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In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow
Kenneth W. Harmon
Harmon (The Amazing Mr. Howard) skillfully mines the brutality of WWII and the desire for redemption in this ambitious story of tragic characters overcoming hate, cultural indifference, and duty. American bombardier Micah Lund hates the Japanese, whom he blames for his brother’s death. After his plane is shot down over Hiroshima, he falls to his death onto a city street right in front of war widow Kiyomi Oshiro and her perceptive eight-year-old daughter, Ai. Now a hitodama ghost, Micah observes the living. He is attracted to the somber Kiyomi and sees how she is mistreated by her in-laws, who are arranging a new marriage for her. When Kiyomi and Ai are able to visit Micah in the dream world after falling asleep, the trio form a caring relationship.

Harmon treats his characters with tenderness and empathy, showing both sides of a vicious war through their experiences and perceptions. In his portrayal, the Americans cruelly retaliate for the shock of Pearl Harbor by targeting a city full of civilians, while the proud Japanese antagonize an opponent with vastly superior weaponry. The suffering Japanese citizens, patriotic yet practical, starving and weary, just want their lives back. Women especially are weighted down by patriarchy, hierarchy, and duty. Kiyomi is constrained by both war and tradition. When a kindly farm woman offers her a chance to leave the city, Kiyomi contemplates rejecting her long-held obligations—and then the Americans drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Ai and the ghost of a Japanese-American soldier, Frank, teach Micah about marriage, religion, and beliefs in Japan. Micah reevaluates his prejudices and misconceptions as he transforms from a gung-ho soldier into a sympathetic eyewitness to the horrific devastation of the obliterated city, searching through the Japanese spirit world for the ghosts of people he’s come to care about. Any reader will be moved by this graceful, original take on Japanese-American relations and life in Japan during WWII.

Takeaway: Enthusiasts of history, drama, the supernatural, and traditional religions will be moved by this bittersweet novel of war, love, and understanding.

Great for fans of Hiromi Kawakami’s Manazuru, Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro mysteries, Ana Johns’s The Woman in the White Kimono.

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

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The Longest, Darkest Night!
Peter B Lewis
A group of nocturnal forest creatures learn about lunar eclipses in this educational picture book. In a frozen woodland on the winter solstice, the forest’s animals and trees join in on a night of storytelling. The eldest in the forest, Grandpa Cedar, is excited to share a story, but all the animals—Ms. Owl, Young Weasel, Madam Opossum, Mr. Raccoon, and Brother Fox—are too scared to listen, as they see the moon slowly disappearing. Even the maple tree shivers with fear. After several tries, Grandpa Cedar is finally able to get through to the other animals. The wise old tree explains the total lunar eclipse, bringing comfort to the entire forest.

LePere’s radiant illustrations of the animals, trees, and colorful changes of the moon seamlessly complement Lewis’s words. Attentive readers will enjoy tracking the visual progression of the eclipse across each page, while Lewis’s explanation of the phenomenon is clear and easy to understand. The longer words might intimidate early readers, so this book is best read aloud or shared with older school-aged children.

The reactions of owl, fox, weasel, raccoon, and opossum show a delightful range of how people can react to the unknown—hesitation, calm, panic, fear, and denial—and might provide a helpful guide for children who need help navigating new things and places. The core message encourages readers to tune in and listen to nature. Grandpa Cedar’s knowledge and wisdom also highlight the importance of listening to the sage advice of elders, especially when a strange or confusing event is happening. As a bonus, the book includes peer-reviewed back matter that can help the reader learn more about the moon, celestial events, and nocturnal animals. Parents and teachers seeking supplements to STEM curricula or gifts for young naturalists will appreciate Lewis and LePere’s engaging, colorful narrative.

Takeaway: Young readers with an interest in the natural world will enjoy learning about a rare celestial event.

