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Secrets Of The 800+ Club
Terrell Dinkins
Dinkins’s second straight-talking financial advice publication (the follow-up to 2015’s One Bucket at a Time: A Woman’s Guide to Creating Wealth) affirms her zeal for truth-telling and protecting her audience from scams. Dinkins was inspired to create the guide when she witnessed a sales pitch from a speaker at an Atlanta Wealth and Wine event who “didn’t seem to care much about the problem so many Americans are having with their credit.” Dinkins wasn’t having it. “People are taking advantage of others’ misfortune and lack of knowledge,” she laments. She vowed to craft an affordable alternative for readers eager to better understand and manage their credit scores.

Her clear-eyed guide demystifies the world of credit agencies, delineates which activities can affect a consumer’s score, and lays out well-defined and concise steps they can take to improve their credit ratings—from savvily timing payments to using only a small percentage of available credit. Dinkins is adamant, in her warm and approachable way, that readers should never pay hundreds of dollars to third-party companies to monitor and improve their credit scores.

The title, of course, refers to Dinkins’s own hard-won and much treasured credit score. She details how she achieved a rating above 800 and the advantages that elite ranking affords her. But her book’s appeal is not just for those aspiring to the top of the heap; it is also relevant to everyday earners. “Your three-digit credit score stands between you and a yes or no to many of life’s pleasures,” she notes, and she’s frank and persuasive about the urgency of improving one’s score, limiting debt, and creating wealth. Her action steps for achieving this are clear and practical. Readers seeking the financial freedom that comes with a high credit score will value the hard-work attitude and easy-to-follow suggestions in this authoritative guide.

Takeaway: This guide to credit score boosting is comprehensive, detailed, and empowering.

Great for fans of: Lynnette Khalfani-Cox’s Perfect Credit: 7 Steps to a Great Credit Rating, Anthony Davenport’s Your Score: An Insider's Secrets to Understanding, Controlling, and Protecting Your Credit Score.

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

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Hermit
Joel R. Dennstedt
Dennstedt’s novel limns a chance meeting that alters one man’s solitary existence. Gabriel lives alone in a small home, on a cliff overlooking the sea, with only his cat for company. He follows the teachings of a deceased guru. When his bag of groceries breaks while walking home from the store one day, Therese, a young woman, stops to help him. Upon entering Gabriel’s home, Therese is fascinated by his extensive library of spiritual books. She and Gabriel spend a memorable day together, discussing spirituality and hiking the ocean cliffs near his home, leaving Gabriel to readjust painfully to solitary life once she leaves.

Dennstedt’s knowledge of various religious philosophies enriches Gabriel’s character, creating a man whose extensive spiritual studies enable him to deeply appreciate all facets of his life. Gabriel’s meeting with Therese is richly complex; there’s a physical attraction between them, but Gabriel focuses on his desire to share with Therese how to live in the moment and comprehend nature's wonders. The scene in which Therese reveals she will be leaving the beach following her summer break from school exceptionally captures the human longing for connection.

Dennstedt’s depictions of the landscape outside Gabriel’s home are lyrical, and his description of the ocean ("he could hear not only the crash of its assault on the rocks, but also the rippling hiss of its retreat") adds texture to Gabriel’s love of the ocean’s rugged beauty and the world around him. And Dennstedt explores the depths of Gabriel’s personality, depicting him as an authentic character with a flawed past who is determined to leave his past mistakes behind him and ready to embrace a brighter future. This philosophical novella will touch readers’ hearts.

Takeaway: In this touching, philosophical novella, a solitary man embraces his spirituality when a chance meeting with a young woman changes his lonely existence.

Great for fans of: Andrew Zimmerman’s Journey: A Spiritual Novel, Andrew D. Himmel’s The Reluctant Healer.

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

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Evolving Elizah: Initiatum
C.J. Hall
This unsettling sci-fi debut follows the crew of a space farm as they root out traitors from an enemy organization. Liz Goeff is a shuttle pilot aboard the Green Grow 3, a floating farm that provides food for those on Earth, now an ashy wasteland. The Green Grow team faces opposition from the New Generation, an ecoterrorist group that attacks food stores, steals produce, and slaughters survivors on the ground. Liz’s hatred of the New Generation is personal: her brother was an early recruit who disappeared after the organization descended into radicalism. When Liz makes the reckless but altruistic decision to bring 52 refugees onboard, she earns the ire of her superiors and must fight to prove that every life is worth saving. Then the ship is thrown off course and sent speeding away from Earth. The morality of the council and crew shifts, and Liz begins questioning Green Grow’s apparent complicity in the suffering below.

