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Bound by Beliefs: Searching for Truth about God, Jesus, and Us
Joseph C. Way
Way (A Pain in the Gut) throws gasoline on the basic premises of the history of Christianity and lights a match with this provocative work. Writing for his fellow Christians, he takes as his central precept that God “is love and acts only from love,” believing all other elements of religious faith can be derived from that concept, and that any claims contradicting it must necessarily be false. Among his other bold statements, he says that Jesus was a human, itinerant preacher who cared more about doing right while alive than about any notion of an afterlife; that the Bible isn’t meant to be interpreted literally; and that a God who acts from love would never damn souls to eternal hellfire.

Way persuasively argues that a physical resurrection is impossible and unproven. He asks a series of challenging questions, including why Jesus was able to feed 5,000 people from “someone’s snack” a single time but not repeat the process to feed all the hungry people he encountered on a daily basis: “The argument that ‘God can do anything,’ ‘It was only for Jesus,’ or ‘It was for that one special occasion’ is totally illogical, insufficient, and dodges the basic issue,” he writes. He asserts that natural laws come directly from an unchanging God, so tales of miracles that contradict physics must only be stories. He also proposes that “Jesus made deliberate efforts to restore Jewish worship to its Hebrew core, not replace it” and didn’t intend to start a new religion.

Many devout Christians will condemn the work as heretical, but open-minded readers may find Way’s well-reasoned, passionate arguments compelling, and his refrain that God is love and there is no hell will ease the minds of those brought up on hellfire-and-brimstone Christianity. This unusual view of Christianity raises far more questions than it answers and is likely to provoke deep thought and lively conversation.

Takeaway: Open-minded Christians will be drawn in by Way’s passionate arguments for a profoundly loving God and a pragmatic, fully human Jesus.

Great for fans of C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, Scott Shay’s In Good Faith.

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

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A New Chance
Kevin E. Ready
Ready (All the Angels Were Jewish) makes good use of his military and legal experience in this metaphysical novel about a soul being reborn into another person. Mark Kelleher is driving on a California freeway when his car crashes. Mark wakes up and discovers that he is no longer Mark, who he learns has died. He is now Naomi Donnelley, an 18-year-old woman who had been comatose for months after a drug overdose. Mark adapts to life as Naomi, only sharing the secret of his transformation experience with his doctor, Dr. Partridge. Determined to forge ahead in this new life, Naomi gets released from the hospital and resides with a Mormon family as she studies to become a nurse. Naomi draws on Mark’s tenacity and fortitude to turn her life around and embrace her nursing career. She finds romance with Jesse Manzanares, a SWAT team officer, and joins the military as a reservist. Naomi’s foray into a combat zone in Afghanistan highlights her bravery as she risks her life for others, and she dreams about returning stateside to be reunited with Jesse.

The explosive opening draws the reader into the storyline as Ready cleverly intertwines Mark’s memories with Naomi’s body and life. The complexity of Mark’s journey adds depth to the concept of reincarnation. Naomi’s transformation from a troubled teen to an ambitious young woman is heartwarming, though at times her constant success strains the reader’s belief.

Ready, a former Army and Navy officer, imbues the narrative with a high level of military detail. His captivating depiction of Naomi’s exploits in combat makes the experience vivid and real, and the portrayal of Naomi’s medical career highlights her ability to remain calm in a crisis. This realism, however, occasionally gets bogged down in extensive details, causing the plotline to drag near the novel’s conclusion. This rich exploration of the human soul’s potential is a feel-good tale of achievement and rebirth.

Takeaway: Fans of dramatic novels with a hint of the paranormal will delight in this story of reincarnation and personal achievement.

Great for fans of Gwendolyn Womack’s The Memory Painter, Iris Johansen’s Shadow Play.

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

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Brittle Karma
Richard Helms
Helms’s first Eamon Gold mystery since 2005’s Cordite Wine features more suspects than motives. When Abner Carlisle, a former member of a gang of armored car robbers, enlists private detective Eamon to locate Eddie Rice, the only gang member who got away—along with the $20 million they stole and Abner’s daughter, Lydia—Eamon wants nothing to do with it. He knows his business, and not every job is worth the trouble. But when Abner is murdered, Eamon impulsively decides to investigate. He finds out the armored car’s insurance company offers a 10% reward for any recovered funds and sees it as the perfect way to guarantee an early retirement.

