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Honey Trap
Tony Brenna
Graphic violence and passionate couplings highlight this lively actioner that jumps from corporate boardrooms to the lairs of drug kingpins. Reporter Mike Delano is captured while covering the war in Iraq, and after a daring escape writes a bestselling book that leads to fame. Meanwhile, media czar Lord Rothenberg considers Delano as editor for a tabloid. Delano takes the job, but soon starts an affair with Rothenberg's unhappily married daughter, Rachel. Their relationship lands them in the middle of multiple conspiracies involving murderous gangsters, an out of control movie star, and Middle Eastern terrorists. The resulting maelstrom threatens to destroy the lovers, and everyone in their orbit.

Brenna's background in tabloid journalism, covering Hollywood, stands him in good stead in describing both the glamorous and seamy side of those businesses. And he does so with great vigor—the sex and violence are frequent and graphic: "his blade slashing at the guard’s skinny throat. Blood pulsed over him; the deluge pleased his soul." Even the sex is forceful: "Mistress Giana Gallina…. was an expert with whips for lashing and paddles for spanking." The plot gets a little convoluted with a lot of motives and double-crosses, but the action never lets up for a minute, with a continual string of cliffhangers.

Passion is the one constant that ties together all the characters, whether it's for money and power, as with Lord Rothenberg, or a political ideal with Muslim terrorists. The focus is mainly on Delano, who does show some growth as his passions change. At the start, he's a devoted journalist, but later becomes consumed by revenge before finding an intense, if troubled, relationship with Rachel. She has her own issues, with an extreme love-hate relationship with her family despite her father's mistreatment of her. All these emotions eventually boil over into several final revenge scenarios. Readers open to outsize passions themselves will likely be breathless.

Takeaway: Fans of hard-edge action will revel in characters who never hesitate to act on every thought of hate and lust.

Great for fans of: Harold Robbins, Alistair MacLean.

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

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Secrets in the Palazzo
Kathleen Reid
For the art-obsessed expats populating Reid’s satisfying escape-to-Italy sequel to Sunrise in Florence, solving a centuries-old mystery seems less difficult than resolving romantic complications. The supportive friendship of American painter Rose Maning and Swiss-born conservator Beatrice von der Layman was built on their shared love of Renaissance masters Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. After Rose finds several Renaissance era drawings hidden in the wall of her apartment, Beatrice digs in to discover their origin–and reveals one is linked to Michelangelo and the other could be related to da Vinci’s mural of the Battle of Anghiari, a lost work covered up by another artist in 1555.

Rose’s past move to Florence to paint full-time and immerse herself in the glorious remnants of the Renaissance—and her whirlwind love affair with Italian real estate agent, Lyon—were the focus of her first adventure with Beatrice. Now, with a gallery show under her belt, she’s focused on her future, but pre-wedding jitters lead to a revelation and shattered engagement. In Rome, Beatrice remains a devoted guardian of art history, even when her attraction to nomadic muralist Mike (whose intensity and talent recall Michelangelo) inspires the realization that she’s funneled all her passion into her work. Beatrice is determined to uncover a lost Leonardo, and Reid deftly balances an enticing art history mystery with heady romance.

Rose and Beatrice’s Italy is a living museum complete with street artists as besotted with the Renaissance as the leads. Sleek charmer Vince continually re-populates da Vinci’s Last Supper table, and the vigorous, unpolished Mike reconfigures classical and mythological iconography. While these rivals challenge societal norms with their confrontational murals, their world–as well as Rose and Beatrice’s–feels removed from contemporary life, a Cinquecento fantasy of art for art’s sake. But readers looking for a romantic escape to an Italy as full of glorious art is as revitalizing as brilliant sunlight and abundant pasta will relish this tale.

Takeaway: Lovers of Renaissance art and lost-masterwork mysteries will appreciate this escape-to-Italy romance.

Great for fans of: Iain Pears’s The Raphael Affair, Paul Christopher’s Michelangelo’s Notebook, and Charlotte and Aaron Elkins’s A Dangerous Talent.

