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Girl with a Future
Parker Ames
Ames’s immersive debut follows a young woman’s coming-of-age journey in the 1990s. Angie Cohen lives in the small Canadian town of Aurora and is only 17 when her father dies from cancer. Though she is an accomplished swimmer and receives offers for scholarships at prestigious colleges, she decides to tour Europe using proceeds from the sale of her father’s coffee service business. While in Paris, Angie falls under the spell of Dominick, a mercurial painter with whom she has a volatile relationship. Once she returns home, Angie goes to university, but she’s lost her academic ambition, and her grades plummet while her drinking gets worse. After a man drugs her and tries to rape her, she moves to Vancouver, enrolling in another school part-time. There she turns a corner with the help of Samuel, a laid-back yoga instructor who genuinely cares about her.

Angie is a magnetic protagonist whose journey of self-discovery is enhanced by her ability to achieve success when she decides to singularly focus on goals such as improving her swimming or helping Dominick win artistic acclaim. In unvarnished, often evocative prose (“She popped back awake and rolled her window down halfway and drove with the cold air breathing energy back into her face”), Ames highlights how the ups and downs of Angie’s life stem from her decisions—driving drunk, terminating a pregnancy, leaving town—and her relationships with a variety of friends, lovers, and strangers who can be kind, cruel, or distant.

The novel ends abruptly on the fourth anniversary of Angie’s father’s death as Angie prepares to open a new chapter in her life. After following Angie through so many trials, readers may want more certainty that she will really find happiness; it’s too easy to read this hopeful moment as another risk that could end well or badly. Despite this sharp cut-off, fans of coming-of-age novels will warm to Angie’s journey and hope that a future installment will see her comfortably settled at last.

Takeaway: This evocative story of four years in a young woman’s life will grip readers looking for a nuanced tale of choices and consequences.

Great for fans of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing.

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

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Hundred Percent Chance
Robert K. Brown
Brown takes a dispassionate, unflinching look back at his cancer diagnosis at age 20 in this no-holds-barred medical memoir. In early 1990, Brown, a college student enjoying a semester abroad in England, went to the school infirmary with troubling symptoms. Diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a fast-moving bone disease, Brown returned home to Seattle in a fragile state. College classes gave way to hospital stays as Brown struggled through a months-long ordeal of chemotherapy, infections, fevers, and low white blood cell counts. As he endured the treatments, he kept in mind his oncologist’s words about his odds of surviving: “You either survive or you don’t.... One day at a time, Robert, you have a hundred percent chance.” It was a philosophy Brown embraced even as he faced unexpected complications.

Brown frequently strays into medical minutiae, but it’s clear that his knowledge of clinical terms is hard-won, and readers who are personally familiar with AML will nod along. It’s surprisingly easy to walk the hospital corridors with Brown as he recounts adjusting to his new situation, often interjecting unexpected humor into the dreariness of his grueling medical marathon. He thoroughly evokes the curious mix of tedium and terror that is the life of an oncology patient.

Even three decades after his diagnosis, Brown’s perspective remains entirely about survival, without time or energy to seek meaning in illness or look beyond the personal. There are few references to his illness’s effect on his family or the difference health insurance made to his situation, and anyone looking for deep insights into how surviving cancer changes one’s approach to life should look elsewhere. Brown’s clear-cut prose and chronological storytelling keep the focus on the circumstances of his diagnosis and treatment, making his memoir truly a patient’s tale.

Takeaway: Cancer patients and their families will appreciate how Brown’s memoir highlights the stark reality of battling leukemia and the extraordinary determination to survive.

Great for fans ofWhen Breath Becomes Air.

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

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Imaginative Communities
Robert Govers
Govers (Place Branding) uses clear, readable language to construct this brief, insightful, and optimistic guide for physical communities looking to construct identities and boost their reputations. Paris is known for romance and Rio de Janeiro for partying; now, Govers writes, globalization is creating an economic need for other cities and communities around the world to foster proud global images—particularly those that embrace geography, history, and “moral virtue” over “nationalism, religion, or power.” He advises communities to create a sense of belonging and accomplishment for both residents and visitors by being bold and innovative rather than copying what other communities do or relying on stereotypes.

