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The Cicada Spring: A Potomac Shores Novel
Carolyn McBride
McBride’s assured debut launches her Potomac Shores series with a turbulent but uplifting romance centered on a trifecta of serious concerns (mid-life crises, whirlwind courtships, COVID lockdown), ultimately positing that the only way to navigate rough waters is by taking the helm. At 48, Katherine Young is everybody’s steady Katie: dutiful daughter, protective parent, faithful friend, exemplary employee. After dropping her daughter at college, the single mother feels unmoored, but that’s not an unfamiliar sensation. Katie loves escaping land to explore the waterways of her native Virginia, and envies her brother, who lives on a yacht, and proclaims, “Home is where your anchor drops.”

After accepting a tempting job offer in Miami (a professional upgrade to IT infrastructure manager), Katie is swept off her feet by the exuberant bon vivant J.C., James Conrad Bland III, a D.C. high-society fixture who offers just the kind of freewheeling life Katie craves after decades of stifling stability. She rides his romantic wave, which crests at their October 2019 wedding, but McBride doesn’t send Katie crashing onto the rocks just yet. Marry in haste, repent at leisure: Katie’s wish-fulfillment fantasy melts away drop by painful drop, heightened by stupefying grief and COVID isolation.

McBride, a former National Geographic magazine staffer, imbues The Cicada Spring with a profound love of nature and infectious curiosity about the Occoquan River and Virginia’s history, going back to its ancient inhabitants. Deftly capturing the forced introspection of the 2020 shutdown era, she steers Katie toward her core values, including faith in American institutions (like the government agencies that converge to address environmental devastation). The pandemic shifts Katie’s perspective to the long view, from selfless people-pleaser to steward of the land and its generations of inhabitants. While the cultural shifts from COVID still reverberate, McBride’s briskly told story proposes, with persuasive heart and wisdom, that it’s the recalibration of individual lives that will power our collective future.

Takeaway: Uplifting middle-age romance alive with wisdom and love of nature.

Comparable Titles: Rachel Hanna’s The Beach House, Pamela M. Kelly’s The Nantucket Inn.

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

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From Doubt to Do: Navigating Your Pathway to Possibility
Kat O'Sullivan
O’Sullivan’s brisk, upbeat debut shares her methods for making meaningful change in life, drawn from a lifetime as a proud “disrupter” dedicated to turning “the ‘impossible’ into the ‘possible.’” Part memoir, part self-help guide, and part journal, From Doubt to Do finds O’Sullivan (and several women she has profiled) sharing key moments from her experience, demonstrating how she learned to believe in her own “magic” to make transformation possible in seemingly impossible situations. Her tone is sunny and encouraging, at times even irreverent (“When people do ask me where I graduated, I reply, ‘MSU,’ as in, ‘Make Stuff Up’—the school of experience and results”).

As she cheers readers on to face their own desires for change equipped with the four “C”s (courage, clarity, commitment, and capacity), O'Sullivan shares inspirational quotes from sources familiar in the genre (Steve Jobs, Dale Carnegie) and some welcome wild cards (Lady Gaga, Beyoncé). Her goal, she notes, in chatty prose, is for the book to be both rousing and practical, showcasing two keys to change-making and seeing yourself on the other side of challenging situations: “the courage and a roadmap to say, ‘Hell, YES!’” O’Sullivan’s zeal for life jumps off the page as she shares her journey from a child born into mysterious circumstances, to a teen that wanted to perform with a traveling group of inspiring performers, to using what she refers to as “The Bob Hope Method,” which “is about believing the seemingly impossible is possible and being brave enough to ask for what you want.” (Rest assured, younger readers, she explains who Hope is.)

Throughout, she balances actionable steps for change-making with breezy accounts of putting them into practice. The book is quite literally colorful, especially in typography, though some all-caps passages can feel unintentionally shout-y. Still, she charmingly invites readers into her world and encourages them to participate in things that wow and excite them as she does.

Takeaway: Upbeat and positive self-help memoir and journal encouraging change-making.

