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The Smooth River: Finding Inspiration and Exquisite Beauty during Terminal Illness. Lessons from the Front Line.
Richard S. Cohen
Cohen’s sensitive, stirring account of the 160 days between his wife’s diagnosis with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and her last breath finds “beauty within crisis” and invites readers to take inspiration from the “Smooth River” approach to ending a life that Cohen and his wife, Marcia Horowitz, arrived at in those last months. “Normalizing end-of-life matters—and dispelling societal distortions that avoid addressing them—are critically important,” Cohen notes in an introduction, and the narrative that follows exemplifies his argument. Once treatment options had been exhausted, the couple determined to face Horowitz’s probable final days with clear eyes and open hearts, making the most of each day, thinking of her life not as a tragedy cut short but as fully lived.

In short, they prepared for her to “leave this world in peace.” In crisp prose suffused with feeling, Cohen contests the societal tendency, shared by many doctors, to view terminal disease as a “fight” to be won or lost. That’s not to say that Horowitz, a crisis management expert, didn’t “fight” in the traditional sense, consulting with numerous experts, undergoing chemo, and pursuing all viable options. But Cohen argues, with both persuasive and emotional power, “A win is not necessarily defeating the cancer. A win is having lived a good life.”

That’s the current that courses throughout: their dedication to ending a life well, on their own loving terms. The book memorializes that life while showcasing a healthy approach to preparing for hard possibilities. The couple developed and held to both a Medical and Life Plan, which Cohen details throughout. Cohen movingly covers the medical practicalities—choosing navigating the system; handling “a thin-skinned, sensitive doctor”; dealing with “chemo brain”—while emphasizing the Life Plan, especially the urgency of filling time well, with heart-to-heart talks, simple pleasures, and the embrace of loved ones. Bursting with life, The Smooth River leads by example.

Takeaway: An inspiring, beautifully written account of living a life of purpose when faced with a terminal illness.

Great for fans of: Patricia Weenolsen’s The Art of Dying, Nina Riggs’s The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying.

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

A Googly in the Compound: a novel of the Raj
Boman Desai
Desai’s (Trio) sweeping family drama charts the Sanjana clan’s loves and losses against the historical backdrop of India under British rule. When Dolly Dalal’s first husband Kavas dies tragically, she marries his younger brother Phiroze. Each of her two sons takes after his own father: Kavas’s son Sohrab is ambitious and ruthlessly practical, and Phiroze’s son Rustom is gentle and philosophical. Like their fathers, they are constantly at odds. When young Englishwoman Daisy Holiday, newly arrived in Bombay on the trail of a former lover, reaches out to the Sanjana family for help, both sons are taken with her, setting history up to repeat itself.

Desai unravels the complex relationships of the Sanjana family through lengthy flashbacks (throughout), all tied together in a single scene of a family breakfast that steadily builds toward the book’s climax. Spanning both decades and continents, the characters’ backstories are infused with evocative details of period and place, transporting readers to King George VI’s Jubilee in London, the brutal Burma campaign of the second world war, a steamer sailing from London to Bombay, and an India on the cusp of independence from Britain. While the book’s vivid historical and cultural exposition can occasionally pause the plot, Desai offers fascinating insight into the complicated realities of race, class and colonialism the characters face.

The story’s broad scope is balanced by its finely-tuned characters. Their motivations and struggles are well-defined and relatable, and readers will find their self-determination in the face of difficult circumstances inspiring. In particular, Dolly and Daisy, far from being hemmed in by vintage attitudes, are well-rounded, complex individuals whose dilemmas and choices will resonate with contemporary readers. Desai’s nuanced portrayal of marriage also proves appealing, with each couple’s relationship depicted with sharp but non-judgemental insight. This engrossing chronicle of a complicated family that builds to a stunner of a conclusion.

Takeaway: History lovers will appreciate how this sensitive Indian family saga puts a human face on epic events.

Great for fans of: Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Those Days, Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi.

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

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THE VISION EXPERIMENTS
John P. Cardone
This inventive twist on the conspiracy thriller hinges on a provocative new way of looking at both the past and the present. When speech therapist Melissa Speyer uses eye drops to soothe her irritated eyes, she finds herself overwhelmed by sudden and shocking visions. Speyer’s love interest William Clarkson may know more about her visions than he lets on: he works for an organization dedicated to uncovering how important historical figures, such as Jonas Salk and Leif Erikson, may have experienced similar visions that guided the course of human history. Speyer’s new abilities have enormous potential, but their revelations, it turns out, also makes them dangerous.