Blending social anthropology and psychology into this analysis of urban branding, Govers touts dramatic ideas that he feels are worth the cost and challenges of implementation. He asserts that communities must reject traditional media campaigns and instead use modern technological tools, citing augmented-reality phone apps that create projections of the Berlin Wall and Rome’s Coliseum in its heyday. He also advises thinking in terms of time as well as space, highlighting Oslo’s Future Library, a century-spanning literary project.

Govers shines when providing examples of imaginative initiatives, including Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Commission, Estonia’s invention of Skype and declaration that internet access is a human right, and Dubai’s palm-shaped artificial islands. Examples from South America and Africa are conspicuously lacking, and minimally useful tables and graphs intrude on the otherwise gripping descriptions of communities engaging with international audiences by communicating their values across different cultures and lifestyles. But this book will thrill municipal leaders, city planners, globalists, and sociologists with practical steps for implementing creative ideas that will invigorate community spirit and bring in tourist dollars.

Takeaway: Community leaders, city planners, and policy makers will appreciate these practical guidelines for implementing projects that build and communicate community identity.

Great for fans of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Bill Baker’s Place Branding for Small Cities, Regions, and Downtowns.

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

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Of Epidemic Proportions, Expanded Edition, 2019
Sylvia R. Karasu, MD
In this expanded edition of her 2018 essay collection, Karasu (The Gravity of Weight: A Clinical Guide to Weight Loss and Maintenance), a clinical professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine, authoritatively examines the fraught topic of body weight. In 100 concise and meticulously researched essays drawn from her blog, The Gravity of Weight, she exhaustively tackles topics related to every aspect of weight, including bariatric surgery, cellulite, the famed “freshman 15,” and the relationship between depression and binge eating.

Sometimes Karasu overreaches on social issues—as when she lists a number of situations in which obese people face discrimination but then says voters assessing candidates for higher office “certainly should [take obesity] into consideration” (though “the situation is clearly a complex one”)—but her grasp of the latest science is strong, and she explains factual findings well. Readers will be intrigued by her writing on discoveries such as irisin, a hormone found in skeletal muscle that may benefit those with conditions that preclude exercise. Her examinations of how circadian rhythms and sleep deprivation affect weight are especially fascinating. She often refers to publications by year alone, or even with vague phrases such as “several years ago”; full citations would be helpful for those who want to use her brief overviews as jumping-off points for further research.

Karasu adds visual appeal with lavish illustrations (most from before the 20th century, going back to illuminations from medieval manuscripts). Her expertly crafted writing is ideal for academics already grounded in the topic (language such as “epigenetic modifications can be reversible or stable, as well as occur randomly or induced by changes in the environment” is ubiquitous) and the book is well suited to classroom and library use.

Takeaway: This scrupulously researched collection of essays on the latest science around obesity is perfect for an academic audience.

Great for fans of Perri Klass, Morgan Spurlock.

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

Water is Wider
Marie Green McKeon
In McKeon’s thoughtful but sometimes implausible second novel (after A Balm in Gilead), a runaway in search of her missing father forms a tight bond with a meek middle-aged woman whose life is slowly imploding. Though the two don’t meet until nearly halfway through, their stories move in restless tandem until Sidney O’Neill discovers 11-year-old Phoebe Locke hiding in her suburban Pennsylvania home. Sidney, a proofreader and self-described spinster, is stuck in a rut; she wears ill-fitting 20-year-old pants and eats lunch with women she doesn’t like. Her mother, Agatha, called all the shots, and after Agatha dies, her voice remains in Sidney’s head. Cowed even by young Phoebe, Sidney decides to let the girl stay with her. Meanwhile, Phoebe’s stepmother, Adele, is shaken by fear and self-recrimination over Phoebe’s absence.

McKeon creates strong empathy for Phoebe, Sidney, and Adele, powerfully exploring mother-daughter dynamics at varying stages of life. The characters aren’t entirely believable, though: Phoebe is preternaturally quick on her feet, while Sidney hasn’t noticed that pay phones have all but disappeared. Sidney’s behavior with J.T., her increasingly paranoid and disturbed colleague at the failing Poppy Press, exhibits such poor judgment as to fail the credibility test. McKeon provides some backstory for J.T.’s downward mental spiral and rants about the IRS and terrorists, but that doesn’t explain why Sidney finds him “mesmerizing” and is willing to tolerate his uninvited, unwanted intrusions into her life even after realizing he might be genuinely dangerous.