Comparable Titles: Andi Andrew’s Braving Change, Case Kenny’s That’s Bold of You.

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

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Holy City
Richard Helms
Helms weaves a gripping tale of secrets, betrayal, and the relentless pursuit of truth in this assured series starter. Five years after leaving the Charleston Police Department under a cloud of controversy, Detective Whitlock finds himself drawn back into the world of investigations when multibillionaire Tucker Donovan hires him for a special mission: to uncover the identity of Donovan's long-lost daughter. As Whitlock delves into the case, he navigates an agreeably complex web of deception and danger, with each potential candidate for Donovan's daughter harboring their own secrets and motivations. With the shadow of a murdered detective hanging over the investigation, Whitlock must race against time to unravel the truth before he becomes the next target.

Seasoned mystery pro Helms (Doctor Hate) demonstrates his mastery in blending genres as the narrative seamlessly transitions between mystery, suspense, and family drama, creating a rich and multi-dimensional story powered by crisp prose, sharp-edged dialogue, and an eye for the killer detail. Helms’ skilful pacing and scencraft will keep readers on the edge of their seats, but the page-turning storytelling never comes at the expense of complex themes and convincing, multifaceted characters revealed in striking portraiture, like the actress who, facing “the constantly shrinking scope of her dreams” and “degradation at the hands of at least one producer” finds herself “reduced from ambition to resignation.”

Helms combines shoe-leather procedural sleuthing with unpredictable setpieces and a savvy examination of South Carolina business, politics, culture, and personalities. (Charleston is the “Holy City” of the title, and the milieu is evoked with offhand precision, with the silver hair one local swell, at his plantation, “drawn stringy in the Low Country humidity.”) Holy City excels in building suspense and intrigue, with a twisty but satisfying plot, as Helms spices his thoughtful buildup with jolts of action and fish-out-of-water suspense as Whitlock jets to surprising locales. Readers will be eager for more Whitlock.

Takeaway: A Charleston PI seeks a billionaire’s lost daughter in this polished series starter.

Comparable Titles: Greg Iles, James Lee Burke.

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

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War and Sex
Morty Shallman
Lusty, outraged, and so over-the-top it can see your house from up there, Shallman’s horned-up satire of war and sex, American style, has been crafted to shock, offend, provoke, and—from those open to its spirited sex and spearing of taboos—stir laughs and maybe insights, too. Shallman (author of The Tyranny of Desire) announces his audacity from the go-go get-go, opening with a burst of Iraq war-era Top Gun pastiche that quickly process to be the most homoerotic action parody this side of Philip José Farmer’s A Feast Unknown. Sex, torture, and official commendations follow, until Shallman moves the action to the Obama era, with protagonist Rod Solo now suffering PTSD (that’s “Post-Traumatic Sex Disorder”), spending his days piloting murderous drones and his nights unable to rouse himself for his wife.

Soon, Rod’s vigorous workplace sex with fellow drone jock Honey results in the accidental bombing of a Karachi school, and he and Honey are dispatched to Pakistan to kill the target they missed the old-fashioned way: undercover as Canadian DJs eager to discover the local talent. Shallman’s novel is a proudly take-it-or-leave-it affair, though the prose is crisp, the outrages inventive, the sex scenes vigorous, and the surprises, when they come, legitimately surprising, especially an of-the-moment third section in which Rod, from the vantage point of 2024, announces he’s had enough of Shallman and will tell his story himself.

As in the work of Chuck Tingle, the sex is vigorous, graphic, and explosive but always tinged with clever absurdity, though Shallman’s scenes involving torture and his explicit linking of Rod’s desires to “waves of enemy infantry strafed into oblivion” ensures the book repulses more often than it arouses. Witty prose and the wilder twists reward readers on Shallman’s wavelength. One jawdropper: Rod’s unexpected connection with a woman who witnessed the school’s destruction and an audition from a Pakistan man whose talent is the “silent scream” of the vestigial twin visible in his bare chest.

Takeaway: Proudly scabrous and sexually graphic satire of 25 years of American war.

