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Head First
D. Z. Church
In Church’s second installment of the Cooper Quartet series, the apparent kidnapping of teenager Jolie Minotier in 1972 California serves as a catalyst for several interrelated families coping with their own internal demons amid the Vietnam War. Jolie is the daughter of Commander Byron "Slick" Cooper, fighting in Vietnam. Her mother, Chloe, from a French-Vietnamese colonial family, seemingly deserted Jolie years ago to become a violent antiwar activist. Heroin smuggling and the fate of those left behind in the war's final months further complicate the families' troubles. The Cooper clan must find a way to safeguard their futures and to rescue Jolie, as their own crises reflect the nation's complex feelings about the war.

Church uses her background as a Vietnam-era veteran to lend rich detail to the story’s military milieu. She does a fine job of describing the air war, with its mix of terror and tedium, and proves equally adept at the civilian side, showing how the military community takes care of its own: A Marine guard promises to escort the missing Jolie home "with full military honors." The large cast of characters intersect through multiple plots, which may prove hard to follow for readers not already familiar with the series, but the individual members of the extended Cooper family are vividly wrought.

This story functions best as a study of family conflict, where everyone has competing loyalties. Especially intense is the connection between Jolie, her estranged mother, and her father. Byron's wife, Joan, comes across with great pathos, trying to cope with a distant husband, her own child, and a difficult stepdaughter. The addition of Byron's brother Laury, a retired sergeant struggling with the family farm, and Cooper cousin Lt. Robin Haas, with her own poignant romance, fully flesh out the complex story. Readers will be absorbed to the end, hoping this troubled but sympathetic family finds peace.

Takeaway: A must for fans of family drama, who will revel in triumph and tragedy during a fraught period in U.S. history.

Great for fans of: Siobhan Fallon, Colleen McCullough

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

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Dead Legend: Cooper Vietnam Era Quartet: 1967
D. Z. Church
The Vietnam War rages in the first installment of Church’s Cooper Vietnam Era Quartet, which finds two estranged brothers, Byron and Laury Cooper, reunited years after their father’s death from suicide. Byron’s promising career as a Navy air fighter is taking off, but when planes start dropping out of the sky with their pilots trapped in the cockpits he discovers a sinister operation fueled by vicious avarice. On the home front, Laury, a former Marine, struggles with trauma and addiction, desperate to find peace after suffering a serious wound on his latest tour of duty. Laury stumbles upon an old family secret during his stay, one that connects his father’s death to the recent rash of jet failures, leading him to realize “…the only difference between any dead man and another is the trail they leave behind.”

Church’s blend of family story, historical fiction, and thriller-quality suspense and action proves potent, but the book’s heart is in its people. The cast is rounded out by the Cooper brothers’ cousin, ensign Robin Haas, and Byron’s squad mate, Lieutenant Harry “Dakota” Stillwater. The characterization is as vividly rendered as the milieu, especially as investigation of the central mystery demands scrutiny of all of these connections. Writing with sharp, incisive prose, Church proves adept at handling the complexities of memory and relationships, as every recollection is tempered by the other’s perceptions and blind spots. “We choose our memories,” one character notes.

Church writes with conviction and clarity, drawing on experience serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Her experience shows in persuasive details of military life, and a keen understanding of military minds, making the moments of human drama as engaging as the suspense of the mystery plot. Readers eager for a mystery laced with intense action scenes and compelling family dynamics, will feast onDead Legend, the first entry of a promising series.

Takeaway: A strong opening to a series of thoughtful thrillers following one military family’s experience in the Vietnam era.

Great for fans of: Newton Thornburg’s Cutter and Bone, Marian Palaia’s The Given World.

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

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Low Down Dirty Vote Volume 3: The color of my vote
Edited by Mysti Berry
The third volume in this ballot-minded crime anthology series once again finds democracy at stake, both in its diverse, hair-raising fictions and in the real world, enough so that its publication is again pegged to a fundraiser for voting rights causes, this time with proceeds going to Democracy Docket. Editor Berry, who conceived and has overseen all three installments, notes in her introduction two distinguishing characteristics of the latest crop of crime tales crafted around the subject of voting: First, this time, many of the stories pulse with fresh anger, which Berry persuasively links to the zeitgeist. Second: They increasingly edge toward speculative fiction, which makes sense—so does American life.

