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The Rape of Persephone
Monica Brillhart
Brillhart’s debut breathes new life into familiar Greek mythology and rejuvenates their famous characters. The story is adapted from the Homeric hymn to harvest goddess Demeter, the account of the kidnapping of Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, by Hades, the god of the underworld. While the bones of the ancient tale remain intact, this version expands on the original to create a cunning saga of family drama and political intrigue, incorporating people, places, and events from across Greek mythology. Brillhart’s tantalizing retelling shades the characters with sharper motives and energizes its plot with remarkable pacing and surprising seduction.

In Brillhart’s take, Olympians such as Zeus, Hades, and Demeter are not all-powerful gods, but instead mortals—and once readers adapt to this change, they will find that the challenges of mortality, such as aging and injury, add intrigue to the plot as well as depth to these characters, as these familiar names struggle to achieve their goals without the benefit of immense power. Brillhart deftly conveys detail and dialogue throughout her wide range of characters: Hecate as wizened crone and healer, King Minos as a reformed and thoughtful judge, and Persephone as a naive girl, hopeful but headstrong in her quest to find her father.

Vividly depicted settings blur the historical and the mythological, transporting readers from the earthquake-shattered city of Knossos on Crete to the vast throne room of Mount Olympus and the dark, foreboding caves of Tartarus. Brillhart’s intricate worldbuilding mirrors the complex relationships of her characters, converting a fairly straightforward exposition on the changing of seasons into a probing examination of human nature’s entanglements. Brillhart has crafted a fascinating synthesis of traditional and contemporary storytelling in this reimagined tale of lust, power, and grief—one that will resonate just as readily with modern readers as it did millennia past in the agora.

Takeaway: This dark, passionate retelling of the myth of Demeter and Persephone will appeal to mythology lovers and fans of paranormal romance.

Great for fans of: Madeline Miller’s Circe, Natalie Haynes’s A Thousand Ships, Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne.

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

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Star Revelations
Steven Terry
Diana Willis, a TV journalist, travels through time and space in this mind-bending paranormal odyssey, discovering secrets about herself she never even suspected. When Diana ends up in a helicopter crash after pursuing a story, she inexplicably survives–and starts a journey in which she learns she was kidnapped and brainwashed as a child by a shadowy group looking to exploit her special psychic talents. With a secret cabal of generals and industrialists aware of her powers, Diana starts to realize she can trust almost no one and tries to connect with the mysterious John Herald—a former member of the cabal who may be able to help her—as she fights to find out who she is and what her fate will be.

Terry does an effective job of setting wide-ranging scenes. The prologue skillfully introduces a haunting, fantastical tableau and then jumps nimbly to the world of high-flying TV journalists, with attractive descriptions of the work hard / play harder crowd. Later, Terry segues neatly into fantasy: "The air inside the box shimmered and a small book materialized." At times, the overall plot—along with various characters' motives—can be a little unclear, but the individual scenes are affecting and suspenseful, guaranteeing readers will keep turning the pages.

Although the focus is mostly on plot and theme, Terry brings Diana to life, alongside her small coterie of supporters. It's fascinating to watch her transition from sharp investigative reporter to a sojourner trying to figure out how she relates to the surreal new world she finds herself in. Diana is ably partnered with former colleague Gabe, who is also facing mysterious changes, but he and Diana form an earthy friendship that provides a welcome and believable anchor to the story’s more fanciful elements. Readers who appreciate strong female leads in paranormal thrillers will eagerly race to the end to see how the courageous Diana will avoid her enemies and fulfill her mysterious destiny.

Takeaway: Thriller fans hungry for a touch of the paranormal alike will delight in watching this supernatural mystery unfold.

Great for fans of: Stephen King’s Firestarter, Nathan M. Farrugia’s The Chimera Vector.

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

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Grocery Girl: Green Hills Book 1
Virginia'dele Smith
Two small town residents experience sudden attraction but a flickering relationship thanks to the man’s trauma in this wholesome contemporary romance. Fabric designer and quilt store owner Maree Davenport lost her parents when she was young, and has built a vibrant life for herself in Green Hills, Oklahoma. She makes an instant connection with new firefighter Rhys Larsen, who has closed himself off from love after the death of his twin brothers in the fire that drove him to his career path. Maree and Rhys share some pleasant dates, but their relationship stumbles when Rhys pulls away because he cannot give her more. A car accident that leaves Maree seriously injured, however, activates Rhys’s protective streak. He agrees to nurse her back to health with the whole town keeping an eye on the couple, but still struggles to open himself up.

