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Secrets Of The 800+ Club: How To Raise Your Credit Score, Maintain Good Credit, and Live The Life Of Unicorns
Terrell Dinkins
Dinkins’s second straight-talking financial advice publication (the follow-up to 2015’s One Bucket at a Time: A Woman’s Guide to Creating Wealth) affirms her zeal for truth-telling and protecting her audience from scams. Dinkins was inspired to create the guide when she witnessed a sales pitch from a speaker at an Atlanta Wealth and Wine event who “didn’t seem to care much about the problem so many Americans are having with their credit.” Dinkins wasn’t having it. “People are taking advantage of others’ misfortune and lack of knowledge,” she laments. She vowed to craft an affordable alternative for readers eager to better understand and manage their credit scores.

Her clear-eyed guide demystifies the world of credit agencies, delineates which activities can affect a consumer’s score, and lays out well-defined and concise steps they can take to improve their credit ratings—from savvily timing payments to using only a small percentage of available credit. Dinkins is adamant, in her warm and approachable way, that readers should never pay hundreds of dollars to third-party companies to monitor and improve their credit scores.

The title, of course, refers to Dinkins’s own hard-won and much treasured credit score. She details how she achieved a rating above 800 and the advantages that elite ranking affords her. But her book’s appeal is not just for those aspiring to the top of the heap; it is also relevant to everyday earners. “Your three-digit credit score stands between you and a yes or no to many of life’s pleasures,” she notes, and she’s frank and persuasive about the urgency of improving one’s score, limiting debt, and creating wealth. Her action steps for achieving this are clear and practical. Readers seeking the financial freedom that comes with a high credit score will value the hard-work attitude and easy-to-follow suggestions in this authoritative guide.

Takeaway: This guide to credit score boosting is comprehensive, detailed, and empowering.

Great for fans of: Lynnette Khalfani-Cox’s Perfect Credit: 7 Steps to a Great Credit Rating, Anthony Davenport’s Your Score: An Insider's Secrets to Understanding, Controlling, and Protecting Your Credit Score.

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

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Hermit: A Novella
Joel R. Dennstedt
Dennstedt’s novel limns a chance meeting that alters one man’s solitary existence. Gabriel lives alone in a small home, on a cliff overlooking the sea, with only his cat for company. He follows the teachings of a deceased guru. When his bag of groceries breaks while walking home from the store one day, Therese, a young woman, stops to help him. Upon entering Gabriel’s home, Therese is fascinated by his extensive library of spiritual books. She and Gabriel spend a memorable day together, discussing spirituality and hiking the ocean cliffs near his home, leaving Gabriel to readjust painfully to solitary life once she leaves.

Dennstedt’s knowledge of various religious philosophies enriches Gabriel’s character, creating a man whose extensive spiritual studies enable him to deeply appreciate all facets of his life. Gabriel’s meeting with Therese is richly complex; there’s a physical attraction between them, but Gabriel focuses on his desire to share with Therese how to live in the moment and comprehend nature's wonders. The scene in which Therese reveals she will be leaving the beach following her summer break from school exceptionally captures the human longing for connection.

Dennstedt’s depictions of the landscape outside Gabriel’s home are lyrical, and his description of the ocean ("he could hear not only the crash of its assault on the rocks, but also the rippling hiss of its retreat") adds texture to Gabriel’s love of the ocean’s rugged beauty and the world around him. And Dennstedt explores the depths of Gabriel’s personality, depicting him as an authentic character with a flawed past who is determined to leave his past mistakes behind him and ready to embrace a brighter future. This philosophical novella will touch readers’ hearts.

Takeaway: In this touching, philosophical novella, a solitary man embraces his spirituality when a chance meeting with a young woman changes his lonely existence.

Great for fans of: Andrew Zimmerman’s Journey: A Spiritual Novel, Andrew D. Himmel’s The Reluctant Healer.

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

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Evolving Elizah: Initiatum
C.J. Hall
This unsettling sci-fi debut follows the crew of a space farm as they root out traitors from an enemy organization. Liz Goeff is a shuttle pilot aboard the Green Grow 3, a floating farm that provides food for those on Earth, now an ashy wasteland. The Green Grow team faces opposition from the New Generation, an ecoterrorist group that attacks food stores, steals produce, and slaughters survivors on the ground. Liz’s hatred of the New Generation is personal: her brother was an early recruit who disappeared after the organization descended into radicalism. When Liz makes the reckless but altruistic decision to bring 52 refugees onboard, she earns the ire of her superiors and must fight to prove that every life is worth saving. Then the ship is thrown off course and sent speeding away from Earth. The morality of the council and crew shifts, and Liz begins questioning Green Grow’s apparent complicity in the suffering below.

