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Dinner at God's House
Todd B. Lieman
Debut novelist Lieman’s engaging narrative reads like a memoir but is the fictional account of Erik Bernstein and his self-examination of life and mortality. From the age of eleven, Erik has long pondered about death—and, as the story begins, Erik is watching his own funeral from the back of his synagogue. Burdened during life with overwhelming self-doubt, anxiety and shame, Erik has never felt as if he fit in anywhere, despite the friends he sees eulogizing him. Next, he’s transported to another world which might be Heaven, where he is soon issued an invitation to God’s house, inexplicably narrated by the beloved late Chicago Cubs broadcaster, Harry Caray. But rather than the Almighty, a short jester named Fate appears, calling himself God’s court jester.

Fate soon explains that situations that appear to be random instead were orchestrated by his machinations. “Many—not all—of those moments are creations of my imagination. They are designed to delight God,” Fate intones. A fellow traveler is shown the unlikely way he met his beloved wife of five decades; another received a promotion when the lost file he’d been fired for reappeared. And Erik is shown the many times during his life that he lost out by not making choices — when it’s too late to do anything about it. Or is it?

Lieman deftly illustrates the weight of mortality carried by all humans, and his polished, inviting prose allows readers to imagine themselves in similar situations. Indeed, he punctuates each chapter with a real-life unlikely situation—including a NICU nurse who cares for a baby and after twenty-eight years and across the country cares for that preemie’s own infant — all examples are footnoted at the end of his story. Anyone who has ever contemplated the meaning of life and its fleeting duration will find deep meaning in Lieman’s words.

Takeaway: This inspiring novel will have readers re-evaluating their own life choices.

Comparable Titles: Mitch Albom, Richard Bach.

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

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Double Blast: A Davis Way Crime Caper
Gretchen Archer
The 12th entry in Archer’s playful and all-too-human Davis Way Crime Caper series picks up on Davis Way Cole’s life as she returns to her hometown of Pine Apple, Alabama, to fill in for her police chief father during Memorial Day celebrations. Davis escaped the town years ago, to run an elite security team at a million-dollar casino in Mississippi, and even though coming back home means facing people and memories she’d rather avoid, Cole is looking forward to a laid-back time at a quiet job. But Archer, as always, keeps things winningly off-kilter, and before Davis knows it everything goes horribly awry: accidents, surprises from her past, and a slew of crimes and intrigues that threaten the town itself. Can Cole save them?

The novel is fast-paced, with characters and situations flung from all sides. Every interaction seems to teem with hidden pasts and mysteries, hinting at the history that people share with each other, courtesy of living in a small town. There’s also the odd little detail about people thrown in now and then, again exuding a small-town quaintness. Even as the narrative hurtles forward at break-neck speed, Archer’s characteristic sense of humor, part sarcastic, part ridiculous, brings a refreshing lightness to the at-times quite dire happenings. The characters remain memorable and engaging creations, capable of surprises, and readers new to the series will feel invited right in.

At points, there’s so much happening—plot twists and surprising situations that stretch credulity—that Double Blast at times tests suspension of disbelief …how many mysterious can one town hold? Most of the time, though, Archer is right on the money, capturing a slightly heightened realism with surprises that stir gasps and character motivations that resonate. It’s an extremely fun read alive with crime, action, heaps of local dish and color, and above all, transporting entertainment.

Takeaway: Fun, funny small-town caper with a fill-in police chief.

Comparable Titles: Janet Evanovich; Victoria Houston’s At the Edge of the Woods.