Eamon rounds up a big list of people who might have been involved in Abner’s death and Eddie and Lydia’s disappearance, but most lack motive and opportunity, not to mention any contact with any of the three in at least two decades. Despite numerous dead ends, the interviews with these characters provide revelations that will keep readers turning the pages. Eamon’s dry, quick wit, evident intelligence, and ability to spin an amusing tale make him an appealing protagonist. His thinly sketched situation with his occasional lover, Heidi, gives readers a small reprieve from the tedious research, though his willingness to discuss his case with her belies his title of “private” investigator. His ambiguous morals make it hard to believe he’d turn in $20 million to get $2 million.

Helms oversimplifies the process of evidence-gathering. Eamon, recovering from a leg injury, relies heavily on searches in the online CyberShamus database to follow up on every lead. Red herrings proliferate throughout the plot. Readers who are new to the series might find it hard to connect to Eamon, who’s even more reserved than the stereotypical PI. Despite that, it’s still easy to root for him. The plot takes the scenic route to a surprising destination, and the premise is strong enough to keep readers hooked.

Takeaway: This page-turning mystery with a surprise ending provides a good starting point for fans of detective series.

Great for fans of James Ellroy, Ross Macdonald

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

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The Adventures of Rockford T. Honeypot
Josh Gottsegen
Debut author Gottsegen introduces young readers to the adventurous and charming chipmunk Rockford T. Honeypot in this gripping coming-of-age adventure. Rockford is wrangling his 10-year-old great-grandson, Theo, as they shop at a farmer’s market frequented by woodland creatures. While they’re stuck in the checkout line, other patrons coax Rockford into telling them about his travels throughout the Tropland rainforest. Rockford relates growing up as a bookish, ostracized child who wound up training with mindful chip-monks, riding on the back of a hawk, and learning from a renowned muskrat chef. As the stories get bolder, Rockford’s audience grows. Soon the local news station is broadcasting him live, drawing in people from his past who connect him to the growth, strength, and tenacity that made him who he is today.

Rockford’s stories, gently enhanced by Kleyn’s tidy, detailed chapter head illustrations, introduce a menagerie of vibrant one-of-a-kind characters who are perfectly suited for older children, with gentle lessons to be learned from every interaction. Some of the elements are a little clichéd: Rockford predictably falls for the first female chipmunk he meets, and the faux-Shaolin chip-monks speak in stilted English (“We know pain of loneliness”), quote haiku, and believe in a mystical prophecy. Each chapter ends with a return to the frame story at the farmer’s market, with humor that can feel a little strained. However, the book’s target readers will breeze past these flaws and find the adventure enthralling.

Parents waiting for their children to be old enough for The Hobbit or Redwall will find this the perfect stopgap, with plenty of thrills as well as moral quandaries, somber loss, and emotional growth. The ending will elicit happy sniffles from readers who have gotten caught up in Rockford’s tale. Without stinting the action, Gottsegen delivers a powerful message about the importance of being brave, honest, and true to oneself.

Takeaway: Older children will absorb important life lessons while enjoying this thrilling story of a brave chipmunk’s forest adventures.

Great for fans of Kathi Appelt’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, Barbara O’Connor’s On the Road to Mr. Mineo’s.

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

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Enchanted Everglades: Friend for Life
Gail Kowatch
Filmmaker Kowatch brings larger-than-life characters and action scenes to middle grade readers in this highly visual mix of literary seriousness and fantasy adventure. Ocean River and Ellen Hansen, both age 12, are best friends—until Ellen’s father dies in a car crash and clumsy Ocean accidentally disrupts his funeral. When their parents take them on a vacation to the Everglades a couple months later, guilt-ridden Ocean isn’t even sure they can be friends again, and Ellen barely speaks to him. But their airboat crashes, and Ocean and Ellen must work together to find their parents and escape the dangerous swamp. On their journey they acquire supernatural talents and befriend an eccentric wood stork, a guileless soft-shell turtle, and Gumbo, a yoga-practicing, pacifist alligator who’s next in line to become king of the Everglades.

Kowatch’s descriptions and Shinn’s charming digital illustrations will leave readers feeling like they’ve stomped through the Everglades alongside Ocean and Ellen. The relationships are depicted with wonderful depth. Gumbo and his pals often meditate together, Ocean and Ellen talk about grief and growing up, Ocean’s parents share important lessons with him, and each character takes turns leading, encouraging, and sacrificing for the others in a way that feels sincere.

