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War Bunny
Christopher St. John
A bunny decides she’s had enough and dares to shake up the natural order in St. John’s unusual and thought-provoking post-apocalyptic debut. In a far-future world where humans are gone and animals thrive, Anastasia the bunny is different from the other rabbits—she asks questions about their god, Yah, and why, if he loves the rabbits, Yah would expect them to be “Glorified” by the “Blessed”–which means eaten by predators. Considered mentally ill and dangerous to the warren, she’s kicked out. After successfully repulsing a fox on the prowl, Anastasia has an awakening that leads to a revolution: maybe Yah’s on board with bunnies fighting back.

Going beyond simply telling a story, St. John dives into the dangers of blind faith and how societies react when someone questions shared beliefs. Anastasia’s internal turmoil is palpable as she tries to find a balance between Yah’s love and his apparent intent that rabbits be eaten. Gathering information from the “Readers” and “Rememberers” in charge of interpreting books and history from the Dead Gods (humans), along with Yah’s writings, Anastasia makes her own interpretation, concluding that defense should be acceptable as long as none of the Blessed are killed. The other rabbits’ responses range from fear of heresy to the conviction that she’s their savior.

St. John also spotlights the treatment of those who are different. Once Anastasia is kicked out, her only goal is survival and to dig a safe burrow for herself, but when word about her actions gets out, other ostracized bunnies come searching for safety. Although building a new warren is not her intention, she never turns anyone away–including mice and squirrels– and draws out the strength in each to help defend the warren as a new family. Although readers will be left with questions at the end, the journey and lessons getting there will be worth it.

Takeaway: This post-apocalyptic rabbit tale of daring to question society is tougher and more creative than most animal fiction.

Great for fans of: Richard Adams’s Watership Down, David Petersen’s Mouse Guard.

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

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Tied With Twine
Pam Records
This intimate historical epic, set among the Polish community on Chicago’s South Side during the days of Prohibition, finds then old world crashing into the roaring 20s, as the immigrant residents of Hegewisch see their lives of stubborn tradition upended by bootleggers, scandal, and the whiskey wars. At the center of it all is young Halina, a whipsmart young dreamer who has been funding an escape from the neighborhood by working odd jobs and trouncing the locals at poker. Her plan: buy a train ticket someplace, anyplace, and study nursing. But as gang violence spills into the streets, and she’s visited by disorienting visions, Halina finds herself embroiled in her hometown’s escalating dramas, including the theft of her stash, the mysterious plans of Romani healer Baba, a crisis involving her sister Pactriz, and the gangsters’ discovery that Halina’s quite good at patching up wounds.

Halina’s the novel’s heart, but Records is admirably attentive to her milieu, persuasively summoning up a lost world of potato soap, healing teas, bootleg rotgut, and Old Country curses. The richly detailed narrative has been crafted to immerse readers rather than rush them through the adventures of Halina; expect to get to know Hegewisch’s grocer, barber, and newstand proprietor, as well as how its people think, talk, love, drink, pray, and fight.

“How did she get sucked into her sister’s problem?” Halina wonders, late in the book. “And Augie’s problem? And Joey’s? She didn’t even like Joey, the big, boastful blowhard.” In Tied With Twine, being from a place—of a place—brings with it responsibility. Halina yearns to escape Hegewisch, yet she treasures an amulet of Baba’s and can’t help but help everyone she cares for and even some she doesn’t. Compassion overwhelms her even when confronting a man who terrorized her as a child. This tender, sweeping novel has its share of Chicago gangsters and crime-scene brutality, but it’s no crime story—instead, it’s a moving story of protecting what matters most.

Takeaway: This riveting historical novel of Prohibition-era Chicago finds a Polish woman doing all she can for her neighborhood.

Great for fans of: Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls, Dominic A. Pacyga’s American Warsaw.

