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The Agency: The Norwood Nanny Chronicles
Monica McGurk
Bree Parrish, the lead in this first installment of McGurk’s (Dark Before Dawn) Norwood Nanny Chronicles, has her sights set on becoming one of the Norwood Agency’s famously trained nannies, until she discovers the opportunity is nothing like she expected. In the course of her training, Bree—who has always believed she was orphaned as a young child when her parents died in a vehicle crash—stumbles onto decades-old secrets and baffling mysteries that haunt the agency, making her question what is real as she’s swept into a labyrinth of lies, betrayal, and espionage that threatens her life and puts her friends in danger.

McGurk weaves a well-paced, suspenseful story rich with puzzling events, surprise turns, and an irresistible premise, all while always taking care to develop her characters, fleshing out the distinctive backgrounds that will make Bree and her three close roommates–Ruby, Dash, and Susie–relatable for thriller readers of all ages. There’s no shortage of action alongside the suspense, either: when Bree and her cohorts realize they’ve been tapped to become part of an intricate spy system controlled by the Secret Intelligence Service, they start a grueling training program that eventually drops them into the middle of political reconnaissance in Turkey, all under the guise of being elite nannies. When Bree’s mission goes south and lives are lost, she braces herself for the fallout–and in the process learns painful truths about her parents and her friends.

Readers who crave thrillers that keep them guessing, with doubts about who can be trusted at every turn, will delight in the hazards that Bree and her friends face. McGurk uses the straight-laced, old England nanny system to offset recklessly dangerous undercover work, and her skillful pacing will keep readers attentive–all the way to the cliffhanger ending. Backmatter includes Q&A with the author and a sneak peek into book two of this entertaining series.

Takeaway: A twisty thriller following undercover spies who pose as nannies, loaded with betrayal, action, and suspense.

Great for fans of: Jenetta Penner’s Configured, Jillian Dodd’s The Prince.

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

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Somewhere Above It All
Holli Fawcett Clayton
In her spellbinding literary debut, Clayton delivers a heartbreaking yet ultimately uplifting tale of second chances and the messy emotions that often accompany them, all complicated by the tragic reality of opioid addiction. After she is widowed, Marren Halleck decides to challenge herself by training for a mountain climb in Tanzania to summit Kilimanjaro. When she meets Chris, a handsome Texan, Marren feels a spark of chemistry—but she’s torn. Will moving on from her late husband and longtime love Brody Halleck, whose addiction to opioid painkillers eventually led to his death, be possible or wise? And although Marren doesn’t realize it, Chris is hiding an important part of his life from her, one that might doom any chance of a lasting relationship between them.

Clayton sensitively handles the delicate topic of prescription drug addiction, showing how naturally dependence can begin as she depicts baseball player Brody’s career-ending injury. She demonstrates with persuasive power how the slide into opioid addiction can happen in an instant, and makes readers see that between black and white there are infinite shades of gray, especially when an addictive prescription substance prescribed can lead a patient to behavior that once would be impossible to believe. Somewhere Above It All is frank and clear-eyed about grief and domestic abuse without ever feeling exploitative.

Clayton’s active writing style ably engages readers from the very first page, and her talent for pacing and story structure provide sound underpinning to the series of surprises revealed just before the novel’s conclusion, twists that readers likely won’t see coming. Evocative prose (“I look up at the night sky. It’s a dark chalkboard speckled with tiny flecks of white chalk, a deep black abyss heavily populated with stars”) enchants, not just making the Kilimanjaro adventure gorgeous but also enriching character and storytelling. Romance readers will ugly cry throughout this spectacular and emotional tale–a testament to the author’s skill.

Takeaway: Lovers of real-world romances will tear up at this heartbreaking yet uplifting love story facing grief and addiction.

Great for fans of: Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Forever, Interrupted, Erich Segal’s Love Story.

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

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MURDER AT THE OLYMPIAD
james gilbert
Mexico-based Consular Officer Amanda Pennyworth must deal with the fallout when an American is killed, and do her best to cope with desperate characters in this elegantly told tragedy. Jeremy Blackman is found dead in a gay bathhouse in Puerto Vallarta, and Amanda realizes she cannot expect justice from the local police. She faces further complications when she speaks with Jeremy's traveling companion, and when Jeremy's divorced parents arrive Amanda must help them handle their grief and their rage at each other. It takes a trip back to the states for her to untangle the mystery of Jeremy's past and uncover a surprising motive—at risk to her career.

