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Root and Branch
Preston Fleming
A security contractor risks his life to uncover a government conspiracy in this exciting near-future political thriller. Following an EMP attack launched by Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea that wrecks cities on both coasts of the United States, Congress and the president (whose name and political party are never given) roll out draconian measures to suppress an ostensible uprising by American Muslims. Roger Zorn, a retired 60-something CIA agent, contracts to provide the government with his Triage technology, which evaluates the likelihood that a person being interrogated will commit violence in the future. When Triage is used to justify an enormous volume of forced repatriations, Roger grows uneasy and launches a secret investigation, aided by bold White House lawyer Margaret Slattery. He quickly learns that a horrifying fate awaits the supposed deportees. As his knowledge grows, he is forced to choose between his moral obligations and his safety.

Roger is a likable protagonist whose conflicted feelings and the weight of his deceased father’s worldwide fame drive his choices. While he maintains some skills from his spy days, he never strains credulity with otherworldly physical feats. The perspectives of people caught in the anti-Muslim sweeps—including Amjad Ibrahim, a Bengali-American immigrant arrested following his son’s radicalization, and Carol Nagy, the daughter of Roger’s former colleague and an active left-wing protester—provide nuance and emotional weight. The focus, however, remains squarely on Roger, his business, and his investigation.

The plot is brisk without feeling rushed. Readers might wish for more detail of life in America following the attacks, but the action and unfolding schemes are gripping, and the characters are richly developed. This well-constructed thriller will keep readers hooked while painting a terrifying portrait of unethical politicians using a time of crisis to undermine the rule of law.

Takeaway: Thriller fans with a taste for politics will devour this exciting investigation into dangerous government overreach and the mangling of civil liberties in a time of crisis.

Great for fans of Tom Clancy, Cory Doctorow, Dave Buschi.

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

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The Paper Boy
Jacqueline J. Edgington
Edgington’s mind-bending second contemporary fantasy (after Happy Jack) chronicles a teenage boy’s struggle to take charge of his destiny. Orphan Jack is now 16 and has been adopted by the affluent Hankins family. Normally a straight-A student, Jack sabotages a school assignment for reasons he can’t explain. Increasingly disturbing events begin to occur, all echoing his failing grade, and Jack thinks he’s losing his mind. On his birthday, he goes to a movie with his sister and two best friends, but the theater is empty and the teens are the stars of the movie. The movie’s message is that he’s only a character in a story, and to become the creator of his own future, he must find the source, the book Happy Jack.

The life of an average teenage boy is seamlessly twisted into a fourth-wall-breaking conundrum for Jack, his sister and friends, Edgington herself, and even the person reading the book. Jack’s fate is believably tied to every word the author writes and how far the reader reads. Readers will find themselves conscious of, and sometimes a little discomfited by, the effect that turning the page could have on Jack’s life. Later developments further disrupt conventions of narrative and incorporate religious concepts of the creation of life alongside more abstract and philosophical questions about destiny and free will.

This provocative thought exercise can be tangled and confusing, and readers expecting a conventional story will be disappointed. Despite the young protagonist, this challenging work won’t be suited to most teens. However, readers looking for a book that makes them think while telling a tale will enjoy Edgington’s exploration of predestination, artistic creation, and ownership of one’s life. Fans of Edgington’s first work of narrative disruption will find this one a worthy successor.

Takeaway: Edgington’s exploration of predestination, artistic creation, and self-determination will appeal to fans of works that demolish the fourth wall.

Great for fans of Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story.

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

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Facade: Things Aren't Always as They Appear...
Melody Saleh
Saleh’s jam-packed debut drama follows four women in Fort Lauderdale as they tackle myriad personal problems and romantic entanglements. Frustrated by recurring but unsatisfying erotic dreams, Amber sets out to seduce a sexy attorney, but their attempt at a relationship suffers numerous setbacks. Newly pregnant Debra tries to rebuild her life in the wake of her husband’s sudden death and finds herself torn between two potential love interests. Muslim single mother Zya struggles with her sexuality after falling for another woman, while her daughter, Ashanti, is the victim of a hate crime. Aspiring model Dominique wants to get her life back on track following a health scare but finds it hard to settle down after years of wild partying. Eventually events spiral out of control for everyone.

