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ANDROMEDA GRAPHIKA
Robert Brace
Brace’s globetrotting mystery twines suspense, elegance, and the turn-ons of the global elite as journalist Andromeda Chamberlain, a serious reporter whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, accepts a mysterious assignment to cover a troubling cold case: ten years before, fifteen-year-old Margot Vaughn went missing, presumably a runaway. Andromeda accepts the job despite not quite knowing who is hiring her, what form the piece will take, why there’s a seven-week deadline—or what to make of her client’s insistence that she wear a titanium collar for the duration of the assignment. Lavishly overpaid as she travels from Miami to the Valley to Paris and beyond, Andromeda digs into Margot’s disappearance, soon discovering that while underage the young woman had appeared in a graphic arthouse film about an orgy, Pompeii, and ancient rituals.

Stylish and polished, Brace’s literary thriller abounds in evocative description, crisp and engaging dialogue, and puzzles that it’s often a pleasure to tease out, from the clues embedded in the shocking film to those about Andromeda herself—her motives and her desires. As evidence burns up and goons dog her investigation, Andromeda chases leads across Europe, eventually becoming embroiled with that film’s director—a rising star about to debut an adaptation of Faust at Cannes.

For all the urgency of her case, the protagonist relishes her high-rolling investigation, driving Ferraris and Panteras and taking every opportunity to sunbathe. Her past is opaque, and her present an element of a puzzle around it: Who is she, exactly? Why does she readily agree to appear in a film from pornographer Cherry Falco? Is she being lured into the same traps that snared Margot, or is she—and the author—playing some clever game? A sense of playful unease suffuses the novel, as Brace toys with expectations, inviting readers to ask whether she’s a retrograde fantasy figure or just playing the part and in fact steps ahead of everyone.

Takeaway: This puzzle-rich literary mystery sends a journalist into the world of the global elite and perverse arthouse films.

Great for fans of: Paul Auster, Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead.

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

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Pengwee's Breath
Deborah Nutley
An adorable penguin learns to conquer his fears by practicing deep breathing in this picture book debut by Nutley. Pengwee, a young penguin chick, is excited to attend the annual Ice Festival with his mother, and he loves everything about it, with the exception of the “big scary rides'' that make him feel like “there’s a snowstorm in my tummy and clouds in my head.” When he shares his uneasiness with his mother, she teaches him how to use deep breathing to calm the storm inside, and Pengwee gets a chance to put his skills to the test when he faces the scariest ride of them all–the Ice Monster.

Young readers will delight in Pengwee, who is lovably innocent as he tries to master the art of deep breathing. His first attempt at a “Superpower Breath” comes out with such power he nearly knocks over his mother, but it doesn’t take him long to learn the ropes, and soon he is able to defeat even seemingly insurmountable fears. The Ice Festival is also irresistible–a winter-themed extravaganza of carnival games, entertainment, and tempting penguin snacks, like the “imported fried smelt” or “whale blubber cones.” Alexandra Rusu’s whimsical watercolor illustrations add a dreamlike feel, with subtle lines and cool shades that match the story’s midwinter motif.

Nutley offers a sliver of suspense alongside the charm by embracing thrill rides that can be intimidating to so many kids. Once Pengwee learns to put his emotional calming talents to use, the Ice Monster is transformed in his eyes from terrifying to exhilarating–a concept notably important to Nutley, who is a certified meditation instructor with a fondness for teaching mindfulness to youth. Adult readers will appreciate the introduction to self-soothing, and this engaging story adeptly captures the intensity of childhood fears–and the skills to handle them.

Takeaway: A young penguin learns–and shows readers–how deep breathing can help overcome fears.

Great for fans of: Rachel Bright’s The Lion Inside, Gaia Cornwall’s Jabari Jumps.

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

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Wings Over the Channel
Eric B. Forsyth
Forsyth’s second historical novel, after Wings Over Iraq, returns to the story of Allan Chadwick, an RAF pilot, this time with an emphasis on the development of radar technology that enabled a British win in the Battle of Britain—a crucial turning point in the second world war. Chadwick, posted at Farnborough after service in Iraq, investigates aircraft accidents, but his life takes a different turn when he’s assigned to test fly equipment developed by Dr. Kenneth Bostock and his team, who are researching the use of radio waves to detect planes. This new RDR (“Radio, Detection and Range”) technology could be pivotal in battles, and Dr. Kegel, the head of German intelligence in London, tries to entice Chadwick in order to get his hands on the new technology.

