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Smart Kids Rock
A.S. Roper
Roper’s simple but affirming and playful third picture book (after Smart Girls Rock and The Adventures of Smart Boys) encourages children to harness their inner superheroes for elementary school success. Showcasing boys and girls of varying skin tones, Roper stimulates kids’ curiosity by describing learning as a superpower. The clean digital clip art, paired with a white background and unobtrusive text, keeps the focus on each page’s featured character and their aptitude: “This smart girl likes to read Mystery. This smart boy likes to read History.”

The layout is plain, and some readers will crave more sophistication. Lacking an overarching narrative, Roper’s text becomes repetitive and tepid for older readers but will entertain children in pre-K and kindergarten. Roper touches on a variety of school topics (including science, art, reading, and math) and cleverly emphasizes the importance of positive social behaviors for children’s school success through several pages aimed at practicing good manners. Her premise that all youth are capable will gratify parents and teachers.

Roper’s condensed offering is well-intentioned and broadly appealing, though its minimalism makes it easy to overlook in a saturated market. Despite an absence of attention-grabbing illustrations and exciting narratives, its emphasis on sleeping to recharge “superpowers” and the reinforcement of educational values still make this picture book a sweet read. For both kids who naturally excel in school and those needing more time and assistance, Roper delivers a commanding sense of reassurance and inspiration with portraits of happy and energized children empowered by the achievement that comes from working hard at school.

Takeaway: Early elementary whiz kids and struggling students alike will benefit from this cheerful and affirming book about working hard in school.

Great for fans of Andrea Beaty’s Questioneers series, Adam Rex’s School’s First Day of School.

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

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The Wisdom of the Flock
Steve Gnatz
In this blend of 18th-century romance and mystery, Gnatz playfully reimagines Benjamin Franklin as part spy, part scientist, part patriot, and all lothario.The year is 1776 and Benjamin Franklin has been sent by the newly declared United States Congress to serve as the unofficial ambassador to France. Recently widowed and with his grandsons in tow, Franklin arrives in the city hoping to rekindle his relationship with performer Marianne Davies. But a new fad, mesmerism, has hit Paris, and claimed Marianne as a major disciple. Franklin’s personal and political plans are derailed when he is placed in charge of determining whether Franz Mesmer really has the powers he claims.

Fans of revolutionary history will find much to love in this adventure, including cameos by figures such as Pierre Beaumarchais, Marie Antoinette, and Pierre Cabanis. Though clearly a work of fiction, the novel captures a real-life event: Benjamin Franklin’s commission from Louis XIV to determine the science behind Mesmer’s theory of “animal magnetism.” Franklin’s reputation as a lover is equally historically accurate, though readers may have a hard time separating the historical image of Franklin as a wise, corpulent, goutish statesman from Gnatz’s characterization of a well-muscled and sexually vigorous grandfather. This dissonance is increased by occasional use of modern terms, such as Marianne and Marie Antoinette discussing how to “contract and relax your pelvic muscles” to encourage a lover.

With a bit of imagination, Gnatz keeps his audience hooked on this fast-paced quest that takes place at the dawn of two revolutions. A helpful bibliography and brief biographical sketches of major characters are sure to please history buffs. The narrative mixes historical drama with romantic fantasy and a heavy dash of occult intrigue that will whet readers’ appetites for the next entry in the series.

Takeaway: Romance and mystery fans will enjoy this exciting reimagining of Benjamin Franklin diving into Parisian love triangles, political machinations, and psychic powers.

Great for fans of Jeff Shaara, Bernard Cornwell.

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

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Say Hello, Kiss Goodbye
Jacquelyn Middleton
In this smoothly written contemporary romance, Middleton (Until the Last Star Fades) effortlessly touches on mental health issues and their effects on personal relationships. Leia Scott married her high school sweetheart and supported his professional hockey career for years, but the relationship went sour. At 26, she’s a divorcee stuck in a part-time job she loves while struggling to launch her sustainable fashion line. Determined to live for herself, Leia has sworn off dating and complicated relationships, but a chance meeting with handsome property developer Tarquin Balfour threatens to change her resolve. The two enter a no-strings-attached, steamy relationship that quickly becomes tangled.