From page one, this volume stirs chills of recognition as David Corbett’s “An Incident at the Cultural Frontier” opens with a trucker’s convoy of “inspectors” rolling up on a polling place, and Faye Snowden’s electric “The Obsession of Abel Tangier” turns on the line “Ethel started bringing a loaded Smith & Wesson .45 to every school board meeting after the death threats started.” Other stories center persistent American anxieties, like the possibility that an organized crime syndicate will do whatever it takes to rig a Newark mayoral race in Thomas Pluck’s “Joey Cucuzza Loses His Election,” or the radio host whose racist invective reveals the ugly truth of a beach town’s secession campaign in Sarah M. Chen’s jolting “Riviera Red.”

The speculative tales prove both playful and upsetting. Babies seize the power of the ballot from indifferent parents in Camille Minichino’s inspired and inspiring “Vote Early,” while Ember Randall’s “How to (Actually) Change the World” imagines the fate of the first A.I. candidate for president. History and political violence (the murder of a Chicago alderman in 1963; the assassination of Austria-Hungary’s presumptive Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914) loom over the collection, but what’s scariest is most familiar: men with power intimidating everyone else to give up their own.

Takeaway: Outraged crime stories from diverse authors, all centered on the act of voting.

Great for fans of: Leye Adenle’s When Trouble Sleeps, Malka Older.

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

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Queen of Secrets
E.J. Tanda
Tanda’s sweeping historical fiction debut follows Barbara, a caregiver for elderly patients with Alzheimer’s, and her patient, Violetta Giordano, a Mafia widow with a storied past. Barbara, trapped in a relationship with her abusive, gambling addict boyfriend and out of options, seizes the opportunity to work for Violetta in San Jose in 1939 as a last-ditch attempt to earn a living. When the two women meet, their relationship is initially tense, and Barbara worries it won’t improve–but soon Violetta begins to open up about her past, eventually relating her entire life story to Barbara.

Tanda suffuses her storytelling with heart, and readers will be transported back to an earlier time, following new Italian immigrants eking out a living in California. Violetta’s whirlwind romance with handsome Sardinian newcomer Gaetano sets her heart aflame, even as she is promised to another man to seal a Mafia deal. There are sharp, suspenseful moments when readers will clearly experience Violetta’s desperation alongside her, but at other times, some flowery choices (the two lovers are wont to quote Shakespeare) can prove distracting to the overall tone of the plot. Nonetheless, the tender and tense moments scattered throughout this story help buoy its dark atmosphere.

While the novel offers the suspense, intrigue, and even the romance you would hope for in the kickoff to a series titled “Mafia Matriarchs,” historical fiction readers will appreciate Tanda’s serious handling of the Italian immigrant experience, as she draws on her own Italian heritage to paint an honest picture of the trials her community faced–while not shying away from the drama of what one character calls “The Black Hand, the Commission, Cosa Nosta. The mob. The Mafia.” Tanda consulted with sensitivity readers on her depiction of Barbara, a Black woman who encounters the systemic racism faced by Black people in America. The essence of Tanda’s message: that we are all not that different.

Takeaway: The start of the “Mafia Matriarchs” series offers tense historical fiction in early 20th century America.

Great for fans of: Amy Harmon’s The Song Book of Benny Lament, Christina Baker Kline’s A Piece of the World.

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

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Road Kill
R.J. Norgard
The second Sidney Reed mystery from Norgard (after Trophy Kill) pits the appealingly complex private investigator Reed against a classic murder mystery and frightening heavies, all set around an unyielding, evocatively described winter in Anchorage, Alaska. Reed, reeling from the loss of his wife, is barely able to get through each day. He's hired to help the defense of Rudy Skinner, facing trial on a charge of murdering an indigenous man with a snowplow. A tip about the identity of the actual killer leaves Reed facing double crosses, meth dealers, wannabe actresses, crooked cops, an ambitious district attorney, plus an array of friends concerned by his ongoing mental health struggles. The climax, involving the cruel Alaska winter, ties surprising twists and turns with a fight for survival.

