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Visions of Johanna
Peter Sarno
Sarno's debut follows the poignant love story of music critic Matt and years-older artist Johanna. In 2012, 25 years after the breakup, Johanna's daughter calls Matt to come visit her mother, and the novel is built on Matt’s flashbacks to their vital years together. In 1980s Boston, Matt is a struggling writer facing eviction from his apartment when he runs into Johanna while he’s covering a Bob Dylan concert. With tender excitement, Matt details Johanna’s whirlwind entrance into his life, especially her worldly experiences, knowledge of art, and passion for feminist issues. A long-distance romance blooms, rich with powerful moments.

Sarno explores many heavy and formidable topics, but he does so with sensitivity and delicacy, covering weighty issues like suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other aspects of mental illness with grace. He’s skillful at depicting Matt and Johanna’s shifting relationship, characterized both by moments of transcendent connection as well as darker times—including a wrenching account of a despondent Johanna’s lowest moments. Ultimately, Matt shies from a real commitment because of unresolved trauma from his childhood. This leads to a slow, painful breakup but also later to Matt’s own healing, as he learns to face his past and open himself up in relationships.

The somewhat painful reunion a quarter century later is both moving and evocative of their earlier ups and downs, as Matt has learned to approach those he cares for with a sense of grace that the break-up was lacking. Threaded through it all, as the title suggests, is a fascination with the music of Bob Dylan and others–obsessive Matt, we learn, parses a mono edition of Blonde on Blonde to discover “the prominence of different instruments when compared to the stereo edition.” The resulting novel, like the classic song that lends the novel its title, is a slightly rambling but heartfelt and fascinating narrative about the urgency of human connection.

Takeaway: A beautifully intimate romance that doesn't shy away from challenging topics.

Great for fans of: Hazel Hayes’s Out of Love, Sara Goodman Confino’s She’s Up to No Good.

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

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sepia: If only he hadn't. If only she had.
Herlinde Cayzer
Cayzer’s ambitious historical novel spans seven decades, from the 1940s in Germany to 2013 in Australia, addressing themes of resilience and forgiveness. The three main characters are children in Germany as the Nazis consolidate their power. Young Sigrid and her mother, who does not support the regime, escape to a marginal existence in the German countryside; after the war they relocate to Australia for a fresh start. Forced into the Hitler Youth program, Sigrid’s older brother, Heinz, never internalizes the Nazi indoctrination, but his friend Werner willingly accepts the propaganda. Horrors that Werner witnesses change his life, trailing him into old age and haunting the novel, as does the mystery of what happened to Heinz, as Cayzer connects the three’s stories, known and unknown, through a sepia photograph displayed in Sigrid’s home.

Sigrid, Heinz, and Werner are complex characters caught up in the events of history, and their stories—told in alternating chapters of past and present—resonate and intrigue as the novel builds to its satisfying final revelations. Readers expecting a page-turner, however, should know that Cayzer’s interest is often more in the sweep of time and history than swift commercial storytelling, with Sepia offering passages of historical facts and detailed summaries of the characters’ lives and cultural interests. Unexpected leaps into the heads of minor characters and a tendency toward grand musings on the part of an omniscient narrator (“…the primeval nature of the species took its natural, ecstatic and climactic course”) also diminish the narrative urgency.

Cayzer proves attentive to the horrors of the Nazi regime but also to the pleasures and pain of life afterwards, as her characters face the past and each other. Dialogue scenes are intimate, revealing, and often witty as the novel immerses readers in these lives and takes the measure of time, trauma, loss, and all that’s worth holding on to. Sprinkled throughout the pages are pencil sketches of characters and settings that add charm.

Takeaway: This historical novel charts three extraordinary lives from 1940s Germany to 21st century Australia.

Great for fans of: Kelly Rimmer, Alexander Starritt.

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

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The Liberation of Laith Brinley (Crimson Crew Book 3)
Amy C Svireff
The rousing third installment of Whitcoma’s Crimson Crew romance series pairs a shy and unwaveringly silent college lacrosse player, Laith Brinley, with the inquisitive, unrelenting journalist Brooke Summers. Laith, a man of few words who avoids talking to anyone outside of family, finds himself in a challenging situation when a determined Brooke sets out to interview every member on the lacrosse team for the college newspaper. Laith initially tries desperately to avoid her questions, but eventually he gives in—only to find himself opening up about a long-kept family secret while falling in love with Brooke at the same time.

