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Dwarf Story
Professor W. W. Marplot
This middle grade contemporary fantasy debut, set in present-day Long Island, balances a sleuthing aesthetic, conflict between its preteen protagonists, and an exploration of Irish folklore and language. When an armed dwarf (of the fantasy variety) appears in Arty’s backyard, the anxious boy overcomes communication barriers to befriend him. Arty confides in some friends who soon meet their own magical companions. Action-driven Emma steals a magical map, and she and Arty ditch school to discover the reason these creatures have appeared: a brewing battle between the fairies and the Old Woman of the Mountain.

Unfortunately, Marplot’s fairy world’s simplistic good-and-evil turf war ultimately turns the story’s protagonists into pawns. Arty and Emma feel a bit sidelined in their own adventure; Emma loses her will under the mind magic of the evil Gwyllion, and all the characters follow the clues and puzzles created by the ancestors of a deus-ex-machina mentor who appears near the end of the book. Emma and Arty never quite get a chance to own their victory. As the magic fades away from the story, so too does its sense of wonder.

The magical creatures have an unearthly but relatable appeal, and their method of communicating with the kids by sharing images seen through their eyes offers a creative glimpse into fairyland. The alternating perspectives between Arty and Emma are well-balanced and give a wider view of the action, but short chapters narrated by minor characters, many of whom quibble about their representation, diffuse the immersive sense of adventure and pad out a book that already stretches out a little too long. Marplot plays well to young readers whose sense of adventure is balanced by their desire to learn, grounding his playfulness and whimsy with an excellent knowledge of folklore.

Takeaway: Middle grade readers looking for a fantasy grounded in Irish folklore will enjoy the detailed puzzles and, dynamic friendships in Marplot’s debut.

Great for fans of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, Jeremiah Curtin’s Irish Tales of the Fairies and the Ghost World.

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

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Emergency Powers
James McCrone
McCrone’s second political thriller featuring FBI agent Imogen Trager (after 2017’s Dark Network) continues the dogged investigator’s probe into a far-reaching conspiracy targeting the office of the Presidency. Her prior work on the Faithless Elector Task Force thwarted the plotters’ first scheme to steal the U.S. presidency, and the White House is now occupied by Democrat Diane Redmond, whose vice president, Bob Moore, is a Republican. After less than two months in office, President Redmond is found dead of an apparent heart attack, making Moore the Chief Executive. Trager suspects foul play and a connection to the Faithless Electors case. She and trusted colleague Amanda Vega dive into an investigation to find the truth and preserve democracy.

It’s odd to read about an America where Barack Obama was not succeeded by Donald Trump, and some readers might find it a challenge to navigate the novel’s alternate present without reading the first installment. Given Trager’s success in the prior book, and the higher stakes in this one, it strains belief that she doesn’t encounter more resistance or complications as she slowly pieces together the conspiracy. Some of her success feels convenient, such as when the bad guys make a groan-worthy mistake that leads to an over-the-top climax.

McCrone could do more to distinguish this from other thrillers centered on a secret cabal with eyes on the White House. The fast pace and twists carry readers along, and some of the prosaic details of paper investigations—tracking the bad guys through audit reports and campaign filings—work unusually well. McCrone’s research and political insight are an intriguing backdrop to this tale, sometimes holding the interest more than the central plot does, and will be a pleasant surprise to readers used to more gunplay-style action.

Takeaway: Political thriller fanatics with an interest in following paper trails will be satisfied by this second Imogen Trager investigation.

Great for fans of Brad Meltzer, David Baldacci.

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

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Ones & Zeroes: A Short Story Collection
M Walsh
Though many of the settings and characters retread familiar ground in this eerie anthology by Walsh (The Jinxed Pirate), twisty turns and dark humor knock the 14 stories askew, subverting tropes and turning ideas of heroism and Americana upside down. The only thing standing between humanity and a parasitic alien invasion in “Intervention” turns out to be an alcoholic cokehead a bit slow on the uptake. Is a cheerleader-type high school girl turning emo in “Fitting In,” or is she reacting to something more sinister than teenage angst? “Someone Else’s Story” features a hero who takes on a preternatural villain in a small-town diner. A married couple in “Look the Other Way” find refuge from a bloodthirsty monster at a small-town police station—or so they think. “Damsel” finds the intrepid Gwen being murdered over and over again in every universe, a comment on the practice of “fridging” female characters to give their male counterparts motivation. Meanwhile, in “The Mouse & and the Dragon,” a princess decides to rescue herself after multiple heroes fail.

