysteria and takes umbrage when Victoria questions her decision to have her daughter’s clitoris removed to prevent the condition.

As the sisters gain and lose their fortunes, Hayes illuminates the casual corruption and cronyism that marked the early Gilded Age. She has found a fascinating chapter in history to explore, and Victoria and Tennie are compelling protagonists: fiercely determined, morally ambiguous, and deeply complicated. Readers with an interest in first-wave feminism, New York history, and detailed storytelling will enjoy mining this debut, which nicely sets up a sequel.

Takeaway: Fans of historical fiction featuring morally ambiguous women will eat up this tale of sisters determined to make their own way in Victorian New York.

Great for fans of Marge Piercy’s Sex Wars, Barbara Goldsmith’s Other Powers, Lois Beachy Underhill’s The Woman Who Ran for President.

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

The Arab Business Code
Judith Hornok
Hornok’s workbook offers practical guidance for non-Arab businesspeople seeking opportunity in the Arabian Gulf, one of the world’s most booming emerging markets. Drawing upon many everyday examples and case studies, and displaying acute sensitivity to the assumptions and beliefs of all parties in cross-cultural communication, Hornok lays out crucial, general rules: develop chemistry with potential business partners, acknowledge the importance of family ties, honor and understand culturally specific rules of respect and face-saving. She also highlights some specific circumstances non-Arab business leaders might encounter, giving advice on eye contact, handshaking, saying “no,” and apologizing after one party causes another to lose face.

The material is strong and likely to prove helpful to its intended audience, but the book suffers from its lack of an index and chapter summaries, and its structure is haphazard. In the extended fourth chapter, for example, a scheme of nested, numbered sections with vague names (“Golden Rules,” “Key Codes,” “Strategic Codes,” “Tools,” “Building Blocks”) does little to lead readers to specific topics. A reader eager to learn about how a non-Arab businesswoman should handle feeling ignored by Arab businessmen in a meeting is unlikely to intuit that this gets covered under “Cultural no-go ABC 3: Eye contact” under “Key Code 4” of “Golden Rule 3: Respect.” Case studies are visually set aside in gray boxes but then referred to as though they’re part of the main text.

Hornok packs her six chapters with vivid examples, illuminating original quotes from Arab and non-Arab businesspeople, and lists of precepts and tools. Readers who take the time to highlight and organize their own favorite tips from her book will find them well worth returning to. She’s an engaging, informed coach, and business-minded readers will find much here that’s worth considering when it comes to avoiding pitfalls and managing expectations in cross-cultural deal-making.

Takeaway: Non-Arab businesspeople interested in deal-making in the Arabian Gulf will appreciate this sensitive, thorough guide to cross-cultural business interactions.

Great for fans of Great for fans of Rana Nejem’s When in the Arab World, Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map.

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

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Hate's Recompense
Joseph H Gibson
Gibson’s gripping debut, which launches the Athena technothriller series, is a chilling tale of Machiavellian political factions pitting emerging tech against one another, threatening millions of lives. California Sen. Alejandra Trujillo, a member of the Resistance party, has organized against President Kahn’s executive order to implement Sentinel, security tech that will install implants in everyone and use artificial intelligence to prevent terrorist attacks. When Alejandra is the victim of an anthrax attack in Los Angeles, Kahn claims it was orchestrated by Iran along with a cyberattack, and he issues an executive order to roll out Sentinel. Before the Senate and its Resistance members, including Alejandra, can vote to block it, Kahn makes an emotional plea and they relent. But Sen. Henry Little Hawk is suspicious of Kahn’s motives and enlists the help of Jenks Kennard, who—along with Bur McAnter, a member of the Nationalist party—created the technology that spawned Sentinel. Bur discovers that Kahn orchestrated the attacks, and Alejandra and Jenks roll out their own AI, Athena, hoping it can usurp Sentinel’s domination and prevent Kahn’s next move.

Some of Gibson’s characters can seem over the top, particularly in light of his well-meaning attempts to diversify his cast. Henry undertakes a vision quest in which the spirit of Crazy Horse warns him about a coming race war; Bur’s children are overly precocious and sometimes a little precious. However, those character choices don’t mar the overall story, which is a fast-paced, immersive, and riveting exploration of the uses of and misuses of surveillance technology and artificial intelligence.

