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River of the Red Earth People
Fred Cardin
Cardin evokes the free-wheeling spirit of 1960s America in this character-rich debut. Andy Vincent, beleaguered by his paranoid (and violent) mother and frustrated by his father’s tendency to detach from reality, harbors typical adolescent dreams: he wants to escape the small-town drudgery of Falkirk, Wisconsin, as much as he wants to end up with Sara, his beautiful but seemingly unattainable close friend. Caught in the mix are Andy and Sara’s sidekicks—Jon and Hollister—and Andy’s troublemaking younger brother, Harvey, an aspiring pool shark who’s as unruly as Andy is dreamy.

Readers fascinated by the era will be swept into the idealistic but turbulent era of Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War, and the excitement of the Space Age as they follow the nebulous threads that eventually bring Andy, Sara, and Harvey to an uncertain, but hopeful, future. Andy, who’s convinced he “was trash because of his parents, his home,” finds the courage to break free and pursue Sara, who moved to California with her parents, despite his fear that he won’t measure up. Cardin draws a compelling contrast to Harvey, who manages an escape, too, in his own explosive way, only to find an unexpected family of his own, fitting the themes of disunion and ultimate hopefulness. As soon as they break ties with their parents, they’re free to discover both the joy—and the uncertainty—of new beginnings together.

The novel is on the lengthy side, and, like life, lacks a clearly defined climax, but Cardin’s character development is worth the commitment, and fans of complex interiority will be entertained. The brothers’ notable goals—“I believe I can do better than my parents. My brother Harvey says it’s his goal to not be them,” Andy declares—drive their adventure, and readers will ultimately be left with a sense of curious anticipation, mirroring the optimistic sentiment of the ‘60s that winds through the book.

Takeaway: A free-spirited 1960s adventure of young love and new beginnings.

Great for fans of: Julian Winters’s The Summer of Everything, Paulo Coelho’s Hippie.

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

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Port Lands
Tod Molloy
Mickey Spillane meets James Joyce in Molloy’s Toronto-set noir debut. William, the narrator-sleuth—unnamed for most of the book—appears to be a down-on-his-luck PI, searching for new jobs on a sleazy website. There’s hints that he may be paranoid, as he’s convinced he’s being followed, and the mysterious "Father" to whom he is in debt harshly reminds him that “protection has a price.” When he meets Hera, a potential client who wants him to hunt down Colin Fowst because he owes her money, William realizes the job came through Father, and Hera’s assignment is hazy enough he wonders if she’s even real.

Molloy gives William a rich inner life, with a mind that never stops wandering and a vivid imagination, lending tension to a narrative that wavers between daydream and reality. His fantasies often feel ominously real, as when he recounts getting into a fight with another driver and strangling him with his seatbelt, or his musings over whether corporate meeting attendees are “avatars of their digital selves." In a nod to the mythological, William talks about meeting the “Goddess,” no doubt a reference to Hera, and delves into cryptic, but gripping, descriptions when pursuing a lead.

Overall, the driving force is Molloy’s powerful use of language. Every aspect of William’s journey drips with dramatic imagery, producing a dark and claustrophobic effect amplified by the blur between what’s real and what’s illusory. During a romance, William becomes "lost inside the world of her mouth." Elsewhere, Molloy applies his skill to violence when a woman is attacked, leaving a “dewy red hole where her eyeball used to be." The writing, especially surrounding sex and destruction, can become extreme and is often so shocking it interrupts the story’s flow. Nevertheless, Molloy offers readers some closure—and an opening for a sequel.

Takeaway: A sleuth plumbs the darkest corners of his city, and his mind, in this visceral noir.

Great for fans of: Daniel Woodrell’s Give Us a Kiss, Jim Thompson’s Savage Night.

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

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Amballore Thoma: Second Edition
Jose Thekkumthala
Thekkumthala weaves the supernatural with tense familial bonds in his harrowing follow up to Amballore House. Thoma and his new bride, Ann, open the story with their 1939 wedding celebration in Amballore, India, but after losing his land and wealth to the ungrateful siblings he helped raise, Thoma and his family are forced to flee his ancestral land, leaving them poverty stricken and homeless. While India works to gain complete independence from Britain, the family wanders from rental to rental before finally settling in Mannuthy, where Thoma takes on odd jobs to survive and dreams of someday returning to Amballore.