Comparable Titles: Chuck Tingle, Philip Jose Farmer’s A Feast Unknown.

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

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All I Ever Wanted to Be Was An Ad Man
Anthony Eglin
Despite the promise of its title and some memorable stories from the ad game, Eglin’s memoir reveals a host of things he wanted—and managed—to be over the course of a surprising life. He offers a vivid retrospective of his remarkable journey spanning over five decades. Eglin's narrative resonates with precision and intimacy, from his formative years in war-torn Britain, where he faced bomb attacks and sugar scarcity, to his diverse array of occupations: competitive cyclist, clarinetist in a London-based, New Orleans-style jazz band, filmmaker, bakery owner, and a gardener. His recollections of childhood antics, the camaraderie among schoolmates, his experiences serving in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, and his involvement, as an advertising man and business owner, in efforts like Sam Wanamaker’s 1970 campaign to rebuild the epochal Globe Theatre, all come together in a rich tapestry of memories.

The “banshee howling” of the Blitz proves formative, as Eglin recounts discovering the talent for art that would bring him into advertising, marketing, and design as a boy hunkered “underneath the shelter of our sturdy table," awaiting the all clear. Building and re-building are themes throughout—London and the Globe; bands and businesses; eventually his beloved gardens. The memoir also chronicles Eglin's transition into adulthood, his ad adventures, and his eventual move to Canada with his wife, Barbara. Small details, like traveling by Greyhound bus for the first time, strategizing a plan for a newspaper’s biggest advertiser, and obsessively researching how to create a hybrid blue rose highlight Eglin's keen eye and curiosity.

What sets Eglin's memoir apart is his attention to detail, capturing not only the significant milestones but also the seemingly mundane moments that shaped his journey and the factors that powered his decision making, from accepting job offers to moving to a new country. All I Ever Wanted to Be Was An Ad Man is a testament to a life lived to its fullest potential.

Takeaway: A London ad man’s life of adventure, from the Blitz to the garden.

Comparable Titles: Fred S. Goldberg’s The Insanity of Advertising, Dave Buonaguidi’s Blah! Blah! Blah!.

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

Click here for more about All I Ever Wanted to Be Was An Ad Man
Ex-Mas Song
Jeffrey Cummins
The carol becomes a song in this surprising and heartfelt riff on Dickens’s beloved Christmas ghost story, updated for an era of antidepressants, big box stores, and soul-crushing cubicle jobs. But as in the Victorian era, faith, hope, charity, and the possibility of changing one’s heart offer a troubled individual a path forward. Rather than a miser, the Scrooge figure is Justin R., a divorcee whose attempt to end his life lands him in a St. Louis recovery center during the holidays. As his meds calm him, and an ex-wife insists they’re now back together, Justin is visited by a beloved figure from his past, his grandfather, and faces visions, at bedtime, of Christmases both long ago and trailer-park contemporary. What’s in doubt is his future: can he commit to living when he feels “small,” like there’s nothing he “loved enough to be dedicated to and excel in for its own sake”?

Lovers of Dickens will enjoy picking out surprising correspondences and Easter Eggs (a “Boz” haunts the pages). Unlike many authors inspired by A Christmas Carol, however, Cummins avoids a point-by-point recreation, instead finding fresh approaches to familiar beats and favoring meds over ghosts, all while still embracing Dickens’s themes and eye for social problems, as Justin contemplates the desperation of addiction, adults’ ambivalence for Christmas (“But we knew the truth. It was for kids”), the lives of other patients (one man is “an empty pit of metabolism”), and more.

Ex-Mas Song is hefty in length, and Cummins can’t resist chatty characters and some repetitive prose. But it moves swiftly as Justin, in brisk and unfussy prose, plays Christmas trivia games with other patients, contemplates his childhood in a therapy session or considers the faith of King David, and eventually finds his way to committing to a life worth living. The “song”’s final verse inevitably involves a cemetery, but Cummins upends expectations as the story makes its way toward the traditional transformative ending.

Takeaway: Heartening Christmas epic of finding faith and hope when life doesn’t feel worth living.