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

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Return to the Light Within: How I Woke Up, Rediscovered Who I Am, and Found Happiness
Dmitria Burby
In her succinct literary debut, Burby pens a cross between a memoir and a New Age self-help manual that will entice spiritually open-minded readers. Before her spiritual awakening, Burby packed every second of her life with tasks to complete—and despite all of the outward trappings of success, still found herself miserable. When she started the blog G.R.I.T. (Girls Rise in Truth) with friends and subsequently had a “shamanic intervention”— an intense, out-of-body spiritual experience—her life begins to transform. “I know that a part of me died in that experience; a part that needed to be shed and released, allowing the new, fresh me to emerge,” she writes. Suddenly, she began to process painful childhood experiences, finally purging them from her body and soul. Now she offers guidance as to how her readers can do the same.

Burby writes with clear passion for her subject, generously allowing herself to be vulnerable and honest in the hope that sharing her story will help others. That generosity of spirit surely nudged her toward her choice to become a healer dedicated to helping people remove energy and emotional burdens and blocks. Burby argues that as their awareness and consciousness start to expand, the world and universe that readers are able to see and comprehend will expand too—and that both are much grander than what we see and experience with our five senses.

Not everyone will have an identical spiritual awakening, of course, or handle it with Burby’s blend of grace, verve, and earnestness, but readers curious about spirituality in the age of Covid can learn from her selflessness and quest for truth and authenticity. This short but wise tome will appeal to those who intend to live their own truths, and to those open to a spiritual journey but looking for a nudge or a guide.

Takeaway: Burby’s powerful and earnest spiritual journey will lend inspiration to others on the road to enlightenment.

Great for fans of: Louise Hay, James Van Praagh, Gabby Bernstein

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

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The Lost Princess of Story: The Chronicles of Story: Book One
Suzanne de Planque
The sweeping first volume of de Planque’s Chronicles of Story series, created as “a valentine to children’s literature and fantasy,” invites readers to sink into an epic, imaginative portal fantasy touched with welcoming whimsy.The Last Princess of Story drops Lilla, a twelve-year-old Brooklyn girl who believes in magic and desperately wants to experience it in her life, into a legitimate magical quest. When the fairy tales she loves to read are proven to be real, Lilla finds herself in both a New York City in which fairy folk have found refuge and in Story, the “fabled land of magic,” a realm that everyone visits on occasion, “even if only in their dreams.” Lilla and friends must work with a collection of fairyland creatures and characters to rescue a fallen comrade and protect Sophie, Charlie’s mother, from an evil Queen with a penchant for firebombing villages.

Those who grew up enjoying The Wizard of Oz or the Harry Potter books will likely find a pleasurable familiarity in de Planque’s elaborate world building. Both young readers and adults will recognize such fairy tale places and characters as Grimm, the Charming family, and Cinderella. Lilla is a playful protagonist who starts the book leaping into Ikea wardrobes in hopes of discovering Narnia and develops into a young woman of courage. There’s amusing banter, an adorable and hungry teacup-sized dragon, and an enthusiastic narrator given to wordplay and allegory—and willing to crash cymbals together to re-capture reader attention. While some might find that this lengthy story undertakes one too many adventures, there’s still much delight in the whirlwind perils.

The fun packs the pages, right down to engaging footnotes, and de Planque expands it to real life with recipes of the character’s favorite treats (cake toast and chip-butty) and a bibliography offering fantasy and fairy tale recommendations. Readers looking to get swept up in an adventure will delight in this fairy tale.

Takeaway: Lovers of fairy tales and epic adventures will enjoy this dangerous quest filled with lovable heroes and magical creatures.

Great for fans of: Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood, Hafsah Faizal’s We Hunt the Flame.

