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Sword and Sorcery: Frostfire
Ethan Avery
Avery’s buoyant, character-driven debut centers on 16 year-olds Aireyal, studying magic but not measuring up to her heritage of grandmages, and Erevan, a swordsman determined to achieve the skill and authority of his father, a guard and mercenary. Bringing a fresh class consciousness to high fantasy, and a welcome focus on the effort it takes to build character and acquire expertise, Avery sets his two heroes in arresting counterpoint—one overthinks, one doesn’t think enough—in alternating chapters that build to reliable page-turning cliffhangers as Erevan accompanies a court courier through on a perilous journey and Aireyal, a master of books but not of actual mysticism, matriculates at a competitive magic academy.

Avery proves adept at keeping the dual perspectives engaging as Frostfire, the first in the Sword & Sorcery series, reveals its world. Those chapters also are cleverly engaged with each other, long before the characters meet, as Avery draws compelling thematic links between the protagonists’ challenges and experiences. Amid the bumptious fantasy adventure storytelling—which involves trolls and pirates, rugged taverns and secret libraries, a baby slipshark and a just-hatched beast of wonder—Avery emphasizes his leads’ hearts and the lessons they learn about the harsh truths of their world and what it means to grow up.

That world might seem a touch familiar, at first, though Avery distinguishes it from generic fantasy as the novel surges ahead. The worldbuilding is solid, but it’s character that powers the book, which proves involving throughout but picks up in momentum once the storylines start bending toward each other, and a world-changing secret discovered by Erevan and co. comes to the attention of the powers that be in the academy where Aireyal is struggling to find herself. Real battles and danger follow, but Avery’s storytelling remains warm and inviting throughout, as his characters movingly doubt, grow, and strive to set things right.

Takeaway: This character-rich, split-perspective fantasy series kickoff is involving and surprising.

Great for fans of: Garth Nix, Naomi Novik.

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

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Jackie Does It All
fabian ferguson
In Ferguson’s (In the Mirror) lively picture book for young children, an ambitious little girl named Jackie J. Spade discovers that sometimes trying to “[do] it all” isn’t the best approach. In her scout troop, Jackie is on pace to become top scout by earning the most badges–she’s tried her hand at crafting, quilting, first aid, and volunteering, “always thinking of others, not only herself.” Trouble comes when an overwhelmed Jackie is simultaneously watching her neighbor’s dog, writing a story, and helping her friends paint a banner, and her multitasking leads to chaos. “I don’t know where to start,” she sobs to her mother. “One minute things were fine, then it all fell apart.”

This is where Jackie’s mom steps in to deliver this story’s important central message about not over-promising and taking on too much, delivered in the book’s rhyming cadence: “To make people happy, I know how far you would go,/ but there often comes times you just have to say ‘NO!’” Even for young children, Jackie’s drive to be the best will be relatable, and Ferguson nicely highlights the stressful role that competition with peers can play in children’s lives. Jackie’s frustration and sadness at her perceived failings will also ring true with youngsters–and quite likely with overwhelmed older readers as well.

Ferguson’s rhyming, singsong prose is inviting, and the lesson about choosing priorities is increasingly valuable for kids growing up in a culture that frowns on resting, taking things slow, and carving out time for self-care. Alisa Aryutova’s distinctive, bright illustrations bring the story to memorable life: the pictures show friendly, wide-eyed Jackie hard at work on various projects and interacting with her friends, neighbor, and her mother as she learns that sometimes saying no isn’t about disappointing others–it’s about being true to herself.

Takeaway: An ambitious young girl learns that trying to make everyone else happy isn’t the best approach.

Great for fans of: Elizabeth Estrada’s I Choose To Try Again, Jory John’s The Smart Cookie.

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

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ZERO
Al Schnupp
Veteran playwright and novelist Schnupp delivers a satirical novel that lampoons contemporary American politics, emphasizing its inherent absurdities. The story began as a play—Zero to Infinity—and according to Scnhupp, borrows “playfulness, absurdity, language and truth” from Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. When the novel’s titular character, Zero, decides to run for “Icon of Groad,” the premier political position in the fictitious country of Groad, what follows is a series of satirizations of an actual political campaign. From the egotistical buffoonery of Zero himself as he promises to “abolish headaches [and] outlaw tornadoes,” to the machinations of his wife and campaign manager, who sets out to convince donors and voters that Zero is the most “Iconoclastic” candidate, the novel zig zags its way through the hypocrisies of American political life.

