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John the Angelic: A Chronicle of Pope Joan
A.P. Andes
Andes shines in the first volume of this ninth-century historical literary fiction quartet, The Latecoming West, based on the early medieval life of Pope Joan. After 16-year-old Joan’s father is killed and she finds her overbearing mother impossible to live with, Joan leaves town with the intention of passing herself off as a boy and joining a monastery—the beginning of her journey from Joan to John the Angelic. Along the way, she becomes attracted to a young man named Clovis of Basinesheim, who tests her resolve to lead a monastic life.

Andes’s beautiful prose abounds in this novel, with phrasing such as “dawn alone murdered every infinity” and “sweet, burnt tars of carbon slice through the eye’s albumen, the moon lopped from its branch halts mid-drop.” On the other hand, some bold interludes, covering philosophical subjects or how the music of Joy Division is “the recording of the real beyond reality,” quickly become distracting, despite being crafted to offer “an enhanced reading experience.” (A lengthy excursion into a head-cheese eating contest is stomach-churning.)

Long a scholar of Joan’s journey from Joan to John the Angelic, Andes has obviously done extensive historical research, which is evident on every page—from his recounting of 9th century septic systems to early Catholic theology, and he backs it all up with meticulously detailed bibliographic citations. Andes also aptly explores the importance and dichotomy of women in the church in an innovative and compelling way: “Why then, hast Thou permitted men of the Church to so entomb women of faith, so that we are as no more than pets or beasts of burden within the walls of Thy house?” The story ends on a cliffhanger of sorts, which may annoy get-to-the-point observers, but readers unfamiliar with Pope Joan (as well as those who worship her) will glean a valuable history lesson about this lesser-known figure, and fans will find themselves looking forward to the next volume in the quartet.

Takeaway: History buffs—particularly those enamored of Pope Joan—will devour this impeccably researched and skillfully written tale

Great for fans of: Donna Woolfolk Cross’s Pope Joan, Hella S. Haasse’s In a Dark Wood Wandering.

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

American Faust
Richard Brown Jr
Brown’s ambitious debut follows the deal-with-the-devil tale of James Harris, an aspiring entrepreneur who finds himself in need of money for his latest foray into the information technology sector. His prayers are answered when a mysterious benefactor known as “The Chairman” offers an exorbitant sum, on one condition: James must travel to his Connecticut hometown and check in on the mysterious Revson estate. James had heard it had burnt to the ground in a lightning storm, but the Chairman insists that, in fact, a woman currently is living there. James tries “to fit the opposing truths together, but they wouldn’t make a whole” as he arrives at the house, enters the premises, and finds himself in a timeless world, away from his responsibilities–and soon tempted by the kind of too-good-to-be-true deal that the title promises.

Composed in part of vignettes, elaborate back stories, and theatrical scenes that lean heavily against the fourth wall, this gripping novel combines surprising storytelling approaches and a time-crossing narrative in which past, present, and future converge for the finale. Brown’s character development is intricately drawn, examining the complex points of view of the major players, especially James and, eventually, in the novel’s 1960s thread, Sharon Peters, a Connecticut divorcee whose descent into Club Heaven & Hell in Greenwich Village is a standout sequence that will shape many fates.

Romantic, thoughtful, sometimes bizarre, and rendered in crisp, memorable prose, American Faust offers mysteries that will please readers who prefer some subtlety in depictions of the uncanny, particularly the open-ended climax that invites numerous interpretations and will leave readers who relish the elusive hungry for more, though fans of straight-ahead genre fare may prefer a simpler approach. In playing in the realm of Goethe, Brown plays with form, expectations, perspectives, and the great themes of the original. American Faust follows in the steps of a classic by forging its own singular path.

Takeaway: This rich and playful deal-with-the-devil tale will enrapture readers with the ways relationships can harm and heal us.

Great for fans of: John Banville’s Mefisto, Ogan Gurel’s Waves.

