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Journal of the Plague Year 20/20: : from Pax Americana to the Apocalypse
Michelle A Christides
Christides’s intimate, apocalyptic journal documents both hers and the world’s experience of that annus horribilis of 2020, from the perspective of a Jungian therapist who splits her time between Florida and France, covering the plague referred to in the title, keeping a running total of deaths as the year passes, and the bumptious events that shook the world at the same time, including what she calls “mass psychosis,” the U.S. election, the rise of “Q-Anon psychos,” and more. The journal extends into 2021, as she faces the refusal of President Trump (whom she dubs “our Mafioso boss”) and the January 6 insurrectionists to concede the election. Of the latter, she notes “It is an insidious, that is, gradual and subtler approach to sedition, which is to overthrow democracy because of the fear that America is losing its demographic identity with the European ‘race.’

Throughout, alongside such sharp-elbowed and at times despairing analysis, Christides reflects on news events and food for thought from sources as disparate as an interview with Paul McCartney or insights from Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind. One of the crucial threads tying all this together: Christides’s sense that “the Revelation of the Apocalypse is happening,” brought on by humanity’s choice “to impede our transformation or to accept the future responsibility to the planet the Cosmos requires of us.”

Christides contends that society, rooted in imperialism, has reduced life “to its material components,” cutting us off from each other, from “the planetary web of life,” and from the soul. These spiritual concerns, laid out with clarity, pulse through the book’s overwhelming beat-by-beat recounting of Covid-19, impeachment proceedings, relentless Trump headlines, plus all the corridors her mind journeys down while watching news, listening to podcasts, contemplating Hubble images of the Lagoon Nebula, and even reckoning with the darkness of history, the horror of the present, and even, on occasion, the hope that humanity can be more than this.

Takeaway: A blow-by-blow account of life during the era of Covid and political instability, from a Jungian perspective.

Great for fans of: Madi Atkins’s The Covid Diaries, Vic Lee's Corona Diary: A Personal Illustrated Journal of the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020 .

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

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The Bastard of Colonia: Volume One of The Song of the Francs
T.J.S. Hayes
Hayes’s historical epic, the start to the “Song of the Francs” series, centers on the figure of Charles Martel, destined to become the epochal Frankish general, hero, and statesmen—and the grandfather of Charlemagne. As the title suggests, though, this first volume finds this “bastard of Colonia” growing up. striving to master his own life, and the complications of family and royalty and power, well before the days when he’ll master the seventh century itself. A framing device finds Charles, on his deathbed, reflecting back in an engaging first person voice, recounting with a storyteller’s zeal his arrival as a child in the walled city of Colonia (“Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined something so grand, so massive, so alive”).

The cousin of King Clovis IV, and the illegitimate son of the true force behind the throne, Pepin of Herstal, Charles grows up acquainted with power but not welcome to it. The first time young Charles meets Pepin of Herstal, the Duke of the Franks and Mayor of the Palace of Austrasi, the headstrong child attacks the duke for laughing rudely at Elfida, Charles’s mother. That impresses Pepin, and in crisp prose alive with historic detail, Charles makes a home at the palace of Colonia, determined to prove his quality. “Even if I don’t rise to power, a bastard can still become a great soldier,” he declares.

Raids on Burgundia and conflict between Pepin and the “boy-king” Clovis will afford that chance. Hayes’s telling is lengthy but assured, as committed to political machinations and extraordinary conflicts as it is to capturing the spirit of everyday life: “So my first night of adventure as a warrior was spent preparing food,” Charles notes. “My weapon was a knife for peeling and my enemies were vegetables to thicken our rabbit stew.” That exemplifies Hayes’s project: historical fiction dedicated as much to the way people of the past lived and thought as it is to how they fought.

Takeaway: A richly imagined novel of the early years of Frankish hero Charles Martel.

Great for fans of: Hillary Mantel, J. Boyce Gleason’s Anvil of God.