The name of the titular character, Zero, encapsulates the irony at this story’s heart, and for all the pained truth of Schnupp’s playful truthtelling it’s still a laugh out loud moment when Zero promises an era of “Zero truth, Zero justice, Zero compassion and equality.” The novel is scattered with Schnupp’s inventive neologisms: whether it’s calling dying "de-fizzing," or references to something called "loopy juice," Schnupp makes the familiar absurdly unfamiliar. Rhetorical hyperbole around tariffs on foreign automobiles and hunting down traitors to make them swear allegiance to Zero hits close to home with an oblique critique of the state of contemporary American politics.

Some readers may find it hard to focus on the storytelling amid so many new words, strange phrases, and allusive insights. The narrative seems like one long series of satirizations, which after a point can become repetitive. However, Schnupp succeeds in maintaining a light, humorous touch throughout, and continually offers fresh invention and ideas. Lovers of political satire and humor will enjoy this story, which is as funny as it is innovative.

Takeaway: A boldly inventive blend of literary play and political satire and humor.

Great for fans of: Matthew Sharpe, Victor Pelevin.

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

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Exoneration Finally!
CLEMENS PLATTNER
Plattner debuts with an intriguing memoir of his life as a citizen, soldier, and journalist who faced accusations of publishing classified information about the air war in Vietnam. Plattner, who served as a Marine Corps Reserve pilot, delves into a South Vietnam reporting mission assigned during his tenure as a journalist for Aviation Week & Space Technology, revealing how his published (and celebrated) series led to surprising blowback that had a negative impact on his career. Following publication in 1966, the Department of Defense initiated an investigation into Plattner’s writing that eventually resulted in restrictions to his flight status in the Reserves–and inspired him to launch the decade-long fight for justice chronicled here.

Plattner dedicates this memoir to sharing the efforts to clear his name, efforts that culminated not just in exoneration but in an administrative discharge board finding that he should be retained in the Marine Corps Reserve as “a valuable asset to the service.” After this harrowing experience, Plattner achieved success as a journalist, and then salesman, all while continuing as a reservist. Readers will be fascinated by the ethical dilemma this memoir raises—especially the potential conflicts between the roles of reporter and warrior—as well as the gripping context it provides for the larger narrative of the Vietnam War.

The contents are compelling, particularly the disclosure of military bureaucracy’s effect upon an investigation that often was mysterious, which lightens the text’s occasional disconnected feel. Plattner includes extensive documentation to provide an external perspective for readers, most notably two appendices with military reports and correspondence related to his case, and his attention to detail illuminates elements of the conflict that could have been easily overlooked. The pressures Plattner faced are ably sketched, as is the function the press was expected to fulfill within Vietnam. In the end, readers will empathize with Plattner’s quest for equity and celebrate alongside him when he achieves exoneration, finally.

Takeaway: A Vietnam-era memoir about a journalist and soldier clearing his name after the military finds those roles in conflict.

Great for fans of: Robert M. Smith’s Suppressed, Conrad M. Leighton’s War Stories: A GI Reporter in Vietnam, 1970-1971.

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

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Bellocaro
P.S. Meraux
Spellbound. That’s the word everyone uses to describe students who magically appear on the island of Sceadu, somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the new attendees of the Sceadu Academy. Skye Moon, much to her dismay, is one of them. One moment she was with her mother, Eleanor, in Atlanta, and the next she was far from home with no idea how to return. All she has are her premonitions, her gift, and the dreams / nightmares of a dark-eyed boy with a mark on his hand, the one she calls bellocaro. She’s starting to settle in—barely—when four new students, not spellbound, arrive—and one of them is achingly familiar. With their arrival, though, comes danger in the form of an evil vampire, Nymir.

The characterizations of Skye’s new friends–Thatcher, Rane, Alton, Wes and JennyBea–are delightful, bringing them to vivid life through her eyes, and the relationships among the students are rich, complex, and rendered with care. This paranormal young adult romance is rich with detail–at times, perhaps overwhelmingly so–yet often reminiscent of previous works in the genre, a choice that may divide readers. Its strengths lie in the particular care given to Skye’s voice and the story’s pacing. Hints of the larger mystery are teased out with care, deliberately leading readers along and stirring anticipation about what will come next, in this story and in future volumes.

