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Crisis at Calista Station: Book 2 in The Portal Adventures
Andrew J. Harvey
Harvey’s imaginative second middle grade science-fiction outing (after Trouble on Teral) tells of a group of friends from across the universe and their great escapades on a space station. Thirteen-year-old Tania Martin is used to moving regularly for her mom's job with Malachi Mining, but this move is especially significant: for the first time, she’ll be temporarily living in space on Calista Station. Shortly after arriving, Tania makes friends with Mark Spender, his Terek friend Windracer, and Shr’un, a Hspk. When artificial intelligence throughout the station begins to malfunction, Shr’un’s father, Sh’man K’valth, also disappears. With the help of his father’s portable AI, the group of kids set out to find Sh’man and save themselves from the people behind it all.

Young readers will relate in many ways to the characters Harvey has created and the narration, which is largely from a 13-year-old point of view. Harvey does a great job showing how the characters would view and respond to different situations, often in ways that adults wouldn’t. The group is nicely varied, including kids from multiple planets that are at different levels of learning how to adjust to, maneuver, and live in a zero-gravity environment. Realistically, they also continue to worry about normal kid concerns like getting in trouble with their parents.

What could have been complicated to explain, Harvey makes easy, clearly describing the steps taken and equipment needed to move around in zero-G. The author describes every twist and turn, every movement, and every view in a clear way that makes it easy for young readers to imagine the action. Standout settings include a beautiful garden within a space station that practically beckons readers to join the characters in their playing and relaxing in and around the trees. Although some of the smaller scientific details of how things work will be hard for some young readers to understand, that won’t keep them from engaging with the story. This book will appeal to middle grade sci-fi readers with its blend of mystery and fun, exciting space trip.

Takeaway: This book will appeal to middle grade sci-fi readers with its blend of mystery and fun, exciting space trip.

Great for fans of: Stuart Gibbs’s Space Case, Bruce Coville’s My Teacher Is an Alien series.

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

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Alessia in Atlantis: The Forbidden Vial
Nathalie Laine
In Laine’s debut middle grade fantasy, Scottish 12-year-old Alessia Cogner is unexpectedly sucked underwater to Atlantis, where she discovers that her family—whom she believes to be dead—hails from the lost city. Alessia is surprised to learn how seamlessly she fits into Atlantide society, from her now-unremarkable pale skin to her grasp of the language. As she becomes more immersed in the city, Alessia begins to seek out information on her parents, even as the elders, including her new guardians Wimmi and Felthor, seem reluctant to share any stories. Alessia soon uncovers secrets that link her family to Atlantis’s tyrannical leader, Emperor Oscor, and the mystical five Sensate Powers—bringing her closer to finding her history, and, in turn, herself.

Though the plot is complex, Laine’s artful ability to tie together every detail keeps it understandable. Each character and event has purpose, with the threads expertly woven together to feel clever, not contrived. Alessia’s support system is no different; her classmate crew-turned good-guy-posse—“the unusual bunch that she was now making her accomplices”—and budding relationship with a mysterious boy, Vulcor, each ultimately aid Alessia in her quest for the truth while also adding sweet and humorous side stories. All the while, Laine crafts picturesque prose (“she felt like a fizzy drink that had just been shaken”) and realistic dialogue, sprinkled with imaginative elements like color-changing clothes and teleportation bubbles.

The book also has a message of acceptance which comes through in both worldbuilding (Wimmi and Felthor are a same-sex couple) and plot: Emperor Oscor believes Atlantis’s indigenous population to be “second-class citizens.” He long ago separated those species, yet, when Alessia befriends a blue person of Minch, she realizes there’s no need for the divide and demonstrates the need for acceptance and equality. Drawn in by Alessia’s determination and empathy, as well as the age-old draw of Atlantis, fantasy readers will be wrapped up in this underwater tale.

Takeaway: Alessia’s magical journey to the lost city of Atlantis and the discovery of her family’s history will enrapture middle grade fantasy readers.

Great for fans of: Shannon Messenger’s Keeper of the Lost Cities series, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, Kali Wallace’s City of Islands.

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

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A Climate for Death
R. T. Lund
A plane crash, a snowmobile accident, and the coldest Minnesota winter in years are the raw materials for an intricately woven, character-driven detective novel with a big cast. From the moment the plane crash is reported, Sheriff Sam MacDonald faces a complex mystery: Only the dead pilot, with a bullet in his head, is at the crash site, while the flight’s three passengers have gone missing. MacDonald must also piece together the events that led up to a snowmobile accident involving a philanthropist and the young woman college student who appears to be his escort. Dirty dealings and the secrets of ego-driven rich men swirl at the center of the drama.