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

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My Name on a Grain of Rice
Richard Voigt
Intriguing characters and soul-searching journeys distinguish this debut offering from Voigt. Harry Travers, son of wealthy parents who buy fake chateaus for investment purposes, longs to break free from his family’s opulent country club lifestyle, to “feel the rush that comes from making something out of nothing.” When Travers decides to quit his steady job at a software startup and sign on to become an apprentice piledriver for a construction company, trouble starts to knock on his door. What follows is a transformation of self-discovery, replete with physical dangers, emotional uncertainty, and one man’s desperate search for meaning.

Voigt intricately details his characters around Travers’s point of view, one momentary impression at a time–and those characters are truly memorable, with beguiling oddities that will resonate with readers. Throughout the story, Travers attempts to defy others’ expectations of him, first and foremost his parents, who want him to live a life similar—if not the same—to their own. When Travers, in his father’s eyes, throws away a guaranteed future to chase after deeper meaning, he “might as well put [his] name on a grain of rice.” Despite his detractors’ disappointment in the seeming insignificance of Travers’s pursuits, he remains dogged in his quest for purpose.

Some of Voigt’s prose edges toward the self-conscious, though Travers is impressively aware of his own flaws as he analyzes his unconventional choices: in trying to walk the line between his wealthy upbringing and his search for meaning, Travers can go overboard to prove his normalcy. Suspense arises from accounts of construction work on a mismanaged project, described with persuasive clarity (at times at length) and drawing upon Voigt’s work as an attorney focused on workplace litigation–this is fiction that’s not afraid to get its hands dirty. Lovers of personal growth stories will enjoy this novel, which is as entertaining as it is introspective.

Takeaway: The intriguing story of one man’s attempt to break out of his rich family’s mold and find his own meaning in life and work.

Great for fans of: Richard Ford, Larry Brown.

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

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He Ain't Heavy (He's My Son) Part II: The journey continues...
Dana R. Jones-Meggett
Centered on the childhood of her son who has been diagnosed with autism, Jones-Meggett’s sequel to her first memoir, published 13 years ago, offers a frank discussion of skin color, disability, and societal prejudice. She briefly covers her son’s initial diagnosis but focuses mainly on their journey together from his early adolescence to young adulthood. Written in part as a manual for caretakers of individuals with disabilities, this helpful guide is also a strong piece of literary advocacy for the voiceless, as Jones-Meggett states, “I am literally my son’s voice.” She skillfully balances emotion and facts to delve into her life as someone who has devoted her entire self to caring for another person with a disability in a society where, as she puts it, people have long been “identified and even taunted because of their condition.”

Readers will be inspired by Jones-Meggett’s tenacity, as she strives for the best for her son, and also comforted by her vulnerability as she faces loss. She writes, “unlike a death, there is no closure with ambiguous loss, just a feeling of revisiting or being stuck in profound grief.” This follow-up touches on sociocultural issues that impact persons with disabilities as well, and Jones-Meggett’s focus on inclusion and respect is evident throughout. The narrative is split into easy-to-follow sections that will resonate with readers, and the backmatter includes helpful resources for families who may be facing similar challenges.

Jones-Meggett has crafted a clear-eyed, sometimes inspiring account of navigating a bigoted world, writing effectively and without malice, maintaining her focus on progress and advocacy. Readers will gain insight into caring for those living with disabilities, and a deeper understanding and heightened empathy. Readers will walk away from this book deeply affected by the unfairness in the world and with a changed outlook regarding what is ability, what’s valuable in society, and who decides the answers to these questions.

Takeaway: A poignant guide and memoir that addresses autism, race, and caring for a loved one with disabilities.

Great for fans of: Jennifer Cook O’Toole’s Autism in Heels, John Elder Robison’s Look Me In the Eye.

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

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Singing at High Altitude
Jennifer Markell
This soulful collection from Markell (Samsara) touches on complex opposing themes, often eliciting both despair and joy simultaneously. The selections consider experiences like living in poverty, pummeled by a broken society, and overwhelmed by emotions and loss, while always appreciating the inherent beauty within simple moments, such as in one of the earlier pieces, “Rent Control.” Markell proves adept at weaving tapestries of figurative language to form a tangible scene, dropping the reader into a somber hospital room filled with flowers in “Leaf Litter,” a sunny “July” in the sand dunes with someone special, or the silent gathering of out-of-work men praying for opportunity in “The Men,” a striking portrait of active helplessness: “Cigarettes idle. They twirl rosaries / and radio dials, chew a cud of worry.”

