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Beauty Beheld: A Beauty Is Her Name Novel
Zariah L. Banks
Banks’s debut is a contemporary romance centered around Patience, a young woman determined to put more of a priority on herself after the end of a long term romance. Patience made helping her boyfriend Daniel succeed professionally a priority over her own life and career goals, but after his mother makes an unforgivable move, and Daniel doesn’t have Patience’s back, she realizes that she needs to break up with him. Moving on is made easier when she meets the sexy and smooth Lennox on a business trip to Atlanta, and the pair have an instant attraction to each other. Patience isn’t enthusiastic about a long distance relationship after a previous one went sour, but the intensity of their connection to each other forces her hand and the pair quickly deepen their relationship.

Love, however, rarely comes easily, and both Patience and Lennox have unresolved issues in their personal lives that they need to come to peace with before they can truly become invested in each other. Banks dramatizes these with power and weight, connecting readers to the individual humanity of these characters. Meanwhile, constantly waiting in the wings is Daniel, who isn’t as willing to part ways with Patience as his mother wants him to be. Banks doesn’t hold back when it comes to incorporating the complications of a toxic childhood and bad learned behaviors that as a result can have lasting impacts into adulthood, especially in forming deep relationships. Both Patience and Lennox come from homes where they experienced a lot of love, but also witnessed infidelity and abandonment issues.

This leads to some raw, emotionally charged conversations that reveal character as both face or avoid hard truths, though some moments feel too clinical. Banks demonstrates their growing intimacy through pet names and frank, convincing, memorably penned sexual encounters. Patience especially stands as a complex, compelling figure, one whom readers will root for not just to find romance but to increasingly pursue her own ambitions and happiness.

Takeaway: A brutal breakup leads a young woman to a new chance at love while she learns to prioritize herself.

Great for fans of: Kennedy Ryan, Tracy Livesay.

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

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Chemical Engineers - Where Do We Work
Diana Tran
This cheery survey of the working world of chemical engineers introduces young readers to a diverse array of professionals and their careers, from glass processing for the beverage industry to working to secure access to safe drinking water in rural communities. On each page, a chemical engineer looks out at the reader and offers a warm introduction and a quick rundown of their work—and, often, why that work matters. “My name is Quinn,” declares one character, face lit by pride. “I work at a chocolate manufacturing facility ensuring you receive great texture and taste in every chocolate bite.”

Not every job here will be as exciting to kids as that, of course, but author Tran (Chemical Engineering Made Simple) presents an eye-opening range of professional options for potential chemical engineers-to-be, including greenhouse work, formulating beauty products, and defense industry work too sensitive to be drawn in anything but silhouette. That playful page captures the book’s spirit of excitement about the field, as the 26 different names of the engineers—Tran has arranged the book alphabetically, by first name—makes the point that these career paths are open to learners of all backgrounds.

Some of the introductions can be vague (“I work in an engineering consulting company providing cost-effective solutions to projects for clients”) for new readers or for students considering entering the field. The polished, arresting digital art, created by the Australian collective The Illustrators adds welcome detail, however, showcasing workplaces and work attire that offer a clear sense of what different positions entail. Especially engaging are the engineers’ inviting faces, which capture full characters in a few thin lines, their expressions suggesting the satisfaction of doing work that matters. This is an engaging introduction to the field, suited not just to children but to students seeking career guidance.

Takeaway: This cheery introduction to the career options for chemical engineers will encourage young scientists.

Great for fans of: Kim Donnelly’s Bonding With Friends series, Robert Winston’s Ask a Scientist./p>

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

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Season of the Dragon
Natalie Wright
This dazzling fantasy series starter from Wright (the H.A.L.F. series, among other titles) seizes attention from the start, balancing bravura worldbuilding with compelling characters, urgent storytelling, and a welcome sense of clarity. The abundant original creatures, lands, clans, and more are not just quickly defined but woven into scenes and thoughts so readers understand immediately how they matter. But in this polished first volume that richness of invention doesn’t slow momentum, as Wright’s story takes flight. As she nears adulthood, young Quen of the Pijwar herdclan feels she must escape “the agitated quiver of her shadow heart,” that is the second self that she was born with—and that sets her apart. After a tragedy, Quen’s accused of being a “slint,” a fearsome shadow creature reputed to steal children.