Lund excels at sketching compelling portraits of his thriller’s sprawling cast, such as Kelly Ann Kinnear, a park ranger with a “fondness for frequent and diverse sexual encounters,” and Special Agent Lance Whitney, a “self-described body builder whose ego was more inflated than his biceps.” As he surveys Lake Superior’s secrets, though, Lund doesn’t always develop his people. His interest in local color, and his dedication to capturing the essence of his North Shore milieu, at times slows the narrative momentum, as A Climate for Death touches on political campaigns, climate change, intelligence agencies, the machinations of energy companies, and the tragic fate of Isle Royale’s wolf population. Lund knows his region cold and takes great pains to reveal it.

The novel builds to a satisfying ending that justifies the title, complete with a whiff of noir fatalism. Still, that large cast and the story’s wide sweep may prove demanding for readers who don’t relish keeping a pen and pad on hand to keep dates, characters, and events straight. Fans of twisty, complex thrillers with a chill in their bones and an interest in how political power shapes our lives and our world should find this title to their liking.

Takeaway: Crime thriller fans will enjoy the intricately woven mystery wrapped in a vastly diverse cast of characters.

Great for fans of: Lin Enger’s Undiscovered Country, William Kent Krueger’s Thunder Bay

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

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ZODIAC SAGA 2 The Balance of Power
Kaitlyn McKnight
From New York to Seattle, the present to the future, this fun, if messy, sequel to Zodiac Saga 1 takes Lancaster and his gang on a journey to find the Gems in order to help the Elders, the Zodiac gods. But soon after they start, they get severely sidetracked by a series of zany events, such as an unfair trial, crazy weather, silhouette zombies, unhelpful gods and their wily children, and the potential end of the world. By Lancaster’s side are Sofia, Taurus’s daughter; Judas, an undead ghoul; and Peter, the driver. Can Lancaster overcome a constant onslaught of trials and tribulations to uncover the truth about himself, or will the world fall to ruin on his watch?

This is a unique twist on familiar concepts that’s full of humor and personality; the immaturity of the gods is a quirky take on deities. But too many ideas are stuffed in this installment, and not all of them properly flow into each other, leading to an ungrounded patchwork effect. The only goals given are that Lancaster and his team need to “help the Elders” by “finding their gems” (concepts which won’t be clear to readers who haven’t read the previous volume), with no mention of how that would happen, whether there is a time limit, or what the stakes are if they fail. Thus, when the crew shows up in New York and things go awry immediately, it’s unclear how this impacts the larger mission. Also, most of these events do not get resolved by Lancaster, who’s often being called away in his dreams, being left behind by his friends, or leaving his friends behind, thus spending very little time with them and letting seemingly dire circumstances get resolved in the background while he works on his own mission.

Fortunately, between the well-defined smaller stakes, the plot twists, and the breakneck speed, this is an escapade that will certainly keep young readers on their toes. While this novel could use stronger connective tissue, there’s no denying this scramble against constant destruction will be fun for an upper middle grade audience.

Takeaway: Middle grade readers will revel in this quirky, no-holds-barred take on the children-of-gods trope.

Great for fans of: Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, Cindy Lin’s The Twelve.

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

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Too Long Ago:: A Childhood Memory, A Vanished World.
David Pietrusza
In this rollicking memoir about growing up Polish Catholic in a small upstate New York town in the 1950s and ’60s, presidential historian and author Pietrusza (1920: The Year of the Six Presidents) shines a light on the quirks and foibles of Amsterdam, N.Y., birthplace of Oscar-winning actor Kirk Douglas. In the tone of a wise old uncle telling well-loved family stories passed down through the ages, the author recounts engaging tales of small-town life, both good and bad, mostly concentrated on the era of his before he headed off to SUNY Albany). Once a carpet-making town with that industry providing a lion’s share of jobs, Amsterdam’s fortunes began to fall after its key employers left the region.