Gibson, whose professional life includes work with machine learning and artificial intelligence, poses tough questions about the role of such technology in civic society, providing enough context for the average reader to understand how it can be used for good or evil. This thriller is an exciting ride from a promising new author, infused with questions about politics, power, and technology.

Takeaway: Fans of technothrillers that comment on current events will love this fast-paced novel and eagerly await the author’s next installment.

Great for fans of Lee Child’s Blue Moon and Mike Maden’s Tom Clancy: Point of Contact.

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

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Dharma, A Rekha RaoMystery
Vee Kumari
A professor of art history is reluctantly drawn into the investigation of her mentor’s murder, while navigating mental health challenges and possible romantic feelings, in Kumari’s strong debut. Rekha Rao, an Indian-American professor of art history at Occidental College, is called in by the Pasadena, Calif., police to identify a statue found on the body of Joseph Faust, Rekha’s father figure and an archaeology professor. The statue depicts Durga, a powerful incarnation of a Hindu goddess, who killed a terribly destructive demon. When Rekha hears that Bill McGraw, one of her students, is a suspect in Faust’s murder, she reluctantly decides to try to find the killer and clear Bill’s name. Her father was murdered a few years prior, investigating his case cost her tenure, and the PTSD brought on by her father’s murder was exacerbated by her ex-boyfriend’s abuse. Rekha’s recovery complicates her investigation into Faust’s early life, as do her mother’s attempt to matchmake and her growing attraction to Al Newton, a detective working on Faust’s case.

Kumari’s experience as both a professor and a first-generation Indian-American imbues Rekha with a layered realism. Kumari weaves in Rekha’s cultural roots, discussing the art, myths, and traditions of the Indian diaspora, and considers the difficulties Rekha could face in a relationship with Al, who is an outsider to her culture. These considerations add richness to the story, drawing the reader into Rekha’s complex interior world as she navigates the academy, her family, and the law.

The novel’s swift pacing continues unabated through its final scenes. With plenty of twists and turns, Kumari’s plot will keep the reader guessing until the conclusion. This intense update to the cozy genre, with richly drawn characters and a well-constructed mystery, will have readers eagerly anticipating future installments.

Takeaway: This fast-paced cozy mystery with layered characters is sure to please readers drawn to protagonists with strong cultural roots.

Great for fans of Leena Clover’s Christmas with the Franks, Mary Angela’s Coming Up Murder.

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

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Zizzle Selects
Zizzle Literary
This anthology of 15 short stories by popular and emerging writers unites the assorted stories under the theme of “making choices when faced with something strange.” As might be expected in a book for teens, several stories center on the ups and downs of everyday education, such as David Galef’s “No-School Day,” Amy Aves Challenger’s “I’m Not Going to School,” and Melissa Ostrom’s “Dead Mudge.” Others explore family dynamics: a quirky uncle in Kate Felix’s “Serbian Dracula Mysteries,” a protective dad in Sudha Balagopal’s “Nuclear Missiles Are Coming Our Way.” Perhaps the most interesting stories are those that blur the line between ordinary and extraordinary, whether through Norse mythology in Blake Johnson’s “The Road to Valhalla” or by imagining dreams as living creatures in Kimberly Huebner’s standout “The Shelter of Abandoned Dreams.”

Each piece is accompanied by a photograph of the author as a child or a spare, gorgeous ink and watercolor illustration by Janas Lau. The visual media don’t always correspond with the fiction, but Lau’s paintings, whether they show jungle creatures or city buildings, tell stories of their own. What makes this anthology really worthwhile is what comes after the flash fiction: author biographies and discussions of the authors’ favorite childhood books and the inspirations behind their stories, all of which will encourage teen writers.

Teachers, parents, and students can use the discussion guide to think and talk about a disobedient girl’s refusal to be cursed in Karen Heuler’s “A Reluctant Fairy Tale” or explore the second-person perspective in Gargi Mehra’s “Sticks and Stones.” As readers dig in, they’ll be pleasantly surprised by the depth of the moral lessons packed into these bite-size tales. Though intended for teens, this anthology can be enjoyed by anyone who wants a handful of brief, rich stories to savor one at a time or consume all at once.