Despite the story’s intricacy and length, readers may find themselves at times wishing for greater clarity about Skye’s background, the island itself, and some small world-building tidbits that would further enrich the story and more firmly situate the school within a persuasive reality. Although the novel’s impact could be intensified by tightening the abundance of detail in this story, overall it is a delightfully light read with a promising beginning to a new series.

Takeaway: This YA paranormal romance follows richly characterized students at an island magical magical academy.

Great for fans of: Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, Stephanie Meyer.

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

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City of Liars
Michelle G Fogle
In her accomplished literary debut, psychotherapist turned novelist Fogle masterfully explores the Spanish Inquisition and the barbaric behavior perpetrated by those ostensibly doing the work of their Lord. In 1487, during the throes of the Spanish Inquisition, Jews are denounced as heretics by the Catholic Church and burned at the stake. Jewish navigator Joachim Déulocresca is doing his best to help them escape when he meets Catholic heiress Aularia Bautista during a public trial and execution of Barcelona’s Jewish citizens. Soon, privileged Aularia (who inadvertently fed incriminating information to a corrupt priest) is working with Joachim in his efforts to ferry the damned to safety. But in so doing, both could lose their own lives—and Aularia’s parents are hiding a bombshell secret that could prove deadly for them all.

Vivid with immersive historic detail, plotted with memorable twists and turns, and told in arresting, irresistible prose (“My priest and teacher is an assassin and seducer”), Fogle’s expertly wrought tale will entrance readers of historical fiction and anyone interested in stories of lovers swept up in times of terror. Looming over Joachim and Aularia’s budding romance is the barbarity of the Spanish Inquisition (Fogle doesn’t skimp on details of the more disturbing aspects, including torture), and readers will root for a happy ending as the pair face potential tragedy. Danger abounds, friends and foes alike will fall, and hearts will break, though Joachim and Aularia passionately believe in their ability to affect change. In Fogle’s hands their plight is gripping and emotionally resonant.

The author’s background as a psychotherapist contributes to her masterful handling of characters, both their actions and their inner lives, and she brings clear-eyed life to her milieu, capturing 15th century Barcelona in descriptive prose steeped in impeccable research. This story of tyranny and love will keep its audience turning the pages–and unlikely to forget its ending.

Takeaway: Fogle’s clear-eyed narrative about the barbarity of the Spanish Inquisition brings history to glorious life.

Great for fans of: Alice Hoffman’s Incantation, Mitchell James Kaplan’s By Fire, By Water.

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

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The Garden Bone
Maria Magliano
Magliano’s engrossing, fast-paced fantasy for middle-grade readers offers an insightful and compassionate look at self-discovery and the many forms grief can take in the life of a child. When Wenceslao is seven years old, his famous paleontologist parents are killed in a helicopter crash at a dig site in Wyoming–and Wences saw the whole thing. Now 12, Wences and his five-year-old brother, Nico, live in California with their grandmother, the boys struggling to connect with each other in their parents’ absence. Wences is also troubled by dreams about his parents’ deaths and his inability to help them, all while trying to fit in and do well at school. But one day, Wences finds a mysterious fossil in the garden behind their house, and everything starts to change.

In conversational, splendidly descriptive prose, Magliano invites young readers on an absorbing quest as the bone reveals its exciting secrets, and Wences works to understand the mystical remains with the help of his friends Matteo and Jeanine, rediscovers his love of adventure–and travels to an otherworldly realm in the process. For all the excitement and fun of an exciting new world where dinosaurs roam and a carcharodontosaurus named Akheilos snacks on tortilla chips in the kitchen, the book’s greatest strength is its keen understanding of Wences’ inner world–his relatable teen angst and frustration, made sharper by the heartache that he can’t quite articulate.

Magliano displays impressive, scientifically accurate dinosaur knowledge that will appeal to even the most discerning aspiring paleontologist. This book’s thrilling voyage is made even richer by author/artist Magliano’s emotionally resonant illustrations, which suggest both the best comic books and an artist’s private journal entries, and the fantasy story's strong connection to Wences’ real-world challenges, offering an insightful look at self-discovery and grief that young readers will find encouraging and inspiring.

Takeaway: This engrossing middle-grade fantasy blends an insightful look at self-discovery and grief with a realm where dinosaurs roam.

