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The Fruitcake: A twisty mystery you wont soon forget
Leah Orr
Orr’s excitable mystery finds Holly Kelly, newly transplanted to swanky neighborhood Laguna Palms with her husband and triplets, on the hunt for friendship and fun amid a flurry of country club outings, parties, and a yearly Christmas fruitcake exchange designed to bring the neighbors together. When that holiday tradition goes south—starting with the homeowner’s association president, Patty, choking to death on a missing Lego piece baked into the neighborhood’s very first fruitcake exchange—it sets off a series of murders that seem accidental at first but quickly stew with bizarre coincidences.

After the second exchange inadvertently ends in the death of resident Harry’s elderly uncle, finance guru Greta muses “This is the second Christmas Eve death in the past two years. Maybe we should end this fruitcake exchange thing.” Despite those misgivings, the eccentric neighbors continue the tradition, eventually culminating with Holly’s delivery of a Havana fruitcake to the Hudson sisters—though her premonition that something bad will happen proves true (“I don’t trust women who don’t wear makeup” she gripes on her way to deliver the cake). Orr (author of The She Shed) delivers the twisty narrative from multiple perspectives—and timelines—mixing death, disappearance, and captivity into the finished product, and keeps readers guessing until the very last bite.

"In the end, it’s the chaos that leads to the order we seek," the story quotes, and despite some lumps in the batter thanks to the non-linear structure, readers will be pleased with the gripping denouement. Bloodshed, atonement, and suspense tangle together to produce a savory mystery, emboldened by Orr’s sprinkling of neighborhood legends (the land, stolen from the area’s indigenous tribes, is thought to be cursed) on top. It’s obvious Orr relishes page-turning riddles, but the ample reflection on the intergenerational events that shape a person’s life adds a richness to this holiday treat.

Takeaway: Butterfly effect neighborhood murder mystery built on a tasty Christmas tradition.

Comparable Titles: Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train, Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects.

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

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FRACKED: How long would you bury your past to protect your future?
Morris Denton
Denton debuts with a suspenseful novel that highlights crooked businessman, mental disability, the bonds of family, and the hard truth that, in the oil biz, “if you could go vertical for a specific depth and then turn horizontal, you could tap into the minerals … without having to negotiate with dozens of surface owners.” That insight belongs to Rand Holub, who—bullied, misunderstood, and misdiagnosed as mentally challenged due to his delayed speech—struggles through his adolescent years yet thrives at science, math, and engineering. At the age of 18 he leaves The Ranch, the Texas Panhandle school for troubled boys, and begins work as an oil field roughneck. Eventually married to a waitress, Shelby, and expecting a child, Rand, an amateur designer of innovative oil drilling equipment and techniques, enters into a wildcatter business agreement that will get the best of “the big boys” of the industry—and change the trajectory of his family's life forever.

The big boys don’t like being beaten, of course, and with smart foreshadowing and a pervasive sense of suspense, Denton sets up the many twists and turns to come throughout this fast-paced and emotionally charged narrative that takes seriously its themes of undiagnosed autism, a family that will do anything to survive and succeed, and the interests of “the world’s largest oil and gas company,” here called Mesaco. Denton juxtaposes heartfelt moments of familial bonds—including with Dottie and Souter, the adults who took in Rand upon his abandonment, plus passages touching on the hazards of new fortunes—with the dark, cutthroat nature of the oil world, including Mesaco spending “years and billions of dollars trying to deny climate change.”

With persuasive oil industry detail, Fracked balances tension with life as it’s lived, letting the characters push the narrative forward. Readers will find themselves rooting for Rand and family as they face adversity and money-hungry men seeking to capitalize off of his perceived shortcomings, right up until the satisfying conclusion.

Takeaway: Innovative wildcatter faces the big boys in this oil drama with jolting twists.

Comparable Titles: Reavis Z. Wortham; Richard T. Kelly’s The Black Eden.

