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Ollie Come Free
Timothy Patrick
A cattle ranching family faces the reverberations of trauma in Patrick’s sensitive and engaging first YA novel, a grounded exploration of recovery, resentment, and redemption. Surrounded by Southern California suburban sprawl, the Buck Ranch has been home to Bob Buckmeyer’s family for generations. Bob and wife Cathy work hard to maintain their bucolic life for sons Cody, a promising baseball player, and happy-go-lucky Ollie. All eyes are on Cody during a 1991 game rather than on his brother, who’s just a half-hearted outfielder, but when 11-year-old Ollie is struck by lightning, the Buckmeyers’ illusion of normalcy explodes.

After the strike, Ollie suffers a traumatic brain injury, becomes withdrawn, and begins compulsively–and prodigiously–sketching his surroundings in unerring detail. Ollie is eventually diagnosed with acquired savant syndrome, which has many behavioral similarities with autism. Patrick’s story focuses on how this new reality affects the family unit. Stalwart Bob and nurturing Cathy become even more so, but Cody, 18 months Ollie’s senior, turns into something like the family’s villain “when envy slithers in and wraps itself around an unprotected heart.” Over a dozen years, the characters experience some level of growth and healing, except Cody, who becomes more embittered, calculating, and manipulative.

Patrick (Tea Cups & Tiger Claws, Death of a Movie Star) explores regional history, class disparities, and the perils of celebrity in Ollie Come Free, incorporating a family legend about buried gold, Cody’s covetous thievery, and Ollie’s transformation from social outcast to celebrity artist (drawing city skylines from memory like real-life savant Stephen Wiltshire). Patrick doesn’t try to represent Ollie’s interior life, choosing to detail the externals instead: Ollie’s coping mechanisms and the ways loved ones find to reconnect. Young readers interested in a realistic depiction of artistic savant experiences will find resonance in this atypical coming-of-age centered on a protagonist whose future is tied to a past that always calls him home.

Takeaway: A teen savant draws on resilient allies to open up his path to a full and rewarding life.

Great for fans of: Gordon Korman’s Restart, Cass Tell’s The Savant, and C.G. Drews’s The Boy Who Steals Houses.

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

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Saxon Heroines: A Northumbrian Novel
Sandra Wagner-Wright
Historian Wagner-Wright’s (Two Coins) latest historical fiction transports readers back in time to the late seventh century, chronicling the lives of several powerful women from Northumbria. A newly minted Christian queen, Ethelberga, must rely on her grit to navigate court intrigue as she tries to turn her pagan husband toward her new religion before battle while. Hildeburg, the abbess of Streoneshalh, is determined to unite the Columban and Roman churches for the good of the kingdom. And Queen Ethelberga’s daughter, Princess Enfleda, grows up to marry a Northumbrian king and bears him a long sought-after son–but must learn to balance the pull of her pagan beliefs with opposing Christian forces.

Wagner-Wright imbues her characters with life, conveying a sense of this far-off time and place through arresting, mystical language: “He’s giving Egfrid to the water. The nymphs will take him.” Moments of wry humour and elegant scene setting carry the story, a complex interwoven web threaded with religious conflict and criss-crossing the whole of Northumbria. It’s a well-researched tale but driven by character, with flashes of poignancy and charm making the royal, historical cast convincing and relatable.

The pacing of this novel may divide readers–though it is a fascinating story of upheaval in early Britain, the historical complexities make it difficult to keep track of everyone, especially with such similar character names. Wagner-Wright includes a list of primary characters at the start, in order of appearance, that will help readers trace the extensive genealogy. In the same vein, the glossary of names, terms, and places at the end of the novel–such as “Elf-shot"–lends authenticity to this portrait of a time when people believed that the onset of an unknown disease could be caused by elves firing arrows into the afflicted. Overall, Wagner-Wright’s deft characterization and intricate plotting make this an absorbing read that will appeal to fans of layered, detailed historical fiction.

Takeaway: Historical fiction readers will be absorbed by this intricate tale of memorable Northumbrian women fighting for change.

Great for fans of: Philippa Gregory, Sandra Gulland.