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

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Shadowgraph
John C. Wunsch
In his wide-ranging first published book of poetry, Wunsch offers melodic examination of the human experience, often with an emphasis on nature and our involvement with it, in verses of varied form and subject. Much of the collection reflects on life as it’s lived, with inspired musings on farmland (“the knotted corrugations / of stalk and leaf”), cityscapes (“Chicago’s hand-stuffed cornucopia”), freezing winters (“runnels of glistening ice, / diamond-faceted like reticulated glassware”) and relentless heat (“The wind-sharpened / growl of summer.” At times, an ominous voice rises even from poems with apparently hopeful themes: “Saturday Street Music,” which concerns Mozart and a toy piano, closes with reference to “the unseen gaze/ and surveillance of an all-observant eye.” Elsewhere, Wunsch dares to dream beyond the everyday, incorporating relatable experiences with those that can only be imagined.

A scrupulous, beautiful vocabulary showcases the poet’s skill and depth. Though some of the pieces can be verbose, it’s clear the intention is wonder, not obscurity. That means the work is accessible enough that even inexperienced readers of contemporary poetry will find pieces like “Cryptarithm”—which finds the poet contemplating his choices in the penning of a poem—somewhat challenging but worth the effort, even if they do not apprehend the full richness of the allusions, structure, and metaphor. Readers from the Midwest especially will find much here familiar yet fresh: “our tracks have disappeared /in curls of buffalo hair and deerskin” he writes, in a paean to back-roads driving.

Wunsch deftly handles formulaic structures as well as freeform styles, exhibiting a firm grasp on poetic devices and deft use of ambiguity. He skirts away from revealing the deeply personal instead choosing, at times, to minimize, and in the same turn universalize, experiences. The spark of imagination that nature and the heavens nature inspire in the poet are worth the cover price, as his work invites us deeper in concrete imagery, sympathetic feelings, and fruitful metaphor.

Takeaway: A talented poet with a relish for nature and the human experience offers a strong, skillful poetry debut.

Great for fans of: Wendell Berry, Alice Oswald.

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

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ETERNAL VIGILANCE: GUARDING AGAINST THE PREDATORY STATE
Ralph L. Bayrer
The title of Bayrer’s impassioned, deeply researched study refers to the price of freedom: the “eternal vigilance” demanded of those who would protect the “Free Extended Order” (a mutually beneficial economic system in which individuals freely enter voluntary transactions while government protects private property) from what Bayrer calls governmental or political “predation.” Bayrer writes, “The last century has shown how the FEO can be smothered by misguided universal utopian programs or continuously undermined by regulations and taxes that pander to special interests.” In that spirit, Eternal Vigilance champions free markets and small government and calls for the defense of both from efforts to drive up government spending or “soak the investor class” by running “the old leftist playbook about income inequality.”

Bayrer shores up his case with much fresh argument and analysis, stretching back to the founders (“Buchanan’s criterion that state activity is justified only to remove external diseconomies that prevent individuals from accomplishing objectives through voluntary contractual relations”), plus Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, and more, and on to consideration of recent history, especially countries’ approaches to FEO. Those nations most “aligned” with FEO principles eschew the “singular weakness” of representative governments, a “tendency to overpromise benefits and impose regulations supporting special interests.” Bayrer draws cautionary examples from the “utopian temptations” and “profligate behavior” of Greece, the EU, Argentina, and more.

While the thrust of the arguments is familiar, Bayrer offers original research, unique and persuasive examples, and a welcome tendency toward clarity, guiding readers in approachable prose. Despite his use of terms like “predation” to describe, say, the implementation of regulatory frameworks, Bayrer acknowledges that most people concerned more with inequality than the purity of FEO operate from good intentions or a surfeit of sentimental feeling. His arguments and analysis will buoy free market fellow travelers but likely not engage those who believe government should level playing fields.

Takeaway: A thorough, impassioned defense of free markets, small government, and resisting “utopian temptations.”

