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Post-Traumatic Growth: thriving in the face of adversity
BRENDA T UNGERLAND
Ungerland draws on clinical and personal expertise to inform this thoughtful, compassionate guide to moving on from trauma. The work starts from the premise that trauma happens to everyone, assuring readers that authentic, albeit painful and messy, personal change is a possibility for all people and advising readers to cultivate fluidity and mindfulness. Ungerland puts forth a seven-stage process of growing and healing after trauma, terming the stages immobilization, unraveling, surrendering, awakening, emerging, integrating, and evolving.

Ungerland clearly explains her framework in sophisticated yet clear and accessible prose. Each chapter describes the experiences of patients who have been in this stage, explains relevant concepts and views on psychology and spirituality, includes exercises for readers to try to build resilience, and ends with a brief shorthand summary to remind readers of the contents at a glance. Bonus material presented at the end, including tips on cognitive restructuring and basic principles for change, could stand alone as opposed to being subsumed into other sections.

She has clearly read widely in psychology, philosophy, spirituality, literature, and poetry; the text synthesizes existing work in positive psychology and Buddhism, and it is studded with quotations from a wide range of sources, including Martha Graham, Alice Walker, Albert Einstein, and Rumi. The case studies illuminating each stage are a strength, as is the text’s capacity to inspire hope for surviving chaos and growing resilience. This empathic, instructive, well-written guide will find a home on the bookshelves of both clinicians and readers pursuing healing after trauma.

Takeaway: Mental health professionals and readers seeking well-defined, easy-to-implement principles for transformational growth after trauma will find this guide both insightful and practical.

Great for fans of: Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart, Susan Anderson’s The Journey from Abandonment to Healing.

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

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Human Resources A to Z: A Practical Field Guide for People Managers
Ted Smith
Smith (The Train Blog) puts his years of experience in human resources to good use in this guide to common challenges professionals may face. After a brief introduction and description of his impressive career, Smith dives into advice about everything from ADHD to zombies (unmotivated workers, not flesh-eating ghouls) in alphabetically ordered sections named for their subjects. He draws upon his own career, using anecdotes to illuminate a variety of potential career situations, all united by his core theme of dignity in the workplace. Whether the problem is an employee’s lateness (which may be resolved with a “gentle private chat”) or a cancer diagnosis (which makes sickness absence rules “irrelevant”), preserving the worker’s dignity and helping them thrive is Smith’s key recommendation.

This manual should not be mistaken for professional legal or medical advice, but Smith’s guidance is thoughtful and can be modified to fit varied circumstances. His approach is humble: when he is not an expert about a topic under discussion, Smith seeks advice from and gives credit to others, which is particularly helpful in his sections about autism, blindness, and working across cultures (for example, in Japan or the U.S). Readers will be able to imagine Smith as an older mentor joining them for coffee and conversation as they work through some knotty problem that has arisen at work.

Though the more granular advice is most useful for those who share his United Kingdom context, HR professionals anywhere can learn from Smith’s good sense. This wise and good-natured survey of common human resource concerns and challenges would make a meaningful and useful gift for someone starting out in the profession.

Takeaway: Human resources professionals, especially in the U.K., will find this wise, good-natured compendium a valuable guide.

Great for fans of: Jeffrey Liker’s The Toyota Way, Sharon Armstrong and Barbara Mitchell’s The Essential HR Handbook.

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

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While I Still Am
Jodie A Cooper
Cooper’s sweetly illustrated picture book debut is full of loving details about a wide variety of endangered species. From the gruff-looking African elephant to the alert koala, each creature is accompanied by a page of informational text, including charming features about the animals—the Beluga whale is called the “canary of the sea” because of its whistling ability—and dangers to their lives and habitats. This volume pulls no punches when it comes to chronicling threats to these animals—the text about Magellanic penguins tells young readers, "my habitat is threatened by climate change causing heavy rains that flood my nesting areas. I get caught and drown in fishery nets. Chronic oil pollution from ocean tankers remains my greatest threat."