Gilbert (Zona Romantica) does an extraordinary job plumbing the depths of the of the characters surrounding the murder in this second book in the Amanda Pennyworth series. Amanda herself comes across as deeply introspective and, although good at her job, somewhat adrift, missing a recently departed boyfriend. Her only true local connection is with her assistant Nando, and their unusual friendship is delightfully believable. Gilbert has a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, as shown in the heartbreaking exchanges between the parents, who alternate between blaming themselves and each other. Although the plot falters a bit at the end, the well-limned characters will keep the readers glued to the pages until the last paragraph.

Also enlivening the book are the vivid setting descriptions: "there was something dishonest and dissembling about so much order and symmetry." Scenes like that contrast sharply with the cold and brisk conversation Amanda must have with the ambassador, emblematic of the cold officialdom that ignores the afflicted individuals. In an especially affecting scene, the tortured Amanda finally finds solace in ancient artifacts at a museum. Amanda's internal conflict is the true point of interest here– like all good sleuths, Amanda discovers in the end that the real mysteries are inside ourselves.

Takeaway: Haunting characterizations and complex moral questions elevate this richly told border-crossing mystery.

Great for fans of: Alex Gilley, Carmen Amato.

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

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Big Lucky: Serial Entrepreneur Jim Markham's Secret Formula for Success
Cheryl Markham
Serial entrepreneur Markham has penned an inviting, easy-to-read guide to achieving victories in life and learning how “to win” in the face of setbacks. Markham details his own transformative journey with anecdotes about his upbringing and stories of his famous mentors and friends, through a series of chapters intriguingly structured as introducing 22 ingredients, each one a necessary element to add into the mix of the formula for transformation and success. Equal parts memoir and inspirational guide, this self-help work will motivate readers of all ages to believe they “were born with everything [they] need to succeed.”

Markham starts by chronicling his early life and his childhood with a mother who barely made ends meet, to an in-and-out father who “was never there to protect me.” Markham himself was married and a father by the age of fifteen, and he frankly acknowledges the pressures he faced as a young man with his own family to care for at such a young age. His story is rousing, with lessons and sage advice to encourage anyone striving to succeed in life, and he urges readers never to give up or feel defeated by unforeseen circumstances. Each chapter’s attention-grabbing “ingredient” to add to one's recipe of success is a clear imperative—“Don’t Dance With Ghosts” and “Add Color”—and build to Markham’s encouraging takeaways from his own intense, and sometimes painful, life lessons.

Markham’s lucrative entrepreneurial history is a theme throughout, and he displays the drive and acumen to make something out of nothing by sharing his private battles, including his victory over a period in which he was unhoused. This is a straightforward guide full of inspirational tips, relatable stories, and wisdom that will resonate with those who need some guidance, an example, or a gentle push to keep pursuing their dreams. Readers will enjoy Markham's raw, honest style and his confident reassurance that “you can do anything with your life.”

Takeaway: An inviting, encouraging self-help guide that delves into the life and drive of an entrepreneur who has overcome great hardships.

Great for fans of: Angela Duckworth’s Grit, Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup.

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

Sky Candy: A journey into the world of astrophysics as art
Douglas Bullis
In this cosmos-spanning guide, Bullis (100 Artists of the West Coast) aims to show the reader the universe as astrophysicists see it, offering a book full of intergalactic images that showcase “well-known objects”—nebulae, star clusters, galaxies—“as seen via the ninety-nine percent of the electromagnetic spectrum that our eyes cannot see.” Sky Candy’s spectacular images of wonders like the M16 Eagle Nebula or the core of Omega Centauri Dwarf Galaxy go beyond the visible spectrum and the perspective familiar from astronomical images in the popular media to instead reveal the infrared, gamma ray, and other bands of the spectrum. Bullis explores a number of obscure and unusual phenomena in the galaxy, reveling in the sheer beauty of the image as well as providing scientific details. He also includes a great deal of scientific background and terminology and sometimes provides links to video versions of the images.