Great for fans of Ellen Jackson’s The Winter Solstice, Katy Hudson’s A Loud Winter’s Nap, Wendy Pfeffer’s The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice.

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

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WORKAHOLICS ADRIFT: : Transformation in the Pacific Islands
Judy McCandless
In this candid memoir, McCandless recounts how she and her husband left their comfortable life to sail the Pacific Ocean, traveling from San Francisco to Guam via New Zealand, Australia, and many islands between 1984 and 1991. McCandless and her husband, John, were on the American dream treadmill: both had well-paying corporate jobs that required long hours, and evenings were spent with John sitting in front of a television while McCandless drank. The couple often dreamed of quitting their jobs and voyaging across the ocean. When they attempted a trial sail, Mother Nature and McCandless’s alcoholism tested their resolve. Despite the difficulties, then and later, the couple boarded their 35-foot sailboat and fully embraced a life they found far more meaningful than the rat race.

There is much to admire in the McCandlesses’ courageous decision to set aside financially success lives and fulfill their passions for traveling and sailing. McCandless shares both the highlights of their journey, such as their visits to islands and different ports with their “yachtie” friends, and the downsides, which included hiring Dan, an unreliable crewman; dodging large ships and suffering through storms; and arriving in Guam to a $29,000 tax bill thanks to their accountant’s incompetence. Readers might wish for more insight into how others experienced their interactions with the author throughout her years at home and abroad.

It could be argued that McCandless’s story is a “what-not-to-do” guide; exhibit A is the couple developing near-fatal cases of malaria after skipping their anti-malaria medication because it upset John’s stomach. However, McCandless’s courage in facing her demons and changing her life is inspiring. Most compelling, perhaps because of McCandless’s brutal honesty, is her sincere encouragement to follow one’s dream, as one never knows what the future holds.

Takeaway: Anyone dreaming of making a significant change in their life will find McCandless’s candid memoir inspiring.

Great for fans of Frances Maye’s Under the Tuscan Sun, Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki.

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

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Till Medicine Do Us Part
Christiana Jones
Jones’s modern romance explores the social pressures and interpersonal consequences Black women can face when trying to balance family and career. Ambitious Dr. Makayla Jackson works double-time to meet the incredible demands of her role as an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, fighting to have her hard work and talent recognized despite racism and sexism. Unfortunately, her husband, Jason, a stay-at-home dad, and their five-year-old daughter, Kiara, become less and less of a priority. When Makayla learns she’s pregnant, she hides it from Jason, knowing it will mean either giving up the promotion she’s been working toward or asking him to give up plans to restart his own career. Finally, family tensions reach the boiling point. Jason takes Kiara and moves out, forcing Makayla to reevaluate her priorities.

With friends only appearing late in the story, the majority of the secondary and background characters consist of coworkers and patients, the latter of which receive a disproportionate amount of Makayla’s on-screen attention and empathy. Not everyone will sympathize with the level of her ambitions or the missteps she makes along the way, including some very poor financial decisions. Though Jason’s career and history receive much less focus, readers will adore him for his patient and understanding nature and applaud the changes that save their family without Makayla having to give up her career.

The narrative benefits from a steady pace and consistent voice, and Jones skillfully draws on her own experiences as a physician to highlight the rewards and challenges of the profession. Makayla’s indecision and unwillingness to let go of the image she’d created for her future, despite her workaholism’s effect on her family, are as frustrating as they are understandable. Working mothers will relate to this story of an overworked, overwhelmed woman trying to meet the demands of personal ambition, breadwinning, and quality time with her family.

Takeaway: Many women will relate to this story of a Black female doctor juggling her responsibilities to herself, her job, and her family while contending with bias at work and unhappiness at home.

Great for fans of Rebekah Weatherspoon’s Rafe, Jasmine Guillory’s The Wedding Date.