Great for fans of: Jane A. Williams and Kathryn Daniels’s Economics: A Free Market Reader, David F. DeRosa’s In Defense of Free Markets.

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

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The Voyage: Part I
Robert Vincent
Vincent’s tense maritime drama centers on issues of justice at sea. Jedediah Brown, a young crewman aboard the USS Hayes, a ship under the command of the enigmatic Captain Gellins in 1832. In between hosting foreign dignitaries and navigating the Indian Ocean, Jedediah and his shipmates’ days pass with backbreaking labor and spirited camaraderie. When crewmate Pat Tobin is wrongfully accused by Jonas Penderghast, their fellow shipman, everything changes on board the Hayes. Penderghast, readers learn, has similarly condemned several other men to the fate that Tobin faces—death by lashing. Tobin’s punishment, the crew decides, crosses a line, and Jedediah quickly gets swept up in a ship-wide conspiracy to murder Penderghast without tipping off Captian Gellins. But the bloodthirsty Penderghast won’t be easy to outsmart, and Jedediah learns that there may be some forces beyond any man’s control or understanding.

Lovers of historical fiction and tales of the high seas will find much to love in Vincent’s epic adventure, including some surprise elements. Jedediah is advised to “keep yer ears open and yer bonebox shut” as the plot against Penderghast touches up against aspects of fantasy and horror that will keep readers on edge and thrill mature audiences with iron stomachs. The vivid, irresistible opening pages make clear that The Voyage’s genre moorings are complex and, more pressingly, that Vincent is committed to period language and detail: “Someone had to kill Jacob Penderghast. All five hundred aboard knew it, long ere they roused Pat Tobin from his bed and spread-eagled him on the spar for his anointing.”

That commitment means that some of these sea dogs’ dialogue can be challenging to parse. Still, Vincent deftly captures the rich yet somehow raw tone and style of nineteenth-century literature—think Melville meets Lovecraft. Part dark fantasy, part modern spin on the novels of the past, The Voyage is a page-turning thriller perfect for the Halloween season.

Takeaway: This hair-raising high seas adventure will keep fans of historical fiction and horror gripped to the last page.

Great for fans of: William Hope Hodgson’s The Ghost Pirates, Dan Simmons’s The Terror.

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

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Nexus Point: Book #1 of Time Ranger series
Krista Pimpinella
Pimpinella debuts with an action-packed sci fi-adventure through time. Engineered to have superhuman strength, and shaped by his emotionally distant father to become the perfect soldier, Kai Sawyer has always known it was his destiny to become a Time Ranger, whether he wanted to or not. Time Rangers are responsible for tracking down "Runners"—people who travel through time illegally in order to change the past. From the sinking of The Titanic to the assassination of JFK, by the time he leads his first team Sawyer thinks he has seen it all. But when his first command mission—to pick up a doctor in 17th Century France who is attempting to advance medicine ahead of its time—goes dangerously awry, leaving his team possibly stranded. Sawyer soon learns there’s a greater conspiracy at play, and that he and his father are at the center of it.

Pimpinella builds on popular historical settings with lesser-known references—for instance, the obligatory visit to The Titanic includes a nod to the attempted rescue by The Carpathia, while the world of the future abounds with interesting details combining time-travel technology with space travel. While the latter part of the story flows with purpose, the first chapters have a disjointed feel, with flashbacks without clear relation to each other or the present. Once the France mission starts, however, the story gains welcome momentum: the team's race to find their target is nicely tense, while Sawyer's grappling with his traumatic past offers a compelling emotional dimension.

Many big questions will go unanswered until later books, so the ending is not as satisfying as it could be, but this is a saga worth keeping an eye on. Readers who want a speedy action story with angsty supersoldiers and the fascinating convolutions of time travel will find everything they are looking for here. Despite its uncertain start, this thriller delivers solid action and well-crafted settings in an intriguing start to a new series.

Takeaway: This time-travel thriller kicks off an exciting new series that lovers of the genre will relish.