With exacting clarity, Markell often intermingles painful themes, such as childhood violence at the hands of a physically abusive parent, with the lilting splendor of nature: “startles an osprey from its perch, / distracting the girl’s mother, / hand raised, ready to hit.” Domesticity and maternal strife are featured as well, as a discordant mixture between comfort and fear, as in the wrenching “Superpower,” in which she writes, “My mother slapped my face / while she stood over the kitchen sink / doing dishes.”

On occasion, Markell’s poetry can edge toward ambiguity, which may make it a challenge for some readers to apprehend the collection’s organizational logic, though the consistent strength of her linework is a powerful throughline. Simply put, a reader can flip through the pages at random and stumble upon any number of charming (“My Mother Tells Me my Father was no Good in Bed” opens with “Who really wants to know / how they got made?”) or haunting poems, pinning down with quiet precision feelings and insights. While Markell never shies away from the difficulties of life, she reminds us that in partnership with the ugliness there is always splendor–and that “Hope rests on the roof.”

Takeaway: These strikingly original poems pin down everyday hope and despair with exacting precision and power.

Great for fans of: Gail Mazur, Sandra Storey.

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

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The Importance of Sons: Chronicles of the House of Valois
Keira Morgan
In a graceful prequel to The Importance of Pawns, Morgan delves into the animosity between two women who played pivotal roles in early Renaissance France. Defeated by the French army, Duchess Anne of Brittany has no choice but to have her first marriage annulled in order to wed King Charles, leaving her power to her new husband. Charmed at first by Charles’s chivalry, Anne hopes she can retain some independence and power, but soon a string of painful losses and her husband’s infidelity erode that hopefulness. Despite Anne’s best efforts, she is soon embroiled in royal intrigues with Countess Louise d’Angoulême and Madame la Grande, the powerful older sister of king Charles and a string of painful losses.

Morgan’s story is brimming with unforgettable characters. Anne’s similarities to Louise—including being forced into marriage by the unbending Madame la Grande—are overshadowed for the women by familial resentments, personal envy, and ambition that pit them against each other, though, with time, Anne acquires her own reasons to envy Louise. The novel boasts a compelling supporting cast as well, and devotees of historical fiction will be left wanting more time with the rest of Morgan’s people. Her love and knowledge of the era are well felt in the lavishly detailed world building, as is her attention to the conventions of the time in her characters’ thoughts and actions. There is also significant consideration paid to the period’s religious beliefs, lending the novel a decided authenticity that is sometimes rare in the genre.

The focus here isn't on love affairs or wars and politics—though they are present and affect the story’s events—but instead on the heroines’ emotional lives and reactions to the common struggles for women during the Renaissance, facing mighty obstacles regardless of their capability or high-born status. The result is a charming historical coming-of-age story, with Morgan breathing fresh life into overlooked historical figures.

Takeaway: Lovers of historical fiction will be delighted by this rich portrayal of an overlooked Renaissance queen and her courtiers.

Great for fans of: Elizabeth Chadwick, Alison Weir.

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

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YOU ARE THE LIGHT
Meera Jhogasundram
Career coach Jhogasundram continues her self-improvement series with this reflective exploration on overcoming negative emotions. Drawing on her personal experiences with each one of seven “forms of heavy energy”—grief, fear, anger, jealousy, guilt, hatred, and hurt—she offers readers coping skills and encourages them to bring about positive changes by no longer dwelling in negative energies. Jhogasundram warns that the vulnerability of these negative emotional states can lead to being manipulated–and to avoid that outcome, she offers several routes out of the darkness, including channeling grief into positive actions, asking questions to minimize fear, focusing on gratitude to counter jealousy, and avoiding triggers and gossip to defuse hatred.

Readers will appreciate Jhogasundram’s personal candor in this encouraging guide. She details a long career in a toxic work environment, reveals her challenging interactions with an abusive graduate advisor, and opens up about painful childhood experiences, such as neglecting one of her pets. Although some of her stories are light on details, readers will gain a solid sense of her struggles in younger years, and her guidance is simple enough for immediate action. Some of her more helpful advice is incorporated into the chapter on hurt, when she urges readers to reframe hurt as a symptom of emotional depth and view it as an opportunity for growth.

