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Bronson Beaver Builds a Robot
Teko Bernard
In this imaginative, middle-grade novel, Bernard (Bernard Jones is Going Places) introduces Bronson Beaver, a 13-year-old aspiring inventor who finds himself caught between friends and family responsibilities. When he learns that his family’s annual Pancake Festival overlaps with a high-paying video game tournament, Bronson must decide whether to help his mother and father or play for the prize money. Not wanting to let down his friends, who need the money to build a new workshop, Bronson invents a robot to work through his parent’s list of chores, allowing the young inventor to compete in the tournament. But when the robot malfunctions, Bronson must own up to his mistakes and rectify the situation before his family faces an important evaluation by a famed food critic.

This fast-paced young reader novel boasts a simple, engaging, well-written plot. Children with an interest in science and technology will gravitate toward Bronson, who, despite being a gifted inventor beaver, still proves relatable. Bronson’s friends, Franny Fox and Myron Mink, read like real teenagers: stubborn, frequently wrong, but always caring. The adults in the story, though, come across as uncommunicative and strict, personality traits that undercut the moral that hard work and relaxation must be balanced even as we all must take responsibility with what Bronson’s father calls “your own two paws.” Much of the book’s conflict could have been avoided if the adults talked to their son about how he was feeling.

Torn between hanging out with his friends and helping his parents with important chores, Bronson navigates the often-difficult world of growing up. The story’s lessons are welcome, especially for children facing increasing responsibilities as they age, and an emphasis on teamwork and diligence shines through. This novel moves fast enough to keep young readers entertained and may impart some wisdom along the way.

Takeaway: This fast-paced novel, focusing on a young inventor and his dueling responsibilities, is perfect for middle-grade readers interested in robot fun.

Great for fans of: Jackson Pearce’s Ellie, Engineer, Peter Brown’s The Wild Robot.

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

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The Devil's Safe
M.J. Holt
A targeted woman and a framed man must run for their lives in this action-driven thriller debut. Stella Fargo finds herself at the center of a deadly mystery with one just ally, Egan Bogart, a man she barely knows and hardly trusts. The two are knee-deep in a drug-fueled mystery thanks to the murder of Egan’s drug dealer friend Augie, who got killed before a big drop off. Now, the bad guys think Stella and Egan have the missing merchandise, and they’ll stop at nothing to get it back.

After a somewhat protracted opening, Holt crafts an intense game of cat-and-mouse, with danger and betrayal powering the narrative forward. Stella proves a formidable protagonist whose courage and inner strength grows over the course of the story. Not only is she facing down drug dealers--she’s also being stalked by her manipulative boss, whom she once dated, a subplot that keeps the stakes and tension high. Though she isn’t looking for a man to swoop in and save her, she finds comfort and companionship with Egan, who is determined to clear his name and keep both of them alive. Some readers may find that their mutual trust develops too quickly, but they both reveal themselves as strong characters with chemistry that lights up the pages.

Tucked amid the engrossing action are occasional interjected conversations about sexuality and gender that seem out of place, and a few scenes prove repetitive. One unsettling plot thread concerns a friend of Egan’s who wants to “mold” an addict into a “loving companion” for himself as she rehabilitates, making him her “savior”--unless Egan wants to “challenge” him for her. The surprise: Stella and Egan voice no objections. Still, the duo’s survival instincts will keep readers turning the pages and hoping for a happily ever after. Any crime thriller fan who loves a mystery will enjoy Holt’s sharp twists and turns.

Takeaway: This on-the-run crime thriller offers mystery fans dynamic leads, intense action, and surprising twists.

Great for fans of: Ann Cleeves’s Vera Stanhope series, Tana French.

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

Click here for more about The Devil's Safe
An Evil Trade
kenneth eade
This dark and twisty spy thriller, the latest in Eade’s Paladine Political Thriller series, portrays a team of battle-hardened agents as they combat international conspiracies in a world where betrayal lurks around every corner and shadowy groups pull everyone's strings. Robert Garcia, who does black ops work for a mysterious agency, is assigned to stop an ISIS plot to traffic in human organs. He accomplishes this with horrific efficiency, but a sudden betrayal sends Garcia in a new direction, in what increasingly looks like a suicide mission--and he can trust no one.