Yet all of these elements create a text that is sometimes busy and complicated. Chapters are told from various perspectives and the book blends Seminole mythology with Eastern spiritual practices, which may leave younger readers confused, uninterested, or just wanting more of the lively dialogue. However, the book’s quirkiness and cartoon-style illustrations, as well as its loose ends (perhaps left open for a sequel?), will likely keep them hooked. For kids entering adolescence in the 21st century, an adventure that includes real-life heaviness, environmental awareness and activism, meditation and affirmation, and a little bit of the absurd seems just right.

Takeaway: Tween readers (and their parents and teachers) will love the values, hardships, laughs, and learning in Kowatch’s thoughtful adventure fantasy.

Great for fans of the Magic School Bus series, the Magic Tree House series.

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

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Nephi's Courage: Story of a Bad Mormon
Rory McFarlan
McFarlan’s emotional contemporary romance debut grapples with being a gay believer in a hostile religious environment. Nephi Willard, a 30-year-old devout Mormon, loses his leadership role in his Pleasant Grove, Utah, congregation when he expresses his intention to start dating men. His first attempts stumble due to his deep naïveté and his continued attachment to Mormonism, both of which make his dates bristle. One date, Latino chef Alex, rejects a romantic relationship but agrees to help Nephi navigate gay culture. After causing a stir by bringing Alex to a church activity, Nephi takes in Bradley Hanson, an 18-year-old thrown out by his family for coming out. Nephi and Alex return from a hunting trip to an unfolding tragedy propelled by rumors, the rippling effects of which culminate in a bittersweet but satisfying ending.

McFarlan capably explores the contours of his characters’ inner lives and emotions, especially Nephi’s rigidity after years of closing off his sexuality. The dialogue is sometimes stilted (“I have been reflecting on my standing in the church as a gay man and my state in eternity”), and extraneous details occasionally drag down the pace of the story, but the characters’ strong personalities provide stable footing and enough gravity to keep events from slipping into melodrama.

Early chapters are weighed down by awkward explanations of Mormon practice, but McFarlan folds in some details more naturally, as when he depicts Nephi’s encounter with church discipline. The presence of Nephi’s boss, Mark Stone, who also serves as a major church leader, highlights the messy overlap of religious and professional lives in the insular communities of small-city Utah. McFarlan effectively contrasts the more tolerant but conflicted approach of Nephi’s family with the exceptionally harsh decisions of Bradley’s family. This romantic story will ring true to Mormon readers and help others begin to understand the depth and complexity of trying to reconcile sexual desire and religious beliefs.

Takeaway: This sympathetic exploration of the clash of sexuality and Mormon faith will have broad appeal for readers of contemporary romance.

Great for fans of Keira Andrews, Laura Stone’s And It Came to Pass.

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

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Something Wonderful
Matt Ritter
This beautiful and informative first children’s book from botanist Ritter (California Plants) explains the interdependent relationship of fig trees and wasps in a tropical forest. The story begins the moment a fig tree’s seed falls onto the branch of another tree. It eventually grows roots that overcome the host tree. Years later, the tree’s fruits become hosts to fig wasps, which lay their eggs while pollinating the seeds inside a fig, beginning their own life cycle inside. When grown, the males chew exit holes for the females to escape and carry pollen to the next fig tree. Finally, the figs are eaten by toucans who excrete the seeds.

Using his extensive knowledge as a botany professor and natural history writer, Ritter crafts a riveting narrative about a relatively obscure subject, catering to young readers with an interest in the natural world. Some language may be difficult for younger audiences to understand without explanation (“The seed settled onto a branch and did what seeds do: it germinated”), but the book is ideal for reading and discussing with adults, who may also learn something new. Ritter includes fun and digestible fact sheets about the red-eyed tree frog and the chestnut-mandibled toucan that make appearances in the story.

Gonzalez’s detailed illustrations provide a perfect complement to the story, with colorful, engaging imagery that aids readers in understanding each stage of the life cycles Ritter describes. Going deep inside the fig, Gonzalez shows the female wasp laying the eggs, the eggs hatching, and the new female wasps gathering pollen while the males chew holes. Gonzalez’s clear diagram of the wasps’ life cycle is a helpful addition to Ritter’s dry fact sheet. A tree frog hidden on each page is a delightful addition, gamifying the learning experience. Parents and educators will eagerly share this vivid picture book with budding botanists.