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

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Cold Consequences
David Rohlfing
Businessman turned author Rohlfing delivers a pulse-pounding police procedural mystery in the second of his Detective Sasha Frank mystery series, a prequel to Deliberate Duplicity. When Ashley Cummins, the daughter of a prominent local businessman and the granddaughter of a judge, is murdered, Bloomington, Illinois, Detective Sasha Frank and his partner, Darcie Lyman, catch the case—along with a heap of pressure to solve it quickly. After they discover a past sports injury led Ashley to become addicted to opioids, Sasha and Darcie start grilling local drug dealers—but those dealers begin to be murdered in increasingly gruesome fashion, forcing Sasha and Darcie to get to their suspects before a vigilante does.

The scourge of opioid addiction is pulled straight from the headlines, and procedural readers will be drawn to Rohlfing’s pitch-perfect characters, especially the driven veteran Sasha and younger detective Darcie, who questions everyone and everything. Among the supporting cast, Ashley’s grieving father will draw massive sympathy, and Rohlfing manages to make at least one drug dealer—Danny, who has a young daughter—sympathetic enough that his murder will resonate. Another related death will prove that what seems to be straightforward often isn’t, as eagle-eyed readers will discover via a few tiny clues.

Rohlfing easily draws readers into his small-town Midwestern world of bars, opioids, small-time gangs, and well-observed class divisions, and he has clearly done his research on the intricacies of law enforcement (although descriptions of various victim autopsies aren’t for the faint of heart.) In addition, his able plotting ratchets up the tension chapter by chapter, especially when two innocents are killed, and will keep readers questioning until the clever end of the story, when they learn what—and who—all the murders have in common. Any armchair detective will enjoy solving these tantalizing mysteries alongside Rohlfing’s dogged detectives and look forward to the next book in the series

Takeaway: An enthralling, heart-pounding police procedural that will keep readers guessing from start to finish.

Great for fans of: Michael Connelly’s The Law of Innocence, Jeff Carson’s Alive and Killing, Josh Griffith’s This Lonely Town.

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

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An Impossible Wife: Why He Stayed; A True Story of Love, Marriage, and Mental Illness
Brett Siddoway
Siddoway tackles the impact of mental illness on marriage in her moving memoir, a follow-up to An Impossible Life. Siddoway’s parents, Mitch and Sonja Wasden, married young, certain they’d be happy despite being “polar opposites.” When the first cracks of Sonja’s bipolar disorder appear, their life together is upended: Sonja vacillates between mania, selling joint mutual funds and racking up thousands of dollars of debt, and deep depression, collecting obituaries and fantasizing about her own death. Eventually, Sonja attempts suicide, and Mitch, a hospital CEO who on the surface seems to have the perfect life, also reaches a breaking point–and the entire family struggles to persevere as they face the aftershocks.

Siddoway writes that “many silent tears were shared” during the years covered by this heartbreaking chronicle, and her eloquent account bears witness to their excruciating pain endured by this family. Readers will be riveted by Sonja’s gradual descent to rock bottom–a vivacious young mother who transforms into a virtual stranger–and memories of nights passed sobbing on the kitchen floor and her hosing down the inside of a car at a car wash while en route to church. Mitch’s fight to keep her safe is equally moving, from tending to her basic needs during bouts of depression to treating wounds from her self-harming. The turning point comes when Sonja’s argument with 16-year-old Lincoln devolves into an active suicide attempt and forced hospitalization.

Despite such a painful topic, Siddoway effectively draws readers in with rare fluency and power, highlighting both the unequivocal love between her parents and their exhaustive crusade to take back their lives. Sonja’s momentous discovery of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy alters their course, delivering a happy ending to an otherwise painfully melancholic tale, and Siddoway skillfully weaves in mental health advocacy without resorting to clinical overwhelm. This gut-wrenching examination of one family’s tenacity in the face of debilitating mental illness is a lighthouse of hope.

Takeaway: A heartrending chronicle of unswerving love, family, and victory over incapacitating mental illness.

Great for fans of: Paolina Milana’s Committed, David Crow’s The Pale-Faced Lie, Stephen Hinshaw’s Another Kind of Madness.