Though bursting with romantic tension and wish fulfillment—the two men vying for Debra’s affections are her handsome psychiatrist and a world-famous Italian masseur—the narrative skips from one beat to the next without pausing for reflection or exploration, leaving some moments feeling underdeveloped. Saleh shies away from directly engaging with emotionally significant or intimate developments, relying instead on dialogue and detached summary. The prose is loose and highly visual (“Dominique’s face took on that dreamy, I’m floating look”), describing body language more than getting into the characters’ heads.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the women’s unwavering friendship as they encourage and support one another, especially after Debra’s husband is killed. As the story progresses, it addresses issues like bulimia, Islamophobia, and breast cancer in rapid succession, to the point of dramatic overload. Multiple cliff-hangers leave the story wide open for the next installment, with at least one life hanging in the balance. Readers who settle in with a bucket of popcorn will enjoy watching these four women careen from one mishap to the next, always helping one another bounce back and pursue their chances for happiness.

Takeaway: This drama is ideal for readers looking for a tight-knit band of friends who stick together through outlandish romances and personal mayhem.

Great for fans of Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City.

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

If I Remember Him
Louis Flint Ceci
Ceci (Comfort Me) opens this intense historical novel in 1935 with a catastrophic tornado that forever changes the lives of those in the tiny town of Croy, Okla.—and leaves one of its wealthy residents, Lerner Alquist, obsessed with building a library as a memorial to the wife he lost to the twister. In 1952, Croy has rebuilt but holds many secrets. Andy Simms, the church music minister, is dating Pastor Matthew Jacobs’s daughter, Susan, but in love with a man, Sikh artist Sundar “Sunny” Singh Sohi. Virginia, Lerner’s neglected daughter, secretly marries Harry Edom, a Chickasaw handyman. When the long-delayed library is finally finished and dedicated, tensions come to an ugly head.

Ceci skillfully paints a portrait of deeply pious and deeply prejudiced townspeople during a time when to be anything other than a straight white Christian was dangerous. He poignantly reveals the hypocrisy of those who profess a loving faith while treating others poorly for their race or sexual orientation. The author drives this point home by showing that Lerner Alquist’s deep prejudices cost him the very things he holds dear. History buffs, especially those who are students of the grave inequities suffered by nonwhite people, non-Christians, and gay people in mid-century America, will find much they recognize.

Ceci’s lyrical writing (“She was still there when the rain clouds loosened their grip and pale blue light slid through ever-widening sky to disclose the dawn”) and deft worldbuilding make Croy a town readers will easily get lost in. Vivid characterization renders the characters’ sorrows all the more poignant, and Ceci pulls no punches when depicting the virulence of bigotry and the toll it takes on both its victims and its perpetrators. This portrait of the many forms and shades of grief will leave readers breathless.

Takeaway: This expertly researched and skillfully written tale of love, rage, and grief will engross any reader with an interest in the mid-20th-century Midwest.

Great for fans of Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, John Knowles’s A Separate Peace.

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

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The Gravity Thief
Nancy Lodge
Lodge’s third Lucy Nightingale novel (after Mona Lisa’s Ghost), featuring a plucky young heroine and her brainy sidekick, is a whimsical introduction to both famous paintings and physics that’s guaranteed to send middle grade readers’ imaginations soaring. During a school field trip to a museum, 11-year-old Lucy Nightingale learns that Jan Vermeer’s painting The Music Lesson has been stolen, and she hears ghostly cries in the wall nearby. Along with her best friend, genius scientist and inventor Sam, she investigates. The pair end up going on a magical adventure across time and space to help Peter, a child once hidden in the painting, and track down an evil mastermind who’s building a perpetual motion machine based on symbols Vermeer copied from Leonardo.

The prose is perfectly suited to middle graders, but the discussions of particle physics may push the limits of comprehension even for adult audiences. Lucy’s genuine friendship with Sam offers a spot of delightful normalcy, and his plain-language explanations of concepts such as human neurology (“I think bad people are just good people whose synapses have misfired, leaking the wrong chemicals into their lizard brain”) will help less science-minded readers follow along. Some extraneous elements of the narrative could use a bit more explanation, and mundane moments, such as a boat voyage to the Island of Sklaw, are rendered so dramatically that they feel absurd and give the whole story a dreamlike quality.