Takeaway: Engaging flash fiction, rich visual media, and a robust discussion guide make this anthology a great resource for English teachers and teen students.

Great for fans of Rosey Lee’s Beautiful, Complicated Family; James Thomas, Robert Shapard, and Christopher Merrill’s Flash Fiction International.

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

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Merlin Raj and the Santa Algorithm
D. G. Priya
Priya’s heartwarming and informative debut chapter book introduces young readers to a sweet service dog and also to the concept of algorithms. Merlin’s primary job is to help his “best friend and furless brother,” Matthew Raj, get around, but he works hard at making the entire Raj family happy. When Matthew’s mom is away for work over winter break and the family is sad that she can’t be there for picking out a tree or making their traditional Christmas cake, Merlin tries to use what he learned about algorithms at Matthew’s school to come up with the most successful step-by-step ways to turn the family’s sadness into happiness.

Writing from Merlin’s point of view, Priya employs a fun, youthful voice with the occasional dose of mischievous dog. Hampe’s dynamic, slightly cartoonish pencil drawings capture Merlin’s energy and eagerness. While Matthew’s teacher uses the process of dyeing a sock to explain what an algorithm is, Merlin, a sock aficionado, is thoroughly distracted by the mouthwatering garment being dangled in the air “like juicy meat,” but the humor helps the lesson sneak into the minds of both the dog and the reader. Throughout the story, as Merlin tries to analyze whether his decisions will help the family and what actions he should take, Priya seamlessly teaches young readers how algorithms are used to find the best outcome.

Priya includes useful resources for young readers who want to learn about algorithms, as well as two helpful glossaries that make terms such as “fault tolerance” and “improvise” accessible. The book concludes with the recipe (“a yummy way to follow a set of steps to accomplish a task”) for an important part of the story, the cake, which is both fun and easy for kids to make with an adult. This delightful story has a winning mix of problem-solving, Christmas cheer, and a very cute, very helpful pup.

Takeaway: Parents who want to give their kids a head start with computer science will love this tale of a service dog learning to use algorithms.

Great for fans of Linda Liukas’s Hello Ruby: Adventures in Coding, Josh Funk’s How to Code a Sandcastle.

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

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A Peculiar Peace
Lori Hart Beninger
Beninger’s marvelous third Embracing the Elephant historical novel (after A Veil of Fog and Flames), set in 1856, depicts a budding romance against the backdrop of a fracturing nation. Jack Moylan works for shipping agent Somersworth and Walker and is looking forward to his latest management assignment in Boston, home of his childhood friend Guine Walker. Guine, who’s studying to be a doctor, meets attorney Virgil Staves while embracing the abolitionist cause. Though Guine’s father doesn’t think the son of an Irish immigrant is good enough to court his daughter, Jack continues to call on her. He hopes to ask her to marry him but fears competition from Virgil. When Guine is attacked and injured near Washington City, Jack rushes to her side, hopeful for her recovery and the possibility of their future together.

Beninger’s lyrical writing expertly captures the essence of the pre–Civil War U.S., emphasizing the tension between slaveholders and abolitionists. She highlights the dangers faced by enslaved people as well as their free counterparts in the North, who face frequent discrimination. Beninger creatively juxtaposes the prejudice against African-Americans with the social struggles of the Irish, especially Jack, who is determined to move past the obstacles Guine’s father has put in the way of his courtship.

The attention to historical detail is evident in all elements of the narrative. Beninger’s knowledge of the day’s politics sweeps the entire country, from California to the deep South. She highlights the infighting within the Democratic Party and the rise of the Republican Party, dryly noting that the primary appeal of Abraham Lincoln is that he “offends no one.” The political maneuvering between members of Congress and President James Buchanan may feel all too familiar to present-day readers. This rich and vivid novel captivates with an evocative blend of passion and politics.

Takeaway: This novel’s engaging characters, subtle romance, and vivid politics will delight any fan of Civil War–era historical fiction.

Great for fans of Diane C. McPhail’s The Abolitionist’s Daughter, Boston Teran’s A Child Went Forth.