While attending a gathering of grandees out to stop another war at any cost, Chadwick meets and falls for Lady Melanie Fitzgibbon. Meanwhile, the British counter intelligence agents, led by Chadwick’s friend, Doug Larson, try to thwart the Germans, leading to an exciting cat-and-mouse game. Readers will be fascinated to learn about the early stages of the development of radar through Chadwick’s eyes. Though charming, his affair with Fitzgibbon could have proven more nuanced and resonant had his internal conflicts been more deeply explored. Likewise, more focus on the intriguing Penelope Pomeroy, her attraction to Chadwick, and her actions late in the narrative might have enriched the novel’s espionage elements and brought some diversity to its prevailing masculine perspective.

Forsyth’s deep knowledge of his subject matter, combined with his enthusiasm for flying, is evident throughout the novel, though for readers more interested in character than aviation history may find the abundance of detail slows the narrative pace. Still, despite some overcrowding, historical war fiction fans will be pleased, especially those fascinated by the high-flying lives of pilots.

Takeaway: This high-flying historical novel will please readers fascinated by aviation, fighter pilots, and World War II.

Great for fans of: Peter Townsend’s Duel of Eagles, Eric Brown’s Wings on My Sleeve, R. A. “Bob” Hoover’s Forever Flying.

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

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The MoonStone Girls
Brooke Skipstone
At the beginning of Skipstone’s (Crystal’s House of Queers) spirited coming-of-age tale, 16-year-old Tracy Franks feels trapped: she’s stifled by the strict gender norms of her 1960s Texas town, her tyrannical father badgers and degrades her and her brother, and she must keep her attraction to her friend Ava a careful secret. When she discovers a brochure for a women-run summer camp in Alaska with a girl named Jackie on its cover, Tracy sees an opportunity to break free. Faced with discrimination, uncertainty, and even tragedy, she is nevertheless determined to live as her true self.

Tracy’s talents as a musician help her negotiate her world, and music lovers will appreciate the prominent role it plays within the story. Skipstone embeds a wide variety of references to both classical music and popular songs of the late 60s, enhanced by a suggested Spotify playlist, as well as the lyrics of the songs Tracy herself writes to express her anger, angst, longing, and love. Framed as an autobiography, Tracy’s passionate first-person narration vibrates with intense emotion and explicit detail, allowing readers to experience her fury, frustration, and excitement as she strives to live life on her own terms.

In her fight to live authentically, Tracy proves herself to be a protagonist ahead of her time, using casual profanity, wearing a “manguise” so she can be perceived as male, and aggressively confronting male characters who try to hold her back. Though her progressive attitudes towards politics, race, gender, and sexuality are more common in our time than they were in hers, readers will find this character’s revolutionary courage inspiring. Skipstone’s other main players are also well-developed–even those that serve as obstacles to Tracy’s progress. This story’s impassioned cry against repression will encourage readers to face their own challenges with strength and determination.

Takeaway: The inspiring and emotional story of a young lesbian’s journey toward wholeness in Texas in the 1960s.

Great for fans of: M-E Girard’s Girl Mans Up, Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath, Lauren Hough’s Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing.

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

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Paradox: The Attack on the Ladies Room
Timothy Perper and Martha Cornog
In this reality-hopping thriller, Perper and Cornog (Sex, Death, and the End of the World: Stories) follow Krylla and John, husband and wife, through parallel universes, timelines, and selves. On a seemingly normal day at the office on her way to a meeting, Krylla stops in the ladies room only to vanish into another time and dimension. John does everything he can, including time travel, to find his missing wife, all while dealing with the ominous and ever-watchful Instrumentality and the dangerous missions that it assigns him, dispatching him to far-flung paraverses. Meanwhile, Krylla becomes conscious of her paraverse selves and starts talking to herself, literally. But if there are infinite Kryllas, are there also infinite Smiths? Will they ever find each other? And, even bigger than the love story, what is really going on?