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

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The Persistence of Memory and Other Stories
Jan Maher
Maher (Heaven, Indiana) comes out swinging in this diverse short story collection whose 12 entries each explore some facet of memory. Unsurprisingly given that theme, the stories feature a number of elderly characters, including dementia patient Robert (“Turn, Turn, Turn”), recently widowed Tilda (“Independence Day”), and bike-riding Marie (“The Persistence of Memory”). But Maher breaks away from the expected, also introducing characters such as laid-off English professor Sally (“Vitae”) and earnest Yanka, a servant girl who is unable to speak (“A Real Prince”).

Readers will be impressed by Maher’s range and elegant writing as she expertly moves among characters at all different stages of life. In “Livia’s Daddy Comes Home from the War,” four-year-old Livia pieces together bits of memory with childish sincerity in an effort to identify the stranger in her home. In “Answering,” the narrative voice of routine-loving widower Harold is so present that the reader can’t know whether his conversations with his organs (heart and gallbladder included) are the result of a troubled mind or just an effective literary device. In “Dancing in the Dark,” Maher easily switches between the voices of almost-divorced Claire and Victor. In “Half-Full,” the ostensible narrator is almost completely overshadowed by their dying, joke-telling mother’s strength of personality, a perfect echo of the family dynamic.

The collection covers a wide array of circumstances and emotions, though overall the tone trends towards nostalgia and grief. There are no perfect characters in these stories, just people whose memories haunt, inspire, or elude them. Thanks to Maher’s introspective style, they’re interesting enough to care about—even the nameless narrator in “Ashes to Ashes,” who mourns the loss of a garden. Moments both big and small are captured in this heart-wrenching collection, perfect for those who are grieving, growing, or just wanting to get lost in the past for an afternoon.

Takeaway: Soul-searching readers will find lots to connect with in these thoughtful, family-oriented stories exploring the theme of memory.

Great for fans of Jordan Kisner’s Thin Places: Essays from In Between, Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky.

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

Lifelike
Peter J Dudley
A young runaway must unlock the secrets of her creative magic to save the souls of dozens of young women in this darkly fantastic YA adventure from Dudley (the New Eden series). Budding artist Jewel runs away from home to start her journey to fame in San Francisco. When she meets Damon, a mysterious painting instructor, he takes her under his wing to teach her how to control her magical painting ability. But this is not the first time Damon has seduced a young woman, and she encounters the spirits of his former students trapped in the paintings in his home. It becomes a race against time to free the spirits of the trapped girls as Damon’s dark past is revealed and Jewel learns what he is capable of.

Dudley writes with a good sense of pace, and the novel’s premise is imaginative. Jewel is a likeable protagonist, although her godlike artistic talent and her perpetually flawless good looks might not endear her to teen readers looking for relatable protagonists. Damon’s romanticized characterization early in the book does a little too much to foreshadow the revelation of his malevolence, and he tends to steal scenes as the antagonist. Dudley’s tone can be uneven: while some passages ripple with intensity and lyricism, others lack nuance, blunting the impact of the story.

Where Dudley succeeds is in creating a tense, mysterious atmosphere. Damon’s style of magic, trapping his victims in his paintings by stealing their spirit while painting their portraits, is inspired. The trapped women themselves are well-rounded and intriguing side characters. The novel’s themes are pertinent in the #MeToo era; part of the book’s appeal is Dudley’s Lolita-esque dissection of the machinations of a much-older predator. This tale is both cautionary and empowering, and YA readers in search of a topical urban fantasy will find a lot to love.

Takeaway: Teen readers seeking an empowering tale about female solidarity against predatory men will appreciate this suspenseful urban fantasy.

Great for fans of Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper Cypher.