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

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GROW: Tending to the Hearts and Minds of Children Through the Practice of Mindfulness
Molly Schrieber
In this standout guide dedicated to “change-makers,” Strittmatter, Hyde, and Schreiber tout the benefits, scientific and pedagogical, of mindfulness practice, with an emphasis on introducing it to children. What is mindfulness to these authors? Simply living as if “all that really exists is the present moment,” without judgement, with self acceptance, and with greater control over how we move through life. Rooted in Schreiber’s experience as a mindfulness practitioner who leads an in-school yoga and mindfulness practice, the text has been crafted to lead the reader both in developing a knowledge and understanding of mindfulness, applying it to the needs of young people (it can “help teens develop positive self-esteem and acceptance of themselves”), and in incorporating its practices into the classroom through clear, inviting routines.

A practical handbook, Grow sets itself apart with its thorough, clear exercises and meditations. Extensive quotes and personal examples from practitioners describing their experiences of mindfulness provide some deeper context but can distract from the flow of the argument; line drawings help readers picture more complex examples, and the glossary of sketched yoga poses at the end will definitely prove helpful for those who need a brush up. A little over a third of the book focuses on the exercises, focused on movement, breath practices, sensory experiences, and more.

Elsewhere, Strittmatter, Hyde, and Schreiber dig deeply into the benefits of mindfulness on an emotional, physical, intellectual, and social level, especially for young people. They argue that, as children’s brains are still developing, it’s urgent to learn emotional regulation and how to center yourself from people they can trust, and that the first step in teaching must be personal practice–children can detect insincerity and whether a teacher believes what they are teaching. Teachers and parents will find this a helpful guide to how to introduce mindfulness practices to their children –and why doing so is vital to emotional and social growth.

Takeaway: Parents and teachers will find this guide to mindful practice helpful in teaching children and developing themselves.

Great for fans of: Christopher Willard and Amy Saltzman’s Teaching Mindfulness to Skills to Kids and Teens, Wynne Kinder’s Mindfulness for Kids

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

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Orpheus Rising: By Sam and his father, John/And A Very Wise Elephant/Who Likes To Dance
Lance Lee
Lee’s curious, myth-touched adventure, which reads like a blend of The Phantom Tollbooth, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and a modern-day Orpheus story, finds a lonely boy named Sam stuck in the middle of nowhere with a father, John, who grows greyer by the day. The two spend their time silently doing chores, and every night they share the same terrifying nightmare, though neither speaks of it. One day a mysterious book arrives, and Sam discovers that what happens in it can come true in real life. Inspired, he uses its strange power to change everything for himself and his father, opening the door to a dangerous world where nothing is as it seems. With the help of Sam’s imagination they team up—John somewhat reluctantly—with a wise and distinguished elephant who loves to dance. Together, the three embark on a quest to save Sam’s mother from the afterlife.

Though aimed at middle grade readers, Orpheus Rising at times feels like a mature philosophical contemplation of death, steeped in magical realism. There are also moments of true terror, and some of the imagery— coupled with the book’s fantastical yet ominous illustrations—might be unsuitable for readers who scare easily. At the same time, the stakes can be almost comically low, as when an enchanted object renders any conflict avoidable. Elements of the plot require a thorough understanding of the rules of poker and the intricacies of sailing.

Real emotion powers Sam and John’s adventure, their journey as much about the relationship between father and son as it is finding Sam’s mother. Sam and John begin the novel torn apart by her absence, which John spent his entire childhood refusing to explain. Their quest to save her teaches each about the power of honesty, trust, and love. Lee’s vivid imagination shines through each chapter of their quest, and his quirky characters will keep readers who appreciate fabulist adventure hooked throughout.

Takeaway:Imaginative and emotional, this underworld adventure offers thrills, chills, and insightful lessons.