Comparable Titles: Annie Rains’s Through the Snow Globe, Richard Paul Evans’s A Christmas Memory.

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

Click here for more about Ex-Mas Song
Madam Josefina's Social House
Dan Jakel
Jakal’s debut sets a historical melodrama of love, betrayal, and bombings in the Argentina of the first decade of the twentieth century, a time of political unrest, anarchist newspapers, government corruption, and shifting social norms—“Respectable ladies can’t dance Tango in Buenos Aires,” one character tuts. The brothel at the novel’s heart is the unexpected new home of 24-year-old Sofia, a woman of bourgeois background but radical political leanings, brought into the country by her uncle, an Argentine senator, after the murder of Sofia’s parents. Senator Hugo Montserrat realizes that Sofia’s cleverness will be a problem for his plans to secure inheritance of her parents’ ranch, especially as she becomes suspicious about the circumstances of her parents’ deaths, so he sends her off to Madam Josefina, where Sofia quickly becomes a bookkeeper tutored “through the Machiavellian ways of a brothel madam.”

The novel bursts with life and culture. As the masterpiece Teatro Colón opera house is raised in Buenos Aires, and Sofia falls in love with a man and the tango, the powers that be—including commander of the investigative division of the Police of the Capital—jockey for power and wealth, willing to do anything to secure their positions, right up to staging the kind of anarchist violence that they inveigh against. Despite the cruelties of its owner, the brothel affords Sofia an education, disillusioning her in ways that her dabbling with secessionist editorials in anarchist newspapers couldn’t. Her love of the tango inspires the richest prose, and her wiliness powers the plot.

Jakal’s storytelling favors ruminative flashbacks and colloquies that edge toward the explanatory. Scenes and key moments of action tend to be understated, while musings about them later—such as a murderer rationalizing that, since he kills in fits of rage, he “lacked full knowledge of his actions” so they couldn’t be “mortal sin”s. The pacing is uneven, but the politics and culture are vividly drawn, and Jakal lays bare his characters’ hearts.

Takeaway: Historical melodrama of 1900s Buenos Aires corruption and the politics of dancing.

Comparable Titles: Carolina De Robertis’s The Gods of Tango, Lloyd Jones’s Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance.

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

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All My Secrets: Messages of health from your body - decoded
Kumara Sidhartha MD MPH
Internal medicine doctor Sidhartha debuts with a refreshing approach to understanding the intricacies of the human body. “This is a story of secrets - about your body’s inner workings” he writes, urging readers, through nine interconnected stories of fictional individuals, to pay more attention to their bodies’ cues, to “course-correct our behavior to maintain health and wellness.” The stories—constructed from Sidhartha’s years of experience with countless patients—are rooted in spirituality and recounted with special emphasis on self-care, healthy diet, and holistic healing, seamlessly weaving conventional medical knowledge with a deeper understanding of the mind-body connection.

Though unusual, Sidhartha’s format lends an expressive air to the text, where meditation transforms into a dialogue with the body and readers are encouraged to slow down, listen to their bodies, and embark on an ever-changing journey of self-discovery. Sidhartha probes Hindu precepts, as well as Greek and Roman mythology, for spiritual parallels throughout, delving into specific health concerns in each of his nine stories—concerns that range from weight management to chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart conditions. From the outset, readers are prompted to wholeheartedly commit to self-care, and Sidhartha’s holistic perspective promises the robust lifestyle that is possible when diet, exercise, and mindfulness become the focus.

Sidhartha’s approachable style makes the transition to a healthier lifestyle feel attainable for all readers, and he includes recipes at the end to help readers integrate his principles into everyday life, transforming healthy choices into sustainable habits. Each of Sidhartha’s nine stories illuminate the healing influence of meditation for a host of physical conditions, highlighting the immense, untapped knowledge our bodies hold: “communication between the body’s inner workings and the person living in that body is fundamental to maintaining a healthy relationship with the body” he writes. Readers wishing to take control of their health and pursue overall wellness will embrace this.

