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First Sons and Last Daughters
Samar Reine
Set in a New Mexico where the ““the sun melt[s] behind the blue mountains, oozing streaks of gold and violet,” Reine’s suspenseful but humane domestic drama, the second in the Pioneer Ranch series (after She Died Then Showed Me), centers on a mother, the successful artist Peyton, and her and her family’s dread of her youngest son, “the dreaded Gideon,” a pugnacious and aggrieved know-it-all who locals joke “might be possessed.” Reine builds up to Gideon’s arrival in the story, on the occasion of a dinner celebrating his showjumping, veterinarian-to-be sister Bryce, with unsettling power, establishing a desert ranch world of good taste, loving mixed family, Art in America interviews, and disquiet about Gideon’s imminent entrance, which is announced by nothing less than “skidding wheels, crunching metal, and shattering porcelain.”

Reine again showcases an ability to touchingly weave sorrow, grief, humor, and love with complex and resonant blended family dynamics and an eye for environments, especially physical landscapes. While the opening chapters might seem to paint Gideon as an antagonist or even villain, an agent of discord speaking viciousness he seems to believe is truth, Reine is too shrewd and empathetic to keep things simple. As the pages quickly pass, and the story seems to edge toward tragedy, readers get a deeper look into these people, their pasts, and their rifts, the central relationship as rocky yet fascinating as the terrain on which they live.

Fearlessly untangling the complexities of relationships, loss, and perseverance, this is a novel that is both hopeful and relatable. Peyton’s marriage to cowboy Blake, who is not Gideon’s father, is eventually put to the test as they navigate the destruction left by her son. Her identity as an artist is threatened, a bitter rivalry ensues, an old love returns, and Peyton finds herself facing hard choices and opposing paths. The magical realism, respectful interest in Navajo and Ute cultures, and deep spirituality contribute in bringing captivating depth to every character.

Takeaway: Stellar family drama of an artist mother, a difficult son, and hard choices.

Comparable Titles: Lynne M. Spreen; Marylee MacDonald’s Montpelier Tomorrow.

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

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Run Like Hell: A Therapist's Guide to Recognizing, Escaping, and Healing from Trauma Bonds
Nadine Macaluso, LMFT, PhD
In this raw, straight-talking, but ultimately heartening guide to healing from intimate partner abuse and trauma-bonded relationships, Macaluso explores how to understand these relationships of abuse, manipulation, how to safely get off “the Merry-Go-Round of insanity,” how to recover emotionally afterwards—and, crucially, how to grow and thrive, with the tools to recognize unsafe men. Macaluso draws from her personal story of being married to the infamous "Wolf of Wall Street" and her expertise as a marriage and family therapist advocating for women she calls "surthrivers," offering hard-won advice (“Never tell an intoxicated partner you are leaving”) and crucial understanding, support, and validation.

"We are often pawns in a love game we do not understand," Macaluso writes, and Run Like Hell, packed with eye-opening research and detailed case studies from a host of women, is a comprehensive guide on the complexities of trauma bonding, the types of behaviors and signs to look out for in potential partners, and safe ways to break free from toxic relationships with PLs (“pathological lovers”). With empathy and insight, Macaluso lays out the who, what, when, where, how, and why people are likely to trauma bond and the people who seek to manipulate and control them, laying bare "pathological lovers” and their motives, patterns, and manipulative tactics—and also how women can get trapped by them.

Macaluso proves especially compelling when addressing the shame, guilt, and embarrassment that can keep women silent when it comes to abusive relationships. Run Like Hell salves the stigma attached to falling prey to charming, charismatic men who turn out to be manipulative and controlling, offering commiseration and a path out of the nightmare. Throughout, Macaluso and the women whose stories she shares speak hard truths (“Your PL will always flip the script and claim to be the victim”) that could help readers make major changes. Positive, informative, and urgently necessary, this guide demystifies these relationships in inviting prose and with ample heart.

Takeaway: Standout guide to leaving and healing from toxic relationships.

