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DIVISIBLE MAN - THE SIXTH PAWN
Howard Seaborne
The second installment in Seaborne’s epic Divisible Man series keeps up the fast-paced action of the first book, offering a thrilling sequence of twists, turns, and high-flying action. Charter pilot Will Stewart acquired the powers of invisibility and flight–well, floating–after surviving an airplane crash. Still struggling to come to terms with his new powers, much less fully control them, Stewart teams up with his wife Andy–a police sergeant–to get to the bottom of a high-stakes criminal conspiracy.

The crime plot is set into motion when a shootout erupts at a high-profile wedding, where Stewart and Andy are also in attendance. The gunfire claims the life of the father of the bride, a senator by the name of Robert Stone. As a member of the local law enforcement and a close acquaintance of the bride, Andy is inevitably sucked into the complicated web of political and financial interests that led to what turns out to be a targeted killing. Stewart joins Andy in her investigation, using his superpowers to unveil the grisly truth behind the events that transpired at the wedding. Along the way, the husband-wife duo encounters neo-Nazi gangs, corrupt state officials and rich businessmen with malicious political intentions.

Seaborne weaves together a crisp, intricate narrative with an engaging, likable couple at the heart of the action. Elements of romance and the fantastical elevate this entry (and the series itself) over other two-fisted thrillers. Will and Andy’s easy banter and chemistry lightens the conspiracy plotline and never gets tiring, even energizing the narrative in the instances when the plot details get technical or convoluted. Also setting the Divisible Man books apart is Seaborne’s attention to Will’s evolving understanding and use of his powers, as this entry finds him experimenting with propulsion units to truly take flight. “This is freaking amazing!” Will thinks, as “the Earth falls away beneath” him, and readers onboard for tech-thriller superheroes will likely agree.

Takeaway: This high-flying thriller boasts welcome elements of the fantastical and a lovable central couple.

Great for fans of: Steven Gould’s Jumper, Myke Cole.

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

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Fallout Shelter
Steven Schindler
Schindler's (The Last Sewer Ball) period piece about three boys growing up in the Bronx blends a bittersweet tale of adolescence with elements of a crime novel. It’s full of vivid details of character and setting, but it's his willingness to delve into the loathsome depths of clergy molestation and corruption that sets it apart. The story follows lifelong friends "Chili" Manzilla, Mikey McGowan, and Angel Rodriguez through the ups and downs of their adolescence and early adulthood, touching on suckerpunches, youthful romances, crowded classrooms, and the pleasures of cracking open bottles of Boone’s Farm Apple wine in Van Cortlandt Park. Chili, the most devout of the three, starts on a path toward the priesthood, while prankster Mikey becomes a cop. Angel comes from a more privileged background, pursuing the law but always taking pains to be there for his friends.

Schindler charts their youthful pranks and dreams growing up in New York at its run-down 1970s sleaziest, finding escape from the world in the fallout shelter of the title. The era is expertly evoked: “Latin music mixed with the Irish Rovers and the Rolling Stones as they melded into a sidewalk symphony.” Perhaps inevitably, the boys face betrayals and hurt feelings as they mature, and Schindler's depiction of how friends can drift apart but find their way back to each other is especially touching and intimate. All three served as altar boys, familiar with whispered secrets of priests sexually molesting young boys in their care as teachers and pastors; the treatment of that scandal and trauma here is devastating and unsparing, edging into suspense territory, as one boy related to the central trio witnesses a priest’s crime, putting him in danger.

It all culminates in a surprising, explosive climax, handled with seriousness despite the hints of melodrama. Schindler's sensitivity in depicting trans characters, in particular, is remarkable, as is his moving, detailed evocation of these memorably flawed characters’s big dreams, tough talk, and connections to each other and their world.

Takeaway: Both a tender coming-of-age New York period piece and a harrowing exploration of corruption in the church.

Great for fans of: Arlene Alda’s Just Kids from the Bronx, John Boyne's A History of Loneliness.

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

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One Clear Shot : Claire's Story
Rose Ferrell
A young woman goes from assassin to family woman and back again in Ferrell’s first romantic thriller. Claire Green, a highly trained marksman employed by her father’s private military contracting firm Green Hat, falls for civilian Will Turner on a break between jobs. Despite having only met a couple of times, when a job goes bad and Claire is sent home in disgrace, she heads to South Carolina to surprise Will and simply never leaves, vowing to leave the contract killer life behind. But that’s easier said than done, and soon her team returns with a proposal that will threaten her newfound peace and all that she holds dear.