This fast-paced blend of mystery, thriller, and detective story is brimming with curiosity and enthusiasm. Though the cast of characters is large, each is unique and well-crafted. Readers will find handsome and intelligent—if conflicted—Clarkson especially appealing and enjoy the subtle banter between the gritty, determined pair of gumshoes Stanley Young and Ed Dawson. Though the dialogue is occasionally weighed down by exposition, transitions between subplots and cities are easy to follow. It’s less clear exactly how Speyer’s visions work, but their ambiguity adds to the intrigue, and Cardone keeps readers guessing until the very last paragraphs of the book.

The mysteries of the present and those of the past are well-balanced throughout the story. A deep love for history and historical research lies at its heart, and Cardone invents detailed, interesting context for each of the proposed alternative histories. The wide range of historical figures who come up, from Madam C.J. Walker to Aristander of Telmessos, may offer new information, even to students of history. This well-paced page-turner offers an intriguing, imaginative take on the secret sources of human achievement, and adventurous, open-minded readers will enjoy Cardone’s entertaining ramble through the hypotheticals of history.

Takeaway: This bold conspiracy thriller finds a present-day heroine surveying history through (literal) fresh eyes.

Great for fans of: Matthew Reilly, Raymond Khoury.

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

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Behind The Bullet Points: The Surprising Secrets of Powerful Presentations
Don E. Descy
With a spirit of cheerful straight-talk, and a zeal for debunking bad yet familiar advice, Descy lays out practical strategies for becoming what he calls a “power presenter”—someone who communicates with clarity, confidence, and power in professional presentations in in-person or virtual settings. Drawing on decades of experience in giving presentations, Descy offers “PoweredPointer”s for communicating effectively, with an emphasis on process and understanding the role of a speaker. Descy points out that when you hold the stage “You are the actor and the director,” meaning the director in you must push the actor to rehearse, to win trust, to master the power of pauses and the pitch of your voice, and to keep humor self-directed and appropriate. It’s the director’s role to understand the audience and the venue and to guide the actor in customizing the performance.

But he argues that it’s nobody’s role, no matter what you may have been taught, to endeavor to “be yourself.” Descy reminds readers throughout that a presentation is a performance, and that preparing to perform—rather than merely memorizing the words and counting on your innate qualities to get them across—is the crucial work that puts a presentation over the top. His advice digs deep into concerns like clothes, (“dress one step above” your audience), eye contact (“PoweredPointer 37: Lock on to people’s eyes for three to five seconds”), how to design effective slides, and how to face audience questions.

“Use personal language as if you are just talking to one person,” Descy advises. He exemplifies that advice throughout Behind the Bullet Points, writing in a direct, friendly voice that inspires nods and occasional laughter. This volume can at times seem repetitious, and the guidance for virtual presentations (check your lighting, test your platform) isn’t as thorough and seasoned as the rest. This isn’t a book about composing a presentation—it’s instead a thorough, persuasive guide to getting one across and even making it fun.

Takeaway: Readers eager to improve their skills at professional presentations will find much fresh, helpful insight.

Great for fans of: Garr Reynolds’s Presentation Zen, Nancy Duarte’s Resonate.

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

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Memoirs of a Bible Smuggler
Jeana Sue Kendrick
Kendrick’s suspenseful memoir tells the story of her and her husband Jeff’s years risking arrest as, motivated by their strong faith, they smuggled Bibles and Christian literature behind the Iron Curtain. Their work began in the early 1980s, when Bibles were considered contraband in many Communist countries, regulations that would only start to change in 1988. Posing as tourists and using only pseudonyms, the Kendricks would pass border checkpoints under the watching eyes of armed militia, their contraband stashed in RVs, pickup campers, a fifth wheel, and anywhere else the resourceful couple could find.

Kendrick’s stories are gripping, full of close calls (including the opening anecdote in which a Soviet officer discovers a hidden recorder in Kendrick’s purse) and some disappointments, such as being turned back within the Soviet Union after attempting a short cut. Maps of the places where the Kendricks journeyed as well as diagrams of how the smuggling occurred will help to orient readers, while offering the thrill of revealing possibly still-sensitive trade secrets. Christian readers will be encouraged by Kendrick’s reliance on scripture for comfort in difficult situations (“God’s peace filled me and as we proceeded, I was amazingly relaxed,” she writes), and the appendix containing “Scripture References for Battling Fear” will prove a welcome resource.