The novel is fast-moving, jumping from one crisis to the next, but it’s most successful when it slows down, and focuses on building suspense around the identity of the onboard traitors. There are many competing plotlines: the identities of “Liz’s Fifty-Two”; her relationship with Seth, the ship’s captain; her lifelong search for her brother; and the insubordination of the rest of the Green Grow executive council. Because there is so much going on, not every story line gets the attention it needs. For example, the 52 refugee passengers become a side plot after the first half of the book.

But Hall has a knack for worldbuilding: the destruction on Earth is detailed; the purpose of Green Grow (to provide food for those in need) is well-defined; and the futuristic technology introduced, including a teleportation device and an implanted chip that illuminates a hidden tattoo, helps develop a rich atmosphere. There is more than enough material for a sequel, and a solid foundation upon which to build. Readers will be drawn in by this suspenseful sci-fi story and its moral quandaries.

Takeaway: This unsettling sci-fi novel is great for fans of mystery, suspense, and space travel.

Great for fans of: Iain M. Banks’s Consider Phlebas, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy.

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

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Tales From an Odd Mind
Nom D. Plume
A collection of story beginnings, interweaving narratives, and poetry, this eccentric work lives up to its name. After an introduction by Death personified, the book has three sections. The first includes nine unrelated chapters, introducing characters whose stories are never continued: a boy named Darren meets a ghost while traveling with an otherworldly mentor, a guard is captured aboard a rebel spaceship, two siblings run a detective agency and work with witches. The second section follows a group of reincarnated souls who find ways to meet, life after life. The third includes two poems and a realistic piece of prose work about a recent graduate who finds it difficult to abandon her troublesome brother.

This is an entertaining and creative book; with so many setting, style, and genre changes, it’s impossible to grow bored. However, it can be frustrating to read so many pieces without a definitive conclusion. While the disconnected stories offer something for everyone to love (mystery, fantasy, sci-fi), they can be uneven. Some tales, such as “Box of J.O.Y.” and “Keen and Keen Inc.,” are so immersive that the decision to cut them off after only one chapter shortchanges the reader. Others, like “Project Kage,” are less immediately gripping.

The three sections feel like three separate works—there isn’t a thread that ties them together. The first section, despite its abrupt nonendings, is the strongest. It allows readers to keep thinking about each story long after they’re done reading, filling in their own interpretations and endings to each chapter. The second section, although offering a more complete narrative and well-drawn characters, still feels unfinished. These stories are so narratively rich that readers will feel something is lost when they end midstream. This collection will draw in and intrigue a wide array of readers.

Takeaway: This collection of mystical, eerie, thought-provoking tales is perfect for imaginative readers.

Great for fans of: Louis Sachar’s Wayside School series, Daniel Handler’s Adverbs.

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

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Sol Invictus
Ben Gartner
The second installment in Gartner’s Eye of Ra series sees siblings Sarah and John return again to the past—this time to ancient Rome. During a family trip to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C., Sarah and John are ambushed by their former nemesis, Aten, with a proposition for a mysterious quest: the siblings must journey to ancient Rome to unite the emperor Constantius with his Alemanni enemy, Crocus. With the fate of their world hanging in the balance, Sarah and John learn how to make diplomatic allies, compete in chariot races, and survive life in the unforgiving Alps to achieve their goal.

Some elements here will be too reminiscent of Tolkien for a seasoned audience, such as John’s eye of Ra amulet and its similarity to the One Ring. But Gartner has a knack for action and creating compelling historical personalities; the portrait of the future Alemanni king, Crocus, makes a distant age more relatable for modern readers. The book’s energetic writing captures the growing pains of both protagonists—Sarah as she pulls away from her family in adolescence, and John as he comes to terms with his role as a younger brother—along with rich historical detail on the ancient Roman empire, including its conflicts with Germanic peoples.

The Roman setting is brimming with bustling life: lively depictions of Saturnalia celebrations, vicious gladiator combat, and even slavery in Roman society, give suitable, nuanced color to this historical time period. Still, Gartner never lets the harsh realities of ancient Rome bring down his story too much: he keeps it light for his middle-grade audience with callbacks to the present (John whispering the Spiderman theme as he traverses the wall of a Roman fortress is a delightful example). This spirited story will appeal to eager young historians.