The tenderness between Rhys and Maree, and Smith’s crisp descriptions of their attraction, are highlights of this novel. Lots of kissing, but nothing more despite several instances of temptation, keep this romance squarely on the side of clean. Side characters, like Maree’s protective older brother, pro football player Max and Rhys’s charismatic coworker Davis, add the crucial extra pressure for the two leads to accept their feelings. Smith can fold in backstory and rationales without losing the thrust of her story, and Rhys’s worry over opening himself up seems genuine.

The shifting perspectives between Rhys and Maree start off a little rocky, but the pacing improves as the story moves on. Smith sometimes pairs unusual sets of descriptors, but the writing flows smoothly and the stops and starts to the relationship never feel overly contrived. The subplot of an arsonist in town could have been more developed, but Smith seems to be laying strong, viable possibilities for future installments set in Green Hills. Small town charms and real pain add heft to this cozy romance.

Takeaway: This small-town story between a competent woman and an emotionally wounded newcomer will comfort fans of clean romances.

Great for fans of: Catherine Anderson’s Mystic Creek series, Shanna Hatfield’s Summer Creek series.

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

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Get Your Startup Story Straight: The Definitive Storytelling Framework for Innovators and Entrepreneurs
David Riemer
Drawing on experience in business and the theater, Riemer urges entrepreneurs and marketing professionals to embrace the power of storytelling, walking readers through the techniques that it takes to drive and foster innovation, while building stronger customer narratives in this clear and concise business guide. Reimer focuses on the classical elements of storytelling essential for driving market innovation, strengthening elevator pitches, and shaping product strategy. After explaining the critical elements of story structure and constructing a narrative, Riemer delves into the primary strategies and tactics used by good storytellers to grab the attention of their target audience.

Riemer explains how core elements of drama also apply to a good product story. Broken into three acts, Get Your Startup Story Straight covers the basics of business storytelling, such as developing a strong narrative structure with an emphasis on techniques like using storyboards. The second act takes up the bulk of the guide as Riemer lays out various approaches to storytelling and how successful product innovators use these strategies to persuade and influence potential customers and investors. Practical examples with cogent explanations abound, as Riemer offers clear-eyed advice for setting a clear, compelling narrative. Story archetypes are introduced in the third section, where Riemer expertly employs his own advanced storytelling skills to illustrate common themes found in innovation narratives and how these tropes can assist in polishing a product’s story.

Riemer uses a number of personal and professional experiences to reinforce his main message– “you can’t tell a great story unless you have a great story to tell.” The most notable example walks readers through the development of Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story franchise and how even a skillfully crafted product story is never truly finished. Although written for entrepreneurs and product innovators, aspiring authors and blocked writers alike will appreciate the information presented in this creative business guide.

Takeaway: Entrepreneurs, startup companies, and fiction writers will appreciate the relatable way storytelling techniques and strategies are presented in this guide.

Great for fans of: Seth Godin’s All Marketers are Liars, Paul Smith’s Sell with a Story.

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

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The Santorini Setup
Becky Bohan
After the death of an artist with connections in Criminal Investigative Services, Senior Foreign Service Officer Susan Marcello is recruited to keep an eye on the Akrotiri dig taking place on the Aegean island Santorini. She reaches out to Britt Evans, a professor of Classical Studies, who’s visiting the island and excavation site. But before Britt even has the opportunity to get to Santorini, she and her friend Nicki are already facing danger in Athens. She quickly notices that things don’t seem quite right on the island–items in dig inventory are mysteriously disappearing and reappearing, there’s something off about deliveries of grapes to a winery on the island, and a dangerous accident at the docks seems like a prelude to disaster.

The Santorini Setup is a romantic suspense story that reimagines Bohan’s earlier Sinister Paradise. Britt, who has faced recent struggles with romance and voices a determination to stay single, experiences immediate sparks with excavation contractor Cassie Burkhardt, a development that could put them both in danger as Britt puts together the clues that get her closer to the truth. The narrative balances the intrigue and the romance, though the novel’s short length serves to make the suspense element feel underdeveloped, and the romance escalates quickly. Readers tuned into details will catch the clear opportunity for a future book digging deeper into some elements, especially with Nicki and her godfather Mikos Zerakis.