Lucy’s well-rounded character is a highlight. Readers will appreciate not only her determination and grit but also her empathy, capacity for learning, and open-mindedness. The inclusion of reproductions of the artworks discussed in the text allows readers to better connect with them, while Hilaire’s quirky illustrations enhance the fun. Lodge’s creative storytelling will keep readers engaged by encouraging them to indulge flights of fancy, giving them permission to stretch their horizons and delight in both art and science.

Takeaway: This delightfully fun and educational novel will encourage older tweens and teens to appreciate both physics and fine art.

Great for fans of Chandler Baker’s Teen Frankenstein, Stuart Gibbs.

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

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Raven
Sue Loh
In her near-future science fiction debut, Loh introduces readers to a wise-cracking, code-wrangling team of elite teenage whiz-kids who must stop an ominous computer virus attacking Seattle’s systems. Known as Team Raven, the five students are leading scholars at the live-in academy at cybersecurity firm Cinzento. Fireball, age 16, is the team leader. Alongside Scrappy, Books, Whiz, and Cricket, she welcomes newly admitted student Angel, aka Noob, to the team. The students’ beloved headmaster, Carver, sets them to fixing network problems at the company’s newest client, the megabank Foster Bowman Myrle. When the glitch that originated at the bank gets into the city’s transportation computers, which steers self-driving cars and buses, the team races to find a fix and uncover the dastardly culprit.

Technical jargon and procedures (“Angel was surprised to have Scrappy ask him to collaborate on setting up the honeypot, which consisted of a single CPU and a raid array enough to look like the real deal and populated with real but static data”) will perfectly suit readers who share the characters’ interest in computers, though it may fly over the heads of others. A heartfelt subplot involving Noob grieving the recent loss of his parents provides emotional balance. The cast is ethnically diverse, but the characters’ backgrounds have little bearing on the story.

The peppy narration combines Fireball’s point of view, sprinkled with capital letters (“Benjamin’s graduation was a Big Deal”) and snarky asides, with broader comments on the teens’ relationships with one another and their families (“Mom was probably in her fifties, but the kids didn’t think of her as an adult, so much as an older kid whose experience in the world demanded respect”). The brisk plot whisks to a conclusion that neatly ties all loose ends. Adolescent hackers will have fun keeping up with Team Raven and look forward to where they might go next.

Takeaway: Computer-savvy teens will appreciate this mystery with a touch of family drama, featuring a team of adolescent white-hat hackers.

Great for fans of Elizabeth Briggs’s Future Shock, Marie Lu’s Warcross.

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

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In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow
Kenneth W. Harmon
Harmon (The Amazing Mr. Howard) skillfully mines the brutality of WWII and the desire for redemption in this ambitious story of tragic characters overcoming hate, cultural indifference, and duty. American bombardier Micah Lund hates the Japanese, whom he blames for his brother’s death. After his plane is shot down over Hiroshima, he falls to his death onto a city street right in front of war widow Kiyomi Oshiro and her perceptive eight-year-old daughter, Ai. Now a hitodama ghost, Micah observes the living. He is attracted to the somber Kiyomi and sees how she is mistreated by her in-laws, who are arranging a new marriage for her. When Kiyomi and Ai are able to visit Micah in the dream world after falling asleep, the trio form a caring relationship.

Harmon treats his characters with tenderness and empathy, showing both sides of a vicious war through their experiences and perceptions. In his portrayal, the Americans cruelly retaliate for the shock of Pearl Harbor by targeting a city full of civilians, while the proud Japanese antagonize an opponent with vastly superior weaponry. The suffering Japanese citizens, patriotic yet practical, starving and weary, just want their lives back. Women especially are weighted down by patriarchy, hierarchy, and duty. Kiyomi is constrained by both war and tradition. When a kindly farm woman offers her a chance to leave the city, Kiyomi contemplates rejecting her long-held obligations—and then the Americans drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Ai and the ghost of a Japanese-American soldier, Frank, teach Micah about marriage, religion, and beliefs in Japan. Micah reevaluates his prejudices and misconceptions as he transforms from a gung-ho soldier into a sympathetic eyewitness to the horrific devastation of the obliterated city, searching through the Japanese spirit world for the ghosts of people he’s come to care about. Any reader will be moved by this graceful, original take on Japanese-American relations and life in Japan during WWII.

Takeaway: Enthusiasts of history, drama, the supernatural, and traditional religions will be moved by this bittersweet novel of war, love, and understanding.