Takeaway: Middle school readers who treasure ancient history with a side of adventure will welcome this fantasy story.

Great for fans of: Caroline Lawrence’s The Roman Mysteries series, Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Treehouse series.

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

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Cracks
Mike Klaassen
The last place 16-year-old Bodie McCann wants to be is on an “innovative youth-rehabilitation program,” spelunking in the Arkansas mountains. Bodie, busted for smoking pot with friends, isn’t uninterested in the outdoors—he’s learned plenty of survival skills from his foster family—but being stuck in a cavern with the judge who sentenced him isn’t his idea of fun. When a series of earthquakes shake the Mississippi River Valley’s New Madrid Fault, Bodie’s team is lucky to make it back to the surface alive—but that’s just the beginning of their odyssey back to civilization. Bodie must choose between making his own way and helping out a group of strangers, including his fellow teenage delinquents Rusty, a Shakespeare-quoting heroin addict; Adam, a paranoid right-wing domestic terrorist; Spider, a prep-school drug dealer; and Tug, a stereotypical redneck thug.

Klaassen blends Hatchet and The Lord of the Flies in this hair-raising, fast-paced adventure. Like those books, this novel reads like a book from another era: its anti-addiction moralizing is reminiscent of 1971’s Go Ask Alice. Narrative voice often reveals the gap in age between its author and protagonist, as when the teenage Bodie bemoans the fact that he’s stuck in the wilderness with “a bunch of young punks.” Some internal inconsistencies will trip readers up; after ongoing negative feelings toward the other characters, at the end he thinks they “didn’t seem so bad after all,” and despite Bodie’s seemingly high level of knowledge about wilderness survival, he’s afraid bats will suck his blood. And, though this is listed as a YA novel, some readers may be uncomfortable with the graphic depictions of death, murder, drug use, and hate speech.

While some newcomers to the natural disaster genre may be bewildered by the randomness and frequency of their occurrence, the novel’s emphasis on earthquakes and their fallout is sure to please disaster-movie aficionados and thriller fans alike. Part survival story, part cautionary tale, Klaassen’s short epic has plenty of twists and turns to satisfy young adult readers. Fans of coming-of-age survival novels will find much to enjoy here.

Takeaway: Earthquakes and perilous adventures abound in this high-stakes teen survival novel.

Great for fans of: Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, Larry Spinelli’s The Library Card.

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

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Parenting in the Screen Age
Delaney Ruston
Ruston, a physician and documentarian (Screenagers), combines anecdotal experience and neurological science in this exhaustive guide that teaches parents how to navigate conflicts with their children about technology use and screen time. Ruston explains that “communication science” dictates that the best way to address the risks and drawbacks of social media, video and computer games, and TV is by using “share tactics, not scare tactics.” She explains that “communication in our home greatly improved once I understood that many of my statements regarding screen time were negative and shut down the conversation.” Each chapter tackles a different digital-age issue, including mental health and sleep hygiene, and offers clever and open-ended conversation-starting questions aimed at empowering children through collaboration, not a series of dictates. The guide’s ultimate aim is to create positive rewards for moderating screen time rather than punishments for slipping up.

Ruston’s first chapters are especially useful due to their specific and straightforward suggestions. Her strategy of starting with the positives of digital platforms is a fruitful way to connect with children. For example, when evaluating social media, she notes that using it can help shy people communicate and lead to more meaningful conversations. Noting the benefits makes it easier to discuss challenges, such as the emotional toll that obsessing over “likes” can take. The chapters about mental health note that suppressing emotions can impair memory and offer helpful suggestions for coping with stress and depression.

Ruston lays out her ideas in catchy ways, for example calling her approach for discussing screen time with kids the 3 Vs (“validate, values, and village”) and the values she wants to instill in her children the 4 Cs (“creativity, competency, connection, and compassion”). Her overall strategy strikes a delicate balance between firm parenting and compassionate understanding of the challenges youth face today. While the book’s second half can wander and repeat itself at times, parents seeking thorough, systematic, and thoughtful advice on their children’s screen use will find consulting this manual very helpful.

Takeaway: Parents interested in a thorough, systematic way to collaborate with their children on screen time will find a treasure trove of specific details and questions to ask in this meticulous guide.

Great for fans of: Anya Kamenetz'sThe Art Of Screen Time, Jordan Shapiro's The New Childhood.