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

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Alice and Antius
Kit Ingram
Ingram’s novel-in-verse presents a lyric colloquy between parents and life partners Alice and Antius, the former a scientist, the latter a poet, as they face life in a world ravaged by climate change. Intensely intimate, the conversation finds the pair holding tightly to each other (“my ear to your heartbeat / listening for a thrill”) as their ever-expanding caravan wends its way through “the hottest summer on record” beneath “clouds flickering over a grave of trees.” The couple seize moments of peace and beauty (“a perfection of calm / a quirk of stars”) as they set about the good work of raising children born to a fallen society. Time passes, the Earth grows less hospitable, and as they face a possible ending Alice and Antius increasingly look back, recalling “a summer before the ash fell” and wondering at what point humanity should have understood that it had poisoned its own world.

Pained, tender, and vividly rendered, this elegy for the Anthropocene twines the couple’s philosophical, scientific, and highly personal musings with arresting, often disquieting visions of a natural world in dangerous flux, where “thawing earth” lets loose “corpse-y smells” and ash continually falls. For the couple and readers alike, time is unclear, the days and seasons drifting past, the children growing, the sky dying. In crisp, inviting lines with no wasted words, Ingram sets down perceptions, wishes, bursts of nostalgia, finding surprising beauty where you might expect despair. The effect is a portrait not just of a changed world but of changed people, bound by love but facing existential questions.

Alice and Antius centers on the couple’s drift of mind as the Earth burns humanity away rather than factions and battles common to post-apocalyptic fiction. Brianna Tosswill’s illustrations pair memorably with the verse, capturing the couple in a dance, imagining practicalities like how a roller-bag suitcase could make a crib, and tying the layout together with landscapes, eclipses, and boiling skies.

Takeaway: This moving, gorgeous novel in verse imagines the lives and minds of lovers facing a world ravaged by climate change.

Great for fans of: C.D. Wright’s Casting Deep Shade, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

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

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Permission
Marc Kristal
They don’t write ‘em like Permission anymore. Kristal’s biting, beautiful, sex-soaked novel of a screenwriter’s unraveling is as bluntly masculine as it is bookishly cultured: Just pages in, Kristal writes “Stripped, my wife proved to be perfection, reminding me of Edward Weston’s nudes of Tina Modotti, sunbathing on the azotea.” The accounts of dalliances with sex workers to come, powered by the protagonist’s perfect intersection of self-loathing and disposable income, are similarly precise, turned-on, and simultaneously disgusted and unapologetic. “And are you an upscale gentleman?” they tend to ask, rousing the protagonist to muse “Though I could appreciate the desire of the businesswoman to determine how much the customer might be good for, ‘upscale’ seemed such a dispiriting word, so product-and-lifestyle oriented.” That quote exemplifies Permission: louche but glittering, impolite but incisive, as hung up on words as it is on sex, always written with rare brio and clarity.

The story’s both simple in outline and richly complex in the telling, something like life. As the ‘80s edge into the ‘90s, a New York writer, convinced he’s the one who could capture his generation “in acerbic, sharply-etched works that might stand as testaments to a time and place,” enters recklessly into a marriage that soon goes south. After a couple rough years, he ventures to Los Angeles for an escape from the fights … and a crack at true cultural prominence. There he faces depression, a $5,000-a-month sex and coke habit, and the end of his discipline and optimism.

True to his word, though, that narrator offers us a sharply etched testament to Los Angeles in the 1990s, from the perspective of Mailer-loving not-quite-genius who elects to “[murder] shame by embracing it.” Vividly detailed, shot through with heartache, and slicingly funny about the humiliations of life as a screenwriter—"I’d been subjected to the process of development, an ordeal that began with the assumption that what I’d written was a failure”— Permission will thrill lovers of old-school, id-driven literary novels.

Takeaway: An incisive, hilarious, sex-drenched novel of ‘90s Hollywood and a screenwriter’s addictions.