Takeaway: Older children interested in ecosystems will enjoy this fun picture book about the interdependence of fig trees and fig wasps.

Great for fans of Rebecca Bielawski’s Bees Like Flowers.

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

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The Vibrant Landscape
Gary Paul Levinson
This breathtaking book collects two decades of Levinson’s natural and urban landscape photographs, with nearly 100 color plates showing both iconic and unfamiliar locations, including Joshua Tree, Yosemite, and Zion National Parks. Levinson’s photos of waterfalls and autumn foliage are especially beautiful; he captures the sheer intensity of the color in Zion’s mix of red rocks and bright leaves. Margaretta K. Mitchell’s helpful essay on the history of landscape photography contextualizes Levinson’s work.

The book is thoughtfully organized, often pairing complementary images. A shot of Lake Tahoe is next to one of Lee Vining in California; the Tahoe shot has water and mountains and the Lee Vining photo is dominated by shrubbery and a forest, but both make extensive use of foreshortening. Photos of the Montreal skyline and biosphere are followed by a lone blooming shrub in Joshua tree, and then the starkness of Death Valley. There are also contrasts of color, as in a sunset overlooking a lake in Alaska accompanied by a moonrise above California’s Mono Lake. They’re composed in the same way, with the emphasis on the horizon, but the juxtaposition of the colors is striking. Levinson’s shots of the New York and Montreal skylines give a different kind of contrast as they carefully balance water and greenery against the constructed urban background.

Thematically, Levinson leans toward an even split between foreground and background images and a deliberate balance of foliage, water, and rock. That creates cohesion from image to image as well as the book as a whole. He’s able to vary this formula enough so as not to be repetitive, keeping the conceptual elements static while wildly varying the actual subjects. The fluidity of the compositions across the book makes the natural colors pop even harder. Every page of this exquisite book is a new and exciting experience for the reader.

Takeaway: Anyone who enjoys beautiful, vivid, and varied landscape photography will treasure this book.

Great for fans of Q.T. Luong’s Treasured Lands, T.H. Watkins and David Muench’s American Landscape.

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

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Body Language: Twelve unforgettable portraits of heartbreak and desire
Marylee MacDonald
Difficult, temperamental characters face personal upheavals in this collection of 12 insightful stories from MacDonald (Montpelier Tomorrow). Death and aging are central themes in several of her best entries, including “Hunger,” “Voices,” “Year by Year,” and “The Blue Caboose.” Other stories revolve around characters realizing how they have misjudged others, as in “Mongoose,” “Body Language,” and “All I Have.”

Through the characters’ conflicts and revelations, MacDonald makes wider points about human nature. In “Hunger,” a self-sufficient narrator compares her seatmate on a first-class flight to the bullies she remembers from high school. When there aren’t enough first-class meals to go around, the elderly woman cries in “big, gulping sobs,” like the “thin-skinned, fragile girls with no defenses [who] grew up and never learned to fend for themselves.” In “Year by Year,” as Rolf dons his CVS assistant manager badge, his mother, Klara, notes that he is “so proud of so little.” Klara’s children are a disappointment to her; even worse, they want to move her into a nursing home. MacDonald paints an understanding portrait of a prickly older parent whose fears about her friends dying are partly rooted in her inability to make new ones “at my age.” In “Mongoose,” Gwen, testy and estranged from her dying father and his fourth wife, softens as her misconceptions about her father fade away. When her stepmother remarks, “There’s a lot of him in you,” Gwen looks at a photo of herself at age six, noting they share “bristly, fearless, determined” natures.

Not all of MacDonald’s well-wrought characters inhabit stories worth telling. In “Ink” and “The Memory Palace,” characters fail to connect with one another, mixing so much like oil and water that the result is dissonance and reader frustration. Luckily, those two entries are outliers. This strong collection draws the reader in with sympathetic portrayals of aging and human connection.

Takeaway: This collection will suit fans of contemporary short fiction with a focus on human connection, aging, and mortality.

Great for fans of Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness, Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You.

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

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Talisman
Tam DeRudder Jackson
In Jackson’s jam-packed debut, a contemporary romantic fantasy, grad student Alyssa Macaulay discovers her Celtic mythology research has more personal significance than she had imagined. After strange noises outside her remote Montana home send her to security consultant Rowan Sheridan, warrior Rowan identifies her as his talisman, or fated mate. He tells her she has inherited paranormal powers needed for a mythic battle against the goddesses Maeve and Morgan, whose curse kills any warrior who fails to marry his talisman before he turns 28. Their sexual attraction beguiles Alyssa despite her initial doubts, and additional discoveries about her family history reveal their connection is vital to the cause. Alyssa must learn to use her powers, navigate her relationship with Rowan, and fight for their lives.