Eade puts the emphasis squarely on spy tradecraft in this series: Everyone uses burner phones destroyed after each use, webcams are disabled before laptops are accessed, and even smart TVs are suspect. Indeed, agents access a wide range of tools and weaponry, including high-tech listening devices, state-of-the-art firearms. and Garcia's beloved Glock, nicknamed Mr. Reliable. A last-minute disguise ploy of Garcia’s is shockingly fascinating. Some readers will find the armory discussions and professional details overwhelming, and some plot threads get tangled, but technothriller fans will relish the engaging action scenes.

Although the focus is largely on action, Eade doesn’t forgo character development. Garcia remains a chilling cipher: After a scene of appalling violence, he "slipped back onto the beach, swung the Valkyrie into the water, and walked slowly to his car." Indeed, his actions seem to be defined by his damaged psyche--"Robert had never questioned the orders of his superiors. He never asked himself whether a certain kill was right or wrong." Adding a little relief to the violence is his relationship with his elderly Greek friend Dimitri Galanos, who is "able to tame a part of Robert’s savageness with an education on the Zen art of fishing." Readers who like coolly competent killers plying their trade with unadorned prose will find themselves quickly turning pages until the end.

Takeaway: Fans of hard-edged spy thrillers who revel in well-choreographed violence will enjoy delving into this dark, conspiracy-laden world.

Great for fans of: Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum.

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

Click here for more about An Evil Trade
TARO: Legendary Boy Hero of Japan
Blue Spruell
Spruell’s engaging coming-of-age debut, centered on a young orphan who becomes a samurai warrior in feudal Japan, sparkles with historical detail and fairytale creatures. A casualty of ruthless political machinations in 17th century Japan, seven-year-old Tarō Takeda is orphaned when the villainous Lord Hashiba (known as Lord Monkey) murders his noble parents. Soon Tarō saves the life of Lord Tokugawa, who is angling to become Shogun (military leader) of all Japan and who rewards Tarō by training him to become a samurai. Both Tarō and Tokugawa strategize to stop Lord Monkey, who has murdered his way into becoming regent of the child emperor.

In crisp and lively prose, Spruell has reimagined the life of real 17th century samurai Takeda Shingen, adopting popular Japanese folklore and meticulous descriptions of swordplay and military tactics. Raised by a witch whose milk makes him grow stronger than normal boys, Tarō uses his magical powers for good as he trains with Master Yagyū and partners with Tokugawa’s teenage daughter, Kamehime (“turtle princess” and a skilled warrior in her own right), and Taro's pal, the shape-changing Tanuki (“raccoon-dog”), to exact revenge on Lord Monkey. Tarō, Kamehime, and Uncle Tanuki play cat and mouse with Lord Monkey’s samurai as they endeavor to protect the young emperor.

Spruell infuses an imagined feudal Japan and detailed descriptions of village life, trade, and the tea ceremony with the whimsy of folklore, talking swords, ogres, and vengeful Shinto gods (“A pale white apparition with a giant halo of rumbling thunder-drums, the very semblance of its wooden effigy, emerged from the giant statue to hover overhead”). The characters come to life with drama, eccentricity, and heart, depicted with charm in Miya Outlaw’s fanciful illustrations, which evoke woodblock prints. This inventive retelling will appeal to young adventure fans while inviting them into a rich world of folklore.

Takeaway: Adventure lovers all ages will enjoy this YA reimagining of one boy’s journey to become a samurai.

Great for fans of: William J. Puette’s The Tale of Genji, John Allyn’s 47 Ronin, Yei Theodora Ozaki’s Japanese Fairy Tales.