The interaction of astrophysics and art excites Bullis. Whimsical captions run above the images (“Why don’t I see the familiar face hiding in all this hair?” asks one, over an arresting vision of the Seven Sisters star cluster), sometimes linking together in a loose narrative. The tone of these and of the explanatory essays accompanying the images varies between attempts at humor, technical discussions that could use clearer context, and some inviting answers to big questions, sometimes at such length that the text can appear crammed onto the page, the design decisions diminishing the impact of the images.

The essays prove strongest when Bullis points out what these fresh looks at astronomical objects reveal about them and our universe, or answers questions about the shape of a space "balloon" or why it took astronomers so long to detect the Circinus Galaxy. While some layout choices and technical terms may prove off-putting to casual readers, Bullis succeeds in offering an exciting new look at the universe.

Takeaway: This collection of images of our universe invites readers to look beyond the visual spectrum.

Great for fans of: Light from the Void: Twenty Years of Discovery with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, Michael Werner and Peter Eisenhardt’s More Things in the Heavens: How Infrared Astronomy Is Expanding Our View of the Universe.

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

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Blood Running Hot
Robert Valletta
The latest from Valletta (When School Let out), the first installment in his Gaslamp Quarter Thriller series, follows Detective Micheline Avila, newly arrived in Southern California from New York, as she struggles to track down the serial killer who has been brutalizing men and women in San Diego County. Micheline, lonely and still recovering from a divorce, soon meets Jenny Casella, a charismatic bank administrator, and they become fast friends—but all is not as it seems, and Micheline finds herself caught up in a bank robbery, with serious ramifications. Shot during the robbery, she is taken into police custody and has to work out who is responsible before her life and career are ruined.

Valletta’s striking descriptions evoke a noir-ish California, as he cleverly uses minor details to show that Micheline, an East Coast transplant, doesn’t quite fit in, such as when she wears a “navy wool cardigan,” putting her at odds with her San Diego contemporaries. The diverse cast of colorful characters includes a blind voyeur, criminals, and exotic dancers with double lives, and Micheline in particular is so strong and engaging protagonist that readers will likely enjoy following for multiple novels. While this case gets mostly wrapped up, Valletta is careful to leave readers with plenty of questions in the end, opening them up for the next in the series.

Valletta’s choice to emulate some of the seedier aspects of earlier noir novels, especially salacious descriptions of female characters such as the “blonde with a body that would stop traffic” will likely strike many contemporary readers as trite or misogynistic despite the strong female protagonist, and his tendency to flit from one perspective to another makes it challenging at times track the narrative. However, the storyline is arresting, and will please fans of crime fiction with flawed characters, especially those who prefer the vital California noir subgenre.

Takeaway: An East Coast detective takes on a serial killer in California, while she struggles to make a new life in this promising series opener.

Great for fans of: James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, G.K. Parks’s Likely Suspects.

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

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Burn-In: A Doctor's Guide to Finding Happiness, Avoiding Burnout and Catching FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early)
Dr. Patrick Tran
Targeting medical professionals, dermatologist and real estate investor Tran shares his wisdom about shrewdly investing and focusing on one’s values in order to face and handle burnout– “that feeling of not having enough money, time or both to do what you love with those you love.” The book is written in concise, encouraging chapters that cover choosing and sticking to a path, achieving healthy mindsets, and why “it’s okay to ask (and answer) questions about finances,” often showing via example as Burn-In covers Tran’s own experience as a doctor, father, second-generation immigrant, and real estate investor. Crucially, Tran focuses on how these identities interrelate and how, managing them, he’s achieved a life where wealth doesn’t just mean money, a values-driven way of living he encourages his readers to strive towards as well.

Drawing on personal stories, original inspirational quotes (“The key to finding bliss and joy in every moment is to let go”), and practical knowledge he has gathered about the real-estate game, Tran’s tome blends the styles of memoir and self-help. Tran’s advice to catch FIRE–an acronym for “financial independence, retire early”–is highly specific; his audience is those who want to follow the path he has: be a practicing doctor who finds peace and security in real estate. “Nowhere in medical school are we talking enough about the financial realities of being a doctor,” he writes, before addressing those realities with the friendly demeanor of a coach or mentor.

Tran’s idea of “burning-in” is not precisely the opposite–or the avoidance of–“burn-out,” which he considers a simple fact of life. Instead, burning-in calls for a focus on values and working for the things one is passionate about. His unique advice, in fact, includes taking on more work but being passionate about the work being done, a message sure to resonate with his target audience.

