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Avocado the Turtle : The One and Only
Kiara Shankar, Vinay Shankar
In this uplifting tale of personal acceptance, a boisterous turtle, rejected by her peers, finds a new group of friends by being herself. Avocado was born different from the other turtles around her: Her name is peculiar, her extroversion pushes others away, and her attempts at conversation fall flat -- turtles prefer to hide in their shells. When her community chooses to banish her, she responds by finally trying to conform to their standards, hiding inside her own shell. But a chance encounter with a new group of friends, who like her exactly as she is teaches her the power of owning her uniqueness.

Avantika Mishra’s illustrations add a 3D pop and a welcome splash of color, capturing the emotions of Avocado’s banishment, her period of exile, and her happy life with her newfound friends. The lushly colored backgrounds, cute animals, and appealing nature imagery give children a lot to look at, though as the story goes on both the story and the illustrations veer into the repetitive, such as the several pages of Avocado visiting and strolling with a giraffe, a pig, and a bee.

The Shankars, a father-daughter writing team, have imbued this short tale with a lot of heart. The story of a dejected turtle regaining her confidence is easy to understand and relate to. Unfortunately, with subject matter that is so well-covered, the narrative often lacks the engaging specificity of the best picture books. The tale, told from a removed third-person perspective, concerns the ways that animals treat each other in conversation, but Avocado the Turtle offers few instances of dialogue and no direct interactions between Avocado and the other turtles, whose choice to exile her is breezily summarized. Still, the lesson is as important as ever, and Avocado’s journey to acceptance is a helpful and heartfelt reminder for children of all ages.

Takeaway: This simple tale of a misfit turtle offers a charming lesson to children about the importance of self-acceptance.

Great for fans of: Dan Bar-El’s Not Your Typical Dragon, Leslie Helakoski’s Woolbur, Helen Lester’s Tacky the Penguin.

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

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Future Widow: Losing My Husband, Saving My Family, and Finding My Voice
Jenny Lisk
A polished heartbreaker touched with wit and insight, the debut from Lisk, the host of the Widowed Parent podcast, recounts the harrowing months after the discovery of her husband Dennis’ brain tumor – and then how, after the funeral, how Lisk and the couple’s two children have found their way forward. A grim diagnosis found the Lisks facing surgery, frequent ER visits, radiation, and the side effect of “cognitive confusion,” which Lisk likens, in one of the book’s many piercingly frank moments, to making her feel as if she lost her husband twice, once eight months before his actual death. All through the ordeal, Lisk, feeling that she wore an “FW” (“Future Widow”) like Hester Prynne’s scarlet A, strived to find the healthiest way to guide their children through the traumatic experience, to connect with Dennis (Mariners baseball proved invaluable), and to manage family affairs.

Key passages come from Lisk’s public posts updating friends and family on Dennis’ condition. Fascinatingly, Lisk often follows these with accounts disclosing what she left out and what she wasn’t yet ready to face. In crisp, inviting prose, Lisk finds surges of feeling in sharply rendered moments, such as the day she told the kids that their father likely would not survive. “Is he going to live to see me graduate?” asks her eight year old daughter. Then: “Will he live until Christmas?”

Lisk has taken up blogging and journaling, and she’s adept at short, essasyistic considerations of behavior and feeling. One incisive passage address the options a grieving person has when asked “How are you?”; another mines persuasive insight from Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.” Her short chapters and reliance on public posts means the book works better as a collection of glimpses and thoughts than as a narrative, but those glimpses are moving and those thoughts certain to buoy anyone experiencing (or facing the likelihood) of grief.

Takeaway: This incisive memoir of the death of a husband faces grief with purpose and love.

Great for fans of: Kelly Corrigan’s The Middle Place, Nina Riggs’s The Bright Hour.

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

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[LOVE] RACHEL: A Daughter's Memoir of Love, Betrayal and Grace
Rebecca M. Painter
Painter’s heart-rending debut memoir chronicles both her mother’s turbulent history and her own. Originally from a remote farm in New Zealand, Painter’s mother, Rachel, a nurse, was in the 1940s given the opportunity to take a luxury cruise to Canada with a wealthy society woman. Having just reconnected with the love of her life, Douglas, Rachel’s plan was to return to New Zealand after her trip to marry him. While in Canada, the start of World War II greatly delayed her trip home and sent her to the United States, where she met the man who would become Painter’s father. Rachel later tells her daughter the sad story that, due to a miscommunication in a telegram, she lost Douglas and decided to marry Roger Painter. That decision changed the trajectory of Rachel’s life, leading to a myriad of struggles and complications.