Great for fans of: Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, Roald Dahl.

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

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Burnt to a Crisp
Michael O'Keefe
Hard-nosed NYPD detectives battle gangsters, each other, and their inner demons in this gritty police procedural, the third outing for Paddy Durr of the 83rd precinct. Durr has his hands full: he realizes an accidental fire is really arson; his wife, Mairead, has cancer; and politically connected police psychiatrist Dr. Levine has it in for him. To solve the case, Durr has to work with local mobster Bless, who may just go ahead and deal with the problem his way. Durr must also cope with memories of a love affair gone wrong as he struggles to tie all the threads together and capture a ruthless killer.

O’Keefe is himself a retired NYPD detective, and he imbues the thriller’s investigations with a persuasive sense of authenticity, peppering each account of a crime scene with fascinating technical details. Best of all is how O'Keefe brings to life the law enforcement milieu, with enough banter, friendships, and feuds to keep procedural fans happy, though the glimpses into the backstories of the characters sometimes go on so long that they drain the tension from the main plot. Readers should be aware that the realistic scenes of sex and violence edge toward the graphic. Still, the key investigations are strong enough to keep the narrative flowing.

The strongest element is the characterization of Durr himself. In addition to his tough-guy cop persona, we see his passionate tenderness with his ailing wife. O’Keefe paints their discussions about what they believe are her last days with a pained fierceness. He also elevates Durr above the usual "tough Irish cop" stereotype in a warm and amusing subplot focusing on Durr's close friendship with a lesbian couple and their wish to have Paddy serve as their sperm donor. Durr's growth as a family man and his exploits as a shrewd detective will keep readers invested until the last page.

Takeaway: Police procedural fans will revel in the exploits of Durr and the other tough but all-too-human Brooklyn detectives.

Great for fans of: Joseph Wambaugh, Ed McBain

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

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The Island of the Righteous
Stefanos Livos
Livos (A Life in a Moment)’s historical treasure hunt switches between the present and World War II-era Greece as a grandson seeks to uncover his grandfather’s legacy. When his grandfather and namesake dies, 28-year-old Pantelis recalls how his grandfather Pantelis Kokkinis twice spoke to him of a hidden treasure. As he unearths it on the island of Zante, the younger Pantelis is surprised at the contents of the treasure box: notes like part of a diary. In a parallel narrative, set on Zante during the World War II occupation by Italian forces, the elder Pantelis Kokkinis meets and falls in love with Violetta Dalmedikos, a Jewish woman. Though marriage between Christians and Jews is forbidden, Pantelis and Violetta embark on a love affair, determined to be together despite the risk of discovery. The grandson learns more about his grandfather as his Aunt Elpida details key events of the past, revealing tragedies, secrets, and the resilience of the Kokkinis family during the occupation and civil war.

Livos adds extensive historical detail to the narrative, highlighting the different governmental factions at play before and during the second World War, when Greece was occupied by Italian and German forces. While that detail provides helpful and informative, adding context, at times its extensiveness slows down the storytelling. A family tree tracing the characters’ lineage provides a helpful reference, though readers may still face some confusion, as a number of characters share identical or quite similar names. The frequent use of pronouns without clear antecedents reduces clarity, forcing readers to rely on context to determine the identity of the person referenced.

That occasional challenge, however, does not greatly detract from the impact of a novel that is enhanced by well-developed, realistic characters and an engaging, intense depiction of life in an occupied country. Readers with an interest in Greece and its history will appreciate the convincing milieu and the magnetic story of Violetta and Pantelis.

Takeaway: A grandfather’s hidden treasure reveals gripping secrets about his family history in occupied Greece.

Great for fans of: Glenway Wescott’s Apartment in Athens, Stratis Haviaras’s When the Tree Sings.