Great for fans of: Jess Redman’s The Miraculous, Laura Martin’s Edge of Extinction series.

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

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Electric Zen for Neon Koans
J. Martin Strangeweather
This bold epic from poet, painter, and “psychic fiction” author Strangeweather (author of Gorb in the Schizocratic Linguiverse, among others) stands as typically atypical Strangeweather examination of life, love, and psychotropic experiences, written with vivid detail, great empathy, and a devilish sense of play. Opening with a prankish “terms of use”—“Remember to use adequate safety precautions (i.e., gloves, goggles, condoms, common sense, etc.) when handling the information contained herein”—that’s worth the price of admission all on its own, and structured around cycles of birth and rebirth, Electric Zen for Neon Koans centers on an intersex married couple, Phil and Ruth, as they seek refuge from blinkered, category-enforcing society with a trip to Mexico on the trail of mind-altering hallucinogens, a frequent Strangeweather subject.

Strangeweather blends approaches drawing upon from 20th century beat, psychedelic, and meta fiction, with a welcome contemporary embrace of nonbinary living, plus a reporter’s eye for revealing detail (“Splintered boards and broken cinderblocks, his house is made from the castoff parts of other houses”) and a conjurer’s ability to make accounts of altered states resonant rather than tedious. Restless yet precise, the prose seizes hold, powered by memorable thoughts: “Being a zombie wouldn’t be so bad, she thought. It was probably the most comfortable, molasses feeling you could ever imagine, drunker than you’ve ever been, stoned out of your gourd.

Often, the book is chameleonic and kaleidoscopic, with passages written in the voice of online postings, tourist brochures, job applications, and even a lengthy Nabakovian rejection note for this very book, calling the leads “thinly veiled metaphors for the current state of affairs in pre-post-neo-late- capitalist America.” Satiric, provocative, humane, challenging, and far too long, Strangewather’s koans both test and reward patience, especially in evoking what is “arguably the creepiest jungle in the world.” It’s a novel that’s determinedly not for everyone, but admirable in its convictions, ambitions, execution, and commitment to insight and dazzle.

Takeaway: Charles Hayes’s Tripping, Terence McKenna, John C. Lily.

Great for fans of: A bold, sprawling novel of an intersex couple’s search for peace through hallucinogens in Mexico.

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

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VROOM! Barry, Kari and the Power Boost!
William Wilberforce
Readers are launched straight into the action in this children’s book debut, when Kari the rabbit whizzes past Barry the bear, “moving faster than anything he saw!” Barry is intrigued by Kari’s speed in her rollerblades, but she doesn’t think he can go as fast as her, and the fact that he falls when he puts his skates on doesn’t help. Once Barry meets a new friend, Fast Tommy, he learns the power of perseverance, friendship, and trying your best. Told in simple prose and featuring expressive and colorful illustrations, this pleasant story is an encouraging reminder to children that practice pays off and friendship is powerful.

Wilberforce’s storyline is uncomplicated and manageable for younger readers, and he avoids character development in favor of immediate adventure: Barry, along with Kari and Fast Tommy, have minimal introduction before Barry’s love for roller skating surges the story along, and the movement keeps going as the main players all prep for Fast Tommy’s skate race. Wilberforce’s digital illustrations are engaging and dynamic in their composition, a montage of sorts, but when it’s a close up of Barry or a portrayal of his anger, his expression is terrifying, which may be off-putting to some younger readers.

A highlight is the emphasis on the rewards of friendship, practicing, and not giving up, alongside Wilberforce’s brief reference to social bullying–when Barry falls on his skates, his friends’ teasing makes him feel “very small.” Discerning readers may also notice Kari in the background of illustrations asleep in a hammock, perhaps a cheeky nod to the tortoise and the hare fable, which this story echoes and shares a moral with–Kari is a rabbit after all. VROOM! is a straightforward and uplifting book for young readers who need a bit of encouragement to keep trying and to have friends who will support their goals.

Takeaway: Barry’s story will encourage younger readers with a push to keep trying and surround themselves with supportive friends.

Great for fans of: Diane Alber’s A Little Spot of Perseverance, Carmen Agra Deedy’s The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!