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

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Affirm The Word: The Spiritual Practice of Speaking & Living God's Word
J. Marie Jones
This impassioned compilation—a collection of biblical passages, secondary resources, and accounts of personal experience—has been crafted to “assist believers” looking to better understand the message of God. Targeting Christian readers, Jones guides her audience through biblical teachings by topic, choosing select quotes from the Old and New Testament for each subject. Jones offers concise, meaningful, spiritual guidance that covers a wide variety of topics: from affliction to sin, from divorce to boldness to child rearing. She endeavors to clarify complex or obscure concepts (like “binding and loosing”), offers prayer templates crafted to help readers internalize God’s message, and draws personal guidance from scripture.

While Jones does not proselytize, she assumes that her readers are already followers of Jesus to some extent (they may be wayward, but they are believers). That specificity is one of the book’s strengths. Jones draws from her own personal experience, selecting quotes, ideas, and prayers that are important to her—and that may prove important or impactful for those seeking to achieve peace through religion.

Jones pulls heavily from other texts and websites throughout each chapter; she’s not only an author—she’s a compiler. But the most compelling passages are not the biblical quotes or the prayers written by others. They are the personal anecdotes that Jones shares: how a period after divorce turned her into a true follower of God, how she learned to love her neighbor by first loving herself, how she has come to understand that “it is NEVER okay to behave in a disrespectful way toward others.” These sections, focused on the experience of a woman whose life has been changed by belief, are not only the book’s most engaging—they’re also its most urgent and persuasive. While some of the compiled material can be dry or familiar, these glimpses into the author behind the book are honest and memorable.

Takeaway: This inspiring collection of biblical quotes, prayer ideas, and anecdotes takes flight when it gets personal.

Great for fans of: Robert S. McGee’s The Search for Significance, Craig Groeschel’s Winning the War in Your Mind.

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

Core Drift: A Coruscant Novel
FX Holden
In Holden’s stellar second dip into the Coruscant series, readers dive into an exhilarating sci-fi mystery filled with expertly developed characters, unexpected twists, and a hint of forbidden romance. Core Drift is an inviting stand-alone thriller allowing readers unfamiliar with Deep Core, the first book in the series, to quickly feel at home in Holden’s dramatic universe. Fan Zhaofeng is a cyber—a hybrid human-artificial intelligence being with a cybernetically enhanced brain linked up to the Core, an AI platform that links all computer systems between two key planets. Fan is the lead suspect in a string of murders being investigated by Expositor Lin Ming. The more Fan claims his innocence, the more evidence surfaces that points to his guilt, and Lin won’t stop until she unravels the truth.

This sci-fi thriller wastes no time digging its claws into the mystery. Murder, threats of civil unrest, and debates of morality sprinkle the pages while a sweet romantic subplot between Lin and Fan provides readers the opportunity to catch their breaths from the high-stakes drama and stunning twists. Readers will quickly warm to this unusual partnership between suspected and cop: Fan’s mission to prove his innocence makes him a sympathetic hero, while Lin’s empathy and independent spirit leads her down a rabbit hole that will ultimately test her entire value system and loyalty to the government.

Holden is adept at guiding readers into his inventive universe. He clearly defines his world-building terms, and the convenient “Core Encyclopedia v201.b” serves as a resource for anyone needing a quick refresher as the story progresses. Holden has a lot to establish in the story’s opening chapters, which slows the pace, but, lovers of inventive action will relish the fast-paced incidents that bring the story to a wild resolution. Sci-fi fans will sink into this murder-mystery with dynamic characters and an unpredictable plot.

Takeaway: This cyber sci-fi thriller has a unique protagonist, vibrant world building, and thrilling twists.

Great for fans of: Rudy Rucker, J. Barton Mitchell, Greg Bear’s Queens of Angels.

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

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The Devil's Kiss
JOHN B GEERER
It’s 1999 and widower Tom Stone is ready to start fresh. Widowed and recently retired from a long career in the US Navy, he’s moved to coastal Massachusetts to fulfill his and his wife’s dream of opening a small B&B. As he renovates Stonecroft Inn, the seventeenth-century tavern he purchased just outside of Marblehead, Tom is joined by his old Army buddy, Jake Brean, and his wife, Marie, who plan to help Tom through the tourist season. They soon discover that the Stonecroft Inn has a sordid history rife with murder, pirate plots, and a connection to the Salem Witch Trials. In the ensuing troubles, Tom discovers that the past refuses to be left behind.