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

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Still Phyllis: A Caregiver's Memoir of Dementia and CJD
Donald Friedman
Incisive, moving, and stripped of sentimentality, Still Phyllis finds Friedman (author of The Hand Before the Eye) facing, some two decades after the fact, a period of pain, loss, and surprising connection: the 18 months between his sister’s diagnosis, at the start of her fifties, with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, an incurable and fatal condition that, as he puts it, “had been turning Phyllis’s brain into Swiss cheese.” In scrupulous prose, Friedman relives the shock of seeing his younger sister “trapped inside her deteriorating mind, conscious of each successive loss—of language, memory, executive function.” This was a one-in-a-million diagnosis, and the neurologist brusquely announced to Friedman that there’s no known palliative treatments and little hope of Phyllis lasting a year. “Your sister needs to go to a nursing facility. She cannot be cared for by you.”

But, for Friedman, family is family, and Still Phyllis finds him drawing from long-forgotten diaries as he both recounts and interrogates his choice to take Phyllis into his New Jersey home, a decision he made without consulting his wife. He writes with crisp precision of the practicalities of caring for Phyllis despite the medical system’s zeal to convince us “to exile our debilitated parents or suddenly useless spouses to institutional caretaking.” Scenes of brother and sister still managing to understand each other despite the fraying of Phyllis’s capacity for language have rich power. These edge between the touchingly playful—Upper West Sider Phyllis offers tart assessments of authors reading at the 92nd Street Y—and the profound, as in the inclusion of a handwritten note from Phyllis (“Don, I lov yu. your deep & wondreerful &so &deep”).

Friedman notes that her words still “communicated well the truths about dying—about its terrors and confusions” more powerfully than the “saccharine and, finally, empty nuggets” he’s read in the likes of Tuesdays with Morrie. That commitment to rigorous thinking and writing about life as it’s actually lived powers this first-rate memoir, an act of memory, empathy, and love.

Takeaway: Finely wrought, deeply human memoir of a sister’s neurodegenerative disorder.

Comparable Titles: Elizabeth Hay’s All Things Consoled, Philip Roth’s Patrimony.

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

Children of the Stars
Neil V. Young
Debut novelist Young offers young readers a wild sense of wonder and adventure in this coming-of-age science fiction drama. At 16, Dayton Murdoch elevated himself through hard work to the rank of Survey pilot aboard the exploration ship he was born on, Venture. With only a handful of flying hours left until he earns a coveted Recon pilot designation, he finds his future bright. When Venture, supposedly still 4 years away from returning to Earth, undergoes an unexpectedly early re-entry, Dayton, his partner Zara, and the rest of the crew find themselves living in a very different world than the one they’d been living out amongst the stars.

What comes next is an exciting space-to-Earth coming-of-age story that relies on action to share a powerful message of adaptation and acceptance. Dayton is rudely introduced to Earth law and culture, stuck in Chuck Yeager High School until his 18th birthday. That means no more flying, and no more tight-knit camaraderie with his fellow pilots. The adjustment is difficult for the confident Dayton, who says, “A lot of you on the spacer side say I’m too much of an Earther. Then the Earthborn say I’m too much of a spacer.” When his father is recalled to active service in space, Dayton finds he must contend with an aunt who has very different ideals than the ones he grew up with. To top everything off, he’s head over heels for Allyson, a popular classmate.

With its stark focus on societal divides (with Griefers, neuros, and more), the novel shines a bright light on contemporary issues and plays on the classical literary themes of man vs self, man vs nature, and man vs other. The 1950’s-esque plot calls back to Heinlen’s Juveniles, and action-packed scenes will provide middle-grade readers with a delightful taste of science fiction without being overwhelmed by excessive character development.

Takeaway: Exciting coming-of-age SF story in space, on Earth, and inbetween.

Comparable Titles: Robert A. Heinlen’s Have Space Suit—Will Travel, Jennifer L. Holm’s The Lion of Mars.