Terrified that she may be becoming just that, and warned by a secret-holding, wolf-riding traveler that tragedy will follow her, Quen faces the terrors of a dusty land and its trickster spirits in her quest first to find the truth about her shadow self—and, eventually, to hunt a terrifying beast that has brought devastation to her people. (Expect a touch of romance, too.) Season of the Dragon expertly blends classic quest and self-discovery narratives with fresh details that immerse readers in its world: the link between desert winds and the breath of the god Juka; the smartly developed elemental “Corner” theology of Indrasi; systems of learning like the Pillars.

But it’s the people that drive this story, orienting readers in this strange land with its twin-souled protagonist, giving reasons to cheer and cower as Quen and the cohort she gains face dangers like the dragons of the title, imported (like yindrils and other magical creatures) by the abusive ruling Kovan Dynasty. The stakes are high, the prose crisp, and the adventure thrilling as Wright rewards and upends reader expectations, building to an epic ending that satisfies even as it sets up more adventure.

Takeaway: This dazzling epic fantasy series kickoff rewards and upends reader expectations.

Great for fans of: Glenda Larke’s Watergivers series, Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand.

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

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Cost of Deceit: A Jake Clearwater Legal Thriller
H. Mitchell Caldwell
Caldwell captivates with a riveting courtroom drama set in Los Angeles, the followup to the first in the Jake Clearwater series, Cost of Arrogance. After a sensational trial results in a hung jury, the district attorney begs Clearwater to return to his past vocation as a prosecutor to help a new jury reach a verdict. Ex-Playboy model Christie Cort, wife of ambitious and abusive police Lieutenant Max Cort, disappeared two years ago, and authorities never recovered her body. Jake must face off against a charismatic star defense attorney. From interviewing potential jurors to persuading terrified witnesses to take the stand, Jake must rely on every clever courtroom maneuver he knows to bring an allegedly wicked man to justice.

Caldwell, a professor at Pepperdine School of Law, sweeps the reader into the artistry and theater that expert lawyers perform in high-stakes cases, showcasing their every calculated gesture and nuanced glance at the jurors. After taking in the compelling details of the initial, unresolved case, readers will applaud Jake’s decision to join the fray and the chance to bear witness as he plots and drinks coffee alongside his investigator, jury consultant, and, outside the courtroom, his best friend and lover, Lisa St. Marie. Caldwell’s witty narration keeps the tone light and relatable despite the dark subject and urgent stakes, and the prose is crisp and polished throughout. Visits to California tourist destinations like Moonstone Beach and Hearst Castle spice the narrative.

The text is peppered with quick, fascinating “trial tips,” which clarify concepts such as voir dire and the finer points of effective cross-examination, matching Jake’s professorial persona. As Jake wades through the case, overcoming hurdles such as persuading a salty judge to admit dicey evidence, Caldwell gradually raises the tension level until the plot verges on thriller. Fans of courtroom drama will savor this peek into the inner workings of an attorney’s mind while puzzling over the alleged villain’s guilt.

Takeaway: Readers will cheer this polished, highly enjoyable legal thriller.

Great for fans of: William Landay’s Defending Jacob, Michael Connelly.

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

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Avalla
Stephanie A Stokes
This ambitious fantasy from Stokes finds contemporary relevance in a sacred empire in decline, its foundations riven by greed and corruption, as a young woman, a disciple of the Priesthood, discovers that those with power are changing not just the law to benefit them but systems of belief—and what’s taught to disciples like herself. After a bright, inquisitive student is seemingly murdered, young Audra and several of her disciple friends suss out a possible wide-ranging conspiracy to limit the people’s knowledge of their rights, to reward those already wealthy, and to give total power to one of the local kings. More shocking still are betrayals among Audra’s cohort, and a plot to give an authority figure control over Audra’s most intimate power of all.

Stokes blends the epic and magic-school genres of fantasy with a chilling dash of the dystopian, capturing the early days of a “new society,” the jolting realization that the institutions one believes in have rotted, and the bold young women who recognize what’s coming and take steps to face it. The thoughtful but quick-paced story that follows will find Audra assuming an urgent leadership role, besting men in combat, experimenting in romance with a War Duke she at first takes for a fool, and eventually uncovering and facing an antagonist who’s willing to murder and torture in the name of power.