Great for fans of: Jodi Taylor’s Time Police series, Connie Willis.

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

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COMPOUNDING, THE WIZARD OF WEALTH BUILDING: A Complete Guide to Compounding & Wealth Building
Jacob Sebastian
Engineer and real estate investor Sebastian walks readers through the complexities of compounding, the exponential growth of money, and how to use the mathematical phenomena to generate wealth in this exhaustive financial guide. With simple language, relatable anecdotes, and an abundance of revealing charts to illustrate complex financial concepts, Sebastian thoroughly examines the fundamentals of compounding, while laying out for the average reader practical steps to making the compounding techniques of the wealthy work for everyone. He urges readers to plan for the long term—and to aim big.

This first volume in Sebastian’s Highway to Riches series begins with a list of specific concepts and strategies covered in the book (“How investing in some stock markets abroad can increase your net worth manyfold”), followed by a brief, inviting explanation of common financial terminology and Yieldometer, a software program developed by the author to calculate formulas discussed in his books. Sebastian goes on to demonstrate the fundamentals of compounding, exponential growth, and why percentages should never be trusted, all while using real-world and contemporary examples that touch on the global spread of Covid-19 and the progression of food decay to depict yield rates. The bulk of the guide provides detailed examples of how interest rates, time, net worth, and the global banking system can be manipulated to propel wealth-building, and Sebastian also takes time to demystify systemic issues in the economy, such as the hard math behind the ever-expanding wealth gap between rich and poor, offering six persuasive reasons that “wealth always flows from the bottom to the top.”

Sebastian’s advice is direct and straightforward. He states: “the secret to building huge wealth lies not in having an abundance of money to invest but in investing whatever amount you have for the highest possible yield rate and the longest possible time period.” Investors and readers interested in improving their financial position will appreciate Sebastian’s forward, unflinching analysis of compounding for wealth-building.

Takeaway: Novice and seasoned investors looking to capitalize their investments will find this in-depth guide eye-opening and inspiring.

Great for fans of: Ramit Sethi’s I Will Teach You to Be Rich, T. Harv Eker’s Secrets of the Millionaire Mind.

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

A Gathering of Broken Mirrors: Memories of New York Survivors
Anthony E. Shaw
Shaw (Wolfe Studies) paints a lively series of New York City character portraits over a 60-year timespan, each from an entirely different point of view. Shaw notes “though none of them is me, they are all in me,” as he delves through the city's history and his own experiences to craft these two dozen stories, each fixed in a specific time and place—“(Howard Beach, Queens), March 10, 1979”—parenthetically identified in the title. These are stories of togetherness, like the Sunday dinners, told in lavish culinary detail, of a Sicilian uncle described as a “stone-cold gangster” who deeply loved his family. The narrator writes without judgment, as this is a work about people who did what they needed to in order to survive.

Shaw introduces other colorful, fascinating figures: tough wiseguys and the particulars of their practice, kids getting in nearly lethal situations when gambling, a toxic seductress being compared to Satan, a bartender who saves an old schoolmate from a loan shark. In the case of a long-suffering couple who have come to despise each other, he presents both the unique points of view; in every case, there's a bit of bluster and hyperbole, reflecting these people’s self conception, as well as more than a little sentiment for some of the times past: “[h]is father’s life was centered on three things: his family, his Church, and his job… [y]ou could call it the greatness of America.”

Shaw's portraits are overwhelmingly sympathetic, no matter his subjects’ sins or crimes, though he also never sugarcoats them. That sympathy is earned through his acute eye for detail, like the traditional Neapolitan dishes served at a mob-frequented restaurant, or the intricacies of converting stolen bail bonds into cash. The tales all share a pattern of storytelling cadence despite their frequently disparate subject matter as Shaw celebrates the rhythms of the city itself—and those who find ways to survive in it.

Takeaway: These short stories about tough guys, shady deals, and deeply held traditions will appeal to anyone who loves New York City's history and character.