Comparable Titles: Jackson MacKenzie's Whole Again, Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey’s What Happened to You?.

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

Click here for more about Run Like Hell
Resurrecting the Cross: Have We Lost Our Way?
Ernest Randolph
“The final aspect of the simple gospel is that when you believe, you are saved,” Randolph writes in this debut, a spiritual self-help book that explores the ways Christians can walk through life “ clumsily in the dark … building our own kingdom without God.” Inspired by the teachings of Aaron Budjen with Living God Ministries, Randolph, a believer who at times has worried that his efforts to live a Christian life were not enough, offers a hard-won perspective on how to correlate the “labyrinth of negative emotions and thoughts” in human hearts with Jesus's sacrifice on the cross. Sharing evidence through biblical text, personal anecdotes, and knowledge through his time at seminary, the author highlights the ways believers in Christ can “acknowledge our sins and brokenness, receive His forgiveness, and decide to put our trust in Him.”

Aligning hearts and adjusting mindsets, Randolph writes, can allow imperfect believers to "accomplish things in our lives and with our lives that we have not dared to dream of.” In raw, transparent moments he considers his own personal stumbles with his faith due to his traumatic childhood with an abusive father and the ways in which he had to unlearn a worldly view he had developed of Christian life and God's love. Resurrecting the Cross delves deeply into the teachings of Jesus and the meaning of sacrifice and forgiveness. Drawing from scripture, Randolph shares with readers the one simple statement that he argues "summed up the whole gospel": by placing belief in Jesus "you will be saved.”

Resurrecting the Cross is a warm, inviting, and readable study, touched with memoir, even when Randolph digs into complex ideas about free will and the nature of love. Christian readers looking for new insight into the faith and an understanding of God's transcendent love will find nourishment.

Takeaway: Inspirational Christian study of human brokenness and Jesus's sacrifice.

Comparable Titles: R. T. Kendall; F. Remy Diederich’s Starting Over.

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

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Nurturing Neurodivergence: The Late-Identified Adults' Guide to Building Healthy Relationships with Self and Others
Jasmine K. Y. Loo
Neurodivergent psychologist Loo debuts with this uplifting compendium of recommendations and techniques for late-identified neurodivergent adults to build healthy relationships, self-acceptance, and more.With a goal to “not just be ‘aware’ of neurodivergence, but also embrace and celebrate it,” Loo opens with the need to use neurodivergent language and a brief, but thorough, consideration of just what neurodivergence encompasses, followed by tips that range from how to cleanly communicate to positive self-care approaches. The tone is warm and inviting, and Loo makes it clear that readers should absorb the information at their own pace and take time to rest when needed.

Loo acknowledges that neurodivergence is a relatively new revelation and should be viewed through a flexible lens, with an understanding that appropriate language and methodology may change over time. “Ongoing reflection from society is necessary to ensure that we’re always trying to better understand, represent and support the neurodivergent community” she urges, and readers will find a wealth of affirmative ideas and approaches here that attest to those beliefs. Topics of note include masking neurodivergence to be viewed as “socially acceptable” (and the harm that goes along with that), healthy versus unhealthy power dynamics in relationships, and the need to avoid the common neurodivergent pitfall of people-pleasing.

Readers will find the colorful graphics, diagrams, and journaling opportunities particularly useful; Loo utilizes mind maps to illustrate complex topics, and visuals such as a “self-care menu” and a layout of creative stims ideas—self-care activities to help regulate emotions—are bold, bright, and incredibly helpful. The message is clear: “Being pressured to live like a [neurotypical]… is like forced cultural assimilation in the ethnocultural context.” While she writes that the material is meant for those who identified their neurodivergence in adulthood rather than childhood, this handbook will also prove a valuable tool for any neurodivergent or neurotypical reader.

Takeaway: Enlightening, supportive resource for late-identified neurodivergent adults.

Comparable Titles: Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes, Zosia Zaks’s Life and Love.