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

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Lovey Dovey, Do You Love Me?
Michelle Urra
Urra’s touching picture book for young children follows a pair of doves through the stages of their lives. The story opens with a female dove shivering on a tree branch as snow falls around her. Soon she is joined by her mate, who embraces her with his wings. In the spring the couple welcome baby birds and spend the summer watching them grow until the bittersweet moment when the young doves must leave the safety of the nest. Fall and winter see the male and female dove continuing to love each other as they become grandparents and grow old together.

The progression of the doves’ lives mirrors what many humans experience as they fall in love, have a family, and enter their later years. The doves’ major milestones also follow the seasons—birth in the spring, maturity in the summer, decline in the fall, and finally death in the winter. This natural order of events will make sense to young readers as they celebrate the birds’ joy and share in their sadness. It will also give adults a chance to talk about the ways their own familial relationships will change. Through it all, the doves repeat a comforting refrain: “She asks him, ‘Lovey Dovey, do you love me?’ He replies, ‘Yes, together forever we’ll be.’”

Wathmi de Zoysa’s sweet illustrations center on the nest, where the family returns to feel safe as the world changes around them. The colors of each season are instantly recognizable—winter is awash in icy blues and grays, while spring and summer favor splashes of color and fall glows with orange and red. At the center of these shifting scenes, the wide-eyed doves perch on a branch, with the mother and father wearing glasses and scarves as they age. Ultimately this tender tale is a testament to the power of enduring affection that lasts a lifetime.

Takeaway: Touching picture book follows a pair of doves through the seasons of their lives.

Comparable Titles: Germano Zullo’s Little Bird, Bryce Adam Brown’s Get On The Stage of Life and Live.

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

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The Moth And The Flame: The Boy Who Spoke With Insects
William Balson
In an effort to probe the world’s mysteries, Balson debuts with the exploits of 10-year-old Jay as he uses his birthday wish to answer his grandfather’s musings on why some moths seem to purposefully fly into flame. Jay gets more than he bargained for with that wish, shocked to find he’s been granted the ability to talk with and understand insects by G.O.W.A.D., the Granters of Wishes and Dreams, to help him uncover the answers behind his grandfather’s ponderings. Each insect Jay meets on his quest has a unique personality, answering his questions and challenging his mistaken beliefs with experienced, knowledgeable voices.

Middle grade readers will be as entertained as they are educated by this adventure-fueled fantasy. Balson combines charisma and humor when detailing the various insects’ stories, starting with a honeybee named Evangeline who schools Jay on how busy she is tending to the work for her Queen—and clarifies some common misconceptions about her kind (case in point: honeybees only sting in self-defense). Jay moves on to other insects, including the humorous Duck, a fly with questionable manners but deep thoughts, and a sunset moth whose life expectancy after adulthood is unbearably short: “Like many other insects, we live long enough to make sure that more moths will be born than those that die'' it declares.

The insects themselves are so entertaining, readers will hardly notice their important lessons, and, despite their somewhat awkward placement, Balson’s computer-generated illustrations give the narrative some grounding. The bigger picture rings true as well: Balson teaches the importance of being kind, not only to each other, but also to the natural world. Jay eventually earns a beautiful answer to his question, but the knowledge he gains along the way is his true prize, and Balson’s encouragement to “open [your] heart and mind to the fact that there are things greater than just [yourselves]” carries weight.

Takeaway: A young boy uncovers nature’s secrets by talking to insects.

Comparable Titles: Amy Sarig King’s Me and Marvin Gardens, Danielle Davis’s Zinnia and the Bees.

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

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YOU ONLY GO EXTINCT ONCE : Stuck in the Anthropocene with the Pleistocene Blues Again
Bob Lorentson
In this humorous collection of short essays, retired environmental scientist Lorentson (author of Hold the Apocalypse—Pass Me a Scientist Please) turns a quizzical eye to nature’s intersection with the human world. He plumbs an array of entertaining topics, from the DNA humans share with bananas to squid intelligence to the power of beavers, offering readers a slew of rousing stories that burst with wit. Lorentson opens each essay with a short quotation from renowned humorists, including such notables as W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx, always circling back to the evolutionary path humans continue down, reflecting on our inevitable march toward extinction if nothing changes.