The setting of Santorini is atmospheric and enjoyable, and Bohan has clearly done extensive research to make the archeological and classical literature references accurate. Despite readers learning of several characters involved in suspicious island activities relatively early in the story, Bohan provides a red herring and a nice, unexpected twist that helps generate interest. The combination of passion, thrills, and a surprise ending make this a satisfying adventure.

Takeaway: Mystery, danger, and romance abound for a professor searching for a life change in Santorini.

Great for fans of: Cat Sebastian, Kristen Lepionka’s Roxane Weary series.

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

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Kraylos: Yellow Finds His Purpose
Shaid Williamson
Williamson paints a magical world named Kraylos in this fanciful debut. Yellow, a crayon, feels immune to the magic around him as he faces age-old existential questions: "What’s my purpose? Why am I made this way?” With direction from his fellow Kraylos citizens, Yellow journeys through a wild world and tries to discover his place in it, asking why he’s yellow in the first place–or whether other colors feel uncertain about themselves, too. Yellow learns that a mythical creature, Detail Dragon, could grant Yellow’s wish for answers. After he is exposed to what the world would be like without his singularity, Yellow understands that all creatures are important, and that his purpose is to just be himself.

Readers will immediately grasp the story’s moral when Yellow learns what his environment would look like without his vital shade. Faced with a bleached-out world, Yellow “is struck speechless at what he sees around” and quickly regrets his wish for a yellow-less Kraylos. Beyond the moral of self-acceptance, which echoes Dickens, classic fairy tales, and It’s a Wonderful Life, Williamson sneaks in lessons on the color spectrum that illuminates how urgently a well-balanced, harmonious world needs Yellow to shine.

Young readers who enjoy rhyming schemes, fantasy, and silliness will find the whimsical and picturesque world of Kraylos enchanting. Some images may seem frenzied, but their intricate details and heightened activity will deliver hours of enjoyment for fans who revel in games like “I Spy,”, and Williamson’s hand-drawn illustrations, crafted with colored pencils, express and inspire intense creativity. Readers who are beginning to explore their value and place in existence will find the story resonant, and Williamson’s pick-me-up messages, painted in the sky (“develop your talent and you will find happiness within yourself”), offer hope and inspiration. The author’s biography sheds touching light on his own search for meaning.

Takeaway: A whimsical fantasy of crayons and colors that teaches the importance of self-acceptance.

Great for fans of: Patty Lovell’s Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon, Dan Bar-el’s Not Your Typical Dragon.

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

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The Phantom Circuit
Austin Farmer
Family ties and paranormal battles abound in Farmer’s debut, a speculative thriller based on the legend of Bloody Mary, set against a supernatural backdrop of time travel, celestial voids, and broken family ties. When Erica Westfield learns that her international star sister, Dianne, has been found dead, she goes online to read condolence messages and is shocked to discover a hacker, Macy Abigayle, who promises that Erica can see her sister one more time–if she is willing to face Bloody Mary, an evil presence lurking on “the other side of the mirror.” Erica takes the bait, joining forces with Macy. To stop Bloody Mary from trapping her sister’s spirit forever, she will have to face and overcome her worst memories.

The idea of tackling painful memories to be freed from the past is intriguing. The main players spend the majority of the novel reliving distressing moments through “neuroflashing,” a distinctive method of time travel that pits them against Bloody Mary and her phantoms in the hopes of preserving their memories and escaping her traps. Still, with so many complex and mysterious supernatural elements, the plotting can be a challenge to keep up with, and some elements of Farmer’s ambitious tale prove hazy, such as Bloody Mary’s connection to neuroflashing, or that between Erica and Macy, described as a spirit from the 1800s trapped in the “Interstate”—a place of “nothingness between the stars.”

Readers who crave twisted storylines rich with paranormal angst will appreciate Farmer’s writing, as he adds depth through his focus on the family dynamics behind his characters’ actions: Erica’s attempt to mend her broken relationship with Dianne through otherworldly battles and sacrifice helps ground an otherwise nebulous plot. For all of this thriller’s fantastical elements, which can at times prove overwhelming, the humanity of the characters is clear and engaging. Lovers of paranormal legends will be rewarded by this complex, inventive debut.

Takeaway: Bloody Mary, time travel, and the realm between life and death power this inventive paranormal debut.