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

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The Twitter President: a novel in tweets
Mark Schreiber
This over-the-top political satire, written in Tweet form, follows the surprising rise and staggering fall of a paranoid, populist President through his own outlandish social media posts. When Carl Rumble, a narcissistic infrastructure mogul, gets elected President of the United States, he begins broadcasting his every thought, leaking government secrets and sharing intimate details of his personal life. Rumble ranges from incompetent to unhinged: He suggests moving Mount Rushmore to New Jersey, attempts to climb Mount Everest in a bid to make Nepal the 51st state (“A hundred Sherpas are getting Secret Service training as we speak”), and openly advocates for war between China and Taiwan. But when an investigation into a faulty bridge in Boston gains traction with the FBI, Rumble’s oversharing presents a real threat to the Republic.

The format for this comic rebuke of tribalism and online discourse hinders the narrative and message. Writing in Tweets may suit short-form fiction pieces, but over the course of this longer work character development, dialogue, and emotional depth all become secondary to the form. Schreiber occasionally includes full dialogue scenes, accounts of spoken conversations between characters broken into traditional but Tweet-length paragraphs (“‘She’s not the same sex, Mom,’ Cindy shouted. ‘The idea of just two sexes is so yesterday’”), and it’s difficult to tell whether these are meant to be threads actually shared with the public or something more private.

The plot is entertaining and unusual. Although unlikable, Rumble’s an intriguing main character, a bombastic narcissist who descends into a hallucinatory panic. While some Trump-era satires can feel either too on-the-nose or too timid to match actual headlines, Schreiber elects to leave reality entirely, leaving behind current events while still managing to say something fresh. The Twitter President never feels boring or overdone, even as the denouement edges into the absurd. Readers looking for formally inventive satire will find pleasure in this quick, ambitious novel.

Takeaway: This satiric novel-by-Tweet marries political satire with absurdity and formal daring.

Great for fans of: Robert Sears’ The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump, Christopher Buckley’s Make Russia Great Again.

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

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Liberty-Loving Lafayette: How "America's Favorite Fighting Frenchman" Helped Win Our Independence
Dorothea Jensen
Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Tony award-winning Hamilton made household names of historical figures audiences previously hadn’t known much about. Jensen carries the torch with her second book for young readers (after the YA novel A Buss From Lafayette) about the hero of the American Revolutionary War. In engaging rhyming verse possibly inspired by the musical, Jensen details how the French marquis wound up in the American colonies and got caught up in the war. She peppers the text with modern slang (“bro”) and French phrases (“mal de mer”) while historic paintings, portraits, maps, and engravings (Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s sumptuous study of Marie Antoinette; Emanuel Leutze’s dramatic Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth) bring to life the tale’s cast and milieu.

The lighthearted storytelling still underscores the subject’s significance–“Without him we would not have won our Independency,” Jensen writes, rhyming with independency with liberty. However, the balance between historical authenticity, approachable language, and rhyme scheme fidelity can be precarious and sometimes gets lost. The text refers to Lafayette by multiple names (Gilbert, “the marquis”) which can be confusing given the plethora of characters, both British and French, featured in the story. Page layouts and the positioning of the period images often interrupts that most crucial element of rhymed, rhythmic storytelling: the flow.

This narrative is meant to be read aloud—and would be a valuable companion for classrooms and projects—showcasing its enjoyable blend of history and rhythm. Jensen proves scrupulous in keeping the text factual, digging into the political realities behind revolutionaries like George Washington embracing a French aristocrat, and her detailed end notes, offer concise explanations (“The French government feared having a ‘celebrity’ like Lafayette join the fight on the side of the Americans”) that will help alleviate any audience perplexity. Young history lovers and fans will savor this playful rendition of Lafayette’s biography, centered around historical documents and works of art.

Takeaway: Young history buffs will enjoy the rhyming text and historical art in this lively biography of the French hero of the American Revolution.

Great for fans of: Jean Fritz’s Why Not, Lafayette?, Selene Castrovilla’s Revolutionary Friends.