While the novel has been categorized as a romance, the story leans on the thriller elements, and readers expecting the conventions and tropes of the romance genre should know that Claire and Will’s relationship develops mostly off page, with the narrative jumping ahead when she chooses her boyfriend over her job, receives a marriage proposal, and enjoys other significant life passages. Instead, One Clear Shot’s focus is on the Green Hat team enticing Claire into assassinating the man who sent her last job off the rails, plus Claire’s sniper skills, amusing tough talk (“I am not here to blow daisies up your butt”), relationship with her killer father, and the challenges of high-stakes espionage while nursing.

Will’s qualms about Claire’s work set up an engaging conflict, especially his reasonable discomfort with what amounts to a semi-legal revenge murder scheme. That’s an interesting role reversal, after decades of fiction about dude-hero spies leaving worried wives at home, though the story–like its hero–ultimately engages more in the specifics of gun safes and lovingly detailed mission briefs than affairs of the heart. One Clear Shot will please readers looking for a thriller with a strong female lead, personal stakes, ethical quandaries, and tense sniper action.

Takeaway: A thriller with romance elements that follows one woman’s attempt to merge two disparate worlds.

Great for fans of: Meg Gardiner, Jessica Clare and Jen Frederick’s Last Hit.

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

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The Plagues of Pharaoh
David Shaw
“What can a mortal say to a god-king?” asks Hannu, an Egyptian vizier and father who recognizes that the flies, frogs, and literal blood baths his nation is suffering come from the Hebrew God of Moses, that slave of “stuttering arrogance” who dares to make demands of the immortal Pharaoh. Pharoah refuses those demands—that he allow his Hebrew slaves to worship for three days in the desert—and, as in all tellings of this tale, hardens his heart, makes his slaves’ lives worse, and further angers Moses’s god. Hannu is desperate to change Pharaoh’s mind, but knows it’s unlikely that the counsel of a mere mortal, untouched by the divine, will prove persuasive. The plagues will get worse, and Egypt will face profound loss and horror—especially after Moses foretells the firstborn sons of Egypt will die.

Hannu, a father himself, will discover that saving his son, Paneb, and all of the others demands ritual sacrifice—and an end to the abuse of the Hebrews. Convincing Pharoah to allow this will prove a tall order, one of many epochal challenges facing the vizier in Shaw’s crisp, swift telling of key passages of Exodus. Hannu’s perspective adds fresh drama and dimension to this familiar—and always mysterious—tale, as Shaw dramatizes the court politics and the harrowing plagues of the Old Testament God but also the interior drama of seeing one’s beliefs challenged by new evidence.

The Plagues of Pharaoh is a quick, inviting read, opening with a dramatic scene of Moses confronting Pharaoh and surging on from there, paying welcome attention to ancient Egyptians’ understanding of the world. Hannu’s first real, up-close encounter with the Hebrews and their beliefs is a standout scene, but Shaw’s interest in cultural clashes and the dawn of monotheism never slows down the narrative, which speeds ahead like the novel’s chariots toward an apocalyptic chase and an angry sea.

Takeaway: This brisk retelling of the plagues of Egypt imagines a vizier who strives to make Pharoah see reason.

Great for fans of: Sholem Asch’s Moses, Howard Fast’s Moses.

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

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Dawn of the Watchers
Winn Taylor
Quirky characters propel this galaxy-crossing cyberpunk tale of gaining confidence and trusting friends as Taylor continues the well-crafted adventures of snarky young troublemaker Jinx, who saved all of organic intelligence (OI) from gangsters and malevolent artificial intelligence in the first book, Rise of the Protector. Although Jinx was named Protector, she’s now on the run, fleeing from kingpin Sartillias to the Milky Way galaxy and an abandoned and desolate Earth with her guardian Attendants, including technology expert Claire, geek perfectionist Jacob, and 500-year-old mind-reader Hadu, who helps Jinx master her newly acquired powers of incredible strength and teleportation. They are all participants in a prophecy to protect Laris, a telepath who can heal and protect OI. Soon Laris is infected with a nanobot sent by Sartillias that is programmed to unleash her dark, destructive side, threatening all OI.