Great for fans of Hiromi Kawakami’s Manazuru, Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro mysteries, Ana Johns’s The Woman in the White Kimono.

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

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The Longest, Darkest Night!
Peter B Lewis
A group of nocturnal forest creatures learn about lunar eclipses in this educational picture book. In a frozen woodland on the winter solstice, the forest’s animals and trees join in on a night of storytelling. The eldest in the forest, Grandpa Cedar, is excited to share a story, but all the animals—Ms. Owl, Young Weasel, Madam Opossum, Mr. Raccoon, and Brother Fox—are too scared to listen, as they see the moon slowly disappearing. Even the maple tree shivers with fear. After several tries, Grandpa Cedar is finally able to get through to the other animals. The wise old tree explains the total lunar eclipse, bringing comfort to the entire forest.

LePere’s radiant illustrations of the animals, trees, and colorful changes of the moon seamlessly complement Lewis’s words. Attentive readers will enjoy tracking the visual progression of the eclipse across each page, while Lewis’s explanation of the phenomenon is clear and easy to understand. The longer words might intimidate early readers, so this book is best read aloud or shared with older school-aged children.

The reactions of owl, fox, weasel, raccoon, and opossum show a delightful range of how people can react to the unknown—hesitation, calm, panic, fear, and denial—and might provide a helpful guide for children who need help navigating new things and places. The core message encourages readers to tune in and listen to nature. Grandpa Cedar’s knowledge and wisdom also highlight the importance of listening to the sage advice of elders, especially when a strange or confusing event is happening. As a bonus, the book includes peer-reviewed back matter that can help the reader learn more about the moon, celestial events, and nocturnal animals. Parents and teachers seeking supplements to STEM curricula or gifts for young naturalists will appreciate Lewis and LePere’s engaging, colorful narrative.

Takeaway: Young readers with an interest in the natural world will enjoy learning about a rare celestial event.

Great for fans of Ellen Jackson’s The Winter Solstice, Katy Hudson’s A Loud Winter’s Nap, Wendy Pfeffer’s The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice.

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

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WORKAHOLICS ADRIFT: : Transformation in the Pacific Islands
Judy McCandless
In this candid memoir, McCandless recounts how she and her husband left their comfortable life to sail the Pacific Ocean, traveling from San Francisco to Guam via New Zealand, Australia, and many islands between 1984 and 1991. McCandless and her husband, John, were on the American dream treadmill: both had well-paying corporate jobs that required long hours, and evenings were spent with John sitting in front of a television while McCandless drank. The couple often dreamed of quitting their jobs and voyaging across the ocean. When they attempted a trial sail, Mother Nature and McCandless’s alcoholism tested their resolve. Despite the difficulties, then and later, the couple boarded their 35-foot sailboat and fully embraced a life they found far more meaningful than the rat race.

There is much to admire in the McCandlesses’ courageous decision to set aside financially success lives and fulfill their passions for traveling and sailing. McCandless shares both the highlights of their journey, such as their visits to islands and different ports with their “yachtie” friends, and the downsides, which included hiring Dan, an unreliable crewman; dodging large ships and suffering through storms; and arriving in Guam to a $29,000 tax bill thanks to their accountant’s incompetence. Readers might wish for more insight into how others experienced their interactions with the author throughout her years at home and abroad.

It could be argued that McCandless’s story is a “what-not-to-do” guide; exhibit A is the couple developing near-fatal cases of malaria after skipping their anti-malaria medication because it upset John’s stomach. However, McCandless’s courage in facing her demons and changing her life is inspiring. Most compelling, perhaps because of McCandless’s brutal honesty, is her sincere encouragement to follow one’s dream, as one never knows what the future holds.

Takeaway: Anyone dreaming of making a significant change in their life will find McCandless’s candid memoir inspiring.

Great for fans of Frances Maye’s Under the Tuscan Sun, Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki.

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

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Till Medicine Do Us Part
Christiana Jones
Jones’s modern romance explores the social pressures and interpersonal consequences Black women can face when trying to balance family and career. Ambitious Dr. Makayla Jackson works double-time to meet the incredible demands of her role as an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, fighting to have her hard work and talent recognized despite racism and sexism. Unfortunately, her husband, Jason, a stay-at-home dad, and their five-year-old daughter, Kiara, become less and less of a priority. When Makayla learns she’s pregnant, she hides it from Jason, knowing it will mean either giving up the promotion she’s been working toward or asking him to give up plans to restart his own career. Finally, family tensions reach the boiling point. Jason takes Kiara and moves out, forcing Makayla to reevaluate her priorities.