Despite strong pacing and effective interrogations and courtroom drama, it’s nuanced and complex character work that drives this thriller. Reed is a broken man trying to put himself together, returning to work, starting to date again, even seeing a therapist, though he finds himself unable to let go of the past. He always tries to do the right thing, especially when innocents are involved, no matter the cost. The villains, too, are multilayered characters, like the actual killer and his criminal father, whose individual senses of morality lead to some unexpected conclusions. Alaska’s winter storms raise the stakes throughout, as simply driving on a road becomes a perilous undertaking, much less being outside for extended lengths of time.

Norgard makes the reader care about Reed's journey, and it doesn't hurt that Reed has an insolent wit that he can't seem to turn off, a defense mechanism as he haltingly tries to process his grief. Norgard's attention to detail with regard to both character and setting elevates Road Kill far above a typical hard-boiled detective story, and fans of mysteries with memorable leads will find much to like in its mix of hard-boiled, funny, and haunted.

Takeaway: A tough Alaskan winter raises the stakes in this polished and compelling character-driven mystery.

Great for fans of: Peter James’s Dead Simple, Dana Stabenow.

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

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Rode
J. Adams
“I want to feel the miles roll out from under the wheels,” young Jack, a disappointed romantic caught between careers and lives, declares early in Adams’ long dark novel of the soul. Jack was planning to light out to the California coast, on a bus, rhapsodizing to a woman he cares for about how, rather than take a plane, he’s going to “Appreciate the distance, you know what I mean?” Her curt response—“So you’re trying to save money?”—exemplifies the novel that follows, a book in which the philosopher/ex-fireman/hustler, stranded at a San Francisco intersection, dreams of motion but finds himself stuck, reflecting on a life lived in pursuit of meaning and feeling despite the practical-minded world’s insistence on punishing such desires. “If beauty is the easiest good to recognize, it is also the easiest to mistake for something else,” he notes, deep in the book.

Adams builds to that insight over the course of that long night, and the extended memories of friends and lovers and disappointments that preoccupy Jack as he contemplates how he came to be so alone. The follow-up to Bent, Rode offers Adams ample chance to showcase a feel for motorcycles, night skies, crooked-steep San Francisco streets, and the thrill and terror of sexual outlawry. He’s especially good at pinning down moments between people that list quietly, inexorably toward a discomfiting wrongness.

A book of significant beauty and pain, broken relationships and sexual frankness, Rode’s survey of the events and people that led Jack toward bottoming out also at times proves playfully comic (Jack learns the worst thing a first-time sex worker can say to a prospective john: “My schedule’s wide open at the moment.”) The title promises momentum, but this character study is all about how a man got brought to this point, told with painstaking detail. But readers of impassioned, character-driven fiction that transgresses the polite will find much to relish here.

Takeaway: A penetrating novel of a philosopher/hustler/ex-fireman, reflecting on his life, stranded in San Francisco.

Great for fans of: John Rechy, Nelson Algren.

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

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Jimmy Chartron and the Lost Keystone
J.T. Michaels
In this grabber of a debut, Michaels introduces the Eight Countries, a world of magic, science, strange beasts like ragas and firebills–and secrets, which the teen hero will uncover. Sixteen year old Jimmy Chartron is excited to study the newfangled field of electricity at Navale Academy. But his big plans get upended when his wanderings around the school cause him to awaken and fuse with the hundred-year-old ghost of a hero called Tessa Stormwing. Tessa, killed on a mysterious mission, realizes that the appearance of a raga–a rat-like creature not seen since the Last War–means that the forces that killed her so long ago may not yet be vanquished. As she and Jimmy dig deeper, she discovers that the war is not as over as everyone believes, and that the fate of all Eight Countries rests on him and his ghostly companion.

Jimmy’s world is exciting and unique. Despite starting out at a school, the story quickly ventures out into a wide world of magical trains, airships, and the gulf between the official history and the actual history of the Eight Countries. While Jimmy’s adventures can at times feel like he’s a game protagonist following a tutorial, he exhibits a hearty, can-do attitude that makes him enjoyable to read; he holds his own with a very strong supporting cast. Michaels surrounds his protagonist with strong and interesting women, including the fort leader Jenna, who takes on a mentoring role; the prickly but helpful nurse Christine; and of course, Tessa the ghost, fallen hero, who at times can be bossy though she genuinely cares about Jimmy.

The plot is straightforward, with more action than talk, but still builds to a satisfying confrontation with the villain. A fresh adventure through a unique magical world, this series start will leave readers eagerly awaiting a sequel. Fans of fantasy series–and RPG games–will relish the story’s world and style.