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

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Shallcross: Animal Slippers (Hearing Voices #3): Animal Slippers
Charles Porter
The surreal third Hearing Voices novel (after Flame Vine: His Voices) follows high-functioning schizophrenic Aubrey Shallcross through the ups and downs of middle age: reminiscing about the past, missing those he’s lost, questioning his Catholic faith, and worrying about his family. Aubrey is embroiled in a murder investigation after two brothers, Lane and Shane Richards, died under mysterious circumstances (perhaps in an alligator attack). The two alligators in question, Two-Toed Tom and the Dragon, are a part of Aubrey’s history with denizens of the Florida swamps. The Richards’ death may be connected to Aubrey’s past and a serial killer from the 1970s who has resurfaced in Aubrey’s small town. Meanwhile, Triple Suiter, Aubrey’s “slipper”—a tiny man only Aubrey can see—slips in and out of Aubrey’s body and speaks to him. Threads of stories and memories become woven, tangled, and knotted together throughout the course of a disjointed narrative that pairs well with Von Ertfelda’s strange and dynamic line drawings.

Unreliability is a hallmark of Shallcross’s life. Events unfold in a nonlinear fashion, and Porter takes a deep dive into characters’ backstories, at times becoming a character in his own novel. Set in the panhandle of Florida, the story detours through the realities of backswamp life and historical tensions between the Seminole Native Americans and white settlers. Porter’s prose waxes poetic as he captures the nuances of schizophrenia through lyrical descriptions of Aubrey’s fixations and obsessions. There are achingly heartbreaking moments scattered throughout the narrative as Aubrey half-participates in his wife and son’s lives. What emerges is a sensitive, nuanced, sympathetic portrait of Porter’s middle-aged hero.

It may take a moment (or several) for readers to get adjusted to the deliberately meandering style, but Porter’s work is ultimately satisfying, reaping the rewards of playing with language and linear narrative. Readers who are familiar with stream-of-consciousness works will appreciate the intricate craftsmanship of this experimental story about detachment from reality.

Takeaway: This surreal and fantastical novel, full of hallucinations and heart, is sure to captivate anyone who loves a good tall tale.

Great for fans of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.

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

Social Work
Thomas Duffy
Duffy’s seventh novel (after 2018’s The Separation) is a gentle, earnest slice-of-life drama chronicling the awkward personal connections that arise in therapy. Marc Ziller, 28 and recently stabilized after a suicide attempt, initially resists group and individual therapy with social worker Lauren Davidson. As he begins to navigate reentry into life outside the hospital, including a new job, he finds Lauren a useful resource even as she puts the brakes on his pursuits of fame and a dating life. Meanwhile, Lauren starts a new romantic relationship with Ahmad, a man she meets on a dating site, but she considers pursing a friendship with Marc despite her professional boundaries.

Duffy’s narrative alternates between Marc and Lauren’s separate lives and their minimally therapeutic sessions together. However, it rarely takes the opportunity to explore their internal lives, and their mutual interest isn’t entirely supported by the story. Despite long, uninterrupted stretches of dialogue, the character voices are not distinct from one another, and the language often feels stilted (“We want to shed positivity on the group by showing them an example of someone who is actually doing well”). Conversations are imbalanced; pages of mundane chatter don’t advance the story, and big life decisions are made within a few lines. Lauren’s approaches to both social work and her personal life seem antiquated for contemporary New York City, and her relationship with Ahmad comes off as transactional and devoid of emotional spark.

Marc’s life outside of his sessions contains a good deal of humor: he hopes to date a television producer and become a star of her dating show Uninhibited Morons, makes clumsy attempts to date a customer from his retail job, visits a singles’ group, and playfully banters with a fellow patient. Marc’s frustrating experiences with dating while keeping his diagnosis of mental illness secret are relatable and the narrative never judges him for his choices even when things go poorly. Readers craving an offbeat happily-ever-after will find satisfaction in seeing Marc finally make the right romantic match.

Takeaway: Duffy’s compassionate depiction of a bumpy but successful recovery after a suicide attempt will be deeply relatable to people on a similar path and those who love them.

Great for fans of Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Phillippa Perry and Junko Graat’s Couch Fiction: A Graphic Tale of Psychotherapy.