Some of the vocabulary and concepts (the equator, marine parks, climate change) will be new to many in the target age range. The book introduces numerous facts per page, and since each animal is illustrated in only one portrait, there are no visuals to illuminate numbers such as “my legs alone are six feet long” or “I can weigh 1750-2800 pounds” to help young kids understand their significance. These attributes make this book one for a child to read and discuss with an adult.

But if a small reader becomes impatient with the facts, the text easily allows for a break before returning, without diminishing the overall message. The recurring refrain "please leave me be while I still am" is a powerful call to action that young animal lovers can understand. This element, combined with the lively watercolor images, changes what could be a frightening set of facts into a positive message of interspecies responsibility.

Takeaway: Adults who want to introduce younger kids to conservation and instill a love of animals will be delighted by this lovely picture book.

Great for fans of: David Wax’s I Wish For You, Miranda Paul’s One Plastic Bag.

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

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Cooking with Magic:: The Psilocybin Cookbook
David Connell
In this unusual cookbook, USAF veteran Connell encourages readers to experiment with the benefits of microdosing hallucinogenic mushrooms via food and drink. He begins with practical and important safety recommendations, traces a very brief history of magic mushroom use, and proposes a schedule of microdosages that promises positive, but not overpowering, effects. Connell’s recipes include drinks and desserts, such as Ritual Cup Hot Chocolate and Kickin’ Key Lime and Fun-Guy Pie, as well as three main dishes: a risotto, pot pie, and a sausage and mushroom creation.

With a charming, conversational flair (“Bonus points to those of you who don a solid scientist costume while you work”), Connell breaks down recipes with easy-to-follow steps that even the most amateur home chef will be able to follow. Aside from uncommon mushrooms, the recipes do not require exotic or difficult ingredients. Somewhat confusingly, most recipes are described as yielding a dose of .5 to 1.75 grams, more than the author’s suggested daily microdose of between .1 and .3 grams.

Although some visuals are challenging to read, overall Connell’s presentation has a friendly, retro feel that suits his playful call for experimentation and pleasure. Illustrator Snowflake delivers graphics reminiscent of ’70s psychedelic culture alongside pages featuring quotes from Alice in Wonderland. Readers who want more information about foraging or cultivating mushrooms will need to look elsewhere, as will those who want a more detailed clinical approach to the use of psilocybin. But those curious about the basics of pairing food and magic fungi will find clear guidance shared in an entertaining way.

Takeaway: This accessible, trippy cookbook offers uncomplicated but appetizing recipes for beginners looking to incorporate magic mushrooms into food.

Great for fans of: Edible Dee’s The Happy Chef, Chef Ra’s Psychedelic Kitchen column.

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

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The Albatross: Contact
Connor Mackay
Mackay’s debut novel is an action-packed science fiction odyssey. The story kicks off on Earth in the unspecified near future, when first contact is made with the Lumenarians, a peaceful alien empire that has come to beg for humanity’s assistance in its 150-year war with its mysterious enemies, the Forsaken. The book covers the 18 months following the Lumenarians’ request from the points of view of three characters: Will Reach, an alcoholic former Special Forces veteran seeking to escape his past; Sarah Li, a brilliant astrophysicist who puts off becoming an astronaut to explore the new horizons that the war with the Forsaken offers; and Arthur, the warrior-poet Lumenarian commander who comes to Earth in search of his people’s last hope.

Those expecting a fantastical journey across the stars will be surprised by how true-to-life the characters, multicultural society, and story feel. Mackay’s Earth is startlingly realistic, and so are the responses to the Lumenarians’ arrival; one particularly powerful subplot deals with human xenophobia in the face of alien life. The cliffhanger ending will leave readers craving the next installment in McKay’s planned five-book series.

Readers will laugh out loud at the quick-witted internal monologues of the book’s likeable protagonists, as well as at the clever cultural references peppered throughout. Even readers who don’t think they’re into science fiction will find much to love in this novel, from its heartwarming relationships to its masterful interweaving of Samuel Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner alongside laser battles and space travel. The Albatross succeeds as both an adventure and as thoughtful social commentary.