Great for fans of: Holly Black’s Book of Night, Chuck Wendig’s The Book of Accidents.

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

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make believe
Tom Epperson
Set in the bright lights of Hollywood, Epperson’s Make Believe centers on high-rolling screenwriter Dustin Prewitt and a series of events that challenge his cynicism. Dustin is married to the erratic Laura Keene, an actress experiencing a fall from fame and who has a pattern of cheating on her husband. After she discovers his own liaison with a Polish actress about to reach her own zenith of stardom, Laura goes off the deep end, disappearing into the sea and presumed drowned, leaving a note directly blaming Dustin for her death. In the aftermath, Dustin evaluates what his life has come to in the volatile world of celebrity and wealth, asking what he actually wants from himself. Does it include the selfless pet lover Penny?

Making Make Believe stand out from others in the awakening-from-cynicism genre is its light touch and the convincing internal thoughts of its screenwriter protagonist, which prove almost meta in their analysis of his own life, as this storyteller proves an engaging stand-in for readers who are just as cynical or well-read (take your pick) when it comes to stories of romance or thoughts about how life imitates art imitates life. It’s all bundled together in Prewitt’s telling, which boasts crisp, engaging dialogue, insider Hollywood detail (“It’s always an ominous moment for your script when someone says he has some notes”), and a story that finds him building toward change–maybe even happiness.

The stakes get gradually higher and higher through each section of the novel, culminating with the reserved and logical narrator achieving an epiphany in surroundings he’d never have anticipated: maybe sometimes happy endings aren’t just for the rom-coms he occasionally writes, and that sappiness and cynicism are both just states of minds. Readers of upbeat commercial fiction who believe the same–and are tired of rom-com formula–will find a protagonist to root for and a story to savor.

Takeaway: This accomplished, upbeat novel finds a screenwriter facing his cynicism and maybe feeling his way toward love and happiness.

Great for fans of: Bridget Morrissey’s Love Scenes, Rachel Winters’s Would Like to Meet.

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

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My Brother Is Not a Monster: A Story of Addiction and Recovery
Lee S. Varon
Clinical social worker Varon’s cautionary children’s tale takes on the effects of substance use disorder. Sophia is excited to go trick-or-treating with her friend Casey and her older brother Joey, but when Joey doesn’t show up for costume shopping, it’s only the first of many let-downs that she faces this Halloween. As Sophia reflects on Joey’s past behavior compared to how he is now—secretive, sneaking off with a friend, and smoking “stupid cigarettes” that smell funny—she realizes that she doesn’t know who her brother is anymore, and she feels scared of him. The situation quickly escalates as Sophia, Joey, and their mother try to navigate the ups and downs of a family crisis.

Varon’s passion for raising awareness around substance abuse is clear and ultimately guides the story. Crafted to educate and soothe younger readers, Varon’s narrative is straightforward but also oversimplified, moving quickly to make its encouraging points but not developing dramatically. The narrative takes off immediately and is soon resolved: readers are introduced to the characters, given one spread of when Joey was a caring brother, and then hit with a dramatic twist that is wrapped up just a few short pages later. The remainder is filled with mental health resources for kids and parents.

Varon’s great care and thoroughness distinguish the end resources. She includes multiple journaling and reflection prompts for kids about emergency responses, coping methods, and self-esteem, as well as lists of organizations to help all family members involved in the recovery process. This story is best suited for younger children or those readers new to the concept of substance abuse and recovery. Despite the abbreviated storytelling, the empathetic My Brother Is Not a Monster is an opportunity to help a highly targeted audience of readers.

Takeaway: A story of one family’s journey through substance abuse, paired with welcome mental health resources for kids and their parents.

Great for fans of: Claudia Black’s My Dad Loves Me, My Dad Has a Disease, Jill M. Hastings and Marion H. Typpo’s An Elephant in the Living Room; Anthony Curcio’s Critters Cry Too.

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

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Sparrow
Brian Kindall
Kindall’s forte is fusing history and fantasy, and Sparrow uses a Dickensian timeframe to explore the ecological devastation of industrialization and the uncanny connection between a lonely boy and his avian companions. Timothy Sperling doesn’t quite understand how his family’s thriving fashion business fell into ruin, or why his mother had to leave. She felt compelled to right a terrible wrong, he knows, even if it meant putting him in the care of morose, neglectful Uncle Morris. In his cold room, perched high in the seemingly abandoned Wellbeck Tower, Tim dreams of her and wishes for something he’s never seen: snow.