In “The Opossum — America’s National Shame,” Lorentson chronicles the behavior and appearance of this “poor excuse for an animal,” characterizing it as a “65 million year old reminder of what happens when you don’t even try.” He surveys more serious topics as well, though his humorous style still dominates. “Still Life with Automobile” muses on the changes wrought from inventing the wheel, namely the deadly effects of that advancement on the natural world: “our cars and roads are turning the U.S. into a drive-through natural history museum” he observes. Similarly, he bemoans the fate of Earth’s trees, now down to “only 375 trees per person,” candidly remaking that without serious efforts to slow climate change, humans will “soon have to join a tree safari to find them.”

Though humor forms the backbone of the collection, Lorentson still aims to deliver accurate scientific information, including extensive referencing for his claims. The punny wordplay and dense witticisms may not tickle every funny bone, but fans of tongue-in-cheek comedy will savor the laughs. Throughout, Lorentson pits humans against nature—respectfully, if slightly mocking—and readers will find themselves rooting for nature in the end, as he astutely observes, “Nature always seemed so big, and humans so insignificant… Maybe when nature is imaginary it will finally get better ratings.”

Takeaway: Humorous look at humans’ effect on the environment.

Comparable Titles: Randall Munroe’s What If?, Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.

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

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Last Bets
Mary Carroll Moore
Former chef and syndicated columnist Moore (author of A Woman's Guide to Search & Rescue) sparkles in this expertly wrought tale. Artist Elly Sorensen is reeling after the death of her estranged husband and struggling financially when she leaves Washington D.C. and returns to the Caribbean island of Bonaire to finish a long-delayed portrait commissioned by a local resident, Trevor Martin. Originally planning to stay in a spare room at his home, Elly returns to find Trevor’s finances have taken a major hit, and she moves into a dilapidated room at the local resort where Trevor runs a dive shop. She immediately meets and bonds with Rosie Ryan, a 16-year-old aspiring artist from Australia who is staying on the island with her gambler father, Steve.

Readers will get lost in Moore’s beautiful prose, her impeccable plotting, and her outstandingly relatable and multi-layered characters as Elly and Rosie both try to outrun their demons—Elly’s estranged husband, his debts and her former agent’s machinations, and Rosie, a controlling grandmother and the fallout from the impulsive decision to light her former boyfriend’s van on fire (and immediately going viral). Rosie reminds Elly of her wild-child sister, Lily, who perished in a car accident; Rosie is in awe of Elly’s artistic talents and her purported relationship with Trevor (which isn’t what Rosie thinks, despite a few misinterpreted situations). In addition to courage and the drive to fight for their own freedom, both share a love for scuba diving, a pursuit that the author handles with skill, drawing on her own experiences.

As the story hurtles toward a rocky, dangerous conclusion, Moore expertly keeps readers guessing at the outcome—and even holding their breath—until the novel’s final page, with strong, unexpected climactic developments involving well-deserved comeuppances. This outstanding tale, alive with suspense and insight, should garner a well-deserved readership for Moore.

Takeaway: Beautifully wrought story of two women artists outrunning their demons.

Comparable Titles: Marissa Stapley’s The Last Resort, Kristin Hannah’s Comfort & Joy.

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

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Incident at Devil's Finger: A Novel
Larry Witham
The prolific Witham’s gripping followup to the international art-world thriller The Silk Road Affair finds private investigator Julian Peale now navigating an explosive performance art project in the expansive American Southwest. Peale, tasked by his partner Joe Castelli, delves into just what the title promises, the incident at a monumental red rock near Sedona where the “flying artist” Magnifica, formerly known as Mary Saville, must abort her much-hyped performance, a parachute leap from helicopter through storied rock pinnacles near sedona, when the colossal Devil’s Finger explodes before her eyes. Horrified and suspecting the involvement of the Russian mob, Katherine Grant, heiress and art collector from the east coast art establishment, hires Castelli to probe into the realm of Sophia Saville, the ailing-with-dementia artist mother of Magnifica, who is reported to have a substantial private trust.