Some of the story’s pivotal moments hinge on obvious contrivances: Sidney’s decision not to call Adele and send Phoebe home, Adele’s unwillingness to tell Phoebe why her father abandoned the family, and the menacing reappearance after 50 years of Sidney’s father. These flaws aren’t fatal, but they reduce the story’s emotional impact. McKeon’s novel is at its strongest when it puts chosen and blood families under the microscope.

Takeaway: This exploration of mother-daughter relationships, biological and otherwise, will resonate with readers of women’s fiction.

Great for fans of Jodi Picoult, Kristin Hannah, Luanne Rice.

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

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Climbing Higher: Answering the Big Questions
Robert Wheeler
Wheeler’s engrossing book is part mountain-climbing memoir and part philosophical treatise. In simple prose and with an ebullient sense of curiosity about the world, Wheeler describes his experiences climbing mountains in minute detail, pairing these recollections with broad, sweeping attempts at synthesizing thousands of years of ontology, religion, psychology, and neurological studies. The book centers on what Wheeler identifies as the “ontological imperative,” which he defines as the human need to strive for difficult goals and face the unknown—an urge for which mountain-climbing is the perfect metaphor, as it tests the climber physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Starting with his climb of Japan’s Mount Fuji, a narrative of each climb (illustrated with Wheeler’s own lovely photos) ties into one of the philosophical concepts he introduces, such as awe, a sublime appreciation of beauty that he feels surveying the view from Mount Aconcagua in Argentina. Wheeler is especially interested in mountains that are considered to be sacred spaces and maintains a strong awareness of the mystical experience that can accompany the physical experience of climbing. He doesn’t preach; rather, this is an undogmatic exploration of ideas that have drawn and driven him for over 80 years.

The history of human consciousness and motivation is a huge topic, but Wheeler successfully breaks down these complex ideas with clear summaries, sometimes slightly oversimplifying. If his mountain-climbing memories ramble a bit at times, his writing style is so pleasant and inviting that it doesn’t matter much, and readers here for the joy and musings can easily skip the dry appendices of psychology research. The alternation between Wheeler’s personal experiences and his philosophical theories keeps the book lively and readable. This book is a conversation, both with himself and the reader, and through a willingness to reach out and ask questions he is able to come to a few tentative conclusions while bringing the reader on a purely delightful journey.

Takeaway: Readers interested in both physicality and philosophy will savor Wheeler’s blend of climbing memoir and quest for the meaning of life.

Great for fans of Climbing: Philosophy for Everyone, edited by Stephen E. Schmid; John Kaag’s Hiking with Nietzsche: Becoming Who You Are.

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

Alycat and the Tournament Tuesday
Alysson Foti Bourque
In Bourque’s charming fourth picture book featuring anthropomorphic cat Alycat (after Alycat and the Friendship Friday), Bugsy, Alycat’s brother, learns a lesson about relying on himself rather than on luck. As the feline family is leaving for Bugsy’s golf tournament, he realizes he forgot his lucky golf ball, one with a star on it. His sister nearly stepped on it earlier, but she’s nice enough to run back into the house and get it for him. It isn’t until they reach the tournament green that Alycat realizes she brought the wrong ball. Hoping to teach Bugsy that he can succeed with or without the real lucky ball, she quickly draws a star on the new ball and hands it over. Naturally, he plays well even after he discovers the deception.

Civati’s clear, evocative digital illustrations underscore a lovingly written but slightly too earnest story. Poor Bugsy seems a bit harried; his parents repeatedly remind him that his skill comes from hard work and practice, and Alycat scolds him for leaving his ball where it could trip her. However, when Alycat manipulates her brother (with the best of intentions) and lies to him, she faces no repercussions—not even a stern look from their parents. Bugsy’s distress when he learns about the swap is waved away, as is a friend’s suggestion that Alycat simply fess up about having made a mistake.

The story is about Bugsy and his accomplishments, but it’s told from Alycat’s perspective, which makes it a little harder to give Bugsy full credit for playing well and overcoming his anxiety, and underscores the absence of any consequences for Alycat’s poor behavior. However, returning Alycat fans will be happy to see more of their favorite heroine and her visually diverse cast of feline family and friends. The book is also a beginner’s introduction to the sport of golf, with a helpful glossary in the back. Cat fans will be won over by the whimsical artwork and Bugsy’s triumph.

Takeaway: This sweet and beautifully illustrated story will captivate young cat fanciers and parents who want to teach their children about self-reliance.