Soon, a wintry meteorological miracle enchants the residents of Candela–until the ceaseless snowfall slowly smothers the town. Kindall ties this disaster to the history of Tim’s family, once devoted (and impoverished) ornithologists who built their fortune on luxurious, feather-covered clothing, resulting in the near extinction of an exquisite, nigh-unto mystical bird called the Ocular Sparrow. Like his other middle-grade fantasy novels (Blue Sky and Pearl), Sparrow focuses on a young, isolated protagonist exploring beyond their boundaries, but Tim is also a classic dystopian hero, carrying the burden of his guilt-ridden, frozen-in-place community while striving to change their future.

Delightful names (The Worldwide League of Exhaustive Investigations into Feathered Beings) and ornate dialogue (“a barometric boondoggle of the most exaggerated enormity”) are sprinkled throughout, but what makes Sparrow soar is the way Kindall constructs the narrative as a process of discovery. Interjections like “Now, as we already know…” serve as guideposts for young readers, who experience revelations alongside Tim and Morris (in flashback), whose comforting layers of naiveté are methodically peeled away. Self-awareness means looking beyond yourself, Kindall asserts in this adventure of identity, and understanding his place in the world allows Sparrow to take flight.

Takeaway: Budding birders will embrace this imaginative historical fantasy, which deftly blends exploration and introspection.

Great for fans of: Meindert DeJong’s The Wheel on the School, Cory Leonardo’s The Simple Art of Flying, and Sandy Stark-McGinnis’ Extraordinary Birds.

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

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Unicorn Blue And The Caradoodle Quest
CATitus
In Titus’s charming, lighthearted fantasy for young readers, a unicorn named Blue is on a mission to meet her Caradoodle–that is, her “one and only kindred spirit child” who will turn her “from a daydream into a real live unicorn.” The only catch: if Blue chooses the wrong child, she will cease to exist. To test the character of the kids she encounters, Blue disguises herself as a regular horse, first meeting a “devilishly handsome” but rude boy and a pretty girl “with a captivating song” who treats her cruelly. Soon, Blue realizes she needs to “focus on character and substance” instead of appearance.

That’s when she meets Keela, who makes Blue feel safe enough to reveal her true nature. Together they soar off into the sky, “twirl[ing] through tons of sparkly shooting stars and wing[ing] over the man in the moon.” Their bond may be the crux of the story, but there’s also much more going on. Blue gets flying lessons from a blue jay, trades insults with a gang of donkeys, and learns magic from a plucky illusionist named Lieutenant Luk. Titus has packed a lot into such a short tale, which is exciting but at times makes some aspects feel rushed.

Throughout the story, colorful and stylized illustrations show Blue interacting with people and magical beings while she spreads her glittering wings in front of mountains, waterfalls, and a starry sky. The fun doesn’t stop with the last page, either–Titus has included a glossary of “Celtic Lore & Legend,” interesting recipes like “Evergreen Tea,” and detailed information about different horse breeds and their temperaments. School-aged children will find the extras at the end absorbing—and possibly a bit overwhelming—but the most dazzling part of the story is the relationship between Blue and Keela, which will give kids the chance to recognize the qualities they appreciate in their own friends.

Takeaway: A charming fantasy adventure where a unicorn named Blue is on a mission to learn the true meaning of friendship.

Great for fans of: Maddy Mara’s Dragon Girls series, Dan Santat’s The Adventures of Beekle.

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

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Koa the Crocodile: Learns to Jump
Grace Mellis
In a nest of crocodile eggs, one hatchling quickly proves different from the rest. Koa doesn’t look different from his siblings, but he feels differently. Rather than wait in the water to hunt animals, Koa likes to read or just watch his favorite of all the animals—the kangaroos. He watches not because he’s dreaming of hunting them but because he’s dreaming of leaping like they do. The story follows the journey of this charming crocodile finding his place in the picturesque outback of Australia, a hero who keeps trying even when he (literally) falls flat. Accompanied by warm and expressive watercolor illustrations, Koa the Crocodile is sure to delight anyone who feels just a little bit different from everyone else.