Great for fans of: Bruce Wagner’s Force Majeure, Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?.

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

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SO WE LIE
WILLOW ROSE
Rose’s newest, a prequel in the Eva Rae Thomas Mystery series, reaches back to tell a story from newly-minted FBI profiler Eva’s early career, who determines that a cold-case—designated an open-and-shut domestic murder—might be more complicated than it seems. The case involves Arlene Wood, a young wife and mother who crashed her car into a tree in the wee hours of the morning. Arlene’s husband was arrested for her death, but Eva starts to suspect that the killer might still be at large and, even worse, might strike again. Given Eva’s initial place in the FBI hierarchy, she has little authority to reopen the case and must convince her superiors, and the victim’s family, to revive it.

Rose is known for her plot-twists, and readers who enjoy a fast-paced, exciting storyline with surprises will not be disappointed. The mystery is compelling and the prose is efficient, propelling the plot forward throughout the novel’s entirety. At the same time, Rose manages to craft character details that readers will easily connect with: fans of strong female characters with plenty of gumption will appreciate Eva’s willingness to do what she believes is right, regardless of the personal cost, and the portrait of Eva and Chad’s struggling marriage is particularly well-rendered.

Some readers may be daunted by the sprawling cast of characters to keep track of, and the plot’s premise—that a new FBI agent would be able to reopen and take the lead on a closed case—demands some suspension of disbelief. The narrative would have benefited from inclusion of more detail regarding the FBI’s structure and policies, especially as our rookie hero is immediately so convinced she’s right about a person’s innocence that she is willing to put her nascent career on the line. Despite some plausibility issues, and some phrasing that comes across as stilted, readers itching for a fast-paced, intriguing mystery will find much here that’s appealing.

Takeaway: A high-speed mystery that will satisfy readers looking for twists and a strong female protagonist.

Great for fans of: Louisa Luna’s Two Girls Down, Lisa Regan’s The Bones She Buried.

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

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My Queen, My Love: A Novel of Henrietta Maria
Elena Maria Vidal
In the first of her Henrietta of France trilogy, Vidal (Marie-Antoinette, Daughter of the Caesars) paints a lush, passionate portrait of the life of Henriette-Marie, a seventeenth century French princess descended from the Bourbons and Medicis. Wed to King Charles I of England at the tender age of fifteen, Henriette is determined to bring Catholicism back to England, despite her Protestant husband and the country’s “hatred of Catholicism.” Often buffeted by political and social forces beyond her control, Henriette, known in England as Queen Mary, faces the challenges she encounters with the courage and resolve that she draws from her deep Catholic faith.

Firmly grounded in real historical events and settings, Vidal breathes life into Henriette’s era through extensive, evocative descriptions of its clothing, food, and palaces. This attention to detail offers a tantalizing immersion in this royal world, from the elaborately-costumed “masques” she and courtiers create to entertain the King at holiday celebrations to her beloved spaniel, Hebe. Vidal also illustrates the complexity of royal life through her careful elaboration of the complicated web of marriages, kinships, and associations. Some readers will be overwhelmed by the many branches of the royal family tree, but the text’s clear exposition and strong narrative arc offer clarity and guidance.

Vidal highlights the most important characters through her vivid depiction of their personalities and motivations. Antagonist George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, creates a true sense of menace as he threatens Henriette and works to disempower her. Although she is pure and steadfast in her intentions, Henriette’s struggles to balance her devotion to her husband and to her faith will earn readers’ respect and sympathy, even if they do not share her allegiance to the Catholic church. Offering insight into the passions behind the protocols, My Queen, My Love infuses these historical figures with humanity.

Takeaway: Readers of historical fiction will appreciate the depth and nuance Vidal brings to this often overlooked historical figure.

Great for fans of: Philippa Gregory, Elizabeth Chadwick, Elizabeth Fremantle.