With friends only appearing late in the story, the majority of the secondary and background characters consist of coworkers and patients, the latter of which receive a disproportionate amount of Makayla’s on-screen attention and empathy. Not everyone will sympathize with the level of her ambitions or the missteps she makes along the way, including some very poor financial decisions. Though Jason’s career and history receive much less focus, readers will adore him for his patient and understanding nature and applaud the changes that save their family without Makayla having to give up her career.

The narrative benefits from a steady pace and consistent voice, and Jones skillfully draws on her own experiences as a physician to highlight the rewards and challenges of the profession. Makayla’s indecision and unwillingness to let go of the image she’d created for her future, despite her workaholism’s effect on her family, are as frustrating as they are understandable. Working mothers will relate to this story of an overworked, overwhelmed woman trying to meet the demands of personal ambition, breadwinning, and quality time with her family.

Takeaway: Many women will relate to this story of a Black female doctor juggling her responsibilities to herself, her job, and her family while contending with bias at work and unhappiness at home.

Great for fans of Rebekah Weatherspoon’s Rafe, Jasmine Guillory’s The Wedding Date.

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

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The Persistence of Memory and Other Stories
Jan Maher
Maher (Heaven, Indiana) comes out swinging in this diverse short story collection whose 12 entries each explore some facet of memory. Unsurprisingly given that theme, the stories feature a number of elderly characters, including dementia patient Robert (“Turn, Turn, Turn”), recently widowed Tilda (“Independence Day”), and bike-riding Marie (“The Persistence of Memory”). But Maher breaks away from the expected, also introducing characters such as laid-off English professor Sally (“Vitae”) and earnest Yanka, a servant girl who is unable to speak (“A Real Prince”).

Readers will be impressed by Maher’s range and elegant writing as she expertly moves among characters at all different stages of life. In “Livia’s Daddy Comes Home from the War,” four-year-old Livia pieces together bits of memory with childish sincerity in an effort to identify the stranger in her home. In “Answering,” the narrative voice of routine-loving widower Harold is so present that the reader can’t know whether his conversations with his organs (heart and gallbladder included) are the result of a troubled mind or just an effective literary device. In “Dancing in the Dark,” Maher easily switches between the voices of almost-divorced Claire and Victor. In “Half-Full,” the ostensible narrator is almost completely overshadowed by their dying, joke-telling mother’s strength of personality, a perfect echo of the family dynamic.

The collection covers a wide array of circumstances and emotions, though overall the tone trends towards nostalgia and grief. There are no perfect characters in these stories, just people whose memories haunt, inspire, or elude them. Thanks to Maher’s introspective style, they’re interesting enough to care about—even the nameless narrator in “Ashes to Ashes,” who mourns the loss of a garden. Moments both big and small are captured in this heart-wrenching collection, perfect for those who are grieving, growing, or just wanting to get lost in the past for an afternoon.

Takeaway: Soul-searching readers will find lots to connect with in these thoughtful, family-oriented stories exploring the theme of memory.

Great for fans of Jordan Kisner’s Thin Places: Essays from In Between, Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky.

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

Lifelike
Peter J Dudley
A young runaway must unlock the secrets of her creative magic to save the souls of dozens of young women in this darkly fantastic YA adventure from Dudley (the New Eden series). Budding artist Jewel runs away from home to start her journey to fame in San Francisco. When she meets Damon, a mysterious painting instructor, he takes her under his wing to teach her how to control her magical painting ability. But this is not the first time Damon has seduced a young woman, and she encounters the spirits of his former students trapped in the paintings in his home. It becomes a race against time to free the spirits of the trapped girls as Damon’s dark past is revealed and Jewel learns what he is capable of.

Dudley writes with a good sense of pace, and the novel’s premise is imaginative. Jewel is a likeable protagonist, although her godlike artistic talent and her perpetually flawless good looks might not endear her to teen readers looking for relatable protagonists. Damon’s romanticized characterization early in the book does a little too much to foreshadow the revelation of his malevolence, and he tends to steal scenes as the antagonist. Dudley’s tone can be uneven: while some passages ripple with intensity and lyricism, others lack nuance, blunting the impact of the story.