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

Click here for more about Nurturing Neurodivergence
If I Had A Spaceship...
Nanci Z. N. and T. R. Nelson
Authors Z.N. and Nelson follow their Nano Adventures series with a fanciful interstellar journey brimming with color, creativity, and fun. The story centers on a young, unnamed narrator daydreaming about the possibilities that would exist if they owned a spaceship—a spaceship that could transport them to faraway, magical lands where there are no chores and no one to tell them what to do. As they ponder the opportunities that spaceship would provide, their fantasy surges, taking them to multiple planets, real and imaginary, on an intergalactic display of iridescent scenery, mind-boggling creatures, and more.

Though the storyline is simple, this cosmic adventure delivers plenty of fun—and room for kids to stretch their imagination muscles. The narrator zooms through “planets where the snow is purple, and rivers flow with diamonds” and a slew of unusual worlds full of interesting people, including new friends with elephant trunks instead of arms and racecar wheels in place of legs. The locales they visit are a child’s playful vision of cosmic wonders and interstellar life: meatball marina asteroids, comets that have string cheese tails, and imaginary towns that use stinkbugs to collect their garbage, while their children play on bridges built from swings.

The book’s illustrations match the frenetic, multihued pace of the story, splashing each page with brilliant, jeweled tones and kaleidoscopic galaxies. A luscious caramel waterfall takes center stage on an ice cream planet, and on the “planet where everyone has three eyes,” a local devises a secret handshake and plays epic space games with the story’s narrator. The authors close with a message as striking as the narrator’s stellar travels: “At the end of the day, the best place to go in a spaceship, is right back home. To my own room, with my own family, on my own planet.”

Takeaway: An interstellar romp through imaginative planets and galaxies.

Comparable Titles: Aneta Cruz’s Astronaut Training, Beatrice Alemagna’s On a Magical Do-Nothing Day.

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

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Nightweaver
R.M. Gray
A teenaged pirate is captured and forced into servitude alongside her family, but she’s soon embroiled in a plot to remake an entire society in this YA fantasy debut. Despite being one of the two members of her large family interested in finding a Red Island, semi-mythical place where humans can live safe and free, Violet’s entire identity once she is captured revolves around being a fierce, independent pirate who yearns for the sea. After a tiresome series of attempted escapes in which she’s intercepted and then changes her mind each time, Violet chooses to stay with her family while secretly hunting the malevolent being (an Underling) that killed her brother and seems to have followed her to land.

As she and her family settle in, Violet engages in spontaneous mutual pining with Will (the man who took her captive), learns surprising truths about the world from him (because her parents kept her and her siblings in deliberate ignorance), and is quickly inducted into a secret order sworn to overthrow the royal family. Violet is feisty, a touch melodramatic, eager to protect but resistant to Will’s efforts to protect her—in short, she’s fierce, conflicted, and very believably seventeen. This salty world of nightmares, conspiracies, and literal prince of Eerie is fun to discover, especially some spooky beasts and weird magic, though the romantic elements feel familiar. With Violet’s feelings for the men around her often the narrative’s emphasis.

Still, Gray spins Violet’s tale with polished prose, brisk storytelling, and a welcome sense of what a fantastical life actually feels like, from the calloused hands of a pirate to Violet’s father’s surprising proficiency cooking scalloped potatoes to the unique traits of monsters: “Sylks smell like smoke. Shifters hate perfume.” Blending the freshly inventive with genre traditions, Nightweaver and its promised sequel will appeal to YA fantasy fans who adore conflicted love triangles and strong young women on a mission.

Takeaway: Fresh piratical tale of murder, magic, family, and a fierce heroine.

Comparable Titles: Logan Karlie’s Dream by the Shadows, Kate Golden’s A Dawn of Onyx.