Kendrick keeps the focus on—and directs the glory to—the Eastern bloc Christians they served by providing Bibles and, periodically, financial help, men and women whom she insists took even more risks for their beliefs than she and her husband did. The Kendricks’s story—and their faith—will inspire readers while staying relatable and humble: Kendrick shares honest incidents of marital tension, reveals difficult travel moments and physical ailments, confesses to deep loneliness, and relates anxious encounters with authority. Christian readers seeking motivation in difficult ministry, or simply searching for an exciting faith-based memoir, will find this an uplifting read.

Takeaway: Christians looking for an inspiring, suspenseful real-life story will find much to love this Cold War memoir.

Great for fans of: Richard Wurmbrand’s Tortured for Christ, Haralan Popov’s Tortured for His Faith.

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

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May: An epic poem about youth
Herman Gorter
For many, adulthood feels like an endless slog, and emotional numbness often accompanies this loss of innocence, quashing our ability to have transformational experiences and connect with the natural world. Kruijff’s translation of Dutch writer Herman Gorter’s epic poem, originally published in 1889, resonantly mourns the loss of the “sweet melancholy of youth,” which Kruijff defines in an introduction as “an unbounded intensity of the senses.” Translated here in English, Gorter’s poem personifies its namesake month–the epitome of springtime–by bringing to life a young girl (“the sweetest, blondest, yes, the little May”) bursting with excitement and possibility. Over time, however, she is dragged “finally into submission in the face of mundane city life,” leaving her jaded and bereft.

Unfolding like an impressionist painting, each line of Gorter’s poem is rich with vivid sensory details–colors, textures, and sounds of the countryside that illustrate the depth and intensity of his longing, though he was just 24 when his Mei was published. Kruijff’s translation juxtaposes May’s childlike beauty and innocence with arresting and sometimes jarring images that hint at the tragedy to come: “Awakening and rising on the palms / Of her flat hands, as frail shells were crackling / Underneath her – while on her delicate chin, / Still moist from sleep, a tilted sunray shot / Off the dune’s edge, and made for trembling blood.”

Though it is more than a century old, Gorter’s signature work carries a sentiment still relevant in the modern age. Readers will find this 4,381-line poem both nostalgic and slightly gut wrenching as it inevitably kicks up memories of lost love--and lost possibility. For those who are still young at heart–or wishing to reclaim the fervor of youth–this thoughtful, lyrical translation will stir the imagination and invite consideration of what makes the heart sing, even if the joy, like May, is only temporary. The poem, though, will endure.

Takeaway: Kruijff’s translation Herman Gorter’s epic poem mourns the loss of the “sweet melancholy of youth.”

Great for fans of: Willem Kloos, Hendrik Marsman.

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

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Sage Advice - The Lives and Maxims of Some of History's Wisest People
Richard K. Borden
Borden spotlights historical figures noted for their wisdom in this focused debut. Drawing inspiration from his own conviction to “plot my life’s course with more confidence when following in the footsteps of history’s great men and women,” he pinpoints 18 of “history’s great sages” for analysis and comparison–and charts out their personal, professional, and philosophical backgrounds. Attempting to showcase a variety of cultures and eras, Borden’s subjects range from Ptah-Hotep to Winston Churchill. He examines their guiding ideals, insight he argues is crucial to “live a happy and flourishing life,” and suggests that their combined knowledge can help illuminate what he calls the “Way,” a path through life “common to most successful people and cultures.”

Borden examines surprising and relatively obscure details of his visionaries’ lives alongside their better known ideologies, which he shares in snippets to capture readers’ attention. He writes of Aristotle’s first wife and their distinctive bond that, despite her death at a young age, prompted his last wishes for his bones to buried with hers, and he divulges Teddy Roosevelt’s remarkable fascination with the badlands of North Dakota—and melees between unusual pets in the White House, including a badger “whose temper was short but whose nature was fundamentally friendly.” Some of the more conventionally inspirational accounts, meanwhile, include Zhu Xi’s efforts in the neo-Confucian movement, Catherine the Great’s creation of Russia’s first national education system, and George Washington Carver’s endeavors in sustainable agriculture.