Audiences who balk at more holistic ideas—like the law of attraction that Jhogasundram cautions is a powerful natural truth—may find some of the teachings in this guide challenging, but overall Jhogasundram clarifies difficult subjects while adding commonsense appeal. In the interest of connecting on an emotional level with readers, she blends a personal touch into more logical concepts. Readers seeking extensive in-depth analysis will want to look elsewhere, but for those who feel limited in their current situation without understanding why, this quick unpacking of negative and positive energies will suffice.

Takeaway: A candid self-help guide that teaches how to reframe negative emotions in favor of positive change.

Great for fans of: Andrea Bonior, I.C. Robledo.

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

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Summer Lightning
Roberta Silman
Silman (Secrets and Shadows) highlights the lives of a Jewish couple encountering prejudice in pre- and post-World War II New York in this affecting family saga. Bookkeeper Belle Brand marries salesman Isaac, who arrived in New York from Europe in 1922 as Itzhak Kaplow. The couple lives in Brooklyn while arranging for Isaac’s parents to emigrate to the U.S., and eventually move to Long Island with their daughter Sophy, a bright, inquisitive child who soon becomes a big sister. Through the tragedies and triumphs of their lives, Belle and Isaac instill in their daughters the value of caring for others regardless of social or racial, or ethnic differences, though their commitment to equality will be tested by Vivie, the youngest, in the Civil Rights era.

Silman’s lyrical writing quickly immerses readers into a Depression-era New York marked by people jumping to their deaths and immigrants changing their names to reduce the prejudice against them. The narrative is propelled forward by the inclusion of historical figures. Though Silman vividly depicts the despair of the Depression and the tumult of the years that followed, she contrasts this against the moments of happiness Belle and Isaac discover after their chance encounter at Lindbergh’s takeoff leads to a happy marriage and growing family.

Silman finds engaging drama in the efforts of a Jewish family facing hatred and blame for the involvement of the U.S. in the second World War, while trying to find out what happened to family members left behind, like Isaac’s brother. Silman’s focus on New York’s vivid art scene is a study in contrast against Belle’s conservative upbringing and her acceptance of her acquaintances’ views on sexuality. Yet what will resonate most with readers is Silman’s intensely emotional depiction of the Kaplows’ commitment to family and helping others. Silman portrays the Kaplows as genuine people who manage to instill true integrity in their children.

Takeaway: This touching historical novel finds a Jewish family facing prejudice and embracing equality in 20th century New York.

Great for fans of: Roberta Kagan’s Not in America, Barbara Pressman’s Help Me Hannah.

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

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When I Was Her Daughter: A Memoir
Leslie Ferguson
In this debut memoir of resilience and survival, Ferguson details her traumatic childhood spent with her mentally ill mother. Roberta, mother to Leslie and William, lives with schizophrenia, and Leslie’s younger years are spent running from a government that her mother increasingly believes is out to get them. The family is perennially on the move to escape perceived threats—everything from TV antennae, dollar bills, and vehicles they pass on the highway—and often spend days on the road and nights in parks that Roberta deems safe. Ferguson’s language is lyrical and evocative as she effectively narrates a little girl’s feelings of confusion and abandonment, her desire for safety and normalcy, and her determination to succeed.

Painful family dynamics make up the core of this story: William readily obeys his mother, but little Leslie is torn between obedience, which she knows might prove lethal, and rebellion, which she thinks of as a sign of disloyalty and lack of love for her mother. With skill and power, Ferguson portrays several heart-rending choices she was forced to make as a young child, including electing to stay behind at her aunt’s home for safety instead of accompanying her mother, in a desperate attempt to stop her family’s deterioration.

Ferguson tells this story in chronological order, starting with events from age six to the present with sensitivity and an eye for arresting detail. Especially striking here is her success at sketching an affecting and persuasive portrait of her mother, that comes across as elegant, intelligent, warm, and loving even through the fog of her illness. The narrative is simple and honest, avoiding sentimentality, and readers will easily relate to Ferguson’s descriptions of her fractured childhood–and find themselves wondering at the complexities of mother-child bonding. This multilayered and nuanced memoir is a stunning account of family love and sacrifice.

Takeaway: A moving, well-written memoir of childhood trauma and a mother’s schizophrenia.

Great for fans of: Marlayna Glynn’s Overlay, Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle .

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

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Of Good & Evil
Daniel Goldrick Miller
Miller (The Tree of Knowledge) crafts a dynamic mystery filled with exciting twists in this quick-paced thriller. Cristina Culebra and her Republic of Enlightenment and Democracy (RED) are poised to take over the United States as a new tyrannical political party, but Albert Puddles and his crew of intellectual friends have an unconventional weapon to stop her: the Tree of Knowledge. With the ability to use mathematical equations to predict the future, Albert must figure out a way to combat Cristina’s nefarious plans. Enter the Cipher, a mysterious figure dropping puzzles only the worthiest can unravel. Now, Albert must solve the Cipher’s clues and take down Cristina before her army reigns over the United States of America.

Fans of the first book in the series will quickly settle in with familiar friends while those new to Albert’s adventures will find this to be a satisfying standalone with all the relevant background information peppered into the plot. Overall, the characters build on their previously laid foundation for more depth and complexity: Albert is still snacking away at protein bars, although he does experience some growth, becoming more adaptable to new situations. Ying’s enthusiasm pairs well with Albert’s more reserved nature as they show off their imaginative code-solving skills while cracking away at the Cipher’s clues, and Cristina’s thirst for unquenchable power leads to several fun twists and makes her a thrilling villain.

Themes of loyalty, friendship, and political oppression beat at the heart of Albert’s mission. The ending ties up some loose ends but leaves the perfect hint of uncertainty. A plot-twist involving costumes and a comic convention is fun but far-fetched, and some readers might find themselves a step ahead at times. Still, with pulsating over-the-top action–described with power and crisp clarity–plus twisted betrayals, and a bit of romance, Miller crafts a wildly entertaining ride for thriller fans.

Takeaway: Perfect for thriller fans who enjoy teams solving imaginative clues in the midst of gripping danger.

Great for fans of: Dan Brown, Alan Jacobson.

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

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The Hour Guide to management: The Fundamentals of Being an Effective Leader
P.W. Irvine
Irvine’s concise, no-nonsense guide to effective leadership acknowledges the truth that, for managers and workers alike, time is often in short supply—and that a “pressured and anxious” manager, untrained in the fundamentals of leadership, can often without meaning to stir stress and anxiety in others. Enter workplace trainer Irvine’s highly practical book, featuring quick and clear lessons and models drawn from issues faced by real workers and designed to be read, in total, in about an hour. Within those parameters, The Hour Guide to Management packs significant knowledge, advice, and inspiration, with chapters like “How to Get People to Do Things” living up to their titles.

“The way we deal with our team directly relates to the results that are achieved,” Irvine notes, arguing that management should take care of staff, who takes care of customers, who in turn, satisfied with the service they’re receiving, take care of the shareholders. Irvine lays out different types of managers and workplace cultures, arguing the benefits of a “performance management” system of leadership that treats team members like customers, emphasizes a vision and clear procedures, emphasizes accurate, consistent, fact-based feedback, and calls upon management to model behavior and establish boundaries and consequences.

Despite this volume’s concision, Irvine still offers multiple methods of offering feedback and evaluations to workers, designed to encourage positive performance and, when necessary, address and correct problems. Quick introductions to delegating and time management (including the “80/20 rule”) may spark lightbulbs in some readers, though the brevity of these sections—and a dearth of real-world examples—may limit their utility, though even here Irvine’s emphasis is on the immediately actionable, offering steps to break cycles of becoming overwhelmed due to a lack of trust or time or other factors. Irvine’s time-efficient guide stands as a helpful, engaging read that offers more wisdom than books demanding many more hours.

Takeaway: Concise and actionable advice for managing teams, demanding just an hour of readers’ time.

Great for fans of: Julie Zhou’s The Making of a Manager, Brad Jackson and Ken Parry’s A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book about Studying Leadership.

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

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Letters: Sometimes it's the Hero that Needs Saving the Most
Brandon Wolfe
A teen with unique powers urges kindness and compassion in this YA melodrama with a paranormal edge. In the decade since his parents’ death in a car accident, Chace Peters, now sixteen, has received visions of other people’s heartbreaks. His friend, fellow orphan James, realizes that Chace is Letters, a mysterious New York City celebrity known for leaving encouraging notes for people on the brink of tragic decisions, when he spies Chace leaving a note for Sarah Crosse, a teenaged volunteer at the group home where they live. Chace explains his past, how the visions and others’ pain can leave him catatonic. As the local news–as well as Sarah, who is struggling with guilt over an accident involving her sister–increases its efforts to unmask Letters, Chace outs himself to Sarah’s father and makes a drastic choice that puts him in grave danger.