The mystery that follows finds Witham weaving lively art-world insight with military expertise, hacker espionage, techking rivalry, and more surprises. Castelli entrusts Peale to investigate who would inherit Sophia’s trust if Magnifica were to die, kicking off an investigation into numerous contenders including Sophia’s former flames, Shawn Byrne and Ethan Ratliff—self-made tech millionaires engaged in a long-standing feud playing out at events like the Oracle of Fire (reminiscent of Burning Man). Their battle over futurism and fantasy, druids versus space cadets, extends across games, festivals, art, and philosophies, building to a wild climax, while Magnifica, driven to surpass her mother’s artistic fame, orchestrates her most audacious stunt yet. The cast is further enriched by underworld figures Cyclops and Cyberpunk, adding layers of intrigue.

Peale’s support network—his wife Priscilla, her son Nathan, FBI agent Jerry Snow, and Las Vegas detective William Jackson—collaborate to uncover the dark underside of art in this twisting, of-its-moment thriller. Witham tells the tale with exquisite language, allowing readers to visualize the captivating panoramas of the Southwest, plus persuasive, entertaining glimpses of these extravagant lives.

Takeaway: Greed and betrayal power this gripping Southwest art-world mystery.

Comparable Titles: Joe Mungo Reed’s Hammer, Brendan Slocumb’s The Violin Conspiracy.

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

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Living: Inspiration from a Father with Cancer
Jeff Stewart
Compiled as a mixed media scrapbook of journal entries, personal text messages, and life lessons, this inspirational memoir is the work of a father, Stewart, diagnosed with cancer leaving behind memories, life lessons, and personal thoughts for his children. Through candid journal entries, Stewart vulnerably shares his journey with cancer from diagnosis to what he calls "ringing the bell." The father of seven children, Stewart takes the opportunity of compiling this book to set down “the life lessons, adages, and reflections that helped me endure hard times and avoid harder ones.”

Warm and wise, Living is, above all else, a literal act of love. In notes from a recorded interview conducted by his daughter's husband, affectionately dubbed "bearded son-in-law," Stewart chronicles his life before his cancer diagnosis, from his childhood growing up in Oregon to the present. (“Yesterday, I tested positive for Covid. Exciting.”) Stewart provides advice on love, enjoying life, and handling the inevitable bad times, all while sharing fascinating anecdotes from his own life’s highs and lows, such as winning $25,000 and a car on the college edition of Jeopardy, meeting and marrying the love of his life in college, and getting “kicked out” of Princeton. Juxtaposing the clinical and bleak appointments and treatment with his cancer with his paternal 100 inspirational lessons such as "life is a long first draft" and "do it until you are it," Stewart blends in humor and loving insight that readers will take to heart.

Living is a work curated out of love and with intention to impart a life’s accumulated wisdom. This touching memoir will resonate with anyone who has lost a loved one to cancer or experienced a cancer diagnosis. This remarkable memoir is the product of taking the time to say goodbye when given the opportunity and leaving behind a history and legacy for the loved ones left to grieve the loss—a final and powerful act of love.

Takeaway: A father's touching compendium of insights and final words.

Comparable Titles: Meghan O'Rourke's The Long Goodbye, Audre Lorde's The Cancer Journals.