The Devil’s Kiss oscillates between Tom’s late-1990s perspective and that of seventeenth-century Israel Hands, a woodcarver-turned-pirate who commits his first murder at age twelve out of a drive for familial vengeance. Israel’s life and the Stonecroft Inn are intimately linked, and these shifting points of view—well marked by chapter headings—illuminate the mystery at the heart of the novel. Like Tom, readers will be unable to shake the eerie feeling that suffuses the inn, but through Geerer’s skillful intermingling of the two timelines they can better understand the connection between past and present. While some may be put off by the unstinting depiction of the bloodthirstiness of privateer life, most will find Israel’s story just as gripping as Tom’s—and surprised at how their histories link together.

The darkness of some details, including some graphic murder scenes, mean that this adventure is best-suited for young adult or older audiences. Geerer’s blend of history and intrigue alongside a truly likable protagonist ensure that fans of ghost stories, cozy mysteries, pirate fiction, and historical drama will find much to love here, including a richly rendered settings and plot twists that will keep readers guessing.

Takeaway: Pirates, puritans, and a modern mystery collide in this delightfully spooky debut.

Great for fans of: Michael Crichton’s Pirate Latitudes, Taci Wilton’s Mrs. Morris series.

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

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Lost Stories of the Great War
Rosalie Lauerman
Lauerman (Jockey Hollow) reveals a treasure trove of little-known World War I tales, detailing the exploits of a variety of heroes whose contributions have for the most part been left out of history textbooks. In keeping with the spirit of her first novel, Jockey Hollow, about George Washington’s forgotten army, Lauerman celebrates stalwarts like the Hello Girls, who risked their lives operating the switchboard for the front lines; the 370th Regiment, composed exclusively of African-American soldiers who fought to defend a country that had not protected them; and the Native American code talkers whose ancient language helped to turn the Allies’ luck.

Lauerman effectively sheds light on these neglected and overlooked female and BIPOC soldiers–many of whom were ultimately denied Veteran status by their government–without romanticizing the Great War and its tragedies. Despite the title’s emphasis on stories, the book’s tone and structure suggests an inviting textbook, offering sidebars and well-chosen illustrations that illuminate concepts like “no man’s land” or terms like liberty bonds. Like a textbook, this extensive, meticulously researched account at times places more emphasis on historical events than on the humanity of the participants. Words straight from the subjects themselves are illuminating but appear mostly as block quotes, so these insights and details aren’t woven compellingly into the storytelling. Lauerman leaves it to the facts, the photographs, and the feats themselves to sell the stories.

Overall, Lauerman’s lost stories uncover rarely heard chronicles of soldiers, linemen, “flying schoolgirls” and more, accounts that will open readers’ perspectives to the innumerable forgotten heroes of the era. For young students and World War buffs alike, Lauerman’s celebration of the “plucky” courage of individuals who “put their personal safety aside” and often “defied authority” will entertain and inform as it provokes further in these too-often unsung heroes.

Takeaway: An inviting celebration of forgotten acts of bravery by overlooked heroes of the great war.

Great for fans of: Michael Morpurgo’s Only Remembered, Tony Bradman’s Stories of World War One.

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

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Shifted: Book One of the Shifted Series
KristaLyn A. Vetovich
In Vetovich’s (Pure Fyre) Beta-Siberia, some distant time into the future, the world is coming to an end thanks to greedy political figures, income inequality, and climate change. But Kade Buxton, a loyal and headstrong 20 year old, is destined to save it all--if only he would listen to his spirit guide, Anaya. Told from the frustrated and sarcastic view of an otherworldly being, Shifted offers a unique spin on the traditional hero’s quest, as Anaya nudges Kade to embrace the “Plan”--and to resist the distractions to that path offered by Jordin, a rival with his own connections to Anaya. Vetovich memorably tangles the journey up with good and evil, questions of free will, and the ways friendships evolve.

Due to its unique perspective, the story sometimes feels limited, especially in terms of access to Kade’s actual thoughts and emotions. That being said, hearing exclusively from Anaya’s viewpoint invites readers to feel just as frustrated as she does with Kade’s inability to hear or heed her messages. Vetovich seizes the opportunity for amusing reflections and asides, such as when Anaya brags about helping Joan of Arc live out her purpose. Anaya’s big picture mindset also opens the story to moral questions at a higher scale than Kade is capable of comprehending, questions explored in Anaya’s relationship with Jordin, her former best friend and soulmate, who has shifted to the enemy side of this war.