Blending romance and science fiction with welcome humor, this polished and inventive meta-novel invites readers on an interactive journey, with the narrator explaining the physics of time travel in direct address. Perper and Cornog build a convincing world of worlds, and although these teaching moments’ discussions and hypotheticals might at times read like tangents, they ultimately help explicate an ever-moving plot with many twists and turns. Some readers may view the story itself as one big hypothetical from that narrator to illustrate principles of time travel, which is entertaining an original approach, though in the end the story proves to be something akin to a space-odyssey epic, set in paraverses rather than galaxies.

However, the focus on plot, metaphysics, and world building comes at a price: readers here for the paraverse-spanning love story may wish for deeper character exploration. Though the novel has a romance at its heart, Krylla and John’s love for each often seems more asserted than stirring––especially when stretching across so many paraverses. Still, lovers of twisty sci-fi with big ideas and a playful spirit will find plenty to enjoy.

Takeaway: A playful take on time travel and infinite paraverses for readers who like their SF touched with romance and humor.

Great for fans of: Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This is How You Lose the Time War , Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

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

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Cape Henry House
Jolly Walker Bittick
Bittick’s raucous slice-of-life debut centers on the off-base party house a coterie of young sailors enjoy over a couple of weeks in 2008, throwing keg parties, nursing hangovers, grousing about their dopiest superior, and—for all the boozy debauchery—discovering who they are as they navigate the confounding years between youth and adulthood. Petty Officer Third Class Bosner, the narrator, is 21, a “greaser on helicopters in the Navy,” and in-between romantic entanglements, after shying away from the adult commitment expected by Maria, a serious catch. Still prone to raise hell and wake up covered in hickeys of uncertain origin, Bosner, like the rest of his Navy pals, is thrilled when two of his ride-or-die pals rent a modest home on a street called Cape Henry.

Complete with a furnished garage the gang dubs a “pass out room,” the Cape Henry House represents freedom from barracks life, and Bosner and co. party there—and in the nearby bars, restaurants, strip joints, and dance clubs, where minor trouble always awaits them. Bittick adeptly captures the feel of nights spinning out of control, of young mens’ edgy banter that can quickly explode into anger, of uncertain flirting and scarf-some-greasy-food mornings, and above all his sailors’ urgent camaraderie, as together they seek relief from their drudging days—and the likelihood of deployment—in nights whose wildness never quite disguises their innocence or, at times, loneliness.

The author served in the Navy himself, and the novel pulses with authentic details, not just about blow ups and beer pong. Bittick marvelously captures the niceties of washing helicopters or the annoyance of aviation mechanic Bosner realizing, while working in a gearbox assembly shaft, that his hands are covered in blood rather than the hydraulic fluid he expected. The novel’s rich characterization and scenecraft are engaging, but readers looking for page-turning plotting will find little in this evocation of a passing moment

Takeaway: This hard-partying slice-of-life powerfully evokes being young, enlisted, and not yet sure who you are.

Great for fans of: John "Chick" Donohue and J. T. Molloy’s The Greatest Beer Run Ever, Rosie Schaap’s Drinking With Men.

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

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The Agency: The Norwood Nanny Chronicles
Monica McGurk
Bree Parrish, the lead in this first installment of McGurk’s (Dark Before Dawn) Norwood Nanny Chronicles, has her sights set on becoming one of the Norwood Agency’s famously trained nannies, until she discovers the opportunity is nothing like she expected. In the course of her training, Bree—who has always believed she was orphaned as a young child when her parents died in a vehicle crash—stumbles onto decades-old secrets and baffling mysteries that haunt the agency, making her question what is real as she’s swept into a labyrinth of lies, betrayal, and espionage that threatens her life and puts her friends in danger.

McGurk weaves a well-paced, suspenseful story rich with puzzling events, surprise turns, and an irresistible premise, all while always taking care to develop her characters, fleshing out the distinctive backgrounds that will make Bree and her three close roommates–Ruby, Dash, and Susie–relatable for thriller readers of all ages. There’s no shortage of action alongside the suspense, either: when Bree and her cohorts realize they’ve been tapped to become part of an intricate spy system controlled by the Secret Intelligence Service, they start a grueling training program that eventually drops them into the middle of political reconnaissance in Turkey, all under the guise of being elite nannies. When Bree’s mission goes south and lives are lost, she braces herself for the fallout–and in the process learns painful truths about her parents and her friends.