Great for fans of: Brandon Stanton’s Humans, Catherine Burns’s The Moth.

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

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Gallant: The Call of The Trail
Claire Eckard
In the first of the Gallant trilogy, children’s author Eckard (Bentley and the Magic Sticks) details the heartwarming adventures of Gracie and her first love, an Arabian foal named Gallant. When Gallant is born on five-year-old Gracie’s ranch, Gracie creeps into his stall and nestles against him. Their bond strengthens over years until an accident causes Gracie’s parents to send him to a trainer. At first traumatized, Gallant won’t cooperate—but a trustworthy boy named Jack offers him a second chance, developing Gallant into an exceptional endurance racehorse before the all-important 100-mile Tevis race. However, a jealous, abused horse named Flash determines to beat Gallant, even by violent means, as the destinies of Gracie, Jack, Gallant, and Flash come together across some of the American West’s most challenging trails.

Eckard, who volunteers with homeless animals, describes a close-knit community devoted to horses’ wellbeing. The writing’s sentimental bent matches the novel’s dare-to-dream-of-greatness elementary grade genre, raising tension, evoking tears, and rewarding heroes at all the right moments. An abrupt cliffhanger ending will either exasperate readers or make them crave the sequel. Gracie is a wholesome and upbeat role model, but her submissiveness lacks nuance; when she at last shows some assertiveness the narration labels it as “sneaky and underhanded,” a point readers might debate. Regardless, readers will appreciate her intelligence, admirable sportsmanship, and faithfulness.

Endurance riding, which requires harmony between horse and rider, gives Eckard the opportunity to share numerous life lessons. Especially potent is the central theme: to complete any race is a victory, regardless of placement. Eckard juxtaposes the abuse and disposal of unwanted horses—never made graphic—beside ideal animal care to inspire activism in her audiences. Most enjoyable are the specific sport techniques she details, as well as the delightful imaginings of horses’ conversations. Phylicia Mann’s skillful, black-and-white illustrations complement pivotal scenes. Gracie and Gallant’s indomitable love and integrity are the stuff of legends, sure to enchant horse lovers.

Takeaway: An exciting horse drama with a contagious passion for endurance riding that young readers and horse enthusiasts will love.

Great for fans of: Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet, Valerie Tripp’s Love and Loyalty: A Felicity Classic.

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

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BE BRAVE: Uncensored Motivational Quotes
S.Sulianah
Sulianah offers a compendium of original maxims, thoughts, and advice for readers eager for continual inspiration, with the promise that, even when the material gets frank or challenging, the author will resist the urge to censor. Sharing a few lines or even short paragraphs on each page on a host of topics, Sulianah urges readers toward self love and acceptance (“Believe in yourself even though others do not believe in you”), overcoming self doubt (“You can overcome anything in your life. The question is whether you want to”), and understanding and even exiting unhealthy relationships (“Do not make compromises when others devalue you as a person.”)

The result reads like the advice a friend might want to offer to someone caught in an unhealthy relationship or situation but at times, out of politeness, might soft-pedal. No soft-pedaling here, though: “If someone cannot accept who you are, why are you desperate to be who they want you to be?” asks Sulianah, whose experience as a poet shines through in the crisp, direct, at times epigrammatic prose. While generally upbeat and encouraging, Sulianah’s straight talk at times comes with sharp elbows: one chapter is titled “Confidently Respond to Certified Idiots,” which addresses situations like the boss who won’t listen, acquaintances who ask to borrow money, and how to respond when someone raises their voice.

The thread tying the at times loosely organized advice together is “be brave,” and in entries that range from a couple quick, sharp lines to ones that share a personal anecdote and spread across a couple pages, Sulianah identifies familiar, relatable real-life situations and practical, self-preserving guidance for how to handle them. Throughout, the imperative to be courageous and to protect one’s self worth shines through: “Not even your parents are allowed to make you feel down about yourself,” Sulianah declares, and readers seeking encouragement will find much to buoy themselves here.