Leia and Tarquin’s chemistry sizzles from their meet-cute during a blackout in a London IKEA store on New Year’s Eve. Although the plot centers on their budding romance, Middleton smoothly blends aspects of their personal lives into beautifully interwoven subplots set against the backdrop of life in London and New York. The playful and racy banter between Leia and Tarquin is delightful. The heavy internal monologue and British slang may give some readers pause, but others will appreciate the insight it sheds on the characters’ motivations and actions.

Middleton elegantly balances the romance and sensuality by exploring challenges such as post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and depression. While readers swoon over Tarquin’s wealth, good looks, and love of Star Wars, they also get to see a strong man’s perspective on struggling with mental illness. Leia’s gratitude journal entries throughout the story add depth to her character and plot, simultaneously highlighting an effective coping mechanism for depression and anxiety. The heaviness in certain scenes is quickly lightened by the characters’ quirks and heightened sexual tension. This sultry, yet sweetly heartfelt romance is a winner.

Takeaway: Fans of contemporary romance will rejoice in this story of falling in love through and despite mental illness.

Great for fans of Candace Bushnell, Alexa Martin.

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

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Dream Wizard Escapes
Alexander Randall 5th
Randall’s inventive second Dream Wizard middle grade adventure (after Dream Wizard) follows a young boy, Sandy, and his clever sheepdog, Mr. Harris Tweed, after Sandy is kidnapped near his Boston home and held for ransom. Lucky for him, Mr. Tweed is extraordinarily smart—he’s “no ordinary dog”—and follows Sandy and his kidnappers to their hideout to rescue Sandy. Meanwhile, Sandy must draw on his experiences, including of the hidden back stairs in his historic home and the collaborative “Knight School” he visits in his dreams, to escape his kidnappers and reunite with his family and Mr. Tweed. Sandy’s Knight School companion, Kat, has her own mini-arc in which she is also kidnapped by Killian and Helmut and goes from Sandy’s dream acquaintance to his real-life friend.

The most exhilarating elements of Randall’s novel are the imaginative plot and evocative charcoal illustrations, which convey a wonderful sense of motion and vibrancy. Though the writing is unpolished and the dialogue repetitive, the captivating suspense of Sandy’s situation entices the reader to continue on. Sandy’s positive, can-do attitude and his meaningful relationship with Mr. Tweed somewhat redeem the verbal awkwardness. Other than Kat, the characters are not well developed, including Sandy’s younger sister, Rose, and his nameless parents, as well as the kidnappers, Killian and Helmut, and Sandy’s newfound policeman friend, Officer Miller.

In making two children the most developed characters, Randall creates a world where kids reign supreme. This is made literal in Knight School, where children are in charge. The author’s expertise in the psychology of sleep and dreaming is visible in this notion of a fantastical place that can only be accessed in slumber. Knight School allows children to collaboratively solve real-life problems through dream sequences, giving Sandy and Kat the chance to explore their imaginations and creativity. Younger readers will revel in the motivated, can-do attitude of Sandy and Mr. Tweed, particularly the problem-solving inspiration it provides.

Takeaway: Young fantasy and adventure readers will be inspired by the optimistic, positive attitude of two children and a clever dog, even in the face of danger.

Great for fans of Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie, Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan.

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

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Elemental Natures: Selected Lyrics, Sequences, and Artwork with New Poems and the Essay "The American Voice"
Lance Lee
Lee (Homecomings) unites a selection of work from “old favorites” and poems he feels he has “neglected” in this cohesive and lyrical collection. Classic themes—such as love, pain and suffering, and religion—unfold amid vivid word imagery and profound symbolism, enveloping readers in a mix of “self and other, just as the present mixes with the past and any number of hoped-for futures.” Lee provides glimpses of a writer at work through the filter of time in this massive tome, packing a multitude of meaning into dramatic inflection and phrasing while challenging readers to open the wounds caused by being human.

