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How Did I End Up Here?: Essays from an Imperfect Life
Vicky Perrone
Perrone, a world traveler and photographer, shares memories from her unconventional life in this delightful, if at times eclectic, debut memoir. What began as a series of blog posts written when she and her husband retired and moved from Texas to Italy morphed into an autobiographical work that combines snippets of their expatriate life, stories from Perrone’s youth, and humorous thoughts and observations gained on her adventures. “Life is a continuing adventure. You just do what you gotta do,” she writes early on, and her many wry and merry anecdotes bear out that promise of cheerful perseverance and adaptation in the face of both challenging and uplifting experiences.

In one word, Perrone’s work is approachable. She begins the memoir with an anecdote of locking herself outside her apartment, setting the tone for similar tales about adjusting to life in Italy. She recounts her difficulties growing up, from being raised by abusive and alcoholic parents to checking into a psychiatric ward and running away from home. She admits to her own mistakes and writes, “The only thing I can do is... try to be a better person, which I do.” But her hardships have given her profound perspective, and she believes that celebrating birthdays, always adventuring, and laughing with those she loves will help her to face whatever comes next.

At times, Perrone’s writing is so informal that the book still feels like a series of travel posts strung together. She also tells some stories as if they happened “yesterday,” which can be disorienting to the reader. Perrone comes across like a quirky grandma: readers may feel some secondhand embarrassment when she goes a little overboard, but they’ll admire her endless willingness to try something new and fun. At its best, this unconventional memoir is a glorious snapshot of a woman who has overcome a great deal and continues to welcome life with arms wide open.

Takeaway: Readers with wanderlust and a desire to get the most out of life will enjoy this adventurous grandmother’s travel blog turned playful and uplifting memoir.

Great for fans of Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, Debbie Mancuso’s My Love Affair with Italy.

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

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Requiem for the Dead
Victor M. Alvarez
This exciting military thriller from Alvarez (the John Slade series) introduces tough, intelligent Jacqueline Sinclair, an agent for the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigative Division (CID). Along with her new partner, Tom Price, she must work quickly to find four children kidnapped from a U.S. military base in Germany. Soon Sinclair and Price realized this incident is the first of many. Gen. Thomas Scott’s son died in a North Korean prison, and Scott blames the U.S. for failing to retrieve him. Kidnapping the children of high-ranking officers is just the beginning of his plan to take revenge on both countries. If he’s successful, it could result in global war.

With the agents racing to stop Scott and his fellow conspirators, Alvarez’s action scenes will get readers’ hearts pounding. The details of scenery (“the tall book cabinet stocked with military books on tactics and deployment of assets in the field of battle, and the Iraq War strategy in four different volumes”) and equipment (“among his weapons of choice was his Glock-26 subcompact with his unattached Osprey 40k suppressor, held in his shoulder rig holster”) sometimes slow the pace of the story, but the thriller plot will keep readers engaged as long as they share the author’s interest in weaponry. The romantic elements are less convincing but not prominent enough to be much of a distraction.

Alvarez, a former CID agent, develops Jacqueline and Tom’s story through the nuances of dealing with chain of command, working with officers from other countries, and using various investigative techniques. He’s particularly adept at describing what characters feel in battle and what it’s like to get shot and witness gory violence, though their rehabilitation from injuries is implausibly quick. A strong thriller plot and appealing characters will keep readers gripped to the rousing finale.

Takeaway: Fans of military thrillers and tough, smart heroines will enjoy this high-octane adventure.

Great for fans of Candace Irvin’s Aimpoint, Nelson DeMille’s Wild Fire.

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

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Coaching for Life
Andrew Pansini
This celebration of the art of coaching celebrates and inspires people who feel called to help others. Pansini draws on his career in business and his own philanthropic ventures to suggest that coaching is a symbiotic relationship. As the coach and student learn from each other, both parties become better equipped to coach others in the future. Coaching, Pansini writes, is at its heart an act of giving, as it “benefits the coach as much as it does those being coached.”

It is fitting, then, that Pansini splits this compact volume between paeans to the act of coaching and thoughts on how to coach effectively. He shares general insights from his days as a Little League baseball coach and also draws on farther-reaching examples as a teacher, friend, executive, parent, grandparent, and volunteer. Pansini challenges readers to heed the coach’s calling in their day-to-day lives. He urges empathy and compassion, creating an ethos of being there for those in need. He provides real-world examples of those who have pursued this noble calling, such as off-duty health care workers who helped evacuate a hospital engulfed in a California wildfire.