Taylor carries the reader along the expansive story with a richly detailed narrative that develops the diverse characters so they shine with their respective quirks, powers, and reluctant camaraderie. To help Laris, Jacob lands their ship at the Great Pyramid in Egypt to harness the energy of the ley lines underneath. Meanwhile, Jinx makes the risky teleport back to their space station in another galaxy for supplies that might help Laris. After Jinx and Laris share a kiss, “Not only would she willingly give her life to protect Laris, she was destined to.” Jinx is an evocative young adult growing into her role of Protector, despite her tendency to reject authority and rules.

Readers of all ages will relate to Jinx’s self-doubt–but growing confidence–as she learns to feel comfortable in her own skin, control her powers, and trust the people around her. The dialogue has a welcome comic snap, and science-fiction fans will be immersed in the intrigue, adventure, imaginative technology, and intricate plot.

Takeaway: An engaging coming-of-age sci-fi adventure, with a reluctant hero and winning friends.

Great for fans of: Becky Chambers, G. Willow Wilson and Christian Ward’s Invisible Kingdom.

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

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Elite and True: Leadership Lessons Inspired by the US Navy
James L. Barnhart
In this polished, conversational guide and memoir, Barnhart looks back on a lifetime of work, service, and leadership while offering practical guidance about what it takes to lead, in both the military and the business world, and how to make the transition from the former to the latter. “Bring forward a vision for a better future and people will gladly follow,” Barnhart notes, though he acknowledges the distinction between hearing or reading a truth like that and actually discovering it for oneself—and putting it into action. Elite and True recounts his journey towards doing so, pairing lessons he’s learned about leadership with his own remarkable story.

Barnhart persuasively connects lessons like “Distribute undesirable tasks among the workforce” and “Policies form the foundation of work culture” to key moments of his own career, from early mentors and work experience, his enrollment in the U.S. Navy’s Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate and seven years of service, and then his experience in the tech sector. The lessons and storytelling are tightly bound together—this is the rare book where a passage about the value of diversity involves time on a nuclear-powered ship and a shore-leave river of sewage—and chapters end with thorough summaries of everything Barnhart has touched on.

Highlights include stories of a faux Rolex watch, inspecting the insides of sanitary tanks, and an account of how a commanding officer responded to a poor decision Barnhart made on watch duty. But the book’s heart is Barnhart’s clear-eyed accounts of moving from military life to private industry, including his experience with outplacement firms, job interviews, and settling on the opportunity that feels right. The advice in these chapters might seem particular to service members entering the workforce, but it's generally applicable: “Understand all details of the contract before signing.” “Take a risk to earn a reward.” Pairing these insights with what it took to discover them gives them new power.

Takeaway: Leadership lessons drawn from memorable tales from a life in the Navy and the tech sector.

Great for fans of: Matthew J. Louis’s Mission: Transition, William Toti’s From CO to CEO.

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

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Thrown to the Wind
Amanda M. Cetas
Using her genealogy research as a blueprint, Cetas builds the foundation for the A Country of Castoffs series with Thrown to the Wind, a middle grade historical novel that blends a coming of age first-person narrative with the kind of nail-biting adventure that would appeal to her 9-year-old hero-in-waiting. In October 1660, Etienne Gayneau rushes through the cobblestone streets of La Rochelle, France, to the harbor, where a ship carrying King Louis XIV’s fabled musketeers is docking. He senses that something momentous is happening, but doesn’t realize that their arrival will send his Huguenot family into exile, fleeing first to Amsterdam and then across the Atlantic to the Dutch colony on Manhattan Island.

Cetas introduces Etienne as an insecure boy cowering in the imposing stone city, with its rigid social structure and history of religious oppression. His father’s stubborn adherence to Protestantism separates Etienne from his Catholic cousin (and only friend), and instead of finding solace among fellow Huguenots, he’s bullied for being a poor artisan’s son.All Etienne knows for certain is that he doesn’t want to be like his stern, imposing father, a builder of stone and mortar potager’s stoves, whose rigid work ethic is second only to an unwavering devotion to God. Cetas skillfully plots Etienne’s journey as an uphill climb full of switchbacks, with determination gradually replacing indecision, and a clear-eyed faith supplanting fantastical visions.