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

The End of the World: Rise of the After Lord
H.S. Gilchrist
Gilchrist's debut, the first book in her Primordial Engine series, kicks off with a mix of breathtaking action and terrifying scenes of horror, and it never lets up from there. In a post-apocalyptic world where a group of Technocrats rules the remaining cities with an iron fist, a scavenger named Mica is at the mercy of a fanatical blood cult who believe that her dreams hold the key to the resurrection of a godlike being named the After Lord. As Mica realizes that she has terrible psychic abilities, the Technocrat battle drone D-2301, a once-human automaton now “fully machine, lacking any individual intelligence,” is wounded in battle, and soon makes a shocking discovery: her injuries, while threatening her life, have also allowed her to reclaim her missing humanity, memories, and self. She is no longer D-2301 but Animkii.

These two become uneasy allies after both escape the city. The drone, or "mod" (modified human) Animkii, had been banished an indigenous tribe for breaking a taboo. Mica, meanwhile, survived a plague brought to her family by a different mod and hates and distrusts Animkii as a result. Gilchrist brings urgency and inventive power to the cast’s convictions and resentments, the worldbuilding driving character and offering opportunity for vivid, unsettling setpieces. Their partnership takes them to the bowels underneath the city and its dens of corruption, the sterile and dehumanizing halls of the Technocrats themselves, and finally to the bitter cold of the Witherlands, the home of Animkii's people.

Gilchrist builds to memorable twists before the climactic, world-shaking battle as they strive to prevent the ascent of the After Lord. The leads often face harrowing situations, but Gilchrist finds clever ways to extricate them. Her attention to detail makes each environment vividly spring to life, but never at the expense of narrative momentum or the protagonists' complex backstories. Reversals and betrayals shock but make sense given the clues the reader is provided. Despite the cliffhanger ending, GIlchrist still provides a thoroughly satisfying first entry.

Takeaway: Standout post-apocalyptic debut of modded humans and Technocrat overlords.

Comparable Titles: C. Robert Cargill’s Sea of Rust, Hailey Piper’s No Gods For Drowning.

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

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Winning Numbers: A Deep Dive Into the Lottery & Luck
Jeff Copetas
If Americans share a national fantasy, it could be that of winning the lottery and living like a king, no matter how long the odds, no matter how many stories we might hear of past winners for whom that good luck proved disastrous. In this insightful debut, Copetas examines those disasters and many other facets of the lottery industry, running the numbers on the odds, talking to lottery officials, lawyers, and lottery winners who have won millions and lost it all, and also to lottery winners who—in even greater demonstrations of luck or something as powerful—haven’t really changed in any substantive way. Copetas’s original interviews, mixed with his own research and analysis, make this an intriguing read in a relaxed, conversational style as he examines the reality of the long-shot dream: what actually happens when someone wins big.

Overall, this is an enjoyable book with surprises (“just under one-third of people who win or inherit money don’t just blow it all, they blow it all and then some”), though some of the analysis (of the odds of winning; of who actually plays) can be dry. Copetas is most engaging when interviewing, historicizing, and thinking through fascinating questions. He gives the subject enough space to tell their story and offers no judgment afterward. In a fascinating chapter, Copetas talks to Kurt Panouses, the “Powerball lawyer” who has handled over 30 lottery winners, including some billion dollar jackpots, talks about the difference in state-to-state taxes, foundations and above all, the need for anonymity.

Even knowing the odds, it’s still fascinating to think through the questions (addressed here) like whether to take winnings as a lump sum or an annual payout. Copetas looks America’s lottery obsession in the eye and asks the tough questions with sometimes surprising, always informative answers in a book that pulls the reader in by shining a light on their dreams of instant wealth.

Takeaway: Illuminating breakdown of lottery, the odds, and what happens to winners.

Comparable Titles: David G. Schwartz’s Roll the Bones, Jonathan D. Cohen’s For a Dollar and a Dream.