Seamlessly transitioning from present to past, and from Rachel’s life to Rebecca’s, Painter (who goes by Becky) stirs reader empathy and understanding for all that she and her mother have gone through -- especially how each decision they have made in their lives affect their relationship. Becky strives to prove how much she loves her mother, while Rachel insists that that isn’t true, all while rarely expressing pride in her daughter. Painter’s account of this recurring conflict is affecting, and readers will feel invested in how Becky spends her life demonstrating love to a woman who cannot see it.

While stirring deep emotions from readers, Painter also draws deeply on a life of reading, writing, and teaching literature, going beyond the story of these individuals and bringing readers across the beautiful land of New Zealand, into the struggles of farm life and women’s dependence on husbands, and the experience of daily life from the 1920s to today. Painter hasn’t just written her own memoir; she’s illuminated her mother’s life and the lives of everyone around them.

Takeaway: Readers looking for a mother-daughter memoir that beautifully describes a tangled relationship will be drawn into Painter’s sweeping story.

Great for fans of: Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, Kate Millett’s Mother Millett

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

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The Restructuring: Who Are You?
J.L. Stafford
One part self-help, one part self-reflection, and one part affirmation, Stafford’s raw, engaging debut collection of poetry delves deep into the mind, heart, and soul. In direct, even simple language, Stafford challenges readers to dig into their emotions and take a hard look at what they’re truly feeling, writing “Being guided by the fear that the hurt will not go away is how we practice avoidance today.” The collection touches on themes of fear, trust, acceptance, and hope in a style that pushes the reader, through inquiry and encouragement, to face themselves. Stafford makes clear that such self investigation need not be harrowing, advising readers to “Examine yourself with compassion.”

Stafford offers guidance on how to cope, how to center, and how to focus on healing through embracing emotions head on. At times, as Stafford reinforces these ideas, the language and advice become repetitious, but readers will still take away sound tips and memorable quotations to apply in moments of self-doubt or when feeling overwhelmed. This collection would pair well with readers who like to journal, as the questions woven throughout (“Can you acknowledge the source of your discomfort?”) could serve as inspiring prompts.

The collection opens with a quotation from Thich Nhat Hanh, the monk and poet, that sums up what Stafford offers in the pages to come: "People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar." Featuring prose passages about self talk and visualization, this collection strikes an inspiring and uplifting tone throughout. Though it lacks much of the metaphor, imagery, and rich language of most poetry collections, The Restructuring will resonate with fans of the increasingly popular style of micropoetry favored by Instagram poets due to the length of the pieces, the concision of the ideas, and the freeness of form.

Takeaway: This encouraging collection of poetry urges readers toward self-discovery and doing the homework -- on themselves.

Great for fans of: Amanda Lovelace, R.H. Sin.

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

Click here for more about The Restructuring: Who Are You?
Adventure in Pico Bonito
M.G. Alonzo Cortes
The vibrant debut from Alonzo Cortés, Adventure celebrates in vivid oil paintings the wildlife of Honduras’ most famous national park, the sprawling Pico Bonito, whose name means “beautiful peak.” The simple narrative follows a Honduran family and a guide on an excursion through the park. Siblings Olguita and Oscarito face occasional fears (Oscarito needs help crossing a stream but is excited at the prospect of bragging to friends about a minor scorpion sting), but the adventure overall is joyous, with the kids dazzled by animals, awed by a waterfall, and pleased to feast on rainforest fruits. The story concludes with didactic dialogue about the urgency to protect wildlife and practice balanced and sustainable tourism.

The primary appeal of Adventure is in Alonzo Cortés’ thirty-plus paintings of Pico Bonito’s colorful residents. Her butterflies and beetles burst from the page; her jaguars and snakes stir a sense of respect and mystery rather than fear; and with thick brushstrokes and inspired layerings of paints she evokes the textures of the plumage of her aracari and hummingbirds. The storytelling is less accomplished and more generic, and it’s done no favors by the book’s layout, which presents many of these paintings in one section, in the middle of the story, a point of disconnection between the narrative and the imagery.