The world of Beta-Siberia is not rendered in vivid color or expansive detail, but fittingly so, as Kade only has access to his lived experience in his development, and the Association (the governing authority) doesn’t teach much history or geography. Even with otherworldly discussing philosophy and religion, Shifted is a fast-paced and absorbing fantasy adventure that’s sure to capture the interest of teens who enjoy fantasy with moral intrigue.

Takeaway: A fast-paced and unique take on the hero’s quest that grapples with political and moral questions.

Great for fans of: Gareth Hanrahan’s The Gutter Prayer, Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows.

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

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Lady August
Becky Michaels
Raised in an orphanage and trained as a governess, August Summer finds her quiet life upended by her unexpected entrée to the aristocracy in this charming historical romance. A solicitor named Samuel Brooks shows up at her door with the news that her father is a nobleman, and still alive—for now. The dying man wishes to meet his natural daughter and to bestow upon her a massive inheritance. Now known as Lady August Finch per her father’s final wishes, she finds herself thrust into a world she doesn’t know and a family that never knew she existed, resented by some (her half-brother and step-mother in particular) and welcomed by others (including a half-sister and her somewhat scandalous aunt).

As she prepares for her introduction to society, August finds herself developing feelings for Brooks, who takes responsibility for her well being and ultimately returns her affections—despite his assertion that “I will never marry. Unlike you, I find the idea of family vastly overrated.” The chemistry between them feels tepid, but he’s far from the only character who is instantly and inexplicably charmed the ascendant lady. Aside from those whose self-interests conflict directly with hers, August is almost universally accepted and supported by almost everyone she encounters, including the noblewoman mother who was forced to give her up at birth. These relationships and alliances seem to coalesce around August effortlessly, diminishing the story's tension and complexity, though for some readers this may prove appealing.

Despite the relative dearth of interpersonal conflict, Michaels’s (The Land Steward’s Daughter) romance structure is sound, the dialogue is crisp and polished, and the hero and heroine face legitimate obstacles to their budding relationship that they must overcome. Those who enjoy their romances seasoned with angst should look elsewhere, but readers seeking sweet, upbeat love story with a light touch and a dash of historical flavor will enjoy this Cinderella tale.

Takeaway: Readers looking for an uncomplicated historical love story will be satisfied with this literary confection.

Great for fans of: Sally Britton, Laura Rollins.

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

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Enemy Combatant
WINNER DAVID
In Winner’s darkly comic story of wartime misadventure, a pair of dissolute Americans try to find secret American military prisons—along with their own sense of purpose—while on a dark-humored pilgrimage through Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey in 2005. Peter, separated from his pregnant wife and battling various inner demons, has become obsessed with finding evidence of Bush administration war crimes. By dumb luck, he and his friend Leonard free an alleged terrorist and then try to make it home. The caper swings wildly from comic to tragic, on a journey that changes Peter forever.

Against a realistic backdrop, Winner masterfully sets absurd characters in absurd scenes, highlighting the confusion in the characters' lives as well as the insanities of war. An incompetent American soldier they sneak up on initially assumes, from their put-on accents, that they’re Arabs, so Peter starts channeling tough-guy talk he vaguely recalls from old Kojak episodes–and pauses to reflect on the odd fact that both he and the soldier originally come from Virginia. The duo’s freed prisoner turns out to be as lost, physically and emotionally, as they are, and the police Peter and Leonard come up against are not thugs, just men trying to get through the day. Winner offers readers no heroes and no villains, but the characters never fail to engage even though the storytelling occasionally falters with awkward flashbacks.

Peter comes across as especially complex and appealing. Even with his obsessions and addictions, he longs for his wife and favors the language of a poet, not a freedom fighter: He travels with "Sarah’s shirt, the one that smelled so reassuringly of the soap she used." Despite his poses, he can’t forget who he really is–"the man on Manhattan Avenue who played with the fat cat at the local bodega…" As Peter desperately tries to get home, Winner makes clear that the most rewarding journeys are those we take within ourselves.

Takeaway: The troubled characters in this brisk story of the absurdity of war will resonate long after readers finish the book.

Great for fans of: David Abrams’s Fobbit, Phil Klay’s Missionaries.