Where Dudley succeeds is in creating a tense, mysterious atmosphere. Damon’s style of magic, trapping his victims in his paintings by stealing their spirit while painting their portraits, is inspired. The trapped women themselves are well-rounded and intriguing side characters. The novel’s themes are pertinent in the #MeToo era; part of the book’s appeal is Dudley’s Lolita-esque dissection of the machinations of a much-older predator. This tale is both cautionary and empowering, and YA readers in search of a topical urban fantasy will find a lot to love.

Takeaway: Teen readers seeking an empowering tale about female solidarity against predatory men will appreciate this suspenseful urban fantasy.

Great for fans of Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper Cypher.

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

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Shallcross: Animal Slippers (Hearing Voices #3): Animal Slippers
Charles Porter
The surreal third Hearing Voices novel (after Flame Vine: His Voices) follows high-functioning schizophrenic Aubrey Shallcross through the ups and downs of middle age: reminiscing about the past, missing those he’s lost, questioning his Catholic faith, and worrying about his family. Aubrey is embroiled in a murder investigation after two brothers, Lane and Shane Richards, died under mysterious circumstances (perhaps in an alligator attack). The two alligators in question, Two-Toed Tom and the Dragon, are a part of Aubrey’s history with denizens of the Florida swamps. The Richards’ death may be connected to Aubrey’s past and a serial killer from the 1970s who has resurfaced in Aubrey’s small town. Meanwhile, Triple Suiter, Aubrey’s “slipper”—a tiny man only Aubrey can see—slips in and out of Aubrey’s body and speaks to him. Threads of stories and memories become woven, tangled, and knotted together throughout the course of a disjointed narrative that pairs well with Von Ertfelda’s strange and dynamic line drawings.

Unreliability is a hallmark of Shallcross’s life. Events unfold in a nonlinear fashion, and Porter takes a deep dive into characters’ backstories, at times becoming a character in his own novel. Set in the panhandle of Florida, the story detours through the realities of backswamp life and historical tensions between the Seminole Native Americans and white settlers. Porter’s prose waxes poetic as he captures the nuances of schizophrenia through lyrical descriptions of Aubrey’s fixations and obsessions. There are achingly heartbreaking moments scattered throughout the narrative as Aubrey half-participates in his wife and son’s lives. What emerges is a sensitive, nuanced, sympathetic portrait of Porter’s middle-aged hero.

It may take a moment (or several) for readers to get adjusted to the deliberately meandering style, but Porter’s work is ultimately satisfying, reaping the rewards of playing with language and linear narrative. Readers who are familiar with stream-of-consciousness works will appreciate the intricate craftsmanship of this experimental story about detachment from reality.

Takeaway: This surreal and fantastical novel, full of hallucinations and heart, is sure to captivate anyone who loves a good tall tale.

Great for fans of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.

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

Social Work
Thomas Duffy
Duffy’s seventh novel (after 2018’s The Separation) is a gentle, earnest slice-of-life drama chronicling the awkward personal connections that arise in therapy. Marc Ziller, 28 and recently stabilized after a suicide attempt, initially resists group and individual therapy with social worker Lauren Davidson. As he begins to navigate reentry into life outside the hospital, including a new job, he finds Lauren a useful resource even as she puts the brakes on his pursuits of fame and a dating life. Meanwhile, Lauren starts a new romantic relationship with Ahmad, a man she meets on a dating site, but she considers pursing a friendship with Marc despite her professional boundaries.

Duffy’s narrative alternates between Marc and Lauren’s separate lives and their minimally therapeutic sessions together. However, it rarely takes the opportunity to explore their internal lives, and their mutual interest isn’t entirely supported by the story. Despite long, uninterrupted stretches of dialogue, the character voices are not distinct from one another, and the language often feels stilted (“We want to shed positivity on the group by showing them an example of someone who is actually doing well”). Conversations are imbalanced; pages of mundane chatter don’t advance the story, and big life decisions are made within a few lines. Lauren’s approaches to both social work and her personal life seem antiquated for contemporary New York City, and her relationship with Ahmad comes off as transactional and devoid of emotional spark.