The novel is fast-moving, jumping from one crisis to the next, but it’s most successful when it slows down, and focuses on building suspense around the identity of the onboard traitors. There are many competing plotlines: the identities of “Liz’s Fifty-Two”; her relationship with Seth, the ship’s captain; her lifelong search for her brother; and the insubordination of the rest of the Green Grow executive council. Because there is so much going on, not every story line gets the attention it needs. For example, the 52 refugee passengers become a side plot after the first half of the book.

But Hall has a knack for worldbuilding: the destruction on Earth is detailed; the purpose of Green Grow (to provide food for those in need) is well-defined; and the futuristic technology introduced, including a teleportation device and an implanted chip that illuminates a hidden tattoo, helps develop a rich atmosphere. There is more than enough material for a sequel, and a solid foundation upon which to build. Readers will be drawn in by this suspenseful sci-fi story and its moral quandaries.

Takeaway: This unsettling sci-fi novel is great for fans of mystery, suspense, and space travel.

Great for fans of: Iain M. Banks’s Consider Phlebas, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy.

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

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Tales From an Odd Mind
Nom D. Plume
A collection of story beginnings, interweaving narratives, and poetry, this eccentric work lives up to its name. After an introduction by Death personified, the book has three sections. The first includes nine unrelated chapters, introducing characters whose stories are never continued: a boy named Darren meets a ghost while traveling with an otherworldly mentor, a guard is captured aboard a rebel spaceship, two siblings run a detective agency and work with witches. The second section follows a group of reincarnated souls who find ways to meet, life after life. The third includes two poems and a realistic piece of prose work about a recent graduate who finds it difficult to abandon her troublesome brother.

This is an entertaining and creative book; with so many setting, style, and genre changes, it’s impossible to grow bored. However, it can be frustrating to read so many pieces without a definitive conclusion. While the disconnected stories offer something for everyone to love (mystery, fantasy, sci-fi), they can be uneven. Some tales, such as “Box of J.O.Y.” and “Keen and Keen Inc.,” are so immersive that the decision to cut them off after only one chapter shortchanges the reader. Others, like “Project Kage,” are less immediately gripping.

The three sections feel like three separate works—there isn’t a thread that ties them together. The first section, despite its abrupt nonendings, is the strongest. It allows readers to keep thinking about each story long after they’re done reading, filling in their own interpretations and endings to each chapter. The second section, although offering a more complete narrative and well-drawn characters, still feels unfinished. These stories are so narratively rich that readers will feel something is lost when they end midstream. This collection will draw in and intrigue a wide array of readers.

Takeaway: This collection of mystical, eerie, thought-provoking tales is perfect for imaginative readers.

Great for fans of: Louis Sachar’s Wayside School series, Daniel Handler’s Adverbs.

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

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Sol Invictus
Ben Gartner
The second installment in Gartner’s Eye of Ra series sees siblings Sarah and John return again to the past—this time to ancient Rome. During a family trip to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C., Sarah and John are ambushed by their former nemesis, Aten, with a proposition for a mysterious quest: the siblings must journey to ancient Rome to unite the emperor Constantius with his Alemanni enemy, Crocus. With the fate of their world hanging in the balance, Sarah and John learn how to make diplomatic allies, compete in chariot races, and survive life in the unforgiving Alps to achieve their goal.

Some elements here will be too reminiscent of Tolkien for a seasoned audience, such as John’s eye of Ra amulet and its similarity to the One Ring. But Gartner has a knack for action and creating compelling historical personalities; the portrait of the future Alemanni king, Crocus, makes a distant age more relatable for modern readers. The book’s energetic writing captures the growing pains of both protagonists—Sarah as she pulls away from her family in adolescence, and John as he comes to terms with his role as a younger brother—along with rich historical detail on the ancient Roman empire, including its conflicts with Germanic peoples.