Whitcoma immediately pulls readers into this story with expertly crafted characters and humorous dialogue, and the fast-paced romance sizzles from the start. Laith is accompanied by an astounding, witty cast of side characters from previous books in the series that adds to the story without causing confusion, and Whitcoma skillfully makes the novel’s main players as relatable as they are intriguing. Though sad at times, Laith’s journey feels deeply personal and intense, and readers will be immersed in his transformation. Whitcoma deftly builds to touching moments that will elicit tears as well as red-hot love scenes sure to fulfill any romance reader’s desire for spice.

The strength of this story lies in the author’s mix of sweet moments between engaging leads with well-thought-out flaws set against heartbreaking backstories. Each character is well-rounded and convincingly detailed, and Whitcoma elevates that detail through intimate writing and penetrating inner monologues that bring the cast to life. This addition adds a thrilling touch to the series, and as an expert in fast-moving romance, Whitcoma hits all the right spots for fans who prefer hot and spicy reads that still deliver the perfect amount of complexity.

Takeaway: This fast-paced Ivy League romance satisfies with memorable characters and a dash of spice.

Great for fans of: Elle Kennedy’s The Deal, Elena Armas, Ali Hazelwood.

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

Nature, Culture & the Sacred: :A Woman Listens for Leadership
Nina Simons
Linking spiritual and personal growth and balance with a call for transformational change at the individual and societal levels, Bioneers co-founder Simons urges readers in this bold, welcoming guide to strive to achieve balance, to “reclaim the feminine,” and to dare to lead. Simons offers insight, inspiration, and tools and exercises to help readers to heal, nurture visions and clear senses of purpose, and stand firm in the face of what she identifies as a “global war on women.” Simons unstintingly lays out the parameters of that “systemic, entrenched, and brutal” war, recounting stomach-churning testimony at the UN Commission on the Status of Women, where she hosted a panel on women’s leadership.

Innovative and original, Simons’s guide asks readers to care for themselves and their own balance and wellness but also “to form an underground web of connection with each other, like aspen trees do” and to aspire to nothing less than “a shift in how we relate to each other and to the whole of the living Earth.” Drawing from indigenous traditions, a deep interest in intuition and dreams, and practical and spiritual-minded conversations with thinkers like V. (formerly Eve Ensler) and Terry Tempest Williams, Nature, Culture, & the Sacred stands apart for its breadth and richness, especially in its clear-eyed linking of attention to injustice, from Standing Rock to civil rights to multinational corporations abuses of indigenous populations, and its conviction that we each have the tools to contribute to change.

Simons emphasizes storytelling techniques and exercises to expose truths, build movements, achieve social change, and even “shift our relationship to time.” Profiles of “sheros” whose work embodies Simons’ conception of “emergent, love-inspired leadership” both round out the book and demonstrate the power of those storytelling techniques. Each chapter ends with “Prompts for Deeper Learning”—“How might you strengthen your partnering with others to leverage power?”—that challenge readers in ways few books do.

Takeaway: This uplifting guide to transformative change challenges readers to face a global war on women.

Great for fans of: 25 Transformational Stories From Women Making An Impact In The Lives Of Others, Julie Burton and Chris Olsen’s Her Path Forward.

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

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The Velvet Badge: A New York Noir
Bob Mantel
A large cast of troubled characters connects with each other over the years in complex and ultimately tragic ways in this series of noir-flavored stories. Soldier Donny Damon finds himself with an odd connection to President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis and launches a Kennedy-themed nightclub. Rising singer Sadasia takes up residence, and starts a relationship with Capers Greenbergér, famous for creating an offensive sitcom. Desperate publicist Groak has sold his soul—almost literally—as he fast-talks a naïve priest. Eventually these twisty relationships turn toward crime, including a brutal murder, and embroil high-ranking detective Ellia Chase, with her own unsavory connections to the suspects and witnesses. They all face strangely appropriate fates, victims of their own passions.