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

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Outfoxed
R.J. Blain
Fantasy author R.J. Blain (A Magical Romantic Comedy series) delivers an adventurous romp through postapocalyptic Tulsa in 2043. Jade Tamrin is a fox-human hybrid—who’s hiding two much more coveted traits: she can shapeshift fully into a fox, and she’s a witch who can control toxins and see the past. Her hybridity makes her extremely high-value bait for bounty hunters, who catch people like her so that rich families can buy them at auction, enslave them, and marry them off to the eldest heir to get desired magical traits into the bloodline. One of those bounty hunters is the mysterious, sexy master magician Sandro Moretti. Despite their enmity and her desire to remain free, Jade must ally with Sandro to uncover what’s behind the extreme tornadoes that ravage Tulsa and kill its residents daily.

Some readers will be put off by the book’s somewhat cavalier treatment of a form of slavery for which “tiny,” “pure white” women are most targeted. And the pacing and structure may cause readers some frustration. The opening scene, with Jade and Sandro trapped in a cellar together during a storm, cues readers to expect a romance novel, but Sandro doesn’t reappear for another 200 pages, which describe three days of Jade’s surviving more tornadoes, finding a new place to live, hiding from bounty hunters, and working shifts at her two jobs. It’s only when he returns that their relationship and the investigation of the story’s big questions—who took out the bounty on Jade in the first place? What’s causing the tornadoes?—really kick into gear.

But Jade is the typically feisty and fierce heroine of science fiction, a badass with a sharp tongue and an inconvenient sense of honor that leads her to take big risks to help others. And the magic is fascinating, boasting a proliferation of mages and witches all with distinct abilities—plastic mages, poetry mages, curse mages, elementalists, toxin witches, and the particularly well-drawn music mages, capable of altering reality by harnessing the power of song. Fantasy fans will enjoy Blain’s complex and well-built world, root for the fiercely principled Jade, and eagerly await the next installment.

Takeaway: This sci-fi fantasy adventure boasts an intriguing system of magic and a fierce heroine.

Great for fans of: A Witch in Time by Constance Sayers, The Clockwork Witch series by Michelle D. Sonnier.

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

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Chasing Rory
Michelle Mars
Mars keeps things hot and heavy in the second installment in the Love Wars paranormal sci-fi romance series, after Moving Jack. In 2025, Earth is facing an ecological crisis. To save the human species, the Alien Relocation Cooperative—a family business run by members of the golden-skinned Staraban species—has been brought in to relocate them all. But one problem persists: at least one of humanity’s supposed saviors lied, and Earth isn't entirely doomed. Now feisty bilingual human munitions expert Rory Espinoza and her well-muscled, cat-loving Staraban counterpart Bren must battle their mutual attraction and bring this troubling information—and a dangerous prisoner—to the All Alien Alliance entrusted with humanity's survival. But the tight quarters of a starship aren’t designed for avoiding sexy crewmates, and Rory’s hiding a supernatural secret of her own.

Given this entry’s indebtedness to the events of Moving Jack, some readers will find this sequel more accessible after reading its predecessor first. Newcomers to Mars’s world are tossed into the conflict between ARC and the Humans Against Relocation Movement, to which the series’ human protagonists belong, with little explanation of Earth’s crisis or the major human players. But that won’t stop them from getting sucked into the action or enjoying the quippy interplay between the characters.

Inspired in part by the culture of the real-world Gitano people of Spain, Rory is a heroine all romance fans will root for. She is equal parts brilliance, directness, and stubbornness to a fault, traits that come in handy on her interstellar mission of diplomacy. Her chemistry with Bren is electric and adversarial: though they constantly fight over their mission’s next steps, their vastly appealing differences keep them—and readers—hooked. This enjoyable blend of comedy, sci-fi, intensely physical romance, and women’s empowerment is sure to please readers.

Takeaway: This witty, sexy adventure’s mixture of sci-fi thrills and paranormal romance makes it a solid addition to any adult reading list.

Great for fans of: Grace Goodwin, Jennifer L. Armentrout, K.F. Breene.

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

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What Dog is That?
Lois Nicholls
Lois Nicholls’s (Bye-bye Bikini) delightful debut children’s book introduces youngsters to a different dog on each page, sharing fun tidbits about both the individual animal and their breed. Children meet dogs of common breeds, such as “Tarna the Golden Retriever,” dogs of no specific variety like “Oogie and Moogie,” and newer breeds like “Fwuffy the Groodle.” Joyful poems introduce each character, describing their personalities and interests, as well as mentioning common physical qualities that differentiate breeds and each dog’s distinctive temperament. When the occasional word comes up that young readers may not know, such as “paddock,” the author provides easy-to-understand definitions at the bottom of the page.