That layout encourages readers to take in the few pages of prose in somewhat lengthy bursts, with the paintings coming pages later, after the story has moved on. Since those animals and incidents are at times vaguely described, the story doesn’t fire the imagination as powerfully as it would if text and paintings worked in unison. In prose, this trek into the majesty of nature is sweet but not inspired. The paintings, though, will bring readers to that beautiful peak.

Takeaway: Dynamic paintings of rain forest wildlife make this picture book journey into a Honduras park a memorable trip

Great for fans of: Yossi Lapid’s Yara's Tamari Tree, Anthony D. Fredericks’ A is for Anaconda: A Rainforest Alphabet

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

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Jacobo's Rainbow
David Hirshberg
David Hirshberg (My Mother’s Son) crafts a detailed, painstaking portrait of the 1960’s student protest movements, through the eyes of protagonist Jacobo Toledano, who grew up in the secluded paradise of Arroyo Grande, a village of eight close-knit families in west-central New Mexico. The community is isolated, but Jacobo and his family do not see this as a “hardship”; their seclusion keeps them safe from the prejudices of greater society, fostering community and self-reliance. Jacobo leaves home for the fictional University of Taos, where he learns the language of current events, pop culture, protest, and even romance from his radical new friends: cult personality Myles, headstrong Claudia, wise Herzl, and photographer Mir. When these friends organize a Free Speech protest that leads to police hostages and the occupation of campus building Kettys-Burg Hall, Jacobo is forced to reckon with the true nature of protest and the hypocrisy of egocentric activism.

Hirshberg leaves no stone unturned in this engaging study of youthful idealism and adult understanding. The story unfolds through the recordings of Jacobo in retrospect, and Hirshberg often employs foreshadowing techniques to insert adult Jacobo’s reflections into his recounting of the events at Kettys-Burg Hall. Artful characterization illuminates each characters’ true motivations in joining the Free Speech Movement, revealing the ways that “group dynamics play such an underreported part in how we behave.” Hirshberg balances this analysis with suspense, romantic entanglements, twists about Jacobo’s past, and a sure hand for vivid simile.

Just like the novel’s rainbow motif, which touches its clothes, houses, mirrors, and visions of nature, Jacobo’s sound moral compass and commitment to justice are the story’s constants, even as the plot thickens. Readers may, at times, wish Jacobo would stay in the isolated safety of Arroyo Grande, but also cheer him on as he eschews complacency and commits to bettering the lives of those outside of his village.

Takeaway: Contemporary activists will see key parallels to today in this resonant story of the 1960’s idealism and protest.

Great for fans of: Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, John Sayles’ Union Dues.

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

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Playing Soldier
F. Scott Service
Iraq War veteran Service (Lines in the Sand) delivers a blistering rebuke to the military with this extraordinary war (and peace) memoir. “A lot of war stories begin with heroes,” Service writes, explaining that discovering his father’s old field jacket from the Korean War as a child sparked an interest in the military and a fervent wish to become a hero himself. After marrying his college sweetheart, Rita, and settling in Montana, Service committed to the Army National Guard, expecting to be a weekend warrior after his basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. But the military had other plans for him: Service promptly shipped off to Iraq (after flirting with the idea of being a conscientious objector). What Service eventually came back to on the homefront was an overturned life — a divorce, brief homelessness, and a near run-in with suicide.

Service dishes up brutal honesty about how, during his active duty in Iraq, his disillusionment with the military and its mission festered. His luminous, illustrative prose (“A lush garden of fear. An empty desert of courage”) paints vivid word-pictures: readers will feel the grit of the Iraqi sand, the unrelenting heat of the sun, and the constant fear of imminent death. They’ll taste the contraband booze and relive the devastating moment when Service’s wife lambasts him with divorce papers.

The most terrifying content — when Service ends up with his gun in his mouth, intent on pulling the trigger— will be triggering for some readers. However, Service’s account stands as a crystal-clear example of the mindset many returning soldiers experience. Playing Soldier offers a stark reminder of the urgency of mental health awareness and treatment— particularly for veterans with PTSD. Any returning veteran will glimpse themselves on every page, and Service’s insights will minister to those who have loved ones facing similar struggles.

Takeaway: This candid and moving memoir cuts through often-romanticized ideas of military life with its consideration of the true meaning of service.

Great for fans of: Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July, James Webb’s Fields of Fire, John “Chick” Donohue and J.T. Molloy’s The Greatest Beer Run Ever.