In his striking first novel, Mantel creates a dark world where everyone has a secret that could lead to destruction. Donny's apparent hallucinations put him on what seems like a road to violence. Sadasia and Capers develop an affair as satisfying as it is destructive. Most arresting of all is the gradual and poignant fall of Ellia, in another case of inner demons and uncontrolled appetites. Although the plot turns are as complex as the characters’ all-too-human motives, the set pieces are so lively that the reader is carried through until the last page.

A key reason the book moves so quickly is Mantel's terrific use of language, an homage to classic noir fiction but always fresh in its own way. A description of how Donny is conceived is a joyfully bizarre cross between Raymond Chandler and Douglas Adams. As a bird dies, its "feathers liquified, popped, hissed and sizzled like the Yule Log broadcast every Christmas Eve in New York on WPIX, Channel 11." A grim Midwestern town is described "where yellowjackets outnumbered registered voters and probably had a higher standard of living." The mood lasts long after the reader has finished.

Takeaway: A horrific crime catalyzes desperate New Yorkers in this arresting neo-noir ensemble tale.

Great for fans of: Michael Heslin’s Meatpacking, Ernesto Quiñonez’s Chango’s Fire.

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

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What Would The Founding Fathers Tell Us Today?: Political Dialogs between 1789 and 2020
Werner Neff
Neff (Vision for America offers an imaginative reconstruction of conversations between the Founding Fathers of America (seven men specifically), from early conversations in 1789 on the basis of our Constitution, to a set of conversations in 2020 on the Trump era’s crisis of democracy, to a flash forward to 2040, when much of the current crises have been resolved. These dialogs are contextualized by explanatory notes and at times summarized by key bullet points. The conversations cover the constitutional basics of the United States of America, both written and unwritten, from the Bill of Rights to the electoral college (“The 2016 thing is kind of weird,” Alexander Hamilton acknowledges), the role that political parties play, the distinction—or lack thereof—between a republic and a democracy, and myriad other topics.

Neff’s playful, informative thought experiment doesn’t restrict the Founder’s conversations to constitutional matters but also reflects on how different the modern world would be to their experience, occasionally layering in jokes to lighten the mood, though some readers might balk at John Adams encouraging someone to “slow [his] roll.” Interestingly, as the conversation turns towards 21st century voting controversies in the last third of the book, Neff makes a wise choice to introduce new characters and broaden the perspective. William Lee, George Washington’s Black manservant, and his two children represent differing perspectives and explore issues of race more fully.

The 2040 section finds the founders speaking to a future president, John Miller, about how the United States made it through its early 21st century crises, giving Neff the opportunity to lay out a set of prescriptions, such as term limits for Supreme Court Justices and members of Congress to the creation of two more major parties rather than just two. Regardless of what a reader may feel about specific proposals, Neff’s dialogs do an excellent job laying out the informal constitutional conventions which American democracy requires to thrive and which are currently under threat.

Takeaway: The founders face the past, present, and future of Constitutional democracy in lively dialogues.

Great for fans of: K. M. Kostyal’s Founding Fathers: The Fight for Freedom and the Birth of American Liberty, Lawrence Rowe’s The Founding Fathers Return.

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

Tangled Violets: A Novel of Redemption
Denise-Marie Martin
Martin debuts with an uplifting story of realistic struggle, a desperate drive for connection, and ultimately Christian redemption. Lizzie Schmidt was adopted as a newborn into a family with another adopted sister, Jeannie, an oversensitive mother, and an alcoholic father struggling to get by. Fast forward decades later, to Lizzie’s life with her third husband, Joe, and Lizzie—a success in many ways, with financial security and graduate degrees in mathematics—embarking on a winding journey towards finding her birth parents and a straighter life path. Lizzie falls in and out of love easily and will face a shocking temptation as she digs deeper into her past. It’ll take Christian counseling and a true rebirth into her faith to set her life on the straight and narrow.

Lizzie’s personal life puts readers onto a roller coaster of emotion. By the time this story starts, she’s had three husbands and five kids and has found that a frightening “emptiness and sense of loss pervaded [her] soul,” specifically after the death of her adopted mother. Tangled Violets Lizzie’s lifelong attempts to find intimacy in too many places eventually lead her into a deeply “inappropriate coupling”—but also, at long last, into healing when she rediscovers for herself the faith that she has always hoped would give her own kids “a wholesomeness and legitimacy that I’d always felt was beyond my reach.”