Adding to the novel’s resonance is the choice to set it in a continent that’s not fully settled by the prevailing powers, with mysterious “raiders” from the wild attacking civilization—and creating a pretext for the plotters’ limiting of freedoms. The dialogue tends toward the formal, action sometimes is wordy, and readers may wonder at some quite-earthly proper nouns: Merlin Arthur, Princess Cathy. For all the political and theological wrangling, though, Stokes pens a lively story of adventure, visions, surprises, and a young woman’s maturation, all building to a satisfying ending.

Takeaway: This inventive epic fantasy blends a coming-of-age with the dystopian.

Great for fans of: Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen series, Pierce Brown.

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

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It's About time
Mickey Bridges
This frank, often raw memoir from Bridges, a musician and counselor, charts with rare candor a childhood descent into drugs and crime. Growing up in the Compton neighborhood of Los Angeles in the 1950s and ‘60s, Bridges loved playing saxophone and helping out his parents at their record store, but trouble was never far away—in fact, his father, “a natural born hustler,” ran a gambling parlor in the back room of the shop. Bridges links his own acting out to his parents’ painful breakup. He relished few things more than riding around with a friend, “listening to jazz music on the radio and getting high on weed.” He experimented with sex early—adventures recounted in unflinching scenes that can be hard to read—and at age sixteen ran away from the McCobb Home for Boys when he learned of his girlfriend’s pregnancy.

By 25, he was serving time in federal prison on drug-related charges. He sold and indulged in increasingly potent narcotics in Compton, of course, but also San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and Chicago’s Old Town. The list of his products and addictions suggests a shorthand history of the era’s American counterculture: marijuana, hallucinogens—he saw Jimi Hendrix at Monterey while on acid—but also, inevitably, heroin and cocaine, which he took intravenously. It’s About Time documents the gangs and distributors of these drugs, the culture around them, the impossibility of getting straight without help. When he fled to the Air Force, hoping for a path out, he was quickly discharged for the drugs in his blood rather than helped.

The memoir opens and closes with impassioned thanks to God for helping the older Bridges get back on the path, and there’s inspirational power in the story of how he won early release through a program designed to help incarcerated people complete four year degrees. More insight into that experience and his life after would have been welcome, though the storytelling here has weight.

Takeaway: This vivid memoir digs deep into a troubled Compton upbringing.

Great for fans of: Lynne Isbell, Rebecca Pantaleon, and Bonita Bradshaw’s Black, Brown, and White: Stories Straight Outta Compton, Kevin “Salt Rocc” Lewis’s Born and Raised in the Streets of Compton.

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

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A Cocky Catch
Annika Champenois
Champenois’s light-hearted fiction debut illuminates a fresh milieu while offering the surprising story of a woman who agrees to date a persistent man—in the hope that he will meet someone else. Surrey Witherfield, a statistics major at Brigham Young University, really wants to find her happily ever after, complete with the perfect husband and children. But she begins doubting that wish will bear fruit when the men she has dated break up with her and marry other women. When Surrey becomes the victim of a hidden camera joke orchestrated by Croft Taylor and his friends, she is mortified. Tired of Croft’s seemingly incessant pursuit, she agrees to a few dates, hoping that she can set him up with someone else. But Surrey discovers that Croft’s efforts at levity really resonate with her, leaving her conflicted about whether she wants a real relationship with him.

Champenois quickly immerses readers into the world of a Brigham Young college student, where student marriages are not uncommon and vows to reserve kissing for engagement or marriage are commonplace. Though the culture of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints may be unfamiliar to readers, the author capably integrates some of the practices of church members into the storyline, imbuing the narrative with authenticity.

The humorous moments add spark to the clean romance between Croft and Surrey, offering a refreshingly different focus from the physical aspects at the forefront of many contemporary romances, honing in instead on what the characters actually admire and like about one another. The tone shifts when Surrey is faced with a stalker, and the fast-paced narrative becomes more riveting, blending smoothly with the lighter material. Readers outside the faith might wish for more detailed explanations of practices/events unique to the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, but this does not detract from the romance of this sparkling debut.

Takeaway: This engaging romance finds a Brigham Young student facing unexpected love.

Great for fans of: Tiffany Odekirk, D.A. Featherling’s Kissing Frogs.