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

Click here for more about Playing Soldier
The Nodders : What You Don't Want to Nap?
Tina C. Huggins
In the magical land of Beddy Bye Woods, you’ll find sparkling ponds, cheerful turtles, and most important of all, the magical creatures known as Nodders. These fuzzy, big-eared creations love to frolic and play—but they can only start their fun once kids take a nap. It’s a clever and engaging conceit: While kids nap, Nodders romp. Written in story-time rhymes crafted to be read aloud, and boasting Brian Schmidt’s stunning and lively digital illustrations of its imaginative subjects, The Nodders is a picture book sure to be requested again and again—and one that might offer relief to tired caregivers and children alike.

Though a handful of rhymes feel forced, the verse overall creates that rare hypnotic fairy tale effect, the kind of story that lulls little ones to sleep. That might not happen with the first reading, as the Nodders, as rendered by Schmidt, are so visually interesting that the pages demand to be pored over in detail. With hints of pigs and bats in their face and body, curlicues in their ears, cute pajamas, and slippers that help them fly, the Nodders exhibit whimsy and fun on every page. Those pages are carefully considered and laid out, especially a masterful double spread of the sun setting on one page and rising on the next, blended together to show that they’re one event.

There are no shortage of “go to sleep” books for kids (and adults), and The Nodders succeeds in differentiating itself with its highly original concept —and by focusing on naps. Even so, it could easily be read as a good night book as well. These charming beings will likely work their way into kids’ hearts, and will certainly be welcome in a caregiver’s arsenal when it comes to nudging children toward sleep.

Takeaway: A picture book alive with whimsy and enchantment, The Nodders is crafted to charm little ones into napping.

Great for fans of: Il Sung Na’s A Book of Sleep, Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama Red Pajama, Divya Srinivasan’s Little Owl’s Night.

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

Click here for more about The Nodders
Finding My Yip: Boomer's Tales: Book 1
Christine Isley-Farmer
Touched with love and music, this debut by Isley-Farmer follows Boomer, a friendly Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy, in his quest to “yip” as proudly as his sisters do. Boomer befriends Chloe, the nine-year-old granddaughter of his caretaker, Nana Weathers. Boomer and Nana are able to communicate with each other thanks to Nana’s magic ring, but Boomer and Chloe, who struggles with a stutter, bond simply through their similarities, helping each other find their confidence -- and eventually their voices. Taylor Bills’ black and white illustrations mark the beginning of every chapter and warmly spotlight the sentimental aspects of the characters, such as Boomer’s expressive, soulful eyes. Budding readers will easily connect with this story of growth and self discovery, set against a backdrop of human and animal attachment.

While younger fans will likely be familiar with talking animals, the rules of Boomer’s world aren’t clearly established. Boomer possesses vocabulary enough to understand what humans are saying, but he doesn’t know what the sun is. Nana’s ring, meanwhile, has unexplained powers to do apparently just about anything. Dialogue drives the somewhat stretched out narrative, often in place of action, description, or momentum, contributing to the feeling of uncertainty about Boomer and his world. Readers learn more about what Boomer hears people saying than what he sees or what the characters actually do.

Finding My Yip is strongest when illuminating the relationship between Boomer and Chloe. Despite appearing a touch more mature in the illustrations, Chloe is a typical nine-year-old struggling to make friends, build self-confidence, and find her voice. With or without Nana’s magic ring, the camaraderie between Chloe and Boomer touchingly demonstrates the power of reciprocal love. Whether or not its young readers have enjoyed the experience of bonding with an animal, this charming story will appeal to those who know what it’s like to need a friend, whatever species that friend might be.

Takeaway: Dog-lovers and shy kids alike will enjoy this uplifting story about friendship and courage.

Great for fans of: Laura James’s The Adventures of Pug series, Ann Cameron’s Spunky Tells All

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

Click here for more about Finding My Yip
Again: Surviving Cancer Twice with Love and Lists
Christine Shields Corrigan
Corrigan, a contributor to numerous nonfiction anthologies, delivers a raw, honest telling of surviving cancer in this moving memoir. Through a firsthand account of her diagnosis and her aches and pains, worries and hopes, she details her battle with an illness that is too rarely discussed with such frank intimacy. Corrigan seamlessly transitions from flashbacks of her first run in with the Beast (her private name for cancer) as a fourteen year old girl diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, to her adult experience facing breast cancer.