Martin’s strength in this story comes from a refusal to shy away from life’s difficulties as Lizzie faces tough choices and desires. Living as a Christian, and further a Catholic, isn’t easy, and people do stray. Martin’s development of Lizzie lays a strong foundation to make both her good and the bad choices convincing, encouraging readers to sympathize with a character who embodies human struggle and sin, offering hope of healing and forgiveness. Readers eager for stories about connection and faith will find this engaging.

Takeaway: The heartening story of a woman who’s sought intimacy in the wrong places finding her faith.

Great for fans of: Josie Riviera, Francine Rivers.

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

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The Other Side of Certain
Amy Burle
Willoughby-Burle (The Year of Thorns and Honey) highlights both the despair and the joy of simple pleasures, set against Depression-era Kentucky. When Mattie Mobley leaves her home and life of privilege behind in North Carolina to volunteer at the Works Progress Administration library in Certain, Kentucky, she’s quickly swept into the secrets of the rural town. The library, a converted church, has a murky past tied to widower Daniel Barrett—nicknamed a “grizzly bear” by town residents. Mattie takes on the responsibility of delivering books to Daniel’s home outside of the town, to ensure his children continue reading, and despite his rude demeanor, the two grow closer, and Mattie begins falling for him.

Willoughby-Burle’s lyrical writing propels the novel, its depictions of rural Kentucky’s idyllic beauty haunted by the poverty of the Great Depression. As Mattie’s character gradually develops, Willoughby-Burle focuses on the contrast between her life in North Carolina and in Certain, skillfully capturing Mattie’s charitable nature and genuine quest to help those less fortunate. When Mattie learns the real reason for Daniel’s behavior, she’s able to see the man underneath the gruff appearance and discovers his immense capacity for caring for others, sparking her determination to convince Daniel he must accept his past difficulties and take a chance at reestablishing his fractured relationships with town residents.

Mattie and Daniel’s romance develops simultaneously alongside the mystery behind Daniel’s fall from grace and self-imposed exile from Certain. As Willoughby-Burle reveals the backstory behind the death of Daniel’s wife and why the church—often the center of small southern towns in the Depression era—became a library, she illuminates the contentious relationships and misunderstandings between the town residents, and readers will be drawn to the connection between Mattie’s arrival as a well-to-do outsider and the community’s struggle to heal old wounds. Through it all, Willoughby-Burle never loses focus on Mattie’s generous spirit and the satisfaction she gains through her work.

Takeaway: A young woman volunteering as a librarian inDepression-era Kentucky finds unexpected love.

Great for fans of: Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds, Mary Monroe’s Empty Vows

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

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The Pursuit of Marriage Oneness: The Key to Marital Success
Dr. H. Irving Wilson
Arguing that, in recent decades, American marriages have increasingly strayed from “biblical precepts and principles,” Wilson makes the case that true happiness, fulfillment, and stability in wedlock comes from “a union of three”: the husband, the wife, and Jesus Christ. Wilson calls for a return to “covenant” marriages, which means loving a spouse through the love of God and continual offering of the self to each other, holding to clearly defined roles for the union’s partners, and “weaving together sacrificial commitment (ahava), intimate friendship (raya), affection, and sexual intimacy (dod), producing the harmony of marriage oneness.”

Drawing on scripture, scholarship, and his experience as a pastor and Christian counselor, Wilson lays out, in clear and inviting language, the theological and practical underpinnings of marriage oneness. He urges couples not to drift into “worldly” understandings of marital partnership, noting that the “covenant partners,” driven by love and faith in each other and God, no longer live just for their individual selves. Instead, “We die to ourselves and begin a new walk with our covenant partner.” Separate chapters on both a husband and wife’s sexual fulfillment and the “debt of love” owed to the other are frank but not explicit, taking inspiration from the Song of Songs; Wilson calls for “mutual submission” and “giving self in mutually sharing physical pleasures.”