Great for fans of Stan and Jan Berenstain, Janette Sebring Lowrey.

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

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Connecting Obsessions
Neil Mavrick
Mavrick’s heartwarming debut neatly combines time travel and romance. Environmentalist Richard Stevenson decided to travel from the 22nd century to 2010 after seeing a picture of Rachel Starr, a beautiful actress who committed suicide in 2017 due to trauma from being raped in 2012. Richard, who takes the name of Paul Lander, interrupts the rape and helps Rachel launch a successful acting career. They begin dating, get married, and enjoy an idyllic life with their twin girls while Paul works tirelessly to protect the environment. After Paul disappears in Australia, Rachel is devastated. Then she meets journalist Allan Dupre, who reminds her of Paul, and is happy with him until he too seems to vanish into thin air. Though Rachel suffers significantly from these losses, she finds the strength to go on with her life and enjoys the support of her daughters until Richard’s secrets are finally revealed.

Readers who love tales of grand passion will be drawn to the romantic concept of a man abandoning his life to travel back in time for a woman he’s infatuated with. The tender romance between Rachel and Paul is enhanced by Mavrick’s clear, concise writing and even pacing, continually holding the reader’s interest. The characters are solid, though Mavrick focuses on their actions, leaving their thoughts and feelings more obscure. Paul’s quest to save the environment from destruction, and Rachel’s determination to survive Hollywood with her spirit intact, help to round out both their personalities and the story.

Though the novel is set primarily in California with American characters, Mavrick sprinkles the dialogue with British vernacular such as “I reckon” and “Hollywood mums.” Readers will easily overlook this small flaw as they get to know the warm, affable protagonists and hope for them to finally find happiness. Richard’s impulsiveness and Rachel’s steadiness are perfectly complementary; they are truly a couple for the ages.

Takeaway: Romance fans will quickly become immersed in this tale of time travel, Hollywood fame, environmental activism, and profound love.

Great for fans of Great for fans of Audrey Niffenegger, Diana Gabaldon.

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

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When Angels Play Poker
Maura O'Leary
A cocky con man must prove his worth as a spirit guide in O’Leary’s uplifting debut. Jimmy, a sarcastic, self-serving, womanizing 64-year-old, has a heart attack while he is getting ready for a hot date and thinking about his brother Bob’s girlfriend, Maura. When he awakes in Heaven, Jimmy is annoyed that he missed out on his date, but he gets no sympathy from Master Norm, his jocular elder guide. After chastising Jimmy for being selfish during his time on earth, Norm introduces Jimmy to the workings of Heaven and assigns him the task of being a spiritual guide to Maura, since she was the last person on his mind when he died.

Though parts of the narrative are weighed down by limited character development, vague descriptions, and repetition, O’Leary’s story of a flawed but likable man is enticing. Jimmy works to overcome his faults and become a worthy guardian angel, while Maura navigates her inconsistent and confusing relationship with Bob and struggles with her self-esteem. She’s always felt connections with Heaven, and finds Jimmy’s presence in her life—creating dreams for her, playing oldies on her car radio—both awe-inspiring and unsettling. Jimmy’s rapport with those around him is entertaining, and O’Leary skillfully weaves in dramatic moments.

There is a delightful playfulness in O’Leary’s depiction of Heaven, where the residents communicate telepathically, live within marshmallow-like clouds (including “cloud cubes” for work), and play poker while they watch over their earthly charges on television-like display screens. The story clearly conveys a message about making the most of one’s life and trusting in angelic intervention as well as human intuition. The effective cliffhanger epilogue shifts the focus of the story to Maura and will leave romantics and angel lovers anticipating a sequel to this winsome novella.

Takeaway: This simple, sweet tale about trust and transformation will touch the hearts of those who believe in angels on Earth and in heaven.

Great for fans of Mitch Albom’s Five People You Meet in Heaven, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.

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

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West of Sin
Wesley S. Lewis
Lewis’s nonstop debut thriller careens from a dangerous sting against the Russian mob to a deadly battle aboard a skydiving plane as two unlikely heroes fall in love. Jennifer Williams, a real estate agent in her 40s, is driving through the Nevada desert to escape a broken heart. She stops at a convenience store just as a robbery is going down. Another customer, Matt Crocker, a firearms instructor grieving the line-of-duty death of his SWAT officer fiancée, manages to gun down the three armed robbers. The robbers worked for mob boss Vladimir Dudka, who’s furious that the cops now have the money his thugs were carrying. In revenge, he kills Jennifer’s boss and kidnaps her colleague Ashley. Jennifer and Matt concoct a scheme to retrieve Ashley that leads to a dramatic parachute dive off the Stratosphere Tower, a double-cross, and a lot more gunfire.