Not all of Walsh’s stories are as clever in their execution. “Finding Bosco” doesn’t have nearly the same impact as its companion story, “Look the Other Way.” “His Friends,” a meandering tale of a woman stuck at a party with her boyfriend and his buddies, fails to deliver its promised thrills. Two bug stories, “Clash of the Titans” and “My Window,” are all setup and no payoff.

Despite these fumbles, those who calculate win/loss percentages on story collections will be impressed. Walsh’s collection is generally smart and genre-savvy, playing on reader expectations in surprising ways. He doesn’t shy away from camp, gore, crude characters, and twist endings, and even when his stories are heavy-handed, they rarely fail to be fun. Fans of tongue-in-cheek horror and trope-twisting fantasy will not be disappointed.

Takeaway: This collection of horror and fantasy shorts will appeal to genre-savvy fans of the darkly humorous.

Great for fans of David Wong’s John Dies at the End, Richard Matheson.

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

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Dynamicist: Dynamicist Trilogy Book 1
Lee Hunt
Mathematics matter as much as magic in Hunt’s inventive adult fantasy, a modern take on the wizarding school. Robert Endicott, a bright 18-year-old, enrolls at the New School to train to become a dynamicist, a mathematician who calculates careful “empyreal manipulation” to change the world in a precise way for a precise cost. Robert and his cohort spend more time working equations and contemplating the commodities market than mastering the dark arts. After a visionary dream, he becomes convinced that he and his fellow students are being hunted. As the students stare down the imminent 24-hour test that will determine whether they’re qualified to continue at the school, protesters take to the streets outside, denouncing new technological innovations.

Hunt proves himself a detailed worldbuilder, lavishing pages on futures trading and farm technology. This makes for a slow opening, but the story picks up once Robert meets his fellow students, each vividly drawn and transcending type. The group’s dialogue is raucous and its camaraderie affecting. Robert also experiences love, spurred by a pair of female classmates who seem to be stalking him, and rage, which stirs powerfully in him when a woman named Syriol is assaulted on campus. Syriol is an all but voiceless victim who “probably doesn't understand how she feels” and is healed by Robert’s unexplained love for her, a depiction that undermines Hunt’s earnest efforts to critique rape culture and the objectification of women.

Concerned with economics, architecture, and its protagonist’s philosophical musings, the novel moves deliberately, caught up in mind and milieu rather than plot. Readers eager for a thoughtful challenge to genre conventions will appreciate Hunt’s rigorous reimagining of how a society with access to magic might endeavor to train and regulate its users. The abrupt conclusion wraps up too few mysteries, setting the stage for the second book in the series. In Hunt’s immersive and intricate world, the big picture occasionally gets lost beneath the fine details, but this is a compelling story for readers who crave complex worldbuilding.

Takeaway: This intricate, philosophical update to the wizard-school story will appeal to fans of cerebral fantasy.

Great for fans of Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet.

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

Click here for more about Dynamicist
Mindfulness at the Park
Teresa Anne Power
Power and Allen’s delightful second Little Mouse Adventures picture book (after Yoga at the Zoo) brings Little Mouse and his best friend, Mr. Opus the cat, to the park with Tammy and her mom, the humans whom Mr. Opus lives with. Little Mouse and Mr. Opus have just learned some new yoga stretches with Tammy. They also learned about mindfulness, a way of staying calm and focused no matter what is going on around them. When they get to the park, they all practice together again. Little Mouse meditates so deeply that he doesn’t realize Mr. Opus and the family have left until he opens his eyes. But instead of panicking, he uses what he’s learned about mindfulness to stay calm and find them.

The witty writing and Allen's colorful, fun illustrations will entertain young readers as they teach the steps of calm breathing. Allen creates pretty, serene settings in the park and the family looks peaceful and happy. Young readers will giggle at the idea of Mr. Opus getting so relaxed he falls asleep on his face, and be relieved when Little Mouse and his new canine friend are reunited with their people. The pictures of Little Mouse and Mr. Opus practicing their breathing are charming and will keep children engaged.

Power’s simple steps for focusing on breathing and calming the mind are easy for young readers and their parents to practice together. As she leads readers through taking deep breaths in and out and counting to five, lovingly describing the family’s relaxation, both children and adults will find it easier to reach a more peaceful state of mind. This is an ideal read-aloud that will help readers of all ages find a few moments of calm in a stressful world.