Takeaway: These clear, practical, original inspirational quotes urge readers to prioritize their self worth.

Great for fans of: David D. Burns’s Ten Days to Self-Esteem, Shad Helmstetter’s What to Say When You Talk to Yourself.

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

Awen Rising: A Near-Future Pre-Apocalyptic Urban Fantasy
O. J. Barré
The first novel in Barré’s Awen Trilogy introduces readers to a world where disaster is balanced on a razor’s edge, secret societies wield great power, and the fantastical sinks its teeth into the real. Since the age of four, Emily (Hester) Mayhall has lived under a variety of different names, thanks to a custodial kidnapping by her mother. Now, bankrupt in a crumbling California, the former disaster specialist is on the verge of homelessness–until a well-timed conversation with an Atlanta attorney reveals that her father has been searching for her and now wants to see her. Emily makes a choice that carries her across the country into an otherworldly lifestyle filled with magic, myth, a hint of romance, and creatures of legend–and horror.

A clear love of ancient belief shines throughout the novel, with Barré’s attention to the smallest details of pagan rituals and Druidic worship, in particular, laying a solid foundation to build a story and series upon. Emily’s journey from someone oblivious to a crucial member of an international Druidic order offers readers a delightful hint of wish fulfillment fantasy, immersing them in Emily’s life and allowing them to see the world through her eyes.

This strength may also be part of the story’s weakness: the roller-coaster of events that sweeps Emily across a damaged country flies at blazing speed, dropping her in what is essentially a whole new world, complete with a family she’d all but forgotten and a magical legacy. Even seasoned readers of urban fantasy may find it difficult to suspend disbelief as the many fantastical elements–everything from Emily’s mentorship with Shalane the famous spiritualist, to dragons, to the subplot about rise of the lizard people–clash together, diminishing the impact of each inventive idea. However, the polished, flowing prose delights, and Barré memorably evokes the very distant past as it’s resurrected in contemporary times.

Takeaway: A supernatural melange of mystical creatures, pagan rituals, and a world out of balance.

Great for fans of: Steven A. McKay’s The Druid Warrior, David A. Wells’s Thinblade.

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

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Fighting To Breathe, Third Edition
Jong Yi
“Unfortunately, the medical profession is not immune to racism, coupled with corruption and white privilege,” Yi, a nurse who has become an anti-racism advocate notes in introductory material to this, her debut novel. The story opens with nurse Ginger Kim, in Washington state, fighting to breathe. It’s March 10, 2020, and Kim is one of the first Americans to face Covid-19. (“We’re all going to get this thing before it’s through,” a paramedic says.) As Kim comes in and out of consciousness, she tries to convince the paramedics to take her to a different hospital than the one that’s closest—the one where she has worked and both witnessed and endured pervasive, alarming racism. Kim can’t quite tell the paramedics, but Yi tells the reader: She wanted to go “somewhere they wouldn’t let her die… …just because she was Korean.”

The novel’s perspective splits from there, as Yi follows both Kim’s treatment, often through the point-of-view of Hyun, another Korean RN, and Kim’s past, as the patient revisits her South Korean childhood, 1980’s Gwangju Uprising, her coming to America, and eventually the shocking behavior and treatment she experiences as a nurse: she’s marginalized, discriminated against, and eventually blamed for others’ failings. In the present, Hyun, too, faces all that, as well as the challenges of March 2020—uncertainty about treatments, a lack of PPE, and rapidly filling hospitals—as she fights to keep Kim alive.

Yi’s brief, tense narrative draws on her own experiences in nursing—and in striving to expose and eradicate discrimination and bias. For both characters, that’s part of the job, an extension of the mission of healing. Yi’s abbreviated treatment of Kim’s immigrant experience and her detailed, engaging dramatization of an early Covid case are compelling, but Fighting to Breathe is more powerful as truth telling than as novelistic storytelling, as what’s most urgent and memorable here is the revelation of all that nurses of color face as they care for us all.