Takeaway: Empowering concepts for a lifetime of health.

Comparable Titles: Deepak Chopra’s Quantum Body, Justin Glaser’s Sweat.

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

Click here for more about All My Secrets
Strong to Save : Your GenX Imperative to Die Harder and Later
David Emerson Frost
Frost’s rousing Gen X-minded followup to KABOOMER: Thriving and Striving into Your Nineties offers hard-won practical guidance to strength training, nutrition, “sexercise,” and other aspects of a healthy lifestyle for an audience whose members he encourages to “Think of yourself as a real-life action figure born between the calendar years 1965 and 1984.” That phrasing exemplifies Frost’s upbeat tone and approach, as Strong to Save balances his playful inspirational exhortations to become “great” through developing strength (“A great GenX has a very good chance to become a healthy centenarian. Yup.”), easy-to-follow explanations of exercise techniques, ample “Flex Alert” pointers for more effective training, and illuminating breakdowns of what health-minded Gen Xers should know about the sciences of muscles, kinetics, and more.

Through it all, Frost’s voice is engaging, informative, and funny, even punny—one section is titled “Good Things Come to Those Who ‘Weight’”—in the manner of an inviting trainer or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson guiding tourists through a jungle cruise. Johnson, a “paragon of GenX performance,” is frequently cited throughout as a source of inspiration as Frost explains, with buoyant urgency, the essential health and aesthetic impacts of strength training, chief among them the promise of being a “vital second-half performer for up to fifty years.”

Helpful photo illustrations demonstrate some finer points of stretching, squats, planes of body motion, different types of lifting, while Frost offers clarifying insights into the carb and fat impact of energy bars, and much more. He’s crafted a host of mnemonic acronyms (WIFM, DEEP, FITT, MORNINGS) and fresh metaphors crafted not just to inform readers about healthy mindsets and habits but to make sure the info sticks—like any good coach, his voice gets stuck in one’s head. The advice is smartly targeted at men and women both, though the book’s organization is eccentric, with introductory material on the basics (including the advice to consult a doctor before heavy lifting) coming in later chapters.

Takeaway: Rousing guide to strength training for Gen Xers eager for high performance.

Comparable Titles: Wayne Westcott and Thomas Baechle’s Strength Training Past 50, Timothy Caso’s Weight Training for Old Guys.

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

Click here for more about Strong to Save
Doctor Lucifer
Anthony Lee
After surviving the chaos of the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Mark Lin knew it was only time before another virus took over—but he never suspected it would be a cyberattack putting his patients’ lives at risk. Lee’s compelling debut finds Dr. Lin, an internist who’s seen the worst at California’s Ivory Memorial Hospital, questioning the ethical duties and responsibilities that come with the science of healing. When three of his patients “crash,” on medications he didn’t prescribe and due to mistakes he didn’t make, he feels his career slipping away for reasons he can’t comprehend. With the news spreading rapidly of cyberattacks called “Lucifer’s Worm” targeting businesses, Dr. Lin begins to grasp the truth: whoever is behind Lucifer’s Worm, AKA Doctor Lucifer, is also killing Lin’s patients.

The first of Lee’s Dr. Mark Lin mysteries plunges readers into a chilling week of Lin’s life, where the stakes couldn’t be higher and the battleground isn’t Lin’s usual realm, the body, but the digital world of medical records and the darkest corners of cyberspace. Lin, a cynic but a good doctor, is determined to clear his name, and his jaded, sometimes scalding thoughts about the medical field—when “know-it-all” patients “accuse us docs of being greedy, self-serving frauds who only cared about the extra dollars in our wallets”—are resonant, allowing readers to step inside the shoes of a doctor who, even before the suspense ramps up, already finds himself tested by the landscape of healthcare.

Lee deftly weaves real-world concerns about cybersecurity into the fabric of his narrative, highlighting the vulnerability of medical institutions. At times, the deliberate pacing flags, but the convincing milieu, strong characterization—especially of relatable antagonists like the bereaved Lisa Flint—and thoughtful consideration of the motives behind cyber warfare are timely and compelling, as is Lee’s exploration of the moral complexities of contemporary healthcare. Fans of medical and hacker thrillers will relish Lin’s outrage and determination under impossible pressure.