The Roman setting is brimming with bustling life: lively depictions of Saturnalia celebrations, vicious gladiator combat, and even slavery in Roman society, give suitable, nuanced color to this historical time period. Still, Gartner never lets the harsh realities of ancient Rome bring down his story too much: he keeps it light for his middle-grade audience with callbacks to the present (John whispering the Spiderman theme as he traverses the wall of a Roman fortress is a delightful example). This spirited story will appeal to eager young historians.

Takeaway: Middle school readers who treasure ancient history with a side of adventure will welcome this fantasy story.

Great for fans of: Caroline Lawrence’s The Roman Mysteries series, Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Treehouse series.

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

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Cracks
Mike Klaassen
The last place 16-year-old Bodie McCann wants to be is on an “innovative youth-rehabilitation program,” spelunking in the Arkansas mountains. Bodie, busted for smoking pot with friends, isn’t uninterested in the outdoors—he’s learned plenty of survival skills from his foster family—but being stuck in a cavern with the judge who sentenced him isn’t his idea of fun. When a series of earthquakes shake the Mississippi River Valley’s New Madrid Fault, Bodie’s team is lucky to make it back to the surface alive—but that’s just the beginning of their odyssey back to civilization. Bodie must choose between making his own way and helping out a group of strangers, including his fellow teenage delinquents Rusty, a Shakespeare-quoting heroin addict; Adam, a paranoid right-wing domestic terrorist; Spider, a prep-school drug dealer; and Tug, a stereotypical redneck thug.

Klaassen blends Hatchet and The Lord of the Flies in this hair-raising, fast-paced adventure. Like those books, this novel reads like a book from another era: its anti-addiction moralizing is reminiscent of 1971’s Go Ask Alice. Narrative voice often reveals the gap in age between its author and protagonist, as when the teenage Bodie bemoans the fact that he’s stuck in the wilderness with “a bunch of young punks.” Some internal inconsistencies will trip readers up; after ongoing negative feelings toward the other characters, at the end he thinks they “didn’t seem so bad after all,” and despite Bodie’s seemingly high level of knowledge about wilderness survival, he’s afraid bats will suck his blood. And, though this is listed as a YA novel, some readers may be uncomfortable with the graphic depictions of death, murder, drug use, and hate speech.

While some newcomers to the natural disaster genre may be bewildered by the randomness and frequency of their occurrence, the novel’s emphasis on earthquakes and their fallout is sure to please disaster-movie aficionados and thriller fans alike. Part survival story, part cautionary tale, Klaassen’s short epic has plenty of twists and turns to satisfy young adult readers. Fans of coming-of-age survival novels will find much to enjoy here.

Takeaway: Earthquakes and perilous adventures abound in this high-stakes teen survival novel.

Great for fans of: Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, Larry Spinelli’s The Library Card.

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

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Summer's Lie
Deborah Court
Court’s riveting novel (the first installment of the Maggie Dunn trilogy) centers on memory loss, a mystifying ailment, and a life on the run. “Jane” wakes up to find herself recovering in a Toronto hospital, surrounded by worried doctors, after her exposure to an ill-defined disaster that has killed 22 other people and caused her to lose her memory. The doctors tell Jane that no one appears to have been searching for her after the accident, so there’s no one to clarify who she is. Her lab results become increasingly abnormal, and doctors determine she is starting to age backward. Jane realizes that, to have a chance of living a normal life rather than being a scientific specimen, she needs to escape the hospital and start over. Even if she can remember it, she can never go back to the way things were.

Jane is a complex character, warm, wry, and word-inclined. One of the first things she remembers is a line from a poem; the next is her interest in adjectives and semicolons, lovingly described. Palindromes and poems recur throughout the narrative, a testament to Jane’s—and the author’s—skillful command of language. Court marshals sensory details to bring the reader close to Jane’s experience; the first thing she notices outside the hospital is “smells of wet leaves and pavement mingling with car exhaust and the smoke of cigarettes.” Readers will enjoy getting to know Jane as she gets to know herself again.

Court has penned a narrative that cleverly incorporates science, age, medical anomalies, secret identities, and the maneuvers required to evade surveillance and capture. It’s quieter than the typical thriller, less focused on violent exploits than on the mystery of Jane’s identity, the suspense of her escape, and the texture of her anomalous experience. This well-told existential mystery, with its warm heart and an elegiac sensibility, will draw readers in.