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

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Charity, Change, and Community: Frankford's Swedenborgians and Their Circle; Volume I: 1817 - 1875
Gail Rodgers McCormick
A feat of research revealing fascinating textures of life, faith, and the building of community in 19th century America, this first volume of McCormick’s historical study focuses on the establishment and growth of the New Church—inspired by the teaching of Swedish theologian/philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg Swedenborgians—of Frankford, a village just north of Philadelphia. As McCormick’s title suggests, the denomination emphasized good works, and her narrative of the church’s development mirrors that of Frankford (and what we now think of as greater Philadelphia) itself. From the start, public spirited Swedenborgians of the New Jerusalem Society of Frankford, many of them immigrants from England, involved themselves in charitable efforts, relief organizations, and the societies, associations, and businesses that shaped the still-young nation.

McCormick’s telling, covering the better part of a century, boasts both sweep and depth. Early Frankford Swedenborgians like Maskell Carll, the first minister of The First New Jerusalem Church in the City of Philadelphia, and “humble instruments” like Thomas Seddon found success preaching “Swedenborg’s doctrines to working-class people,” forging “an independent religious path, born of diversity and imbued with an ecumenical vision” and emphasizing a spiritual sense of scripture as well as “local activism to generate ‘happiness’ and community betterment.” McCormick notes that the faith was often misunderstood, and accounts of theological controversies, schisms, and occasional outside pushback will fascinate scholars of American faith.

The story of the Swedenborgians reflects the story of the nation itself, as McCormick’s rich chapters, each covering a half decade or so, explore local impacts of national news and politics, as well as local and community issues. The narrative draws deeply on local publications, digging into customs, the practicalities of community-building, news events like fires and new businesses, and reports on controversies and the Society’s responses, like Rev. B. F. Barrett’s 1866 sermon in support of desegregating Philadelphia streetcars. The level of detail is likely too granular for readers of pop histories, but McCormick offers a feast of insights, connections, and revelations.

Takeaway: Richly detailed history of Swedenborgian Christians near 18th century Philadelphia.

Comparable Titles: Marguerite Block’s The New Church in the New World, Harry C. Silcox and Frank W. Hollingsworth’s Northeast Philadelphia.

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

The Alzheimer's/Hearing Aid Paradox: In Search of Sanity
Robert C. Keefer, PhD
Keefer offers readers a meticulous summary of the connection between hearing loss and chronic illness, the science behind contemporary hearing aids, and more in this informative debut. His passion for improving access to high quality hearing aids for the millions of Americans who struggle with hearing deficits is evident throughout, as he chronicles the basics while advocating for systemic change, drawing on his years of experience working in the healthcare and hearing industries. The advice is straightforward and relevant, and the stakes, Keefer argues, are high: “people with hearing loss have up to an astonishing 500 percent higher risk of long-term health issues like dementia, Alzheimer’s, and falls with broken bones.”

If that statistic doesn’t grab readers’ attention, it should. Keefer goes on to note that 80 percent of Americans suffering from hearing loss don’t employ hearing aids, chalking that choice up to three main reasons: barriers with Medicare insurance, substandard audiological care, and “human ego.” If health insurance won’t pay for hearing aids, he asserts, most individuals are forced to sacrifice quality and accept what they can afford—even if that means missing the subtle sounds, nuances, and communication that keep us connected to others. That outcome kickstarts a domino process with far-reaching emotional, physical, and social impacts; hearing loss doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and, according to Keefer, it can damage our physical condition, relationships, and more.

Readers will find a wealth of information here, with useful guidance and handy tips, whether Keefer’s outlining the different types of hearing aids and their costs, reviewing the new technology transforming the field, or reminding readers there’s a glimmer of hope: “you are not alone,” he comforts, and “with the right treatment, [you can] experience an improved quality of life with hearing aids.” Keefer closes with real life stories of individuals with hearing loss, professionals in the field, and resources to champion change.

Takeaway:Informative call-to-action for the effective treatment of hearing loss.

Comparable Titles: Keith N. Darrow’s Stop Living In Isolation, Bella Bathurst’s Sound.