A poem about each dog sits beside a whimsical watercolor portrait by the author’s daughter, Lara Nicholls; they illuminate the dogs’ personalities and draw readers in with their expressive eyes. Lara Nicholls also ups the enjoyment factor for young readers by adding one tiny, intricate bee on every page—hidden on a dog or in a word—as a seek-and-find challenge that older kids and adults will enjoy, too.

Lois Nicholls’s charming poetry is not the only star of this show; she ensures an enjoyable reading experience for budding readers with the creative use of fonts and imaginative formatting for a quirky touch. An amusing game at the end titled “What’s My Name” tests how well readers paid attention to the narrative. Kids and adults alike will revel in the entertaining format, and the reading combined with games will have them returning again and again.

Takeaway: Young readers and those reading along with them will delight in this entertaining introduction to loveable pooches.

Great for fans of: Kevin O’Malley’s The Perfect Dog, Avery Corman’s Bark in the Park!: Poems for Dog Lovers, Maira Kalman’s Beloved Dog.

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

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The Epic of Gabriel and Jibreel
Marin Darmonkow
Marin’s (The Tale of Was and Das) fourth entry in his 2Gether picture book series is a dark story friendship, adult violence, and tragedy set against the backdrop of a refugee crisis. Gabriel, a boy of indeterminate age, lives a somewhat privileged life alone with his father, after his mother’s death in childbirth. He and his father travel to the beach weekly, on the day his nanny does not work, and Gabriel spends time exploring while his father stays in the car. On one of these trips, Gabriel meets Jibreel, another motherless boy who lives in a makeshift refugee camp on the shore, and they form a fast friendship.

Addressing potentially upsetting topics with younger children is a difficult undertaking, and Marin makes every effort, via the use of evocative digital collage illustrations and vivid prose, to make comprehensible to his readers the typically mature topics of racism, the dangers refugees face, and loneliness. However, the story’s word choice learns toward a more mature audience than that of the typical picture book. And one main element of the plot is not fully explained (the boys’ building of a “digital airplane”).

Moreover, the book’s bleak, abrupt ending, in which the boys burn to death as the result of a hate crime perpetrated by Gabriel’s father, will strike many adults as inappropriate for picture book readers. While there is some hope—the narration describes Jibreel’s dwelling turning into an airplane and taking off with “the two angels inside,” as though to carry them to the next phase of their cosmic journey—this is a shocking development, and the last sentence of the book is “life isn’t fair.” This ambitious story is well told, but its subject matter may be too much for young kids.

Takeaway: This dark picture book addresses racism, hate crimes, and cosmic unfairness in bleak fashion.

Great for fans of: Irena Kobald’s My Two Blankets, Wendy Meddour’s Lubna and Pebble.

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

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When Courage Comes
Paul Fleming
Longtime entrepreneur Fleming turns to historical fiction in his debut novel. Stephan Jurgen is a reluctant member of the German army in 1943. A native Austrian, his Christian ideals clash with the fanatical loyalty of the Nazis in his regiment. Serving in North Africa, he is captured by American soldiers and, after a freak accident, saves the life of his American interrogator, Ralph Bauer. When Stephan is shipped off to the hastily constructed POW camp in Huntsville, Tex., he begins work on a farm, striking up a relationship with Rose—who is Ralph’s sister. Neither Rose nor Stephan are aware of the other’s connection to Ralph: will it bring them together or tear family members apart? Meanwhile, intrigue at the camp grows, as a group of Nazi prisoners attempt to take on the well-meaning German chaplain Major Heller for his campaign for peace in the face of the Third Reich.

Fleming’s rich period piece is carefully researched; atmospheric details capture the tensions of the war. At times, however, the prose feels melodramatic, detracting from the novel’s thrust. And even though the story is set in wartime, the stakes are low, without much suspense. Big questions—whether Rose and Stephan will end up together, whether Stephan will recover from an attack—can feel like foregone conclusions.