Thrown to the Wind proves an apt title, capturing the refugee’s plight: upheaval and uncertainty, exhaustion and anxiety, trepidation and hopefulness. Cetas’s debut also details the era’s arduous shipboard travel: instead of feeling unmoored, Etienne quickly finds his sea legs and gains confidence as a cabin boy who can cope with precarious situations. Recreating her ancestors’ path from persecution to possibility, Cetas focuses on a boy who doesn’t fully understand the historical forces affecting his family, but methodically charts his own course to maturity.

Takeaway: The vivid story of a boy discovering his value on the perilous voyage of early American settlers.

Great for fans of: Kathleen Benner Duble’s Quest, Elizabeth George Speare’s The Sign of the Beaver.

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

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On Lonesome Roads
Dan Flanigan
Set at the tail-end of the Reagan era, the tense, character-rich third entry in Flanigan’s Peter O’Keefe detective series finds O’Keefe still reeling, physically and mentally, from a car bomb attack that caused severe burn damage. The likely culprits, local mobsters called The Outfit, are at large, and O’Keefe’s life is turned upside-down: since he’s still presumed to be a target, the neighbors want him out, and he can’t even visit his daughter without arranging for “maximum security.” But with a new friend—a retired police dog named Karma—and the determination to protect his family and business, O’Keefe sets out to prove a negative—that the Outfit didn’t do it.

“The only hatchet that’ll get buried’ll be in your skull,” a police contact warns as O’Keefe sets out to make peace. Such sharp, playful dialogue and surprising choices from characters exemplify O’Keefe’s series, in which unpredictable people react to crime-novel events in a refreshingly realistic way, even as Flanigan never skimps on noir atmosphere, crisply rendered action, or pulpy surprises—this time, a reptilian attempt on O’Keefe’s life proves all the more jolting because the novel’s world feels so convincing. The tough talk from the heavies and the sleazy dreams of the proprietor of the Cherry Pink Gentlemen’s Club is as persuasive and engaging as O’Keefe’s domestic drama, which includes an ex eager to marry a new man, despite the daughter’s disgust.

The novel’s length might deter readers who prefer crime tales tight, but O’Keefe again proves, over the pages, to be a compelling creation, especially when backed into a corner. Also strong is the assortment of friends, allies, and potential enemies, all characterized in quick, incisive strokes. (Paschal, “jailbird” and disappointed novelist, is especially good.) Their world of highways, an S&L crisis, and potholed industrial parks is expertly drawn. On Lonesome Roads is a polished thriller that builds to a satisfying but complex conclusion.

Takeaway: Rich characterization and jolting surprises set this polished crime novel apart.

Great for fans of: Matt Goldman, William Kent Krueger.

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

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New You! Who Knew?: Surprising foundations to get more done, feel more connected, and stay balanced in a rapidly changing world.
David R. Edwards
Building upon the core premise that "where you are today is a fact but not the limit of your personal growth and potential,” Edwards introduces readers to the concept of intrinsic motivation and its core elements of self-esteem and self-efficacy. Written for those wanting to create a personal “vision of what a great life looks like,” this inviting self-improvement guide lays out in great detail what Edwards calls “the foundations” of a more productive, balanced, and connected life: the skills it takes to overcome the physical, financial, and structural constraints that often prevent people from reaching their capacity for growth. Edwards argues that capacity is “limitless.”

While extensive, the guide essentially consists of two main sections covering the core elements that make up personal motivation. The first half focuses on self-efficacy, featuring a four-step process for discovering the personal values individual to you and your life. He argues, “The ultimate epitaph for any person would be ‘(Your name) lived his or her values perfectly.’” The second half walks readers through the elements of self-compassion: self-kindness, mindfulness, and humanity. A summary highlighting key skills and takeaway points is at the end of every chapter, alongside a blank PQ4R (Preview, Question, Read, Reflect, Recite, and Review) page designed to help readers process and retain the information.

Sprinkled with affirmations and thought-provoking questions, New You, Who Knew? breaks down concepts of motivation, self-esteem, and goal setting in friendly, relatable language. Drawing upon over thirty years of professional experience serving underprivileged communities, Edwards maintains that true motivation is personal and “directly tied to what is important to you.” He backs his assertion with scientific research on growth mindset, thought patterns, and resilience. Unlike other self-help guides, Edwards emphasizes the importance of having a set of clear, established boundaries which helps to avoid regrets, while creating a solid foundation for goals and personal development.

Takeaway: This guide to personal motivation emphasizes core values, self-esteem, and compassion.