Takeaway: Clever writing meets heart-pounding plot twists in this must-read science fiction epic.

Great for fans of: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, Ursula K. Le Guin.

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

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Sorrow
Tiffanie DeBartolo
DeBartolo—novelist, filmmaker, and co-founder of record label Bright Antenna—crafts a fresh story of love, loss, and music. Thirty-seven-year-old Joe Harper personifies sorrow at the novel’s start: he’s long since given up on his dream of becoming a guitarist, is estranged from his best friend Cal, has recently gone through a painful breakup, and is drunk in a public library. Meanwhile, his ex-lover, renowned performance artist October Danko, has a new transactional piece at SFMoMa, in which she uses her touch synesthesia to understand others’ sorrow. Joe is left to decide whether he should visit her exhibit and attempt to repair his fractured life, or continue on his path of sadness and isolation.

DeBartolo is no stranger to stories and music, and it shows in her carefully crafted details, humorous dialogue, and nuanced characterization. Joe’s depressive ruminations are believable without growing tiresome; he is a character for whom readers will root and weep. Each character comes with a richly layered past that contributes to both their development the novel’s overarching conflicts. Alongside the affecting plot, DeBartolo weaves a playlist through the narrative that perfectly complements characters’ emotions, featuring lyrics from The National, Fleetwood Mac, and Damien Rice.

This cinematic novel employs all five senses in descriptions of its lush California setting, precise attention to little details, and artfully woven plot. The author deftly builds small, seemingly inconsequential connections into significant events that effectively and irrevocably alter characters’ trajectory. This unflinching look at romance, life, and estrangement considers how, as October says, “everything we do and every moment we live can be a work of art.”

Takeaway: Musicians, visual artists, writers, and readers will love this well-crafted, page-turning tale of romance and loss.

Great for fans of: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Meg Wolitzer.

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

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BloodLaw
Blaise Ramsay
Ramsay’s (Bane of Tenebris) gritty vampire crime novel immerses readers in the bloody turf wars of Prohibition-era Chicago, with a supernatural twist. Alastair Maddox fought corruption as a detective—with the scars to prove it—and is taking on the mob as assistant district attorney. He trusts few people other than his girlfriend Charlaine “Charlie” Ware, a journalist; Paul Stone, his partner; and Lieutenant Raymond King, his ex-boss. After a run-in with the mesmerizing murderess Alexandra DeLane, who escapes from a police station and leaves a trail of destruction in her wake, he’s driven to track her down. Two months later, he wakes up naked in the woods with a chunk of his memory missing, an unignorable craving for blood, and more questions than ever. Separated from his friends, who think he’s dead, he teams up with the suspiciously helpful Mason Downing to get to the bottom of it all.

Despite some instances of awkward language and the occasional missing word, readers will be caught up in the motley duo’s shenanigans as they hunt DeLane and the mob boss who’s giving her orders. One of the most enjoyable elements of the story is seeing a new vampire come to grips with the powers, needs, and drawbacks of what Maddox calls his “condition”: once-delicious food seems repellent, he can hear others’ blood pumping, and his newfound ability to “phase” through solid objects comes in handy during a car chase.

Ramsay skillfully deploys the noir classics—a hero haunted by his past, dangerous dames, and dirty backroom dealings—alongside amped-up action, atmospheric evocations of 1920s Chicago in wintertime, and the paranormal. Readers looking for mystery, action, or vampires will be drawn irresistibly into this fast-paced, inventive whodunit.

Takeaway: Paranormal crime fiction readers will sink their teeth into in this noir story of flawed characters trying to do right in 1920s Chicago.

Great for fans of: LP Kindred’s “Your Rover is Here,” Max Gladstone.