This is more of a series of reflections on the process of coaching than an advice book; there are scant examples of coaching in action. Pansini presses readers to be aware of the importance of trust, especially the ways that people earn or bestow it upon one another. An advocate for better healthcare, Pansini argues that end-of-life care can be seen as a vital form of coaching. While the book is tied together with anecdotes about coaching through life, the most compelling passages go further into the realm of philosophy and memoir. Pansini’s work will appeal to readers who are already passionate about coaching and will be pleased to find a writer whose approach to life they can readily agree with.

Takeaway: Pansini’s philosophical reflections on coaching as a metaphor for social interdependence and mutual care will appeal to anyone who’s found a calling in some form of service to others.

Great for fans of Tony Porter’s Breaking Out of the “Man Box,” Houston Kraft’s Deep Kindness.

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

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The Bond: How a Mash-Up of Foster Kids Became a Family for Life
Angelo Grotticelli
This gritty memoir of being one of eight foster children in an abusive home chronicles the ways that difficult circumstances can form tight-knit families of choice. Grotticelli and his four siblings became wards of New York State when their mother was dying of breast cancer and their alcoholic father proved unable and unwilling to care for them. Grotticelli, with his siblings Rose Ann and Charles, entered St. Michael’s Orphanage, a grim and Dickensian Catholic charity. After two years with the ironically named Sisters of Mercy, they were moved to Nina and Gilbert Nelson’s Long Island home. Although the Nelsons repeatedly stated their goal of “saving these kids from the streets,” what they truly desired from their eight foster children—three sets of siblings and a singleton—was free labor and monthly checks from the state. For years, the Nelsons dangled adoption in front of the love-starved foster children, offering security in an unstable world, while inflicting physical, sexual and emotional abuse. The children endured a years-long struggle to learn what a family truly is.

Grotticelli’s unsparing honesty about his birth and foster families—including an uncle’s mob connections, his birth mother’s petty crimes, and the Nelsons’ blatant favoritism of their biological children and tolerance of their adult son sexually abusing their teenage foster daughter—will make readers wince and keep them marveling at the indomitability of these children. That the foster siblings were able to forge familial bonds with each other is extraordinary.

Although Grotticelli’s anecdotes frequently meander and his lengthy descriptions of people interrupt the flow of his story, the raw facts of how eight children came to live in the large home in Long Island makes for a compelling read. Grotticelli’s voice is compulsively readable, wry and friendly despite the horrors he describes, and full of affection for his chosen family. Even into adulthood, the scars of life with the Nelsons are tangible, but the former foster children found the family they longed for in one another. For readers seeking true stories of found families and surviving abuse, Grotticelli’s memoir is sure to please.

Takeaway: Grotticelli’s tell-all memoir of growing up as an abused foster child is gritty with positive notes, and will appeal to readers who want to see tough kids survive horrors and find happiness.

Great for fans of Tara Westover’s Educated: A Memoir, David Pelzer’s The Lost Boy.

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

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How Love Wins
Doug Carnine
In this no-nonsense, religion-free workbook, Carnine (Saint Badass: Transcendence in Tucker Max Hell) guides readers through developing a practice of “kindfulness,” an intertwining of kindness and mindfulness. Carnine, a lay Buddhist minister and educator, focuses on motivating readers to be kind to themselves and others in small, immediate ways. His core approach is to replace unkind habits, both physical and mental, and both inwardly and outwardly directed, with kind ones. He also discusses developing skills related to change, action, and character. He uses a straightforward, organized teaching style, supported by jargon-free explanations of simple mindfulness and meditation activities and grounded in the idea that change is possible even in the toughest of circumstances.

Carnine excels at articulate frameworks and memorable terminology, such as the “Renew-and-Serve Cycle” and the “Three-Breath Method,” without falling into cuteness, oversimplification, or jargon. Each chapter is organized into small, digestible sections and includes definitions of concepts, exercises, and anecdotes from his and others’ personal experience. He brings in just enough of his personal history to make his presence palpable without centering himself, and he avoids the denigration of his past failings. The only things detracting from the professional appearance of the text are hand-drawn illustrations.