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

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Make Me: a memoir
Lisa stathoplos
Debut author and professional actor and teacher Stathoplos’s boisterous, energetic memoir offers revealing snapshots of her journey towards self-realization. Covering her early days as an awkward child with scoliosis and a penchant for activism to her career on the stage, Stathoplos combines humor and heartache as she bounds frankly through topics such as her family, religion, sexual assault, shelter pets, sailing, eating disorders, and the courage and perseverance it took to get through a “nightmare” of a dancing class. Along with the backdrop of major events like the Vietnam War, era-specific music adds color and texture to her story, along with rich details of growing up along Maine’s coast in the 1970s.

Stathoplos’s brash style brims with all-caps phrases and exclamation points. Her sarcastic sense of humor is a constant in a book that shifts rapidly from topic to topic and experience to experience. She marshals her considerable life experience into a confetti of short, readable vignettes, each preceded by a number of related photographs. These vignettes offer flashes of insight into both single moments and extended eras of Stathoplos’s life, blending her exuberant commentary with finely etched detail. Though fragmented, the casual, rollicking cascade of stories has the feel of a chatty friend telling stories over drinks.

Stathoplos’s memoir doubles as a love letter to theater. True to her contrarian nature, she challenges the assumption that an artist must leave home to seek fame and fortune in the big city. Instead, she forges her own path, without apology. While her performances and colleagues in Maine’s regional theater scene aren't household names, her sharply told accounts and anecdotes resonate, and her passionate support for local theater is invigorating. Similarly inspiring is Stathoplos’s dogged journey towards self-acceptance, both physical and mental, the book’s true heart. Readers will find the perspective Stathoplos offers on her life both on and off the stage honest, refreshing and often endearing.

Takeaway: This frank and spirited reflection on self-love and self-determination will especially appeal to lovers of the arts

Great for fans of:Jenny Slate’s Little Weirds, Chelsea Handler’s Life Will Be the Death of Me.

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

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Slender Notions
Nicholas Antonopoulos
Its content amusingly at odds with its title, Antonopoulos’s swaggeringly ambitious debut sets an addicted young man, a mad Boston dreamer, and a hashtag against the dehumanizing aspects of existence. Not that any thumbnail summary can hold Slender Notions’ surge of ideas and observations, its impassioned declarations, tender doubts, and bursts of spirited play. It’s from that breed of big-swing novel that toasts its influences (Kerouac, Miller, Wallace), occasionally smashes rules of realistic fiction, and lets paragraphs run on for pages, caught in the drift of restless minds.

The first 100 pages find the two POV characters wandering around Boston and Franklin, Massachusetts, independent of each other, woozy with drugs but also books and epiphanies. They write poems, muse on sundry topics (what it means to make eye contact; why the late Beastie Boy MCA didn’t contribute a blurb to a reprint), and hunger for something more, until they meet at a Cambridge poetry workshop. A plot eventually kicks in, involving a plan to attempt to inspire laughter and a focus on happiness around the world, but the key is the characters’ negotiation of every moment. Antonopoulos renders the consciousness of Leo (“a bored, anxious, twenty-three year old with no direction and a total lack of motivation to find one”) as a buzz bin of nerves, his overthinking only soothed by a fix, the voice of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, or, eventually, public approbation.

Raw and frank, the novel finds ugly beauty (Leo watches “the blood dance into the syringe like an animated matador’s cloth”) in its depiction of addiction but also ugly ugliness. As the characters’ campaign to spread happiness takes off, Antonopoulos proves both skeptical and hopeful, laying bare the contradictions and these men’s worst aspects while finding meaning in the mission. The novel’s onslaught—of language, games, authorial intrusions, intense disclosure—will by design prove off-putting to some readers, but enthusiasts of searching, daring literary fiction will find power here.

Takeaway: A sprawling lulu of a novel, centered on addiction and the liberating power of happiness.

Great for fans of: Sergio de la Pava, Garth Risk Hallberg.