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

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20/20
B SHAWN CLARK
Debut author Clark introduces young readers to survivalism in this warm-hearted tale of a boy’s adventures during a time of climate upheaval. In a future world under constant threat from storms and floods, an elderly white man known as Captain begins to record memories of his childhood in 2020s Miami. As a boy, Captain meets two survivalists, a white man named Harrison and a Native American woman named Calusa, who show him the basics of off-the-grid living. When a massive storm ravages their neighborhood, the unlikely trio bring their community together to build self-sufficient homes across Florida.

Clark’s handling of racial matters, while well-intentioned, is somewhat flawed. The explicit use of racial slurs and hateful language, clearly intended to demonstrate their hurtfulness, feels gratuitous. Clichés abound as a Native American medicine man takes Captain’s sister on a vision quest (after which she changes her name to White Feather) and pronounces Captain “one of us” even as Captain continues thinking of Calusa as an “Amazon Warrior Princess.” The apparently surprising sight of a mixed-race group working harmoniously together feels more 1920s than 2020s, as do a reference to Captain’s mother being a “candy striper” at a hospital and the boy’s use of phrases such as “hauled off to the hoosegow.”

In the first half of the book, Harrison introduces his ardent student (and thereby the reader) to practical concepts of self-reliance: filtering water naturally, growing vegetables, generating electricity, and so on. The action picks up as the big storm approaches. The framing device for each chapter, in which the elderly Captain encounters something that triggers a childhood memory, eventually becomes wearing. However, the childhood scenes themselves are educational and often uplifting, grounding optimism in realistic ways for individuals to help one another. This tale about the importance of living at one with the planet will strike a chord with readers eager for pointers to a more sustainable present and future.

Takeaway: This road map to living harmoniously with the planet educates young readers through an uplifting story of communities coming together.

Great for fans of Johann Rudolf Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson, Darren Simpson’s Scavengers.

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

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Surrounded by Others and Yet So Alone: A Lawyer's Case Stories of Love, Loneliness, and Litigation
J. W. Freiberg
Attorney and former social psychology professor Freiberg (Growing Up Lonely: Disconnection and Misconnection in the Lives of Our Children) assembles a sparkling collection of exceedingly erudite essays on human nature as seen through the lens of some of his most memorable legal cases. For over three decades in Boston, Freiberg worked for child protective social service organizations, adoption agencies, and many psychiatrists, psychologists, and clinical social workers. The majority of his stories center on children and the social and psychological stresses that litigants experience and inflict on one another in legal proceedings.

One of the most heartstring-tugging pieces is “The Girl Who Inherited France,” the story of a bright six-year-old whose mother dies suddenly from a stroke. In a protracted custody battle, her stepfather fights to keep custody of the little girl he considers his daughter. Another story likely to elicit tears is “Three Souls Caught in a Spider’s Web,” the tale of a bakery owner and battered wife who helps her isolated stepson to find a forever home. The author’s passion for his subjects will readily be shared by the reader. The theme of solitude and loneliness connects the essays, but each one takes a different approach, and each child is a sympathetically depicted individual.

Though billed primarily as an analysis of loneliness, this is far from a dry textbook. Freiberg has a master storyteller’s skillful voice, easily drawing readers into his narratives and keeping them enthralled. He teaches through relevant examples rather than dry pronouncements and expertly gets to the emotional heart of each case, immediately garnering empathy for each person he profiles. The closing section has a more academic tone but is still very accessible and reader-friendly. Expertly written and perfectly paced, Freiberg’s work puts a human face on the law and will have considerable appeal for anyone interested in human nature both at its best and at its worst.

Takeaway: Anyone with an interest in loneliness, solitude, or the sorrows of children caught in litigation will be enthralled by these erudite and sympathetic essays.

Great for fans of Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, E.O. Wilson’s On Human Behavior.