Readers who crave thrillers that keep them guessing, with doubts about who can be trusted at every turn, will delight in the hazards that Bree and her friends face. McGurk uses the straight-laced, old England nanny system to offset recklessly dangerous undercover work, and her skillful pacing will keep readers attentive–all the way to the cliffhanger ending. Backmatter includes Q&A with the author and a sneak peek into book two of this entertaining series.

Takeaway: A twisty thriller following undercover spies who pose as nannies, loaded with betrayal, action, and suspense.

Great for fans of: Jenetta Penner’s Configured, Jillian Dodd’s The Prince.

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

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Somewhere Above It All
Holli Fawcett Clayton
In her spellbinding literary debut, Clayton delivers a heartbreaking yet ultimately uplifting tale of second chances and the messy emotions that often accompany them, all complicated by the tragic reality of opioid addiction. After she is widowed, Marren Halleck decides to challenge herself by training for a mountain climb in Tanzania to summit Kilimanjaro. When she meets Chris, a handsome Texan, Marren feels a spark of chemistry—but she’s torn. Will moving on from her late husband and longtime love Brody Halleck, whose addiction to opioid painkillers eventually led to his death, be possible or wise? And although Marren doesn’t realize it, Chris is hiding an important part of his life from her, one that might doom any chance of a lasting relationship between them.

Clayton sensitively handles the delicate topic of prescription drug addiction, showing how naturally dependence can begin as she depicts baseball player Brody’s career-ending injury. She demonstrates with persuasive power how the slide into opioid addiction can happen in an instant, and makes readers see that between black and white there are infinite shades of gray, especially when an addictive prescription substance prescribed can lead a patient to behavior that once would be impossible to believe. Somewhere Above It All is frank and clear-eyed about grief and domestic abuse without ever feeling exploitative.

Clayton’s active writing style ably engages readers from the very first page, and her talent for pacing and story structure provide sound underpinning to the series of surprises revealed just before the novel’s conclusion, twists that readers likely won’t see coming. Evocative prose (“I look up at the night sky. It’s a dark chalkboard speckled with tiny flecks of white chalk, a deep black abyss heavily populated with stars”) enchants, not just making the Kilimanjaro adventure gorgeous but also enriching character and storytelling. Romance readers will ugly cry throughout this spectacular and emotional tale–a testament to the author’s skill.

Takeaway: Lovers of real-world romances will tear up at this heartbreaking yet uplifting love story facing grief and addiction.

Great for fans of: Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Forever, Interrupted, Erich Segal’s Love Story.

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

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MURDER AT THE OLYMPIAD
james gilbert
Mexico-based Consular Officer Amanda Pennyworth must deal with the fallout when an American is killed, and do her best to cope with desperate characters in this elegantly told tragedy. Jeremy Blackman is found dead in a gay bathhouse in Puerto Vallarta, and Amanda realizes she cannot expect justice from the local police. She faces further complications when she speaks with Jeremy's traveling companion, and when Jeremy's divorced parents arrive Amanda must help them handle their grief and their rage at each other. It takes a trip back to the states for her to untangle the mystery of Jeremy's past and uncover a surprising motive—at risk to her career.

Gilbert (Zona Romantica) does an extraordinary job plumbing the depths of the of the characters surrounding the murder in this second book in the Amanda Pennyworth series. Amanda herself comes across as deeply introspective and, although good at her job, somewhat adrift, missing a recently departed boyfriend. Her only true local connection is with her assistant Nando, and their unusual friendship is delightfully believable. Gilbert has a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, as shown in the heartbreaking exchanges between the parents, who alternate between blaming themselves and each other. Although the plot falters a bit at the end, the well-limned characters will keep the readers glued to the pages until the last paragraph.

Also enlivening the book are the vivid setting descriptions: "there was something dishonest and dissembling about so much order and symmetry." Scenes like that contrast sharply with the cold and brisk conversation Amanda must have with the ambassador, emblematic of the cold officialdom that ignores the afflicted individuals. In an especially affecting scene, the tortured Amanda finally finds solace in ancient artifacts at a museum. Amanda's internal conflict is the true point of interest here– like all good sleuths, Amanda discovers in the end that the real mysteries are inside ourselves.

Takeaway: Haunting characterizations and complex moral questions elevate this richly told border-crossing mystery.

Great for fans of: Alex Gilley, Carmen Amato.