On the surface, Thoma and Ann form a somewhat sturdy foundation for a large family down on their luck, but an undercurrent runs throughout that casts a pall on the household. Thoma’s rough treatment of Ann doesn’t stop her total dependence on him, though his ongoing domestic violence and alcoholism eventually spill over onto other relationships, including his explosive fights with his landlord over the unpaid rent, which end in disastrous consequences for Ann. As the family grows, so do their troubles—some of the children are born with otherworldly gifts, including twin Jaygust, whose brutal conception leads to his superhuman strength and murderous intent from the cradle.

Thekkumthala smoothly blends the many intricate storylines and neatly resolves the book’s complex layers by its conclusion, scattering fragments of horror throughout the landscape of family drama. In the process, he manages to spotlight the family’s loyalty despite their chaotic and destructive tendencies to fracture when money and greed take root. The constant flow of plot twists and supernatural elements (think werewolves, phantom men, and goddesses spun into a family’s daily life) are well-balanced by Thekkumthala’s strong character development, resulting in an engaging and fast-paced novel that will blur genre lines and disquiet readers.

Takeaway: A resonant family drama shrouded in mystery and the supernatural.

Great for fans of: Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Demon’s Lexicon; Tashan Mehta’s The Liar’s Weave.

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

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You are GOLDEN!
Kelly Kainer Billington
Billington (God’s Goodness in You and Me) interlaces Christian beliefs with American pride in this upbeat picture book. Encouraging younger readers to notice the colors all around them, Billington highlights those that hold deeper meaning for herself—including the red, white, and blue of the American flag and her encouraging declaration that “as God’s children…we are indeed GOLDEN in His eyes!” She considers the significance of those convictions through exploring the Golden Rule, counseling children to “give to others peace, happiness, and love” to promote harmony in America and other countries.

Christian readers will enjoy the spiritual overtones in Billington’s writing, including her explanation of Luke 6:31—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”—as the basis for the Golden Rule. She advises younger readers to make an effort to help others, offering ideas such as volunteering at a local soup kitchen or caretaking pets at the animal shelter, and ties that kindness into God “smil[ing] on us from above!” The prose brims with positivity and cheerfulness, and Billington’s brightly colored graphics add to the enthusiasm: the characters are portrayed as joyful and united in their goals to give to others, particularly when they are depicted rescuing a puppy from the shelter and providing meals to the elderly, lending buoyancy and optimism to Billington’s rhyming text that, at times, feels a bit forced.

Despite the story’s America-centered focus, Billington spotlights diversity in her illustrations and acknowledges a need for community goodwill—a welcome theme for contemporary readers. Billington’s emphasis on “when I want good things to happen to me, I am good to people and animals too,” opens the door for adults and children to brainstorm ways they can help others while drawing attention to the intrinsic value of being kind, an uplifting message that forms the cornerstone of this simple story.

Takeaway: A Christian explanation of why the Golden Rule is important.

Great for fans of: Laura Wifler’s Like Me, Champ Thornton’s Why Do We Say Thank You?

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

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Krystal Winkle and the Peacemaker of Kigali
Carolyn Roth-White
In the first entry of an adventure series, Roth-White’s delightful, fantastical coming-of-age story brings out a child’s wonder of the natural world while developing her identity and learning about responsibility. In California in 1970, Italian-Irish American Krystal Winkle’s birth was heralded with a thundering storm. She was destined to be the most powerful magical Cristalli to be born in centuries, but her Nonna warns: “Never reveal your secret power, Krystal. It’s far too dangerous for you and everyone else if you lose control and let it slip.” The pink crystal hiding in the center of her forehead ejects pink glitter when she uses her powers. When she’s ten, Krystal has a dangerous encounter with the evil Austrian wolf-shapeshifter, Bernard, the Master of Disguise of the Cristalli Huntsmen, and his protégé, George, who see her as a threat and want to stop her.

To protect the family, Krystal’s father, who works with the Foreign Service of America, moves the family to Rwanda. There, Krystal is fascinated with the new language and culture, befriends Dusty, a African Grey parrot, and impresses the silverback mountain gorilla, Kunga, which means the Peacemaker of Kigali, who lives in Virunga Volcanoes Park. Roth-White ramps up the tension and adventure as Krystal has bad premonitions that something terrible will happen to Kunga. With the help of her flamingo feather pen that predicts the future and helps her gather information, she investigates the plight of the gorillas.