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

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Goat Song
Thomas Drago
This intricate horror novel, Drago’s fourth (after Winter) set in Crow Creek, N.C., incorporates elements of character-driven drama and small-town mystery as well as the eerie supernatural. Gabriela Rossi is an Italian expat who’s taken a job as a stage manager at the local Orpheum Theatre. Almost two years after arriving in America, she still struggles to make friends but is comforted by being close to her only relative this side of the Atlantic, her cousin Deborah. When her show’s producer is murdered, Gabriela is pulled into the labyrinthine subterranean spaces of Crow Creek. After Gabriela discovers a sinister plot to raise the dead, she must find allies fast, before an ancient evil is unearthed from below the town.

Drago writes with a keen eye for detail, and his characters are immediately appealing and multi-faceted. Gabriela’s struggles with leaving her home country and fitting into a small town are rendered sympathetically. Brad Gleason, the beleaguered but competent Crow Creek sheriff, is equally likable. The two have an undeniable chemistry that’s refreshing and doesn’t feel forced, and Drago balances the development of their relationship with the increasingly desperate paranormal situation. It’s clear that Brad is older than mid-20s Gabriela—he served in the military, was married, and had a child before Gabriela was born—but she’s not unworldly; she reminisces about a previous sexual relationship in which she was the more experienced partner. Their May-December romance is plausibly handled and sweetly affectionate.

Drago breathes new life into the common tropes of a small town holding awful secrets, town residents not being what they seem, and the local medical facility testing drugs on an unassuming population. Seasoned horror readers will appreciate how familiar concepts end up serving the larger narrative in a satisfying way. This novel stands alone, but new readers will eagerly pick up the earlier installments to learn more about the strange goings-on in Crow Creek.

Takeaway: This intricate novel’s believable small-town setting and likable protagonists will draw in readers of supernatural horror.

Great for fans of Stephen King’s ’Salem’s Lot, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

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

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Giacomo's Daughter
Diana Savone
Diana and Rosanna Savone, writing as the Savone Sisters, embrace female empowerment in a setting with hardly any—1924 Detroit—in their richly detailed debut novel. Beautiful and sheltered Sofia Denaro, the 18-year-old wife of mobster Max Denaro, is no Mafia princess. Max uses violence, threats, and access to corrupt police to force Sofia to marry him; though she loves to sing and wants to be a performer, she resigns herself to her fate, believing her only options are “to become a nun, a wife, or a prostitute.” But a month after the wedding, Sofia has had enough of being battered into submission. She lures her husband onto a secluded houseboat for a romantic evening and sets in motion a plan to secure her freedom.

After some heavy foreshadowing of the eventual showdown between Sofia and Max, the novel flashes back to the night they met and explores the events that lead to their rendezvous, including double-crosses, jealousy and conflict with Sofia’s friend Irene, and a secret pregnancy. The drama, wreathed in the smoke from guns and cigarettes, feels straight out of a classic film. So does the dialogue, which sometimes incorporates awkward eye dialect for lower-class Italian-Americans (“Butta the missus is-a beautiful”). The conceit of the Denaros telling each other their recollections leads to sections of summary and intrusive narration (“Sofia explained what she meant by her seething retort to Max with a new story”), and Sofia’s naïveté can feel at odds with her thoughtful feminist analyses of cultural issues.

The Savones effectively show the challenges facing women of the era, and their depiction of Sofia’s innocence and fear makes her eventual claiming of her power all the more effective. This is a vivid portrayal of a world “built around man’s convenience and on the backs of women’s free labor” and the women determined to make their own way within it.

Takeaway: This Prohibition-era story will satisfy noir fans who want to cheer on a woman’s quest to escape abuse and claim her power.

Great for fans of Renee Rosen’s Dollface, Judith Mackrell’s Flappers.