The most stunning pages in the book are the full-bleed illustrations from John Snyder, who imbues the pages with a dusty sun-baked look of golds and brownish oranges. His attention to detail and almost photo-realistic depictions of the animals (emus, wombats, wallabies) other than the crocodiles really make the book shine. The crocodiles, by contrast, are more cartoonish and anthropomorphized, creating a discord in the scenes where both Koa and the other animals appear on the same page, which matches the sometimes awkward syntax of the text.

Even so, Koa is such a friendly and funny character whose charm carries the narrative and is sure to become a new favorite of anyone who reads his story. The themes of finding oneself, staying true to yourself, and not giving up are all tried and true themes in children’s literature, but they’re classic themes for a reason, and Koa offers an appealingly fresh face for them. The unique setting of Australia certainly helps this tale feel new. Ultimately a heartfelt and uplifting ode to being unique and following your heart, Koa the Crocodile is a delightful debut from Mellis.

Takeaway: A moving tribute to all who feel like the odd one out, Koa the Crocodile is a balm and inspiration for young readers.

Great for fans of: Rachel Bright’s The Koala Who Could, Karl Newson’s The Same But Different Too.

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

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Inhabitant
Charles Crittenden
Crittenden’s interstellar collection renders in verse an epic yet intimate quest for the future of humanity, as its unnamed narrator, the “Inhabitant,” witnesses devastation befall the Earth (“my world burns alive with nothing i can do to help”) and then, “ejected from my world,” begins a long journey into space, first through our solar neighborhood (“mercury, venus, bright, burnt, and boiling, waiting to be consumed”) and then beyond, “eversearching, everlearning.” The account is vivid and full of feeling—Crittenden likens leaving the Earth to falling, “the gravity losing its attraction,” and the ascent through our atmosphere to being “like a runaway balloon”—and emphasizes throughout the silence and isolation of the heavens, all while occasionally looking back to Earth.

Besides the mysteries of the cosmos and a fury at our mistreatment of the Earth, themes of change and time power Inhabitant, as its narrator marvels at humanity’s small-scale memory, which finds “descendants slowly forgetting / about each and every one who came before.” The Inhabitant has time for such contemplation, because space travel, we learn, is all about waiting; as the Inhabitant pushes ahead, searching for a new home, reflecting on the lesson that our relationship with a planet should be one of cohabitation. These pained thoughts (“never planted what i ate, never returned the trail how i found it”) resonate as the narrator floats, adrift, in the collection’s searching middle section.

Despite the cosmic subject matter Crittenden’s free verse is concrete and direct, its imagery and metaphor always clear, even inviting. The interstellar reaches and the planets the Inhabitant searches may be bleak, but a potent sense of hope warms the void, as the Inhabitant presses ahead in the face of disaster, acknowledging the worst of what our species has done while searching tirelessly for a chance to get it right the next time. This engaging meditation on humanity’s end—and possible new beginning—will move readers with a love of the cosmic.

Takeaway: A moving journey in verse into deep space in search of humanity’s future.

Great for fans of: David C. Kopaska-Merkel and Kendall Evans’s Night Ship to Never, Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars.

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

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The Big Empty
Loren C.Steffy
Journalist and nonfiction author Steffy’s accomplished debut novel, about a big tech company setting up shop in small-town America, tells an engaging story of social and economic change with historical reverberations. The narrative draws a contrast between two disparate characters, and by extension, ways of life. On one hand, there’s Blaine Witherspoon, an ambitious, Lexus-driving techie who comes to West Texas to get a state-of-the-art semiconductor plant up and running. On the other is Trace Malloy, a ranch manager and lifelong cowboy who is struggling with the obsolescence of his own way of life, even as he is unwilling to embrace the change that Witherspoon’s arrival heralds.

The novel is named for the “Big Empty” of the West Texas landscape that at times oppresses its inhabitants with its “immeasurable flatness” and “all-pervasive nothingness.” Steffy is adept at evoking this singular place and its accompanying lifestyles, and readers will often find themselves completely taken in by physical descriptions of sunsets and cowboying that proliferate the narrative. Steffy’s journalistic sensibility provides the book with a healthy dose of technical detail, which renders accounts of silicon wafers and stock market upheavals convincingly vivid. Taken as a whole, the novel conveys a panoramic perspective that acknowledges, and does justice to, disparate characters who are often worlds apart.