Marc’s life outside of his sessions contains a good deal of humor: he hopes to date a television producer and become a star of her dating show Uninhibited Morons, makes clumsy attempts to date a customer from his retail job, visits a singles’ group, and playfully banters with a fellow patient. Marc’s frustrating experiences with dating while keeping his diagnosis of mental illness secret are relatable and the narrative never judges him for his choices even when things go poorly. Readers craving an offbeat happily-ever-after will find satisfaction in seeing Marc finally make the right romantic match.

Takeaway: Duffy’s compassionate depiction of a bumpy but successful recovery after a suicide attempt will be deeply relatable to people on a similar path and those who love them.

Great for fans of Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Phillippa Perry and Junko Graat’s Couch Fiction: A Graphic Tale of Psychotherapy.

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

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20/20
B SHAWN CLARK
Debut author Clark introduces young readers to survivalism in this warm-hearted tale of a boy’s adventures during a time of climate upheaval. In a future world under constant threat from storms and floods, an elderly white man known as Captain begins to record memories of his childhood in 2020s Miami. As a boy, Captain meets two survivalists, a white man named Harrison and a Native American woman named Calusa, who show him the basics of off-the-grid living. When a massive storm ravages their neighborhood, the unlikely trio bring their community together to build self-sufficient homes across Florida.

Clark’s handling of racial matters, while well-intentioned, is somewhat flawed. The explicit use of racial slurs and hateful language, clearly intended to demonstrate their hurtfulness, feels gratuitous. Clichés abound as a Native American medicine man takes Captain’s sister on a vision quest (after which she changes her name to White Feather) and pronounces Captain “one of us” even as Captain continues thinking of Calusa as an “Amazon Warrior Princess.” The apparently surprising sight of a mixed-race group working harmoniously together feels more 1920s than 2020s, as do a reference to Captain’s mother being a “candy striper” at a hospital and the boy’s use of phrases such as “hauled off to the hoosegow.”

In the first half of the book, Harrison introduces his ardent student (and thereby the reader) to practical concepts of self-reliance: filtering water naturally, growing vegetables, generating electricity, and so on. The action picks up as the big storm approaches. The framing device for each chapter, in which the elderly Captain encounters something that triggers a childhood memory, eventually becomes wearing. However, the childhood scenes themselves are educational and often uplifting, grounding optimism in realistic ways for individuals to help one another. This tale about the importance of living at one with the planet will strike a chord with readers eager for pointers to a more sustainable present and future.

Takeaway: This road map to living harmoniously with the planet educates young readers through an uplifting story of communities coming together.

Great for fans of Johann Rudolf Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson, Darren Simpson’s Scavengers.

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

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Surrounded by Others and Yet So Alone: A Lawyer's Case Stories of Love, Loneliness, and Litigation
J. W. Freiberg
Attorney and former social psychology professor Freiberg (Growing Up Lonely: Disconnection and Misconnection in the Lives of Our Children) assembles a sparkling collection of exceedingly erudite essays on human nature as seen through the lens of some of his most memorable legal cases. For over three decades in Boston, Freiberg worked for child protective social service organizations, adoption agencies, and many psychiatrists, psychologists, and clinical social workers. The majority of his stories center on children and the social and psychological stresses that litigants experience and inflict on one another in legal proceedings.

One of the most heartstring-tugging pieces is “The Girl Who Inherited France,” the story of a bright six-year-old whose mother dies suddenly from a stroke. In a protracted custody battle, her stepfather fights to keep custody of the little girl he considers his daughter. Another story likely to elicit tears is “Three Souls Caught in a Spider’s Web,” the tale of a bakery owner and battered wife who helps her isolated stepson to find a forever home. The author’s passion for his subjects will readily be shared by the reader. The theme of solitude and loneliness connects the essays, but each one takes a different approach, and each child is a sympathetically depicted individual.

Though billed primarily as an analysis of loneliness, this is far from a dry textbook. Freiberg has a master storyteller’s skillful voice, easily drawing readers into his narratives and keeping them enthralled. He teaches through relevant examples rather than dry pronouncements and expertly gets to the emotional heart of each case, immediately garnering empathy for each person he profiles. The closing section has a more academic tone but is still very accessible and reader-friendly. Expertly written and perfectly paced, Freiberg’s work puts a human face on the law and will have considerable appeal for anyone interested in human nature both at its best and at its worst.

Takeaway: Anyone with an interest in loneliness, solitude, or the sorrows of children caught in litigation will be enthralled by these erudite and sympathetic essays.

Great for fans of Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, E.O. Wilson’s On Human Behavior.

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

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