Lee’s collected work shares elements of intensity and raw human experiences, from the powerful imagery of fixating on breast cancer scars during lovemaking in “Backrub,” to the merciless hard labor sentences of immigrants in “The Way Home.” He divulges his discovery of “how blood waters the earth/ how flesh is food and death” and reveals penetrating feelings of isolation and loneliness, making the selected writings read like a fragmented biography told through scenes of the author’s life. “Homecoming” presents as an homage to finding purpose through love - “I am caught in the hall of mirrors husband and wife become/ bound to the urban streetweb where only earthquakes/ remind us the world is real... here is my ocean, fog, light; my stone, my earth, my self/ my flight.”

Though the sheer amount of work presented causes feelings of repetition, Lee’s stunning writing about the natural world and bold descriptions of collective and fundamental experiences is enough to keep readers returning for more. Occasional black-and-white illustrations contextualize the works. Both returning and new readers will savor Lee’s compilation of work in various formats. This compendium will appeal to those who enjoy classic literature as well as poetry about archetypal themes.

Takeaway: This impressive collection organically mixes poetry, prose, and nonfiction and will appeal to thoughtful readers of classic literature and 20th-century verse.

Great for fans of Walt Whitman, Robert Lowell.

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

BEDLOE (A True Fable)
tony powers
In this bitter critique of the Trump administration, Powers combines Romeo and Juliet with 1984 against the backdrop of a stolen presidency. It's been 24 years since Ransom B. Conover won the presidency in a dubious upset and quickly turned it into the appointed office of chairman. Now only the ironically named servers, the wealthiest 10% of the population, have the right to vote, learn, send letters, use the internet, or access fresh produce and clean water. Everyone else is an associate, including John Bedloe, a widower and Iraq War veteran, and his 16-year-old son, James, a parcel courier. By day they shiver in the ruined climate; by night they watch government-provided TV and chug energy drinks laced with synthetic meth while John rants about how things used to be and James shrugs him off. Everything changes when James meets Lacey, a new colleague hiding a dangerous secret, and mutual attraction sparks.

Like its literary influences, this satire is first and foremost a tragedy. Readers should prepare for mature themes and graphic depictions of violence, such as in the wildly popular propaganda show Rape! Murder! Execution! Powers's unedited prose is challenging to read; some plot points are repeated near-verbatim throughout the text, and the dialogue lacks traditional formatting, making it difficult to follow. These issues and some technical errors undermine John's paeans to the purity of the English language, which he feels his fellow millennials have destroyed.

Fans of political and dystopian fiction will find much to hold their interest. Powers’s vision of the Conover administration and its legacy are bleak. America has shifted from a democracy to an oligarchy, and the American people are hopeless and helpless, numbly buying into the new system and cheering on the latest cyberwar with PanAsia. This allegory begs readers to fight propaganda and consumerism like the future depends on it.

Takeaway: This grim reimagining of the fallout from the 2016 election will appeal to readers of political satire and apocalyptic fiction.

Great for fans of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

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

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THE PLAN
Reco McDaniel McCambry
In this accessible, encouraging guide, CEO McCambry (The Fatherless Father) calls for his fellow Black Americans to create “true justice, power, and prosperity” for all Black people. The book, which begins with a dedication to a 13-page list of Black people killed by police, discusses “steps each of us can take today, and every day, to transform our communities and claim the prosperity that is our birthright” through ending police murder of Black people, building up Black men and boys, creating prosperity for the next generation, becoming politically involved in making lasting legal changes, and “uplift[ing] the national and global Black communities—not just individuals and isolated families.” Each chapter begins with an overview of its topic (e.g., historical Black-owned banks, recent police brutality, the effects of racism on self-efficacy) and activists’ proposals regarding issues like police brutality and reparations; some also include brief profiles of exemplars like Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman.