Great for fans of: Stephen R. Covey, Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements .

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

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Avalina
Manuel Rose
Rose (Death on the Railway) offers a proudly provocative thriller of the dark arts complete with witchcraft, revenge, the irresistible setting of Salem, Massachusetts, and a crafted-to-shock eroticism. Avalina Bishop is a fifteen-year-old young woman whose grandmother is a witch. With rumors that Avalina also possesses skills as a mistress of the dark arts, a group of teenagers decide to burn down her house—with Avalina inside. Before Avalina perishes, she calls upon the “Prince of Darkness” to spare her soul so she can reincarnate at a later time and seek revenge on her murderers. Her soul becomes entrapped in a necklace that passes from character to character, while Avalina works to possess her hosts’ bodies and complete her mission.

Avalina’s gruesome murder of course elicits reader sympathy, though her lack of self-reflection, empathy, and personal growth makes it challenging to connect with her. The opening chapter includes a graphic masturbation scene, featuring the fifteen-year-old hero, that seems to dare readers to set the book aside. Elsewhere, Rose reduces women to their “pretty” features and “fairly large and shapely breasts,” their characters often either sex objects or victims of sexual assault. Avalina, meanwhile, lacks empathy for the women she imprisons while possessing their bodies and plays a hand in their oppression. In her quest for revenge, Avalina possesses the body of Joan, a 21-year-old woman, proceeding to have sex with Joan’s boyfriend despite Joan’s internal protests, and crudely dismisses Joan’s worries about pregnancy.

Simply put, the material is dark, perhaps pointedly so, as Rose favors shock and outrage over the development of tension. The storyline offers as many twists as it does reasons for sensitive readers to balk. Some welcome human warmth enters the tale in the form of Avalina’s mother, who does everything in her power to serve as the voice of reason.

Takeaway: A pointedly dark witchcraft thriller in which a young woman invokes the dark arts to seek revenge.

Great for fans of:Richard Laymon, Russ Martin.

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

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Boldly into the Darkness: Living with Loss, Growing with Grief & Holding onto Happiness
Autumn Toelle-Jackson
Toelle-Jackson debuts with a personal memoir detailing her experiences of loss, grief, and healing after the untimely deaths of three important people in her life–her husband Joe, her cousin Brittany, and her infant daughter Rylee. With an aim of lightening the grief of others by sharing and inspiring readers facing loss to seek hope, Toelle-Jackson dives deeply into the darkness of her own grief experience and describes it not as traumatic but a story of “rebirth and resilience.” At the same time, through the story of her relationship with Kyle, a coworker who supported her after Joe’s death and eventually became her romantic partner, she explores her conflicting feelings when she embraces a new love.

Toelle-Jackson writes with sincerity and clarity as she illuminates experiences that will resonate with readers. She organizes the text both chronologically and emotionally, making connections between losses across years; her experience of her cousin’s death at a young age is indisputably part of her grief process, though at times fitting her connection with Brittany into a narrative centered on her life with Joe can feel choppy. But her expressions of love for both Joe and Kyle are genuinely heartfelt, and those seeking a new relationship after the loss of a partner will find her experience relatable and supportive.

Readers undergoing similar experiences will immediately relate with Toelle-Jackson’s advice for family and friends during the grieving process, and her willingness to be angry with God will also help readers cope with feelings of guilt. She uses her own transformative experience as a springboard, including her work with peer support organizations, and her central theme–that “grief doesn’t exist without love [and] love is always worth the grief”–grounds the narrative and offers readers an outlook without glossing over challenging emotions. Backmatter includes summarized “Lessons from Grief” that will be useful for readers who need quick touchstones for the advice woven throughout the text.

Takeaway: Readers seeking reassurance and hope in the midst of grief will find Toelle-Jackson a comforting companion.

Great for fans of: Joanne Cacciatore’s Bearing the Unbearable, Amy Bloom’s In Love.

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

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Making Angels: A Stella Fargo Mystery Book 2
M.J. Holt
An errand of compassion turns deadly in Holt’s gritty second Stella Fargo Mystery. Stella Fargo is supposed to clear out the house of Hannah Pickett, the daughter of Stella's good friend and mentor, and a young woman who has gone missing. As Stella nears Hannah's house, she is stopped by a roadblock, and rattled both to hear that human remains have been found in the nearby woods and by the undersheriff's behavior. Her unease intensifies when she discovers Hannah's bedroom has been defiled, unearths hidden documentation of another young girl's abuse, and learns that a mother is obsessed with her dead children, to the point of ignoring her living kids. Despite perilous threats, including from her own past, Stella can't help but get involved.