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

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Disruptors: The Gateway to Genius Level Thinking
Craig Copeland
Copeland (Finish What You Start) takes an intriguing look at revolutionary thinkers—or “Disruptors”—who “ventured beyond, questioned, and pushed the boundaries of their fields and interests.” Contending that there are fewer Disruptors now than in the past, mainly due to the immense distractions in modern society, he cautions readers to avoid being “slaves to external influences” and instead shift their mindsets to nurture innate talent and creativity. Copeland details the characteristics that define disruptive thinking and offers concrete guidance for readers to develop their own innovative style–alongside pioneering examples of people throughout history who have accomplished tremendous breakthroughs.

By exploring eight primary attributes of disruptive thinking, Copeland brings clarity to an often abstract concept. Though some of these attributes will sound familiar, such as “the go getter,” he also analyzes more novel characteristics: readers are encouraged to channel their inner daydreamer as a means of fostering no-holds-barred imaginative ideas, and Copeland emphasizes the need for “wonderment” to enhance curiosity and promote discovery. He circles back to the inevitability of failure as a “stepping stone to success” and illustrates this with compelling, real-world precedents– including Milton Hershey, who was forced to claim bankruptcy during his initial business attempt. Copeland provides intuitive tools that readers can use to rearrange these failures into victories, namely steering clear of advice to shun risk-taking and learning to evaluate failure objectively for future progress.

Sections of this guide get bogged down at times with peripheral information, but overall readers will find a wealth of straightforward, hands-on recommendations to help “tap into their own infinite capabilities.” Though disruption has become a buzzword, Copeland deconstructs a well-worn concept to deliver refreshing perspectives–and his willingness to dive into more complicated issues like the cognitive processes behind disruptive thinking elevates the text. Visionaries and those longing to transform industries should read this.

Takeaway: A guide to what makes transformative thinkers tick, along with user-friendly guidance to reach full creative potential.

Great for fans of: Adam Grant’s Think Again, Brandon Bornancin’s Whatever It Takes.

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

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My Little Plague Journal
L. John Harris
Artist and writer Harris (Café French: A Flâneur's Guide to the Language, Lore and Food of the Paris Café) marks the coronavirus pandemic with an eclectic collection of journal entries, art, and social media posts inspired during the time he sheltered in place in his beloved Berkeley. Candidly writing that his purpose was "a productive and pleasant way to pass the time while avoiding, to put it bluntly, death by plague,” Harris loosely bases this work on influences from Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron and notes that he wanted to “eat well, laugh, and keep a journal” while documenting the impact the pandemic had on himself and his world.

Harris shares his musings chronologically, from the spring of 2020 through 2021, and circles around four central themes: initial shock and the range of his responses to isolation, a comparison of the coronavirus pandemic with past plagues, medieval theories of disease, and Covid’s effect on our politics, with Donald Trump in the role of viral villain. Harris likens his time in isolation to an interval in a “gilded cage,” full of “endless cooking and solo eating, and the repetitive chores of a butler and staff,” and dedicates space to illuminating the impact of Covid on society. His portrayal of Berkley as a “scene out of [a] post-apocalyptic” film is particularly stark, as he details the seclusion of enjoying an outdoor, pre-takeout dinner drink at a local café, complete with “plastic cashier shields” and neighboring-table small talk about who will survive the pandemic.

Harris weaves abundant historical and cultural references into this portrait of a singular time and place framework, capturing for the future his drift of thought in a polarized era, often sounding off in heated yet familiar passages likening Trump to Hitler unlikely to persuade those who don’t agree with him politically. Nevertheless, the slim collection preserves a singular moment of rage, fear, and uncertainty.

Takeaway: A fiery collage of texts, photographs, and illustrations offering an intimate record of pandemic life.

Great for fans of: Bill Hayes’s How We Live Now, Covid Chronicles: A Comics Anthology.

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

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Heimat
Paul Marzell
“No one expected our country would decay into what it is today,” a German woman writes, in 1946, to her one-time romantic prospect, Matthias, in the prologue of the historical epic of outsize ambition. A baker without local prospects, Matthias left his homeland—his Heimat—to start a new life in America in 1929, planning one day to return as a man of means. An historical epic of outsize ambition, Marzell’s immigrant saga tracks the journey of Matthias—and other Germans—from the security of home to squalid boarding houses amid the “swarming masses of people and vehicles” in New York City and Philadelphia. As Matthias learns English and adapts to a new land, he relishes any connection to home, though those grow more fraught and tenuous as the U.S. falls into Depression and fascism is on the rise in Germany.