Takeaway: Literary fiction fans will enjoy unraveling the mysteries of Jane’s amnesia, her identity, and her backwards aging.

Great for fans of: Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.

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

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Small Mistakes, Big Consequences for Interviews: Hone your interviewing technique to present your best self and land your dream job
Anne Corley Baum
This slim and playful volume, the second installment in Baum’s Small Mistakes, Big Consequences business advice series, offers job seekers 20 “strategies for success” to master before facing the anxiety-provoking ordeal of a job interview. Baum structures the book around the insight that even minor slipups can cause prospective employees serious trouble. Rather than just dole out her suggestions, she presents a lighthearted parade of 20 archetypal “business characters” (The Gum Chomper, The Judgmental Jerk, and The Interrupter are just a few) who all make mistakes in interviews, each illustrating one of her principles.

Baum’s tone is upbeat, but her advice is serious, and every character embodies a common tendency that can destroys interviewees’ chances of landing jobs. Drawing on her experience as an executive and vice president at Capital BlueCross, Baum offers clear warnings about how candidates behaving like the “Casual Conversationalist” or the “Verbose Verbalizer” can talk their way right out of the running. For every archetype, Baum offers a definition of the behavior in question, a rundown of the problems it causes, and a potential solution (“Speak professionally, clearly, and concisely, using correct grammar!”). Cartoon illustrations of each example from Cielo Giandomenico and Jennifer Giandomenico drive the point home in a fun and amusing way.

The overarching advice may seem obvious to readers flipping through Baum’s collection, such as “Don’t flirt” in a job interview the way that “The Gawker” might. But even if Baum’s advice feels familiar, there’s a sneaky power hidden in the guide: even confident job hunters who feel in full command of their self-presentation will experience a jolt of recognition at a couple of Baum’s examples. This compact book does not promise to transform everyone into perfect interviewees, but rather extends them an invitation to present their best image in professional interactions.

Takeaway: This brisk and buoyant guide reminds readers what mistakes to avoid in a job interview.

Great for fans of: Amy Cuddy’s Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, James Storey’s The Art of the Interview.

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

Wicked Ninnish
Michael Scott Curnes
In this proudly adult thriller, Curnes (Coping with Ash) details the surprisingly erotic adventures of Heritage Warren Carter III (“Tage”), heir to the Carter Pulp & Paper empire, when he is assigned to visit Wickaninnish—a remote Canadian island—to attempt to catch a business partner who might be embezzling funds from the family’s hotel. Tage, who describes himself as “drunk on existential guilt over what was happening to the planet,” is conflicted about being the face of his family’s “capitalistic and resource-destroying ways,” but with his grandfather about to die of cancer, he agrees to help the company in the hopes of securing his inheritance.

Curnes’s gift for description is evident in his striking portrayal of the singular setting of Wickaninnish Island and its inhabitants—“an Eden so lush, tranquil, and pristine.” The story unfolds in the aftermath of British Columbia’s War in the Woods, a 1993 showdown between loggers and environmental activists. Tage internalizes that conflict, and the tension between his drive for a guilt-free life of simplicity and the lure of easy living thrums constantly throughout the narrative. Here’s a multifaceted protagonist who might be happier if he could embrace superficiality.

Curnes’s intriguing plot starts strong, but the novel’s sweep quickly expands beyond its central mystery, as it devotes pages to local history, ritualistic magic, skinny dipping amid bioluminescent plankton, and the highly detailed blow by blow of sexual liaisons, some of them touched with the occult. (Some of the steamy scenes involve nonconsensual acts with a minor “devil child” described as seducing Tage.) At times the sex overwhelms the promising story of industrial intrigue. Still, beyond his attention to matters of the senses, Curnes admirably crystallizes an unusual voyage of self-discovery and quest for meaning by his unlikely hero. Readers open to graphic sex and environmentalism will find much here that resonates.

Takeaway:This provocative epic boasts an intriguing plot, occult erotica, and serious consideration of environmental themes.

Great for fans of: Winston Graham’s Poldark series, Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists.