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

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The Wicche Glass Tavern: Sam Quinn, book 3
Seana Kelly
The third novel in Kelly’s delightfully fun Sam Quinn series finds the owner of The Slaughtered Lamb Bookstore and Bar once again on a quest to harness her powers, to keep her powerful vampire boyfriend, now fiancé, and to stay one step ahead of the aunt who is still trying to kill her. The Slaughtered Lamb is once again under attack, and Sam makes the fateful decision to close it down for the safety of her loved ones. With her aunt on the warpath, Sam has only a short time to find someone willing and able to teach her necromancy–and when she succeeds, the results are explosive and deadly.

As in the first two books, Kelly again immerses readers into a shrewdly balanced paranormal setting, filled with the darkness of devastation but lightened by the humor and joy of complex, and sometimes twisted, relationships–particularly when Furies, demons and gorgons are involved. Sam’s burgeoning strength and confidence may come across to some readers as the familiar standard for an urban fantasy series, especially as she discovers a new connection to the fae, nearly completing her paranormal pantheon. However, Sam’s journey of discovery–everything involving powers, her family, and the friendships that have bloomed around her, even among the vampires–feels fresh and poignant, especially as it focuses on both self-reliance and the necessity of leaning on others.

Kelly builds the story–both in this installment and across the series–on engaging, believable interpersonal relationships, with each new book carefully expanding on the established mythos. Fans of the genre will be charmed by the novel’s deceptive simplicity–it has hidden layers and nuance, allowing readers to choose for themselves whether to enjoy it as something light and fluffy or to tease out the welcome depths of this new take on the hero’s journey.

Takeaway: Kelly’s latest rich, nuanced, and fun addition to the urban fantasy genre.

Great for fans of: Ilona Andrews, Katie MacAlister, Kim Harrison.

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

Click here for more about The Wicche Glass Tavern
To Iowa in the Back Seat
Kristi R. Bradbury
Through the observant lens of young Kay, Bradbury chronicles a family road trip (and a curious cricket who tags along) with evocative tenderness, enlivened by Joey Sotelo's delightful illustrations. A displeased Kay thinks it’s unfair she can't sit in the front of the car as her family makes their way from Colorado to Iowa to visit her grandmother. Careening across the Midwest, they leave behind the Rocky Mountains, take in the prairies, stop at their favorite burger stand, and cross the mile-wide Missouri river while singing “Over the River and Through the Woods.” (Sheet music is included.) Kay enjoys her grandmother's fried chicken at supper once they arrive and visits her grandfather's café for vanilla sundaes ("with chocolate sauce and a cherry on top"). When it’s finally time to head home, a wistful Kay reminisces while clutching a special souvenir from her grandmother.

In depicting Kay's developing awareness, Bradbury draws on her love for road trips and her twenty-year experience in special education. She affords Kay both hope and individualism, giving her room to resolve some complex feelings. Sotelo's sketches are consistent in character portrayals and scene continuities—they're pleasing and build the atmospheric energy necessary to keep readers invested. (It’s raining, for example, when Kay tears up on her trip back home). Readers will particularly enjoy the vivid and rich countryside details, the intriguing specifics of grandmother’s attic, the incidental glimpses at family dynamics (“Sue always gets to sit up front because she is the biggest”), and the clever touch of the cricket, too, visiting with its Iowa brethren, singing away with local crickets while the family eats.

Bradbury pulls at the heartstrings with an emphasis on domestic routines and the cherished bond between a youngster and a grandparent, maintaining a deft emotional momentum. Some sentences are flat or a touch wordy, but this wholesome picture book's accessible vocabulary, geographical elements, and big heart will surely engage young readers.

Takeaway: A charming bedtime read about a family's road trip across the country.

Great for fans of: Roger Eschbacher’s Road Trip, Cynthia Rylant and Stephen Gammell’s The Relatives Came, Natasha Wing and Julie Durrell’s The Night Before Summer Vacation.