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

The DrugTech Trilogy
Marcel Victor Sahade
Sahade’s surprising, epic-length thriller centers on the downfall of a pharmaceutical company that, “interested in profits, not cures,” suppresses a cure for cancer, among other nefarious acts. Readers may glean some of that from the back cover, but the novel, presented in three parts, doesn’t reveal its arc for many pages—or even, really, that it’s a novel at all. The DrugTech Trilogy starts as a series of short, arresting stories with fantastical, unsettling premises, running just a few pages each, only revealing obvious connections to each other after a dozen or so have passed. Here’s a pirate captain plotting to murder his first mate once they gather a secret treasure; here’s a medium at her crystal ball, questioned by police for her role in relieving a sucker of a fortune, saying, “Sergeant Gillcrist back at the station suspects you and is going to open that locker in the next 25 minutes.”

And, in the thick of these mysterious flash fictions, here’s DrugTech, and several stories about scientists engineering brain transplants, discovering proof that the soul exists, possibly manipulating time and space with “Trans Warp Inducer”—and hinting that maybe not everyone’s actually human. The stories touch on con artists, barristers, felons, astronauts, nuns, and more. The strongest reveal their genre and premise at a climactic point, pulling the rug from under the reader and some of the characters, who often discover their existence to be stranger than they had expected.

By the third part, characters have begun to recur, the stories now more like chapters in a novel, revealing a broader narrative about DrugTech, Trans Warp Inducers, and—this makes sense in context—the naval fleet of the Ottoman Empire. The structure might prove more engaging if the characters were more memorable or vividly rendered; they don’t always ring a bell when readers re-encounter them hundreds of pages later. Still, while unwieldy, The DrugTech Trilogy offers a high level of invention and disquieting scenarios.

Takeaway: A twisty, SF-touched pharma thriller told in eclectic short stories with unsettling and surprising premises.

Great for fans of: The Future Is Short: Science Fiction In A Flash, Lauren Beukes.

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

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A Buzz Volume 1
Jacob Lightman
High-tech meets the Earth’s distant past in this imperial alternate-history epic, Lightman’s debut. Set in South America some 6,500 years ago, Lightman’s vivid adventure, the kickoff to a series, finds young commander Jaway Barbour of the technologically advanced continent-spanning empire known as the Land leading a military squad that, told it’s “a catalyst for peace,” faces off against the rebellious clans of what’s known as the Wild Territories. A bombing at the book’s start scrambles Jaway’s mission, though most of A Buzz focuses not on military action—or the possibility, familiar to this genre, that the seemingly utopian empire might harbor dark secrets—but instead is concerned with character, camaraderie, and team and worldbuilding, as it follows Jaway and others on a long, convivial series of bonding and training adventures in the rainforest.

A humane and empathetic writer, Lightman emphasizes the connections between his cast as they engage in what reads at times like the greatest ever wilderness spa adventure package: between cardio sessions, they down natural elixirs that purge body and mind, take candlelit river swims, wage contests and games at waterfalls and pyramids, and even feast on the delicacy of a giant spider that attacks a companion. “In The Land, it was common to share and express feelings openly in safe spaces,” Lightman writes. A Buzz is as attentive to flora and fauna as it is to characters’ emotions, and Lightman describes the Land’s technologies (among them: kleck, zornpas, wongers, fydons, organic gliders that expel compost) with clarity and verve.

All that detail and companionable low-stakes training, though, comes at the cost of narrative momentum, as the mysteries of the conflict between the Wild Territories and The Land wait to be explored in later volumes. The final pages suggest that conflict is more complex than Jaway and co. understand, and a lengthy flashback revealing the secret parentage of an imperial tyrant several centuries earlier all point to richer drama to come.

Takeaway: Fans of team- and world-building will enjoy accompanying this ancient Earth SF epic’s inviting cast through the rainforest.