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

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The Shade Under the Mango Tree
Evy Journey
Journey (Margaret of the North) offers a globe-spanning voyage that explores heartbreak, budding love, growing up, and developing connections with others. Luna works at a bookstore and spends her life traveling between California and Hawai'i, but craves adventure. Lucien, a young architect, finds a stranger’s journal at a cafe and wrestles with guilt, but ultimately gives in and starts reading it. Months later, after a chance meeting at the bookstore where Luna works, Lucien discovers she is the owner of the journal and confesses he read all of her entries. Despite a rough beginning, the two hit it off and their connection to each other is explored through parallel narratives.

Journey’s three-dimensional, well-developed characters carry this appealing story of building new bonds in the midst of loss and heartache. Lucien is immediately intrigued by everything he learns about Luna through her writing, and his understanding of their separate but parallel voyages lends realism and poignancy to this tale. Journey skillfully weaves their independent personal histories together, allowing the protagonists to alight in each other’s lives momentarily while forming meaningful relationships at the same time. Readers will feel equally hopeful and melancholy as Lucien and Luna traverse the beginning stages of a deepening relationship, only to have it disrupted when Luna receives a Peace Corps assignment and leaves to teach children in a rural village in Cambodia.

Luna’s desire to make a difference after leading a sheltered lifestyle is a motivating undercurrent to the tender story, although her parts of the story are plagued by an abundance of descriptive passages that sometimes impede the narrative. Journey frames this gentle novel with episodes of violence, but the way the two main characters face various vicissitudes are enough to keep readers turning the pages. This emotional story, with its clear prose and crisp dialogue, will appeal to those who enjoy romantic literature and are not afraid to engage with the ugliness of the real world.

Takeaway: This emotional novel of love and happenstance will touch readers’ hearts.

Great for fans of: Nora Roberts, Nicholas Sparks.

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

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Kalayla
Jeannie Nicholas
Nicholas’s debut novel tells the story of two women and a girl, all outsiders in their own way, who are drawn together by circumstance. Lena, a landlord well past middle age, takes an interest in Kalayla, a willful, spunky little girl who constantly gets herself into trouble and reminds Lena of her own children. Lena also sees some of her earlier struggles reflected in Maureen, Kalayla’s artistic mother who is struggling to raise Kalayla alone—after her parents cut ties with her because she pursued a relationship with Kalayla’s father Jamal, who is Black.

This is a deliberately paced novel whose narrative is driven more by character development than by plot. Some of the dialogue and interior thoughts feel unnatural, which can be distracting, and Kalayla may strike readers as over-the-top at some points (she has an affinity for saying “cow turds” whenever anything angers her). Despite some forced elements, this gentle narrative touchingly illuminates the value of found family, rooted in the belief that people can change for the better when they are supported by their community and loved ones.

Nicholas effectively creates a cast of compelling, fully realized characters with whom readers will enjoy connecting. The story rotates between three first-person perspectives: Lena’s, Kalayla’s, and Maureen’s. Lena’s history is more complicated than it appears—past domestic abuse, the loss of two of her children, and estrangement from her living children have caused her to pull away from the world. Kalayla and Maureen force her out of her shell, helping her confront the past, and Lena, in turn, helps them survive their present as Maureen’s complicated history with Kalayla’s father is revealed. Fans will find it a pleasure to watch these characters come together to help each other heal and grow.

Takeaway: This warm, character-driven story will spur readers to consider the value of family, both biological and found.

Great for fans of: Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age.

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

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Parenting in the Screen Age: A Guide to Calm Conversations
Delaney Ruston
Ruston, a physician and documentarian (Screenagers), combines anecdotal experience and neurological science in this exhaustive guide that teaches parents how to navigate conflicts with their children about technology use and screen time. Ruston explains that “communication science” dictates that the best way to address the risks and drawbacks of social media, video and computer games, and TV is by using “share tactics, not scare tactics.” She explains that “communication in our home greatly improved once I understood that many of my statements regarding screen time were negative and shut down the conversation.” Each chapter tackles a different digital-age issue, including mental health and sleep hygiene, and offers clever and open-ended conversation-starting questions aimed at empowering children through collaboration, not a series of dictates. The guide’s ultimate aim is to create positive rewards for moderating screen time rather than punishments for slipping up.

Ruston’s first chapters are especially useful due to their specific and straightforward suggestions. Her strategy of starting with the positives of digital platforms is a fruitful way to connect with children. For example, when evaluating social media, she notes that using it can help shy people communicate and lead to more meaningful conversations. Noting the benefits makes it easier to discuss challenges, such as the emotional toll that obsessing over “likes” can take. The chapters about mental health note that suppressing emotions can impair memory and offer helpful suggestions for coping with stress and depression.