By using pronouns such as "we" and "us," McCambry builds a sense of camaraderie with the reader. His tone is inviting and encouraging, rather than preachy. The well-organized chapters, accessible explanations of concepts, and clear prose make this book approachable and appealing.

While McCambry writes approvingly of Malcolm X and the authors of the 8 to Abolition platform, ultimately he’s focused in this volume on practical changes related to parenting, voting, financial literacy, and so on. This isn’t aimed at radical readers or calling to burn it all down; McCambry clearly wants his readers to be safe and thriving. While his focus on business and money may not initially appeal to all readers, McCambry’s love for Black people and sincere desire to help others shine through on every page of this book.

Takeaway: McCambry’s approachable guide lovingly encourages Black Americans to seek the justice, power, and prosperity they deserve.

Great for fans of: Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, Adrienne Maree Brown.

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

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The Atropos Maker II: A New Order
N. J. Lujan
In a near-future United States with advanced technology, Middle Eastern jihadist terrorist groups plague the nation. Fresh off their successful, though costly, last mission, the covert government squad Atropos, named for the Greek goddess of fate, face their next challenge: terrorist-led child sex-trafficking rings in Iraq. And it’s personal: they have history with one of the perpetrators and happen to know one of the victims. Meanwhile, Atropos’s leaders—Norma and Alex Veurr—are aging (“now in their mid-40s”), and their son Alexander is eager to take over leading the squad. But will Nyx, a mysterious and beautiful new neighbor in his luxury condo building, interfere with the family’s plans for Alexander’s future?

The plot careens between spy thriller, family drama, and American nationalism at full tilt. Readers will sometimes be tripped up by editing oversights like incomprehensible sentences (“Zen soon turns ruffled at the thought that his impulsive craving may leave an undesirable outcome”), confusing diction (“admirably” used for “admiringly”), and a conflation of ancient Greece and Rome, two distinct cultures treated interchangeably. And this book is for mature audiences only, given its graphic depictions of violence and sexual assault—and even the good guys use homophobic slurs, which may put off some readers.

Yet Lujan provides plenty of heart-pounding twists and turns throughout, and makes family history clear enough that new readers can dive in without having read the previous volume. The Atropos team takes on high-stakes situations both professional and personal (generational tensions, revelations of family secrets, conflicts between love and work), kicking ass all the while. Thriller fans who don’t mind graphic scenes or the book’s politics, and can overlook the language issues, will find this a fun ride.

Takeaway: Though at times confusing and jingoistic, this intense thriller delivers an action-packed punch.

Great for fans of: Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series, Joel C. Rosenberg’s JB Collins novels.

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

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He Lands In Palm Springs
John F Shekleton
Former Jesuit priest Shekleton (A Jesuit Tale, Father Tierney Stumbles) explores complex intersections of love, religion, and sexuality in his fast-paced, steamy second installment of the Father Tierney series. Joe Tierney, “HIV-positive and AWOL from his once-formidable life as pastor,” is on a quest to reunite with his ex-lover Kenny. After finding work at an idyllic gay guesthouse in Palm Springs, Joe finds his heartbreak falling to the wayside as he fosters new friendships and infatuations in the California sunshine. Casa Vista Oro seems like Father Tierney’s personal paradise—full of chiseled, attractive friends and lovers with a web of relationships and histories with each other—but complications soon arise.

Occasionally, ideas are repeated within paragraphs and from different characters’ perspectives, and sometimes conflicts are more told than shown, but these lapses are offset by the appeal of characters who openly acknowledge their seemingly “soap opera existence.” The romance and drama are complicated by each character’s complex relationship to their sexuality: some can be fully “out,” but some must keep their sexuality hidden for the sake of job security and comfort.

Shekleton shifts perspectives frequently, providing a look into each character’s inner thoughts and motivations. Readers may struggle to keep track of the many characters at first, but the author successfully differentiates their voices. Shekleton also provides positive depictions of healthy, safe sexual relationships between people living with HIV. By the novel’s delicious climax, it’s unclear who will end up with whom, but readers can be certain that this sunny novel is a treat.