Stella is not alone in her efforts. She starts the story as a woman with a full and satisfying life, who enjoys the love and support of her husband and their friends, and along the way she accumulates more friends, mostly by teaming with local matriarch Exie Havelok, who reigns over an enviably wide network. This social aspect helps balance the gruesome descriptions that will be hard for squeamish readers while serving to distinguish Stella from countless hardboiled loner protagonists–Stella is haunted by her past, quite literally, but she is a woman of agency who is capable of saving herself and others from harm.

Though Holt acknowledges the grim reality of violence against women and children ("Seems like graves found in the woods always are girls”), she takes care not to paint all men as evil or all women as fragile, broken victims. At times, the sprawling cast and highly detailed narrative can prove overwhelming, especially for newcomers to crime fiction, and sideline some intriguing plot points. But Holt delivers a deeply disturbing wild ride with some jolting twists and a strong sense of character.

Takeaway: An unsettling thriller with a strong female hero and a high count of bodies and plot twists.

Great for fans of: Michael Koryta, Marsali Taylor, Lisa Gardner.

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

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Undeterred: How one determined Vietnamese orphan carved out a place for himself in America
Bruce Carlin
Through this succinct but deeply moving account, Carlin relays the story of Long, a Vietnamese-American man who has been a close professional associate of Carlin’s since 2007. Long, an orphan from Vietnam, along with his half brother Duc, escaped the horrors of the Vietnam war when they were rescued by American soldiers. After reaching the states, the brothers faced another set of grim challenges, shuttling from one foster home to another, trying first to assimilate and then to thrive in American society. Long’s success is hard won, vividly described, and certain to make readers cheer.

This heart-warming story will resonate with anyone fascinated by immigrant stories or seeking inspiration and motivation to fight all odds and achieve their goals. It is evident that Carlin has taken great pains to understand and accurately depict Long’s arduous, transformative journey from an orphan in Vietnam to, eventually, a multi-millionaire in America. Striking details like the time Long spent in libraries, researching success stories, or the Camel cigarettes that Vietnamese women bartered to rescue their sons from the clutches of the South Vietnamese army–Long recalls the brand from the image on the packages– lend the account convincing power. As the story progresses from Long’s childhood in Vietnam to the rest of his life in America, the pace of the narrative also quickens, at times even rushing through key events, such as Long facing the aftermath of a family tragedy.

Still, the memoir finds its rhythm by the end, laying out details of how Long wooed his future wife Loan. In the last chapter, Long and Loan run into a woman from Long’s past in Hong Kong. The woman, Ba Phuong, had nurtured Long and his brother as her own children when they were growing up as orphans in Vietnam. This incident brings the story full circle and ties the narrative together through a satisfying end.

Takeaway: The inspiring story of a Vietnamese orphan who became an American multi-millionaire.

Great for fans of: Kelli Nguyen-Ha’s Immigrant Millionaire, Qian Julie Wang’s Beautiful Country.

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

Runaway Silver: The Impossible Sight of Lily Lilac
SW Quinn
This captivating, fantastical story for young readers looks at trauma, giftedness, and survival through the eyes of Lily Lilac, a nine-year-old girl with a highly original uncanny ability: Lily can do anything she wishes to after being shown how to do it only once. This special power came from her mother, who quite typically told her daughter she could do anything she set her sights on–but in Lily’s case, this oft-uttered comment yielded extraordinary results. “The thing about ordinary words … is that they can do extraordinary things if uttered just the right way, to just the right person, at just the right time.”

Following her mother’s tragic death and her father’s disappearance, Lily’s blonde hair turns gray, and she wanders aimlessly until she stumbles upon a circus, where her uncanny ability to juggle, tumble, and do stunts amazes the other performers. Two narrators with playful yet knowing voices tell Lily’s tale, regularly referring to the reader as the “spectator.” This seems awkward at first, but as one narrator reminds us, “You, our esteemed spectator, have come expecting a show.” Indeed, reading this occasionally tense story offers the same sort of thrilling, voyeuristic experience as attending the circus where Lily performs–it may be tempting to look away, but the action is just too compelling.