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

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Beyond the Bake Sale, the Ultimate School Fund-Raising Book (Second Edition)
Jean C. Joachim
Joachim’s deeply informative guidebook takes readers through the inner workings of school fundraisers, ranging from small ventures such as wrapping paper sales to much larger fairs and auctions. Created to assist schools and parent associations in planning and execution, the table of contents is divided into seasonal and year-round events, taking readers through which ideas are best suited to each season and when to begin preparations. For each potential fundraiser, readers are walked through everything that will be needed: how and where to set things up, how many volunteers will be needed, how best to handle money, and how to maximize return on investment.

Using the in-depth knowledge gleaned from her 16 years of fundraising for schools, Joachim includes helpful perspective on best practices, potential pitfalls to be avoided, and how to improve from year to year. Additional notes at the end of each section detail ways the fundraiser can be stripped down to free or low-cost components, aimed specifically at making these ideas accessible to schools that may be starting from scratch and have limited financial resources available in advance.

Some of Joachim’s fundraiser suggestions will be difficult to implement outside of her home base—the New York City school system—without significant alteration, if at all: big indoor events may not be possible for open campuses where much of the school is outdoors, restrictions on sharing contact information would impede a school directory, strict policies around protecting students with food allergies would rule out homemade food, and so on. However, the sheer variety of ideas offered throughout the book allows readers to pick and choose, tailoring their fundraiser toolbox to the unique needs of their school. Thoroughness and attention to detail make this step-by-step manual one that organizers will regularly return to for inspiration and direction.

Takeaway: Parents and school staff engaged in school fundraising will appreciate this extensive guide to achieving a successful outcome from a multitude of fundraisers.

Great for fans of Sandra Pfau Englund’s School Fundraising: So Much More than Cookie Dough, Linda Wise McNay’s Fundraising for Schools: 8 Keys to Success Every Head of School Should Know.

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

Seaview Road
Brian McMahon
McMahon’s debut novel explores familial bonds, class divisions, and one woman’s complicity in hiding the circumstances of a man’s death. Katie Murray and her brother, Ryan, are enjoying their summer break from college, living at their family’s summer home in South Monomo, Mass. When Katie and Ryan venture out to a local hangout at Greenstone Lake, Katie stumbles upon men who are hiding Tim McNamara’s body in the brush. Escaping to the safety of her car, she encounters Eric Clarke, the estranged son of her neighbors, who encourages her to flee and covers for her, claiming to his friends that he didn’t see anyone. Eric reveals that the man responsible for Tim’s overdose death believes she saw him hiding the body. Katie must decide whether to reveal all to the police while fearing how that will affect Eric.

McMahon’s dimensional characters highlight the societal class differences in the neighboring towns of South Monomo and Worona. The clever inclusion of narratives from the killer, expressing his innermost thoughts and regrets, adds depth to his character while eliciting sympathy for the circumstances leading to his destructive behavior. McMahon’s exploration of the rifts within families magnifies the Clarkes’ efforts to distance themselves from their troubled, wayward son.

South Monomo residents’ snobbery and disdain for their neighbors in Worona is disturbing, but it sets the stage well for Katie’s awakening to her neighbors’ hypocrisy, and how the Clarkes’ quest for the perfect image came at the expense of their son. Katie’s journey comes to a head with a confrontation with the Clarke family about their neglect of Eric, which also offers a succinct reminder that the opioid epidemic’s impact isn’t limited to lower-class families. Fans of magnetic, topical contemporary fiction will be drawn to this immersive study of family and class conflict, complete with an undercurrent of murder.

Takeaway: This introspective view of class division and the quest for the perfect family is ideal for fans of gritty contemporary fiction.

Great for fans of Christina Clancy’s The Second Home, Barbara Elle’s Death in Smoke.