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

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STAZR The World Of Z: The Dawn Of Athir
Dr. Anay Ayarovu
With this debut, a richly imagined epic fantasy tinged with science fiction, Ayarovu dives into the curious world of Stazr by blending picaresque travelogue with a traditional heroic quest narrative. Ayarovu catalogues Stazr’s customs, languages, creatures, and deepest history. The amusing, discursive tour guide on this journey is the naive Lael, a noble-born fiction writer who receives a summons to the ancient tree city of Trabarad, where the ruling families have determined that he is “the Chozen One.” Instead of hurrying in his quest, he chooses to draw the reader’s attention to Stazr’s many wonders: its dust volcanoes, its extraordinary flora and fauna, its ancient societies, and its myths and legends.

Lael’s digressive journey is far from the usual high fantasy fare. For all its comic incidents and occasional dangers, his story focuses on Ayarovu’s worldbuilding—the many invented nouns are helpfully footnoted—and her protagonist's discovery of his place in that world. Accompanied by a chatty not-quite-pig called a “shwine,” Lael traverses the Worthless Lands, marveling at every strange encounter or feature of Ayarovu’s fantastical landscape: a reeking bird woman, the dancing rituals of one of Stazr’s “middling species.” The greater purpose of Lael’s quest, to reopen lost gates between worlds, is not revealed until deep in the book. For more answers, readers are invited to investigate the author’s multimedia tie-ins online.

Ayarovu’s eagerness to share her love of her world’s languages and cultures comes at the cost of narrative momentum. Readers eager only for adventure may find the trek arduous, especially when Lael narrates his dreams, recounts tall tales, or engages in philosophical inquiry about the nature of freedom. Those interested in a meandering journey through the imaginative wilds will relish Ayarovu’s immersive storytelling.

Takeaway: This ambitious fantasy travelogue will reward readers who favor thoughtful inventiveness over high-tension adventure.

Great for fans of Sofia Samatar, Mervyn Peake.

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

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Child Bride
Jennifer Smith Turner
This enticing debut novel from poet Turner (Lost and Found: Rhyming Verse Honoring African-American Heroes) chronicles a young black woman’s coming of age amid the turbulent racism of Louisiana and Boston just prior to the civil rights era. Nell Jones, born in 1941, grew up on a farm in Louisiana, basking in the support of her family and enjoying the comfort of books. At 16, she agrees to marry Henry Bight, a man 10 years her senior, and they move to Boston after being wed. Nell’s attraction to Henry wanes as he exerts total control over her life, barely letting her leave their apartment. After giving birth to two children, Nell demands that Henry allow her to attend church. There she meets Charles Johnson, a college-educated man who shares her love of books and learning. When their brief affair results in a child, Nell faces Henry’s wrath. But Turner eschews the traditional “fallen woman” plot, and Nell finds she has more resources and support than she expects.

The parts of the novel set in segregated Louisiana illuminate the socioeconomic and educational discrimination experienced by African-Americans. Turner alludes to the omnipresent undercurrent of fear, referencing the brutal hanging of Emmett Till and Nell’s startled awareness of overt discrimination when she visits her family after living in Boston.

Turner’s character work is excellent, establishing Nell, Henry, and Charles as real people, complete with imperfections. Nell in particular is a complex young woman, whose desire for love, family, and learning make her easy to connect with. Turner’s secondary characters are equally fleshed out and complex: Phyllis Leonard, a minister’s wife, is generous and but strict in her morals, accepting Nell into the church fold but masterminding Henry’s plan to evict Nell from their home after her infidelity. Turner has crafted an accessible and absorbing historical drama about one woman’s path to creating the life and home she wants.

Takeaway: This historical drama about surviving racism and abuse will move any reader interested in African-American lives in the early 20th century.

Great for fans of Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone, Toni Morrison’s Sula.

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

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Circumcision Scar
Jay J. Jackson
Jackson’s searingly angry and honest book, in which he reveals the lifelong trauma left by his circumcision, is equal parts memoir and polemic. Jackson’s memories of his botched circumcision as an infant reverberated into his adulthood, resulting in recurring nightmares, body dysmorphia, and painful erectile dysfunction. He details his long, painful journey to restore his foreskin, a process that included plastic surgery and the use of an “advanced restoration device.” Jackson angrily compares circumcision to ritualized sexual assault and urges parents to really think about what they're doing when they circumcise their sons.