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

Click here for more about Liberty-Loving Lafayette
Loving and Dying in Notchey Creek
Liz S. Andrews
East Tennessee native Andrews continues her Harley Henrickson mystery series with this winning third installment (after The Ghosts of Notchey Creek). Series hero Harley, a whiskey distiller in Notchey Creek, discovers a charred car with a burned body inside it. She promptly notifies Sheriff Jed Turner, but the body count rises when Bethany Carmichael, editor and restaurant review columnist at The Notchey Creek Telephone, is murdered. Police initially suspect bakery owner Tina Rizche, since her business supplied the poisoned cupcake that killed the critic. But after wealthy socialite Jessica Westlake is also poisoned (and police arrest Westlake’s estranged husband Ryan for the murder), Harley once again takes to sleuthing, determined to unearth the true killer.

Andrews’s extensive cast of quirky characters enhances this cozy mystery, and her quick, clear descriptions unobtrusively bring new readers up to speed about relationships and backstories. The host of likely suspects also lends intensity to the story, while the return of Harley’s crush– Eric Winston, an Ivy League medical pathologist who performs autopsies on the bodies and is, in Harley’s estimation, “out of her league economically, physically, professionally, and socially”– adds welcome sizzle to the lighthearted intrigue. Their longing looks and heated, memorable dialogue will offer strong incentive to readers to pick up the next installment.

The appealing characterization doesn’t end with Notchey Creek’s human residents. Andrews stirs laughs and warmth with her attention to pets, including Harley’s pig Matilda, all decked out for Valentine’s Day; Ozzy, a rescue dog with wheels powering his back legs; and Petie, the often insulting therapy parrot. In crisp, engaging prose, Harley’s methodical clue gathering finds the hero investigating her town’s love triangles and a blackmailing scheme, while Andrews keeps the pages turning with twisty plotting, clever red herrings, and local color as distinct as the recipes for whiskey cocktails that close out the book.

Takeaway: This lighthearted mystery in small town Tennessee blends an amateur sleuth, a splash of romance, and an appealing cast.

Great for fans of: Eve Calder, Maddie Day.

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

Click here for more about Loving and Dying in Notchey Creek
Your Next Big Idea: Improve Your Creativity and Problem-Solving
Samuel Sanders
In this practical, well-organized debut, Sanders draws upon his business startup acumen (which includes co-founding Wundershirt) to examine the fundamentals behind generating new, meaningful ideas. He sets lofty goals, promising “By the end of the book, you’ll be equipped with the skills to come up with 100 meaningful ideas a week that you can apply to your career or personal life.” But readers will be pleased to find that the advice is down-to-earth, easy to implement, and applicable to just about every area, business or personal, anyone may be working to enhance.

Sanders emphasizes the concrete, offering exercises and activities to drive home his concepts, and focuses heavily on problem identification (“You need to be able to identify problems in order to come up with productive ideas”). He encourages the development of analytical techniques to differentiate between needs and wants, while urging readers to discover the root of the glitches in their lives. Your Next Big Idea covers some advice readers may already be familiar with–such as identifying your habits and learning the importance of asking “why”–but nudges toward deeper self discovery. Sanders advocates fresh approaches to creativity like attempting to combine multiple solutions instead of aiming for just one sensational idea,and he offers an original “feasibility check” to apply to new ideas.

Some readers may balk at his idea that “Your life is the only thing you can totally control,” but most will appreciate the back-to-basics approach of this motivating handbook. Entertaining illustrations and almost riddle-like exercises (such as a problem to solve involving a fox, a chicken, and some corn) keep things lighthearted while still nurturing creativity, while Sanders excels at technical suggestions and hands-on activities. Early entrepreneurs and those seeking personal encouragement will find this an enjoyable way to cultivate basic business sense and enrich their originality.

Takeaway: Prospective entrepreneurs and self-improvement seekers will find this a helpful, entertaining guide to generating ideas.

Great for fans of: Dan Heath’s Upstream, Erik Qualman’s The Focus Project.