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

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Blood Triad: Stories in the Blood & Ancient Scrolls Series
Raven Belasco
Belasco offers readers a captivating and deeply moving glimpse into the world of the am’r, akin to vampires, in these three standalone novellas set in the world of her debut series, Blood & Ancient Scrolls. The collection delves into the backstories of side characters from the series, the first two recounted to the protagonist, Noosh, as she embarks on archiving the histories of the am’r. In "Teeth Are Bones," readers are transported to Haiti, where Zoraida and her lover and patar, Kgosi, fight for the liberation of their homeland amidst the backdrop of historical atrocities. "Blood Brothers" explores the enduring bond between Scottish am’r Dubhghall and Viking Norwegian am’r Wulfhram, forged through centuries of shared experiences. Lastly, "Abyssinia" follows the story of am’r woman Astryiah and her romantic relationship with Palmina in Prohibition-era Philadelphia, a story drawn from the life of Belasco’s grandmother as the protagonists aid women seeking abortions in a society unwilling to afford them support and services.

Readers will find themselves fully immersed in the vividly depicted world of the am’r as Belasco's intimate storytelling delves into intricate bonds of friendship, love, and resilience. Each novella offers a distinctive perspective and contributes depth to the overarching narrative of Blood & Ancient Scrolls while still proving welcoming to new readers. The exploration of historical settings and events adds urgency and variety, with engaging period detail never slowing narrative momentum. Belasco adeptly navigates themes such as love, loyalty, and trust throughout the novellas, resulting in three moving reads. A heart-to-heart between Astriyah and Palmina on death, life, blood, and Dracula pulses with feeling, while the range of milieus (and Belasco’s mastery of her world) yield a bounty of striking detail and situations.

Blood Triad is a must-read for fans of vampire fiction and historical fantasy, especially those who value meticulously researched narratives that deliver immersive world-building, nuanced character dynamics and diverse perspectives, and thought-provoking explorations of love and resilience.

Takeaway: Resonant, immersive historical vampire novellas with diverse themes.

Comparable Titles: Deborah Harkness's The All Souls Trilogy, Octavia Butler’s Fledgling

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

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What Lies We Keep
Janet Roberts
Roberts (author of Seven Thin Dimes) offers up a story of ambition, love, betrayal, and redemption as cybersecurity specialist Ted McCord faces the toughest days of his life. He and his wife Charlotte are in marriage counseling, his brother Jesse is having financial difficulties running the family ranch in Montana that Ted fled for the corporate life, and now Ted has just been fired and accused of embezzling money from his company and hiding it in an account under the name of his 5-year-old daughter. Soon the FBI is knocking on his door, while Charlotte feels at loose ends. Ted insists he’s didn’t do it, but Charlotte says, heartbreakingly, “I’m not so naive, Ted, that I can’t figure out it’s unlikely you’re totally innocent.”

Readers are taken through the cold sweat of Ted's nightmares: fear of being exposed, fear of being duped, fear of being left behind, and the fear of losing everything he holds dear as a result of a few desperate decisions. Roberts grounds the suspense in convincing human detail and relationships: Ted left the family ranch in Montana as a young man to seek out a life where he felt validated by titles, money, and upward mobility. When Ted confesses to Charlotte that everything about their life has come unwound, the couple are forced to face some hard truths: he’s been lying to her, their friends may not be who they think they are and there is a bigger scheme underway to destroy them both than either really knows.

The story is engaging and the characters and plot are both well-developed, though the "whodunnit" and "why" are fairly easy to deduce. Most every character is fairly flawed, in ways both touchingly human and sometimes disheartening, but the novel’s most moving when it reveals there’s more to these people than expected, as in a lovely exchange between Charlotte and the mother she considers cold and disapproving. Unexpected warmth and connection amid the suspense will keep readers turning the pages.

Takeaway: Tense story of the fallout in a marriage after a husband’s accused of embezzlement.

Comparable Titles: Michael Eon’s These Things Happen, Angela Terry’s Charming Falls Apart.