With sardonic charm, Pietrusza makes clear that small-town life retained its considerable appeal, regaling readers with descriptions of whistle-stop visits by presidents such as John F. Kennedy, comically bad small-town baseball games, and a guitar-loving cop. The author’s imaginative prose (“laid out in a particularly haphazard fashion as if dropped from the sky by a drunken engineer”) and self-deprecating humor (“a reaction to the fairly new-fangled wonder drug penicillin turned me blue and came very close to making this the world’s shortest autobiography”) will charm readers.

The author discloses painful family secrets, including a relative’s rape and subsequent stay at a state mental hospital, but largely keeps the narrative optimistic. Without formalized chapters, readers may be hoping for more structural guideposts to aid in comprehension, but Pietrusza’s story-telling skills carry the day. Anyone who has ever thought longingly about days gone by in picture-perfect small towns will devour these enjoyable reminiscences.

Takeaway: Pietrusza’s work is a striking, nostalgic look at the up-and-down fortunes of an evolving town in the 20th century, sure to entice those who long for the “good old days.”

Great for fans of: Earl Hamner’s Spencer’s Mountain, Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana, Bill Geists’ Lake of the Ozarks: My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America.

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

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The Lost Signal: Slaves of Zisaida, Book 1
Jennifer Saraí Fernandez Morales
This volume, the first in Fernandez Morales’s Slaves of Zisaida series, tells the story of a group of humans, aliens, and a hybrid rushing to save Earth from a hostile threat. Bill, a member of the Uruklu race, makes contact with a human crew at the Salt Lake Space Force Base. Bill informs the crew that the Creators, the superspecies that created both Uruklu and humans for their own purposes, are coming to re-enslave humanity, and that unity between Uruklu and humans might be Earth’s only hope. Meanwhile, Fiona, a Uruklu-human hybrid, has been kidnapped along with her human neighbors by Kurugar, the increasingly mentally unstable leader of the Uruklu. Fiona is kept as a sort of pet, only alive because of the whims of the leader’s naïve and impetuous sister Inanna. Fiona struggles to keep herself, the love of her life Ralph, and his wife Anya—both human slaves—alive. In the exciting conclusion, these two story lines converge, setting the protagonists up for a war with the Creators.

Surprisingly, despite the themes of slavery and genocide, the tone is often light; the characters are quick to banter and laugh despite the high stakes of impending doom. There are some elements that may leave readers wondering. It’s unclear when the story is set; all readers learn is that the US is a shell of its former self (“a bottom-feeder country)” and the Salt Lake Space Force Base crew is badly scarred but forever united by a previous decision to turn against the American military during a war and save Japanese civilians.

One particular strength in Morales’s worldbuilding lies in the details about the Uruklu; they’re humanoid-ish but have tentacles, go through a tadpole stage and, most importantly they have nervelike tentacles (“neurals”) that allow them to take in information, learn languages, and connect their nervous systems directly to their spaceships, controlling them like limbs. Science fiction fans will enjoy this engaging, well-paced caper and look forward to the sequel.

Takeaway: This engaging story about a group of unlikely heroes trying to save humanity will appeal to sci-fi fans.

Great for fans of: Mike Chen’s A Beginning at the End, Hao Jingfang’s Vagabonds.

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

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One Vote
J. Stewart Willis
Willis’s (Gestation Seven, One Was Black and One Was White) novel of political wrangling and faithless electors imagines the chaos that could ensue following the death of a president-elect before an inauguration. Democratic President-elect John Hornsby Vickers collapses during a press conference and then, three days after his tightly won victory, dies at George Washington University Hospital. Constitutional turmoil ensues, and the race is on to find a substitute, with the party ultimately settling on Brock Henry, the runner up from that cycle’s primaries. But Chance FitzBourne, one of the party’s 272 electors, proves faithless, and two more may have been bought off and vote Republican. The election gets thrown into the House, which debates a motion declaring that the presidency should be awarded “based on the popular vote received by each Party in the state in last November’s Presidential Election.” True to life, chaos ensues -- and the sitting president refuses to vacate the White House.

Plausible and engaging, One Vote examines its alarming scenario with tension and humor, taking on the Electoral College (one character notes how stupid it is that “People who get a lot of votes in one state can still lose if their opponent squeaks out small majorities in other states”), the choice to nominate a 76 year old with a bad heart, and comparing the machinations of the parties to the process of “selecting heifers to breed.” While fun, the unpolished prose is repetitive and plagued by awkward phrasings and too-frequent typographical errors.