The novel’s grand scale, straightforward prose, thorough scene-setting, and detailed worldbuilding are its strong points. However, the dialogue can feel unwieldy, particularly when used to communicate large chunks of background information about warriors, talismans, and their goals. The same information is repeated, with similar wording, throughout the book. The action scenes are brief, with most fighting happening offstage or ending quickly; the emphasis on conversation and descriptive passages slows down the pacing and renders the protagonists’ ultimate victory somewhat less thrilling.

Alyssa’s personal journey includes learning more self-confidence as she takes responsibility in battle, but her total ignorance of the world she was born into means she’s subjected to endless lecturing by Rowan and others, limiting her ability to define herself. Rowan’s dominance at the start of their relationship causes communication problems between them that aren’t addressed until the very end—and Rowan never apologizes for his errors, instead blaming Maeve for making Alyssa feel insecure and unlovable—so the romantic resolution feels rushed. Though billed as a paranormal romance, this novel is best suited to fantasy readers who will love the setting and won’t mind the romance being more of an afterthought.

Takeaway: Fantasy readers with a taste for intricate worldbuilding and centuries-old drama will enjoy this tale of curses and fated love.

Great for fans of Leigh Ann Edwards, Kathy Morgan.

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

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Trauma Town Dispatch
Suzann Kale
This darkly comic novel dabbles in philosophy, romance, friendship, and the nature of existence, all in the unlikely setting of a small-town hospital. Sabine is a middle-aged switchboard operator at Trummel Hospital; her working life is plagued by intensity, and she might just be falling in love with the disembodied voice from a police scanner. She strikes up a friendship with an emergency room patient, Juliet, her next-door neighbor and a Vietnam War veteran whose aloof personality and mysterious love life intrigue Sabine. When a woman shoots a teen hospital patient, Sabine feels a strange connection to the victim and is determined to understand what draws them together.

The budding friendship between Sabine and Juliet is where Kale’s writing really shines; Juliet’s worldliness and effortlessly cool demeanor are the perfect antidote to Sabine’s anxiety-fueled stream-of-consciousness narration. The novel is underpinned by a much deeper exploration of Sabine’s personal existential crisis, which includes such philosophical problems as the fluidity of existence and the nature of death. The narrative never gets too heavy; Kale balances out the morbidity with a wry sense of humor. Scenes at the hospital, where Sabine interacts with her workmates Glo and Aja, are especially amusing, playing out like a classic comedy of errors.

Some heavy-handed pop culture references and literary allusions can be a whimsical reminder of time and place, but often they drag or stall an otherwise enriching narrative. For instance, the description of a character’s voice as a “soft Uma Thurman Henry and June art film voice” feels uninspired. This stylistic choice distracts from Kale’s impressive ability to create likable, three-dimensional characters. This inquisitive look at personal connection in a disorienting setting perfectly captures the weirdness of hospitals and the importance of human vulnerability and authenticity.

Takeaway: Readers with a taste for philosophy and absurdity will enjoy this darkly comic tale of mishaps and friendship in a small-town hospital.

Great for fans of Richard Hooker’s MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

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

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Confidence Lost / Confidence Found: How to Reclaim the Unstoppable You
Kathleen McGuinness
Executive coach McGuinness’s engaging and inspiring guide is based on her own efforts to develop lasting confidence. After she was abruptly fired, got divorced, and suffered financial losses, McGuinness’s sense of self was shattered. Emerging from this desperate time in her life, McGuinness realized that lack of confidence is an all-too-common issue for women and became determined to help others develop and sustain belief in themselves. Her guide outlines ways for women to build resilience and self-acceptance, and to reframe their perceptions of themselves.

McGuinness makes some attempt to invoke neuropsychological and sociological underpinnings for low confidence and self-esteem in women, but readers are unlikely to be persuaded by unscientific-sounding statements such as the assertion that women have more neurons “in the region [of the brain] known as the worrywart center.” (The book’s endnotes give sources, but magazine articles and self-help books outnumber peer-reviewed scientific studies.) However, McGuinness’s exercises are sound. She recommends deliberately taking note of moments of personal success, such as using an achievement as small as fixing a printer’s paper jam to fight back against a critical inner voice that says “I’m bad at mechanical stuff,” and developing confident body language. She skillfully gives depth to commonplace tips on dealing with situations such as interviewing for jobs and speaking in public.