Takeaway: Romance fans will love this tender, fun look into gay life in Palm Springs.

Great for fans of: Victor J. Banis’s C.A.M.P. series, George M. Johnson, Mathew Rodriguez.

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

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King of Wands
Anna Durbin
Durbin (King of Swords) weaves an unusual, erotic historical romance with tarot themes in this second installment of the Kings of the Tarot series. Though she is a lady of the gentry, Julia Lacey isn’t the typical social butterfly in Regency-era England. Not only is she a widow with a secret philanthropy, she also subscribes to Eastern mysticism, completely appalling the new vicar, Charles Rodman. A widower who espouses conservative beliefs about women’s roles, Charles is nevertheless open-minded enough to listen when Julia challenges everything he’s ever thought to be true. But even as their love blooms, the cards aren’t necessarily drawn in their favor.

Durbin’s occasionally repetitive phrases and situations, particularly in character descriptions, could pull readers away from the story. The broadly sketched characters transcend stereotypical historical romance tropes, delving into little-discussed elements of the time and place. Readers will catch an intriguing glimpse into some of the effects of British colonialism and the power wielded by the wealthy through Charles and Julia’s respective histories and scandals.

Durbin’s strong focus on the effects of domestic violence, the plight of women during the period, and Julia’s celebration of her sexuality without being constrained by societal mores breathes new life into the usual fare, adding depth and novelty to what might otherwise be a boilerplate tale. Julia and Charles have passions other than each other: hers is for helping women in difficult circumstances and his, as a man of the cloth, is tending to his flock of faithful despite the sins of his own past. The complex and nuanced interplay between these two characters makes for a powerful love story.

Takeaway: This richly described love story focuses on passion and second chances, offering a refreshing take on the traditional historical romance.

Great for fans of: Georgette Heyer, Courtney Milan.

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

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Shadows
William Stephen Edwards
"God of my childhood, Dear God, let there be if naught else of worth, verse in me." Here begins a collection of poetry that is by turns whimsical, through-provoking, heart-wrenching, and introspective. Religion is explored in the pieces "Jesus Says," "Poet's Prayer," and "Bible," and themes of war beautifully spun out in the prose of "Black Beauty," a piece that is equal parts a war story and an ode to a soldier's gun with hints of PTSD. There are odes in this collection to patients Edwards crossed paths with during his medical career, eloquently written, in pieces such as "Julie in the Nursing Home," a poem about a young girl who is bedridden after being hit by a drunk driver, and "Leukemia," about a girl who dies from leukemia at the age of seven.

Edwards does not shy away from tough or dark subjects in his poetry, but there are also lighthearted, playful pieces. Fans of Greek mythology will enjoy poems referencing myths and well-known heroes of those stories, like "Prometheus," which delves into the Titan's desire to aid in mankind's creativity and development.

The collection is formally varied. Some entries are prose poems; in some poems Edwards incorporates somewhat formal, archaic language, like “oft” and “’tis”; in others, readers will find mentions of JC Penney and colloquial generalizations like “aargh!”. This skillfully written collection is accessible to novice poetry readers and avid fans alike. The wide range of topics, tones, and forms means at least some of its entries will resonate with a wide variety of readers.

Takeaway: This vast, varied poetry collection has something for everybody.

Great for fans of: Robert Frost, Walt Whitman.

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

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THE AURAS PURPOSE
Jose Colon
Offering a singular mix of apocalyptic adventure, conspiratorial secret history, and metaphysical superheroics, Colón’s sprawling end-times novel pulses with imaginative invention. This story, the first book in the Guardian series, centers on a nefarious faction of immortals led by one Master Oblivion, which has dedicated itself to the destruction not just of humanity but of people’s trust in their governments and capacity for hope.