Despite these shortcomings, Willis’ novel offers a cautionary tale worth readers’ attention, especially as Willis convincingly lays out how a candidate could win the popular vote, the electoral college, and still lose the election. “This is serious as hell,” one character notes. Voting is important, and One Vote demonstrates why.

Takeaway: Political junkies should keep an eye out for this cautionary novel about how the death of a president-elect could upset the order of everything.

Great for fans of: Larry Beinhart’s American Hero, Karin Tanabe’s The List

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

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Elegy to Murder: Medieval Mystery
Priscilla Royal
This well-researched 16th installment in the Medieval Mysteries series follows the murder of a wool merchant in a village near Tyndal Priory. Travelers, returning from a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Walstan, flood the town seeking a place to stay before their journeys home. After a series of violent events—the brutal beating of a carpenter, the murder of a merchant from Norwich—and with the King’s Crowner away catching smugglers, Prioress Eleanor and Brother Thomas begin an investigation with the help of Nute, the innkeeper’s foster son. Meanwhile, the residents of the priory struggle to understand their relationships with God, as they explore the morality of homosexuality, birth control, and calculated dishonesty.

This book stands alone and works well as a one-off, even though the characters are part of a much larger series. Certain plotlines (Brother Thomas’s homosexuality, Prioress’s Eleanor’s move to Tyndal) are mentioned in this installment but are not fully explored; those seeking in-depth backstories may want to start at the series’ beginning. In the first half of this volume, well-developed character studies of village residents get almost as much focus as the mystery, with complex characterization. The second half is lean and quick-moving, more focused on the murder.

The novel’s real triumph is Royal’s steadfast commitment to remaining true to period while crafting dialogue and prose that feel at home in both the 21st century and the 13th. The characters have modern sensibilities, but never don’t seem out of place in the society in which they live. History buffs will appreciate the attention to detail. Readers who are less familiar with medieval history may want to familiarize themselves with some of the basic customs of the time, but the book includes enough context to remain enjoyable for those who are new to the genre. This well-balanced novel, with its blend of fact, fiction, and thrills, will pique readers’ interest in the village and its denizens.

Takeaway: This period thriller will appeal to medieval history buffs and those who like their murder mysteries set in a well-developed context.

Great for fans of: Bernard Knight’s Crowner John series, Ellis Peters’s A Morbid Taste for Bones.

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

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Samurai Barber Versus Ninja Hairstylist
Zed Dee
Dee's innovative, fast-moving novel incorporates elements of cyberpunk and wuxia, the Chinese fiction genre following the exploits of honorable martial-arts warriors. Life isn't easy for a samurai barber. For some reason, giving haircuts for free is not very profitable. But the samurai barber does it, and that draws the attention of a group of anarchist ninjas who force haircuts on unwilling participants—haircuts that can change identities and lives, for better or worse. As the Samurai and the Master Ninja pursue each other through the streets of a futuristic cityscape, they are forced to confront their darkest secrets and deepest questions about who holds power and how to create a safe and just world.

An environment filled with anthropomorphic technology (cell phones with names, who yawn and purr and scream), cloned salespeople, and eldritch space monsters is weird enough that supernatural haircutting abilities fit right in. On the surface, this novel could be read as a campy martial arts parody; at a level below that, it is a sharp critique of capitalism and society; and even further down it is a story about two people reckoning with trauma, learning to give and accept love and forgiveness. As in the best dystopias, Dee builds a society that has both futuristic technology and recognizable problems of inequality and exploitation, in which rich people are above the law and everyone else struggles to get by. The Samurai and the Ninja are perfect foils, exemplifying conflicting responses to the same forces.

The fight scenes are described in sharp, direct narration that allows their strangeness and intensity to shine through. The worldbuilding is enhanced by distinctive language choices: sprinkled into the English prose are Mandarin nongendered pronouns for all the characters and Hokkien slang. While the ending offers a sudden influx of new complications without resolving any of them, the ride to get there is a wild one and fully worth it. The Samurai Barber is the hero of a delightfully weird and imaginative story with a surprisingly tender heart.

Takeaway: This distinctive novel will delight fans of genre-blending sci-fi, martial arts stories, and anime.

Great for fans of: Saad Z. Hossain’s The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday, Zen Cho’s The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water.