Throughout the text, Carnine includes short sections written by prisoners whom he mentors and corresponds with. They share how their lives have been improved by these practices despite their histories of deep abuse and extreme violence, proving the value of kindfulness in any circumstance or context. These stories also put a subtly masculine spin on the material, offering a path for readers stuck in a mindset of toxic masculinity. Carnine’s articulate and easy-to-follow approach, and the deep sincerity that comes through his and others’ personal stories, create a transformative guide for readers seeking to make changes in their lives and relationships.

Takeaway: This accessible guide to changing one’s life through “kindfulness” is an invaluable road map for readers whose lives have been affected by toxic mindsets.

Great for fans of Elisha Goldstein’s The Now Effect, Jamil Zaki’s The War for Kindness.

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

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Tales from the Gray Area: A Shadowt Realm of the Imagination that Defies Reality
Curtis Burdick
This intriguing collection of seven novellas by author and screenwriter Burdick (Protectors of the Black Prince) pays homage to The Twilight Zone, playing with the fantastical, the uncanny, and the weird. With a mix of dry humor and careful attention to detail, Burdick introduces his characters’ encounters with the extraordinary. “Alien Addiction” is a classic invasion story with a twist: an alien emperor detoxing from an intergalactic mix of drugs in a rehab centre befriends a hip actor in science fiction movies. The comedy in “Vacation from Hell” is darker: a group of angels of hell revolt against Satan by asking for vacation time, taking the place of regular humans and living normal lives.

At times, Burdick’s creative ideas fall short of their potential. In “Discoveries at River View,” a palaeontologists discovers a dinosaur skeleton with far-reaching implications for human history, but the story ends before the gravity of such a discovery can be explored. Similarly, both “Reincarnated,” in which a group of babies born with the same birthmark on the same day are targeted by an Indian far-right nationalist organization, and “Bottom Dwellers,” a story about powerful creatures lurking in the deep sea, build up suspense but don’t deliver a matching payoff.

Burdick makes an effort to give his stories global scope, but some of his descriptions of “primitive” people and dwellings can be jarring. An Indian-American doctor defends British colonizers who “saved” India’s past from plunder, a line of editorializing that’s never integrated into the story. However, there is a freshness to Burdick’s prose, and he breathes new life into familiar tropes. Burdick is at his best in the intricate final story, “Sanctuary,” in which a group of Army personnel have a life-changing encounter with an alien god living among the Inuit. This venture into the realm of the strange showcases Burdick’s potential.

Takeaway: Seasoned readers of classic, adventurous speculative fiction will enjoy diving into Burdick’s strange spaces.

Great for fans of Harlan Ellison’s Shatterday, Richard Matheson’s The Best of Richard Matheson.

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

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Clara Colby: The International Suffragist
John Holliday
Holliday (Mission to China) chronicles the life of little-known Midwestern suffragist Clara Bewick Colby in this scholarly but eminently readable biography. Born in England, fiercely smart and ambitious Clara Bewick came to the U.S. as a child. After studying law, civics and literature, she graduated as valedictorian of her class at the University of Wisconsin in 1869 and hastily married Civil War veteran Leonard Wright Colby. The pair moved to Beatrice, Neb., where Colby founded the town’s first library and later became a suffrage activist alongside such historical luminaries as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Holliday’s painstaking research brings Colby to life from dry, dusty history pages, piecing together her story and its context from letters, newspapers accounts, and her personal papers. He respectfully yet comprehensively chronicles Colby’s personal challenges—including raising two adopted children, Zintka, an infant survivor of the Battle of Wounded Knee, and Clarence, an intellectually disabled 11-year-old, as well as learning that her husband fathered at least one illegitimate child—and painstakingly celebrates her triumphs, as well as the victories of a nascent movement for women’s rights. Colby was the first woman in the United States to receive a war correspondent’s pass (as founder and editor of the Woman’s Tribune), and participated in the 20th-century precursor to the modern-day Women’s March, held in London in 1911. Sadly, Colby died four years before women finally gained the right to vote, and emotionally invested readers will feel a pang at the knowledge that she never saw her movement’s success.

Colby isn’t as well known as Anthony and Cady Stanton, but Holliday’s biography may well change that. Impeccably and lovingly researched and punctuated with firsthand sources and historical photos, this work is ideal for anyone wanting to take a deep dive into the women’s suffrage movement.