Ruston lays out her ideas in catchy ways, for example calling her approach for discussing screen time with kids the 3 Vs (“validate, values, and village”) and the values she wants to instill in her children the 4 Cs (“creativity, competency, connection, and compassion”). Her overall strategy strikes a delicate balance between firm parenting and compassionate understanding of the challenges youth face today. While the book’s second half can wander and repeat itself at times, parents seeking thorough, systematic, and thoughtful advice on their children’s screen use will find consulting this manual very helpful.

Takeaway: Parents interested in a thorough, systematic way to collaborate with their children on screen time will find a treasure trove of specific details and questions to ask in this meticulous guide.

Great for fans of: Anya Kamenetz'sThe Art Of Screen Time, Jordan Shapiro's The New Childhood.

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

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Outfoxed: The Fox Witch (Book One)
R.J. Blain
Fantasy author R.J. Blain (A Magical Romantic Comedy series) delivers an adventurous romp through postapocalyptic Tulsa in 2043. Jade Tamrin is a fox-human hybrid—who’s hiding two much more coveted traits: she can shapeshift fully into a fox, and she’s a witch who can control toxins and see the past. Her hybridity makes her extremely high-value bait for bounty hunters, who catch people like her so that rich families can buy them at auction, enslave them, and marry them off to the eldest heir to get desired magical traits into the bloodline. One of those bounty hunters is the mysterious, sexy master magician Sandro Moretti. Despite their enmity and her desire to remain free, Jade must ally with Sandro to uncover what’s behind the extreme tornadoes that ravage Tulsa and kill its residents daily.

Some readers will be put off by the book’s somewhat cavalier treatment of a form of slavery for which “tiny,” “pure white” women are most targeted. And the pacing and structure may cause readers some frustration. The opening scene, with Jade and Sandro trapped in a cellar together during a storm, cues readers to expect a romance novel, but Sandro doesn’t reappear for another 200 pages, which describe three days of Jade’s surviving more tornadoes, finding a new place to live, hiding from bounty hunters, and working shifts at her two jobs. It’s only when he returns that their relationship and the investigation of the story’s big questions—who took out the bounty on Jade in the first place? What’s causing the tornadoes?—really kick into gear.

But Jade is the typically feisty and fierce heroine of science fiction, a badass with a sharp tongue and an inconvenient sense of honor that leads her to take big risks to help others. And the magic is fascinating, boasting a proliferation of mages and witches all with distinct abilities—plastic mages, poetry mages, curse mages, elementalists, toxin witches, and the particularly well-drawn music mages, capable of altering reality by harnessing the power of song. Fantasy fans will enjoy Blain’s complex and well-built world, root for the fiercely principled Jade, and eagerly await the next installment.

Takeaway: This sci-fi fantasy adventure boasts an intriguing system of magic and a fierce heroine.

Great for fans of: A Witch in Time by Constance Sayers, The Clockwork Witch series by Michelle D. Sonnier.

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

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Chasing Rory
Michelle Mars
Mars keeps things hot and heavy in the second installment in the Love Wars paranormal sci-fi romance series, after Moving Jack. In 2025, Earth is facing an ecological crisis. To save the human species, the Alien Relocation Cooperative—a family business run by members of the golden-skinned Staraban species—has been brought in to relocate them all. But one problem persists: at least one of humanity’s supposed saviors lied, and Earth isn't entirely doomed. Now feisty bilingual human munitions expert Rory Espinoza and her well-muscled, cat-loving Staraban counterpart Bren must battle their mutual attraction and bring this troubling information—and a dangerous prisoner—to the All Alien Alliance entrusted with humanity's survival. But the tight quarters of a starship aren’t designed for avoiding sexy crewmates, and Rory’s hiding a supernatural secret of her own.

Given this entry’s indebtedness to the events of Moving Jack, some readers will find this sequel more accessible after reading its predecessor first. Newcomers to Mars’s world are tossed into the conflict between ARC and the Humans Against Relocation Movement, to which the series’ human protagonists belong, with little explanation of Earth’s crisis or the major human players. But that won’t stop them from getting sucked into the action or enjoying the quippy interplay between the characters.