Jackson tends to write in circles, repeatedly falling into spiraling rants and rambles. The book occasionally loses focus for dozens of pages at a time, resulting in a 400-page narrative that would have been far more effective at half the length. It occasionally reads like an unedited journal, which can detract from the points Jackson’s trying to make. When he declares that any circumcised male who doesn’t share his viewpoint has been brainwashed, or says circumcision is equivalent to rape and pedophilia, it alienates readers who don’t already agree with him, eroding the potential power of his message.

When the story is focused on the author’s personal experience, however, the book has a powerful sense of furious momentum. Jackson describes the physical and emotional abuse he suffered at the hands of his bigoted family with heartbreaking vulnerability. He includes several powerful anecdotes describing the enraged reactions to his beliefs about the evils of circumcision: urologists hurl homophobic insults at him in full waiting rooms; a cousin-in-law threatens to force Jackson and his husband to circumcise a hypothetical future child. In these passages, the author effectively calls out the indoctrination in both religion and medicine. Despite the lack of clear focus, this is a powerful and moving narrative of suffering and recuperation.

Takeaway: This unflinching memoir could be a valuable resource for readers researching the negative effects of circumcision.

Great for fans of Ronald Goldman’s Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma.

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

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13 Billion To One
Randy Rush
Rush’s fast-paced debut memoir, narrating the thrilling highs and devastating lows of winning the Canadian lottery, serves up an entertaining cautionary tale of good intentions exploited by bad actors. Having grown up on welfare, Rush recounts, he was all too familiar with struggling to make ends meet. But in 2015, during a routine trip to the corner store to pick up cat food for his beloved Conway Kitty, Rush finds out he’s won the $50 million jackpot. After traveling, giving away a million dollars, and splurging on swanky sports cars, Rush decides that it’s time to use his money for good. Despite misgivings, he invests millions in a software startup run by a friend’s son, the young and ambitious Jeremy Crawford.

Rush’s reservations about his business partner are proven right when he catches wind of Crawford’s extravagant spending. Rush launches a court case against him, hoping to both get his money back and bring attention to white-collar crime. Rush’s writing is effortless and casual; he shares everything from his experiences growing up and his naïveté about giving away money to his slow-building anger at being taken advantage of. The gullibility he recounts displaying occasionally makes for a frustrating read, but it serves to hammer home just how unprepared the average person is for sudden wealth.

This narrative expertly shows readers the joy that can come from financial comfort while making it very clear that even the best friendships can be threatened when that much money is on the line. Rush uses his experiences to make larger points about white-collar crime, rather than just villainizing his thieving former partner. Rush’s evolution from naive lottery winner to philanthropist and activist is admirable, and readers will enjoy this rags-to-riches memoir about bringing a con artist to justice.

Takeaway: Fans of fast-paced stories of con artists getting their due will celebrate lottery winner Rush’s victories against white-collar crime.

Great for fans of Frank W. Abagnale’s Catch Me if You Can, Tom Wright and Bradley Hope’s Billion Dollar Whale.

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

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Trail of Pyres
L. James Rice
In Rice’s exciting sequel to Eve of Snows, most members of the Silone Clans have abandoned their home, Kaludor, to the demonic Shadows of Man. They find uneasy refuge in one of the Tek nation’s Hundred Kingdoms. The three series protagonists are separated. Eliles and the small group who remained behind in Kaludor discover that the towering walls of flame she conjured have mysterious repercussions, and something seems to be moving inside them. Ivin’s attempt to negotiate a formal peace with the Hidreng ends in a stalemate, as he is forced to make the impossible choice between sacrificing his people’s lives and severing their connection to their gods. A desperate plan to find allies sends Solineus to seek the protection of the Edan people; in return, he must arrange a meeting with the Touched, a being of immense power.

The plight of the Silone refugees is central in this installment, so many questions raised in the first book remain unanswered, which may frustrate some readers. Inconsistencies in the plot might confuse others. But Rice takes every opportunity to add depth and nuance to his convincing fantasy world. He also provides a gripping plot, with the determined clan leaders trying desperately to save their people from Tek aggression, and the threat of starvation punctuated by fierce battles.