In the late 1990s, Master Oblivion’s immortal team enlists power brokers to fake the computer “crisis” of Y2K so they can hack into the world’s computers. They’re also credited with the shootings at Columbine High School and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, among other events. Humanity’s best chance at restoring hope is a young boy from Seattle named Chris, who is revealed at a Shaolin Temple to be “the Shining One,” foretold in legend, part Dalai Lama and part Doctor Strange. Chris’s destiny, he’s told, is to remind humanity to “use our potentials to what they were supposed to be.”

As an adult, Chris achieves some of his destiny through (non-explicit) transcendental sex that leaves an eternal mark on a tech pioneer named Lori Muse. Colón doesn’t reveal much about what characters are thinking, so readers might find themselves, like Lori, unclear about Chris’s plan and her own role in the future; they’ll have to wait for future installments to find out. Readers interested in the machinations of power brokers will enjoy the panoply of angels, demons, CEOs, socialites, and monks battling for the fate of the universe in this fast-moving metaphysical epic.

Takeaway: This apocalyptic epic will appeal to readers who love a juicy conspiracy.

Great for fans of: L. Ron Hubbard’s Mission Earth series, S. M. Stirling’s Emberverse series.

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

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Every Day Is Saturday
Jerry Zezima
Zezima's (Nini and Poppie’s Excellent Adventures: Grandkids, Wine Clubs, and Other Ways to Keep Having Fun) latest anecdotes about life in retirement pack colossal humor into bite-sized stories, revealing a man unfalteringly devoted to his wife and family. Zezima's long career, as a syndicated humor columnist specializing in droll observations about everyday life, gives him a unique perspective from which to expound on the different ways that retirement has changed him. He recounts interactions with his beloved grandchildren, home improvement projects, and an ever-changing dynamic with his wife, Sue. Each chapter compiles several short anecdotes or observations, with titles like “How to Bathe a Baby” and “Love at the Landfill.”

Zezima's nonstop puns and self-deprecating tone are balanced by his warmth and humanity. His grandchildren own a large part of the stage, and his witty recounting of their adorable antics brims with the loving devotion of retired grandparents. His natural penchant for hamming it up while storytelling is evident when he breathes life into mundane topics like needing a new fridge or applying for Social Security. The chapter of interviews about retirement with friends and former colleagues is surprisingly introspective and informative, highlighting Zezima’s reporter's instinct and knack for comedy.

Zezima deflects darker emotions with satire and deliberately keeps the tone light, even when discussing things like the coronavirus and its effect on his marriage. Gratitude for life is palpable on every page. Zezima’s childlike curiosity about the world around him, particularly the histories of people he meets, forms the basis of entertaining quips and reminiscences (“I am proud, happy, and really fatigued to say that I took a six-hour safe driving course sponsored by AARP”). Zezima has seriously elevated his shtick in this hilarious and heartwarming chronicle of grandparents gone wild.

Takeaway: Readers will chuckle at Zezima's propensity for puns and appreciate his outpouring of genuine warmth and love for family.

Great for fans of: Graham Harrop's Living Together After Retirement, Clive Whichelow's Retirement For Beginners.

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

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The Frosell Affair
Heddy Frosell da Ponte
Frosell da Ponte (The Glamour Years of Flying as a Stewardess) serves up an intriguing “dramatization of the true story” of her family’s experience after the 1944 Allied victory in Europe, drawn from her father’s unpublished writings. In her third-person telling, her father, Oscar Frosell, an affluent Swedish national living in France, is labeled a Nazi collaborator by corrupt members of the Resistance, who are after his fortune, when the Allies liberate Paris. After he is stripped of his home, tortured, and imprisoned, Oscar enters a lengthy legal battle with the French Republic, and his quest for justice puts him at odds with some of the most lauded figures in history. Meanwhile, his obsession with restitution isolates and forever alters his daughter Heddy.

The story is at its most successful when exploring Heddy’s loss of innocence as she comes of age during a period of intense turmoil. She is precocious and observant, and glimpsing a father’s predicament through the eyes of a child is noteworthy. While the dehumanizing treatment Oscar faces will deeply affect readers, the pursuit of wealth-based reparations can feel cold in the context of such widespread suffering.