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

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Curve of the Dragon - Episode 1: Chasing Shadows
Matt Stokes
This first novel in a new series, an international spy thriller set mostly in modern-day Washington, D.C., delivers gripping action and richly detailed conspiracies. A motley and engaging crew of hard-edged operatives and determined amateurs battle Fractal, a mysterious and powerful organization. Will Taylor, a veteran and electronics whiz, is trying to track down his sister Laura, a Navy SEAL turned secret agent who may now be held by Fractal. He pairs up with rogue agent Carter Callahan, a friend of his sister's. In a parallel plot, CIA officer Maia Calderon and MI6 officer Sebastian George also find themselves on Fractal's trail.

Stokes keeps the action at a full boil, with some inventively choreographed fight scenes. The opening chapter builds tension steadily, with an air of quiet menace that leads to a stunning and violent surprise. Elsewhere, the protagonists defend themselves imaginatively with, for example, a cross inside a church and a fire extinguisher. Technothriller fans especially will delight in a plane hijacking accomplished not with a gun, but with a laptop. Occasionally, the plot strains credulity—Fractal agents seem to be brilliant in one scene but are absurdly easy to fool in another—but some suspension of disbelief goes with the territory.

Although the focus is mostly on plot, the author offers some development for his lead character Will. There's a warm flashback scene showing Will with his sister, who's trying to let him know that she's moving into the intelligence world, without breaking her cover: “We’re going through some… changes at work." He and Carter develop an amusing and believable odd couple relationship, while Maia and Sebastian have a tentative flirtation: "Sebastian took Maia’s hand and went to kiss it—But she deftly turned it into a handshake instead." Indeed, the author neatly relieves the violence with a welcome dose of humor: a pair of agents get into an argument over the relative merits of kombucha and wheatgrass. With wit and derring-do, the characters move the plot forward to a cliffhanger conclusion, leaving readers eager for the next installment. Spy thriller fans will relish this one.

Takeaway: Fans of spy thrillers will revel in the original and handsomely staged action scenes while rooting for the engaging characters to persevere against their delightfully evil opponents.

Great for fans of: Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler.

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

C'est La Vie: Such is life...
Melody Saleh
In this third installment of the Unbroken Series (Facade, Deja Vu), Saleh picks up where the second book broke off, in the lives of four close friends each facing different struggles in pursuit of their own version of happily ever after. Cancer-free for six months, Dominque Patterson wants to have a child, despite her doctor’s warnings. After saying yes to the wrong man, Debra Harris is ready to move forward with the right one. Fashion designer Zya faces her fears, and abusive ex, in a child contentious custody battle. Murder conviction overturned, Amber Fiore battles anxiety while trying to discover her stalker’s true identity.

This is a dark story at times, with references to Amber’s rape and Brandy’s quest for revenge. Sexual innuendo and profanity are laced throughout the story, notably in scenes where Brandy is present (“Just think, identical twins, lesbians, sixty-nine, eating each other out. We could have made a mint with a video like that. What would we have named it?”). This is counterbalanced by the sweet bond Zya has with her daughter Ashanti and wife Tina.

Although the cast is large and story lines interconnected, Fiore’s drama takes center stage in this volume. From the first pages, readers are thrust into her murder trial and calamitous relationship with her evil twin sister, Brandy. Readers not familiar with previous installments may have difficulty following events in opening scenes. However, as the story unfolds, readers will quickly become enthralled by the fast-paced plot. Short snippets and texts from the antagonist’s point of view (“I’ll never forget what you did to me—what you did to us. You’re going to pay—I promise you will suffer. Feel safe for now”) add elements of mystery and suspense that will keep readers guessing about the identity of Fiore’s stalker. Full of tension, mystery, and angst, this melodramatic romance is well suited to readers interested in love and redemption.

Takeaway: The third volume in the Unbroken series will draw readers in with its mix of tension, angst, redemption, and love.

Great for fans of: Jennifer Close’s Girls in White Dresses, Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature, Traci Hall’s By The Sea series.

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

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Where Do I Go from Here?
Torrey C. Butler
Butler’s inspirational memoir recounts how he triumphed over obstacles ranging from an absent father and birth defects to academic troubles and periods of homelessness, eventually creating a successful and stable life as a commissioned Navy officer and proud father. His passion for telling his story drives the memoir, as does his belief that everyone’s story matters and that he can be a model to inspire the reader to tell their own. The included photos flesh out the narrative, giving readers a glimpse of Butler’s world growing up.