Great for fans of: Alan Dean Foster’s Midworld, Thoraiya Dyer’s Crossroads of Canopy.

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

Click here for more about A Buzz Volume 1
The Full Extent: An Inquiry into Reality and Destiny
Richard Botelho
“We must expand our perspectives in order to break through societal stagnation,” Botelho writes in this call to visionary action. Drawing from his study of quantum mechanics and the demonstrated fact that the human mind, through observation, “compels electrons to become real things, controlling their characteristics and behavior,” Botelho urges scientists and thought leaders to acknowledge that “experiment after experiment proves that reality is a product of Mind.” Botelho calls this the “primacy of Consciousness” (and, by extension, Spirit) and posits that better understanding it will lead to better understanding our existence and universe—and help usher in a future “full of purpose and creativity.” Botelho argues not just that quantum research demonstrates that consciousness preceded the Big Bang itself, but that to refuse to face this is tantamount to insisting that the world is flat.

With crisp, clear prose and the patience to build and guide readers through an argument, Botelho decries how scientific materialism has mostly limited scientific inquiry to the physical realm, rather than what he calls the “endless opportunity” of the immaterial realm—the realm of mind and spirit. This is heady material, invitingly written, with Botelho taking care to introduce the experiments and discoveries he discusses in a manner that quantum novices can follow. He’s attentive to what context is crucial for comprehension, and as he presented consciousness as the “organizer of existence” he’s generous in presenting the mind-blowing implications, reconciling physics, metaphysics, and varied religious possibilities as his arguments build, naturally, to consider the mind of a Creator.

Botelho views dedicated research into the role of consciousness in shaping existence as something like the dawning of a new enlightenment, but recognizes the reasons such research is rare. “Society rewards those who practice reality instead of exploring it,” he notes, and even readers not ready to join in celebrating the mind of God as an “immeasurable infinity” will likely be persuaded that the tantalizing role of consciousness in creation deserves further investigation.

Takeaway: This searching treatise, steeped in quantum mechanics, calls upon scientists to examine the role that mind and spirit play in creating reality

Great for fans of: Paul Levy’s Quantum Revelation, Nancy Patterson’s Quantum Physics and the Power of the Mind.

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

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Portrait of a Woman Madly in Love
Boman Desai
Betrayed by her husband, Farida Cooper of Bombay, the heir to a massive and quite publicly known fortune, endeavors to live a life of her own, not knowing that doing so may prove more painful than she expects. Having had everything she has ever needed but longing for success on her own terms, Farida sets her sights on academia, moves to the U.S., and falls in love—all of which come with inevitable heartache and trouble. Committed to being independent, Farida’s hopes of becoming a writer–she lands a story in The Atlantic–and later artist are thwarted when she is sidetracked by other plans, namely love. When she falls for a young man who’s “trim with the effortlessness only a teenager could manage,” she must face the tensions stirred up by such an affair, specifically family and society.

Set against the changing times of the middle of the 20th century, Desai's intimate novel digs into pressing themes of love, marriage divorce, education, and feminism as it weaves the threads of its determined protagonist’s quest for independence. Through the lens of a Parsi woman, Desai explores cultural and familial expectations. Desai's third-person narrative style is largely based on detailing intimate thoughts and letting readers overhear much character dialogue. The novel is long, but Desai invests such telling detail and engaging context into the telling, that readers of novels about women in the world will remain immersed, caught up in descriptions that are simple and beautiful.

Protagonist Farida is fully developed, and her psyche is absorbing. Due to the complexity of Farida’s life, readers may at times even want more of her on the page, and Desai doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to setting up secondary characters. Readers of romance will find the plot familiar, though the love story takes a backseat to Farida’s ups and downs, which will ring true to anyone familiar with what it takes to break from family culture or face heartache.

Takeaway: A Bombay heiress spirals into academia, the U.S., and a surprising romance in this culture-crossing novel.

Great for fans of: Bharati Mukherjee, Rishi Reddi.