Lewis makes good use of his past as both a real estate agent and skydiving instructor. The parachute scenes are believable and informative. His depiction of Las Vegas is rich with detail, from Jennifer’s glitzy hotel to Matt’s grimy trailer, and the cast is well-drawn. Readers will love quick-thinking Jennifer, though some will be dismayed that she and others sometimes make deprecating remarks about her age.

Crocker comes across as a modern, more sensitive Jack Reacher, one who faints after killing the robbers (which the sheriff’s deputies tease him about) and is quick to swoon for Jennifer. While listening to mobsters speak Russian, he takes a moment to regret having studied Latin in college instead. Witty dialogue (the sheriff tells Jennifer, “You couldn’t’ve been any luckier if you’d been choking and found yourself seated next to Dr. Heimlich”) lightens the mood amid violence and tension. This highly entertaining novel will keep readers hooked.

Takeaway: Fans of zippy, high-tension thrillers with romantic and humorous elements will be enthralled by this fresh and original novel.

Great for fans of Ocean’s 11, Lisa Jackson’s Liar, Liar.

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

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Rescue the Teacher, Save the Child!
Paula Baack
Forced to retire after 46 years as a choir teacher, Baack embarks on a fervent effort to show readers the difficulties teachers experience and agitate for better treatment. Baack chronicles her experiences, both good and bad, with students, parents, fellow teachers, and administrators. She writes fondly about the fulfillment of watching each student progress and the joy of being a positive influence. She also records a few positive interactions with parents and administrators, but she mostly views them as unsupportive. After she spearheads a fundraiser for a student living in a shelter, she is accused of financial mismanagement and given negative evaluations, leading to the end of her career.

Clearly still hurt by this experience—she acknowledges that she’s “reluctant to let go, move on”—Baack details many situations in which she feels she was unjustly targeted and denied support. “The admin would say anything to rid themselves of me,” she declares, blaming ageism and entitlement. With only her perspective presented, it’s sometimes hard to know what really happened, though her pain is obviously real. She recounts leaning heavily on her Christian faith to get through these difficult situations, sometimes digressing into concerns about “a society devoid of God.”

Baack ends each chapter with questions (“If you disrespect a teacher, why?”) for students, parents, teachers, and administrators. She urges teachers to document every request, parent interaction, and expenditure; address parents’ concerns quickly; and demonstrate and enforce respectful behavior. Struggling teachers will be glad to learn that they aren’t alone and will appreciate Baack’s insights into managing a teaching career.

Takeaway: A teacher’s recollections of angry parents and unsupportive administrators make this memoir cathartic for educators who feel ground down by the system.

Great for fans of Jane Morris’s Teacher Misery, Melinda Ehrlich’s Take Off Your Hat and Spit Out Your Gum.

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

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Broken Pieces Behind the Mask
Ethel Mae
Mae’s short debut memoir, which recounts three decades of enduring abuse, neglect, and hardship, is painfully honest and leavened with sharp-edged humor. Raquel (the name Mae uses for herself) is a child of rape, born when her mother is only 20. In her childhood and teens, she is assaulted by boys and men and often beaten by her mother; at a school where she’s the only black girl, she endures racist aggression. Bouncing back and forth between England and Jamaica, she tries her best to make connections and protect herself, but the authorities refuse to help her, her friends abandon her, and her family is unsupportive. As Raquel reaches adulthood, she grows tired of being used by men and vows to use them instead, but all she really wants is to be loved.

After the exploration of childhood misery, the turn to gossipy romantic anecdotes is abrupt. The stream-of-consciousness narrative reads as though Raquel is talking to a best friend who will nod sympathetically even as she describes cheating on a boyfriend (who is himself cheating on his wife). She unapologetically puts her whole self on the page. “Circumstances had made her who she was,” she says as she forgives her mother, challenging readers to similarly empathize with and forgive Raquel.