Takeaway: A doctor lays out a path for other doctors toward real wealth, not just the monetary kind.

Great for fans of: David J. Norris’s The Financially Intelligent Physician, James M. Dahle’s The White Coat Investor.

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

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ARKO: The Dark Union
U.W. Leo
Leo’s debut, a polished middle-grade climate fiction adventure, introduces a group of tween-aged friends tasked with saving humanity from itself. The quintet spends its summer break on a research trip in the Yucatan, as their parents research Mayan history and astronomy. After an afternoon of swimming and fun in the sun, they take the long way back through the forest, where, almost lost, they instead happen upon the discovery of a lifetime: a secret boulder-like door in the forest. Behind it the adventure takes off, as the kids explore a giant, futuristic place hidden underground whose design suggests a double helix, whose walls are ornamented with feathered serpents, and whose secrets include ancient life in stasis–including pterosaur eggs, ready to hatch.

Creating a storyline chock-full of science, adventure, and an intriguing look at history, Leo includes a fascinating ancient, and highly advanced entity that has been slowly affecting helpful change since the beginning of humanity. Impressive, immersive details of what the friends find inside the Ark take readers through a well-detailed tour, though some of the scientific descriptions, along with calculations worked through in character dialogue, at times get too heavy for some young readers, who may miss some nuances of the story.

Once kids and adults together hatch the eggs, Leo takes readers on an urgent journey into the reality of climate change as the kids fly on the backs of their new pterosaur friends and learn firsthand what damage is being done to the planet and all creatures trying to live on it. The kids learn that it’s now their destiny to make changes to save humanity, some doing so immediately, with the help of an ancient entity, and others over the course of their lives, by making small changes through time. Although at times an upsetting read, especially when the pterosaurs themselves are directly affected by humanity’s choices, an important yet empowering lesson will resonate with readers of all ages.

Takeaway: This climate-fiction adventure with friends, dinosaurs, and ancient secrets will please young readers who love science.

Great for fans of: Jess Redman’s The Adventure Is Now, Piers Torday’s The Last Wild.

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

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The Boy in the Barn
Syneca Featherstone
The latest from Stone, author of numerous western romance series plus other works, is a compelling small-town thriller in which the lives of a cult leader, a mother, and a long-lost lover get tangled up with the secrets of the past. When Sophie Morgan’s mother dies, she is forced to return to her small hometown in Georgia to handle her mother’s affairs, despite her aversion to spending time on the family’s farm. Bizarre occurrences start happening all around her, and when she’s flooded with memories from her childhood, she must begin to unpack some of her generational trauma. The mystery around her family and their land is uncovered when Sophie reunites with Luke, the love of her life. But while she attempts to reconcile the loss of her mother, Sophie also finds herself face to face with an unexpected evil.

The Boy in the Barn is entirely engrossing, although the content, which includes abuse and torture, may be difficult to digest. Stone’s scene-setting finesse and emotional acuity are impressive, and despite a heavy emphasis on violence, she delivers a skillful story powered by crisp dialogue and narrative momentum, using flashbacks to give her characters depth—and provide readers with welcome relief from the intensity of her plot, although at times the characters memories prove wrenching, too.

The joy of this mystery is embedded in its characters, specifically Sophie, a cautious but brave protagonist who will enrapture readers. The fight for good over evil and chaos rings throughout, and readers will cheer for Sophie and Luke’s love to win in the end. The character of Gideon, a most heinous antagonist, is compelling but lacks intricacy. Fans of mystery novels will find familiar plot points, but the narrative’s charm lies in the nuance of Stone’s people’s complex emotions, which make this combination of mystery and romance shine.

Takeaway: Returning to her childhood home reveals a sinister plot against the heroine’s life in this compelling mystery tinged with romance.

Great for fans of: Willow Rose’s Don’t Lie to Me, Shanora Williams’s The Perfect Ruin.

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

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Cats in the City of Plague
A.L. Marlow
Marlow's fiction debut delves into the world of 14th century France, presenting a thoughtful portrait of a historical plague from the unique perspective of a city's cats. Leander, who considers himself a good cat, upholds his end of the bargain between humans and felines by keeping mice out of the apothecary garden. But the humans of the city are acting strange, and the cats can’t understand why. As plague ravages the town, the humans’ fear turns to distrust and violence against anyone suspected of the Devil's work—from Leander's beloved apothecary, whose herb garden has long been a refuge, to the cats themselves. With the city no longer safe for them, they must make a dangerous journey to an uncertain future in the forest, with only each other to rely on.