Takeaway: Christopher Mannino’s The Scythe Wielder’s Secret, C.M. Carney’s Barrow King.

Great for fans of: This promising YA fantasy debut pits a teen boy and a ghost hero against the secrets of the past.

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

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Life Fighting: Why We Must Sometimes Fight, and How to Do So Well
Robert W. Sweet
Encompassing both self-help and history, Sweet’s Life Fighting takes lessons from the lives of Julius Caesar, Talleyrand, Richelieu, and Bill Gates to illustrate why fighting is an inescapable part of life–and how to do it well. Drawing on the work of evolutionary biologists, Sweet (author of Pallas Athena) invites readers to discard illusions about human generosity, arguing that altruism–or “increasing the survival chances of another at the expense of one’s own”–is “almost always illusory,” that natural selection pushes all organisms into selfishness by a process he terms “evolutionarily stable strategy,” and that the universal ESS dictates that “an individual should see to his interests at the expense of those weaker than himself.” From this jolting start, a view of existence certain to alienate some readers, Sweet reviews the lives of notorious male fighters from history and contemporary life, to illustrate the basic steps to achieve victory in such a world.

Despite the language of evolutionary selfishness, Sweet examines themes of struggle and triumph over adversity, and portrays his profiled leaders as having objectives beyond themselves–at times, to serve the good of the larger society, as in Caesar’s disruption of the oligarchy of the late Roman Republic. This good of the larger society, then, is in service to a larger Evolutionarily Stable Strategy. Sweet takes care to emphasize that “fighting” should not be defined solely by violence, but the majority of people he uses as examples, with the exception of Bill Gates, are accomplished warriors.

The history that Sweet tells is fascinating, and always connected to his broader arguments. Reviewing stages of successful fighting, he covers topics such as how to effectively study an opponent (pointing out that many commanders were victorious simply because they were misunderstood by their rivals) and why striking in combination is a powerful method of offensive fighting. The intricacy of his accounts can be daunting, particularly of battles and campaigns that become challenging to track without maps or illustrations; endmatter includes a bibliography for further research.

Takeaway: History-loving readers with some fight in them will appreciate Sweet’s survey of powerful men, how they’ve fought, and what they reveal.

Great for fans of: Andrew Roberts’s Napoleon: A Life, Gerald A. Michaelson and Steven Michaelson’s Sun Tzu: The Art of War for Managers.

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

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2165 Hillside
Tobias Maxwell
Maxwell (The Month After September) stuns and surprises in this psychological thriller centered at the house that stands at 2165 Hillside in New Rochelle, New York. Ralph, the first of the described “incantations of ghosts” to haunt the house, is an elderly man eerily fascinated with Sally, the young girl whose family moves in after Ralph’s death. Sally uses ASL to “communicate with Ralph,” and she reveals that her older sister, Celina, had gone missing after a date set up through an online chat room. What follows is Sally’s quest “to fly and find [her] sister,” opening the door to an intense–and at times hard-to-stomach–ride that spans life, death, and timelines.

Maxwell has crafted a myriad of dismaying characters, including a sadistic former cult member and kidnapper (among other things), a child pornography fan turned rapist, and the diabolical cult leader who catalyzed it all. Much of the novel takes place when Sally is a young girl, and her quest is not for the faint of heart. Readers will find themselves simultaneously disgusted, scared, and fascinated by how the loose threads and varying viewpoints will come together in the end. Rest assured–although the story becomes tangled, particularly when characters swap names, time periods, and relationships with each other, all of the ghosts of 2165 Hillside’s past will be exorcized by the end.

A slew of different narrators deliver this story in a way that affords readers the chance to play detective, but buyer beware: some of the text will be difficult to forget, especially some sex scenes. Readers will be gripped by the novel’s fast pace once the groundwork is laid, but a natural aversion to some of the characters may at times override the thrills. Maxwell ties up the ending nicely but leaves plenty for readers to think about after the last page is turned.

Takeaway: A harrowing ghost story in which a young girl struggles to separate truth from fiction and save her kidnapped sister.

Great for fans of: Julia Heaberlin’s Paper Ghosts, Ania Ahlborn’s Within These Walls.