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

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Button's Wings: Pebble Books
Liam KJ O'Leary
O’Leary’s whimsical debut tale of friendship and celebrating differences will beguile readers with its appealing narrative and vibrant digital illustrations. Blueberry Wood is full of all kinds of wonderful creatures, but Pebble the owl doesn’t quite fit in. Pebble’s wings are too small for him to keep up with other owls, so they leave him behind. Fortunately, his small size allows him to befriend bugs, including a caterpillar named Button. Button has his own challenge: no matter how many times he builds a cocoon, he can’t fall asleep, so he’ll never become a butterfly. Pebble decides to make wings for Button, but it doesn’t work out, leaving the two of them to accept themselves and each other just as they are.

Though the book is named after Button and primarily focuses on the friendship between Pebble and Button, the caterpillar isn’t introduced until halfway into the book, though he makes appearances on earlier pages. Once Button comes to the fore, the rest of the narrative feels rushed, particularly the ending. However, the cheerful color palette and the characters’ expressive features craft a visual narrative of genuine friendship. Pebble and Button bond over being outcasts with a warmth that may resonate with children who have similarly felt left out, though no mention is made of how the other owls and butterflies might try to be more inclusive and welcoming.

Though it does little to stand out from the many books with similar themes, this charming picture book is still enjoyable. The bond between Pebble and Button will leave readers wanting more from this duo. The lively and magical illustrations are sure to be a hit with younger readers, who will enjoy spotting Button in the fantastical scenes of caterpillars playing at jousting and being pirates, and the straightforward language is easy to read aloud. This feel-good story about unlikely companionship is simple and sweet.

Takeaway: Young readers will delight in this cheerfully illustrated tale of friendship between two outcast forest creatures.

Great for fans of Dan Santat’s The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, C.J. Nestor’s Pokémon: Favorite First Friends!.

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

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Year of the What?
Jennifer Lieberman
Playwright Lieberman explores themes of partying and sexual awakening in modern New York City in this risqué debut. Dana, upset after she discovers that her ex has moved on, decides to use sexual exploration as a means of finding herself. Some encounters, such as a drunken one-night stand with a coworker, test her resolve to push her own boundaries. Others, including a drug-fueled party with an indie rock singer named Edward, leave her feeling sexually liberated and in control. After a year of experimentation and adventures, along with a budding career as a writer and actress, Dana finally feels like she knows who she is and what she wants for her future.

The chapters are titled by month, and each one opens with a thematic preview of a line from later in the chapter, which at first is slightly confusing. Each chapter centers around a particular encounter, consummated or not, and ends with a neat but expository summary of Dana’s feelings about the situation and how it helps or hurts her progress toward self-discovery. That journey is guided in part by Dana’s roommate, professional dominatrix Kelly, who supports and encourages her.

The writing, which can come across as dry and informative rather than immersive, is hung on a solidly constructed plot. However, the book struggles to find a genre, which may limit its audience. Romance readers may be turned off by the serial dating and lack of focus on a character with the potential to be Dana’s long-term partner, erotica readers may be uncomfortable with several instances of questionable consent, and women’s fiction readers may not approve of the casual use of recreational drugs. Open-minded fans of intimate literary fiction will appreciate the heroine’s growth as she sets some of her insecurities aside to learn how to embrace life on her own terms.

Takeaway: This thoughtful story of one woman’s journey toward sexual empowerment will appeal to open-minded fans of intimate literary fiction.

Great for fans of Candace Bushnell’s Sex in the City, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, Lisa Locascio’s Open Me.

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

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Better Than A Bully: Carrot Top's Surprise
Tina Levine
A reluctant bully begins to question her choices after gaining empathy for her victim in the Levines’ heartwarming middle grade debut. Tara has many friends in her fourth grade class, but plump, redheaded Annie isn’t one of them; instead, Tara and her friends nickname her “Carrot Top” and bully her. Much of the taunting was started by Tara’s friend, Ace, but Tara and the rest of her friends regularly join in. After Annie helps Ace out of a dangerous situation, Tara learns more about Annie’s struggles as the child of a disabled, impoverished single mother. Tara sees how unfair bullying is and realizes her own power to make it stop.