Even though the details of how he grew up are unique, Butler’s conversational voice makes it easy for readers to connect and even relate. The book encourages and advises readers, focusing on the idea that “anyone can be somebody, but it’s up to you to decide what you will be.” Butler’s discussion of fatherhood is particularly moving. He recounts feeling the absence of his own father deeply, addressing him directly early in the book, and later revisits that lack when describing how he missed his daughter’s birth because he was deployed.

This memoir is much stronger because Butler brings self-awareness to his story. The life he depicts is not one of unending hard work and virtue; he recounts college parties and includes details that depict him in a less-than-completely-positive light, including about the problems that held up his commissioning as a Navy officer. He isn’t claiming to be perfect, simply trying to tell his story. He is clearly eager to share, with honesty and courage, the journey through hardships and struggle that led to his building a successful career and life. Readers looking for triumph over adversity and inspiration to tell their own stories will find both in Butler’s relatable memoir.

Takeaway: Readers looking for a story of triumph over adversity and seeking inspiration in telling their own story will find both in Butler’s relatable memoir.

Great for fans of: Liz Murray’s Breaking Night, Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and Annette Gordon Reed’s Vernon Can Read.

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

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Complicit
Amy Rivers
In the first installment of the Legacy of Silence series, Rivers (All the Broken People) draws on her experiences as a director for the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) in two New Mexico counties and her postgraduate work in forensic criminology. Kate Medina left her career as a forensic psychologist and returned to her hometown of Alamogordo, N. Mex., to work as a school counselor at Centennial High School and care for her father following her mother’s death. Five years after her return, all is not well in Alamogordo; Kate hears from Detective Roman Aguilar, her onetime best friend. A missing student from Centennial has been murdered, and he wants to know whether she has any information about whether it was gang-related. Then Mandy Garcia, one of the students Kate counsels, comes to her for help after being beaten and raped and tips her off about the existence of a sex-trafficking ring. Kate and Roman join forces to investigate. Will they be able to fend off threats from prominent members of the local community—and will they overcome past misunderstandings and acknowledge the romantic spark between them?

Rivers deftly explores not only Kate’s relationship with Roman and the town’s underbelly, but also the relationship between Kate and her sister Tilly. Kate sees herself as the responsible sister for having returned and Tilly as irresponsible. The lifelike arguments that arise from these feelings hint at deeper reasons for Tilly’s rebellious behavior as a teenager and her determination to avoid returning to Alamogordo.

The arrest of a suspect in recent crimes and subsequent sentencing to life in prison in less than a month strains credulity, but the book’s other elements ring true. Kate’s experiences with being followed and sensing that someone is stalking her add suspense. Even as Kate gains clarity about her past and her future, some elements of the conclusion leave questions unanswered (what’s the relationship between Kate’s dad and the people running the sex trafficking ring?), setting up subjects for future installments to explore. This evenly paced, believable series opener will draw readers in and leave them eager for more.

Takeaway: The kickoff to the Legacy of Silence series combines suspense, deep relationships, and a compelling protagonist.

Great for fans of: Diane Chamberlain’s Big Lies in a Small Town, Heather Sunseri’s Truth Is in the Darkness.

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

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Lyrical: Poems that will blow you a kiss or punch you in the stomach
James Strazza
Strazza, a former musician and songwriter, “used to think poetry was stupid.” However, he recounts, as his chronic illness worsened, he became bedridden, and he lost his ability to play music, poetry became an expressive outlet and a refuge from his daily struggles. This collection is divided into five sections: “Blowing Kisses,” about love; “Heartache,” about loss and yearning; “Stomach Pains,” about his experiences with illness; “Heretic,” about controversial elements of our world; and a fifth section of song lyrics, blurring the lines between standard poetry and the poetics of music. Through brutal honesty and beautiful metaphor, Strazza offers countless quotable lines about the human condition: “They say the best art comes from pain, / but that’s incorrect. // The best art comes from honesty; it’s just / that pain has a funny way of making / people very honest.” Interspersed with the poems are a few illustrations by various artists that touch on some of the text's themes.

Strazza’s poetic strength shines in his shortest poems of just a few lines, as these allow his exacting word choice and mastery of rhyme to take center stage. His economy of language and punctuation create a sense of closeness between him and the reader. His past experience as a lyricist is evident in his use of metaphor and rhyme; for example, in “Houseplant:” “i’d bloom in early season / and never be a chore / i’d shine my waxy coating / for no other reason / than for you to adore.” “Houseplant” is just one of many poems in which Strazza personifies objects or animals as a way to envision life outside of his bedroom. He also relies on bodily imagery as a way to explain his thoughts and feelings within the confines of his room.