Plague is certainly a timely subject, and Marlow's choice to present it from a non-human perspective creates a welcome, fascinating distance. The many cats of the city have charming and distinct personalities, from the brash Eusebius, to the inquisitive twins, and the wise and powerful Innocent. However, the cast is extensive, and the short length of the novel precludes much in-depth characterization. The human interactions are informative but often lack narrative momentum. Still, the theme is engaging, and the unspoken comparisons with today's world will ring true with readers: on one hand, the humans seem to be taking the plague seriously, but on the other, many turn to wild rumors of miracle cures, desperately seek scapegoats, or distrust actual sources of medicine.

Although Marlow’s plot is slow to get started, it eventually transforms into a tense and dramatic journey through the city, powered by the danger and sacrifice inherent in tales of epic quests. Ultimately, the story will appeal more to fans of historical fiction than to animal enthusiasts, but cat lovers will enjoy the lore of Le Chat and the eccentric relations between the humans and felines.

Takeaway: This intriguing story of cats facing the Black Death presents well-researched history and an engaging quest.

Great for fans of: Tad Williams’s Tailchaser's Song, Richard Adams's Watership Down.

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

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Wylde Wings
Kate Ristau
A young boy grows wings and embarks on a magical adventure in Ristau’s (The End of Time) newest middle grade fantasy. Before she died, Gwyn’s mother used to tell him fantastical stories, including promising him that on his 12th birthday he’d grow a pair of wings. When Gwyn at last wakes up that fated morning and discovers he’s still wingless, he feels as if he’s lost one more connection to his mother. But when a mysterious ball of light appears during his class field trip, Gwyn suddenly finds himself flying, launching him on an otherworldly adventure he isn’t sure he’s ready for.

Despite his wish to be able to fly, Gwyn is confused and frightened—and quickly becomes exhausted—when an owl mysteriously appears and guides him to a boat piloted by his Nana, who reveals that all the fanciful stories his mother ever told him are true. What follows is a frenetic adventure. Danger lurks around every corner—the father of a friend tracks him with seemingly nefarious intent, and Gwyn encounters a cursed summer camp counselor, a demon dog, and a mass of blue zombies in the woods by his Nana’s house. But during the journey, he learns secrets about himself, and his Nana too, that give him a chance to feel hope again.

Though the writing is engaging, Ristau’s plot races from point to point so quickly that the tale is slightly disjointed, with major developments not always having time to breathe. As a result, there’s very little character building, especially with the large cast of friends that accompany Gwyn on his adventures. Brian W. Parker’s illustrations—which include scenes from Gwyn’s past—help with the pacing, particularly those depicting time spent with Gwyn’s mother, producing a grounding effect and cementing his character during breaks in the action. Despite his supernatural gift, tweens will find Gwyn relatable, and the story is packed with action as mystery and magic converge.

Takeaway: Tweens with a sense of adventure will be swept away by this magical tale of a boy who discovers he has supernatural abilities.

Great for fans of: Madeleine L’Engle, Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted series.

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

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The Hidden Peace In Poems
Eric Bruce Smith
“When I listen with my heart the words just come,” Smith writes at the start of this intimate debut, which finds the author listening to—and following—his heart. A soaring introductory poem sets the tone (“From jungle bird to jungle boy roaming the cement jungle we conquer”) for a collection of verse and short essays that embraces life as its lived—focusing on childhood, parentage, love, vulnerability, and the glories of Oakland—while finding transcendence in the everyday. “We had the best candy shop in all of Brookfield, and that’s all that mattered to us,” Smith writes in one touching memory piece, a thoughtful reminiscence that acknowledges hard times but also emphasizes the joyous.

Smith’s follow-the-heart approach to writing seems reflective of an inviting approach to life itself. That’s not to suggest that The Hidden Peace in Poems and its many moments of warmth shy away from this world’s harshness. Instead, pieces like “Shelter Inside” center on an agitated narrator who feels disconnected from those around them (“Maybe I’ll just wait until a real person seeks me, with a sincere spirit”) while poems like “What Has It Done?” express frustrated despair at how “Spirits full of selfishness, vindictive behavior, and scornful thoughts” prevail over our better angels.