The constant pressure to outwit the enemy and protect the Silone people is a great crucible in which Rice’s characters grow and develop over the course of the book. Ivin comes into his own as a diplomat and strategist; Solineus’s charisma earns him a rival, and his meeting with the Touched provides new clues and insight into the enigmatic being. The thrilling battles and poignant struggles of the Silone refugees make for a captivating read.

Takeaway: The second Sundering the Gods novel will appeal to epic fantasy readers who love layered conflict and complex story lines.

Great for fans of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, R. Scott Bakker’s The Darkness That Comes Before.

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

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Partner with Purpose
Steve Schmida
In this thorough and thoughtful hands-on guide, Schmida, the founder and chief innovation officer of the global development and corporate sustainability consulting firm Resonance, lays out practical, hard-won advice for companies considering partnerships with governments, NGOs, faith-based groups, universities, think tanks, and other mission-driven institutions. Drawing from two decades’ experience initiating and managing cross-sector partnerships, Schmida persuasively demonstrates how the “logic of interdependence” has made it urgent for corporations to ally with outside organizations to face the business-threatening, multi-dimensional concerns he terms “wicked problems,” such as issues of sustainability, climate change, labor rights, and public health.

In clear, forceful prose illustrated by occasional tidy charts and tables, Schmida uses revealing case histories, such as seafood company Thai Union’s partnerships with the Migrant Workers Rights Network and Greenpeace, to illustrate the challenges of communicating and collaborating across sectors. He provides models of common types of partnerships, a roster of essential roles, frameworks for establishing common goals and sharing risks and rewards, and criteria for the measuring of results. His practical guidelines are especially thorough, covering seeking out, securing, implementing, scaling, and sustaining potential partnerships as well as getting partners across what he calls “The Partnership Valley of Death” and into a committed formal agreement.

The author is attentive to the nuances of cross-sector collaboration, especially the management of expectations when residents of the corporate world find themselves attempting to communicate with those in the public or nonprofit sectors. (“Be willing to meet to get a meeting,” he suggests.) Schmida lays out straightforward, actionable steps to identify potential opportunities and avoid key hazards. Unlike many business books, this one isn’t selling a method, a service, or other products; it is simply a thorough and practical work that knows its audience very well. This valuable guide is both a spirited entreaty and practical road map for powerful collaborations between businesses and mission-driven organizations.

Takeaway: This highly practical guide will light the way for business owners and corporate executives seeking cross-sector partnerships.

Great for fans of David Gage’s The Partnership Charter, Simon Sinek’s Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.

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

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Mr. Moonbeam and the Halloween Crystal
Ryan Cowan
A third grade schoolteacher, Mr. Moonbeam, moonlights as a witch and a guardian of humankind in this suspenseful middle grade fantasy. Primarily a guide for magical children like Elliott, who must hide in plain sight in the nonmagical world, Mr. Moonbeam is tasked by the goddess Enchantra with thwarting an evil being called Noir. Things look grim when Noir successfully steals the powerful Halloween Crystal and goes after his own estranged daughter, Sabrina, but then Elliott’s magic manifests as truth-seeing, which gives Mr. Moonbeam and his team of guardians a chance to foil Noir’s evil plans.

Though the first chapter sets up Elliott as the main character, he is quickly sidelined as the adults learn of the danger to the magical world and prepare to fight back. When Mr. Moonbeam prepares to sneak into Noir’s castle at the climax of the tale, Elliott is finally able to step into the story and use his magic to guide his teacher through the castle, but then is once again sent off to safety when Mr. Moonbeam finally goes to confront Noir directly. While a logical choice, it’s an odd one for a book aimed at younger audiences. The protagonist is a kind and admirable man, but some children may have trouble connecting with the story when their most obvious proxy is routinely whisked away from the action, playing a supporting role at best.

The writing is simple and, if sometimes a little repetitive, appropriate for a grade school chapter book. Elliott and Mr. Moonbeam are likable and good-hearted heroes, and both are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to stand up against evil and destruction and to protect the magical world they love. This fantastical battle between good and evil magic will please fans of classic children’s fantasy.

Takeaway: This magic-fueled battle between light and darkness will appeal to cautious young readers who wonder why kids in books are always left alone to save the world.

Great for fans of E.S. Ivy’s Miri Attwater series, Madeleine L'Engle.

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

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