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

Click here for more about Nightweaver
The Four Swords: A Parable of Leadership, Video Games, and Dead Dragons: A Parable of Leadership, Video Games, and Dead Dragons
Paul Tozour
Game developer Tozour’s assured, highly original debut offers a peek behind the scenes of two fictional gaming companies, the process of producing a ground-breaking video game, and four core values, derived from Tozour’s own experience, that a group of developers learn along the way, each paired with a legendary sword inside their own game of choice, an MMORPG called Dream of Dragons. Like a good RPG, the narrative of The Four Swords kicks off with mystery and character choices. At the insistence of a “synthesized voice,” game developers Tim, Leo, Jake, and Alison—who have just helped release one of the most successful games in industry history—must reveal their surprising story, from the beginning, as the "the voice" considers.

Jake and Leo, who work at Scrub-Liminal Studios, and Tim and Allison, who work at Green Gryphon Games, are central to the inner workings of their respective companies and trade work anecdotes as they bond over gaming sessions. Through their meetups and work days, Tozour tells a story digging into business, gaming, coding, and more, while sharing wisdom and insight into ethical business practices and the taxing roles of leadership. The Four Swords is an epic of epic-making, an adventure about what it takes to craft adventures, set in a world of cutthroat business and workplace antics.

Their journey, in the real world and on bloody raids in a convincingly drawn Dream of Dragons, will find their personal lives, friendships, and careers all beginning to bleed into each other as Tozour spins an engaging story of workplace drama, lessons for leadership, and the discovery of those core values. Lovers of games will appreciate appearances from characters inspired by game history, like the RPG pioneer “Lord Austin,” who aspired to building “a coherent moral framework and actually living by it” in games—and shares inspired advice when a team is demoralized. The Four Swords makes a compelling quest out of what it takes to be an impactful leader in business.

Takeaway: Inventive novel of game development and leadership values.

Comparable Titles: Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford’s The Phoenix Project

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

Distortion
Sierra Ernesto Xavier
This fascinating love story from Xavier (author of The Malady of Love) experiments with literary constraint, depicting an intimate and vulnerable couple of days with a couple whose efforts to connect are told entirely through dialogue. Xavier doesn't describe the scene, the characters themselves, or what they do in any way other than through what they say to each other. As the unidentified man and woman nervously approach each other with only a sheet covering them up, they slowly spell out just why they are so hesitant with each other. The woman has debilitating scoliosis that's left her torso twisted and unbalanced after a back brace and multiple failed surgeries. The man has a disfigured face, also shaped by repeated surgeries. They have each spent a lifetime of being rejected and mocked, and they are tentatively trying to break through that trauma to form a connection.

Like the couple, Xavier starts slowly, as the man tells the woman that he sees her as beautiful, but she demands he dig deeper, be more honest, and speak the truth of what he sees. Then when she regards him, he reacts the same way, the reader discovering what each looks like through the other’s words—and by this becoming deeply involved in their exploration of intimacy and trust. That leads to a surreal sequence, real or imagined, where he describes peeling the eyes that stared at her away from her skin and then cutting her open, removing the scars made from "the judgment of others." Soon, she describes ripping his face off. Throughout, both make exclamations of pain.

Finally, that intensely metaphorical experience fades as the couple at last feels comfortable with touch, then foreplay, and then sex, talking through it in the most exacting detail possible. The dialogue at times is so formal and descriptive that it lacks any sense of verisimilitude, but Distortion stands as a complex, vulnerable, and highly emotional narrative of connection.

Takeaway: Humane, sometimes shocking experimental love story.

Comparable Titles: Ryan J. Haddad's Dark Disabled Stories, Philip Roth’s Deception.