Takeaway: Thrilling medical suspense debut pits a doctor against hacker terror.

Comparable Titles: David Baldacci’s Zero Day, Marc Elsberg’s Blackout.

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

Click here for more about Doctor Lucifer
Making Shadows
Tony McHugh
McHugh’s emotive family narrative unfolds through multiple perspectives, showcasing the far-reaching, multigenerational effects of family secrets and trauma. Australian Joe Keneally, whose troubled and abusive mother, Alice, died when he was a baby, was raised by his father, Frank, and grandmother Winn—along with his adopted sister, Dot, a First Nations woman whose connection to Joe is much closer than either realizes. As Joe’s conscripted into the Australian Army to fight on the Vietnam front, and Dot tries to navigate home life without him, McHugh follows the Keneally family through several decades, charting their devastating life changes, loss, and enduring family bonds against the backdrop of World War II through the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Blended families, mixed race heritage, and devastating secrets with the power to destroy families punctuate this compelling debut. The Keneally family is richly drawn, their individual narratives bolstering the idea that family is what you make it, as McHugh probes the prejudice, PTSD, and mental illness that haunts their bloodlines. The heavy material is delicately handled, portraying trauma’s ripple effect with a gentle voice, as McHugh writes, when POW Frank returns home at the end of World War II to Winn’s attempts to nurse him back to health, “Mother and son were in need of each other’s love, but the scars of recent years remained for both of them.”

McHugh’s reunions are emotional and moving, while still relatable, and the characters’ family struggles and personal awakenings will engross readers, whether it’s Dot’s mission to protect and empower the First Nations Peoples or Joe’s reflections on the violence of Vietnam: “I believe there is a certain spirituality that transcends death and our understanding of it.” Amid the family saga, McHugh crafts an intriguing mystery centered on war-driven PTSD alongside a reckoning between Dot and her family that, though readers may see it coming, still resonates.

Takeaway: Moving story that interlaces trauma, loss, and family bonds.

Comparable Titles: Claire Lombardo's The Most Fun We Ever Had, Candice Carty-Williams's People Person.

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

Click here for more about Making Shadows
Cellular Mind: Your Cells Create Your Mind (Not Your Brain)
Michael Rowen
Rowen makes a long-form case for his contention that it’s cells rather than processes of the brain that both create and contain consciousness. Rowen refutes the orthodoxy that individual cells are the non-sentient simple building blocks of life, arguing that CM Theory, which “posits that all cells have rudimentary minds” that, prioritizing their own survival, connect, electromagnetically, into collectives or “multicellular organism minds.” CM Theory, he writes, is “more grounded in evidence and scientific logic than the current paradigm,” and Rowen sees in it paths toward understanding mysteries of consciousness, from the experience of pain and the success of placebos to near death experiences.

Rowen makes an eloquent, well-structured argument for CM Theory, plunging into gaps of our understanding of cognition and laying out research demonstrating the “extraordinary capabilities of cells.” In each section, Rowan carefully defines an assertion (“Assertion: Cells in electromagnetically connected collectives prioritize collective survival over survival of individual cells”), showing evidence that supports or contradicts the issue at hand in prose that readers up-to-date on entry-level biology will follow without trouble. The evidence Rowen mounts stirs awe and fascination, such as single-celled organisms demonstrating “genetic engineering skills and survival agency,” or the worms that were taught to recoil from a strobing light and then, after being cut and allowed to regrow, still knew in their newly constructed brains to recoil the same stimulus.

As Cellular Mind examines questions concerning “the biophysical discontinuity” between living and non-living matter, or what might be the driving force behind evolution, skeptics will appreciate that Rowen argues fairly and with welcome clarity, laying out step-by-step reasoning with clear citations, always taking pains to acknowledge the limitations of the theory and what aspects he believes will need refinement in future. The result is a treatise that excites at the possibilities, geared to readers certain that there is more to the world than humanity yet realizes.