Takeaway: Historians and feminists alike will relish this robust biography of a little known suffragist who played a major role in helping women get the power to vote.

Great for fans of Ida Husted Harper’s The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler’s The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement.

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

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The Hidden Hand of Death (The Jack Ryder Mysteries Book 1)
Lawrence J. Epstein
Epstein’s gritty period detective novel is intricately and elegantly plotted, but it’s the vivid characterizations that bring the story to life. Set in New York in 1942, the story revolves around a “fixer” named Jack Ryder. His job description is killing bad people, and his moral code dictates that he will only kill those who harm innocents. He’s dedicated his life to helping people, often for free. While dealing with a dangerous former client, Ryder has to help a police detective locate his sister, assist the FBI with rooting out Nazi sympathizers, and unravel the mystery surrounding the death of his wife.

Epstein effortlessly balances all of these plot lines, keeping the reader off balance by bringing some to a surprising early close. His prose is spare and taut, gripping the reader and creating an exciting pace. His sense of setting (“The Greenwich Village street was as dark as Europe’s future”) and character keep the book fresh. Epstein gives Ryder and the reader a chance to breathe in the scenes set in Ryder’s “office,” an all-night diner. His “secretary,” wise waitress Gertie, gets her own extensive arc. However, self-consciously diverse characters, such as a woman who escapes Nazi Germany and an African American man pondering entering military service on behalf of a country full of racists, feel tacked on.

Ryder himself remains the main draw, a tragic but noble character. Unlike the typical hard-boiled detective, Ryder is not a heavy drinker or a womanizer. He’s still haunted by his past and the death of his wife, and his vulnerability and complexity render him deeply compelling. His imperative is to help others, but he’s incapable of helping himself, which makes his story heartbreaking. Period details such as air-raid blackouts, automats, and the German American Bund provide a distinctive, authentic flavor to this solid historical thriller with a conscience.

Takeaway: Fans of gritty period detective stories will love this WWII-era novel's tight plotting, vivid characterization, and hero with a strong moral code.

Great for fans of Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder series.

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

Simone LaFray and the Chocolatiers' Ball
S.P. O'Farrell
This colorful middle grade debut from O’Farrell, set in present-day Paris, follows a particularly perceptive 12-year-old girl as she balances a family scandal with the challenges of a budding espionage career. Following in her mother’s footsteps, Simone LaFray is a secret agent for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Her mentor, Eloise Pilfrey, assigns Simone to catch the infamous thief Reynard Baresi, aka la Volpe Rossa (the Red Fox), who may be plotting to steal a painting from the Musée d’Orsay. Simone thinks she’s seen la Volpe lingering around her father’s famous bakery, LaFray’s Patisserie, where Simone assists her father, Louie. One Sunday, someone breaks into the patisserie and steals their beloved recipe books that have been passed down for generations. Now she has an additional mystery to solve.

As Simone narrates this story, readers will be amazed by her observational skills, which add a heavily descriptive layer to the story (“Since I was six, I could tell the handwriting and doodle marks of each inscriber”) and provide her with helpful clues. When Louie is accused of being a fraud and baking subpar pastries, Simone discovers someone laced one of their bags of sugar with salt. She becomes determined to find the culprit at the prestigious Chocolatiers’ Ball. The glamor and drama outweigh occasional errors in the non-English terminology and dialogue, and readers will forgive plot-necessary contrivances such as a famous baker never tasting his own wares.

Though Simone is bright (“Doing normal kid stuff made me twitchy,” she confesses) she prefers to be out of the spotlight. O’Farrell skillfully provides two foils: Simone’s theatrical younger sister, Mia, and her bubbly best friend, Gloria V. Cantone (known as the V). Both Mia and the V help dress Simone up for the ball, where O’Farrell reveals several twists. Some readers will wish the ball had been introduced earlier, given its prominence in the title and influence on the plot. This satisfying mystery leaves a few lingering secrets that readers will hope to explore in Simone’s next adventure.

Takeaway: Middle grade readers who love mature protagonists and vivid imagery featuring sweet treats will enjoy this spy story.

Great for fans of Stuart Gibbs’s Spy School series, Lauren Child’s Ruby Redfort series.