The unusual point of view of a tween caught between bully and bullied will invite readers to inhabit Tara’s internal conflict of wanting to be nicer to Annie while fearing being mocked by others for showing kindness to a designated pariah. Annie’s continued positive attitude can feel a little unrealistic, but it drives home the point that victims don’t do anything to deserve being bullied. Glimpses of Ace’s own troubled home life go some way to explaining his own reasons for harassing others. Middle grade readers will grow in understanding alongside Tara as she becomes a force for kindness among her peers.

Tina Levine combines her own experiences of being bullied with her expertise as a teacher who sees students on all sides of the bullying dynamic, creating deeper understanding and relatability for young readers. The protagonists can be lovable and funny as well as serious as they cope with difficult situations that many children will find personally relevant, and the moral lessons don’t feel heavy-handed. Discussion questions at the end will prompt dialogue and deeper explorations of the theme. Ned Levine’s evocative monochrome spot illustrations add depth to the story and its characters. The profound messages of acceptance and empathy shared through realistic situations, with a solid dose of humor sprinkled throughout, will win readers over.

Takeaway: Young readers feeling pressured to bully others will relate to this story of a onetime bully who steps up to teach kindness to her peers.

Great for fans of Patti Kelley Criswell’s Stand Up For Yourself & Your Friends: Dealing with Bullies and Bossiness and Finding a Better Way, Tonya Duncan Ellis’s Sophie Washington: The Snitch.

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

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Corona Daze: Eva's time at home during Covid-19
Jennifer Angel
Angel debuts with a clumsily executed but sincere and heartfelt story of the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on children—namely her daughter, Eva. Like many other children, Eva is stuck inside her house, feeling worried and scared about the changing world around her. She is no longer able to attend school, go to the grocery store, or visit her grandparents. Despite all of the challenges she faces in this new world, Eva maintains a positive attitude, demonstrating to other kids that they too can be scared and strong at the same time.

The book seems to have been hastily completed to meet an urgent need, and due to the ever-changing nature of a global pandemic, some of the facts are already outdated. Adults using this book to explain the epidemic to children may run into places where they have to contradict what it says. A few illustrations show behavior that’s now discouraged, such as going to the park without wearing masks (albeit while keeping distant from others). The explanation of the virus is too simplified for older children, and its effects are ominously shown in pictures of a hospital patient and a coffin that younger children may find too frightening. Many illustrations are black-and-white photos enhanced with digitized Sharpie sketches, often poignant but sometimes disharmonious; the strongest drawings are the ones that stand alone.

Clearly a labor of love, this picture book effectively validates a child’s experience of quarantine and the intimidating emotions that accompany it. After the litany of things Eva can no longer do, readers will appreciate the pages about how she spends her time now, including playing with her brother, studying engineering by building graham cracker towers, and going for walks. Angel’s simplistic story is a useful jumping-off point for sparking discussions with young children about these tumultuous and confusing times.

Takeaway: This timely portrait of isolated life in the pandemic era will help little readers feel seen and validate their complicated feelings.

Great for fans of Mo Willems’s Knuffle Bunny series, Hailey Glynn’s When Virona the Corona Came to Town.

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

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Uprooting Fear : The Heart's Accidental Journey to the Divine
Aura Camacho-Maas
Camacho-Maas’s debut is a profoundly passionate memoir celebrating her discovery of spiritual strength and recognition of signs from the divine. Camacho-Maas begins with tracing her distressing early years in Bogotá, Colombia. Her father’s violence led her to construct an independent life at a rather young age. Once out in a world promising adventure, awareness, and freedom, Camacho-Maas took one faith-based step at a time, plunging into the arms of divinity and exploring the secrets of nature. In passages that are more exploratory than inspirational, she describes intense shamanistic experiences and details extensive paranormal encounters that helped her see and understand the portents all around her.

Camacho-Maas employs concise and effective writing as she shares earnest autobiographical accounts in episodic, intimate, and reflective observations that support her evolving intuitions and worldview. She sees fear as the basis of discord and discrimination in the world. Her easygoing sophistication makes the analysis of her revelations accessible while she probes the deeper meaning behind each experience. She does not shy away from discussing her mental health struggles, repressed anguish, and emotional burnouts with gentle sensitivity, seamlessly blending her interpersonal, psychological, and spiritual experiences in the later chapters.