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

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Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind, Revised Edition: Leadership Lessons from Three Decades of Social Entrepreneurship
Alex Counts
Counts, the founder of the Grameen Foundation, has dedicated his life to alleviating poverty through microfinance and other innovations. This revised edition of Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind, which pairs accounts of Counts’ career in the nonprofit world with lessons for effective leadership and self-care, updates a book targeted at a specialized audience: nonprofit leaders fighting for societal change. Counts’ practical, engaging advice draws from his decades of experience, in the U.S. and abroad, in holding true to a mission and vision while wrangling grants, board members, staffs, and complex partnerships.

Setting the book apart is his focus on physical and mental self-care: “I’ve seen far too many middle-aged nonprofit leaders who were overweight smokers and whose cynicism and jaded perspectives lived right below the surface of their ossified idealism,” he writes. Attentive to the particular challenges facing leaders in his field, Counts urges readers to commit to hobbies, to “live generously” in their personal lives, and to practice gratitude, suggestions he illustrates with clear, compelling anecdotes. One breakthrough he recounts, in work and in life, has been learning to recognize that people are who they are: “I expected everyone to be motivated, demotivated, amused, saddened, inspired, and troubled by roughly similar things as I was,” he writes. This insight helped him grow beyond that assumption: “every person was a riddle to be solved, joyfully.”

This updated edition closes with a new chapter, inspired by the era of the coronavirus, that centers on nonprofit leadership in a society-wide crisis. Crucially, Counts encourages his readers to take the long view, avoid overreacting, and demonstrate grace and understanding to stressed or even angry supporters. Having faced crises every decade of his career, Counts suggests that nonprofit leaders should anticipate, during boom times, that a bust is inevitable and manage rainy-day funds accordingly. His book offers hard-won insight and guidance to nonprofit workers and leaders committed to living lives of meaning–but not lives of needless stress.

Takeaway: This practical memoir and guide balances nonprofit work with self-care.

Great for fans of: INCITE!’s The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, Dan and Chip Heath’s Made to Stick.

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

Lost Love's Return
Alfred Nicols
Former federal judge Nicols’s debut highlights the intricacies of wartime romance and the promise of love across a lifetime as it follows an American soldier who falls in love with his British nurse during World War I but then loses her afterwards. When he’s wounded in France on the front line, Mississippi native Peter Montgomery is sent to Edmonton Military Hospital in North Middlesex, England, in hopes of staving off a life-threatening infection. He promptly falls in love with his nurse, Elizabeth Baker, who senses something different about him and soon finds herself returning his affection. After the war ends and he is forced to leave England, Peter tries to send information about his abrupt departure to Elizabeth, but she never receives the message.

The novel spans decades. Peter’s return home is tumultuous–though he misses Elizabeth, one night of drunken sex back in Mississippi results in a crisis and a hasty wedding. Finally, many years after he last saw Elizabeth, Peter contacts her in hopes for a chance to reconnect. Nicols seamlessly depicts the historical events surrounding World War I and the debilitating conditions faced by soldiers on the battlefield, but despite ample physical descriptions of the characters and colorful accounts of their youthful exploits, he largely avoids exploring their emotional depth. However, the relationship between Peter and Elizabeth, a primary focus of the plot\, is well-developed as their innocent flirtation escalates into a full-blown romance.

Nicols’s use of rural Mississippi vernacular common during the early part of the 20th century is spot-on and adds realism, and his familiarity with small-town life gives readers a convincing window into the characters’ existence. The narrative is fast-paced and immersive, and while the language is not highly descriptive, its concision is welcome. Fans of long lost love will appreciate the sincere bond between Peter and Elizabeth as they navigate the ups and downs of rediscovering each other.

Takeaway: An endearing story of an American World War I veteran who, despite the passage of time, cannot forget a British nurse.

Great for fans of: Lauren Willig’s Band of Sisters, Ann Howard Creel’s Mercy Road.

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

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To Every Page a Turning: One Life's Journey
Carl Buccellato
This gripping autofiction follows an unnamed narrator looking back on his life after he stumbles onto a collection of old papers. Following a rough childhood in Brooklyn, the man joins the army and fights in Vietnam, suffering from abandonment and anger issues. He later finds success as a businessman, raises a family, and learns to forgive his cold, neglectful parents. Told in a series of non-linear, third-person vignettes, and occasionally including entries centered around old army buddies and their lives beyond the war, this is a well-written portrait of a man struggling through hardships to make something of his life.