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

Call Me Joe
Martin van Es
In this stirring novel, debut author van Es, aided by ghostwriter Crofts, imagines the world’s reaction when the son of God returns to Earth. After a 12-minute period of global darkness, New Zealand teacher Sophie sees a man outside of her classroom—a man with dark skin and hair who’s wearing only a white robe and has kind, “astonishing” eyes—and believes he’s lost. Surprising herself, she offers to let him stay at her apartment. Though Sophie is wary of believing the man her students call Joe is the son of God, her skepticism wavers when she witnesses his miracles. Joe attracts the attention of political leaders who are threatened by his power and religious leaders wondering whether he really is the messiah. When Joe unveils 12 new guidelines for global peace and environmental preservation, including “Be honest” and “Try to forgive and say sorry,” he becomes the target of a hired assassin, but he remains intent on fulfilling his earthly mission before leaving once again.

The responses of world leaders to Joe’s appearance are unsurprisingly similar to the narrative of the Gospels, but they still feel realistic, and the authors update many other biblical concepts for the modern era. Joe’s human nature is shown through his behavior and the revisions of commandments with a more modern appeal. His view of sex, exemplified by his eventual sexual relationship with Sophie, focuses on personal decisions rather than procreation. While this adaptation makes Joe a more realistic 21st-century messiah, those who have a literal view of the Bible may find it flawed.

This creative narrative combines spiritual elements with the critical global problems of economic inequality and climate change. Van Es and Crofts intend this novel as a gateway to the Joe Project, which encourages readers to undertake their own efforts to “save humanity” and prevent ecological collapse. Those who appreciate the hopeful message of this immersive, magnetic story will be eager to see where the Joe Project goes next.

Takeaway: This gentle, optimistic story of Christ’s second coming will resonate with readers looking for a message of hope and empowerment.

Great for fans of John Niven’s The Second Coming, Richard Bach’s Illusions.

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

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Ice Queen
Felicia Farber
With a fresh voice and a keen comprehension of the lives of present-day teens, this somber cautionary tale follows 16-year-old Blair as she navigates high school life as the prime target for the mean girl clique. An issue of mistaken identity in freshman year complicates things with the Ice Queen, leader of the mean girls. Blair tries to keep to her small group of friends, but then she gets an invitation to an exclusive pool party full of cool kids. While there, she meets Davey and his friend, Frank, and finds herself having a good time. Little does she know that Davey is the Ice Queen’s prized boyfriend, popular athlete David. When Davey snaps a photo of Blair in her underwear, someone texts it to other students, and the police are alerted, the two become tangled in arcane laws regarding sexting and bullying, leaving them to juggle felony charges with college admissions essays.

A reliance on somewhat technical language where legal issues are explained may serve to pull some readers out of the story. The character voices are all strong in their own right, but when the legalities come into play, the texture of the narrative changes, becoming much more adult and somewhat awkward. In addition, Blair seems to have little difficulty getting time alone with David in her bedroom and going out to a club that serves alcohol. This degree of apparent inattention from her otherwise caring parents may strike readers as unlikely and distract from the book’s message.

With a clear understanding of the teenage mind, the story moves very naturally through the day-to-day activities of a group that’s too mature for childish things but lacks the knowledge and experience to navigate the adult world. One of the highlights of the novel is the depiction of healthy, cooperative relationships with adults, with no stereotypical arguments to be seen. A diverse cast and the inclusion of characters outside of the school microcosm gives the story an authentic feel and adds varying perspectives. This is a vivid and well-constructed portrayal of teens struggling with 21st-century concerns.

Takeaway: This timely contemporary novel introduces teens to the social and legal risks of sexting while pulling them in with strong, authentic character voices.

Great for fans of Judy Blume, Jennifer Brown, Laura Steven, Helen Schulman.

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

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Kill Tide: A Pepper Ryan Thriller
Timothy Fagan
Fagan’s suspenseful second Pepper Ryan novel (after Killing Shore) is a prequel, featuring 20-year-old Pepper as a budding detective. The son of police chief Gerald Ryan, Pepper is working as a police cadet on Cape Cod and playing in a band, Brad and the Pitts, before he leaves for Harvard at the end of the summer. When teenagers Emma Bailey and Emma Addison are abducted, Pepper is determined to find the perpetrator and inserts himself into the investigation against the instructions of his supervising officer. After Pepper follows his instincts and tails a suspicious van, he ends up in a deadly fight with the man responsible for the abductions. As police hunt for the missing girls, Pepper conducts his own search, desperately hoping to find the two teens alive.