Takeaway: Fascinating theory of cellular cognition, digging deep into the capacities of cells.

Comparable Titles: Thomas R. Verny’s The Embodied Mind, Jon Lieff’s The Secret Language of Cells.

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

As Gray As Black & White: A story of identity
Faith Knight
Knight masterfully balances the personal and the political in her young adult debut, an engrossing portrait of a Southern teenager who, in the midst of the social upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement, learns that he’s biracial. In 1966 Alabama, no one would have used that word to describe Mark Lawson. Instead, he’s called mixed, colored, and even mulatto, but the blue-eyed blonde so baffles racists that one dubs him a white n-word. With adroit first-person narration, Knight captures Mark’s amiability and thoughtfulness, even when he damages important relationships because of anger, fear, and a debilitating uncertainty. Knight is especially strong at dramatizing how it feels to grow up as monumental change happens in increments, with segregation making Mark’s search for identity a legal and moral minefield.

Mark’s family had moved from a tenant farming community to Montgomery after his father’s death, and his white mother allowed the 14-year-old’s appearance to determine their place in the segregated city. After the board of education expels Mark from a white school, they must relocate to a Black neighborhood, and his mother loses her subsistence job. Mark can deal with the privation—they’d always been poor—but his mother’s worsening porphyria is a constant worry, and while Frederick Douglass High School provides him with a heartening vision of Black community, he remains unsure of where he truly belongs.

Discussions about the drawn-out process of desegregation (an afterword provides helpful details) are deftly woven into Mark’s interactions with family, friends, teachers, and members of his integrated baseball team. Everyone knows they’re living through a major societal shift, and are trying to find—or regain— their footing. Through Mark’s experience on both sides of the racial divide, Knight shows the difference between having empathy and suffering the forced restrictions of segregation. In the process of reconstructing his fractured self, Mark gains the maturity to see that identity is forged from contradictions, and that struggle is another word for life.

Takeaway: Vivid and wise historical fiction about a biracial teen in 1960s Alabama.

Comparable Titles: Phillip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin, Kristin Levine’s The Lions of Little Rock.

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

Click here for more about As Gray As Black & White
White Doe
Maria Williams
Williams’s spare, moving, and illuminating debut poetry collection is written with rare feeling for silence, blankness, and the blurred reality of caring for a parent suffering from dementia. “Who are we now?” Williams asks, often, throughout White Doe, the inquiry voiced at times by the speaker, but also her father, her mother, and their voices in unison. Williams uses the question to signify much, especially the loss of identity on the part of the father with dementia and a corresponding one experienced by the surviving family members. The collection asks, amid observations of caring for him (“a new language from// a black cave// bats batsb atsbats mba tsbats”) and affecting memory and nature poems (“we hear a crack in the field, birds rush/ from their branches”), who does the speaker become as she loses her father?

Absence is multi-dimensional in Williams’s collection; on the page, the use of white space allows the size and scope of this absence to expand and contract, all while emphasizing for readers silences and at times snowy landscapes. Crucial bits of language, like the mind of the speaker’s father, at times are missing, and some poems seem to be crumbling on the page, the words like rubble. But even on the metaphorical level, Williams makes absence a living presence: “that missing // painting on the wall // shines its own sun like dirt.” The power of White Doe, though, comes from precision of language and a surprising sense of hope, as Williams captures an awakening in the loss.

Birds, their feathers, and the seeds they collect, along with coyotes, deer, snow, and ice, appear and disappear from poem to poem, contextualizing the speaker and her ailing father in the natural order of life and death. “Word of your passing has reached the tree line,” Williams writes in “Don’t Be Afraid,” “now the animals // sing,” and the loved ones grieve, and the necessary, beautiful cycle continues.

Takeaway: Wintry, feather-soft poems of caring for a parent with dementia.

Comparable Titles: Margaret Atwood’s Dearly, Beth Copeland’s “Falling Lessons: Erasure One.”