This gentle, well-crafted, and lighthearted journey of a precocious and confident middle-schooler encourages empathy for animals and understanding of one’s responsibilities. Krystal’s cleverness, resourcefulness, and growing confidence in herself and her power helps her survive those who want to harm her, but she must be careful not to use her powers in hatred or wickedness. Readers will cheer her on through her audacious trials and tribulations to a rewarding ending.

Takeaway: A wondrous adventure story of a middle-schooler and the plight of gorillas.

Great for fans of: Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan, Celia C. Pérez’s Strange Birds.

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

UNDERGROUND: A Memoir of Hope, Faith, and the American Dream
'Deji Ayoade
Poet Ayoade, the first African immigrant to serve as a nuclear missile operator in the United States Air Force, debuts with an inspirational memoir chronicling his childhood in Nigeria and journey to become a doctor and American citizen. Ayoade, who at the age of seven promised his mother “One day, I will take you far away from here,” details his upbringing with an abusive father and the many family tragedies he endured—along with his dedication to creating a different life: “Underground is my unusual journey from childhood poverty to where I am today. How the impossible became a reality.”

Readers will be swept into Ayoade’s vivid recollections of his early years, including his strict education, brushes with death, and a strained relationship with his father. He recounts the family’s passion for American movies that made “America seem like the perfect place,” sparking his desire for a better future, and details his decision to become a veterinarian and eventually pursue a career in the U.S. military to ensure the best life for his family (and future generations). Ayoade’s story is moving, particularly his reconciliation with his father and hard-earned American citizenship, and his message that it’s never too late to chase your dreams resonates.

That message will evoke strong emotions for readers as Ayoade highlights the importance of hard work and the benefit of a committed support system, alongside his constant “wishing, praying, and fighting to be free from all the sadness and injustice around me”—a theme that echoes through much of the book, including in his acknowledgement that the fear he experienced as a nuclear missile operator was a “cost of this freedom.” Ayoade’s poetry and personal photographs are sprinkled throughout, illuminating his deep love for family and his ultimate belief in liberty as “The reason for it all./ A foundation for a new generation,/ The best gift to any child.”

Takeaway: This stirring memoir documents an immigrant’s fight for the American dream.

Great for fans of: Ashley C. Ford’s Somebody's Daughter, Maria Hinojosa’s Once I Was You.

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

Click here for more about UNDERGROUND
Symbols Of You: A Self-Discovery Reference Guide
Linda Mackenzie
Mackenzie (Inner Insights) ushers readers down a path of intense reflection and spiritual development in this thought-provoking reference guide. Drawing from crystals, aromatherapy, angel hierarchies, and more, Mackenzie summarizes a variety of different symbols—which she defines as “everything you come in contact with in your life”—that can be interpreted individually and used as tools for self-discovery. She structures each chapter around a type of symbol, followed by suggestions on how to personalize them, and rounds out the information with health alternatives ranging from Chinese herbal recommendations to reflexology.

Self-awareness is key here, as Mackenzie encourages readers to choose symbols that resonate, underscoring the importance of having fun while working through each chapter to gain deeper insights. When exploring chakras, for example, she details their distinctive attributes—such as the creativity and self-expression of the 5th chakra—and includes introspective prompts to help readers determine which of those qualities best relate to their unique situations. Other guidance covers the ins and outs of palm reading, how to identify your life balance number, and using phrenology to understand personality (details like women adapting their hairstyles to flaunt head bumps in the 19th century or the belief that “very small hands show immaturity and a charming personality” add entertainment value).

Equally interesting is Mackenzie’s attention to the traditions and history surrounding each group of symbols, such as the meaning behind Native American animal spirit guides and psychologist Carl Jung’s study on archetypes as representations of “human experiences, ideas, and consciousness.” Noteworthy health recommendations include ancient practices like acupressure (with an easy-to-follow application chart and diagram of healing points) as well as the use of Bach flower essences to promote emotional stability and harmony. To help readers apply the book’s concepts and track their preferences, Mackenzie includes an interactive workbook and fill-in pages at the end. Fans of holistic self-analysis will be intrigued.

Takeaway: A holistic reference guide on interpreting symbols for self-awareness.