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

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Siciliana: A Novel
Carlo Treviso
Treviso’s engaging historical novel of revolution and revenge, his accomplished debut, deepens the Puzo-fied public perception of Sicily and its history while offering the vivid, often bloody story of the Sicilian Vespers, the epochal 13th century uprising of the island kingdom’s people—and its stiletto-mastering cavaleri warriors—against the French king and his Angevin army. At the tale’s heart is Aetna, the young daughter of one of those knights, her name pointedly suggesting Mount Etna, a Sicilian volcano ready, like the island’s oppressed people, to blow. After bearing witness to tragic violence in her childhood, Aetna at age 20 becomes the living proof of her father’s words: “We are not fearful, because we know that as Sicilians, no matter where we are thrown, we will always land standing.”

This epic telling of a story too rarely told is powered by that zeal, as Treviso vaults ahead in time, from Aetna’s childhood to the hours before Vespers–a chapter-heading timestamps add a thriller’s momentum to a novel deeply concerned with character, history, and the immersive dramatization of long-gone ways of life—but also enduring truths about courage, loyalty, and honor. Treviso proves adept at presenting vicars and generals, cathedrals and markets and a dazzling cave, and the horror and glory of fighting for what matters, as Aetna of the volcanic spirit faces overwhelming odds—and connects ever more deeply to her home and its people.

The action is crisp, clear, brutal, and frequent, and Treviso’s not shy about terror and torture: General Rochefort, a memorable villain, relies so often on a neck vise the he keeps it cinched to his belt. Readers who prefer historical fiction with less extravagant violence may be jolted by the stabbings and gaping wounds, but those who prefer martial adventure and tales of revolution, regardless of genre, will find much here to relish, tremble at, and in the end cheer.

Takeaway: This vigorous retelling of a 13th century Sicilian revolution will dazzle fans of martial historical fiction.

Great for fans of: Ernest K. Gann’s Masada, Bernard Cornwell.

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

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A Someday Courtesan: A Memoir in Stories
Isadora OBoto
Haven’s intimate prequel-memoir to My Whorizontal Life: An Escort’s Tale offers a sort of origin story, telling a story of growing up female in America, where “all men are wolves” and a desire for sex and love is made tricky by the two sometimes seeming mutually exclusive. This volume covers the author’s life from body exploration with a friend at seven, to navigating youthful popularity, sexuality, and connection, up to her freshman college year at seventeen, as she takes steps to achieve her dream of being an actress. The author’s sex work is covered in the earlier book, though some of the stories she shares here are frank, including accounts of assault, rape, and abortion.

A Someday Courtesan traces an emotional arc from Haven’s often difficult early experiences with men, plus her urge toward people-pleasing, to the later satisifaction she finds in sex work. The connection might come through more clearly if the earlier chapters, told in a youthful voice, offered more introspection and reflection. Later chapters have more in-the-moment realness but lack much introspection, obligating readers to step into underage trauma without a strong sense of why they are doing so.

The story of Haven’s secret relationship with an older man, and her inability to relate to her peers after his death, has a fairytale mood that adult readers may find disturbing but emotionally impactful. Sections concerning the author’s relationship to acting follow the book’s most thoughtful growth path: her adoration of a successful peer, her willingness to suspend disbelief about the older “agent” taking nudes of her in his apartment, her success in using her physicality in a well-received comic role, and the final vignette of the book, in which she discovers how to embody a character through tapping into her own experience, carry readers along her path of self-discovery.

Takeaway: A sex worker reflects on her earliest years, experiences with love and sex, and discovery of who she is.

Great for fans of: Melissa Febos’s Girlhood, Sita Kaylin’s Anything but a Wasted Life.

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

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Where's My Shell?
Leah Ingledew
Ingledew’s (Meowl!) latest is a charming story of a newly born turtle searching for the perfect shell. Upon hatching, a tiny turtle discovers that his shell is missing. He wants to go into the ocean, where he hopes to make new friends, but has to find a shell before he can safely make the trip. As he sets out on the journey, he meets all manner of sea creatures along the way—including a pelican, seal, and a hermit crab—who give him a hand in his search. Driven by dialogue and accompanied by colorful and immersive digital illustrations, Where’s My Shell? is a playful and appealing story sure to delight younger readers just beginning their own travels into the world.