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

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Big Lucky: Serial Entrepreneur Jim Markham's Secret Formula for Success
Cheryl Markham
Serial entrepreneur Markham has penned an inviting, easy-to-read guide to achieving victories in life and learning how “to win” in the face of setbacks. Markham details his own transformative journey with anecdotes about his upbringing and stories of his famous mentors and friends, through a series of chapters intriguingly structured as introducing 22 ingredients, each one a necessary element to add into the mix of the formula for transformation and success. Equal parts memoir and inspirational guide, this self-help work will motivate readers of all ages to believe they “were born with everything [they] need to succeed.”

Markham starts by chronicling his early life and his childhood with a mother who barely made ends meet, to an in-and-out father who “was never there to protect me.” Markham himself was married and a father by the age of fifteen, and he frankly acknowledges the pressures he faced as a young man with his own family to care for at such a young age. His story is rousing, with lessons and sage advice to encourage anyone striving to succeed in life, and he urges readers never to give up or feel defeated by unforeseen circumstances. Each chapter’s attention-grabbing “ingredient” to add to one's recipe of success is a clear imperative—“Don’t Dance With Ghosts” and “Add Color”—and build to Markham’s encouraging takeaways from his own intense, and sometimes painful, life lessons.

Markham’s lucrative entrepreneurial history is a theme throughout, and he displays the drive and acumen to make something out of nothing by sharing his private battles, including his victory over a period in which he was unhoused. This is a straightforward guide full of inspirational tips, relatable stories, and wisdom that will resonate with those who need some guidance, an example, or a gentle push to keep pursuing their dreams. Readers will enjoy Markham's raw, honest style and his confident reassurance that “you can do anything with your life.”

Takeaway: An inviting, encouraging self-help guide that delves into the life and drive of an entrepreneur who has overcome great hardships.

Great for fans of: Angela Duckworth’s Grit, Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup.

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

Sky Candy: A journey into the world of astrophysics as art
Douglas Bullis
In this cosmos-spanning guide, Bullis (100 Artists of the West Coast) aims to show the reader the universe as astrophysicists see it, offering a book full of intergalactic images that showcase “well-known objects”—nebulae, star clusters, galaxies—“as seen via the ninety-nine percent of the electromagnetic spectrum that our eyes cannot see.” Sky Candy’s spectacular images of wonders like the M16 Eagle Nebula or the core of Omega Centauri Dwarf Galaxy go beyond the visible spectrum and the perspective familiar from astronomical images in the popular media to instead reveal the infrared, gamma ray, and other bands of the spectrum. Bullis explores a number of obscure and unusual phenomena in the galaxy, reveling in the sheer beauty of the image as well as providing scientific details. He also includes a great deal of scientific background and terminology and sometimes provides links to video versions of the images.

The interaction of astrophysics and art excites Bullis. Whimsical captions run above the images (“Why don’t I see the familiar face hiding in all this hair?” asks one, over an arresting vision of the Seven Sisters star cluster), sometimes linking together in a loose narrative. The tone of these and of the explanatory essays accompanying the images varies between attempts at humor, technical discussions that could use clearer context, and some inviting answers to big questions, sometimes at such length that the text can appear crammed onto the page, the design decisions diminishing the impact of the images.

The essays prove strongest when Bullis points out what these fresh looks at astronomical objects reveal about them and our universe, or answers questions about the shape of a space "balloon" or why it took astronomers so long to detect the Circinus Galaxy. While some layout choices and technical terms may prove off-putting to casual readers, Bullis succeeds in offering an exciting new look at the universe.

Takeaway: This collection of images of our universe invites readers to look beyond the visual spectrum.

Great for fans of: Light from the Void: Twenty Years of Discovery with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, Michael Werner and Peter Eisenhardt’s More Things in the Heavens: How Infrared Astronomy Is Expanding Our View of the Universe.

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

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Blood Running Hot
Robert Valletta
The latest from Valletta (When School Let out), the first installment in his Gaslamp Quarter Thriller series, follows Detective Micheline Avila, newly arrived in Southern California from New York, as she struggles to track down the serial killer who has been brutalizing men and women in San Diego County. Micheline, lonely and still recovering from a divorce, soon meets Jenny Casella, a charismatic bank administrator, and they become fast friends—but all is not as it seems, and Micheline finds herself caught up in a bank robbery, with serious ramifications. Shot during the robbery, she is taken into police custody and has to work out who is responsible before her life and career are ruined.