Some readers might find the technical details a bit overwhelming. But Steffy is always quick to draw back to the narrative thread. The story hurls forward with a steady momentum, culminating in a heady—yet still persuasively realistic—climax. At the end, what lingers are the characters themselves, whom Steffy peers into with such love and empathy that readers can’t help but root for them. Lovers of journalistic nonfiction and of local stories of the challenges of change will find much to enjoy in The Big Empty, which proves as illuminating as it is heartwarming.

Takeaway: A perceptive, empathetic novel for readers fascinated with the changes and challenges of rural America.

Great for fans of: Glen Dromgoole’s A Small Town in Texas, Kent Haruf’s Plainsong.

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

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The Tree of After Life
J.S. Vaughn
With an achingly poignant exploration of strength in two women touched by tragedy, debut author Vaughn seamlessly melds powerful imagery and true emotion with this heart-wrenching tale of love and loss. Carrie had found her person in Jason, a frustrated Korean American financial wizard. They share laughter, love, and a deep desire to create in their life together the pieces that were missing from their single lives. They fall deeply in love—but there’s a sticking point: Jason’s mother, Hyosun, a Korean immigrant who raised her son in a rather traditional manner. After Jason’s untimely death in a car accident, a long-attempted rehabilitation, and Carrie’s disappearance after the funeral, both women have to take steps to ensure their emotional survival–even as they both desperately need the other to lean on.

The fractured relationship between Hyosun and Jason is masterfully developed. From hints of her childhood and what drove her to be a distant, at times cruel, maternal figure to achingly intense scenes that plumb the depths of buried emotion, one is quickly able to get an idea of who she is–but that foundation is carefully layered and nuanced. Carrie’s viewpoint comes across in a strong, distinctive voice, filled with hope and horror as she dissects her own relationship with Jason and also her almost overwhelming desire for a mother figure. Carrie’s journal entries and first-person reminiscing pair beautifully with scenes from Hyosun’s viewpoint.

At times, the shifting viewpoints–mainly between Hyosun and Carrie, though others, like the private investigator Hyosun hires to find Carrie, make an appearance–can blend without clear delineation where one ends and the next begins. But rich symbolism draws readers in, inviting them to share in the joys and sorrows of the women, and the leads’ spirit will keep readers engaged. Less a traditional romance and more a contemporary journey of discovery, each character is lovingly brought to life and the novel is a love-letter to mothers, lovers, and the celebration of culture.

Takeaway: A striking, soulful novel of cultural differences, motherhood, and making the difficult choices in life.

Great for fans of: Patty Yumi Cottrell, Steph Cha.

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

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Living on Purpose: Five Deliberate Choices to Realize Fulfillment and Joy
Amy Eliza Wong
Transformational coach Wong has created a self-help guide to teach readers how to live a purposeful life through deliberate, intentional choices. Practical and philosophical, Wong uses her platform well—and enthusiastically—to share the wisdom she has gained having coached a diverse array of people.Wong wants readers to walk away feeling empowered and in command, noting “living an always-on-purpose life requires that you care deeply about embodying a knowing of your wholeness and completeness.” Her voice is bright and unhindered, offering hope and honesty on every page, along with clear-eyed pragmatic advice about making decisions.

Wong’s work is shrewdly, invitingly organized and takes the reader through thoughtful and deliberate markers of how to choose to lead a purposeful life. Focused on “five extraordinary choices that, separately and together, will guide you to the life you were uniquely born to live,” Living on Purpose patiently keeps readers engaged in their own journey while encouraging them to “fearlessly [transform] uncharted territory into an adventure of your own design.” Wong acknowledges throughout that there is no singularly correct life formula—she writes that individuals should find purpose tailored to their needs and urges readers to “try to do better” when they “genuinely know better.”

Wong shares both personal and professional insight, detailing what she has learned from clients and clarifying her advice with illuminating metaphors. Noting she is not a therapist, Wong encourages readers instead to focus on implementing their own new practices rather than dictating what precisely change should look like. Her prose is straightforward and welcoming, her tone that of a coach merged with a motivational speaker, making it clear that she’s rooting for her audience while still exuding the professionalism and gravitas of a high-powered executive. General self-help readers will enjoy Wong’s encouraging demeanor and her gentle prompting to live a life filled with purpose.

Takeaway: An encouraging guide that prompts readers to live a purpose-filled life rooted in deliberate decisions.

Great for fans of: Michael J. Losier’s Your Life’s Purpose, Manis Friedman and Rivka Goldstein’s Creating a Life that Matters.

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

Click here for more about Living on Purpose

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