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

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Pagasa: This is the Future of War
FX Holden
Holden is back with another dynamic novel in his accomplished Future War series. This high-flying political thriller paints a grim future where, as China and the U.S. teeter on the brink of war in the 2030s, China discovers that the US plans to send resources and weapons to the small island of Pagasa—to fortify it against the threat of a Chinese takeover. Provoked, China quickly moves to attack Pagasa, in hopes that a victory will solidify its control of the South China Sea as well as the Pagasa territory and its fishing industry. Enter the U.S. military and a merchant marine vessel racing to Pagasa’s aid. Who will come out on top—and at what cost?

Densely packed with the innovative tech and high-stakes cliffhangers the genre demands,Pagasa approaches its international conflict from every possible side, with a large ensemble ranging from U.S. Navy officers and Chinese military to two young children who must quickly adapt when their island becomes a military flashpoint. That interest in the humanity of all parties sets Holdens work apart. Pilot Karen “Bunny” O’Hare’s no-nonsense attitude and ability to react quickly under pressure make her a standout in the sea of characters, and while many of the main players find themselves thrust onto the front lines of this battle, a handful of politicians navigate the war safely behind closed doors, leaving readers with a chilling realization of who is really pulling the strings.

To achieve that, Holden’s narrative must dart rapidly between viewpoints, mimicking the chaos of war and the quick wit needed to survive it. To help orient readers, Holden supplies a comprehensive cast list as well as a detailed map of the island area for reference. Although Pagasa is part of a larger series, it can be read as an inviting standalone. Readers looking to sink into a war saga rich with differing perspective–and gape at the possibilities of next-gen tech–will enjoy this thriller.

Takeaway: This accomplished high-tech, near-future military thriller admirably examines all sides of its vivid international conflict.

Great for fans of: Richard Herman’s The China Sea, Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis’s 2034: A Novel of the Next World War.

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

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Wheet, Wheet, and Repeat!
Marianne Paidas
On her birthday one winter, eight year-old Sarina spots a bright red cardinal out in the snow in her backyard. To truly savor the moment she must pay close attention, and with the help of her mom, Sarina becomes not only a keen observer of the wildlife in her backyard but also learns lessons about cooperation from the cardinal’s behavior, especially as she learns about how the birds care for each other. Accompanied by vivid, almost impressionistic digital illustrations, Wheet, Wheet, and Repeat! is an ode not only to the beauty and splendor of cardinals, but also to the rewards of simply paying attention to the world around you and to the rhythm of the seasons.

Ed Tuttle’s illustrations are gorgeous, varied, and full of life, stirring a sense of motion and discovery as the reader turns the pages, though it’s tempting to linger over spreads like the one depicting a bevy of birds feasting at a feeder, complete with an inset depiction of a budding tree leaf, which anticipates the story’s next development and ties directly into the text. The art is matched by prose that’s rich with lively, inviting description: a cardinal’s feathers are “the color of Nonni’s tomato sauce” and his eyes “are pin dots, black as the tar of her driveway.”

Young naturalists and fans of evocative language will appreciate the beauty and lessons in this heartfelt and informational book. Paidas’s writing style and penchant for complex and descriptive words (“captivated,” “inquisitive,”) could put off or confuse younger readers, but for older kids provides ample opportunity for discussion about the new words. Perfect for reading aloud, with its rhythmic and almost poetic cadence and writing style, Wheet, Wheet, and Repeat! is a fantastic addition to any bookshelf, especially when looking for seasonal books, books about nature, and books with realistic details.

Takeaway: This vivid story of bird-watching invites young readers to relish nature and learn from the world around them.

Great for fans of: David Opie’s All the Birds in the World, Megan Wagner Lloyd’s Finding Wild.