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

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The Neon Prince: Book #2 of The Neon God
R.M. Gayler
In Gayler’s thrilling second in the Neon God series, a special boy and his digitized best friend are helped by the adults who care for them to complete their quest to save the world. Following the truce arranged by Jessie with the AI known as the Neon God, the young boy, Mason—who can pull people from the dangerous trance of the neon lights—disappeared with the Neon God’s son, Prince, on a laptop. Unbeknownst to the adults, Mason and Prince believe they’re on a knight’s quest to stop Mordred and to save every human they can from the neon lights. When Jessie realizes the pair is gone, and where they’re headed, she and her friends brave their own quest to save them, and discover the most unexpected surprises along the way.

Gayler immerses readers in a terrifying, fully realized potential reality, emphasizing the control that phones and computers have over human lives. Because people are always connected, it was all too easy for the programmers who created the Neon God and hypnotic lights to even further entrance users. The consequences are provocative: in this screen-centric future, millions died either by mass suicide, or neglect of their bodies, withering away while staring at their screens. Gayler also highlights fears about AI sentience, finding fresh angels, while mining tension and twists from the existence of people not affected by the mesmeric neon lights, living in refuge from electronic devices.

The worldbuilding is complex, but Gayler keeps the storytelling clear and engaging, whether in technical explanations, brisk action sequences, or passages blending these modes. Readers won’t find themselves pulled out of the story trying to follow the jargon. Taking readers from the destruction of the United States to the barely touched South America, Gayler explores the harrowing complications of this dystopia, where some governments will go to extremes to keep those—mostly tourists—affected by the lights from tarnishing their cities. The plotting, meanwhile, surprises, sometimes shocks, and will please fans of fallen near futures.

Takeaway: Apocalyptic thrill ride of a boy destined to save the world from tech.

Comparable Titles: M.T. Anderson’s Feed, Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother.

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

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The Importance of Wives: Chronicles of the House of Valois
Keira Morgan
Morgan’s third novel illuminates the bold life and struggles of Anne of Brittany as the 15th century gave way to the 16th. Orphaned at 11, Anne inherits the feudal duchy of Brittany, situated between French Provinces, the Atlantic Ocean, and the English Channel, from her father and fights to be recognized as the de facto ruler. Though betrayed by her guardians, Madame de Dinan and Marshal de Rieux, who, plot to get her married to the obnoxious Alain d’Albret, Anne refuses to be cowed, thwarting d’Albret’s self-interested schemes. In a clever counter move, she dares to have herself crowned and declares her opponents, rebels. But life and love remain complicated, and for Brittany’s welfare she is forced to marry by proxy Maximilian, King of the Romans, who promises to be there as Anne and Brittany face the direst of times.

Morgan’s language evokes an ambience of the gated cities, ducal castles, courtly intrigue, “plump ruddy prince”s, conjuring rich detail without diminishing narrative momentum. Among the host of characters peopling the pages, the maternal figure Madame de Dinan, Anne’s gouvernante, stands out, offering support but perhaps uncertain loyalty. These only add to the demands made on Anne seem impossible. As a pre-teen, she shows remarkable courage and intelligence in thwarting the underhand moves of people whom she believed she could trust. Though her love for her land is idealistic, she exhibits pragmatism in her decisions about marriage.

The pace of the novel remains brisk to the end, even as Morgan’s research and her deep knowledge of the era and obvious love for her subject shine throughout. The curious custom of marriage by proxy will fascinate and amuse contemporary readers, but the fact that marriage itself was often rooted in political considerations among the ruling elite is explored without 21st century judgment. Morgan blends fact and fiction seamlessly and the result is an authentic story of a strong woman ruler determined to defend her right to rule and face the challenges of her situation.

Takeaway: Brisk, involving historical novel of Anne of Brittany, protecting her duchy.

Comparable Titles: Rozsa Gaston’s Sense of Touch, Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn.