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

Click here for more about To Iowa in the Back Seat
How to Live Forever: A Guide to Writing the Final Chapter of Your Life Story
Kimberly Best
In this moving and compassionate guide, nurse and family mediator Best imparts knowledge and wisdom on end-of-life issues, urging us all to be proactive and make plans (legal, medical) sooner than later. Best wins reader trust right away by acknowledging the common tendency to avoid thinking about or discussing death (“Why do we glorify the start of life but deeply fear its end?”). But, she reasons, “death is a given,” and in increasingly profound chapters, she urges readers to take control of our endings: execute documents and estate planning; decide where to host your funeral; communicate the stories of our lives; and, ultimately, recognize that “the biggest regrets that we can have… will likely be around hurt relationships.”

The chapters on relationships prove especially strong, offering clear-eyed, forward-thinking insights on handling conflict, offering apologies, and enacting forgiveness so that we might “finish well.” Noting that “family conflicts are the biggest threat to estate planning,” and never downplaying the truth that these conversations are difficult, Kim advocates for mediation, persuasively demonstrating that it “helps to have help.” Prudently chosen evidence and citations lend credence to her arguments, and intimate anecdotes pulled from Best’s own experiences as an RN give the material some narrative power: “As I sat with this woman during her last moments of life, I looked at her, and I was struck by the realization that life is like a book,” she writes. Best urges us to consider our life in such terms, and take control of how we want to write the story.

Even in the face of death, Kim’s tone is hopeful. This inviting, inclusive book, crafted to appeal to anyone facing the most universal of challenges, insists that much undue end-of-life suffering is avoidable, and that few relationships are too broken to be fixed before the end. “As long as we have breath,” Best writes, “there is still time to change our course.”

Takeaway: This inviting guide offers universal, insightful lessons on the difficult subject of ending a life well.

Great for fans of: Kathy Butler’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Sherwin B. Nuland’s How We Die: Reflections of Life's Final Chapter.

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

Careless Love
Steve Zettler
Writer/director/actor Zettler (author of the Joe Bradlee thrillers) wows in this fast-paced, expertly characterized tale of a decades-long lie and the painter who tries to make sense of it all later. The mother of the novel’s unnamed narrator, reveals that the man she divorced years ago is not actually, as she had always claimed, the narrator’s father. On her deathbed, Grace, the mother, encourages the narrator, a painter, to piece the truth together in Hawaii. There Grace Rolston, vacationing with her philandering Hollywood husband, first met and fell in love with Lee Corbet at a tony Oahu beach club in 1979.

Other pieces of the mystery involve Mitchell Slack, who in ‘79 was breaking up with his girlfriend and coming to terms with his homosexuality, and his malevolent older brother Ray, a mysterious hood who played some role in Grace and Lee’s short time together—and in whatever event changed everyone’s lives forever. Over multiple trips to Hawaii, the painter uncovers as much of the truth as possible. Setting the narrative largely in 1979, revealing what the narrator has uncovered, Zettler skillfully presents characters that are neither good nor bad but persuasive shades of gray, with the compelling exception of Ray, whose eventual encounter with karma proves satisfying. Unhappily married Grace, who can’t quite kick smoking, has packed a .38 revolver in her suitcase, while Vietnam vet-turned-restaurateur Lee, still coming to terms with his war experiences, learns that he knows Grace’s husband only after he and Grace have relished stolen hours together.

In sharp, memorable prose, Zettler deftly ties a bundle of story lines into one gripping narrative, teasing the final revelations in a way that will have readers itching to arrive at the truth at last. This glimpse of late-70s Hawaii rings true, and readers interested in the mysteries of convincingly real people will be captivated until the final page is turned.

Takeaway: A skillful, emotional dive into late ‘70s Hawaii and a mother’s secret past.

Great for fans of: Liane Moriarty’s The Husband's Secret, Jasmin Darznik’s The Good Daughter.

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

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