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

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Flight of the Wren
Winter Fox
Fox (the Grace Coffin series) enchants with his first Viking Age novel, a sweeping medieval saga that stretches across 11th-century Scandinavia. After Hilja’s mother and three-year-old sister are stolen from her village by pillaging Norsemen, Hilja, who is only seven but wise and brave, vows to bring them home, no matter what it takes. Six years later, her entire village is destroyed. As she grows up and searches for her mother and sister, she acquires a fiancé, displays an uncommon sense of honor, and becomes a powerful medicine woman. Meanwhile, Thorkell the Tall, leader of the Jømsvikings, plays dangerous political and sexual games with Gunnhilde, the queen of Denmark, as her sons, Harald and Canute, vie to be the next king.

This story ticks all the elements of a well-rounded tale: swashbuckling warriors, naked ambition, adventure, and a touch of romance. It’s clearly the first episode of three, and readers may be frustrated that so many arcs are left unresolved, though enough is wrapped up to be satisfying. Fox rarely missteps; only a few overly raunchy and size-focused references to male genitalia distract from the endearing characters and dramatic action.

Fox’s vivid worldbuilding will easily ensnare readers. His impeccable research, spun into lyrical prose (“These were the bright nights of summer, when the sun orbited the sky in a wild oval”), powers his narrative and makes his occasional bursts of wry wit even more delightful. The supernatural elements are touched on lightly, leaving the characters’ individual choices to drive the plot. This evocative and lovely medieval novel leads readers into a magical, often bloody era that they’ll be sorry to leave.

Takeaway: This exquisitely wrought medieval tale will appeal to fans of both fantasy and historical epics.

Great for fans of Tim Severin’s Viking series, Snorri Kristjansson, Giles Kristian.

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

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The Next Beethoven
Harry Magnet
Characters grapple with the meaning of art and the weight of their choices in this debut collection of the title novel and four short stories. In the novel, promising 23-year-old pianist and composition student David Green, frustrated by modern and contemporary music, posts an ad looking for like-minded artists to revitalize classical modes. The Second Renaissance Artist Group’s first project focuses on depicting 9/11 as a heroic tragedy, but the group quickly falls apart under clashing philosophies and personalities, and David spirals into a destructive depression. In the uncomfortable “The Twenty-First Century Maecenas,” a woman’s suspicion about her husband’s infidelity is squashed when she learns his wealthy patron is quadriplegic. Assumptions have deadlier consequences in “Death Lake,” in which a husband narrowly escapes an attempt on his life, and “Classmates,” which follows a mother trying to solve her daughter’s murder. A young woman attracts a nerdy stalker in “The Hazards of Social Psychology Research.”

Magnet’s best moments come as he shows how ideas crystallize into harmful dogmas. A character’s obsession with Objectivism turns him into an egoist ready to toss aside anything “irrational,” including relationships and schoolwork. David uses fundamentalism to justify his increasingly violent behavior, including stalking, insulting his teacher, loudly disrupting a performance, and sexually assaulting his ex-girlfriend. This makes his eventual vindication troubling.

The prose sometimes falls into didacticism, and the fist-shaking disparagement of contemporary art could alienate some readers. Those who push through will see intriguing questions being asked about the unquestioned dominance of styles now a century old, the ability of any single artist to shake norms, and the connections between creativity and mental illness. The artist group’s disintegration highlights the struggles of those who swim against the zeitgeist while coping with financial instability and a lack of broader community. This esoteric work upholds a specific view of genius that excuses any harm perpetrated in the pursuit of creative achievement.

Takeaway: This moody, polemical excavation of contemporary art’s fixation on modernism will satisfy readers who believe creative genius excuses all flaws.

Great for fans of Bret Easton Ellis’s White, Gen LaGreca.