Wolfe’s story tugs on heartstrings while endowing its characters with convincing motivations and evincing welcome concern for people who need help. Emotions run high, with constant crises testing Chace and the rest of the cast. Between the bullying of Chace and James by another resident of the children’s home and moments of real physical danger, the troubles range from minor to life-ending. In between these tense moments, Sarah and Chace’s urging of kindness to solve problems bears fruit without being too pat.

Some elements might distract from the verisimilitude. Wolfe’s teenage characters often speak like world-weary adults, and the depiction of the child welfare system is quaintly archaic. Readers will need to suspend disbelief to accept Chace’s Christ-like open forgiveness while being able to take on physical traumas for others in order to heal them. Still, the writing is polished, the story is thoughtful, and the emotions charged and engaging. Readers open to those big feelings will appreciate this sensitive story and its touching message.

Takeaway: This intensely emotional story of orphans, visions, and compassion is a call for treating each other well.

Great for fans of: R. J. Palacio’s Wonder, Erin Stewart’s Scars Like Wings.

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

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Grind Slowly, Grind Small: A Big Ray Elmore Novel
Thomas Holland
Haunting characterizations and evocative settings distinguish this mystery set among interconnected families in rural Arkansas in 1960. Big Ray Elmore, chief of a two-man police force, investigates when a skeleton turns up at a construction site. As flashbacks to 1946 hint at the victim's history, Elmore strives to get justice for the unknown girl. His sleuthing involves a pair of reclusive brothers and a neighboring family with whom Elmore has a dark history, even as he copes with his own family issues. As Elmore gets closer to the truth, he must address his own past and doubts to resolve his personal and professional mysteries.

Holland (Their Feet Run to Evil) has populated the mystery with an exceptionally large cast, but has given every character such a rich personality that none of them disappear into the woodwork. Best of all is the deeply introspective Elmore, a World War II navy corpsman who harbors no illusions about war: "Watchin’ young men die doesn’t make anyone a hero." His wife has apparent depressive issues, but the tenderness in how they cope with it together is heartbreaking. At the same time, Elmore's infatuation with an old girlfriend, as he attempts to recapture his youth, comes across as deeply poignant. The plot gets a little tangled, and over-relies on coincidence, but the engaging characters carry the story well.

Nor do these characters exist in a vacuum. Holland, an Arkansas native himself, has a good ear and eye for the time and place. For example, his description of the importance of the church in that milieu comes across perfectly, and integrates deftly into the mystery, as pies and sweet tea smooth the subtle interrogations. He also understands the nuances of race relations: what could get you shunned in 1960 could get you killed in 1946. Absorbed into this complex and engaging universe, readers will be rapidly turning pages to see if Elmore can save the town—and himself.

Takeaway: An offbeat sleuth and a lively cast of suspects make for a true page-turner.

Great for fans of: Allen Eskens’s The Stolen Hours, Ace Atkins.

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

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She Who Rides Horses: A Saga of the Ancient Steppe (Book One)
Sarah V. Barnes
In the inspiring first installment of her A Saga of the Ancient Steppe series, historian Barnes invests welcome warmth and heart into a dramatic imagining of the story of the first horse ever tamed, some 6,000 years ago on the Pontic-Caspian Steppe. Fourteen year old Naya, the daughter of her tribe’s chief, is shunned for her unusual flaming red hair. With her wandering spirit and love of animals, the tomboy sees the wild horses of the steppe as more than a source of meat and hides. When she bonds with a local herd, she forges an especially strong relationship with a copper red filly she names Réhda, which means “little red one.”

With an audacious yearning to connect to Réhda, Naya declares “I wish…to ride upon your back.” Immediately, the two enter a mystical communion that her intuitive grandmother, Awija, calls a soul journey. “The two of you are connected now. Your destinies are entwined,” Awija says. Barnes skillfully creates an atmosphere of rugged life among the steppes, as Naya and her tribe hunt, heal, and navigate a nomadic life. Naya’s father believes taming the horses will provide a ready source of meat, and he encourages her to bond with the herd–leading them to follow her when the tribe moves to new grazing lands. But Naya stays tethered to her goal of one day riding the horses, and after a tragic accident threatens her life, she meets a young man, Aytal, who believes in her quest.