Inspired in part by the culture of the real-world Gitano people of Spain, Rory is a heroine all romance fans will root for. She is equal parts brilliance, directness, and stubbornness to a fault, traits that come in handy on her interstellar mission of diplomacy. Her chemistry with Bren is electric and adversarial: though they constantly fight over their mission’s next steps, their vastly appealing differences keep them—and readers—hooked. This enjoyable blend of comedy, sci-fi, intensely physical romance, and women’s empowerment is sure to please readers.

Takeaway: This witty, sexy adventure’s mixture of sci-fi thrills and paranormal romance makes it a solid addition to any adult reading list.

Great for fans of: Grace Goodwin, Jennifer L. Armentrout, K.F. Breene.

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

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What Dog is That?
Lois Nicholls
Lois Nicholls’ (Bye-bye Bikini and Aussie, Actually) delightful debut children’s book introduces youngsters to a different dog on each page, sharing fun tidbits about both the individual animal and their breed. Children meet dogs of common breeds, such as “Tarna the Golden Retriever,” dogs of no specific variety like “Oogie and Moogie,” and newer breeds like “Fwuffy the Groodle.” Joyful poems introduce each character, describing their personalities and interests, as well as mentioning common physical qualities that differentiate breeds and each dog’s distinctive temperament. When the occasional word comes up that young readers may not know, such as “paddock,” the author provides easy-to-understand definitions at the bottom of the page.

A poem about each dog sits beside a whimsical watercolor portrait by the author’s daughter, Lara Nicholls; they illuminate the dogs’ personalities and draw readers in with their expressive eyes. Lara Nicholls also ups the enjoyment factor for young readers by adding one tiny, intricate bee on every page—hidden on a dog or in a word—as a seek-and-find challenge that older kids and adults will enjoy, too.

Lois Nicholls’s charming poetry is not the only star of this show; she ensures an enjoyable reading experience for budding readers with the creative use of fonts and imaginative formatting for a quirky touch. An amusing game at the end titled “What’s My Name” tests how well readers paid attention to the narrative. Kids and adults alike will revel in the entertaining format, and the reading combined with games will have them returning again and again.

Takeaway: Young readers and those reading along with them will delight in this entertaining introduction to loveable pooches.

Great for fans of: Kevin O’Malley’s The Perfect Dog, Avery Corman’s Bark in the Park!: Poems for Dog Lovers, Maira Kalman’s Beloved Dog.

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

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Water Must Fall
Nick Wood
Prolific South African writer and psychologist Nick Wood deftly portrays an Earth run dry in his vision of an uncomfortably near future. Protagonist Graham, a South African journalist, travels across the globe, including to the Federated States of America, to document the worldwide water crisis. This strains his marriage to Lizette, who’s confronting a painful case of endometriosis, her church’s unyielding views on homosexuality in a time when she’s honing in on her own, and how to best serve a community that resents her whiteness. Meanwhile, Art, a data sweeper, is tasked with finding and stretching the little water available. Can these three overcome their struggles and bring some relief to this parched world?

Wood’s dystopian portrait is not without its rough edges. Despite the first-person narration, the characters’ inner thoughts are constant and can include confusing expository passages. Readers will find some story lines rushed, such as that leading up to Lizette’s outburst in church, and the antagonists are typical: powerful people hell-bent on hoarding all the water they can. But within the rough patches, there’s a diamond in Wood’s writing.

The worldbuilding is fully fleshed out with technology, consequence, and history; a direct line can be drawn from the present day to Wood’s imagined future (via, for example, “the Make America Great wall,” the “new Pence administration,” a “Black Lives Still Matter” poster). Atop the plausible political and corporate machinations are elements more fantastical (such as sentient AI, which in one captivating case has been given the form of a dragon to represent the Chinese water protection god Bok Kai) and spiritual. The book’s relationships are abundantly complex and it does not offer simplistic, easy happy endings. Wood’s dystopian creation, with its warning about global warming, makes for an emotional and satisfying ride.

Takeaway: Fans of plausible sci-fi with a political bent, eager to envision a very near future, will connect with this dystopian environmental novel.

Great for fans of: Omar El Akkad’s American War, Sam J. Miller’s Blackfish City, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife.

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

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