McGuinness’s advice and drills are practical, and she’s always mindful of the issues many women face in their efforts to overcome their own inner doubts. As useful as all the material is, readers might wish for less densely packed pages, as each one sometimes feels full to overflowing with information and suggestions. Readers who recognize their own struggles in these pages will find that many of McGuinness’s methods make upcoming challenges easier to face.

Takeaway: Women who struggle to believe in themselves will discover many useful tips in this practical guide to building and sustaining self-esteem.

Great for fans of Nathaniel Branden’s Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, Jen Sincero’s You Are a Badass.

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

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With the Courage of a Mouse : the Superhero School series, Book One
Donna Sager Cowan
Sager Cowan’s twisty middle grade debut features unexpected friendships and a delightful mix of mystery and adventure. Simon Cheddar, a quick-thinking, resourceful mouse, is escaping from a hawk when he runs into Catt, a skittish cat who’s been abandoned by her humans. Impulsively, Simon invites Catt to join him on his first day at Superhero School, a class for young animals who want to be heroes. Catt and Simon quickly become best friends, and Simon cautiously introduces her to his friends and family in hidden Mouseville. Everything is going well until other cats attack Mouseville. The mice blame Catt and banish Simon, who sets out to prove his friend’s innocence.

Economic anxiety drives the story. Catt is traumatized by life as a starving alley cat, impoverished city mouse Ricky despises and envies the “soft” country mice of Mouseville, and meerkat butler Nigel longs to be his own boss. It’s not clear why this anthropomorphic paradise is so riddled with inequality and privation. No one questions the school’s peculiar policy barring orphans from attending, even when it puts Catt—who “refused to be property again”—in an impossible quandary: allow a cat she doesn't know to become her adoptive parent, or give up on school and live on the street. Homelessness is treated as a plot point, not a societal ill. Given the constant mentions of wealth and poverty, the lack of analysis beyond compassion being good and greed being bad feels like an oversight.

Sager Cowan makes the many characters distinct, aided by Reid’s sometimes clumsy but colorful illustrations. Superhero School classmates Patty Porter, a tech-savvy pig, and Freddy Flickerson, an agile frog, help Simon crack the case. Without pontificating, Sager Cowan clearly teaches readers about accepting and trusting others who come from different backgrounds. This series starter is filled with mystery and a lot of heart.

Takeaway: Tween readers will enjoy this warm-hearted mystery’s memorable animal characters and imaginative setting.

Great for fans of Gigi Priebe and Daniel Duncan’s Adventures of Henry Whiskers series.

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

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The Empress of the Clouds
Desiree Ultican
Ultican’s enjoyable American steampunk adventure features a sterling heroine. When Evaline Amstel’s husband, Heinz, is murdered in 1896 Joplin, Mo., she’s left in a dire situation. Heinz, an inventor, racked up significant debts, stole from her personal funds, and quietly paid for the upkeep of Bettina, his daughter from his secret first marriage—which never legally ended. Evaline decides to forge her own path forward, determined to care for Bettina and rescue Heinz’s failing airship company. After Evaline confirms that Heinz was involved in shady dealings, she’s stalked by spies, kidnapped, and forced to labor on the doomsday device her husband had unwittingly begun to build for megalomaniac Erasmus Marchand. Only once she escapes is she able to turn her focus toward stopping Erasmus’s plot to assassinate the president.

The cast is strong and diverse, and the white protagonists have an almost modern acceptance of and respect for the nonwhite characters. Unfortunately, that depiction is undermined by some questionable narrative choices, including eye dialect, period-accurate racist language, and characterization derived from caricature. People of color are used as props for white people’s characterization—a Chinese-American surprising a white man by speaking fluent English, an enslaved teen girl being sexually exploited by Erasmus—and vanish from the story as soon as the point is made.

The tale is ripe with drama and daring feats, but the telling is dry and matter-of-fact (“She brought the lever forward as smoothly as possible to abruptly halt the craft from diving into the landscape below”), reducing the tension in otherwise exciting events and making it hard to emotionally invest in the wellbeing of the characters or the relationships they form with one another. Nonetheless, the well-constructed plot creates a real sense of adventure. Evaline is an inspiring heroine for anyone who longs to see a bold and self-reliant woman stare down danger and do what’s right.