Fagan, an attorney, crisply portrays police and criminal procedure, instilling a sense of realism into the in-depth investigation of the kidnappings. He also draws a vivid picture of Cape Cod, alluding to the tourists’ impression of summer idyll while highlighting the round-the-clock efforts of police. He evocatively captures the antics of Pepper, whose self-destructive behavior belies his altruistic efforts to follow in the footsteps of his law enforcement family. Pepper is clearly on the cusp of adulthood, sometimes self-serving while also showing bursts of heroism. His budding romance with his bandmate Delaney Lynn provides a strong subplot, especially when she asks him to move to Nashville with her.

The narrative is fast-paced and intensifies with the introduction of a myriad of suspects and red herrings, and readers will eagerly turn the pages as they try to identify the culprit. The riveting conclusion and hints of future installments will thoroughly satisfy returning series fans as well as new readers.

Takeaway: Fans of amateur sleuth stories and beach reads will be captivated by this magnetic mystery set amid the beauty of a Cape Cod summer.

Great for fans of Ruth Howard’s Murder on Cape Cod, Rick Cochran’s Bound Brook Pond.

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

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Army of God
Dennis Bailey
Debut author Bailey combines fantasy action and biblical legend in this expansive retelling of the story of Noah’s ark. The 500-year-old preacher Noah, son of the governor of the city-state Eden, takes to the streets to warn citizens about mixing with the people of Enoch, who are descended from Cain. His words are rebuffed by rebellious atheist Malluch, who despises Noah and plots to kill him. Noah and his family flee the city. Then Noah hears the voice of God telling him that the world will be destroyed by a flood and he needs to build an ark and fill it with two of each animal. Despite setbacks, the ark is in its finishing stages as Malluch’s army descends. Noah’s family fights back, aided by animal troops.

Bailey’s writing is clean and very readable, though his highly detailed descriptions and historically accurate measurements (such as the use of “one hundred eighty parts” to mean 10 minutes) slow the story. The familiar narrative is expanded more by Noah’s family arguments and Malluch’s men partying and scheming in Enoch than by action or plot twists. The setting is fleshed out with both historical fact and vivid imagination: an altar in debauched Enoch is littered with bones, its streets are full of drunks, and its thieves are torn apart by lions.

Bailey often relies on narration to describe characters’ thoughts and feelings. However, the dialogue is fluid and evocative, showing both the warmth and kindness of Noah’s family and the suspicious, anxious nature of Malluch’s cohorts. Malluch’s conflicted lieutenant, Shechem, is particularly well drawn. The frequent scenes and mentions of violent death, sexual assault, and forced prostitution—with men, women, and children as victims—will feel incongruous to anyone expecting a G-rated Bible story, but readers looking for a grimdark fantasy novel based loosely on a familiar legend will find this hits all the expected notes.

Takeaway: This bloodthirsty sword-and-sandal novel based on the tale of Noah’s ark will appeal to fans of darker epic fantasy.

Great for fans of Glen Cook’s Black Company series, Joe Abercrombie.

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

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Knight of Flames
AK Faulkner
Faulker’s second Inheritance novel (after Inheritance) is an uneven but entertaining story of love, sex, and superpowers. Quentin d’Arcy is desperate to get away from his restrictive upbringing as one of the heirs to the Duchy of Oxford. He finds release in his new life in San Diego and in his relationship with pagan florist Laurence (whose story is explored in more depth in the first volume). The two of them navigate their intense feelings for one another even though Quentin’s telekinetic powers manifest at the most inopportune moments. When Quentin stumbles across a safe house for people with similar abilities, he feels honor-bound to teach the residents how to manage their powers, especially when their leader, Kane Wilson, promises that they will become an elite force of superhero vigilantes. However, Kane is not as altruistic as he appears.

Though there’s much here that will appeal to fans of both urban fantasy and paranormal romance, the two halves of the story are never fully integrated. The early part of the novel is devoted to Laurence and Quentin’s relationship, with plenty of sexual tension (including some awkward erotic scenes) and romantic banter. The action side of the plot only really takes off in the book’s final third, when Quentin gets in too deep with Kane’s schemes and Laurence joins Quentin’s brother, Frederick, to rescue him.