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

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Through a Forest of Stars: Space Unbound Book 1
DAVID C. JEFFREY
In this apocalyptic science fiction debut, Jeffrey depicts human civilization two hundred years from now, after a catastrophic global “Die Back”: Earth is dying, which has led to a resurgence of Celtic pagan-inspired Earth worship, while the megacorporation TerraCorp fights to control all of the known universe’s natural resources. Meanwhile, the United Earth Domain and the Allied Republics of Mars compete for survival. Protagonist Dr. Aiden Macallan, second-in-command on the corporate survey vessel the Argo, spends his days alternating between solo missions on new planets to find resources and resenting Terra Corp’s exploitation of these worlds for profit. Everything changes, however, when Terra Corp discovers Silvanus, the first Earth-like planet humanity has encountered in space, and issues orders to Aiden and his crew (including the gruff-but-honorable Commander Stegman and Aiden’s best friend, the enigmatic scientist Roseph Hand) to claim it for company control.

Things get complicated when the governments of Earth and Mars intercede, thanks in part to Aiden’s lover Skye Landen and her colleague, Elgin Woo. With the future of humanity riding on his discoveries, Aiden must uncover this new planet’s many secrets. Some readers will be distracted by Jeffrey’s verbosity and word-choice--in one scene, “tall, muscular clouds” create “a moody tapestry of dancing velvet light”--interruptions that inflate Aiden’s adventure to fifty long chapters. At other times these descriptions are where the novel shines: Each of the worlds Jeffrey depicts--the burning deserts of the Amazon Basin, the moon’s populous Luna colony, the lush and mysterious Silvanus--are so vividly detailed that sympathetic readers will feel transported.

Simultaneously a critique of twenty-first-century politics as well as a hopeful vision for the future, Through a Forest of Stars will capture readers’ imaginations thanks to its blend of classic science-fiction tropes, New Age elements, and compelling characters. SF series readers will be eager for the next installment.

Takeaway: Sci-fi fans won’t regret diving into the first volume of Jeffrey’s detailed, imaginative epic of humanity’s interstellar future.

Great for fans of: James S.A. Corey; Aer-ki Jyr’s Star Force series.

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

Click here for more about Through a Forest of Stars
All People Are Beautiful
Vincent Kelly
With a cheerfully shifting rhythmic style and colorful, exaggerated illustrations, Kelly’s (The Awesome Things I Love), a life lesson book for young readers, bursts with delight for both children and caregivers. Focusing on differences between people rather than the commonalities readers might expect, Kelly’s sweet story looks at the narrator’s wide variety of friends and their disparate hobbies and backgrounds, while declaring that the things that make individuals unique are precisely what makes them interesting. The bright, engaging pictures, which cover a diverse panoply of races and phenotypes, are as eye-catching and educational as the text.

One of the book’s highlights comes close to the end. As the text references different languages spoken by a wide variety of people, the pictures reflect that with representative translations of the word “hello.” The introduction of these diverse concepts and international flair offers an excellent educational opportunity regarding the expansion of horizons. Repetition of the title also helps to drive the message home. While the largely simple and straightforward vocabulary and easy style make for perfect bedtime reading, the unpredictable rhythm and unexpected cadence changes (“We come from different countries and places, have different faces, and represent all races, but all people are beautiful”) may trip readers up.

The inventive, dynamic illustrative techniques appeal throughout the book. There are points, however, where the images convey stereotypical representations (such as kids of the world dressed to represent their individual homelands) that may prove problematic for some audiences. Though simplistic, the theme will likely prove most appropriate for children at the higher end of the age range, given the slight complexity of certain concepts, including languages and cultural norms. Activities at the end of the book offer an additional avenue for young readers and their caregivers to interact and develop cultural appreciation and form the foundations of a lifelong appreciation of how differences deserve celebration.

Takeaway: A delightful, vibrant picture book that urges kids to embrace what makes us each unique.

Great for fans of: Alexandra Penfold’s All are Welcome, Jess Hong’s Lovely.