Readers may be taken aback when the tone markedly shifts from sentimental to businesslike as Camacho-Maas describes her initial years founding her nonprofit agency, the Latin American Resource Center. The memoir subsequently loses some cohesion, and it takes a while to bring the reader back into the core subject. Fortunately, the included illustrations by children from a variety of backgrounds, part of a traveling exhibit Camacho-Maas coordinated through her work with international school systems, help to link her work with some of her more personal insights. Camacho-Maas’s lessons in the healing and dismantling of the self are profound and make her journey feel both mystical and wholesome.

Takeaway: This memoir of spiritual seeking is a perfect fit for readers looking for storytelling with a transcendental quality.

Great for fans of Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, Deepak Chopra’s The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success.

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

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Dance of the Deities : Searching for Our Once and Future Egalitarian Society
Patricia A. McBroom
McBroom (The Third Sex: The New Professional Woman) uses her own experiences as an anthropologist, a science writer, and a woman navigating modern society to fashion a memoir of her “search for equality and the sacred female.” She examines the influence of goddess worship on human culture, establishing that many societies that worshipped female deities gave men and women equal power. She combines her research with her personal experiences to clearly demonstrate her view that society would function better with a more egalitarian structure. Her approach is compassionate, not militant; while grieving the effects of patriarchy in her own life, she asserts that women don’t want to rule over men, only to share their power.

Drawing on her several decades of science writing and archaeological research work, McBroom provides well-informed historical examples of egalitarian cultures that paid a steep price when male-dominated colonizers took over, examining the effects of European patriarchal structures on the Iroquois and the Maori. Her passion for female deities is clear throughout the narrative, but she’s careful to reinforce her personal opinions with informed analysis of ancient objects and other archaeological findings.

McBroom comfortably invites readers into her life. As she discusses the importance of goddesses in Neolithic cultures, she transitions seamlessly to examples of how a respectful view of women either did help or could have helped her. Sharing painful stories such as being scapegoated at work because she was a woman, and joyful ones such as living for 19 years in a cohousing community where everyone governs together, McBroom effectively illustrates the significance of recovering “the cultural history of the sacred female.” This mix of memoir, theory, and research will interest any reader who’s passionate about building a more egalitarian world.

Takeaway: Feminists and history buffs will be drawn to this passionate, well-researched memoir that explores the past and possible future of gender-equal societies.

Great for fans of Marija Gimbutas and Joseph Campbell’s The Language of the Goddess.

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

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Half Awakened Dreams: Volume II of the Carandir Saga
David A. Wimsett
The second installment in the Carandir Saga follows a sprawling cast of characters dealing with an uprising against King Ryckair and Queen Mirjel. A group of discriminatory Western purists plots to overthrow Mirjel, the Eastern queen who has failed to produce an heir. Meanwhile, Ryckair is kidnapped by the Zerites, an ancient race of nonhumans, and tasked with finding the evil dragon Baras, who threatens to upend the order of the world. While Ryckair and Mirjel’s love is tested by infertility, Ryckair’s illegitimate son, the ruthless boy general Dhamar, is tempted by the wicked sorcerer Petstra to overthrow his father and serve Baras.

While Wimsett immerses the reader in the world of Carandir, thoughtfully including maps of the kingdom and a glossary of the trading language, readers may be overwhelmed by the many characters (some of whom have extremely similar names, like Deh and Dek) and story lines. No single plotline gets the attention it deserves, and emotional investment may suffer as a result. In key moments, it can be difficult to keep track of who is who, lessening the intended weight of the story. (Reading the first installment might help.)

The book works best when characters have clear goals. Ryckair’s journey with the Zerites is one of the most enjoyable sections to read. Sif and Tarawee, his Zerite guides disguised as humans, inject some much-needed humor into the story, and the group suffers relatable setbacks and successes. While the author takes on a lot of information and detail at once, the world he creates is engrossing. Fantasy readers will appreciate the dedication to detail.