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

Click here for more about Wheet, Wheet, and Repeat!
Scattered Legacy: Murder in Southern Italy
Marlene M. Bell
In the engaging third mystery in Bell’s Annalisse Series, antiques expert Annalisse Drury flies with her swoon-worthy millionaire boyfriend Alec Zavos to Bari, Italy, for a working vacation. But a mafia-connected woman’s murder puts Josh Jennings—a shady coworker of Alec’s deceased father—in the police spotlight, threatening Alec’s sale of his family’s lucrative business. One murder leads to another, all while Annalisse searches for clues about an ancient rosary’s ownership, the nexus of multiple mysteries. A crime-scene calico cat named Stella, a nun who speaks in riddles, and a dash of romance keep the pace rapid in this solid whodunnit.

Bell’s plethora of characters charm but can also overwhelm, challenging the reader to guess which ones play essential roles in this sleight-of-hand suspense. Readers already familiar with the earlier Annalisse sleuth mysteries will have a leg up when it comes to following Scattered Legacy’s narrative. Several portraits are recognizable types, such as a mafia godfather known as “The Birdman,” and others are strikingly original, but all add welcome, vivid liveliness. Throughout, Bell delivers memorable scenery, complete with orecchiette pasta dishes and tarantella music, tempting readers to book a one-way flight to southern Italy.

Best of all, Annalisse’s wry interpretations of events offer laugh-out-loud moments—she is a unique detective, endowed by Bell with a distinctive snappy voice in narration and dialogue both. Her expertise and nearly supernatural ability to detect an object’s significance by touching it combine to fascinating effect, such as when the centuries-old rosary medallion hurts her hand, and ominous artifacts like a blackbird broach planted in her purse add to the juicy intrigue. Although her relationship with Alec takes a back seat to solving the crimes, their love culminates in a climactic shocker the reader won’t forget. Both travel junkies and mystery lovers will savor Bell’s polished and witty mystery.

Takeaway: Mystery fans will relish this sly whodunnit, in which an antiques expert sleuth is on the case in romantic Italy.

Great for fans of: David P. Wagner’s Cold Tuscan Stone, Adriana Licio.

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

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The Journeyman Life: The Not-So-Perfect Path to a Life Well Lived
Tony C. Daloisio, PhD
Psychologist Daloisio has astutely blended his professional knowledge as a practicing psychologist and his personal life experiences to create this self-help guide for men looking to make the first steps toward change, such as better connecting with a significant other, being a better friend, becoming more open and less guarded, and more. With a warm, open, and can-do demeanor, The Journeyman Life balances the practical and the thought-provoking, arguing that it’s possible to defuse anger, frustration, and other negative emotions, and always writing with an attentive eye to the ever-shifting cultural assumptions and standards that men face. Daloisio knows the impact of change, saying, “Our quest for the evolution of our own life is at stake, but in truth, the stakes are much higher than that.” For readers committed to bettering themselves, Daloisio’s stand-out guide offers a simple, inviting place to start.

Writing with a professional’s authority but the welcoming voice of a patient coach, Daloisio offers research, understanding, and personal stories to help motivate readers, always keeping the material accessible. Similarly, he demonstrates aptitude for targeting different types of learners—he provides functional outlines, tells personal stories, and practical guidelines as he demonstrates the power of engaging in “true dialogue” or how to reveal the inner self.

“There are three thousand words in the English language related to feelings, and they are perhaps some of the least understood of all words for men,” Daloisio writes. That’s overstating the case a bit, of course, but The Journeyman Life acknowledges that personal reflection, self-care, and change can be challenging, particularly for men, who are often not encouraged toward this kind of growth. Daloisio’s clear-eyed program lays out the stages of change, how change works in the brain, and how the behavior of change looks practically. His stages of change and his posture while guiding readers through change are universal.

Takeaway: This inviting guide coaches men in facing emotions, connecting with people, and making changes.

Great for fans of: Garrett Munce’s Self-Care for Men, Robert Garfield’s Breaking the Male Code.