Great for fans of: Adele Nozedar’s The Illustrated Signs & Symbols Sourcebook, Gina Lake’s Symbols of the Soul.

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

Click here for more about Symbols Of You
A Town Called Why
Rick Lenz
Lenz’s evocative, character-driven thriller of desert justice and indigenous ways finds half-Apache policeman Frank Gaines discovering a threat to the therapist for whom he harbors feelings, the striking Sunny Kacheenay, and eventually striking out on a deadly manhunt touched with the mystic. Arriving for a therapy session, Frank finds an envelope containing the threat beneath Sunny’s door and discovers its source, to his dismay, seems to be a fellow patient, Geneva Wright. Meanwhile, Jason Flint, Sunny’s landlord and Geneva’s abusive boyfriend, is forcing the evictions of local residents. When Gordon Cody ends his life because of Jason’s purchase, Frank discovers that he is the only living maternal relative of the dead man—and Apache law demands he kill the person responsible.

Set amid the “ghostly forms of the cliffs and mesas” of Southeast Arizona, the novel boasts striking descriptions of the desert, itself something of a character, mysterious and powerful with its own intentions and interventions in people’s lives. Lenz employs a host of perspective characters, offering a multifaceted view not just of the twisting plot but of life as each lives it, stirring reader sympathy towards each, even the villainous Jason Flint. That narrative richness demands that readers keep up, of course, though the transitions and the narrative logic behind them is clear throughout.

The characters are all well rounded, and the telling is nuanced. Though a fresh murder seems imminent, and the crimes of the past loom large in everyone’s lives, Lenz’s pacing—always even, never frantic—keeps the story absorbing until an ending that edges toward the mystic without ever breaking the rules of realism. The author touches on issues of deep injustice done to the native inhabitants of the American continent, with particular emphasis on the Apache. Knotty questions of reparation, justice, and the ever-present shadow of discrimination give resonance to this well told-tale.

Takeaway: An absorbing tale of mystery and revenge in the Arizona desert, with a Native American cast.

Great for fans of: Stephen Graham Jones’s All the Beautiful Sinners, Louis Owens’s The Sharpest Sight.

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

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Love Stories
Katherine Villyard
While Villyard has titled her collection of speculative fictions Love Stories, the theme that binds together these stories—which include elements of fantasy, fairy tale, myth, as well as science fiction—is deeply connected relationships, with the title challenging readers to think of them in the light of love. Villyard’s range, like that of the magazines she publishes in, ranges widely, from the fabulist to explorations of near- and far- future existence. One sharply told standout riffs on the darker side of an old fairy tale of two sisters: from the lips of one falls flowers and gemstones, from the other comes snakes and scorpions. The ending is a satisfying jolt.

Others explore, with wit and style, connections between technology and humans, and medical advances that allow people to wipe their minds or experience full body transplants. One science-fiction story in the classic mode turns on vastly different perspectives of an interaction between a human and an alien. While the mode, subjects, and lengths of Villyard’s stories vary, possibly too much for readers who prefer their genres fully differentiated, the collection offers a welcome reminder of the diversity of contemporary speculative fiction, while showcasing Villyard’s talent for character, memorable ideas, and surprises that reveal theme and complicate expectations.

Villyard’s more powerful stories tend to be those exploring a world and how its characters find deep connection to others. The stars of the collection are stories about consciousness itself, each enlivened by striking detail: there’s the A.I. Alan and its shared devotion with its human programmer, an author of “sexually explicit Horatio Hornblower fanfic.” Other marvels: an android posing as a human to get a job to help pay the bills of his cancer-struck owner, and the tale of Karen and Charlie delving into what it means to be a mind in a body that isn’t one’s own—and the consequences that aren’t spoken of.

Takeaway: Short stories of deep connections across the breadth of the speculative fiction genres.

Great for fans of: Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go in the Dark, Kate Folk’s Out There.

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

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A Sickening Storm: A Dora Ellison Mystery Book 3
David E. Feldman
Feldman’s intriguing third Dora Ellison mystery (after A Gathering Storm) unites investigators seeking to uncover the connection between multiple hospital deaths caused by rare illnesses. Police academy dropout Dora and her girlfriend Missy Winters are hired by private investigator Adam Geller to find answers for the CEO of Beach City Medical Center about three unexplained hospital deaths: from rabies, a rare form of encephalitis and a brain-eating amoeba. Though the odds are slim that these illnesses could have occurred at a single hospital located on an island near Long Island, Dora and Missy explore the possibility that someone deliberately infected the patients, especially when the body count rises, leading them on a race against time to find a potential killer.