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

Click here for more about Distortion
Six Moons, Seven Gods: The Legends of Baelon
Robert A. Walker
Walker’s polished debut imagines a seer’s urgent mission and an uneasy alliance between thieves and assassins in the low-magic realm of Baelon, where ambitions, tragedy, visions, and much political intrigue converge to shape the kingdom's destiny—and to jolt readers with well-executed twists of consequence. The kingdom, ruled by King Axil, becomes the backdrop for a tale that commences with the tragic demise of Princess Lewen and the subsequent death by suicide of her guilt-ridden mother, Isadora. This event serves as a catalyst, setting in motion events of wide-ranging consequence. Several "almons" after the princess’s death, Mari Dunn, who had overlooked a previous vision foretelling Lewen and Isadora’s death, has another glimpse of a possible future: King Axil's murder. Determined not to make the same mistake again, she attempts to make her way to warn the King, her daughter Sibil by her side. Meanwhile, the Takers Guild, a group of skilled thieves, plots the assassination of the king, electing to approach the League of Assassins for help.

Walker skillfully weaves the intricacies of Sibil's skill and friendships, Mari's prescient abilities, and the looming threat of the Takers Guild, employing subjective points of view to keep readers guessing and questioning the reliability of each character. The narrative unfolds through multiple perspectives, but Walker’s commitment to showing what motivates each character never comes at the expense of the brisk pacing, especially as Sibil emerges as a formidable force in crisp, engaging scenes of action. Despite her diminutive stature, her proficiency with a dagger shapes the world around her—and will captivate readers who relish flinty fantasy heroes.

The attention Sibil receives from key figures, including the intrigued Marshal Erik Carson and the enigmatic Rolft, who believes he acts on the deceased princess's orders to randomly kill three victims, adds layers to the narrative, creating a dynamic interplay between characters. This first series entry both promises and delivers an enthralling narrative that leaves readers anticipating the next chapter.

Takeaway: Strong fantasy series starter of thieves, assassins, and a seer’s urgent mission.

Comparable Titles: Paul J. Bennett’s Servant of the Crown, Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Mist and Fury.

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

Click here for more about Six Moons, Seven Gods
Elly Robin : Bird in a Gilded Cage (The Ordeals of Elly Robin)
PD Quaver
The mystery-filled fifth installment of Quaver’s Ordeals of Elly Robin series opens, in the years before the first World War, with Elly Robin, the piano prodigy last seen in a New Orleans bawdy house (in Elly Robin in the Big Easy), taking up an offer of mentorship. Considering Elly's asocial nature—she’s a child of trauma and the road, speaking rarely and lacking basic etiquette, though she’s bold, talented, and a whiz at making friends and helping those she cares for—pianist Vittorio Bellini makes a special arrangement for Elly's training in Chicago with Lillian LaSalle, a woman of means and proper decorum, but with an unspoken mutual agreement: Lillian must know nothing of Elly’s past.

Quaver does not indulge in the familiar story of a gifted musician’s quest for fame and fortune, tackling instead pressing issues concerning Elly’s time. This story is a matter of privilege versus poverty. Elly stands in sharp contrast to the LaSalle family, having lived as an orphan, hobo, and a “defective child,” for the sole reason of resembling a mute after losing her parents in the San Francisco earthquake. Her social ineptness becomes especially clear when she’s the butt of the joke among the unenlightened LaSalle children. But Elly's introduction to a group of anarchists kicks off a series of unexpected events involving the LaSalle family, whose garment shops “are some of the worst for hiring the cheapest sorts of labor, mostly young immigrant girls just off the boat, working for almost nothing, afraid to unionize.”

Quaver writes with historical accuracy but is committed to life as it’s lived rather than textbook details. The story teems with timeless insight on racial prejudice, abuse of power, slavery, radical love, and the courage to break free from the “gilded cage” of ignorance and indifference. Quaver’s world-building is razor-sharp, with a diverse cast and resonant reminders of inequality. The plot twists are smartly teased until revealed in quick succession, leaving readers eagerly anticipating the next installment.

Takeaway: A young woman’s enlightening historical adventure, exposing injustice.

Comparable Titles: Heather Wardell’s Fiery Girls, Nancy Zaroulis’s Call the Darkness Light.