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

Click here for more about White Doe
The Rooted Renegade: Transform Within, Disrupt the Status Quo & Unleash Your Legacy
Rebecca Arnold
Arnold pulls from years of leadership coaching experience to deliver a sharp debut bursting with interactive advice for readers. “The next frontier of true success in the twenty-first century will be profound, lasting, self-generating peace,” she predicts, and that cornerstone of “rooted peace” props up this guide, as Arnold delves into the mind-body connection, how to limit negative and damaging self-talk, and more. Whether teaching the need for gratitude, ways to cope with “fiery” emotions, or exploring the role spirituality plays in inner peace, Arnold leaves little room for doubt that the cost of stress, anxiety, and burnout is far too high, but “consistently generating internal peace..[is] priceless.”

Placing the responsibility squarely on individuals for creating inner peace that sticks, Arnold addresses the stumbling blocks that can get in the way, tailoring her advice to those readers who want a “purposeful, authentic life, rather than merely getting through the day.” The counsel is direct, but supportive, gently challenging stagnant patterns and offering healthy replacements, as in her admonition that readers need to re-evaluate their “relationship with time” and get comfortable with a little friction if they want to grow. She covers the basics invitingly, offering a clear breakdown of her three separate spheres of rooted peace (internal, existential, and relational), but beyond that she supplies readers with an overflow of activities and custom-styled exercises to implement her advice.

In contrast to the guidance found in many self-help books, readers will leave Arnold’s doorstep feeling refreshed, respected, and renewed. From her ideas on “dancing with mortality” instead of ignoring it to never being “afraid to stir things up,” Arnold consistently loops back to our ability—and responsibility—to “shake up your world for the good.” We may never be perfect, she comforts, but that certainly doesn’t mean we should allow the status quo to go on forever—instead, we “can generate deep fulfillment and joy on [our] own terms.”

Takeaway: Hands-on, refreshing guide to building lasting inner peace.

Comparable Titles: Nick Trenton’s The Art of Letting Go, Brianna Wiest’s The Mountain Is You.

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

Click here for more about The Rooted Renegade
Golden Scars: How the Death of My Husband Prepared Me to Battle Breast Cancer
Emily Barry Zarecki
Writing with grace, poignant wit, and hard-won insight, Zarecki delivers a poignant and deeply personal account of her journey through breast cancer, intertwined with the echoes of past trials and triumphs, including the tragic death of her first husband years before. From the moment of her diagnosis, Zarecki finds herself thrust into a world of fear and uncertainty, haunted by memories of her mother's battle with ovarian cancer. Yet, amidst the darkness, she discovers a wellspring of courage and resilience within herself, plus, in her home with her kids and second husband, Mark, a “cocoon of comfort and healing.”

The narrative weaves seamlessly between Zarecki’s cancer experiences, and poignant reflections on the past, though at times the pacing can feel uneven. Drawing on the losses she’s endured, years of measuring up to the challenges of single motherhood, and the profound impact of her mother's illness, she offers readers a raw and unflinching portrayal of love, loss, and the resilience of the human spirit. Zarecki describes adopting a mantra to help push through: “I am the storm,” she tells herself when embarking on chemo treatments, but she frankly notes that, at the time, she wasn’t “convinced of that yet.” What sets Golden Scars apart is that unwavering honesty and vulnerability.

Zarecki lays bare her fears, doubts, and moments of despair with a heartbreaking but candor, from the process of shaving her head with a beard trimmer, to the deeply human moment of beholding her body after surgery, to her struggle to give herself the “grace” to not feel impatient as her “body works to recover from the brutal treatment that coursed through my veins to attack the cancer cells.” Zarecki’s story, told with a confidence she admits not always feeling as she lived it, offers a reminder to embrace our own golden scars as symbols of our courage, resilience, and capacity for healing.

Takeaway: Frank, moving account of surviving breast cancer with love and support.

Comparable Titles: Cara Sapida’s Not the Breast Year of My Life, Terri Sterk’s Thrive After Breast Cancer.

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

Click here for more about Golden Scars
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