A welcome sense of realism sets this series apart, with Feldman proving adept at capturing how corruption works within systems. This third novel especially engages with its era, as Dora and company must face not only a killer but COVID-19 and the protocols to prevent its spread. Dora might need her mask for more than just the real-world pandemic: Feldman’s convincing depictions of the various rare illnesses that drive the plot, and the frightening possibility of an unknown person roaming the hospital to spread deadly illness, plays on contemporary anxieties, giving scenes a sharp edge of suspense.

Interspersed with the storyline of the increasing number of unexplained illnesses and death is the simmering undercurrent of union organizing at the hospital. This thread leads readers to question whether someone angry about the arduous process of unionizing could be retaliating by murdering patients to negatively affect the hospital’s reputation, forcing it to cancel its upcoming gala and the donations received there. But the overarching impact of the narrative brimming with realism is that readers will be left questioning whether this fictional evil could become tomorrow’s headlines.

Takeaway: Budding P.I.s search for a killer spreading illnesses in a hospital in this of-the-moment thriller.

Great for fans of: Robin Cook, Michael Angel’s The Devil’s Noose.

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

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Fade to Blue
Hank Scheer
From the grabber of an opening to the satisfying conclusion, this high-stakes medical thriller pits a brilliant scientist against a mysterious assassin. Pharmacologist Sarah Brenalen has been working on a cure to Alzheimer's disease, creating unauthorized drug trials and testing them on lab rats. Sarah discovers that one of the test drugs, T-3, has the opposite effect: instead of curing the memory-affecting disease, it destroys the brain. Sarah soon finds out that, in the wrong hands, her concoction could be a powerful weapon—and when a terrorist group gets wind of what she’s cooked up, Sarah must fight against a cunning adversary to keep her invention from being unleashed for deadly purposes.

Sarah is an engaging protagonist, driven to unreasonable extremes in her work and then just as unwaveringly determined to thwart her enemy, the killer known as Marcel. She’s also gratifyingly savvy, as Scheer sets up a twisty battle of wits, crisply told, with memorable reversals and bursts of jolting action. In her many attempts to escape and outrun her pursuer, Sarah realizes Marcel is not working alone and that there’s no safe place for her to hide. He insists that following his instructions and taking his monetary compensation are her only guarantee that she may survive this ordeal. But Sarah, like readers, has an idea of Marcel's intentions for her once their "partnership" is over. What readers won’t suss out, however, is how she’ll try to turn the tables and save herself, her loved ones, and the potential victims of her research.

Fade to Blue kicks off with shocking twists and attention-grabbing characters. The ongoing discussions between cat and mouse are tense, especially as the lines between terrorists and anti-terrorists working undercover become blurred. The stakes are high but also personal—Marcel’s monologues, while not likely realistic, are a lot of fun. Filled with vivid characters and a fast moving plot, Scheer has written a winning page-turner.

Takeaway: The tense story of a scientist trying to keep her invention from terrorists.

Great for fans of: J. D. Baker’s Fourth Monkey, Sharon Bolton’s The Split.

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

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GHOST STORY
Barbara Cooper
Cooper (Harrowing Rose) thrills from the opening pages in this tense, time-crossed gothic beauty. At the storied Ratmulen House Hotel in coastal Ireland, patron Sebastian, a guest with unusual psychic powers, begins to regale the attendees of a soirée with the tale of his "dear" friend, Charlie, a ghost. Cut to one year before, as another Ratmulen House a guest, Mark, awakens with a start, in the wrong room with no memory of how he got there—and, according to the clerk at the reception desk, he’s requested the police, who would like a word with him. The stage set for a thriller that will hook readers, Cooper from there unfolds the story from the dual viewpoints of Sebastian and Mark, who are thrown together in their efforts to unravel the mystery of Mark’s nightly black outs.