Takeaway: Steampunk fans will admire the bold and self-reliant heroine of this airship adventure.

Great for fans of Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, Gail Carriger.

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

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Desperately Seeking Novelty: A Memoir about ADHD and Adaptation
Sandra Arnau-Dewar
Freelance editor Arnau-Dewar’s gritty and inspiring debut memoir chronicles the challenging experience of parenting children with ADHD—and eventually being diagnosed with it herself. After her children, Cindy and Eric, were diagnosed with ADHD in the 1990s, Arnau-Dewar became a fierce advocate for them. Finding upsides as well as downsides to their way of thinking and interacting with the world, she searched for a way to view ADHD as something other than a mental disorder, eventually coming to see the condition as a product of evolutionary biology.

After an introduction that feels more like a scientific paper, complete with nine footnotes, Arnau-Dewar shifts smoothly into memoir mode and expertly toggles back and forth between the 1950s and the 2010s, unflinchingly examining her nomadic childhood as the only child of a single mother. She also lays bare her family’s other mental health issues, including the suicides of both her parents. She pulls no punches about the difficulties of raising children with ADHD—her marriage was among the casualties—but painstakingly details the joys of “restless energy and exuberant curiosity,” “passion and optimism,” alongside the challenges of dealing with teachers, doctors, and sometimes self-destructive kids.

Woven into the recollections are a variety of references to scientific studies on ADHD. “Remember that natural selection occurs when a change (mutation) in the genetic code favors survival,” Arnau-Dewar writes, theorizing that hyperactivity, impulsivity, and aggression allowed humans to avoid predators. She does a masterful job of compiling studies to back up this hypothesis and suggests that the condition be called “executive function adaptation” to reduce stigma and recognize the positive aspects of ADHD mental wiring. Meticulously researched and skillfully written, Arnau-Dewar’s memoir does double duty as a brutally frank instructional guide for parents of children with ADHD.

Takeaway: Readers raising children with ADHD will greatly benefit from Arnau-Dewar’s blend of memoir and science.

Great for fans of Thom Hartmann’s Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perception, Blake E.S. Taylor’s ADHD and Me.

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

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Ballast Point Breakdown: A Rolly Waters Mystery
Corey Lynn Fayman
Musician and author Fayman’s fourth Rolly Waters mystery (after Desert City Diva) takes private investigator Rolly on a quest to find Butch Fleetwood, a former Navy diver who’s been missing for over two decades. Environmental activist Janis Withers crashes her boat into the Admiral’s Club ballroom in San Diego, pours gasoline everywhere, and dies in the subsequent fire. Her fellow activist Melody Flowers asks Rolly for help finding Butch, whom Janis claimed was Arion, the dolphin king, and the inspiration for the Lemurian Temple that Melody and Janis founded for dolphin worship, which Janis’s parents plan to sell. As Janis once ran the fan club of Rolly’s former band, he agrees to help Melody. Soon he’s mired in a mystery involving a water park, a wealthy painter, a secretive government contractor, and the elusive Harmonica Dan. As people linked to the investigation die mysteriously, Rolly forges ahead to solve the puzzle of Butch’s disappearance while eluding a cunning killer.

Fayman quickly draws the reader in with the boat crash scene, which couples dry humor with fiery drama. The story is fast-paced and intensified by the myriad of twists and turns, each establishing another character who had a reason to want Butch dead. Fayman craftily ties together the mystery behind Butch’s disappearance and the present-day deaths. Though Fayman clearly outlines the characters’ motives and how they connect to one another, readers must pay close attention to the details to have a thorough understanding of the intricately woven web.

Fayman expertly underscores the ups and downs of a musical career, and his use of the San Diego area and the influence of the naval base there adds elements of realism and authenticity. Mystery fans will quickly warm to the affable Rolly, a genuine man who, though scarred by events of his past, has embraced the present to live one day at a time. This standalone installment will satisfy both newcomers and series fans with a fascinating mystery and colorful cast.

Takeaway: This music-themed murder mystery will draw fans of old-fashioned gumshoes, vivid characters, and twisty, layered stories.

Great for fans of Robert B. Parker’s Crimson Joy, James Patterson and James O. Born’s The River Murders.

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

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