Valletta’s striking descriptions evoke a noir-ish California, as he cleverly uses minor details to show that Micheline, an East Coast transplant, doesn’t quite fit in, such as when she wears a “navy wool cardigan,” putting her at odds with her San Diego contemporaries. The diverse cast of colorful characters includes a blind voyeur, criminals, and exotic dancers with double lives, and Micheline in particular is so strong and engaging protagonist that readers will likely enjoy following for multiple novels. While this case gets mostly wrapped up, Valletta is careful to leave readers with plenty of questions in the end, opening them up for the next in the series.

Valletta’s choice to emulate some of the seedier aspects of earlier noir novels, especially salacious descriptions of female characters such as the “blonde with a body that would stop traffic” will likely strike many contemporary readers as trite or misogynistic despite the strong female protagonist, and his tendency to flit from one perspective to another makes it challenging at times track the narrative. However, the storyline is arresting, and will please fans of crime fiction with flawed characters, especially those who prefer the vital California noir subgenre.

Takeaway: An East Coast detective takes on a serial killer in California, while she struggles to make a new life in this promising series opener.

Great for fans of: James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, G.K. Parks’s Likely Suspects.

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

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Burn-In: A Doctor's Guide to Finding Happiness, Avoiding Burnout and Catching FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early)
Dr. Patrick Tran
Targeting medical professionals, dermatologist and real estate investor Tran shares his wisdom about shrewdly investing and focusing on one’s values in order to face and handle burnout– “that feeling of not having enough money, time or both to do what you love with those you love.” The book is written in concise, encouraging chapters that cover choosing and sticking to a path, achieving healthy mindsets, and why “it’s okay to ask (and answer) questions about finances,” often showing via example as Burn-In covers Tran’s own experience as a doctor, father, second-generation immigrant, and real estate investor. Crucially, Tran focuses on how these identities interrelate and how, managing them, he’s achieved a life where wealth doesn’t just mean money, a values-driven way of living he encourages his readers to strive towards as well.

Drawing on personal stories, original inspirational quotes (“The key to finding bliss and joy in every moment is to let go”), and practical knowledge he has gathered about the real-estate game, Tran’s tome blends the styles of memoir and self-help. Tran’s advice to catch FIRE–an acronym for “financial independence, retire early”–is highly specific; his audience is those who want to follow the path he has: be a practicing doctor who finds peace and security in real estate. “Nowhere in medical school are we talking enough about the financial realities of being a doctor,” he writes, before addressing those realities with the friendly demeanor of a coach or mentor.

Tran’s idea of “burning-in” is not precisely the opposite–or the avoidance of–“burn-out,” which he considers a simple fact of life. Instead, burning-in calls for a focus on values and working for the things one is passionate about. His unique advice, in fact, includes taking on more work but being passionate about the work being done, a message sure to resonate with his target audience.

Takeaway: A doctor lays out a path for other doctors toward real wealth, not just the monetary kind.

Great for fans of: David J. Norris’s The Financially Intelligent Physician, James M. Dahle’s The White Coat Investor.

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

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ARKO: The Dark Union
U.W. Leo
Leo’s debut, a polished middle-grade climate fiction adventure, introduces a group of tween-aged friends tasked with saving humanity from itself. The quintet spends its summer break on a research trip in the Yucatan, as their parents research Mayan history and astronomy. After an afternoon of swimming and fun in the sun, they take the long way back through the forest, where, almost lost, they instead happen upon the discovery of a lifetime: a secret boulder-like door in the forest. Behind it the adventure takes off, as the kids explore a giant, futuristic place hidden underground whose design suggests a double helix, whose walls are ornamented with feathered serpents, and whose secrets include ancient life in stasis–including pterosaur eggs, ready to hatch.

Creating a storyline chock-full of science, adventure, and an intriguing look at history, Leo includes a fascinating ancient, and highly advanced entity that has been slowly affecting helpful change since the beginning of humanity. Impressive, immersive details of what the friends find inside the Ark take readers through a well-detailed tour, though some of the scientific descriptions, along with calculations worked through in character dialogue, at times get too heavy for some young readers, who may miss some nuances of the story.