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

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A Young Woman from the Provinces
Jo Ann Kiser
This richly detailed bildungsroman, the follow up to Kiser’s story collection The Guitar Player and Other Songs of Exile, surveys a surprising life, answering over its length the question of how its narrator, Geneva Clay of Kentucky coal country, grew from front-porch nights listening to “tree frogs and the lonely palpitating whip-poor-will” to become the kind of book-minded, art-struck New York City dreamer who describes “a celebrated Goya Christ” as a “mass of dark but luminous energy.” The novel bustles with incident and vibrant, everyday life as it considers, year-by-year, Geneva’s youth, from the 1940s into the bumptious 1960s, capturing long-gone people and ways of being (making “lye soap with bacon grease, lye, and water”; paging through a “Monkey Ward wishbook” agape at the “strange contraptions” of the women’s underclothes).

A Young Woman From the Provinces touches on tragedies and occasional conflicts, like Geneva’s parents telling her in Ohio not to befriend a Black boy, or her being asked to take a year off from college to help the family face its debts. Clay’s interest is in the development of a mind, and a self, which means the plotting, over this long novel, mostly concerns the accumulation of experience, as Geneva grows from reading Little Women to Joyce and Dostoyevsky. She’s a fish-out-of-water, in the book’s second half, but she manages swimmingly, making diverse friends who expose her to the world, trying out journalism and work in the publishing industry, and eventually taking a lover, on her own terms.

The New York passages are as alive as those set in the hills, offering deft yet seemingly offhand character portraiture, though, fittingly, these scenes are charged with more energy than lyric detail. The novel’s back half, a gush of events and impressions, demonstrates how much Geneva’s life has changed in contrast to her earlier meditations on Dogwoods, crawdads, and sneakily borrowing father’s Zane Grey novel. Narrative momentum at times slows, as this reads like beautifully presented memories, but readers who appreciate mid-century coming-of-age tales will find much to appreciate.

Takeaway: Gorgeous coming-of-age story of coal-country hollows and 1960s New York.

Comparable Titles: Ann Pancake’s Strange as This Weather Has Been, Harriette Arnow’s The Dollmaker.

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

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Eleonora and Joseph: Passion, Tragedy, and Revolution in the Age of Enlightenment. A Novel.
Julieta Almeida Rodrigues
In this illuminating historical novel, Rodrigues imagines two illustrious, surprising, and nation-shaping 18th century lives, separated by years despite an intimate initial connection: that of Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, an Italian poet and revolutionary of the short-lived Neapolitan Republic born into a Portuguese family, and Portuguese naturalist Joseph Correia da Serra, here Pimentel’s erstwhile lover, who kindled a passion with her in their youth in Naples. At the novel’s arresting start, after the fall of the Neapolitan Republic, Pimentel stands accused of high treason against the crown—“she believed the poor deserved to be educated in order to have a better future," Rodrigues notes. She is sent to prison for her revolutionary role, where she writes the memoir that narrates her half of Eleonora and Joseph. Facing death later, she pleads for a dignified beheading, which is denied.

Pimentel's pages eventually reach Correia da Serra, years later, in the most surprising of places: Monticello, the Virginia home of Thomas Jefferson, another thoughtful revolutionary, though one with blind spots. “It was perplexing,” Correia da Serra notes, observing Monticello’s slaves, “that a man like Jefferson didn’t see the contradictions of his own life.” Correia da Serra is thrown into a state of nostalgia and regret when Jefferson shares Pimentel’s memoir. As Correia da Serra reads her words, he and readers are transported through time as Eleonora recounts their love story and her impassioned revolutionary path, rooted in the principles of the French Revolution.

Rich in culture, history, and revolutionary fervor, this captivating read conjures the heart-pounding tale of one woman “born in one world and wanted to invent another” —and the men who wielded their power and status to silence her. Pimentel is a sharp-witted and impassioned protagonist willing to die for her beliefs, while Correia de Serra faces guilt over his younger self’s inaction. Written with lyrical prose and vivid detail, this sweeping novel of love, betrayal, and politics offers romance, redemption, and suspense. History buffs will relish the scrupulously described milieu.

Takeaway: Engrossing historical novel of love, betrayal, revolution.