The inspiring Again exemplifies Toni Morrison’s insistence that "If there's a book you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." Corrigan writes that she “wanted a trail map” when faced with her second diagnosis, one that offered valuable insight to cancer victims and reveals the formidable role that a loving support system plays in recovery. Each reflective chapter offers an account of a milestone in Corrigan’s treatment, with "The Practical Reality" sections offering hard-won advice, like “take your spouse, partner, family member, or trusted friend with you to your appointments.”

Corrigan's writing style is clear and relatable, eschewing medical jargon. Readers will feel like old friends as she pulls them in with her quirky to-do lists at the beginning of each chapter—such as “Listen to James comment on my incessant need to over-explain”—and shares her daily thoughts and activities: “I needed to make sure lunches were made, schedules kept, and deadlines met, all while dealing with chemotherapy, its side effects, surgeries, and their recoveries.” This unflinching story of strength and vulnerability pairs the practical with a heartfelt glimpse into the inner workings of healing. Corrigan has mapped out a touching journey and a helpful guide for anyone who has had to deal with cancer, through their own diagnosis or the diagnosis of a loved one.

Takeaway: This honest, warmly emotional memoir maps out a welcome practical roadmap for readers and loved ones facing a cancer diagnosis.

Great for fans of: Go Ask Alice by Beatrice Sparks, Susan Gubar’s Memoir of a Debulked Woman.

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

Apocalypse: Here and Now! Are You Ready?
Betsy Fritcha
A certain practicality stands as a hallmark of Fritcha’s brief analysis of biblical prophecy and world events. Her study of the Old Testament prophets and analysis of the Bible’s promise of a day of holy justice rapidly pivots into addressing the particular questions readers may have about the end times and other apocalyptic mysteries: What precisely does the ‘mark of the beast’ signify? Who are the Nephilim -- the “fallen angels” -- mentioned in the book of Genesis? And is it possible for believers today to draw on the power of God for miracles? Fritcha’s overall aim with her analysis, though, is not to offer her own answers but to draw readers to hear and heed what she calls the “one voice of TRUTH.”

In her discussion of the Mark of the Beast and the Nephilim, Fritcha is clear in her explanation of difficult-to-understand texts. Particularly enlightening is her listing of other resources to encourage readers to grow in understanding by studying for themselves. Her emphasis as the book closes shifts to asking readers to make a fundamental choice – to accept God and be prepared for a day of judgement.

Fritcha uses idiosyncratic capitalization to refer to God and certain virtues. Although she explains this choice in the introduction (“GOD, TRUTH and LOVE are fully capitalized…”), readers will likely find themselves more distracted than edified. Her examinations of prophetic stories and (sometimes extensively quoted) passages from scripture are less exegetical than inspirational, as she launches from them into her own musings on the nature of God or God’s relation to creation in the past, present, and future. Her goal, she notes, is to drive the reader to the Bible themselves so that they may arrive at their own understanding of what she would call TRUTH. In Apocalypse, readers will find a passionate cry to explore scripture combined with some specific biblical interpretation.

Takeaway: Christians seeking a passionate call to choose God will find it in Betsy Fritcha’s slightly idiosyncratic study of biblical prophecy.

Great for fans of: Dennis Mather’s What in the World Is Going to Happen, Jimmy Evans’ Tipping Point

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

Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths: From Alexander to Hitler to the Corporation
Joseph N. Abraham MD
Joseph N. Abraham’s debut aims to answer a pressing question: “Why do we have a great capacity for logic within certain contexts but refuse to apply that capacity in other contexts?” Spurred by the dismissal of his scientific arguments by leading authorities, Abraham, an emergency room physician, has turned his training in “negative data” to the global history of conquest and monarchy, examining our tendency towards illogical thinking -- especially humanity’s historical bad habit of supporting the rule of authoritarian leaders. Abraham contends that everything we’ve been taught about history is flawed because historians and laymen alike have failed to recognize that civilization is built upon narcissism and psychopathy. He cites supporting examples as varied as Hercules, Aragorn, Al Capone, ancient Rome, Pol Pot, and contemporary corporations.