Ultimately, the wayward Lily finds a sort of home at the circus. Since she can’t remember her name or how she got there, the circus master dubs her Silver, a reference to her shimmering gray hair. This installment of Lily’s story ends abruptly, with the promise that more will be revealed in the next book. Lily may be on the precipice of fame, but anticipation regarding new enemies and what will happen when she discovers her harrowing history will keep “esteemed spectators” coming back for more.

Takeaway: A nine-year-old girl with secret powers meets disaster and triumph in this fantastical story.

Great for fans of: Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl, Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs.

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

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Baggie's Big Adventure: Lost in Luggage Land
Thomas Schwendler
An adventure-loving, vintage handbag goes for the ride of its life in this entertaining debut by Schwendler. Baggie, longtime resident at the House of B’Aggie, is shocked when the store’s owner puts her on sale—a telltale sign of declining value for a handbag—and even more dismayed when she finds out the store is closing down. Eventually Baggie, along with her glamorous sister Bling, are bought as presents for a teenage girl and her mother. At first, Baggie lies forgotten in Annie’s room, until the glorious moment when Annie and her mom plan a trip to Italy, giving Baggie the chance to flourish as a travel handbag once again.

Despite Baggie’s fervent hopes, the trip does not go as planned. Stored in the plane’s cargo section due to her size, Baggie ends up at the wrong airport. Falling prey to an auction house that resells lost bags, she eventually runs into some friends who help her discover how to reunite with Annie–a meeting that Schwendler leaves up in the air at the story’s end. Even with the cliffhanger, readers will still be amused. Baggie and her friends spout oodles of funny sayings—including the ultimate bag insult that “you can be a real fanny pack sometimes”—and freely share their experiences from a handbag’s perspective (Baggie gets a birds-eye view of a luggage free-for-all in the plane’s cargo space, and a rucksack schools her on why it’s so different from a backpack).

Schwendler offers up plenty of back matter to keep readers intrigued, such as general packing rules (hint: your little brother is probably too big to stuff into a suitcase) and specifics on a global tracking system to prevent lost baggage. As Schwendler points out, everyone needs a bag of some kind– even Chewbacca carries one, and “if one of the defenders of the Rebellion carries a messenger bag as well as a blaster” maybe you should, too.

Takeaway: An entertaining handbag takes on the world in this lively children’s debut.

Great for fans of: Ian Falconer’s Olivia Goes To Venice, Lisa Brown’s The Airport Book.

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

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Resurfacing: sisterhood, sharks and storms
Laura DeSisto
DeSisto debuts with a moving blend of excitement, heartache, and self-discovery in this touching memoir. Years after growing up as an adventurous and daring child, and then raising several herself, DeSisto found herself without purpose when her children grew up and left home. After painful introspection, and dismay at losing the tenacity of her youth, she rekindled her love of the ocean—“[it] was my first love and I fell hard and fast for it”—and found in it a catalyst for self-transformation. DeSisto recounts how, on a seeming whim, she signed up for a scuba diving class. That choice kickstarts an astounding journey–and she chronicles the events of that journey, both painful and inspirational, in graceful and elegant prose.

DeSisto’s story is subtle but powerful, and her experiences will ring true with readers who have endured daunting transitions in their own lives. With her two best friends at her side, and a reluctant husband who eventually agrees to take up scuba diving, too, despite not knowing how to swim, DeSisto eventually earns the distinction of a certified Open Water Diver, a substantial achievement, given her intense fear of sharks. She candidly shares that fear, and several shark encounters that both fuel it and leave her with a sense of awe at the immense wonder of the ocean, as she guides readers through the nuts-and-bolts of her diving progression.

Scuba diving only scratches the surface of this memoir: DeSisto masterfully immerses readers in the ebbs and flows of her life, covering stunning victories alongside breathtaking loss, always with the ocean beating a steady rhythm in the background. As she and her friends navigate health crises, failed marriages, and even natural disasters, she circles back to her faith in God and the importance of healing from gruesome experiences, poignantly writing “I am a mother, a sister, a shark diver, a writer of books, a child of God. I have resurfaced.”

Takeaway: This story of painful transitions and victories will resonate with readers seeking self-transformation.

Great for fans of: Alison Wright’s Learning to Breathe, Glynnis MacNicol’s No One Tells You This.

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

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