Comparable Titles: Andrea Camilleri’s The Revolution of the Moon, Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel’s From Arcadia to Revolution.

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

The Alexandria Scrolls
Lukman Clark
Clark’s haunting, genre-bending debut follows golden boy Brandon Blake on a journey of self-discovery as he seeks to understand his unique gift—he can envision past lives—and uncovers a mystery with urgent personal stakes: the truth behind his parents' disappearance in a plane crash when he was only 10 years old. With the help of his tarot-reading guardian, his Aunt Grace, and a mysterious hypnotherapist, Dr. Clara d'Uccelli, Brandon discovers buried treasure in the form of ancient scrolls, a discovery that puts his life in harm’s way and turns some of his closest allies to foes. The Alexandria Scrolls is a surprising, globe-trotting thriller with mystic revelations (“all those other souls are, in fact, me … all the other lives I ever have or ever will live”) plus riddles and artifacts, colorful characters and possible deviltry.

While material about the Oversoul and Balinese folklore can be heady, Clark writes in a clear, inviting manner that will pull in readers of speculative, spiritual thrillers. Intricately weaving in ideals about hypnosis, past life regression therapy, and tarot, all juxtaposed against historically rich themes such as archeological explorations and findings and ancient scroll translations, The Alexandria Scrolls is an immersive story full of twists and turns in a constantly moving plot with occasional bursts of action. The focus remains personal, though, no matter how wide the scope becomes. As Brandon learns more about his parents, their special skills, and the organization they belonged to, he continues to seek answers and begins to embrace his past, present, and future and what he is called to do with his life.

Following one complicated and at times floundering man's mission to understand himself and his family history—and his own histories—this suspenseful adventure will appeal to seekers who welcome unconventional thriller storytelling and books that explore the emotions and the challenges in trying to find a sense of self, family, and purpose.

Takeaway: Surprising thriller of reincarnation, ancient secrets, and finding one’s purpose.

Comparable Titles: Ann Brashares's My Name is Memory, H.R. Moore's Nation of the Sun.

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

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The Gift Shop at the DMZ: A Therapist Travels with the Military
Maureen Hicks
Jobless, desperate, and panicky, Hicks took up work as “Military Resilience Coach” or MRC, (pronounced merk) providing “no records kept” counseling, social work, and resiliency coaching to military personnel. In this frank memoir, Hicks’s debut, she’s open about the deep misgivings she felt about the job, as an anti-war liberal with a keen interest in Buddhist teachings. Still, The Gift Shop at the DMZ recounts how she accepted the position and traveled to US military bases across the world on short assignments as an MRC, trying her best to help soldiers “reach a state of greater emotional peace” but stuck trying to perform “walking social work”—which she describes as “random schmoozing with people.” Clients, though, prove few as there is a fear among personnel that news of their therapeutic encounters will travel up the chain of command and affect their careers.

Not being terribly busy, Hicks spends time sightseeing and exploring the local cultures. She also tries best to practice what she preaches when confronted with anxiety and depression at Camp Casey in South Korea. Her innate interest in Buddhism helps her connect with lamas and nuns as well as other Europeans and Americans interested in Buddhist practices. This brings her a measure of peace and acceptance of her singlehood and loneliness.

Sedate in pace and tone, the memoir explores not just the psychological challenges endured by soldiers and their families that result from multiple deployments, but also exposes the attitudes of military top brass when it comes to understanding mental illness and trauma among army personnel. With its patriarchal norms of masculinity and rampant homophobia, the military comes across as a lumbering behemoth with one leg enmeshed in the past. Hicks’s candid description of her own struggles with anxiety and depression and her exposing of attitudes within the military makes this memoir an illuminating read.

Takeaway: A serene memoir about counseling US military personnel and families.

Comparable Titles: Sally Wolf’s Life of a Military Psychologist, Marjorie Morrison’s The Inside Battle.