With inviting historic and cultural detail, and a keen sense of feeling caught between nations, Marzell dramatizes the daily lives and drifts of mind of his cast, the fiction attentive at all times to the question of what life for people like Matthias or Josef, his friend, would have felt like. “America is complicated,” Josef says early on, before Hitler’s invasion of Poland changes everything. They yearn for the Heimat, for family and friends, “the food, the smells” and lifting the beer stein.

The 20th century, of course, will disrupt these lives further, with the lives of Matthias, Josef, their friend Feliks, and endless millions of others scattered by the winds of war. Marzell’s depiction ranges from Pearl Harbor to Nuremberg, plus much discussion of everything before and after (“The civilized world would not tolerate that,” one character insists, during a discussion of Hitler’s dark plans.) Much of the story and world are revealed through dialogue as Marzell’s people, like any of us, try to make sense of a world that won’t slow down.

Takeaway: A humane, vividly realized epic of German immigrants to the U.S. between the world wars

Great for fans of: Lourise Erdrich’s The Master Butchers Singing Club, Mary Relindes Ellis’s The Bohemian Flats.

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

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Bohunk's Redemption: From Blacking Out to Showing Up: A Doctor's Adventures
Bohunk
Writing with precision, authority, and wit, the pseudonymous Bohunk—the pen name of a psychiatrist (and attorney) specializing in addiction—reveals his story of finding hope and abundance despite harrowing experiences with addiction, depression, anxiety, divorce, and even international kidnapping. Despite the heavy topics, sharp prose and a hopeful spirit distinguish this clear-eyed memoir, which recounts with hard-won insight the ongoing challenge of living a sober life, from his endless residency days working 90-plus hours a week, to parenting a pair of daughters, to the bizarre, exhausting fight to recover those girls after their mother abducts them and flees the country. (The retainer requested by the detective on the case: $125,000.)

Between those extremes, Bohunk, with disarming frankness, shares the everyday work it takes to manage addiction, in good times and bad, as well as complex issues of legacy and spirituality: The son of a Catholic mother and a secular Jewish father, Bohunk, in his youth, felt some shame at his Jewish heritage, and while in recovery found his own beliefs in conflict. The “higher power” component of Alcoholics Anonymous eventually nudged him to work to find a “God-consciousness” in his own way, a process that Bohunk describes with welcome humility–he never tells anyone how to live, instead offering his experience and self-discovery as an example.

Elsewhere, Bohunk’s Redemption is alive with spirited, persuasive opinions (“The Industrial-Medical complex overall kills more than it saves lives when it comes to addicting drugs they push on to the public”) and striking character sketches: He describes his father as “a typical New Yorker, worldly in the confines of a few square blocks.” The twelfth step of AA recovery, of course, emphasizes the joy of living, a phrase that could have served as this lively book’s title. Bohunk’s celebration of life as a parent proves as engaging as his suspenseful account of the abduction, and he laces insight about addiction throughout.

Takeaway: A psychiatrist’s memorable story of facing addiction, sobriety, and child abduction.

Great for fans of: Peter Grinspoon’s Free Refills, Leslie Jamison’s The Recovery.

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

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Covid Orphans: Collateral Damage
Teri Peluso
Peluso’s of-the-moment debut novel centers on an imagined but utterly familiar contemporary tragedy. In the early days of Covid, the governor of Florida has issued a stay-at-home order, with only front-line “essential workers” exempt. Among them are single mother Chandra Powell, a worker at Oakbriar, a long-term care facility. Soon enough, like many of their patients, Chandra and the staff have fallen ill—in heartbreaking scene, a hospitalized Chandra can only speak to her oldest daughter through a window and her youngest children via FaceTime. Though 16 year-old Isabella, the oldest, calls their mom a “superhero,” the worst happens: Chandra dies, and the girls, desperate to avoid being split apart in the foster system, vow to take care of themselves.

Adults make that difficult, of course, both at the systemic and personal levels. Most worrisome is Lewis, a neighbor who watches the children’s apartment window and seems to know more than he lets on. (He calls Isabella “Bella Beauty” and makes declarations like “Just so you know, I keep secrets really good.”) As spring turns to summer, and Isabella tries to keep everyone fed and make sense of SNAP and unemployment benefits, Lewis grows creepier, the story grows darker, people from Chandra’s church begin sniffing around—and, reeling from shocks and trauma, Isabella and co. must face the possibility of discovery.