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

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Because of Mercy
PD Dawn
This enjoyable first entry in Dawn’s Coin Trilogy finds Rose Mounce, the spirited daughter of a dairy farmer in New Zealand, navigating her future amidst fears of becoming a spinster. At 18, Rose has received no marriage proposals, despite her wish to fall in love and start a family. She’s as fiery as her red hair—with a penchant for reading dime store westerns—and spends her time riding horses across her father’s land. When she suffers a riding accident breaking in a new gelding, Rose’s future changes in an instant—and leaves her harboring a dark secret that could ruin her chances of marriage.

Dawn’s novel is the epitome of feel-good romance, with troubled knight-in-shining-armor Henry, who falls for Rose when he rescues her from the accident, proposing marriage after the two become steadfast friends. But when the first World War strikes, Henry heeds the call of battle and enlists to prove his mettle. That understandable conflict starts a downward spiral for both Henry and Rose, with their relationship suffering as the world burns. When Henry’s wounded and meets a pretty Scottish nurse on the front, he puts Rose—and his life as he knew it before the war—out of his mind. Readers will empathize with Henry, surrounded by death in the trenches, and also with Rose, who, when Henry asks to be released from their engagement, is once again staring spinsterhood in the face, but this time with a broken heart. Added to the mix is Henry’s sister, Molly, who’s holding a grudge against Rose and determined to do whatever it takes to keep them apart.

Despondent about her future, Rose finds solace in her Christian beliefs, as Henry fights his own demons, eventually turning to God for answers as well. The ending is a sweet surprise and sets up the series for more satisfying romance in the future. Fans of satisfying love stories will be rewarded.

Takeaway: A soon-to-be spinster finds and maybe loses romance in this feel-good World War I story.

Great for fans of: Hallee Bridgeman’s Honor Bound, Elsie Davis’s The Heart of a Cowboy.

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

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Rebellious Son: A Spy Devils Thriller
Joe Goldberg
The second fast-paced installment in Goldberg’s Spy Devils series pits Bridger and his Spy Devils against the one enemy that Wes Henslow, CIA counter-terror mastermind and Bridger’s mentor, could never defeat: Specter, the greatest of all bomb-makers. Bridger races from Colombia to Yemen to Amsterdam while May, Bridger’s mother, is hiding a secret that could get her son killed, Wes is dying, Specter’s mind is going, Bridger’s old enemy Li Chu is out for revenge, and Chinese drug kingpin Charlie Ho has timetables to meet. There are more double-agents and high-tech hijinks than Bridger can shake a Devil Stick at, especially once Specter’s attractive niece Lena gets involved.

If that all sounds like a lot, it is—Goldberg favors the explosive, the surprising, the over-the-top, with action and suspense set pieces all spiced with sharp, often comic dialogue. While Goldberg’s experience at the CIA as a covert action officer adds some credibility to the material, especially in relationships among the squad, the globe-crossing narrative strains credulity, perhaps pointedly so, especially as the stakes get higher. For readers on the book’s wavelength, though, that’s part of the fun, especially as Goldberg’s crew—who only kills when absolutely necessary—deploys unconventional strategies and inventive, highly advanced spy tech (hail the Devilbot drones), often to make up for that most reliable of genre staples, the constant incompetence of the more “official” intelligence agencies.

Thrills abound, but so do subplots, which can get thick as Bridger and co. close in on their quarry. The character voices and sharply sketched camaraderie of the team give the book a compelling heart, and Goldberg conjures up double-crosses, daring escapes, and bone-shattering action, described with clarity and power. Readers craving the spectacular from espionage thrillers will enjoy this entry’s “Greetings from the Devil.” A foreword from Bridger himself, attesting to the veracity of the story, is inspired.

Takeaway: This proudly over-the-top thriller pits an elite squad against the world’s greatest bomber.

Great for fans of: Brad Thor’s Takedown, Stephen Phillips’s Proximity.

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

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Reluctant Hearts: Four Contemporary Romances
Linda Griffin
Four brisk, independent slice-of-life contemporary romance short stories are linked by the theme of everyday people surmounting the challenges in their histories and their qualms about commitment to the possibility of life-changing love. The scenarios are nicely varied: Darien and Richard connect in the aftermath of a bank robbery; former youth orchestra leader Shane’s widowed new neighbor Beth is the sister of one of his old students; David meets Kate, a single mom managing her disabled daughter’s life, at the laundromat; and realtor Frank is slow to give Kayla the upgrade from client’s roommate-turned-friend to romantic prospect. The collection’s mild, relationship-oriented aesthetic means sexual encounters wait for love and stay mostly off-screen.