In simple, clear prose Barnes brings life to a cast of smart, fully realized characters who possess the insight to do what no one else has done. Barnes also, most memorably, captures the beauty and gentleness of the horses. Rich descriptions of the era and the determination of the young adult characters, along with prudent encouragement of the adults, make this adventure a must-read for lovers of horses and historical fiction.

Takeaway: Horse lovers will relish this historical adventure about a young woman who becomes the first person to ride a horse.

Great for fans of: Elizabeth George Speare’s The Sign of the Beaver, Melody Huttinger’s Arrow the Sky Horse.

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

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Crosswalk Wally
Dave Shea
Wally, the walking figure on a crosswalk sign, is excited for his sign’s first day at the corner of Main Street and Pine, but on his trip there, the truck carrying the sign hits a bump and Wally falls off–and into the street. Lost and unsure of how to reunite with his sign, Wally journeys through town, asking other signs along the way for guidance–but they’re all busy with their own jobs and can’t offer him much help. Paired with Pat Giles’s lively, cartoon-like illustrations, Shea’s debut picture book effectively engages younger readers in Wally’s quest while simultaneously teaching them pedestrian safety.

For a short story with a simple concept, the pacing is quick and unhurried, with a narrative well-suited to street safety education and approachable prose that launches into rhyme when appropriate. Readers will be exposed to an abundance of road signs, some of which may be familiar and others that will feel brand new: Shea includes region-specific signage for animal crossings and offers a slew of more common roadside pointers and warnings, from stop signs to bus stops to “Do Not Enter.” Giles’s lively illustrations will also give kids some opportunities to look for signs they can recognize during their own travels.

Crosswalk Wally’s effectiveness lies in its approachability for even the youngest of readers and future pedestrians. Flat, striding Wally is a fun and effective main character to teach audiences the importance of safe street crossing, a topic that doesn’t always lend itself to such imaginative treatment. And just when he is about to give up and believes he “will never get across the street,” Wally stumbles onto a sign that looks just like him–and wisely brings home the lesson about crossing streets wisely. Kids will root for Wally throughout his entertaining journey, and he will be easy to recall when they, too, are crossing streets.

Takeaway: This unique adventure teaches young kids to be good pedestrians and recognize road signs.

Great for fans of: Jane Yolen’s How Do Dinosaurs Stay Safe?, Jean E. Pendziwol’s No Dragons for Tea.

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

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Allure
Gina Ferguson
A business partnership turns into a sexual awakening for masseuse Darby Daxton Deel in this romantic thriller. Darby is instantly attracted to the rich and arrogant CEO of Park-Slate Industries, Brett Slade, but as the two of them become sexually entangled, dangerous men from Brett’s past seem to be coming for them. Before Darby can begin operations of her new joint venture, a masseuse breaks into her house to escape unforeseen danger, and a bodyguard sent by Brett shows up to take Darby into hiding, kicking off a series of shootings, chases, explosions, and escapes, presumably at the hands of a man with a business-related grudge against Brett.

Brett runs hot and cold, first insisting that he doesn’t mix business with pleasure, then breaking into Darby’s house and all but kidnapping her in order to make out. Though the nature of the business partnership with Slade’s company is often unclear, to the point of vagueness, it’s strongly hinted that the day spa will be turned into a front for some sort of sex parlor, as he sends a team of masseuses, a business partner named Abby, and a truckload of sex toys to be set up for “special clientele.”

Some euphemistic language and a disinclination to meet genre expectations position this novel somewhere between romance and erotica. As the characters struggle valiantly through Ferguson’s byzantine plot, Brett and Darby declare their love despite having very few conversations or interactions beyond general comments about business and their mutual physical attraction. They spend much of the novel apart, facing assorted dangers separately, thus making it difficult for readers to feel their chemistry or compatibility. Several sex scenes between Darby and other people, including a hot tub orgy with the new day spa staff, also contribute to making her feelings about the central relationship obscure. Still, readers open to genre-defying erotic suspense may find pleasures here.

Takeaway: A spa owner gets tangled up in a heated romance that leads to dangerous complications in this eccentric thriller.

Great for fans of: Emma Slate’s Wreck & Ruin, Joanna Blake’s Cuffed.

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

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