Borden closes with memorable maxims from each figure, organized into relatable topics—such as “work-life balance,” “virtue and character,” and “passions”—to illustrate the commonsense knowledge of his models. Some readers will wish for more female icons, though Borden acknowledges that history has disallowed women’s empowerment to “fully express themselves” while noting, in the wise words of Elizabeth Tudor, that “the past cannot be cured.” Borden’s casual commentary will please lighthearted history and inspiration buffs.

Takeaway: A lighthearted examination of the wisdom offered by a brace of leaders throughout history

Great for fans of: Walter Isaacson’s The Genius Biographies, Derek Wellington Johnson’s The Wisdom of Leaders.

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

They Will Be Coming for Us
Kim Catanzarite
A young woman’s greatest dreams and darkest nightmares are pivoted against each other in Catanzarite’s dynamic sci-fi thriller, the first in the Jovian Duology series. Svetlana Peterman desires nothing more than a peaceful life with a devoted husband and a child to dote on. Andrew Jovian, an astronomer with powerful cosmos-obsessed parents, gives her both, along with a suffocating extended family and a mother-in-law obsessed with the idea of immediately having grandbabies. Svetlana does her best to settle into her new married life, but quickly finds herself at the center of an unusual—possibly intergalactic—mystery that endangers everyone she loves. With no one to trust and everything to lose, she must find the strength to fight and survive.

Readers are dropped into Kirksberg, Pennsylvania, which mirrors a real-life town in PA, where an alleged UFO was spotted in the 1960s. This alien-obsessed community sets the backdrop for the quick-paced plot filled with eccentric characters. Svetlana and Andrew’s romance quickly moves from a declaration of love to marriage, and while some readers may feel this whirlwind progresses unrealistically fast, others will be swept up in the soulmates’ desire to start their lives together without delay. Several time jumps keep the pace as the story propels forward, sometimes leaving dramatic scenes and conversations up to the reader’s imagination. Catanzarite weaves subtle mystery elements into the background as the tension mounts and builds to engaging and unexpected twists.

Svetlana is a strong protagonist who will do anything to protect the ones she loves—the perfect mix of resilience and wit born out of necessity from her years as an orphan in Russia before starting a new life with her adopted family in America. Readers will bond strongly to Svetlana as she struggles to unravel the secrets of her new family in this sci-fi thriller.

Takeaway: Fans of science fiction mixed with romance and mystery will enjoy this genre-crossing novel.

Great for fans of: Ruthanna Emrys, Michel Faber.

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

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Carlotti
David Dalrymple
In this engaging debut mystery, the surgeon son of a mob boss discovers that his own life is in jeopardy as he searches for the person responsible for his mother’s deadly car accident. Dalrymple draws on his own experiences as a surgeon and medical student at the University of Pennsylvania to tell the story of Nick Carlotti, son of Philadelphia crime boss Rock Carlotti, who becomes suspicious about his mother’s death in a car accident--and believes that the shooting of one of his patients may be connected to his mother’s untimely death. Nick seeks to uncover the truth and the possible involvement of state senator Lloyd Mays, who spoke at a fundraiser his mother attended at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the night of the crash. Meanwhile, veteran detective Maurice Rawls investigates the apparent suicide of Willie Santini, a mob enforcer, seeking to discover if the suicide was a murder and how it may be linked to the shooting of Nick’s patient.

Dalrymple’s complex, multi-dimensional characters will draw readers into this well-plotted novel, a story whose suspense percolates right up to the explosive conclusion. What sets Carlotti apart, though, is a feeling of authenticity. Dalrymple’s knowledge of medicine and the hierarchy of medical professionals adds credibility to the storyline without overburdening readers with technical terms. His portrayal of Nick highlights not only a son’s quest to disassociate from his father’s mafia connections but also reveals how the intensity of medical school and residency can interfere with personal relationships.

Also imbuing the story with authenticity while hinting at the undercurrent of organized crime activity in the city: the author’s depiction of Philadelphia neighborhoods and sites. Dalrymple’s depiction of the Pennsylvania State Capitol building is spot on, and his handling of Senator Mays and his legislative responsibilities is mostly accurate. Suspense fans, especially of the Keystone State variety, will find much here that’s memorable.

Takeaway: A mob boss’s straight-and-narrow son investigates his mother’s death in this convincing Pennsylvania thriller.

Great for fans of: W.E.B. Griffin, Lisa Scottoline’s Lady Killer.