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

Click here for more about The Gift Shop at the DMZ
The Girl in the Water
Joseph Howse
The act of becoming, in Howse’s accomplished debut, is set against a vividly evoked collapse, as sisters Nadia and Nastya must discover their place as the world in which they were raised, the Soviet Union of the parents and grandparents, lurches toward its end. Howse brings urgent life to the 1980s era of Gorbachev, of a rumored disaster at what Russians then knew as the Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, and of Russian soldiers like the girls’ friend Johnny, who deserts the failed Afghanistan war, shoves a gun into his mouth and poses questions like “Do you feel, like in a nightmare, that all our suffering is a form of mockery?”

So it goes for this lost generation in Howse’s sweeping novel, an incisive slice of life whose slices are wide-ranging and generously proportioned—even if the lives itself, for those living them, too often feel fraught and small. As Nadia and co. face upheaval but still strive to “to patch a happy ending on a dubious beginning, to make a quilt from rags” and seize those moments when “the wager [of life] seemed a relatively cheerful proposition”—usually with family, friends, a cat named Cosmos, or for pregnant Nastya, the possibilities of a “home-in-the-making” with Girogi, a police detective who volunteers amid the horrors of the Chrernobyl evacuation zone.

Fascinating characters like that populate Howse’s story, though its heart is Nadia, yearning to go to Moscow and college, and enduring disasters, both incidental—a car accident, “blowup”s that occur “on a geographic scale”—and world-shaking. Howse’s novel is dense and detailed but alive with feeling, insight, and Nadia’s stirring, stinging, poetic thoughts. It juxtaposes in-depth, almost reportorial portraiture of a society’s decline with the fresh exuberance of youth, plus the terror and possibility of what might come next, when history itself—Nadia often notes the sites of massacres and tragedies—offers little reason for optimism. Still, Nadia offers reason for hope.

Takeaway: Intimate epic of coming of age as the Soviet Union collapses.

Comparable Titles: Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry’s The Orchard, Artem Mozgovoy’s Spring in Siberia.

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

Click here for more about The Girl in the Water
Triple Overtime
Christopher Juliano
Juliano offers the second installment in the Billy Winslow series (following 2022’s Kidnapping Steve), a contemporary magical-realist adventure with lighthearted appeal and, as the title suggests, much spirited basketball. Billy Winslow possesses spirit-hunting powers and visions of “gods and goddesses in the sky, angry, fighting over something.” Urged by a cryptic dream during a shamanistic ceremony “to save a son,” he follows clues from Mexico to the Tar Heels training basketball courts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Billy philosophizes about the uncertainty of existence as he approaches his ultimate calling: to rescue Andy Völler, a would-be star basketball player, from despair over the death of his family in a car-crash.

Billy is the classic flâneur who follows metaphorical breadcrumbs from the universe as he searches for answers: a flying car driven by a dead chauffeur, a frat party where he meets a beautiful superhero, and a friendly basketball that follows him, among many otherworldly incidents. This lends a mythological tone, akin to Perseus finding a goddess-given shield to help him win a battle. The whimsicality provides an atmosphere of both timelessness and humor. Meanwhile, Juliano is an expert at recounting basketball games, play-by-play, demonstrating with passion and precision the healing power of the sport.

The quirky Billy will again prove endearing to readers with his charisma and his casual willingness to follow abstract invitations toward adventure, always seizing upon the positive in the unpredictable. “Billy had to laugh. He was a leader with no followers, a shepherd with no sheep, a general with no army, but that was OK because he had what he needed: a pretty girl and a bar tab.” Such positivity helps him assemble and coach a heartwarming, underdog basketball team to take on the Tar Heels and showcase Andy’s skills. Readers of playful fabulism will eagerly follow the legendary Billy’s unexpected path towards bolstering a worthy athlete.

Takeaway: Wholly unique story of visions, college basketball, and a spirit quest.

Comparable Titles: Melissa Broder’s Death Valley, Charley Rosen’s No Blood, No Foul.

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

Click here for more about Triple Overtime
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