Takeaway: Melvina Semper’s Discrimination Experienced in the Nursing Profession by Minority Nurses: Fifty True Stories from Nurses in New York City, Damon Tweedy’s Black Man in a White Coat.

Great for fans of: This brief, tense novel exposes the discrimination experienced by nurses of color from the vantage of the pandemic’s start.

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

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A Spell of Rowans
Byrd Nash
This light fantasy from Nash (author of the College Fae series and more) follows the three Rowan siblings–Victoria, Phillipa, and Liam–as they face the aftermath of their mother’s death and the fact that all three may be targets of a potential murderer. Rachel, their mother, was an abusive parent and all-around bad person. The siblings realize that, prior to her death, she had been blackmailing residents of the town, leading to a long list of suspects for her murder. Led by Victoria, the Rowan siblings are forced to confront the traumatic past that splintered them from one another and try to save themselves and their town of Grimsby from their mother’s legacy.

The characters and their evolving relationships are one of this engaging story’s strongest elements. Victoria, who hasn’t been home in fifteen years, has a particularly tender connection with her younger brother Liam, who may be on the autism spectrum. She also rekindles a potential romance with Reed, her old high school boyfriend, that proves sweet and satisfying. Nash also remains adept at pacing. The story moves quickly, never getting bogged down in unnecessary exposition even as it addresses themes of recovery, family, and forgiveness. Chapters end on strong hooks, and the twists and turns are well-planned, exciting, and emotionally satisfying.

While the sparse prose moves the story along quickly, occasionally the reader may appreciate more detail, such as more specifics regarding the family home and the town itself to more securely anchor the story time and space. While the story is told from Victoria’s first-person perspective, Nash limits reader access to her inner world beyond the immediate moment being narrated. Still, while it at times favors momentum over depth, A Spell of Rowans is an entertaining, moving story that readers of family sagas, sibling dynamics, and fantasy set in our contemporary world will enjoy.

Takeaway: Family drama meets magic with a touch of romance in this fast-paced fantasy.

Great for fans of: Julia Rochester’s The House at the Edge of the World, Tara Conklin’s The Last Romantics.

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

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Ancient Measurement: How Ancient Civilizations created Precise and Reproducibel Standards
Roland A. Boucher
Boucher proposes a clever theory about ancient units of measurement and then tests that theory against historical data and artifacts. After noting that a major Sumerian unit of measurement is the same as what was initially proposed as the meter in the seventeenth century, Boucher, an engineer, posits that all ancient measurements are based on the length of a pendulum swinging at a certain rate. His analysis focuses on five different pendulum-based units of measurement and then derives from them alternative ways to measure time (from the passage of the sun, the moon, and a star, respectively), as well as latitude details, producing nine slightly dissimilar unit measurements, such as the geodetic foot from ancient Sumeria and the royal cubit from ancient Egypt.

Boucher’s observations and equations are impressive and meticulously recorded in his extensive tables of data, illustrations of astronomical phenomena, his own constructed pendulum apparatus, and illustrations of ancient measurement standards. Boucher works to derive units of length through the pendulum, but most of the surviving units are volume and weight (thankfully, these are derived from the units of length). Some readers may wish for deeper exploration of historical literature: though Boucher does cite a limited number of texts, credible assurance that his measurement standards are authoritative would bolster his argument, as would documentary evidence of the use of pendulums in measurement.

Despite the technical nature of this work, Boucher takes care to define terms clearly and walk readers through the basics of determining length from a pendulum. He also clearly illustrates how this history began with the ancient Sumerians but continues to impact us even today, through the imperial system of measurement. Ancient Measurement expertly traces how past engineers would have been able to use celestial observation and the pendulum to create accurate and reproducible units of measurement, foundational elements of commerce and civilization.

Takeaway: The engineering-minded historian will find this theory of ancient measurements illuminating and well analyzed.