Faulkner has a host of creative ideas that deserve further exploration—Laurence’s backstory, the relationship between Quentin and his family, the telekinetic safe house and its history—and what readers glimpse of them is intriguing. The prose sings when the plot’s stakes are high, and the book’s inventive premise does ultimately pay off in fine style. This isn’t the best installment to start with, but fans of the first novel will find this one a satisfying continuation.

Takeaway: Readers with a taste for both action and romance will find plenty of both in this mid-series tale of love, sex, and superpowers.

Great for fans of Lisa Edmond’s Alice Worth series, Max Gladstone’s Bookburners series.

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

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Arcade of Memory
Howard Giskin
Giskin’s thoughtfully curated second collection of short stories and poetry (after Murmurings) serenely meanders through a patchwork tapestry of cultures, viewpoints, and travel experiences with a curious and open heart. In “Transcendence,” the author describes losing himself in the beauty of nature, while “Memory” questions how people create a sense of self. In poems such as “Travel,” the unmetered five-line structure of Japanese tanka is combined with contrasting imagery to capture the weight of Giskin’s global experiences with landscapes and cultures. Real-world experiences take a turn for the fantastic in short stories such as “A Touch of Dementia,” in which an elderly man daydreams more and more often about a rainy holiday in Puerto Rico with his late wife.

Each of the pieces ultimately serves as a jumping-off point for Giskin’s philosophy of life, which places tremendous importance on both respecting history and living in the moment. His poems (interspersed with quotes from other poets in a way that can occasionally be confusing) flow as beautifully as the natural surroundings they describe, but the short stories are the real gifts. Giskin has a lovely way of taking something ordinary and turning it into something magical, giving just enough interpretation that it’s easy for each reader to find personal meaning in the work.

Giskin deftly brings readers on a journey around the world and explores other cultures with a sense of wonder, always asking his readers to consider their own place within the larger picture. Above all, the collection emphasizes the power of imagination and the beauty in memories. Any reader looking to find surprise and joy in everyday life will find this collection inspiring.

Takeaway: Poetry fans and philosophers alike will enjoy this meditative and thought-provoking collection of introspective stories and poems.

Great for fans of Walt Whitman, Li Shangyin.

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

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Kingdom of the Silver Cat
Thomas Carroll
Carroll’s vivid and engrossing fantasy debut is a middle grade reader’s dream. On the way to school, a bus carrying 15 children travels through a blue light to the strange, beautiful land of Hevelen. The bus driver goes to find help but never returns, leaving the kids on their own. Led by stoic Josh, determined Wesley, fiery Rhea, and caring Annie, they adventure through a world of unusual wonders—talking fish, cotton candy–flavored cherries, and dragons—and discover they’ve all developed special powers. Threatened by a powerful ruler who covets those powers, the children must depend on fairies, a wise farmer, and one another in order to reach the only one who can protect them: the Silver Cat.

Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, allowing Carroll to take a deep dive into their perspectives and backstories. Sisters Gabrielle and Celia moved to their small upstate New York town from Honduras; Corey is so smart that everyone calls him CPU; Ted dreams of being a musician but fails at every instrument he tries to play; Bobby was struck by lightning, leaving him with a limp and slurred speech, and his classmates lovingly protect him. These stories intertwine and complement one another. Though the focus-switching may confuse some readers, investing in the characters is worth the trouble.

Amid many wonders, Carroll doesn’t shy away from heavy themes: Josh’s mother died when he was little and Annie’s parents are divorcing. Moreover, the children must survive in a world that contains feuding tribes and intense environmental dangers. Huang’s charcoal chapter-head drawings are capable but don’t do justice to the colorful setting and story. The rich worldbuilding, broad scope, and abrupt ending invite future books in which the protagonists’ powers and adventures will hopefully be further explored. Imaginative, intense, and heartwarming, this mythic portal fantasy is a strong first step on the way to a saga.

Takeaway: Young readers will swoon over the interesting characters, colorful details, and new takes on old tropes in this riveting middle grade portal fantasy.

Great for fans of Louis Sachar’s Wayside School series, Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series.

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

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