But the author gives readers a deep sense of divided loyalties. Stephan’s objections to Nazi philosophy give the character depth, painting a picture of a man caught between duty and fear. He must persevere against the attacks in the camp from the fanatical Nazis, eking out a precarious existence in a hostile environment. Likewise, Rose’s struggle to reconcile her feelings for Stephan with being loyal to the American cause is equally complex. Fans of introspective fiction will appreciate Fleming’s sensitive depiction of WWII experienced from the sidelines.

Takeaway: Fleming’s rich period piece is a sensitive depiction of romance and divided loyalties during World War II.

Great for fans of: John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

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

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The Woman Who Fell Through Time
J.M. Frey
When recent university graduate Jessie Franklin survives a plane crash, she finds herself inexplicably transported to 1805, where she’s rescued from the mid-Atlantic by Francis Goodenough, post captain of the HMS Lyre, following the Battle of Trafalgar. As Jessie recovers from her injuries, she slowly comes to accept she’s stranded in the past. After accepting a position as companion to Goodenough’s younger sister Margaret, Jessie is startled to realize her new friend is an author who will become famous for depicting the first lesbian kiss in British publishing. As Jessie and Margaret fall for one another, Jessie must figure out her place in an era she barely understands.

Frey (The Accidental Turn series) skillfully portrays Jessie’s complicated emotional state as she copes with the assorted traumas incurred by her near-death experience and subsequent temporal stranding. Frey doesn’t shy away from the social realities of 1805 England, and Jessie’s frequent chafing at customs and expectations makes for good story fodder. However, the story’s beginning is often dark, including a subplot where Jessie must face off against her would-be husband, an unrepentant domestic abuser. This contrasts sharply with the charmingly sweet romance she later develops with Margaret, and despite the emotional payoff, the early heaviness asks much of readers.

Jessie’s relationship with Margaret will satisfy readers with its expressive richness, playful banter, and well-crafted sensual scenes—making the over-the-top villain and certain late-breaking dramatic moments feel almost unnecessary. Thankfully, Frey pulls all of the threads together to bring this tale home. Her attention to historical detail provides both grounding for Jessie’s experiences and a constant source of friction against her 21st-century upbringing, especially her out-and-proud bisexuality and sexually liberated nature. For those seeking a time travel romance with a distinctly queer feel, this will hit the spot.

Takeaway: This sweet yet complicated story’s overlap of Regency courtships, queer romance, and modern sensibilities will appeal to those searching for a drama with a happy ending.

Great for fans of: Olivia Waite’s The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Catherine Friend’s The Spanish Pearl.

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

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Pearls of Wisdom
Terry Sweeney
Sweeney’s readable and down-to-earth debut aims to help others live their best lives by sharing his own rocky—but frequently humorous—journey. The author shares how his 12-step program and faith in God guided him from destruction to restoration and revealed inspiring truths. In thematically focused chapters, Sweeney recounts episodes from his childhood and adulthood, starting with growing up in a Boston suburb and being educated at strict Catholic schools while dodging his parish's predatory priest. His father was a renowned WWII war hero and raging alcoholic secretly called “General Nuisance” by his children, and his mother was quick to use a belt as punishment. Despite years of physical and emotional abuse, Sweeney grew up to join the Marines, work as a stockbroker, become a successful businessperson, and get in touch with his feelings and faith.

The essays address a wide array of meaningful topics, including humility, trust, and pornography. Sweeney recounts both trauma and healing in conversational, often funny prose (“I understood what the people in the [12-step] group were talking about. Well, except for one lady who shared about talking to God while sitting on the toilet that morning.”) His sincere desire to help others is on frequent display: he recounts his rewarding experience as a mentor in the Big Brothers program; taking in two young women whose parents had kicked them out of their homes as teenagers; and offering school and career advice to his younger neighbors. Some readers, however, will be put off by Sweeney’s habit of referring to Covid-19 as “the Chinese virus” and government-provided cell phones as “Obamaphones,” and others will be alienated by the assertion that “most of the protesters” at Donald Trump’s rallies “make between $50 to $100 per day, just for carrying a sign.”

The book is at its best when imparting sage advice Sweeney received from his mentors, particularly 12-step program sponsors. Some of the counsel is simple (“Don’t die wondering”), but Sweeney’s heartfelt stories drive home his guidance in poignant and unforgettable ways. Sweeney and his tales make for entertaining companions along the bumpy road of life.

Takeaway: Sweeney’s conversational, funny prose makes for entertaining company along the bumpy road of life.

Great for fans of: Robert Fulghum's All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Phil McGraw's Self Matters: Creating Your Life from the Inside Out.