Once kids and adults together hatch the eggs, Leo takes readers on an urgent journey into the reality of climate change as the kids fly on the backs of their new pterosaur friends and learn firsthand what damage is being done to the planet and all creatures trying to live on it. The kids learn that it’s now their destiny to make changes to save humanity, some doing so immediately, with the help of an ancient entity, and others over the course of their lives, by making small changes through time. Although at times an upsetting read, especially when the pterosaurs themselves are directly affected by humanity’s choices, an important yet empowering lesson will resonate with readers of all ages.

Takeaway: This climate-fiction adventure with friends, dinosaurs, and ancient secrets will please young readers who love science.

Great for fans of: Jess Redman’s The Adventure Is Now, Piers Torday’s The Last Wild.

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

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The Boy in the Barn
Syneca Featherstone
The latest from Stone, author of numerous western romance series plus other works, is a compelling small-town thriller in which the lives of a cult leader, a mother, and a long-lost lover get tangled up with the secrets of the past. When Sophie Morgan’s mother dies, she is forced to return to her small hometown in Georgia to handle her mother’s affairs, despite her aversion to spending time on the family’s farm. Bizarre occurrences start happening all around her, and when she’s flooded with memories from her childhood, she must begin to unpack some of her generational trauma. The mystery around her family and their land is uncovered when Sophie reunites with Luke, the love of her life. But while she attempts to reconcile the loss of her mother, Sophie also finds herself face to face with an unexpected evil.

The Boy in the Barn is entirely engrossing, although the content, which includes abuse and torture, may be difficult to digest. Stone’s scene-setting finesse and emotional acuity are impressive, and despite a heavy emphasis on violence, she delivers a skillful story powered by crisp dialogue and narrative momentum, using flashbacks to give her characters depth—and provide readers with welcome relief from the intensity of her plot, although at times the characters memories prove wrenching, too.

The joy of this mystery is embedded in its characters, specifically Sophie, a cautious but brave protagonist who will enrapture readers. The fight for good over evil and chaos rings throughout, and readers will cheer for Sophie and Luke’s love to win in the end. The character of Gideon, a most heinous antagonist, is compelling but lacks intricacy. Fans of mystery novels will find familiar plot points, but the narrative’s charm lies in the nuance of Stone’s people’s complex emotions, which make this combination of mystery and romance shine.

Takeaway: Returning to her childhood home reveals a sinister plot against the heroine’s life in this compelling mystery tinged with romance.

Great for fans of: Willow Rose’s Don’t Lie to Me, Shanora Williams’s The Perfect Ruin.

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

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Cats in the City of Plague
A.L. Marlow
Marlow's fiction debut delves into the world of 14th century France, presenting a thoughtful portrait of a historical plague from the unique perspective of a city's cats. Leander, who considers himself a good cat, upholds his end of the bargain between humans and felines by keeping mice out of the apothecary garden. But the humans of the city are acting strange, and the cats can’t understand why. As plague ravages the town, the humans’ fear turns to distrust and violence against anyone suspected of the Devil's work—from Leander's beloved apothecary, whose herb garden has long been a refuge, to the cats themselves. With the city no longer safe for them, they must make a dangerous journey to an uncertain future in the forest, with only each other to rely on.

Plague is certainly a timely subject, and Marlow's choice to present it from a non-human perspective creates a welcome, fascinating distance. The many cats of the city have charming and distinct personalities, from the brash Eusebius, to the inquisitive twins, and the wise and powerful Innocent. However, the cast is extensive, and the short length of the novel precludes much in-depth characterization. The human interactions are informative but often lack narrative momentum. Still, the theme is engaging, and the unspoken comparisons with today's world will ring true with readers: on one hand, the humans seem to be taking the plague seriously, but on the other, many turn to wild rumors of miracle cures, desperately seek scapegoats, or distrust actual sources of medicine.

Although Marlow’s plot is slow to get started, it eventually transforms into a tense and dramatic journey through the city, powered by the danger and sacrifice inherent in tales of epic quests. Ultimately, the story will appeal more to fans of historical fiction than to animal enthusiasts, but cat lovers will enjoy the lore of Le Chat and the eccentric relations between the humans and felines.

Takeaway: This intriguing story of cats facing the Black Death presents well-researched history and an engaging quest.

Great for fans of: Tad Williams’s Tailchaser's Song, Richard Adams's Watership Down.

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

Click here for more about Cats in the City of Plague

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