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

Elly Robin in the Big Easy (The Ordeals of Elly Robin)
PD Quaver
The fourth in Quaver’s Ordeals of Elly Robin series picks up the picaresque misadventures of the turn-of-the-twentieth-century heroine, a musical prodigy, with Elly adrift on the Arkansas river, orphaned and near death, until she’s rescued by the crew of the Jean Lafitte. Her next destination: living rough on the streets of 1913 New Orleans, where Elly, as she always does on her unexpected journeys, makes friends and music, this time falling in with the ragtag Razzy-Dazzy Spasm Band at the dawn of the jazz era. She becomes a piano player in an elegant bordello and befriends the women toiling there, getting involved in their lives. One evening a visitor, the musical maestro Bellini, opines that, though Elly is prodigiously talented, her music reveals a lack of formal learning. Though hurt, Elly realizes this is true. After saving some lives and setting others on track, she leaves New Orleans with plans to learn under Bellini.

Set in the sleazy underbelly of America’s most international city, where a host of global cultures fused into gumbo, this entry in the sprightly series captures the spirit of the city and its great love for music. The parade of interesting and colorful characters includes glimpses of epochal musical figures, founding fathers of what will come to be known as jazz. Also entertaining, as always, is the protagonist herself, whose silence hides not just oodles of talent but reservoirs of grit as well. Then there is the gun-toting, cigarette-smoking “countess,” Estelle, who wants to be child free; Liddie who yearns to be a mother; Dago Annie, the angel of death; and the Karnofsky family with their ‘adopted’ child, Louis Armstrong, boasting a “mile wide smile.”

The pace is brisk and narrative taut. The portrayal of the city and the times is realistic but good humored, imbuing Elly’s adventures with feelings of Twain-like amusement, and bemusement. Readers who relish fun, adventure, history, and a driven protagonist will be eager for more.

Takeaway: A young woman’s vivid, charming adventures in 1913 New Orleans.

Comparable Titles: Ruta Sepetys’s Out of the Easy, Diane C. McPhail’s The Seamstress of New Orleans.

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

Altered Estates
Chris Mathison
This epic, prankish, psilocybin-laced game of a novel is less a puzzle box than a puzzle shipping container, a massive world of its own double stuffed with clues, portents, twists, surprises, and moments where a reader barely has time to wonder, “Wait, that’s odd, isn’t it?” before another door locks, another character behaves bizarrely, a statue of Shakespeare comes to life, a news report about dognappers intrudes, or half the cast kills several pages playing a game where they dream up new names for pubs. So it goes in Mathison’s massive debut, a book that aspires to do to Myst-like interactive puzzle games what LITRpg titles do for World of Warcraft. Told in second person like an Infocom text adventure, Mathison’s story, centered on a recently fired protagonist being told he’s unexpectedly inherited the most eccentric of estates, offers a relentless series of riddles, enigmas, palindromes, Easter eggs, and literal escape rooms, as the narrator explores the great house, meets its staff, and must prove the legitimacy of his inheritance.

Of course, this is all complicated by scheming staffers and the possibility, laid out in a prologue, that the narrator is undergoing some hallucinogenic experiment. Despite that and the story’s frequent evocation of exploratory games, Mathison favors traditional one-thing-after-another storytelling and scenecraft, with the always-odd events, conversations, pageantry, and moments of puzzle-solving related in crisp, engaging language.

The fun of Altered Estates is in digging into the secrets of Arthur Hanover’s mad estate, a place that crams centuries of British history, including a pub and countless priceless paintings, all under one roof and brought to life through technology inspired by amusement parks. Still, the novel’s protracted length, frequent asides, and general lack of urgency mean that the satisfying final chapters, which pay off much that came before, will prove a challenge for many readers to reach—an inevitability the narrator winks at, recalling reading that Myst, like A Brief History of Time, “are works that only fifteen percent of purchasers actually finish.”

Takeaway: Epic puzzle-box novel bursting with riddles, mysteries, and surprise.

Comparable Titles: Blake Crouch, Marisha Pessl’s Night Film.