The book ends with Raquel clawing her way out of suicidal depression and still struggling to build real connections. Some readers will be inspired by her grim persistence; others might prefer a more hopeful ending. A teaser for a sequel promises more romantic angst and fierce self-determination; it’s not clear whether Raquel will ever find peace or genuine love. Mae’s jokes and sarcasm (“Did he just lie there and, poof, a pregnancy materialized? Please!”) can be cathartic but may put off readers who find them too flippant. There’s much in her story that will resonate with those who are willing to accept Raquel as flawed but not unredeemable.

Takeaway: Readers looking for an inspirational story about surviving a painful and challenging life will sympathize with Mae’s tale.

Great for fans of Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, Kristina Jones’s Escaping the Cult.

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

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King Of The Blind
Caiseal Mór
In Ireland of 1788, young rebel Edward Sutler assassinates a British officer. Desperate to avoid pursuit, he hides in the cottage of illegal whiskey distiller Hugh Connor, whose offer of shelter comes at a price. Hugh insists that Edward compensate him for the trouble he’s caused, including the accidental death of Hugh’s treasured cow, Philomena. As Hugh considers Edward’s fate, he decides to educate him by telling the life story of his late master, renowned harper Turlough O’Carolan, a real historical figure about whom little is known. At first reluctant, Edward nonetheless finds himself absorbed in the tale of O’Carolan’s fortune and its origins in a pact made with the otherworldly Good People.

The legend of O’Carolan and the much more mundane reality Edward inhabits are equally entertaining. O’Carolan engages in a wild, lawless hurling match and elaborate pranks; Hugh plies Edward with whiskey and tries to set him up in an implausible romance with his granddaughter, Cait. Hugh’s account of O’Carolan’s life leaves room for readers to draw their own conclusions about whether his encounters with the Good People (“a fearsome warlike race of immortal beings,” not like “twee” English fairies) were real or dreams induced by a smallpox-related fever.

Although Hugh is presented as a knowledgeable narrator of O’Carolan’s life, this novel is clearly intended more as a celebration of music, adventure, and Irish culture than an attempt to peel away the many mysteries surrounding the real-life O’Carolan’s travels and compositions. References to events such as the Battle of the Boyne provide a clear grounding point, but the heart of the story is a celebration of of the traditional Irish harpist’s role and grief over its decline, which Hugh blames on the exile of the Irish aristocracy, poverty, and the rising popularity of European musical forms and artists. Mór’s tale is as whimsical as it is rich in historical detail.

Takeaway: This uproarious interweaving of harper Turlough O’Carolan’s life and compositions with late-18th-century plotting and shenanigans will delight anyone interested in Irish history, music, and lore.

Great for fans of Frank Delaney’s Ireland, Declan Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland.

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

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Driven by Conscience
Rachel Goss
Goss’s inspiring debut historical novel follows a young man on a fraught journey through many dangers. In 1942 Berlin, young Uwe Johannes, son of political dissidents and protégé of physics professor Werner Heisenberg, is drafted into Hitler’s army. Before departing for North Africa, he devises a plan to hide Heisenberg’s research for a powerful new bomb inside his father’s old military cross. After his capture and subsequent internment in a POW camp in rural Arkansas, Uwe is ambushed and beaten by violent prisoners who despise his sympathy for the Allies. While recovering in the hospital, he’s recruited by the camp’s director to use his math skills for a top-secret assignment in a local family’s home. Uwe agrees and hides his cross in their home, but it’s soon stolen in a burglary. He goes searching for the cross with the family housekeeper’s daughter, Fredericka—but, as a mixed-race duo in a segregated Southern state, the two friends face additional dangers.

Goss sprinkles the story with maps, photographs, and handwritten notes that bring the era to life. Small-town North Little Rock and its close-knit neighbors—including socialite Imogene, legless veteran Charlie, and the indefatigable Fredericka—breathe life into the sometimes pallid prose. Young paperboy George and his faithful dog, Porter, steal the few scenes they’re in. But as the characters proliferate and FBI agents, Russian spies, and teen thugs mix with choir directors, victory girls, and well-meaning parishioners, the story becomes too convoluted.

Uwe is an almost too-impressive protagonist who’s saved from a lofty pedestal by his naiveté around women. His most powerful moment comes when American strangers bring cups of ice water to the hot train carrying prisoners to the camp, and he’s moved to dedicate himself to the Allied cause. Goss’s theme of the value of kindness and shared humanity will resonate with fans of uplifting historical fiction.