These stories are pleasant, easy reading, and the setups, mostly, center on believable conflicts, characters, and situations, as Griffin convincingly establishes her cast’s world’s, habits, jobs, and drifts of mind. Griffin’s comfortable at moments of high drama and at the mundanities of life—the “stupidly molded, uncomfortable plastic chair” of the laundromat are as convincingly described as one story's first real kiss: “Not a gentle, comforting one this time, but a real, grown-up kiss.” (Griffin nicely underscores that moment’s intimacy with the followup dialogue, “No, don’t …. I’m all covered with tears and snot.”

The stories take the point of view of one partner rather than alternating, and all but the first from the perspective of the male partners, who demonstrate respectful vulnerability. The strongest story, though, is the one with a female POV. Darien’s agency and strength is highlighted while she and Richard both engage their trauma, building together towards an ending that satisfies and promises a hopeful budding relationship. Shane’s story is centered around Beth disbelieving false sexual misconduct accusations by an underage girl, a choice that’s more complex than the relatively simple narrative—an author’s note acknowledges the rarity of false accusations, but the story itself moves too quickly for nuance.

Takeaway: Second-chance romance readers looking for simple but interesting setups will find these tales scratch the itch.

Great for fans of: Becky Wade’s True to You, Kasie West’s The Fill-In Boyfriend.

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

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Heaven & Earth
Joshua Senter
Senter follows up the lauded Still the Night Call with a probing literary story of scandal, faith, marriage, and duty, centered around the life of a woman, Ruth Christianson, who discovers her megachurch pastor husband, Sam, has been having an affair with a male prostitute. When the couple and their three children leave South Carolina for Sam’s hometown in the Missouri Ozarks, Ruth begins to question whether she might dare to leave the love of her life, or whether she must remain trapped in a relationship with a man who can’t truly love her. Ruth eventually discovers a radical third option that may threaten the status quo and the life she built for herself.

While Senter demonstrates a deft hand with his milieu, capturing with persuasive nuance the texture and drift of mind of both the Ozarks and megachurch world, the most vital aspect of this book is the characterization of Ruth herself. The reader witnesses her at her most vulnerable, and it’s satisfying to see her begin to find her voice, confronting Sam for his actions or chastising the townspeople sticking their noses into her business. Her potential liberation, though, is weighted by a lifetime of belief about all that a wife and woman should be, and Senter touchingly dramatizes the pain of suddenly facing doubt.

The prose is crisp and engaging, alive with observations that ring true: “Sam smiled his ‘Jesus smile,’ as Ruth secretly called it, and invited the reporter into the church for service.” Senter frankly handles physical intimacy, including the complexity of Sam’s sexuality, digging deeply into Ruth’s feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and, ultimately, confidence, as a woman and as a mother. Senter’s interest is cross-generational, as Ruth’s defiantly feminist mother assails Ruth’s faith, and Ruth and Sam’s daughter feels her own erotic longings. “Do I need to ask God to forgive me?” she asks Ruth late in the book, and the answer is honest, hard-won, and well worth reading.

Takeaway: A pained, probing novel about a wife facing her beliefs after her preacher husband cheats.

Great for fans of: Kelsey McKinney’s God Spare the Girls, Monica West’s Revival Season.

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

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Apostolos Nikolaidis: The Authentic Laika Singer Who Was Never Censored
Maria A. Nikolaidis
The daughter of the beloved Greek musician Apostolos Nikolaidis has assembled this mixed-media celebration of her father’s life and career in this handsome book, an act of love and memory bursting with personal photos, revealing anecdotes, an extensive biographical timeline, and impassioned tributes to his talent and courage. From a young age Nikolaidis, born in 1938, loved singing and knew he wanted to be an entertainer. Following the laika singer’s first professional appearance, at the Athens club Triana in 1959, to his record deal with Columbia Records and his voyage from Greece to the United States, and on into a career of consequence, this in-depth study offers firsthand accounts from friends, family, journalists, and the singer himself, as much of the narrative chronicled in this work is written in first-person perspective.