Great for fans of: David Rooney’s About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks, Simon Winchester’s The Perfectionists.

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

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Bonez by: Mr. Roses
Mr. Roses
In Roses’ spirited, distinctive book for middle-grade readers, a boy called Bonez navigates the world of professional skateboarding as well as his relationship with his first girlfriend, Peep. When Bonez beats reigning champ Sally in a high-profile skateboarding race, his life changes. Suddenly agents are knocking on his door, offering him fame and fortune in exchange for his talents and trademark “skeleton boy” logo. At the same time, Bonez gets to know and falls in love with Peep–though their connection falters when his new popularity goes to his head. These experiences teach Bonez important life lessons about maintaining focus, overcoming failure, and staying humble.

Readers also get to know Bonez’s lively lifelong friends Essie and Quigz, but the most refreshing character is the tough and fierce Sally, an exceptional skateboarder in her own right. The evolution of Sally’s relationship with Quigz is sweet and charming, growing from mutually antagonistic to empathetic and caring. Roses uses rhyming prose throughout this tale–it’s written, the press materials note, “like a song”–which sometimes comes across as surprising or clever but at others can be awkward or distracting: “Quigz walked over to the swing set and handed Sally the flowers. She took the pretty bunch from Quigz and down fell some tear showers.” The rhyming prose is laid out in paragraphs rather than verse form, and the dialogue is rendered in rhyme, too, formatted in the style of a script.

Simple black-and-white illustrations help bring the characters to life, showing Bonez and his friends skateboarding, teasing each other, and expressing a range of emotions. While appealing, the illustrations are not the star of this show, however; this story and its mature themes of being genuine are most appropriate for a preteen audience. Ultimately, Bonez learns that relationships are more important than winning any race, which will resonate with young readers who are just beginning to discover themselves.

Takeaway: The spirited story of a a boy called Bonez navigating the world of professional skateboarding–and his relationships.

Great for fans of: K.A. Holt’s House Arrest, Kevin Emerson’s Breakout.

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

Click here for more about Bonez by: Mr. Roses
Natālija
Natalija Petrockis and Valda Zalums Gebhart
This heart wrenching World War II memoir reveals how Natālija Petrockis, a Latvian living under German occupation, fled with her family when, in the summer of 1944, the Russian Red Army reached the borders of their beloved city, Rīga. The sisters Natalija, Musīte and Vera planned their flight to ensure that their father did not again fall into Russian hands; an earlier imprisonment had almost resulted in his death. On Musīte’s instructions, Natālija–though the youngest–takes charge and, together with their parents and children, Natāljia and Vera board a train to Liepāja. Musīte and her husband Kārlis stay behind, promising to join them a day later. None of them realise that the parting is final. The train is diverted by the German troops and later bombed, and thus begins the travails of the family as they flee the Russians in hopes of reaching the American front and rescue.

Written in Latvian and translated by her daughter, Valda, the most striking quality of the memoir is the author’s eye for detail. In immersive, suspenseful scenes, she remembers not just physical characteristics like her surroundings or particulars of a journey, but also powerfully evokes the expressions on faces and her own in-the-moment thoughts and fears: “We watched the bombs fall to the ground like glowing candles, followed by bursts of loud explosions, and sending splashes of light into the vastness of the sky.” Her love for her family in the face of constant hunger and fear is stirring. Even when circumstances are dire, she feels thankful that they are at least together.

By reliving her terrible journey, Natālija demonstrates the incredible resilience of the human spirit in the face of hardship. Like other World War II and refugee memoirs ,this will leave the reader shaken, convinced about the futility of war and the untold suffering it causes, most often to people who have no hand in its outbreak.

Takeaway: This World War II refugee memoir demonstrates the indomitable human spirit and the meaninglessness of war.

Great for fans of: Nella Last’s Nella Last’s War, Madeleine K. Albright,’s Prague Winter, Eleanor Perényi’s More Was Lost.

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

Click here for more about Natālija

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