Lovers of pop history will find much to enjoy in this cultural history’s ten entertaining chapters. The connection he draws between ancient conquerors and modern mob bosses and corporations is fascinating, and his efforts at reading the past through modern psychology produce interesting insights. Professionally trained historians will be frustrated by his reliance on Whiggish periodization and sweeping generalizations, while readers of premodern literature and theology may wonder why those texts, detailing the horrors and pleasures of conquest, are absent from Abraham’s analysis.

Abraham anticipates some of these critiques, presenting them as further evidence for his argument precisely because it upends prevailing scholarship. In this way, Kings reads as much as an attempt to provoke discussion as to prove its thesis. Yet Abraham doesn’t simply put forth a historical account. His work is a call-to-arms urging readers to assert power over our political system to consign to the past the psychopathy that has shaped our culture. Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths is a concise, compelling, and challenging exploration of how humanity became what it is.

Takeaway: Abraham’s entertaining and informative debut will inspire readers to rethink why humanity embraces authoritarian leaders.

Great for fans of: Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy; Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

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

Click here for more about Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths
A Diary in the Age of Water
Nina Munteanu
In Munteanu’s (The Splintered Universe Trilogy) time-crossed heartbreaker, four generations of women witness this planet’s inevitable slide into the environmental degradation of climate change -- and then the extent that corporations will go to control the limited water supply. In the far future, Kyo, resembling a Hindu god with her blue-skin and four arms, reads a journal from the mid 21st century of how the Earth warmed and the Water Twins, Hilde and Hanna, nearly wiped out humanity. The diary belongs to Lynna, a limnologist, who chronicles in scientific, genetic, and political detail the damage that climate change has perpetrated on the world and humanity, right down to our very DNA. Lynna writes of her complicity, as she worked for CanadaCorp, a company that profited by diverting Canada’s rich water supply to America.

Munteanu’s passion for conservation illuminates passages in which Lynna expresses admiration for water’s unique properties and endless value. Lynna describes a succession of 20th century disasters, including the Great Lakes turning into the Great Puddles, the Earth’s axis tipping due to massive water reservoirs in the Northern Hemisphere, and even the rise of parthenogenesis (virgin births) in humans, corresponding with a surge in male infertility. Facing a horrific future, Lynna’s coworker Daniel laments, “the humans that were worth saving hadn’t been born yet.” Offering some relief from the crises, Lynna draws strength from her insightful mother, Una, and her naïve yet ideological daughter, Hilde.

Despite inspired passages touched with poetry, Munteanu devotes more pages to Lynna’s textbook-like recitation of environmental ruin than to the intriguing story of the Water Twins or Kyo, whose purpose and identity get relegated to climactic exposition. Nevertheless, environmentalists and readers who enjoy science fact will absorb this disquieting story’s impressive yet discouraging scenarios and illustrations. Munteanu excels at extrapolating today’s science into a stark vision of what we face in the next few decades.

Takeaway: Environmentalists, science fact enthusiasts, and science fiction fans will be shaken by this cautionary tale of a near-future Earth facing the ravages of climate change.

Great for fans of: James Lawrence Powell’s The 2084 Report: An Oral History of the Great Warming, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future

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

Click here for more about A Diary in the Age of Water
Wrath Child: A Supernatural Thriller
Erik Henry Vick
Vick (The Bloodletter Chronicles) weaves a suspenseful web of gore and horror in this supernatural thriller. Special Agent Gavin Gregory of the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit is about to take an extended vacation to rebuild his marriage when a notorious serial killer known as The Smith resurfaces from a killing-spree hiatus. Gavin knows this killer well and is put on the case, but quickly discovers he’s in over his head. Enter Deborah Esteves, a psychiatrist who treated The Smith in 2014 and has developed some surprising theories about the eerie psychic phenomena that may have complicated her past work with violent patients. With Deborah’s help, Gavin must catch the killer before the killer catches another victim.

Vick masters the balance between external and internal stakes as an abundance of characters bring this gritty murder suspense to life. The events unfold along three timelines—2004, 2014, and the present—with the narrative gracefully crossing between them while delving deep into The Smith’s psychological unraveling. Some readers might find keeping track of the large cast frustrating, especially with the regular point-of-view shifts, but the skillfully crafted internal struggles of key characters create an emotional and sympathetic connection that will keep fans engaged and flipping the pages. Foreboding hints of the supernatural loom from start to finish, certain to delight both horror and thriller enthusiasts.