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

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Proliferation
Erik Otto
Otto deftly weaves together the details of a post-apocalyptic world, the ethics of artificial intelligence, and a pair of redemption stories for two vastly different characters. A loose stand-alone sequel to Detonation, Otto quickly establishes the key characters and the stakes of the story. The first chapter introduces the pirate mercenary Lexie, who is kidnapped by a bizarre monastic order known as Observers after she delivers a crucial piece of information. The second introduces Dryden, an alcoholic anthropologist whose obscure expertise in “awakening” cities suddenly brings him to the attention of the powers that be. Otto alternates their narratives in a manner that keeps the narrative moving at a steady clip.

The stakes are high, as the sentient super-city Haplopol mysteriously reappears after disappearing for centuries. One of several cities that once caused an apocalyptic event, designed to promote the well-being of its citizens but given limits to its geographical expansion, Haplopol and its larger sister-city Diplopol use hallucinogenic technology to turn humans into obedient tools dedicated to its expansion. Otto quickly establishes the ethical problems surrounding the cities as Dryden's knowledge makes him an asset for a power-hungry general and Lexi is chosen to help the Observers oppose a potential new apocalypse.

There are various side-quests along the way as the opposition seeks to awaken other lost super-cities to help them and Proliferation offers up betrayals, surprising twists, and thoughtfully articulated moral conundrums. Otto builds tension as his protagonists cross paths, resolving both of their personal story arcs while leaving room for future adventures. He does assume readers come to the novel with a certain familiarity with his world, as he introduces details like the technology-devouring creatures called retchers without much explanation, but Otto's empathy for his flawed characters grounds the technical details of this world. The result is a multi-layered narrative that doesn't skimp on action and intrigue while introducing a series of complex, relevant ethical problems.

Takeaway:Vivid post-apocalyptic world-building and engaging ethical dilemmas set this thoughtful science-fiction epic apart.

Great for fans of: Thomas Harlen, Alastair Reynolds.

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

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The Job: Keep your enemies close and your target closer.
M.E. Saleh
Saleh (Facade) gracefully moves from contemporary romances to thrillers with her first in the genre, an appropriately high-octane tale that will reel readers in from the first page. Florida-based cancer research physician Leigh Harris is on the cusp of curing the deadly disease—and judging from the continuing attempts on her life, someone with power wants to prevent her from doing so. Or do they? And all signs seem to suggest that her businessman husband Andrew Donovan (if that’s really his name) isn’t who he says he is. Although Leigh is surrounded by a security detail—including her former SEAL brother—it’s tough to know who to trust, and if she trusts the wrong person, her life, as well as the lives of her family and millions of future cancer patients, could be on the line.

Saleh skillfully mines that fruitful “who can you trust?” hook from beginning to end, dazzling readers with twists, turns, and an ending they won’t see coming. Along the way, she creates a heroine worth rooting for and a host of supporting characters in various shades of gray, a nod to the fact that few people are completely perfect or completely evil (especially Andrew and Sam, the hired assassin.) By depicting these shades, and crafting full characters rather than stock types, Saleh makes readers truly care what happens to her cast.

Saleh also proves adept at keeping the red herrings coming, which keep the story engaging and surprising until the last page. A few editing clunkers distract, as do the uninspired scene-setting photographs that open each chapter, but the author’s deft plotting, perfect pacing, and shrewd sense of people will help readers overlook those issues. Readers who love thrillers will devour Saleh’s irresistible, multi-layered tale and hope for more—which the author seems to tease in her afterword.

Takeaway: Saleh’s initial foray into thrillers will delight readers who enjoy suspenseful, twisty stories.

Great for fans of: Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, Gillian Flynn.

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

Powerballs: Be careful what you wish for.
Jimmy Clifton
A satiric comedy-adventure that arrives just in time for a midlife crisis, Clifton’s debut novel follows Henry Ball, an aging accountant who hates his boss, and his restless wife, Rose Ball, who hates her life, when the couple wins a billion-dollar lottery––just when Rose finally resolves to leave him after 20 years. Henry had lost his will to live but now insists their problems are fixed, but money, of course, doesn’t make everything right. So, they embark on their own adventures and explore their––now, unlimited––options. Henry ends up on a Russian oligarch’s yacht for a year, while Rose ends up traveling the world with a Colombian polo star (half her age). But not everything is as it seems. Just when they start to realize they miss each other and their home, they both face danger to their lives, to their relationship, and maybe to their fortune.