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

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The Promise Of The Gateway
Nick Iuppa & John Pesqueira
Iuppa and Pesqueira’s (Alien Mission) hopeful young adult fantasy romance explores teenage anxieties around popularity, the corrosive effects of resentment, and the redemptive power of love. In 2019, nerdy amateur photographer Emily Perkins is mostly a social nonentity at her high school. Everyone in her small town, Green Mountain, knows that 24-year-old Jake Cane was a football superstar on a path to the NFL until he was grievously injured during a game in 2011. When Emily accidentally discovers a shimmering green portal that transports her back to the night of Jake’s injury, she shares it with him. Jake, convinced he can change the fateful game, takes various members of the 2019 football team through the gateway with him. His plan repeatedly fails—and each time Mr. Paulsen’s social studies class meets after a student has time-traveled, that student ends up reliving a shocking event of injustice in American history, such as 1962’s Bloody Sunday in Selma or the Salem witch trials. Can Emily convince the man she’s fallen in love with to change course before someone really gets hurt?

This is a plot-driven story in the vein of Back to the Future. The small-town setting lends itself to a sweet web of relationships between the kids, their friends’ parents, and older neighbors, and the football team gathers at a diner to brainstorm about the weird goings-on. Certain elements, however, strain credulity: Jake is at times selfish, threatening, and even violent, but Emily feels that “the boy she couldn’t stop loving” is “a reclamation project... she could handle,” even though he’s just “chased her two best friends across the schoolyard apparently trying to kill them.”

Readers who are hoping for explanations of the gateway’s origins, nature, and functioning will be be left wondering: it’s unclear why the gateway takes everyone back to Jake’s traumatic night, why traveling through it makes Emily more confident and attractive, why it causes temporal flashbacks only during one teacher’s lectures specifically about injustice, and why each student’s flashback concerns people who share their ethnicity and gender. But readers who put aside these questions will be rewarded with a fast-moving teen adventure that they’ll tear right through. Iuppa and Pesqueira’s uplifting message about prioritizing the here and now and leaving the past behind will resonate with YA readers.

Takeaway: Young adult readers will relate to the conflicted characters’ self-determination to change their future in this fantasy journey to the past.

Great for fans of: Ilsa Madden-Mills’s I Promise You, Arya Rose’s Deception, Stephen King’s 11/22/63.

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

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The [New] New Patriotism
Jennifer Blackburn
Debut author Jennifer Blackburn claims two things are incontrovertible: “History repeats itself and change is constant.” She immediately challenges her audience with this paradox in her meticulous exploration of the current state of American politics, while exhorting readers to be change agents in redefining the “American Ideal.” Part history lesson and part manifesto, Blackburn’s guide covers issues such topics as shifting definitions of nationalism and patriotism, recent challenges to the idea of American exceptionalism, and technology’s influence on modern Americans’ political identities. Blackburn calls millennials and “incumbent Gen Zs” to action, urging them “to continue flying the banner of American democracy at home while living in a global interdependence.”

Blackburn makes an effort to be nonpartisan, and she succeeds: in one chapter, she advocates for the philosophy of “America First,” while in another she unflinchingly characterizes American history as fraught with white supremacy—two viewpoints that are positionally opposed in the current political climate. Ultimately, however, some of her ideas will limit the readership with whom the book resonates: for example, in discussing the calls for stimulus packages to help a populace economically affected by Covid-19, she recommends that millennials read Milton Friedman and revisit “the war effort of the 1940s,” when “Americans rolled up their sleeves, enlisted in the military, worked factory jobs and bought war bonds to help support the government. Not the other way around.” Without suggestions about how readers whose livelihoods have been lost should survive, let alone pitch in economically to support the government, such sentiments are unlikely to convince readers who don’t already share both her views and the economic safety that makes this idea seem feasible.

Through mixing history, anecdotes, and opinion, Blackburn skillfully combines America's past with the present cultural moment in undertones of obvious pride and devotion. She seamlessly moves from paeans to Thomas Paine into reflections on the death of George Floyd and police brutality. Fellow centrists will appreciate this rousing blueprint for reviving American patriotism for the 21st century.

Takeaway: Political junkies and patriots alike will appreciate Blackburn's blend of American history and modern social commentary.

Great for fans of: Adam Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities, Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner’s What Unites Us, Amitai Etzioni's Reclaiming Patriotism.

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

Click here for more about The [New] New Patriotism

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