While a few vignettes focus on other members of the narrator’s troop, much of the narrative is, by Buccellato’s admission, based on his own experience. This often works in his favor: The deeply personal chapters centered around Vietnam capture the cruelty of war with insight and even beauty, while his accounts of facing death—the sensory overload that comes with watching a friend die—are horrifying and resonant. He intriguingly blends fact and fiction, but what will matter to readers is the mastery over detail Buccellato demonstrates throughout. The narrator describes, during an evacuation, taping his dog tags together to make himself as silent as possible, a little moment that reveals so much.

The sections covering the narrator’s later life (focusing on his marriage, health issues, family, and monetary success) are sprawling and lack the specificity of his war-related episodes. The language becomes less clear, the anecdotes less compellingly connected, and extraneous details cloud the narrative. Buccellato’s time jumps can be confusing, and the choice to identify the narrator only as “he” results in some awkward sentences when other "he"s enter the picture. But despite some stylistic shortcomings, this is a powerfully intimate rendering of a man, his life after the war, and the ways in which it changed him forever.

Takeaway: This absorbing autofiction explores the effects of the Vietnam War through the eyes of an ambitious protagonist.

Great for fans of: Nico Walker’s Cherry, Rick DeStefanis’s Valley of the Purple Hearts.

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

Butterfly, Butterfly
CarrieAnne
CarrieAnne’s colorful debut children’s picture book introduces kids to different types of butterflies and the fascinating worlds through which they fly. With fun rhyming throughout, CarrieAnn establishes the kind of repeating, question-response structure that’s ideal for storytime with younger readers. One page will depict a “butterfly, butterfly in the sky,” with text inquiring what it sees; the next page offers a rhyming answer (“eight orange flowers and a rubber ducky”) illustrated by the author’s inviting and detailed watercolor paintings. To further engage children’s attention, the answer rhymes count upwards, one to ten, starting with a butterfly seeing “one red flower and a bumblebee” and increasing eventually to “ten blue flowers as happy as can be.” The butterflies, true to their nature, flit and flow across the page layouts.

Seamlessly combining charming yet realistic artwork, cute rhymes, and educational content, CarrieAnne has created a picture book that kids will want to read over and over. The book stays fresh despite its repeating structure: It asks the same question ten times, but to a succession of new, vividly rendered butterflies, who each offer an answer that’s alive with color and surprises. The final pages identify each of the butterflies (black swallowtail, great spangled fritillary) and flowers (purple snowpea, blue forget-me-not) depicted in the book, plus offer colorful count-along pages in which butterflies appear in rows correlating with the pages they upon which they first appeared.

As a children’s librarian, CarrieAnne understands how to grab and hold children’s attention at reading time. This work of love smartly offers repeating but not boring rhymes, eye-catching watercolors, a variety of vibrant natural subjects, and the additional fun of counting. A climactic illustration depicting a child isn’t as appealing or lively as the book’s abundant butterflies and flowers, but the author/illustrator’s passion for reading and the outdoors comes through splendidly.

Takeaway: Young readers will adore learning about butterflies and counting with this watercolor picture book.

Great for fans of: Dianna Hutts Aston’s A Butterfly is Patient, Jerry Pallotta’s Butterfly Colors and Counting, Susan R. Stoltz’s Let’s Count Butterflies.

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

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Denied
Mary Keliikoa
Keliikoa’s second entry in the Kelly Pruett Mystery series finds PI Kelly Pruett recovering from a gunshot wound to the arm and eager to get back to work. Returning home from a stakeout, Pruett runs into a woman from her past, an old classmate named Stephanie Burnotas. Stephanie is pregnant and her father, Vince, is missing, so she hires Kelly, who at first is happy to take a simple missing persons case—but then she finds evidence that Vince was indebted to the mob and discovers a severed finger covered in maggots. Things quickly worsen when Vince’s car gets discovered at the bottom of a cliff, and the mob takes measures to stop Kelly from asking further questions.

This is an action-packed novel with a strong heroine, a likable cast, and an engaging central case. The pacing is strong, and the narrative possesses that ineffable quality that can only be called “readability.” Vince’s death is mysterious, and Kelly proves adept at thinking it through: “Had it been raining that night? There were no streetlamps. Nothing to illuminate the road except for two headlights piercing the void. The rubber of his tires leaving solid ground. Sailing. Dropping. Hitting tree limbs on his way down. The jolts waking him. Had he realized in that moment where his car would land?”