It reveals a life full of love, family, performing, and bravery, as the virtuosic Nikolaidis dared in the 1970s to record the traditional rebetika songs banned by the military junta then ruling Greece. Fans will be engrossed with Nikolaidis's humble childhood, his time in the Army in Thebes, and the duration of his musical career. With text presented in both Greek and English, this is both a biography and a keepsake, a scrapbook filled with revelatory ephemera, press clippings, incisive passages written by friends (“First off and above all, he was a benevolent soul who had no cunning and malevolence in him”) and journalists, and brisk paragraphs laying out the highlights of Nikolaidis's life.

This up-close look at that life will prove an inspiring and entertaining read for fans, an introduction for those new to him, and a valuable source for researchers and musicologists. The translations, photos, and short-form passages offer a richly detailed vision of Nikolaidis, while the text is direct and to-the-point, dedicated to essences. It’s a collage and highlight reel in book form, honoring the author’s father's art and legacy.

Takeaway: An entertaining mixed-media celebration of an epochal Greek musician.

Great for fans of: Gail Holst’s Road to Rembetika, David Prudhomme’s Rebetiko.

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

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The Boy from Boadua: One African's Journey of Hunger and Sacrifice in Pursuit of a Dream
Patrick Asare
Asare’s inspirational memoir details his surprising journey from a small village in Ghana to becoming an electrical engineer in the United States, with many unexpected stops along the way. Asare encounters a slew of cultures and experiences, from attending an elite private school in Accra known for having taught Ghana’s most influential citizens, to studying electrical engineering in the Soviet Union, to teaching at a public school in the United States. Throughout this odyssey, Asare maintains discipline and perseverance and especially an ethos of “nonstop work,” taking great efforts to excel at everything he sets his mind to, from learning English from newspapers to substitute teaching to gain an economic foothold in America. This memoir is a clear-eyed account of the hardships he faced, and lessons he learned.

Right off the bat, Asare throws readers into a compellingly drawn world replete with rampant poverty, hunger and illiteracy. There is nothing stereotypical about the way Asare portrays the various villages and cities through which his life passes. His account is scattered with piquant, often outright funny, incidents which lend the narrative a buoyancy amid all the strife. A large part of the story involves historical details and incidents that Asare lived through, and to which he offers an insider’s perspective. Readers will constantly find themselves amazed at Asare’s unflagging persistence in trying to rise up and live the life he envisions for himself.

At times, Asare has a tendency to be a little pedantic, and contemplating life and America and what one ought and ought not do. At other times, the memoir reads slightly like an elaboration of a resume, an extremely impressive one at that. But overall, Asare is clear that he is writing this account to “share some of the valuable lessons he learned” and his sharp, engaging prose will keep readers hooked. Lovers of international stories of perseverance, history, and politics will enjoy this memoir, which is as illuminating as it is inspiring.

Takeaway: This memoir of leaving Ghana to find success in the U.S. is inspiring, surprising, and well written.

Great for fans of: Krishan K. Bedi’s Engineering a Life, Ousman Umar’s North to Paradise.

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

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As Busy as a Bee: A Workplace, Second Chance Roamnce
Cynthia Terelst
This charming installment of Terelst’s Love Down Under series introduces 26 year-old Beau Hart as he returns home from California to work on his family’s apple orchard in Tasmania just in time for picking season. He’s been away eight years, and news of his return comes as a surprise to his family—and especially to his childhood friend, Clare, a “senior” on the farm and Beau’s first love. Still holding on to anger and resentment for his leaving and shutting her out so many years ago, Clare welcomes him with anger and avoidance. This all changes when they are forced to share an office and work closely together. Uncertain about her future at the Hart farm and feelings for Beau, a cat-and-mouse romance unfolds from both perspectives as the two heal scars from the past and make plans for the farm’s future.

The story is fast-paced and heartfelt as Beau struggles with clinical anxiety and confidence while trying to reintegrate himself back into the family business and regain Clare’s trust. Terelst writes movingly of how each lead is the other’s “sense of calm” but also creates a convincing feeling of uncertainty about the relationship, adding welcome tension. Clare does her best to keep distance between them, but seeing the dynamic between Beau and his parents stirs old memories to the surface and softens her resolve.

Terelst has written a slow burn full of romantic tension and a cast of beautifully flawed characters, all set against the backdrop of beehives, orchards, and heirloom apples. Fans of character-driven, second chance romances with realistic love interests will find this an enjoyable read. Although there is some mild to moderate heat, Beau and Clare’s unique friendship and supportive grandparents give the story a sweet, cozy feel. This heartwarming story demonstrates the importance of showing loved ones trust and appreciation.