Vick is a seasoned writer who doesn’t hold back. His opening line (“The alley stank of garbage and human waste and blood and imminent death”) demonstrates his ability to evoke the senses and paint a visceral scene -- and alerts readers that the story to come contains a fair amount of gore and disturbing images. The well-crafted plot, memorable characters, and decidedly wicked villain will linger long after the last page is turned. Those looking for an engrossing supernatural thriller containing high stakes will find much to enjoy.

Takeaway: Supernatural thriller and horror fans who don’t mind a bit of gore will get caught up in this smartly plotted thriller with memorable characters.

Great for fans of: John Connolly’s A Book of Bones, Vaughn C. Hardacker’s Wendigo

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

Click here for more about Wrath Child
Booth Island
D. Z. Church
Church’s (Perfidia) thrilling mystery follows twenty-something Boothe Treader as she revisits the Ontario lake where she summered as a child — and the site of her brother Roy’s death 12 years earlier. Although the death was ruled an accident, most locals — including Boothe’s old friends Mike, Meg, and Penny, who all affectionately call Boothe “Boo” — agree that Finn Sturdevant, an outsider to the tight-knit community, caused Roy’s head injury and eventual drowning. Roy’s spirit haunts Boo as she once again spends time on Booth Island, the tiny piece of family land that she now owns. In trying to move past Roy’s death, Boo uncovers unexpected secrets, learns of the sinister, century-long history between the community’s families, and encounters Finn himself.

Readers will be intrigued by the town’s air of mystery and Boo’s conviction, as odd occurrences mount, that she’s being gaslit. Boo takes a winding path that explores her family’s violent Prohibition roots and leads her inadvertently to discover the truth about the night that Roy died. The history, particularly as it relates to present-day events, can at times be tricky to follow, but Church’s hints of a coming revelation (clues include a bloody bandana and a Photoshopped image of Roy) push the reader forward. While the prose at times can be choppy, Church crafts a mystery rich with unease and an exhilarating climax while also offering a bold portrait of Canadian lake life.

The most enthralling element of the mystery is the way in which Church stirs reader suspicion toward many characters before ultimately unmasking a villain. Boo doesn’t know who to trust, and neither will the reader. This conflict intensifies when she develops romantic feelings for two different men, both potentially suspects. The wild, dark setting, unavenged death, and complicated history make Boo’s trip an appealing mystery full of suspense and intrigue.

Takeaway: Mystery readers will be hooked by the unresolved death and quiet intrigue of this lakeside thriller.

Great for fans of: Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, Karen M. McManus’s One of Us Is Lying.

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

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Orange City
Lee Matthew Goldberg
In this ambitious dystopian series debut, Goldberg (The Ancestor) explores life in the mysterious “City,” a second chance for outcasts, criminals, and the otherwise desperate. The Man, an elongated, many-limbed human being, overlooks the City’s inhabitants from a looming tower, holding them accountable and keeping them productive. Residents who slack off or disobey get banished to one of the many Empty Zones, left to rot among the starving and depraved. The story kicks off when City resident Graham Weatherend, a neurotic adman, agrees to sample a new soda product for his boss and experiences surprising mood swings. As he becomes increasingly dependent on the soda to live, he unravels a wide-reaching conspiracy, uncovering the City’s dark origins and his own place in the Man’s schemes.

Goldberg gives an original spin to well-worn science fiction concepts (surveillance, conformity, drug use, automation). The sodas Graham drinks are both hallucinatory and mood-altering, and the City more like a Panopticon — residents live in fear of being seen, even when they are possibly safe. However, because the novel tackles so many high-concept ideas, the narrative can feel disjointed. Seemingly important details (an early storyline involving lucid dreaming, for example) get explored briefly and then retired.

Graham is a character with a lot to lose (his banishment to the Zones would mean certain death), one readers will find it easy to root for. Goldberg’s skillful prose adapts to the changing moods of his protagonist. During a particularly lustful moment, Graham hears a woman’s voice “so throaty and alluring that he wanted to climb inside the cave of her mouth and spelunk,” a description that is the perfect balance of shameful and compelling. With its tragic protagonist and new take on illicit drugs, this daring first installment will appeal to fans of smart dystopian fiction.

Takeaway: This hair-rising science fiction novel is perfect for fans of layered conspiracies, altered reality, and eerie dystopias.

Great for fans of: Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts, Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.

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

Click here for more about Orange City

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