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

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3,001 Arabian Days: A Memoir: Growing up in an American oil camp in Saudi Arabia (1953-1962)
Rick Snedeker
In this vivid memoir, Snedeker (Holy Smoke) recounts his childhood as a U.S. citizen living in Saudi Arabia. In 1953, Snedeker’s father relocated their five-person family to Dhahran, joining a growing community of Aramco employees. There, Snedeker and his siblings experienced an idyllic childhood, combining the best parts of suburban America with exposure to an exciting locale and culture. As an adult, Snedeker feels drawn to Saudi Arabia, and finds that many so-called “Aramco brats” feel the same way. When he moves back to the Dhahran area as an adult, he is surprised by what has changed since his youth—and what has remained exactly the same.

Snedeker offers evocative descriptions of Saudi Arabia, the Aramco neighborhood, and the cast of colorful expats populating the town. He examines his childhood with a measured hand, psychoanalyzing his relationship with his parents and assessing the ways his Saudi upbringing affects him as an adult. The prose is detailed; Snedeker proves expert at finding the interesting in the mundane. By focusing on the specifics of his upbringing (shooting straw wrappers at a diner ceiling, the acquisition of a new family blender, the setup of an alleyway kickball court), he presents a compelling vision of a bygone era, each anecdote alive with feeling.

Snedeker has lived in Saudi Arabia three separate times over the course of his life, though he primarily concentrates on his childhood years. This emphasis allows for a vivid and thorough depiction of that era, but it narrows the focus. Snedeker occasionally touches on intriguing cultural issues—such as the presence of servants in the Aramco camp, the changes in religious acceptance in Saudi Arabia, or post-9/11 relations—only to move quickly on. Still, as a snapshot of a particular moment in time, experienced through the eyes of a young American and also his engaging adult self, it’s a resounding success.

Takeaway: This detailed memoir, following a young American’s childhood in Saudi Arabia, is perfect for those interested in cross-cultural 1950s history.

Great for fans of: Tim Barger’s Arabian Son, Ahmed Abodehman’s The Belt.

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

Click here for more about 3,001 Arabian Days: A Memoir
The Dead Don't Drink at Lafitte's: Sam Quinn, book 2
Seana Kelly
Kelly’s action-packed second volume in her Sam Quinn series (after The Slaughtered Lamb Bookstore and Bar) takes Sam and her vampire boyfriend, Clive, to New Orleans to face more mysteries and danger--and discover more about her powers. San Francisco bookshop proprietor Sam, still adjusting to her werewolf and magic abilities, finds herself confronted by a ghost who warns that Clive, the master of San Francisco’s vampires, is in danger: A group of vampires recently arrived from the Crescent City aren’t there for a friendly visit. After a battle, Sam heads to New Orleans with Clive and his two closest in command to finish the battle. There she learns there’s much more to her family history than she knows making her powerfully unique.

Kelly’s continued development of characters and friendships from the previous book is a highlight, while the new friends introduced here, like the gorgon Stheno, bring abundant laughter. Meanwhile, perfectly vile new enemies will make readers’ skin crawl, especially the ancient vampire, St. Germain. Kelly’s vivid storytelling and immersive detail will draw readers into New Orleans, while her skill at capturing her cast’s hearts ensures that every emotion, injury, and struggle they face resonates.

The Sam Quinn series centers on a beautiful, loving relationship that strays from the trope of the tough vampire who saves an abused woman. In Kelly’s hands, the abused woman heals in her way, gaining her own strength, while the tough vampire is supportive only in the ways that she needs. Kelly has excelled at the difficult task of making this follow-up as exciting for new readers as it will be for those who enjoyed the first book. Both picking up where the story left off, and inviting readers to feel the essential core of each relationship, The Dead Don’t Drink at Lafitte’s offers precisely what readers look for in the second book of a series.

Takeaway: Urban fantasy fans looking for deep relationships, a strong female lead, and a great mystery will be quickly absorbed into Sam’s evolving adventure.

Great for fans of: Dannika Dark’s Keystone, Chloe Neill’s Wicked Hour.