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

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Everyone's Included at the Animal Party: : The Little Bear Learns to be Body Aware
Catie "Aunt Kiki" Greene, PhD, LPC
Greene’s third book in her Everyone’s Included at the Animal Party series (after The Little Girl Learns About Patience & Imagination) takes on the weighty topics of boundaries and body safety, as Little Bear learns how to play safely with his forest friends. “New to life [with] so much to explore,” Little Bear is delighted and bursting with energy to investigate the world around him, but that same zip that makes him so much fun to be with can get in his way, too. When a playdate with his friend Turtle ends with a cannonball gone awry, he learns the hard way why careful play is so important.

The theme is complex, but Greene skillfully simplifies it, offering reflection questions adult readers can use to guide discussion. As Little Bear practices interacting with his environment, a wise Frog serves as his mentor, prompting him to consider the impact his behaviors can have on others—a process that Greene mirrors through the adult-centered questions included throughout. When Frog explains the tangled concept of boundaries to Little Bear, adult readers are encouraged to have kids brainstorm boundaries Turtle can set in their play; when Frog details the “Animal Party Pact” of respecting others’ physical boundaries, adults are given prompts that explore why it’s crucial to ask others before touching them.

K.K.P. Dananjali’s brightly hued, entertaining illustrations bounce readers through a colorful, inviting world that, though sprinkled with some hefty learning moments, is a celebration of how exciting life can be with just a little forethought. Little Bear’s a quick learner, and he and Turtle eventually reunite with their other pals for a boisterous, pool-splashing romp that kids will love. Greene closes with a list of the top five body aware rules for young readers to master, alongside a gentle reminder that “when we’re having fun, our bodies should feel safe too.”

Takeaway: Delightfully crafted lesson on boundaries and safe play.

Comparable Titles: Jenny Simmons’s I Can Say No, Emily Nelson’s Can I Give You a Squish?.

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

The Mountain Mystic
Russell W. Johnson
Johnson’s second West Virginia-set Mountaineer Mystery (after Moonshine Messiah) features Jasper County’s first female sheriff Mary Beth Cain, reinvestigating a cold case at the insistence of her son Sam, who has been inspired by a mystic. Maria Ruiz—granddaughter to Guadalupe, former housekeeper to the Cain family—disappeared without a trace several years ago. Mary Beth discovers her remains thanks to clues provided by the mystic and help from her deputy, Izzy Baker. She suspects the involvement of Maria’s ex-boyfriend Pedro Kowalski, now an orthopedist, but forensic analysis reveals a strand of hair on Maria’s remains, which leads Mary Beth to convicted criminal Octavio Silva, who reveals the involvement of Raul, Pedro’s brother, a former drug peddler. But Raul, after ratting on his cartel, has now fled to Mexico.

Narrated in breezy, conversational language with much local color, the novel is fast-paced, with action that never lets up, bringing life to a milieu of Waffle Houses, gravel roads, ramshackle wooden bridges, and bars specializing in bikini bull riding. Though on the outside Mary Beth is a hardened law enforcer, her own vulnerabilities regarding her son Sam, her confused loyalties and feelings of guilt regarding her late husband and some family members make her human and fallible, while her dialogue—calling a prosecutor “Boss Hogg,” for example—is charmingly expressive of her region. Izzy is a good sidekick to Mary Beth, restraining her when required and backing her up when the situation demands. Apart from the two, Princess, Izzy’s wife, and Sam, prove especially engaging, the kind of characters who reward readers over series installments.

Johnson’s story will test Mary Beth, with some personal complications at times seeming to keep her from seeing the truth of key matters—in fact, seasoned mystery readers might be able to guess at some secrets she misses long before the reveal. Still, this thriller is a brisk, tense read, pulsing with character, and it will hold reader interest till the last page.

Takeaway: A West Virginia county’s first female sheriff takes on an engaging cold case.