“It had a wild side to it, too,” Cooper writes of stately Ratmulen House in one of several intriguing flashbacks to 1927. Readers will agree even before its history of “murders and sudden disappearances” is revealed, as Ghost Story charts the manor house and its occupants, living and not, over decades. As Mark faces visions, memories that aren’t his own, and hints of his own impending doom, Ghost Story shifts between the novel’s 1990s present and creepy flashes of 1920s secrets and temptations, involving the wife of the original builder, Estrella, once “the star of society.”

Even when past and present slip into each other within the same chapter, Cooper keeps the narrative clear but its mysteries tantalizingly elusive. Her strong hand at evocative details (iron stairs, climbing ivy, ruffled gowns) never slows the narrative momentum, and the prose is charged with feeling. Full-color illustrations sprinkled throughout enhance the story's dreamlike quality. Fans of hauntings in a classical mode will enjoy this brisk tale, which boasts a shocking conclusion that readers will guess at while hoping for a happy ending.

Takeaway: A time-crossed ghost story that is equal parts haunting and suspenseful.

Great for fans of: Mary Downing Hahn’s Wait Till Helen Comes, Michelle Paver’s Wakenhyrstt.

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

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I Know
Morgan Jones
The second entry in author Morgan Jones’s Collins trilogy of “interlocking standalone” romances spotlights Lizzy, the sister of Adam from You’re Mine, the first book, finding her way toward Adam’s brother’s childhood friend and bandmate, Jake. As the two cope with a tragic loss, they come together in grief and consolation—she seems to hate both love and Disney, he discovers—and before they know it, this heartbroken duo are feeling something fresh for each other. As the seasons change, will they be able to get over their grief, pasts, and mutual hangups to make it work?

As Jones warns in a disclaimer, I Know, while quite squarely a romance, touches on complex, upsetting themes, including issues of mental health, anxiety, and childhood emotional abuse. The characters feel like grown-ups, struggling through their lives, with the realistically low-key plot featuring much day-to-day living: getting tattoos, grinding through band practice, celebrating holidays, wondering about the provenance of stains, and—thrillingly—getting caught up in the kinds of long, self-revealing conversations that mark the beginnings of a promising romance. Jones is adept at these, as she is at telling the story through the perspectives of both leads. The sex is steamy, occasionally graphic, but also warm, the detailed descriptions rooted in character and connection.

This volume stands alone, though some readers may feel like they’re missing some context if they haven’t read the first book in the trilogy, especially as the characters are, in ways, dealing with their pasts. While the dialogue is sharp, and the big moments (like a doozy of a Halloween kiss) dramatized with power and feeling, some incidental storytelling is hampered by editing and punctuation errors. But the book, like its lovers, pulses with heart, heat, and passion, offering a romance as touching as it is rousing.

Takeaway: This grown-up romance finds its lovers facing real grief but finding each other.

Great for fans of: Mia Sheridan’s Archer’s Voice, Jewel E. Ann.

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

Click here for more about I Know
Pebbles and the Biggest Number
Joey Benun
Pebbles the butterfly loves to count the flowers in his garden, but when he gets tired of the same small numbers, he goes on a quest to find and learn the biggest number that he can. Flying through varied ecosystems (desert, ocean, tundra) and meeting all kinds of animals (camel, alligator, frog, human), Pebbles takes young readers on a mathematical and scientific learning journey. Featuring informational asides and vibrant digital illustrations, Pebbles and the Biggest Number is an engaging read centered on numerical concepts and animal facts, a journey that’s sure to intrigue even reluctant learners.

The choice to make a bright-eyed, smiling butterfly the protagonist and narrator welcomes kids in with a friendly face on an insect they’re likely familiar with, immediately establishing comfort. That inviting feel helps when taking on something as complex as numerical concepts—the ones touched on here include infinity. Each layout tells the story with a striking encounter between Pebbles and other creatures, illustrated with warmth, joy, and amusing faces by Laura Watson. Each scene also offers multiple additional elements to take in, usually worked into the background environment, featuring either science or math facts. These are written concisely and clearly, offering real-world examples to aid readers in grasping the concepts (“Some ants can lift 50 times their body weight. That’s like you lifting a car!”).

Written in a conversational but still informative tone, the book succeeds at providing a multitude of opportunities to incorporate math concepts into daily life, as well as interesting animal facts. Backmatter includes a “dig deeper” section for both words and numbers found throughout the text. The numerical dig deeper section uses sand to illustrate the enormity of the numbers discussed. Fantastic as both an introduction or teaching tool for large number concepts, Pebbles and the Biggest Number is an excellent addition to any STEM bookshelf.