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

Click here for more about The Dead Don't Drink at Lafitte's
Whirl Away Girl
Tricia Johnson
Johnson’s debut collection documents her journey of discovering, identifying, and coming to terms with a chronic illness through honest, imagistic poems, arranged into four sections whose titles outline her experience: “Symptomatic,” “Treatments,” “Distress,” and “Emergence.” Johnson powerfully illuminates the challenges of living with chronic illness through a detailed and varied poetic voice. Proclaiming “I am not lupus / It is part of me / It is with me / It is not the whole of what defines me,” she offers readers a roadmap to healing and fearless words of wisdom while also claiming a space to express her own frustration and pain.

In the first two sections, Johnson pens frenetic and even choppy lines, suggesting the anxiety of identifying an illness and figuring out a course of action. She personifies sickness and fatigue as antagonists barking orders at her: “Sit NOW! / Lay down NOW!” The poems in “Symptomatic” and “Treatments” contain minimal punctuation, pulling readers into the “lupus fog” right along with the poet. Many of these selections lament her uncomfortable situation, which can be taxing for empathetic readers, but Johnson always balances out the struggle with rousing affirmations of her own humanity and worth: “ME / This beautiful creation with thoughts of futures and dreams / ME / This creative woman who loves passionately.” In the last section, Johnson’s rediscovery of a zest for life shines through in her lush, longer lines, a standout being “Bloom”—“Reach out new / Hold tight bloom / Wind gust, take flight / Fingers of curls leading / Watching lemon cocktail purple flower / New growth driven in the thickness of summer.”

These poems bare her mind and heart. Johnson admits her fear of asking for help towards the beginning—”Don’t want to worry / Anyone including me”—but by sharing her experiences, and by emphasizing her humanity rather than her diagnosis, she offers welcome comfort.

Takeaway: Poetically minded readers will love Johnson’s lush, fearless verse about her life with lupus.

Great for fans of: Anne Sexton, James Strazza, Danez Smith.

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

Click here for more about Whirl Away Girl
A Guy's Guide to Throat Cancer: Do's and Don'ts for Recovery
Ed Rossman
With a raw and upfront approach, cancer survivor Rossman (40+ New Revenue Sources for Libraries and Nonprofits) shares his journey through treatment for stage 4B oropharyngeal cancer. His opening mantra—“When cancer kicks you in the —, have it kick you forward”—starts this candid memoir off with a bang and exemplifies his upbeat, can-do attitude even in the face of a life-threatening disease. Rossman balances exhaustive details of his chemotherapy and radiation trials with uplifting touches of Christian faith and an influx of frank humor: “I would hate to have the radiation gun overheat! No Star Trek phasers on overload needed here!” By giving readers an inside view of his CaringBridge entries during the course of treatment, and expounding further on related experiences, he offers a grueling, behind-the-scenes ride that fortunately ends in triumph.

Rossman connects by eschewing privacy and formality. He unflinchingly exposes the brutal side of treatment, from being able to “feel the burn” in his taste buds and salivary glands to his almost full time use of a feeding tube, but fights the temptation to feel sorry for himself (“Jesus didn’t indulge in pity on Calvary”). He strikes a welcome balance between encouragement and reality, all while offering practical advice to help readers facing their own cancer battles ease their physical, mental, and emotional suffering–including an array of coping skills that gave him hope on the darkest days.

Rossman offers real nuggets of wisdom, such as employing “this week” as a refrain to stay in the present, and a sobering “[I] don’t think I’ve ever been surrounded by so much sickness and death” on his last day of chemotherapy. Readers whose lives are touched by cancer will appreciate the entertainment factor as much as the valuable lessons Rossman delivers in this direct, engaging chronicle.

Takeaway: A thoroughly detailed chronicle of throat cancer treatment balanced with touching positivity and candid humor.

Great for fans of: Lysa TerKeurst’s It’s Not Supposed To Be This Way, Chris Geiger’s The Cancer Survivors Club.