Clifton delivers a fast-paced comedy in a chipper, sometimes sarcastic tone about engaging characters, complete with a grounded ending that has nothing to do with the billion-dollar lottery ticket. Even when the stakes are high, Clifton never neglects the story’s wit or warmth, though it’s disappointing that the climax finds the “emasculated” Henry’s masculinity restored at the expense of Rose, who becomes (uncharacteristically) a damsel in distress. Still, though Henry and Rose have their flaws, they remain mostly likeable, especially Rose, who takes time on her own to seize a new independence and figure out what she really wants.

The plot gets wilder as it goes, with Clifton pulling off a feat of plate-spinning: He includes blackmail, diamonds, foreign prisons, motorcycle gangs, unlikely alliances, and an undercover sting operation, all without losing sight of the human story at the novel’s heart. A lively beach or commute read, this quick, cheerful parody of aging, capitalism, and marriage offers a little bit of everything––comedy, suspense, romance––and even some insights into the meaning of life.

Takeaway: The sunny comic adventure of a middle-aged couple who wins the lottery in the thick of their midlife crises.

Great for fans of: Tim Dorsey’s The Pope of Palm Beach, Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, Carl Hiaasen’s Lucky You.

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

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Mountain Dream: Feel Inspired. Embark on Your Journey
Wei San Tang
Eager to inspire others to follow their own dreams, Tang shares her personal journey to building up the courage to fulfill her own wildest dream: a trek to Everest Base Camp, a 13-day trip ascending about 2,500 meters. Beginning with her childhood, Tang shares stories of travel with her family, including summiting Mount Kinabalu Malaysia’s tallest mountain, with her father. She relates life lessons he taught her along the way that helped her in going away to college and traveling to other countries for volunteer work. Ultimately, her never-give-up attitude and strength led her to climb to Everest Base Camp as a fundraiser for UNICEF, despite not being an expert climber. Tang relives every harrowing moment and what kept her going.

Broken into two parts, the book covers life experiences that Tang experienced that led up to her trek as well as the adventure itself. The closeness she has with her family, and the impact of her dad’s words are clear; he reminded her on their first climb that going up is only half the journey, and that taking care when going back down is just as important. Tang also describes how she overcame her resistance to do some things she wasn’t comfortable with, as well as what she learned from the experience.

The second part picks up speed, telling the detailed story of the trip to Everest Base Camp. Tang takes readers along for every triumph and every near defeat: “I remembered repeating these sentences in my brain, over and over again, ‘We can do this. One step at a time.’” Details of the places her group stops along, the people they meet, the gorgeous views they experience, and the freezing cold and high altitude of the mountain are palpable. Although the first half is a bit slow, and readers will want more details on some of her earlier experiences, Tang’s tale is inviting.

Takeaway: Adventure-minded readers looking for inspiration to follow their dreams will find inspiration in Tang’s journey to Everest Base Camp.

Great for fans of: Janet Patkowa’s The Impossible Long Run: My Journey to Becoming Ultra, David Clark’s Broken Open: Mountains, Demons, Treadmills And a Search for Nirvana.

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

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K-666: BRUTUS — The Mongolian Virus: War through biological weapons
Alessandro Boccaletti
Boccaletti’s globe-trotting followup to the sweeping Codex: The Origin of Thought offers a compact examination of what it would take for a nation to unleash and manipulate a global pandemic, with an emphasis on the why and how that’s rare in contemporary thrillers. In this case, it’s the president of China, in league with a group of investors, that’s plotting to release a virus discovered in a melting Mongolian glacier. The goal: forcing “the weak European and African economies into submitting to the Chinese will and a Chinese-controlled cure or therapy.” In the brief novel’s final third, the Russian and American governments take cooperative steps to counter the plot, but not before billions are infected.

Boccaletti considers himself a “science novelist,” and K-666 is certainly more attentive to the proteins and molecular structure of its titular virus than it is to the hearts and minds of its characters. The mode here is that of speculative, invented reportage, with briefings and accounts of strategic plotting taking the place of conventional scenecraft. Boccaletti is fascinated by global systems, by planning and logistics. Expect pages of slide-show presentations rather than two-fisted heroics or scheming stereotypes.