The portrait that emerges as the pages pass is of a soul seeking love, beauty, and justice yet sometimes stymied by forces large and small, the societal and the personal. Above all, though, Smith evinces a compelling drive to keep going, making art out of the very struggle to express one’s self. Frank and direct, the standout prose pieces “Longing to Be Heard” and “Feeling Unneeded” state truths so many can relate to: “I may not say everything correctly, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know. It doesn’t mean I don’t care. It doesn’t mean I can’t help.” The act of following his heart –and the example of being heard that this book represents—shows that he can.

Takeaway: This touching collection celebrates the transcendent in the everyday while frankly acknowledging the world’s harshness.

Great for fans of: Oakland’s Citywide Poetry Anthology, Arisa White’s Who’s Your Daddy.

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

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The Invisible Girl: A Memoir
Yvonne Sandomir
“If you remember nothing else from my journey, please remember this,” Sandomir writes early in this wrenching yet hopeful account of surviving abuse and finding the courage to escape and to share her story. “It’s okay to ask for help,” she continues. “It’s okay to tell your story, and it’s okay to feel all the things you don’t want to feel.” In that spirit of outreach, empathy, and leading by example, Sandomir discloses the intimate, harrowing story a childhood marked by the betrayal and abandonment by the adults around her; years of abuse endured as a young woman; and the breakthroughs and triggering moments that brought her, in adult life, to face the past.

Sandomir recounts the “torturous” experience of dredging up old memories in the therapy sessions her new husband urged her to try, plunging herself into depression and stirring up intrusive thoughts as she learned to develop healthy coping strategies. Her memories of violence stretch back to the age of three, and while she’s frank about what happened she describes unspeakable acts with sensitivity, with an emphasis on their impact upon her development, relationships, self-worth, and a tendency toward self-sabotage. The line she draws connecting the trauma of childhood abuse to a pattern of abusive relationships in later life is stark and persuasive.

Frank and clear-eyed, The Invisible Girl finds Sandomir taking account of a life in which the suppressed memories of abuse shaped her choices in ways she hasn’t always understood, where a “once-loving relationship” could become “a full-blown psychological ordeal” she didn’t accept she could leave. (Not being able to leave becomes a frightening theme, especially when she describes being held at a hospital against her will.) What lingers after reading is the strength it takes to heal, how Sandomir eventually accepts that “unburdening” herself of her past is “the only path to laughter, self-love, awareness, and happiness.” Her book stands as a demonstration of how to heal.

Takeaway: A frank, encouraging memoir of healing after enduring cycles of abuse.

Great for fans of: Christy P. Kane’s Fractured Souls and Splintered Memories: Unlocking the "Boxes" of Trauma, Jennifer Debellis’s Warrior Sister: Cut Yourself Free From Your Assault.

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

Click here for more about The Invisible Girl
The Horn's Hoax: Dark Energy Has A Price
Hector Cantu Kalifa
Kalifa’s sorcerous debut follows the unexpected adventure of two brothers who accidentally travel to another world. Henry and Moris—just a few short months after their father mysteriously goes missing—are playing their favorite make-believe game when suddenly they are transported to a different universe and planet, leaving behind their mother and sister. When each brother is captured by warring wizarding houses, the Veneficums and the Milaculums, they stand the chance of losing each other forever. The boys have too many unanswered questions, and they don’t know who to trust, but in their attempt to find each other and return home, the brothers discover truths about themselves––and their father––they never could have imagined.

Kalifa introduces an expansive world rich with strange creatures and wizards who have clashing motives. After a brief introduction to their life on Earth, Henry and Moris quite literally fall into the middle of a fantasy, and they go through trials and tests independently to learn about themselves along the way, as Kalifa crafts an increasingly complex relationship between the two. When Moris, who is “obsessed with magic” finally finds the power he’s dreamed of, the cost of his revelation may be more than the boys are willing to pay–and after they encounter new friends and an appealing new world, their desire to go back home to those they’ve left behind is at risk.

Kalifa’s storyline is well-planned, easily paving the way for the next in the series, but at times he sacrifices character development for intense world building and plot formation. Switching between the perspectives of two brothers emphasizes an engaging family dynamic that makes the narrative relevant for middle grade and YA readers—although readers may find the somewhat traditional fantasy world of Dantus familiar. The teaser of an ending will leave fantasy fans eager to catch the next story.