Keliikoa vividly draws these characters. It’s easy to like Kelly, who recently lost her father, and to feel why her mother—who faces some danger once the mob gets wind of Kelly’s investigation— means so much to her: “My mother didn’t say as much in words as in action. Reassurance came in the form of a longer hug, brushing my hair, one-sided conversations where I rambled on about my fears that I’d never be pretty. Or skinny. Or normal.” This swift, exciting thriller hits its marks in mystery and action, but the heroine is what will stick with the readers after the last page.

Takeaway: An appealing detective and nice twists and turns enrich this mystery.

Great for fans of: Jennifer Hillier, Shannon Kirk.

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

Click here for more about Denied
Dutybound: Light Wings Epic Vol. 1
Mark A. Alvarez
When the province of Moz is attacked by a shadowy, demonic force, 18-year-old Lucia Sanoon, high maiden of Moz and sole heir to the governorship, is forced to flee, accompanied by Sir Leocadio Feral, heir to the neighboring province of Pinea. Heeding the advice of a letter left behind by Lucia’s long-missing father, the duo seeks refuge with Leo’s father in Pinea, only to be displaced after another attack. In search of answers, they venture forth to Aldric, the land of scholars, only to learn that they have been caught up in an age-old conflict between darkness and light--and that this new generation must pay for the sins of its predecessors. To save the world, they must uncover the secret of the Light Wings, a powerful artifact passed into Lucia’s safekeeping which grants her amazing powers, at a cost.

Alvarez brings to this epic fantasy an ambitious, philosophical bent, a resonant clash between generations, and a colorful, highly visual aesthetic. That emphasis, though, comes at the expense of deeper worldbuilding and character exploration. As his characters visit interesting locales, Alvarez paints vivid pictures with an eye for detail but neglects the cultural and social details that invited readers to feel invested in a living, breathing setting.

The same can also be said for his characters, who wax poetic about good and evil, light and dark, but never quite feel like real people. Instead, Alvarez uses them to explore his philosophical concern, a spiritually charged struggle between sin and virtue. The juxtaposition of religious and human elements makes for an interesting thematic core but doesn’t quite carry the narrative, which tends to skip quiet moments in favor of action and high drama. A sudden time jump late in the story may even leave readers wondering if they have missed some crucial developments. Still, the premise has potential and the author’s use of color throughout is impressive.

Takeaway: This philosophical fantasy will appeal to readers seeking vivid clashes between light and dark.

Great for fans of: Brent Week’s Lightbringer series, L. E. Modesitt Jr.’s Recluce series.

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

Click here for more about Dutybound
Picnic for Parrots
Allison Sojka
In Sojka’s playful storybook, a colorful group of parrots has gathered in the jungle for a picnic. Each bird has brought a dish to share, but Red, the picnic’s host, only wants to eat pineapple cupcakes with kiwi cream icing. Unfortunately, Red is too shy to get up and snag his own treat, so he asks his friend Blue for help. In the middle of her own meal, Blue misunderstands Red, thinking he wants a pineapple cupcake with jellybean icing. When Blue can’t find this type of cake, she whispers to another parrot for assistance, leading to a cute and silly version of the popular children’s game, Telephone.

Children will find some of the parrots’ snacks amusingly gross–cherry breads with roaches, for instance, as well as cantaloupe pudding and cricket cookies. Young kids will also laugh as the birds repeatedly misinterpret each other, as by the time the message reaches the yellow parrot it has gotten garbled into “lime bowl cupcakes topped with chilies and beans.” There’s a good chance this goofy tale will spur a real-life round of Telephone with family or friends, making it an appealing choice for keeping youngsters entertained on long, lazy afternoons. The rhymes are a bit forced or awkward at times (eat/sweets, icing/green), but preschoolers are unlikely to notice.

Sojka’s simple, cheery illustrations rely on simple shapes and do not incorporate much detail or depth. Young children will easily recognize the parrots and their food, but the images are presented without context, with each page utilizing the same vaguely leafy, dark green background. Although parents will appreciate the story’s message about friendship, what matters most is this tale’s sense of fun and whimsy, which will inspire the kids to play their own games and make them want to read the book more than once.

Takeaway: This whimsical storybook about a colorful group of parrots having a picnic offers a playful take on a favorite children’s game.

Great for fans of: Mac Barnett's Telephone, Courtney Dicmas's Harold Finds a Voice.

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

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