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

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Elly Robin On the Road (The Ordeals of Elly Robin)
PD Quaver
Set in 1912, the third volume of Quaver’s The Ordeals of Elly Robin series continues the rousing historical adventures of independent yet reserved 13-year-old Elly, her long-time friend Jimmy, his new bride Sara, and Sara’s physically disabled eight-year-old brother Jonah. Fleeing Colorado Springs after the previous entry’s trouble with a cruel mine owner and his henchmen, Elly drives the impromptu family in her Model T Roadster through Kansas when they happen upon a broken down car belonging to a group of thespians. Elly proves to be not only an expert mechanic but also a piano prodigy, so the actors invite her to join their theater troupe. Elly is a genius pianist who learns quickly and anticipates the actors in their comedy, drama, and ventriloquism acts. They perform at various towns, but some country folk fear the demonic of the ragtime that Elly plays, and a murder causes the four friends to flee in the Roadster again.

Quaver crafts the characters with empathy and has an ear for the language and culture of an era rife with minstrelsy and more that’s definitely not filtered through contemporary sensibilities. The divisions of the American past become even more clear once a storm in eastern Arkansas separates the friends and washes Elly down a flooding river. She’s discovered near death by a Black family who nurses her back to health. Quaver depicts the tensions between the Black and white residents as palpable, edged with danger, especially after a boy pilfers Elly’s stash of cash and suddenly makes the small town very rich.

Meanwhile, Elly’s growing feelings for Buck, the Black teenager who rescued her, are touchingly developed, though neither can forget that interracial relations can be deadly. Quaver carefully blends nostalgia with clear-eyed realism, not shying away from the past’s darkness. The story, targeted to adults but with a YA feel, is still buoyant, alive with audacious,idiosyncratic characters who remain loyal in their friendship. Readers will enjoy the camaraderie, humor, and author’s era-appropriate illustrations.

Takeaway: A spirited teen's 1910s misadventures in love, danger, and ragtime.

Comparable Titles: Audrey Couloumbis’s Maude March Misadventures series, Joyana Peters’s The Girl in the Triangle.

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

Little Moe can't Fly
Pria Dee
Little Moe is a Canadian gosling and a late bloomer, behind his siblings when it comes to swimming and flying. Being teased by his brothers and sisters yet encouraged by his doting mother, Moe is determined to learn how to fly before winter comes. This cute, empathetic, and (eventually) high-flying motivational picture book from Dee (author of the Billy and Molly Butter Stories series among other childrens’ books) emphasizes never giving up and the truth that it is okay when learning how to do something that others can do takes a little more time and practice. Little Moe Can’t Fly carries the imprint “Michigan Nature Stories,” and as the gosling the others call “Slow Moe”—he was slow to hatch, waddle, and swim—strives to learn to fly, young readers will learn interesting facts about Canadian geese, such as their flying patterns, when they migrate south, where they live, what they eat, and their growth from fuzzy yellow hatchlings to mature geese.

Moe's story is full of support, encouragement, and survival instincts, but the book is also fun and inviting, filled with vibrantly illustrated images from Emily Hercock and warm easy-to-read-aloud prose that comes to life with lyrical alliteration, as when Moe "flaps, flutters, and flounders" to try to stay airborne. Though it’s set in sky and waterways it still centers around concerns that young readers face, such as bullying, feelings of inadequacy, and determination in the face of adversity, insecurity, and disappointment.

This engaging children's story has been crafted to inspire young readers to always strive for their best and to never lose sight of their goals. Little Moe Can't Fly also demonstrates the hard work that goes into achieving a difficult task or acquiring a skill, even when one flounders at first. Snapshots of real Canadian geese in the final pages illustrate the birds’ life cycle, with an eye toward Michigan.

Takeaway: Inspirational story of a gosling striving to soar after floundering.

Comparable Titles: Robert Kraus's Leo the Late Bloomer, Toni Collier's Broken Crayons Still Color.