Takeaway: This immersive tale combines palace intrigue, military coups, and sorcery—perfect for fantasy fans with a political bent.

Great for fans of: Frank Herbert’s Dune, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings.

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

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DEATH ON THE HIGH SEAS
Richard V Rupp
Rupp’s slow-burn thriller leads readers on a global adventure. Special Agent Dick Hartmann and fellow FBI agent Coleen Ryan embark on a relaxing getaway aboard the Pacific Wonder cruise ship, where the Bon Appétit Insurance Company plans to hold its annual meeting. The insurance company manages finances for various high-level criminals, including Juanita Ramirez, head of a Mexican drug cartel. With the help of her girlfriend, Emelia Björk, Juanita strives to keep the cartel’s shady financial dealings under the FBI’s radar at any cost. When Bon Appétit’s CPA Greg Lemons notices discrepancies in the company’s bookkeeping, he is murdered to keep that information from becoming public. Dick and his team must unravel the mystery of the man’s death and bring the killer to justice.

Readers must suspend disbelief to fully appreciate this thriller. Juanita too-readily divulges highly sensitive information, including the inner workings of her business, to Emelia. Dick also acts questionably. After he’s summoned to meet with the captain about Greg’s murder, he pauses to take a shower and change clothing, a shocking delay considering the situation. Exposition is often repeated, slowing the pace despite a whirlwind plot and large ensemble cast filled with FBI agents and criminals. The frequent objectification of women (including by other women, as when Emelia eyes the “boobies” of “circle of dykes” at a party) a missed opportunity, undermining the promise of strong heroines and multidimensional women villains.

Rupp’s extensive world travel shines on the page. The truly varied assortment of settings includes Berlin, Monaco, and North Carolina. As each new locale is described, readers will find it easy to picture the characters there. His background in the commercial insurance industry paves the way for a sophisticated insurance scheme that keeps the pages turning as layer after layer is uncovered. Armchair travelers will get the most from this cruise through bloody waters.

Takeaway: Fans of financial thrillers and literary vacations will enjoy this tale of crime and scheming on a cruise ship.

Great for fans of Catherine Ryan Howard’s Distress Signals.

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

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Across the Bridge of Ice: The Bridges Trilogy #2
Ruth Fox
Fox’s second novella in the YA trilogy The Bridges finds a plucky teenager tracking a vision through a magical telescope into a harsh and dangerous ice world. After 15-year-old Keira Leichman breaks her ankle during a bizarre blizzard in her desert town, she fears she’ll never play soccer again. She’s plagued by strange dreams, is turning pale, and is drawn to her friend Jake’s mysterious brass telescope—which pulls her across an ice bridge along with Jake’s 9-year-old brother, Daniel, into the parallel world of Shar. The Sharians, who have monitored Earth for millennia, are horrified by Earth’s climate devastation, war, and violence. In their beautifully described crystal city, Keira and Daniel are feared, medically examined, and imprisoned. She learns from Archon, who is half human and half Sharian, that Shar may be planning to invade Earth. Meanwhile, she’s developing a mysterious ability to use the Sharians’ magical powers.

Rather than delving deeply into character motivations and the social context of Shar, this story focuses on plot, which proceeds according to schedule. The premise of Shar is fascinating, and readers may wish there was more information about the city, its people, and its relationships with humans.

Readers will warm to the teenage spunk of energetic and tough Keira, who vows to find a way back to Earth with Daniel. Archon, too, is a complex character, doing his duty as a scientist but unable to ignore the cruelty and paranoia of the city’s leaders, the Guardians. Young readers will enjoy the enchanted ice city, handsome characters, and magical charms of this thrilling YA fantasy.

Takeaway: This magical adventure will satisfy YA fantasy readers who enjoy spunky heroines and fairytale charm.

Great for fans of: Robert J. Crane’s The Girl in the Box series, Skye Malone’s Awakened Fate series.

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

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