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

Click here for more about A Guy's Guide to Throat Cancer
How To Judge A Book By Its Lover
Jessica Jiji
Delusions and daydreaming drive this over-the-top comic romance set in New York City. Dog walker Laurel Linden lives with her head in the clouds, constantly fantasizing about the sophisticated life she’ll have one day—with the perfect art critic boyfriend and the publishing contract just waiting for her—if only someone would recognize her genius. At her lowest point, she meets a woman named Vanessa who, like a fairy godmother, shows her how to get everything she’s ever dreamed of, launching Laurel on a crusade for her fantasy life.

Jiji’s (Sweet Dates in Basra) protagonist starts the novel as extremely self-involved: She walks out on a blind date because he’s bald, manipulates her way into both a publishing contract and a boyfriend, and secretly nurtures feelings of smug superiority toward her writing group. When a brutally honest editor tells her in no uncertain terms that her book is a mess and will be critically panned, it’s Laurel’s ego, not her conscience, that convinces her to ask for a release from the contract—and she still manages to spin it so that the publishers pay her for cancelling. On the flip side, as Laurel gets everything she’s ever wanted, she suddenly realizes that she doesn’t have a need for any of it, dumping the art critic in favor of the blind date she’d snubbed, breaking her book contract to become a celebrity gossip writer, and ditching Vanessa after realizing that she’s not Vanessa’s only “project.”

Romance readers will likely be frustrated with the novel’s structure and the focus on Laurel’s life and career—and the fact that she doesn’t interact with her ultimate love interest until halfway through the narrative. Chemistry between the characters is lacking, and Laurel’s ongoing exploitation of everyone around her proves unappealing and farfetched. Still, fans of lighthearted women’s fiction will enjoy the antics of this comically overconfident heroine.

Takeaway: This comic romance asks what happens when a deeply self-involved New York City woman finally gets a shot at having it all.

Great for fans of: Becky Monson’s The Accidental Text, Alina Jacobs’s In Her Candy Jar.

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

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Yanks Behind the Lines: How the Commission for Relief in Belgium Saved Millions from Starvation During World War I
Jeffrey B. Miller
Jeffrey Miller (WWI Crusaders) delivers a gripping account of how private individuals in a U.S.-led effort saved millions from starvation during the First World War. When Belgium and areas of Northern France were unable to feed themselves under German occupation, the nongovernmental Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), led by a young Herbert Hoover, toiled alongside the local Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation (Comité National), the German government, the Allied powers, and several neutral countries to feed the hungry. Miller stays laser-focused on the diplomatic and logistical challenges of such a massive food operation without getting bogged down in minutia or details about the war, save when it directly relates to his topic, such as unrestricted submarine warfare or the background events of the Zimmermann telegram.

The story is full of drama that Miller sketches well, particularly tensions between the CRB and Comité National, and between Hoover and everyone else. In the initial rush of donations to Belgium, Hoover fought to ensure CRB was in control of relief. Miller’s dedication to facts rather than speculation means he leaves it to readers to wonder about how much of Hoover’s motivation in these disputes was humanitarian and how much was arrogance. (Miller quotes an expert who touts Hoover’s “ingenuity in persuading or bullying the various Powers” to get international actors to compromise.) The self-giving spirit of the CRB delegates, mostly young volunteers spread throughout Belgium, shines through Miller’s narrative, however, especially in the anecdote of a delegate arrested by German authorities under false pretenses.

Particularly helpful are period photographs and Miller’s statistical charts, helping readers stay oriented and personalizing the humanitarians who founded the first international nongovernmental organization. History buffs will be eager to learn the struggles of the Belgian and northern French during the war as well as the courage and fortitude of those who sacrificed to feed the desperate.

Takeaway: This compelling chronicle will grip history buffs while opening their eyes to a little known but vitally important humanitarian mission.

Great for fans of: John Keegan’s The First World War, Tom Scott-Smith’s On an Empty Stomach: Two Hundred Years of Hunger Relief.

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

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