Throughout, Peluso demonstrates a firm command of how complex societal systems work (and fail), from Oakbriar to the state of Florida to a community-minded church and, ultimately, the justice system. She also understands the hearts and fears of kids, how daunting and inhumane those systems can appear from the outside, and the preciousness of stability and love. The storytelling tends toward a reportorial directness, as if she’s documenting a true case and trying not to editorialize. That approach distances reader from character, but it doesn’t diminish this scenario’s pained urgency—or ultimately hopeful conclusion.

Takeaway: A pained, realistic novel of children left parentless by the pandemic and vowing to get by on their own.

Great for fans of: Erin McKenzie’s Taking Chances, Cris Beam’s To the End of June.

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

Click here for more about Covid Orphans
Magician of Light
J. Fremont
Fremont debuts with a dramatic story of lost love, family secrets, and ancient magic. Lucinda Haliburton, granddaughter to a wealthy baron, comes from a family full of intrigue–including greed, betrayal, and whispers of madness. When she is sent to Egypt to spend time with her American father on an archeological dig being financed by her grandfather, Lucinda is thrown into the middle of family drama and dark magic. As her own mental health starts to deteriorate, she learns that her fate is inextricably tied to that of René Lalique, the famous young jewelry designer with his own dreams of fame and fortune.

This is a compelling, engaging tale of historical intrigue, and Fremont’s characters are immersive, though the complex plot at times overshadows them–particularly when it jumps timelines with little warning. While Lucinda fights visions of ancient Egyptian gods and fears of being consumed by the past, René becomes aware of cryptic prophecies that hint at his role in something far greater than he has ever imagined. The two embark on a journey of ill-fated love, and discover that nothing is as it seems–and the powers that be are doing their best to undermine their growing connection. Soon, Lucinda is launched down a path of no return and René drowns himself in his art, gaining notoriety and heartache along the way. Though neither can grasp the dizzying turns in store for them, both hold out hope they will one day be reunited.

Lucinda is equal parts innocent and flawed, characteristics that Fremont skillfully illuminates with the cast of dishonorable family members surrounding her every move, and René is portrayed as a loyal lover searching for meaningful ways to fulfill his destiny. Savvy readers will look beyond the surface romance to tease out the underlying themes of women’s justice and good versus evil, and the surprise ending will please those who prefer out-of-the-blue bombshells.

Takeaway: A memorable story of historical intrigue, jeweler René Lalique, and the relationships that inspired his art.

Great for fans of: Marie Benedict’s Her Hidden Genius, Michelle Moran’s The Heretic Queen.

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

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My Dad, My Rock: Children's Picture Book
Victor D. O. Santos
Oliver, a young boy who’s never met his grandpa, decides to imagine what it would be like to describe his dad to his unknown grandfather. Despite never having met or known his father, Oliver’s dad is clearly an incredible one—caring, affectionate, supportive—as told by Oliver. In gentle and simple prose, Oliver details the way his dad shows his love, including things he says that don’t make sense to him just yet, such as “He says hugs are food for the heart.” Accompanied by Forlati’s lush, beautifully textured illustrations with an understated but warm color palette, My Dad, My Rock is a heartfelt and moving ode to the father-son bond.

My Dad, My Rock is a genuine delight but will hit home harder for fathers and sons of all ages. In depicting fathers as affectionate, openly hugging their sons, encouraging them to cry, and teaching their sons how to diffuse anger, Santos (author of the Little Polyglot Adventures series) depicts the small ways in which we can teach our boys and men that it’s safe and healthy to have, feel, and express their emotions.

Santos establishes the stakes of this short and sweet book quickly, moving so fast that Oliver is actually only named on the back cover rather than in the story itself. That small detail doesn’t detract from the power of the narrative, thanks to the story’s resonant heart. (One detail that might detract, though, is the size of the font on the page, which is small, and could be larger to ease the reading experience.) More than just a simple list of things a son does with his father, My Dad, My Rock is a profound meditation on the ways in which fathers have the power to positively shape their sons.

Takeaway: Fathers, sons, and anyone who understands the power of a supportive male figure will be moved by this ode to fatherhood.

Great for fans of: Zack Bush’s Made for Me, Miguel Tanco’s You and Me, Me and You.

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

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