Comparable Titles: Julie Ann Lindsey’s Apple Cider Slaying, Rita Herron’s The Silent Dolls.

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

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Anna's Shadow
Ingrid McCarthy
McCarthy (author of Dancing Near the Edge) joins past and present in this bittersweet, irony-touched historical romance. Drawing its inspiration from the real-world phenomenon of lovesick people penning letters to the tragic heroine Juliet, Anna’s Shadow centers on 2005 Verona, where Juliet’s Letter Club responds to missives from heartbroken and long-lost lovers. Sofia is a Canadian-Italian orthopedic surgeon taking time away from her life as a volunteer for Doctors without Borders after enduring a romantic tragedy of her own. Not long after beginning service as one of Juliet’s secretaries in a Verona of bistros, disgetivos, and delectable bombolones, she is intrigued by a letter asking the Club to help an old man, Luke Miller, find Anna Bissoli, an Italian woman he fell for after one fleeting encounter at the end of World War II.

This collision with history will change not just Luke’s life, and McCarthy keeps the tension (and the feels) at a strong simmer as Sofia, like readers, gets caught up in the story. The setup is emotionally complex: Luke—then Lukas—had been a German soldier, just 18 years old, in occupied Verona, and Anna a resident hiding under her bed as his unit searched her house. Boldly, he chose not to reveal her to the other Germans, but he never saw her again. In the present, Sofia and her family dive into the case, striving to find Anna and answer questions that have haunted Luke.

The end of World War II is brought to vivid life as McCarthy balances the timelines of Sofia’s 2005 and Luke’s 1945, with storytelling that emphasizes sleuthing and history. Sofia’s own story, of healing and self-discovery, never compels as much as the beautifully narrated tale of Luke and Uwe, Luke’s oldest friend and mentor, which reveals just how unpredictable life can be. Readers will appreciate, though, how McCarthy’s attention to telling detail never slows narrative momentum.

Takeaway: Romantic historical mystery of love lost and found in the aftermath of a world war.

Comparable Titles: Jillian Cantor’s In Another Time, Laura Nowlin’s If Only I Had Told Her.

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

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Heavy Metal Moon
Ronald Dean Lamberson
Lamberson (A Grave Invitation) creates a funny, profane, occasionally disgusting, ultimately humane SF adventure that takes fish-out-of-water tropes and turns them into an epic rock-and-roll rescue story where almost everything goes wrong. Youngish protagonist Garton Prog is regarded as the sole remaining human left alive after a mission from Earth to Alpha Centauri. Coddled by his adopted family after his own parents died, Prog indulges in rock star fantasies amid a variety of alien races mostly uninterested in Earth music.

Undaunted, he assembles a makeshift band (and chosen family) for potential gigs. Then he hears a life-changing rumor: another human, on a moon that's a lawless den of vice, being held captive by a brutal criminal who has sinister motives. That spurs a highly unlikely, amusingly ludicrous, and frequently lethal chain of events as Prog hires a vicious but principled criminal to guide him and his friends on a seemingly doomed rescue mission. Amidst befouled space cruisers that crash before even leaving the atmosphere, teleporters that might kill you, enemies everywhere, and a murderous, clone-hungry villain in the monstrous Croakus, Prog labors to protect not just his life but his sanity.

Written as the first volume of a potential series, Lamberson leaves some loose ends but brings this story to a satisfying end, though sometimes at the cost of having his hero get lost in the shuffle of so many colorful characters. Narratively, Lamberson switches perspective with each chapter in the second half, deepening characterization while sometimes slowing the momentum, but then he cleverly flips this technique by advancing the plot in surprising ways before rewinding to tell the story from a different point of view. Despite some proudly ridiculous story beats and the exaggerated comic features of many alien characters, Lamberson takes care to pay close attention to their feelings and individual personalities, while spinning a gripping story. Lamberson refusing to bow down to action cliches elevates the novel from a wild lark into something with more depth.