Takeaway: A middle grade fantasy novel that emphasizes family bonds, perfect for readers who can’t get enough of magic, wizards, and traveling between worlds.

Great for fans of: Victoria Aveyard’s Realm Breaker, David Levithan’s The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S., Jenny McLachlan’s The Land of Roar.

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

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Basil's Quest, A Tale of Dogged Determination
Gracie H. Vandiver
By giving voice to a compassionate canine, Vandiver turns this story of a rescue dog’s journey to a loving home into a powerful empathy-building exercise for young readers. The three-year-old black Labrador Retriever has spent most of his life outside, sharing a yard with two hostile dogs who frighten and dominate him. Gentle Basil doesn’t get enough to eat, let alone the affection and companionship he craves. Without making Basil’s family into villains, Vandiver shows how owners can harm their pets by not fully understanding the responsibility of caring for a living creature.

Basil was adopted from a shelter for ten-year-old Marina, whose parents were divorcing, and he was happy to comfort her. “I had a good life. I had a purpose,” Basil recollects. But the apartment building where Marina and her mother lived didn’t allow dogs, so Basil ended up at the house of her angry, resentful father. Vandiver’s decision to tie Basil’s struggle to family conflict (as opposed to the neglect and cruelty that many rescue dogs endure) makes her debut chapter book resonate even more deeply, allowing young readers to view the world from a dog’s perspective while seeing aspects of their own lives reflected in his experience.

When Basil gets frightened or frustrated, he runs away, but he’s lucky to be found by patient and determined adults who value his well-being. Vandiver adroitly expresses Basil’s insights—“Feeling what my humans are feeling is one of my superpowers”—while also acknowledging the limits of his perceptions and thinking. Hannah, who runs a doggie day care and fosters Basil, makes tough decisions that he only partly understands. She challenges him like a good teacher, and guides him forward. The optimism of Basil’s Quest reflects not only the hopeful doggedness of animal rescuers, but also offers young readers a pathway from a painful past into a positive future.

Takeaway: Told from the perspective of an intuitive dog, this appealing chapter book celebrates both individual resilience and a community of rescuers.

Great for fans of: Sarah Lean’s A Dog Called Homeless, Tui T. Sutherland’s Runaway Retriever, W. Bruce Cameron’s Lily to the Rescue series.

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

Star Revelations
Steven Terry
Diana Willis, a TV journalist, travels through time and space in this mind-bending paranormal odyssey, discovering secrets about herself she never even suspected. When Diana ends up in a helicopter crash after pursuing a story, she inexplicably survives–and starts a journey in which she learns she was kidnapped and brainwashed as a child by a shadowy group looking to exploit her special psychic talents. With a secret cabal of generals and industrialists aware of her powers, Diana starts to realize she can trust almost no one and tries to connect with the mysterious John Herald—a former member of the cabal who may be able to help her—as she fights to find out who she is and what her fate will be.

Terry does an effective job of setting wide-ranging scenes. The prologue skillfully introduces a haunting, fantastical tableau and then jumps nimbly to the world of high-flying TV journalists, with attractive descriptions of the work hard / play harder crowd. Later, Terry segues neatly into fantasy: "The air inside the box shimmered and a small book materialized." At times, the overall plot—along with various characters' motives—can be a little unclear, but the individual scenes are affecting and suspenseful, guaranteeing readers will keep turning the pages.

Although the focus is mostly on plot and theme, Terry brings Diana to life, alongside her small coterie of supporters. It's fascinating to watch her transition from sharp investigative reporter to a sojourner trying to figure out how she relates to the surreal new world she finds herself in. Diana is ably partnered with former colleague Gabe, who is also facing mysterious changes, but he and Diana form an earthy friendship that provides a welcome and believable anchor to the story’s more fanciful elements. Readers who appreciate strong female leads in paranormal thrillers will eagerly race to the end to see how the courageous Diana will avoid her enemies and fulfill her mysterious destiny.

Takeaway: Thriller fans hungry for a touch of the paranormal alike will delight in watching this supernatural mystery unfold.

Great for fans of: Stephen King’s Firestarter, Nathan M. Farrugia’s The Chimera Vector.

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

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