That means the novel reads more like a report of a thought experiment than a suspense novel. Still, the implications of a Chinese conspiracy, one suggestive of real-world conspiracy theorizing, will alienate many potential readers. Boccaletti’s villains, like the American and Russian leaders who counter them, are presented as actors in a game, their actions reported in the detached style of an official report. “Dr. Li and General Lou were duly informed,” he simply notes, after a brief summary of the kidnapping, questioning, and killing of some researchers, events most thrillers would milk for pages. Rather than linger on individuals, Boccaletti focuses on the big picture: How might this war game and far-fetched conspiracy actually play out?

Takeaway: This speculative novel imagines, from the perspective of science and systems, an engineered pandemic.

Great for fans of: Adam Kucharski’s The Rules of Contagion, A.G. Riddle’s Pandemic.

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

Awakening Your Soul's Truth: A Powerful Guide for Transformation, Healing, and Consciousness Growth
Anya Goode
Reiki Master Teacher Goode offers an unusually clear, inviting, and practical guide to achieving a deeper understanding of the self through spiritual practice and techniques. Goode calls for the shedding of the “cloaks” that most people bear and have allowed to define us, and she avoids making grand promises for what her book can accomplish. For her, a “spiritual awakening” does not involve the universe unveiling its secret truths; instead, it’s simply “something lost and something revealed … a revealing of the self, no more and no less.” To that end, the lessons, exercises, and techniques laid out in Awakening Your Soul's Truth have been crafted to reveal and heal the self—and to lead it toward a more fulfilling way of living.

Drawing on her experience as a teacher, healer, and spiritual mentor, as well as occasional excursions into autobiography, Goode plays the role of upbeat coach, frankly acknowledging the challenges of achieving a spiritual awakening in a world where millions sleep beside their cell phones while also offering tools to “fast-track” that shedding of cloaks and individuals readers’ journeys down their own “healing and awakening path”s. She urges readers to examine the “taught beliefs” they may have learned, arguing that “Many of the people that carry [hateful beliefs] have never been exposed to anything outside of their cultural bubble.” She makes clear, though, that she wants readers to discover their own authentic beliefs rather than to become inculcated with hers.

That refusal to preach sets Goode’s book apart from the pack, as does the warmth and clarity of her guidance. Whether breaking down the “anatomy” of emotion (“Guilt is a control mechanism”) or the “dark night” of a difficult spiritual awakening, Goode emphasizes forgiveness, gratitude, boundary setting, and above all else that revealing and healing the self is a challenging, ongoing process. Rather than tell readers what to think and believe, Goode strives to unveil what’s already in us.

Takeaway: A warm, incisive guide to the spiritual awakening that comes revealing and healing the self.

Great for fans of: Martha Beck’s The Way of Integrity, Don Jose Ruiz’s The Medicine Bag.

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

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My Cat Is Blue
Sarah Sommer
One day a little girl notices that her previously playful cat has suddenly become listless and uninterested in doing the things he used to do. My Cat Is Blue, Sommer’s (The Goose on the Roof) evocative tribute to the loss of a pet, features not only Sommer’s signature rhyming prose but also well-considered and beautiful digital illustrations that help to tell the touching story: The cat, the narrator learns, is blue because of its loneliness after the death of the family dog. Younger readers will be able to “read” the story solely through the illustrations of the cat, watching him transform from blue all the way back to full color. Full of heart and compassion, the book successfully shows the traits of grief, feline or otherwise, giving kids a framework for their feelings.

Sommer’s rhyming can edge toward the gimmicky, with some forced pairings that don’t actually rhyme (“checkup/close-up,” “family/actually”). While rhyme is often employed in picture books to help smooth out reading, inviting readers to feel it’s easy to falter and stumble on those awkward pairings, possibly diminishing reader engagement. The choice to have the story focused on the cat’s emotions after a loss, rather than the human narrator’s, is interesting and unique, perhaps operating on the assumption that the feelings of animals will register more with young readers.

Focusing the story on the cat, however, still allows opportunity to look at the entire family’s grieving process (everyone slowly turns blue, too). This emphasizes that loss and healing both are often shared, a topic worth discussing. Ultimately a heartfelt tribute to the furry friends we lose along the way, My Cat Is Blue offers children an opportunity to identify what sadness can look like in pets, adults, and themselves and how we always move forward with happier days in mind.

Takeaway: Readers young and old will be moved by the rhyming prose and evocative digital illustrations as a cat and family grieves.

Great for fans of: Todd Barr’s The Goodbye Book, Judith Viorst and Erik Blegvad’s The Tenth Good Thing About Barney.

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

Click here for more about My Cat Is Blue

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