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

Click here for more about Little Moe can't Fly
Unpaved Tomorrow: Short Story Poetry
Billie Bioku
This poignant poetry collection is split into three distinct parts: the past, the present, and the future. Each part is further divided into different facets of the poet's existence. In the first section, "Alphabet Soup," Bioku (author of We Ponder) pays homage to her childhood in a tone that’s playful yet bittersweet in its evocation of “malfunctioned friendships” and “Small interactions analyzed to the depths of my findings.” The collection shifts gears in "Growing Pains" and "Artificial Adulting" where Bioku faces the beauty and terror of maturity. "The wilderness begged me to return. / But where did I go?" she muses, capturing the freedom of childhood and the wariness of adulthood.

As the subtitle suggests, the strength of this collection lies in how Bioku has unified individual poems into a cohesive story suggesting the poet’s life. While the voice is detached and observational, often making each line a declarative ending in a full stop (“Vanished arrows burn your rind and frame.”) the words themselves offer a raw, sometimes abstracted depiction of encounters with trauma, aggression, body image struggles, and the pains of being a victim of bullying. These verses grapple with the internal battle faced by countless women, torn between lost youth and the burdens of maturity. Spirituality is a recurrent theme—and source of relief—as Bioku constantly seeks deliverance when “Jagged addictions fought zealously for control.” Bioku writes, “I’m weary standing at Your door,” reaching out for faith to be an anchor.

While the absence of a consistent rhythm in her one-sentence lines can create a sense of disconnection over the course of stanza, the messages—searching, searing—flow. Bioku's phrasing can be ambiguous, yet at its core, this is a love letter, one that chronicles the journey of being lost and dissatisfied in life, finding love in oneself and others, and holding out hope for the future: "But for now, let’s walk through life hand in hand, taking it one stride at a time."

Takeaway: Soul-baring poetry collection of a voyage towards spiritual awakening

Comparable Titles: Dian Tinio's Catastrophes, Lang Leav's Love & Misadventure.

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

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Miss Mary: The Legend of Miss Mary Mack
Kathbell Stumpf
In Stumpf’s debut YA ghost mystery, a high-school student discovers she has a special connection to the infamous Miss Mary Mack, the featured phantom of the children’s well-known clapping rhyme. Seventeen-year-old Anna Ipswich lives in Cannon Falls, PA, a town replete with Civil War history and artifacts. When she and several mischievous friends sneak into Mary Mack’s historical home after hours, Anna has a run in with the forlorn woman’s ghost. Driven by curiosity, she researches Mary’s story and discovers that her soldier fiancé went missing during a Civil War battle, sparking Anna’s vow to uncover the truth of his death so Mary can finally be at peace.

This is a quick, smooth read, abounding in text message vernacular, playlist-worthy song titles, and several of-the-moment Starbucks references. Anna’s budding romance with the high-school football star and reliance on her boisterous pals add a jovial, team-sleuth flavor, while the ubiquitous jock boyfriend and clique of superficial mean girls match the genre’s standards. The core group encounters plenty of high-stakes action as they set about deciphering the cryptic clues concealed in Mary’s house, and Stumpf adds just enough romance throughout to keep readers engaged. Those looking for immediate closure may be disappointed that the story ends before Anna’s questions are fully answered, but Stumpf includes a preview of the next installment for a snapshot of what’s to come.

Most catching is Stumpf’s skill in writing directly to her YA audience; Anna’s idyllic relationship with her parents sets a positive tone for teen readers, and the mystery manages dramatic flair without too much angst. Teens will also identify with Stumpf’s detailed descriptions of trendy clothing and menu choices at local hotspots, while Anna’s lovable coterie of friends, the story’s high-school ambiance, and its Civil War-infused setting will entertain both history lovers and ghost-hunting enthusiasts alike.

Takeaway: A light, ghostly suspense with wholesome teen investigators.

Comparable Titles: R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, Betty Ren Wright’s The Dollhouse Murders.

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

Click here for more about Miss Mary
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