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

Click here for more about The Journeyman Life
Chemical Engineering Made Simple: Process to Progress
Diana Tran
Tran makes chemistry engaging and comprehensible for young adult readers in this compact guide. She steers her audience through the basic steps of chemical engineering—raw materials, process, product, and progression—in a simplified way that uses familiar objects to create teaching moments, while breaking down complex ideas into graspable steps. In order to generalize what can be a complicated topic, Tran stresses that chemical engineering is “in the food we eat, the beverages we drink, the clothes we wear, the electricity we use…it is everywhere!” Whether explaining what makes a potato chip crispy or demonstrating why perfume pleases the nose, Tran approaches science with an inviting, structured style that will win over her readers.

Like all the best teachers, Tran never loses sight of the basics but illustrates concepts in a way that makes them memorable, providing clear-cut definitions that will be a relief to readers who struggle with understanding challenging scientific information. For every process she analyzes, Tran includes the important terminology, alongside an abridged explanation and helpful connections to our daily lives, to ensure readers absorb the lesson: for example, when learning how sunscreen is made, readers will also discover how stabilisers “help bind the product together” and the different ways that mixing time can affect its consistency.

Educators will welcome the inspired examples Tran uses to demonstrate the chemical processes behind “some of the common things in everyday life,” like her analysis of making a light bulb—“timing is key!” when it comes to melting the glass, in order to achieve a perfectly shaped bulb. The illustrators, an Australian graphic design and illustration company, include entertaining graphics to depict Tran’s chemical processes, offering cartoonish representations of soap being made or showing how milk is transformed into a powder. Readers will appreciate the pleasures of the visuals, as well as Tran’s straightforward approach, which combine to make this instructive tool a fun way to master scientific concepts.

Takeaway: An entertaining and inviting explanation of chemical engineering processes behind everyday products.

Great for fans of: DK’s The Science Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained, Ainissa Ramirez’s The Alchemy of Us.

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

The Kindred
J.M. Wright
Wright’s gritty mental-ward thriller centers on a young woman, Rose, who takes a job at Alabman’s Kendrick State Sanitarium in 1962, where she meets—and forms a surprising bond with—a notorious killer. The six-time murderer is Jody, a young Black woman whose brutal backstory of abuse and rape thunders through the opening chapters in counterpoint with the perspectives of the novel’s other mysterious figures: a low-ranking mob tough who gets tasked by the don with a personal favor, and Annette, a supervisor at Kendrick State, covers up the secrets of Warden Cravens, who demands trial “subject”s for reasons Wright teases out slowly.

Meanwhile, unsettled Rose is shocked by what she finds making her rounds at the sanitarium, especially once she catches another Kendrick State worker (apparently) forcing himself upon Jody. Both women are Black and recognize that their lives and choices have been shaped by the same oppressive forces. Rose admires the way that Jody refuses to let sanitarium employees cut her hair, and she sees in Jody’s “long, beautiful” mane “a sign of her freedom, her independence, and a sign of rebellion against those who sought to keep her down.” Like Rose, readers will empathize with Jody, feeling for the horror she has endured, though we’re aware of the ways Jody manipulates Rose’s perceptions.

Wright weaves complex relationships between these characters, allowing them each opportunities to upend our expectations—even Annette, a figure who in other tellings might emerge as one-dimensional. The themes, too, are rich and at times challenging, as Wright explores mental health, systemic corruption, and the intense racial and gender dynamics of the mid-century American south, at a time when women like Rose are stirred by the speeches of Martin Luther King yet still see little evidence that freedom is anything but a dream. The assaults, violence, and eventual conflagration are harrowing, but the novel’s heart is in the promise of connection and freedom for young women “versed in the language of pain.”

Takeaway: This harrowing mental-ward thriller faces issues of racism and abuse in the mid-century American South.

Great for fans of: Megan Giddings’s Lakewood, Erin Kelly’s Stone Mothers.

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

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