This bold narrative is remarkably different from typical novels and novelizations of World War II. The bureaucratic villains are respected real-life political figures (Charles de Gaulle, Raoul Nordling), and, rather than focusing on the cruelty of the Nazis, the horrors of the Holocaust, or the war itself, Frosell da Ponte explores how greed and self-preservation can corrupt anyone. Though the historical accuracy of the story is largely unknown (the records of this affair are not readily available), this provocative work illuminates an atypical battle against oppression and intimidation.

Takeaway: This challenging, original historical dramatization is perfect for those interested in moral grey areas and corrupt bureaucracy.

Great for fans of: Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

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

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Optimal
John Berger
Berger (Extremism) depicts a dystopian world where online algorithms and recommendations have made life outwardly perfect and seamless. Since the end of the Algorithm Wars, the System runs everything flawlessly, creating a fully integrated global structure where everyone is connected via wearable devices and their jobs, diets, recreation, and romantic lives are guided by recommendations from the all-encompassing technology. When Stanton Lime (financial officer for the UVblZCofKX Corporation) disappears and becomes virtually untraceable, corporation lawyer Megumi tasks accountant Jack with tracking him down. Along with Mira, Stanton’s mysterious former associate, Jack navigates the intricacies of the System and learns about the dark side of a society with so much control over its members.

In Berger’s future, casual human touch is offensive, police surveillance reigns supreme, and serendipity has been replaced by a hyperefficient system based on likes and recommendations. Berger’s rebels and renegades, seeking to break away from this, fetishize retro technology (“Another item in the collection was a box with a round rotating platform and a swiveling mechanical arm.… Focus showed type:record-player”). This dark atmosphere will draw in even fans who are familiar with dystopian worlds.

The characters are charismatic and will keep readers invested. Jack’s journey of self-discovery and quest for individualism as he learns to let go of controlling technology is compelling. Stanton Lime, with his love for outdated technology and old-world wines, is a delightfully appealing revolutionary figure. Berger compellingly explores the predicaments of a globally networked civilization in this stimulating, immersive book.

Takeaway: Fans of dystopian stories will enjoy this speculative fiction thriller.

Great for fans of: Amor Towles’s You Have Arrived at Your Destination, David Eggers’s The Circle.

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

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Dream Phaze - Germination
Matt
Watters’s thrilling first installment of the Dream Phaze series combines imagination with technology to create a future where clients are immersed in customized engineered dreams. Dr. Saxon Zynn and his team of scientists are responsible for this revolutionary science, but they’re racing the clock to meet their launch date. Not everyone is eager to see this innovative technology hit the mainstream market, however, and Fundamental Purists stand in the way of the team’s success. When threats are issued against his family, Saxon is faced with a decision: Does he shut down his program, or does he push forward despite the severe consequences?

Readers will delight in the world Watters has created. They will long to be one of Saxon’s customers, who can experience soaring through an asteroid belt, drinking molten lava from a Mars volcano, or literally tasting a rainbow. The standoff with the Fundamental Purists’ is high tension; it threatens the life of Saxon’s son Hugo while illuminating secondary characters such as Saxon’s strong-willed wife Margo, her father Walter, and Hugo’s mysterious fiancée Christine. A glossary makes it easier to decode the technical jargon of the opening chapter, and soon the mechanics of immersive dreaming take a backseat to the nail-biting action of Saxon’s personal and professional dilemma.

Watters masterfully pits Saxon’s most closely held values against one another for a page-turning thriller. The novel also considers the broader social implications of the technology, such as individuals manipulating the program to fulfill their own perverse desires, but the heart of the story is Saxon and his desire to create a beautiful dream experience. Science fiction fans will revel in this high-stakes, character-driven thriller that careens through an imaginative future of manufactured dreams.

Takeaway: This high-stakes science fiction thriller will win over readers with its dynamic characters and unforeseen plot twists.

Great for fans of: Roger Zelazny’s The Dream Master, Christopher Priest’s A Dream of Wessex.

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

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