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

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Low Down Dirty Vote: A Crime Fiction Anthology: Volume II
Mysti Berry, Editor
The 22 stories in Berry’s politically charged second Low Down Dirty Vote crime fiction anthology all revolve around the premise that “every stolen vote is a crime.” The anthology opens with Faye Snowden’s “One Bullet. One Vote,” which sets the tone as 85-year-old Willie Mae Brown becomes the first black person in her small town to vote despite threats to the safety of her family. The stories that follow highlight similar issues, including the voting rights of convicted felons (in Tim O’Mara’s “Voting Block” and S.B. White’s “The Sentencing Conundrum), the Equal Rights Amendment (in David Hagerty’s “An ERA of Inequality”), and the purging of voter registration lists (Ann Parker’s “Purged”).

The potentially depressing effect of such stories is buoyed by an array of vivid and dynamic characters, such as the cantankerous septuagenarian in Sarah M. Chen’s “Unit 805” who blackmails the board members of his retirement home; the stubborn, old-fashioned grandfather in Camille Minichino’s “Three Funny Things Happened on the Way to Vote” and the granddaughter who cares for him; and two assassins (one each from Frank Rankin’s “A Moral Assassin” and Terry Sanville’s “Pro Bono”) who try to do the right thing.

The depictions of election-rigging occur across time periods both historic (a 1910 sheriff’s election in Jackie Ross Flaum’s “Two Dead, Two Wounded”) and modern (a congressman’s campaign jeopardized by Photoshop and Facebook in Bev Vincent’s “Kane and the Candidate”), in communities both small (a nonprofit theatre organization in Robert Lopresti’s “Shanks Gets Out the Vote”) and large (a state governor’s race in James McCrone’s “Numbers Don’t Lie”). Neither side of the political divide is immune: Madeline McEwen’s “Benevolent Dictatorship” features a proud Democrat who forges the signatures on her family’s ballots, while Travis Richardson’s “The Cost of Ethics” sees a GOP volunteer lament that he’d “love to have an ethical Republican Party.” Regardless of affiliation, readers will find these stories give color and life to a relevant and often controversial issue.

Takeaway: Social studies teachers, history buffs, and anyone curious about politics will appreciate this anthology of crime stories about fighting, scheming, and taking action for the right to vote.

Great for fans of Michael Dobbs’s House of Cards, Tom Clancy.

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

Deep Time Is in the Garden: New Almanac Essays in Search of TIme and Place and Spirit
William Felker
This wonderful collection of thoughtful, lyrical essays entwines Felker (Home Is the Prime Meridian) and his readers with the patterns of nature. Each of the nearly 40 essays, including many first published in the Yellow Springs News of Yellow Springs, Ohio, connects daily observations to “a kind of radial time,” blurring the line between singular moments and longer movements, one garden and all gardens. For Felker, the natural world helps dispel the lingering anxieties of a sleepless night and offers the sort of comfort that Roman Catholic rituals used to provide for him and no longer do. He explores memory at length, and just as memories mix together to form a narrative, so too does observing nature for familiar patterns.

Felker balances the concrete details of the things he sees—the different species of birds, flowers, and trees he comes across, daily temperatures, astronomical events—with the meanings he ascribes to them. He’s aware that existential musings about why a finch appears at a particular time have little to do with the finch and everything to do with his own thoughts. Felker tries to follow what he calls “the easiest law,” which states that “when one thing is happening, something else is happening too.” He asserts that by recording data, such as the number of leaves that fall, he can also record his feelings without focusing too much on his interior world.

Within these pages, the world of nature is one of simultaneity where “nothing is ever out of place. Everything fits.” Felker’s concluding essay, “Repetition Is the Way Home,” meditates on the comfort and wonder of cycles and routine, how walking the same paths every day and through every season is a walk back in time that alleviates some of his anxiety about the future. That insight is just one of many poignant observations scattered through this marvelous book. Felker’s brevity, beautiful detail, and philosophical punch make this fluid collection a true pleasure to read.

Takeaway: Readers moved by the intersection of natural history and philosophy will love these meditative, poetic essays by a suburban naturalist.

Great for fans of John Harvey’s The Stillness of the Listening Forest.

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

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