What tiny turtle–that’s how he’s identified in the book–discovers in this simple journey is the value of friendship. His new acquaintances devote themselves to picking out potential shells, none of which seem to be the right fit: the seal suggests a small pebble, the pelican offers a piece of seaweed, and a beach mouse thinks he’s hit paydirt until his choice turns out to be a hermit crab. Some readers may find the straightforward plot and repeated action to be predictive, but younger fans will be comforted by the storyline’s familiarity.

Ingledew’s endearing pictures of tiny turtle trying to navigate his surroundings without his iconic shell will easily entertain young readers, and the story’s abundance of unique dialogue makes it a perfect read-aloud choice. Readers will get to learn new words and see them in action, such as the “huffy hermit crab” ultimately “identifying with the tiny turtle’s predicament” or the “peckish pelican” who routinely announces the turtle’s plight to the other creatures. Ingledew’s attention to detail and cheerfully expressive illustrations make this engaging story one that animal lovers will be eager to revisit.

Takeaway: This heartwarming tale of a tiny turtle finding his shell will engage and encourage young readers.

Great for fans of: Kelly Tills’s Chicks Don’t Eat Candy, Serena Lane Ferrari’s Clumsy Nelson.

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

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The Magical Guide to Bliss: Daily Keys to Unlock Your Dreams, Spirit & Inner Bliss
Meg Nocero
This inviting guide from Nocero (Butterfly Awakens) embeds a crucial insight about transformation into its very form: changing a life takes daily work, over time. So, urging readers to accept that bliss is not an abstract concept or passing feeling but an attainable state, Nocero lays out a year’s worth of inspiration, with 366 daily entries offering reflective essays, inspirational quotes, prompts for meditation, all tied to the calendar year. (But it’s not limited to any particular year—the guide never ties dates to days of the week.) A “Magical Key to Bliss” at the end of each entry nudges readers forward on establishing visions, setting and achieving goals, or other essential steps to living the life one dreams of—and affecting positive change, both in one’s realm and the world at large.

“Set the example; choose one good thing to do for another today,” Nocero advises on March 1, after a thoughtful, paragraph-length essay on leading by example and an on-point quotation from the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca. Each day of the year occasions a full page of similar content, highlighted by Nocero’s engaging, original reflections, which tend to be warm, even insistent affirmations that celebrate wandering, living in the moment, aspiring to new heights, and more: “The sun has risen,” she writes for April 20th, “and so will you as you ascend the spiral staircase of life, ready to take in its majesty one step at a time. Now go!”

Nocero offers a wealth of inspirational content keyed to the passages of a year. It can be repetitious if you plow straight through, but taken as it’s intended, read over weeks and months, her distinctive voice sets this guide apart, reading first as a coach but then, as the days pass, as something closer to a conscience, encouraging and exhorting, insisting that now is the time to dare to do great things.

Takeaway: A full year’s worth of fresh, enthusiastic inspiration packed into an inviting guide.

Great for fans of: Max Lucado’s Grace for the Moment, Julia Cameron.

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

Click here for more about The Magical Guide to Bliss
Tipani Walker and the Nightmare Knot
Jessica Crichton
Crichton (Dr. Fixit’s Malicious Machine) weaves a spellbinding tale of overcoming in her latest youth fantasy. Twelve-year-old Tipani Walker lives in the worst part of town and is habitually late to school, where she is so mercilessly teased by other kids that each day feels like a struggle to survive. What her teachers and peers don’t know is that Tipani’s once-loving family has been ripped apart: her father is in a years-long coma, and her mother is left fighting a debilitating addiction. Tipani spends her time holed away in a treehouse tying knots–a favorite pastime of her father’s that takes her mind off reality–until one day she discovers those skills are a token of her own hidden magical powers.

Enchantment abounds in this meaningful story, and Crichton, who writes prose of hypnotic power, sprinkles in some fascinating physics as well. When Tipani stumbles into a store with a curious owner named Piper Weaversage, a First Degree Dream Fae, she learns that not only are other dimensions real, but she is a secret Weaver–a special human charged with protecting the tapestry that forms the universe. Tipani launches headfirst into her new abilities, including time and space travel, in hopes that they will help restore her family, but the journey is more dangerous than she ever imagined. While she fights to preserve the world, she is pulled into a surreal nightmare where she is forced to face her own inner demons along the way.