Takeaway: At bedtime or anytime, this entertaining and calming lesson in mindfulness will help readers of all ages find a little peace of mind.

Great for fans of Gabi Garcia’s Find Your Calm, Michael Gordon’s I Am Mindful.

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

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Too Good to Be True: Scottsdale and Privatization in the 1980s
Paul Redvers Brown
Brown (coeditor of Water Centric Sustainable Communities) meticulously recounts the privatization of the Central Arizona Project Water Treatment Plant in Scottsdale, Ariz., exposing the triumphs and pitfalls of the complex Reagan-era project. Taking advantage of a variable-rate, tax-exempt municipal bond to save costs, Scottsdale hired Camp Dresser & McKee (CDM), a Boston-based environmental engineering firm, to design, build, and operate the plant. Brown was on the front lines as CDM’s corporate planner: young, ambitious, often idealistic, and “in so far over [his] head.” Brown narrates an educational play-by-play of how CDM, hesitant to enter a market it knew little about, hired numerous experts and came away from this first privatization of its kind with greater knowledge of the mechanics of project development, financing, problem-solving, and managing risk.

While sometimes oversharing extraneous details such as lunch meeting menus and flight schedules, Brown expertly evokes the 1980s era of greed-is-good corporate efforts. Illustrating the Scottsdale project’s backstory, Brown conjures the context and flavor of every step of CDM’s operation, including negotiating a construction agreement, examining Colorado River water quality issues, and recovering after the liquidation of its construction partner. All these proceedings are overseen by a cadre of colorful characters. Comfortable revealing personal details, Brown shares his own doubts peppered with bursts of determination.

Readers interested in large-scale construction and resource management projects will absorb Brown’s thorough overview of the Scottsdale project, the wins and the setbacks, and the intricacies of tax rates and sales documents. Professionals in any field can apply Brown’s information to a general business context, the enormous number of steps involved in corporate negotiations, and all the ways things can go wrong. This is useful and often gripping reading for MBAs and executives as well as urban planners and officials.

Takeaway: Readers interested in large-scale construction and resource management projects will be fascinated by this intricate recounting of privatizing a water treatment plant in the 1980s.

Great for fans of David McCullough’s The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge.

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

Herald
Lee Hunt
The searching, surprising second volume of Hunt’s Dynamicist Trilogy (after Dynamicist) finds the stakes higher, the pacing more assured, and Hunt’s challenges to the orthodoxies of fantasy storytelling more provocative. Favoring mathematics and thermometers over magic wands, Hunt’s students of “dynamics,” his world’s highly regulated wizardry, confront the mysteries introduced in the first book: What is the meaning of protagonist Robert Endicott’s “heraldic” dream? How can he prevent the mysterious cloaked figure who kills students from murdering his friends? And, just as pressingly, how can gifted, science-minded magicians help a riot-prone population that has been taught to fear all innovation?

Hunt’s not stingy with answers as his story widens in scope to include political conspiracy, a cult, and the threat of war. He renders scenes of action with crisp power, albeit with an overreliance on onomatopoeia such as “BRRRRAAAAA” and “CRRRACKKKKKKKKKKKKK,” and the action sequences are winningly varied. Readers will enjoy a tavern brawl, a fracas at an underground cult meeting, a confrontation with a legendary magician, and a desperate battle against monstrous “skolves,” in which Robert and his classmates must cooperate with everyday soldiers who are understandably skeptical of magic schoolboys.

The most memorable elements of the series remain Hunt’s philosophical provocations and his vividly detailed magical system. It’s a joy to see the characters dig into the study and theory of magic as well as the cultural consequences of its use. Engaging deeply with how heroes’ actions affect the lives of everyone else, this sequel finds Robert discovering the complex truths about why his world fears change. Even the cultists, he realizes, have their reasons. That richness occasionally comes at the cost of narrative momentum, especially in the first half, but the story picks up speed again for a climactic conclusion. This is an exciting, expansive, and ultimately satisfying exploration of the meaning of heroism, the economics of magic, and the role of innovation in society.

Takeaway: Readers looking for a thoughtful take on the wizard-school story will enjoy this mix of philosophy, mathematics, and action.

Great for fans of Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts.

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

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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

Click here for more about In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow
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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