Takeaway: A charming second-chance romance set against the backdrop of a Tasmanian apple orchard.

Great for fans of: Kimberly Krey’s Second Chances series, Jennifer Griffith’s Forgotten First Kiss.

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

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Under the Naga Tail: A True Story of Survival, Bravery, and Escape from the Cambodian Genocide
Mae Bunseng Taing with James Taing
This inspiring, harrowing memoir looks back on one man’s arduous, and daring, escape from Cambodia and its genocidal Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s. Written by the escapee Mae Taing himself, in collaboration with his son James, the book starts with a peek at life in pre-Khmer Cambodia, with its idyllic rhythms. But soon, the country is taken over by Khmer soldiers, and Mae and his family are forcefully moved from one labor camp to another. They are subjected to backbreaking labor and inhumane conditions, and even when they manage to escape to Thailand and believe they’ve seen the last of it, the family is sent back to Cambodia, forced to relive their horror all over again.

“Nowhere on earth, nowhere is there such a place in the world like this,” Taing’s father laments, and the story is one horror after another: soldiers, jungle, landmines whose detonation Taing describes as “earth … heaving hell.” Told with power and clarity in prose touched with hard-won grace, the book is a testament to human perseverance, and will leave you feeling awed, even amazed, at the sheer power of human will and endurance. The storytelling is gripping, stirring great tension, building to bursts of terror. At the same time, Under the Naga Trail honors the country and lives that were left behind, painting an arresting picture of the country, landscape, and family that had to be fled.

For all the beauty of the prose, the accounts of violence are horrific, possibly too much for some readers to stomach as the co-authors bring to life a thankfully now distant world of conflict and unspeakable cruelty. Overall, this book takes an unflinching look at the reign of Khmer Rouge–and what it takes to survive humanity’s worst—and, eventually, thrive. Lovers of stories of history as it’s lived and personal triumph will find this as heartening as it is wrenching.

Takeaway: A heart-rending story of escape and survival under the Khmer Rouge.

Great for fans of: Heather Allen’s The Girl Who Said Goodbye, Haing Ngor’s Survival in the Killing Fields.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
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The Portable Pat Lang: Essential Writings on History, War, Religion, Strategy
Patrick Lang
It’s a sign of humility that this illuminating collection from Lang, an Army colonel and retired head of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s global human intelligence service, isn’t titled I Told You So. In the many clear-eyed essays and other writings within, Lang surveys the U.S.’s 21st century intelligence gathering and military strategy, often stating, in pieces from the early 2000s, hard truths about Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Middle Eastern countries that would be borne out over long, painful years. Today these warnings that weren’t heeded offer an urgent reminder of what went wrong.

Lang demonstrates his independence, boldness, and acute understanding from the start, with a 2002 piece declaring the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate covering Iraq’s capacity for weapons of mass destruction “the worst constructed, most illogical and indeed dishonest document of its kind that I have ever seen.” Weight of evidence justifies the heated tone, as Lang breaks down, in that essay and others, the intrusion of bureaucrats and politicians into the ways that intelligence is “collected, collated, analyzed, and disseminated.” As he considers the nation’s mistakes and misapprehensions in the face of terrorism and counterinsurgency, Lang writes with clarity and insight (“To be blunt, our foreign policy tends to be predicated on the notion that everyone wants to be an American”), drawing on a host of historical examples, lessons from his own career, and deep knowledge about the Middle East and Islam.

“The Al-Qaeda that most Americans imagine does not exist,” Lang writes in a 2006 essay worth celebrating for its prescience. Elsewhere, he sounds the alarm not only that the U.S. couldn’t succeed in Afghanistan but that even defining a “win” was impossible. In speeches, book reviews, proposals, and other forms, Lang writes with inviting prose and rare persuasive power, for an audience of intelligence and military experts and strategists but also lay readers, never simply relying on his credentials. Engaging short fictions set in other eras round out the collection, each offering insights.

Takeaway: Prescient, clear-eyed essays about what could—and often did—go wrong for the U.S. in the Middle East.

Great for fans of: Richard H. Shultz’s Transforming US Intelligence for Irregular War, Thomas E. Ricks’s Fiasco.

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