Takeaway: Potential scientists and mathematicians will love following Pebbles’s journey to find the biggest number.

Great for fans of: Emily Gravett’s The Rabbit Problem, Asia Citro’s Pigeon Math.

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

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Sidestepped: What the Enemy Doesn't Want You to Know That Can Change Your Life
Matt Dalbey
“Without adequate preparation, defeat is inevitable” writes Dalbey in this heartfelt debut, the first in his series of books aimed at helping Christians understand and fight spiritual battles. Drawing from biblical stories and verses, and his own experiences “identify[ing] and overcom[ing] covert strategies of the enemy,” Dalbey highlights several key strategies for Christians struggling with fear and discouragement, particularly for those who have faced failure despite their best efforts. Above all, he urges readers to nurture their dependence on Jesus while developing courage, asserting that “nothing will activate and empower us more than an abiding awareness of the Father’s love and grace for us.”

For Christian readers experiencing defeat in their daily battles, Dalbey’s upbeat writing will be an immediate comfort— and inspiration: “We can cower in fear. Or we can be strong and courageous.” He contends that many churches teach followers to ignore “demonic attacks,” what he terms “the Fallacy of Demonic Immunity,” and argues that a better method for spiritual success can be found in prayer, drawing closer to God, and loving others. He also advises readers to look at spiritual warfare as a team sport, with a focus on forgiveness and encouragement as secrets to successful living. In fact, Dalbey argues that daily encouragement is a necessity, warning readers to avoid living “oblivious to the discouraged souls hiding in plain sight all around us.”

Readers who prefer step by step instructions may find Dalbey’s more theoretical approach vague at times, but this will resonate with those seeking broad principles that can be applied to a variety of situations. He uses illustrations from the Bible to drive the guidance home, including references to disciples Peter and John’s battles with fear and their eventual transformation into courageous trailblazers. Ultimately, he endorses taking the initiative to develop an intimate relationship with Jesus before expecting success, writing that “doing nothing won’t change anything.”

Takeaway: A rousing guide for Christians facing spiritual challenges.

Great for fans of: Louie Giglio’s Don’t Give the Enemy a Seat at Your Table, John Ramirez’s Armed and Dangerous.

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

Click here for more about Sidestepped
Adoration and Pilgrimage: James Dean and Fairmount
James F Hopgood
Hopgood engages in a participant observation anthropological study of a highly particular culture: extreme fans of James Dean, whom he calls “Deaners.” He examines particular Deaner motivations and practices, as well as analyzing Dean’s Indiana hometown, which has become a touchpoint for the fan culture. Hopgood explores how the myth of James Dean as “rebel” was originally constructed by Hollywood and the press, the ways that people even decades later may become Deaners, the creative exuberance that Dean still inspires, and even the possible religious overtones of such a specific fan identity. Intriguingly, he even explores whether it’s more appropriate to call this a cult or a movement.

Hopgood carefully balances description (in interviews with Deaners as well as observation of Deaner rituals in Fairmount), establishing himself as an authority not only on this particular movement but also on deeper celebrity and pop culture dynamics. He notes that this fascinating project began “in an exploratory way, with few expectations,” but in practice it’s a rich, revealing study, utilizing several theoretical frameworks, particularly Peirce’s theory concerning the semiotic. Hopgood’s description of his research methods is also extremely helpful, especially considering he establishes it early, but the reader may wonder if Hopgood is himself a Deaner or what attracts him to study this particular fan culture. The “cult” question is particularly engaging. Although Hopgood finds the fandom too loosely organized to be considered a true religious movement, it still shares many characteristics with other groups that receive inspiration from a charismatic person.

Hopgood includes photographs and diagrams of Dean memorabilia and anthropological models that he cites throughout the text. A comprehensive index and bibliography also will prove insightful for the reader looking for further resources. Deaners may find the material challenging, though thoughtful readers interested in how fan cultures evolve, especially after the death of an extremely charismatic person, will learn much from Hopgood’s deep description and analysis.

Takeaway: A fascinating study of James Dean fandom and fan culture itself.

Great for fans of: David Dalto’s James Dean: Mutant King Paul Booth and Rebecca Williams’s A Fan Study Primer.

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

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