At the end of this collection, Strazza writes: “if you made it this far / you deserve one more kiss blown. // thank you / for taking my heart / into your home.” Sometimes funny, sometimes emotionally gutting, and always beautiful, Strazza’s poems inspire readers to contemplate the importance of words as vehicles for empathy. Readers and music fans will love this poignant collection of masterfully written poems.

Takeaway: Readers and music fans will love this poignant collection of masterfully written poems.

Great for fans of: Rupi Kaur, Rumi’s The Love Poems of Rumi, Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing.

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

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My Favorite Recipes
Christy Henry Di Leo
Di Leo, an avid home cook, invites readers to savor her family’s favorite dishes in this sprawling, well-photographed collection of more than 125 recipes. The collection’s chief strength is its abundance. From simple, everyday offerings (chicken casserole, macaroni, BLT sandwiches) to heartier, more elaborate fare (whole roast turkey, party dips), Di Leo provides food ideas for every occasion, often steeped in family tradition--a chicken soup is named for Grandma Teresa and a cranberry salad for Grandmother Leona. There are extensive choices here for all the courses of a meal, appetizer, entrée, and sides, and for many diets--vegetarians (asparagus ravioli), meat lovers (prime rib), and seafood aficionados (grilled swordfish) alike. And for those with a sweet tooth, Di Leo’s dessert offerings include 11 types of cookies.

While most of the dishes could best be described as American food, Di Leo also offers Italian fare—including instructions for homemade pasta and marinara sauce-- and her influences vary widely. Recipes are inspired by a variety of cuisines: French (seared beef fillet), Latin American (arroz con pollo), and Southern (buttermilk fried chicken). While this offers cooks plenty of options, the variety and lack of organization diminish the collection’s cohesiveness. Outside of being family favorites, ones Di Leo has cooked many times over, there’s little in the way of shared themes or techniques to the recipes — they require different equipment and skill sets, and they target different flavor palettes.

Instructions and ingredient lists can be vague. Serving sizes are only rarely included, making it hard to gauge portions. The collection’s strongest elements are Di Leo’s personal touches, such as pairing recommendations, or indications of which dishes her family prizes most. Here’s an ambitious collection of disparate dishes, brought together by a woman with a passion for cooking. And, although it’s at times ambiguous, this cookbook dishes up a bounty of possibilities.

Takeaway: This potpourri of family recipes covers a variety of cuisines for home cooks at every skill level.

Great for fans of: Erica Walker’s Favorite Family Recipes: A Year of Favorites, Alex Guarnaschelli’s The Home Cook.

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

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The Unicorn Diet
MK Lorber
Lorber’s high-spirited, eminently reasonable guide to intentional weight loss lands squarely in the category of diet books promising straight talk, offering a crash course in nutrition rather than yet another gimmicky crash diet. Lorber, an optometrist, cheekily acknowledges that she first came to her subject as an amateur—“another exhausted, middle-aged parent who had to figure this out on her own.” But she demonstrates throughout the book both a practical understanding of the science of nutrition and the ability to communicate that understanding with wit and clarity.

Lorber lays out what she’s discovered in crisp, clean prose, always with an eye toward what readers need to know. Her chapters are lean, but marbled with humor and conversational asides. (She apologizes, when working through some relatively complex material, for the text briefly resembling “acronym vomit.”) Her explanations of fat types, antibodies, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (“just a swanky phrase for the amount of energy required for your body to return to baseline after a hard training session”) boast a welcome verve, as does her advice. On exercise, she writes, “Find something you love, or just walk until you do.”

Lorber has tough words for “charlatans and diet companies” who promise readers and consumers more than their latest plans can deliver. The Unicorn Diet argues, in engaging and tightly structured chapters, that a slow and steady approach to intentional weight loss (monitoring calories, changing sleep habits, developing an exercise routine, incorporating these new habits into your sense of self) remains the healthiest path. Dieters seeking a down-to-earth guide will appreciate this one.

Takeaway: This witty, science-backed book persuasively advocates for dieters to take the slow and steady approach.

Great for fans of: Joel Kahn’s The No B.S. Diet, Michael Greger’s How Not To Diet, Glenn Livingston’s Never Binge Again.

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

Click here for more about The Unicorn Diet

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