Takeaway: Teen angst, heavy metal dreams, and madcap science fiction escapades.

Comparable Titles: Jim C. Hines’s Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse series, Dennis Taylor’s Bobiverse series.

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

Click here for more about Heavy Metal Moon
A Grain of Hope
Melissa Cole
Cole sparkles in this meticulously researched young adult novel, her first foray into historical fiction, about a Soviet/Ukrainian clash at the hands of the feared Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. In spring 1931, 13-year-old Oksana Kovalenko is loving life in her Ukrainian village, working the family farm with her parents and older brother Peter and spending as much time as she can with her best friend, Anya. A chill runs through the village when Stalin’s army invades the tiny town, forcefully steal farms and systemically starve the villagers. As former friends betray each other to receive tiny portions of food, morale plummets—but so does the quiet heroism of resistance.

Cole evokes this fraught, frightening era with an eye for the telling detail, especially the “traditions and simple way of life” in Oksana’s village and how the Bolsheviks trample them. Historical context never slows the narrative, however, and Cole’s inventions, especially her characters’ choices and desires, make the past feel urgent for contemporary readers as they become engrossed by the injustices meted out by the cruel Soviet regime and its intense effort to erase Ukrainian culture. She also aptly demonstrates how war and persecution can drive difficult decisions, especially when Oksana’s friend Anya and her father Grigori join Stalin’s organizations in an effort to survive the conflict and not go hungry, even when Grigori plays a part in arresting Mikhail, Oksana’s father.

When Cole recounts the persecution and torture of Mikhail, and Dymitro, the town’s elderly baker, the unflinching details can be hard to stomach, and readers will feel the ache of hunger and despair right along with the characters. The story is all the more poignant given the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. While this expertly crafted tale may be geared for a younger audience, readers of any age should take Cole’s wise points to heart.

Takeaway: Heart-wrenching, meticulously researched tale about the Ukrainian Holodomor.

Comparable Titles: V

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

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Defeat of Nazi Germany: Flying with the 453rd Bomb Group in 1945
chester fong
A tailgunner on a bomber for the US Air Force in World War II, Fong writes with inviting clarity, offering up-close-and-personal accounts of each of the 22 missions that he flew in 1945 while also contextualizing how each fit into the wider mission of defeating Nazi Germany. In meticulous detail, he covers the widest objectives of the overall mission of the Allies while also focusing on the actual experience of what each mission was like. Among the revelations: how weather affected the sighting of targets and was the single biggest factor in whether a mission was even allowed to occur, as well as real-time changes in technology that altered the course of the war.

Fong covers all this chronological order, after opening with a brief account of his hopes of joining China’s Flying Tigers and fighting the Japanese invasion there, but a snafu led to him being sent to Germany instead. He briefly describes boot camp and training to be a crew member of the B-24 Liberator bomber before jumping into a detailed description of the desperate German offensive in Ardennes, later to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. In essence, the Allies had wiped out the German air force (the Luftwaffe) before the invasion of Normandy. Hitler, deranged in his final days, had ordered an all-out offensive to break through the Allied forces.

Touchingly honoring his heritage and the sacrifices and courage of Chinese-Americans, Fong details the challenge of destroying the industrial complex that allowed the Germans to build planes and tanks, as well as providing fuel for their vehicles, processes Fong played a part in disrupting in countless bomber missions designed to destroy airfields, factories, processing centers, and other industrial targets. Fong supplements his close-up and big-picture account with fascinating photos and maps that clearly relay military goals, plus a wealth of material in appendices. Readers interested in the fine details regarding the end of the war will be fascinated.

Takeaway: Revealing, moving account of 22 bombing missions in Germany at the end of World War II.

Comparable Titles: E. Samantha Cheng’s Honor and Duty, Philip Kaplan’s Escort Pilot.

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

Click here for more about Defeat of Nazi Germany
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