Rich with metaphor and double meaning, this novel is weightier than it might seem–though some readers may feel lost during accounts of Tipani’s lucid dreams. But the lesson on facing fears and persevering at all costs is crystal clear, and Crichton proves adept at interlacing painful reality with ethereal tones. Any readers who have felt powerless to change traumatic situations will find an escape here.

Takeaway: This powerful adventure of childhood self-discovery blends physics, fantasy, and the fabric of existence.

Great for fans of: Dani Resh’s Compass to Vinland, Michelle Madow’s Elementals Academy.

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

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Mighty Mara: PIcture book
Carina Ho, Jesse Byrd
In their enthusiastic and inspiring picture book for young children, Ho and Byrd encourage kids to let their differences shine. The story introduces a little girl named Mara who lives in a bland village called Sametown, where everyone “grills the same foods, chants the same chants, [and] plays the same games.” Colorful, confident, and ebullient, Mara is not content to blend in with the crowd. Determined to meet friends who also dare to stand out, she decides to perform a dance in the school talent show, where, hilariously, everyone else has chosen to do a magic routine.

Not until she is taking the stage at the talent show do readers learn that her differences go beyond her preferences for vibrant clothing–Mara uses a wheelchair to get around. Cleverly concealing this bit of information until near the story’s end highlights the fact that Mara is just as capable as her peers. Even though her method of self-expression is unlike anything Sametown has ever seen, she earns huge cheers at the talent show and public recognition for her skills. Mara’s journey also draws attention to some of the challenges individuals with disabilities face in accessing the same opportunities and spaces as those who are able-bodied.

Ho’s real-life experiences inform Mara’s fictional ones, as Ho also uses a wheelchair while traveling, dancing, and making music, often receiving the same surprised reactions as Mara. Monica Paola Rodriguez’s lively illustrations breathe even more life into Mara’s tale, showing her smiling and wearing rainbow-colored clothes amid the mostly brown and gray Sametown backdrop, where even the balloons are khaki. (The people, though, are diverse in background, despite their shared sameness.) The book ends with a series of questions to help parents or teachers start discussions with children about fitting in, accessibility, and finding their talents, making this not only a delightful story but also a valuable educational tool.

Takeaway: The inspiring story of a young girl who livens up Sametown with vibrant clothing, dancing, and self-expression.

Great for fans of: Amy Webb’s When Charley Met Emma, Anitra Rowe Schulte’s Dancing with Daddy.

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

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Dismantling the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil Within so Love Can Thrive: Learning to Love
Rene Lafaut
Lafaut’s (Contrasting Humility and Pride) comprehensive examination of the Christian faith as it relates to overcoming “sin strongholds” advocates the teachings of Jesus Christ to increase faith and replace unhealthy behaviors with universal love for others. Lafaut’s focus is on breaking down sin, guilt, fear, and dishonesty—which he terms “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” in a nod to the biblical account of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden—in order to bear “good fruit” such as peace, kindness, and self-control. To that end, he lays out steps for believers to dismantle sin in their lives by confessing it, repenting of harmful thoughts and behaviors, and learning how to love without judgment.

Lafaut draws from his own experiences to provide realistic examples to readers, offering charts to illustrate concepts like the “Sin-Conduit Structure” and the ramifications of unresolved sin and candidly detailing his own process for exploring and conquering bad habits. He addresses heavyweights like fear and pride, cautioning readers to see through these behaviors to the underlying issues, explaining that conceit is born out of a desire for belonging and arguing that fear becomes unproductive when it causes self-reliance instead of depending on God to solve problems. Lafaut also offers hope for readers who persevere through the hard work–he describes the end result as a “tree of life” that will eventually result in positive traits like joy and faithfulness.

The overarching goal according to Lafaut is “to do to others what we would want done to us,” and he frequently cautions readers to avoid being “moral policemen” in favor of increasing tolerance and empathy. Prayer is his recommended currency to work through unhealthy traits and build a more intimate spiritual life. This is not light reading, but it’s written with passion and clarity. Christians struggling to come to terms with personal faults will find plenty to digest.

Takeaway: Christian readers will appreciate this comprehensive examination of how to overcome sin and unhealthy habits.

Great for fans of: John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation, Jerry Bridges’s Respectable Sins.

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

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