Takeaway: Readers looking for an uplifting story of kindness and valor amid WWII’s dangers will enjoy Goss’s tale of a conscripted German physicist who devotes himself to the Allied cause.

Great for fans of Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Georgia Hunter’s We Were the Lucky Ones.

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

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The American Way of Empire
James Kurth
In this impressive and accessible work of scholarship, Kurth, professor emeritus of political science at Swarthmore, collects enlightening essays arguing that historic empire-building decisions—both successful and disastrous—shaped American foreign policy from the Revolutionary War to the present. A theoretical overview of imperialist structures leads to analysis demonstrating how Protestant beliefs created an “American creed.” Kurth then analyzes past military strategies and geopolitical events, examines how current strategies may affect the U.S.’s ability to accomplish its foreign policy goals, and thoughtfully extrapolates into the future.

The meticulously organized text helps the reader follow Kurth’s lines of reasoning. He makes connections that even dedicated readers of history will find both illuminating and applicable to current events, and novice readers can easily parse his ideas with the help of his strongly articulated theoretical framework. Kurth writes that the year 2001 ushered in “a long and trying period of descent and disintegration” from the peak of the triumph of the U.S. and its allies over Soviet Russia, and now sees that alliance system fracturing, suggesting “impending breakdown” both within the individual countries and in their alliances. He considers what might replace this geopolitical system and how the declining powers of the “Free World” will influence their successors. His essays provide an exceptional grounding in the whys and wherefores of American actions in relation to major powers such as Russia and China.

General readers will find some aspects difficult. Because the chapters were originally separate articles, primary concepts such as “the American way of war” are revisited in detail, which is an advantage for someone dipping into the book on different occasions but could prove irksome for some reading it straight through. The absence of maps is a challenge to readers interested in historical changes in boundary lines and areas of hegemonic influence. While not strictly necessary, such maps would be a bonus, particularly for a wider audience. Considered in terms of its arguments, however, this book has few flaws, and it would be a splendid gift for anyone seeking an in-depth look at the causes of current world tensions.

Takeaway: This deep dive into American imperial urges and their consequences will enlighten anyone interested in historical or present-day geopolitics.

Great for fans of Andrew Bacevich, Alfred McCoy.

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

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Embodying Soul: A Return to Wholeness
Keri Mangis
Yoga instructor Mangis’s whimsical but ultimately serious teaching memoir focuses on “embodiment”—seeing each person as an eternal soul taking on incarnation in a human skin for experiential learning—rather than on a more distant and rarefied “enlightenment.” She alternates between narrating a challenge-centered version of her life story and an imaginative fantasy of her soul packing its bags for this visit to the Earth Realm, accompanied by endless curiosity in the form of a wolf and strong emotions in the forms of snakes, which she must learn to see as flawed companions rather than as antagonists.

Mangis’s vision of the Soul Realm, which evokes the candy-colored aesthetic of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory or the Land of Oz with features such as the River of Forgetting, the Museum of Universal Truth and Cosmic Knowledge, and a teddy bear–embellished travel suitcase of memories, appeals to the senses but can feel off-puttingly pat and childish. It’s sometimes unclear whether she intends to communicate allegorically or to share literal gnosis. On the memoir side, Mangis falls into a residual pettiness about her issues with traditional Christianity and her departure (under a cloud) from the yoga studio she co-founded, sharing her point of view more than serving the reader’s need to connect.

Mangis shines brightest when she brings herself into dialogue with the serpentine embodiments of her emotions, giving voice to fear, guilt, depression, anger, shame, anxiety, and joy. She relatably describes her growing ability to see the emotions’ value as protectors while resisting their urgings toward inaction and despair. Her depiction of curiosity as a wise and playful pup can seem a bit hackneyed, but it appealingly lifts up learning about the world and resisting authority as core values. Her teachings in this realm are practical as well as metaphysical, and they will lead readers to engage in satisfying self-explorations via their own meaningful metaphors. This neatly tied-up philosophy doesn’t rely on difficult metaphysical concepts and will win readers over with playful visual imagery and language.

Takeaway: Readers who want their spiritual guidance personable but not edgy will find Mangis a gentle companion on their paths toward self-understanding.

Great for fans of Sture Lonnerstrand’s I Have Lived Before: The True Story of the Reincarnation of Shanti Devi, Rachel Brathen’s Yoga Girl.

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

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