The question of “submission” has been complex and controversial in Christian marital guides for generations. Wilson argues that a wife’s “voluntary submission” to her husband’s leadership comes out of “respect and affection for him and reverence to Christ” and that the true authority figure in marriage is Jesus. “A covenant wife’s primary role is a homemaker,” he argues, though she has other duties. Wilson notes that this is in “no way an easy path in today’s contemporary society,” citing the “world’s ridicule” of stay-at-home mothers but acknowledging that wives generating some “supplemental income” is not contrary to biblical principle. Christian readers eager to strengthen their marriages while honoring their faith will find this guide welcome.

Takeaway: A pastor’s thorough, inviting guide to oneness and fulfillment in Christian marriage.

Great for fans of: Tim and Beverly LaHaye, Michelle Peterson’s #StayMarried: A Couple’s Devotional.

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

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Resumes for Children - 17 Years Old and Under: A Guide to Giving a Child that Edge to Succeed!
DONNA KRISTINE MANLEY
Offering precisely what its cover promises, Manley’s upbeat, practical guide lays out how (and why) to put together resumes for and with kids, crafting a living record that honors their accomplishments, commemorates their passions and areas of expertise, and celebrates their talents and skills. Manley argues that developing a resume helps children (and parents) become well-rounded outside the academic world. She advises parents to urge kids to think early about cultivating the references they’ll need when applying for jobs or college. Building resumes, she notes, can improve children’s self-esteem and understanding of their “KSAs”—that is, Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities—while also preparing them to apply for programs, scholarships, jobs, and more … and even help kids answer that trickiest of questions, “Tell me about yourself.”

Resumes for Children includes over 30 sample resumes that showcase how to frame and write up kids’ KSAs and accomplishments in clear, direct language. Manley makes clear that resumes need not focus primarily on jobs. The samples highlight volunteer work, the generation of hobby income, awards and recognition in hobbies and arts, and computer and software skills. Like all good resumes, each selection here is crafted to target a goal or demonstrate a particular skill set, such as gardening or music. The volume is rounded out by samples to help with the rare writing project young people dread even more than thank-you notes: cover letters.

Rather than nudge kids toward the professionalization of their hobbies, Manley’s guide encourages children both to dig deeper into their interests and to range outside them, to take on new challenges (giving presentations, taking online courses, learning languages, getting involved in library programs) that could add new dimensions to their resumes—and to their real-life skills and conception of self. The result is a book and process that encourages kids to know and better themselves, in the flesh and on paper.

Takeaway: This charming guide lays out why and how developing resumes can give kids a leg up.

Great for fans of: Christine M. Field’s Life Skills for Kids, Rachel Toor’s Write Your Way In.

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

Return of the Sphynx: An A. J. Hawke Legal Thriller
Donald McInnis
Sharp-witted lawyer A. J. Hawke uses an unusual genetic condition to defend a client against rape in a nail-biting legal thriller. In this sequel to The Sphynx Murder Case, Hawke must defend Joshua Wellington—alleged to be the dreaded "Sphynx Rapist" — when in reality it's his fugitive brother, Jacob. Jacob wants to see Joshua cleared, but won't turn himself in. Fortunately, Hawke finds Joshua has a special genetic condition—he is a "chimera," a person with “two complete genomes or sets of DNA in their body,” which both binds and separates him from Jacob. He must see if this is enough to convince a jury, but before the case is over, he may have to face the Sphynx himself.

McInnis mines his years of experience as a trial lawyer to bring a high level of reality to the trial prep and courtroom scenes. He has a talent for making the minutiae of trial work interesting, as when Hawke and his associates plan how they will use certain questions to impanel a sympathetic jury without upsetting the judge. McInnis also explores the power—and limits—of expert testimony as Hawke chips away at a distinguished DNA expert in a fascinating exchange. Nor is the personal side neglected, as Hawke and his staff bicker when trial tensions ratchet up.

The trial centers on the DNA of identical twins. McInnis gives the trope a fresh twist with the "chimera” idea, a complex but certainly unique and memorable situation to power a thriller. Thoughtful scientific discussion permeates the book, especially the strategic discussion of how Hawke will explain it to the jury. While most of the suspense centers on the courtroom, the finale shows Hawke can also be an effective action hero–and, fortunately, leaves open the possibility for more Hawke adventures.

Takeaway: A scrappy lawyer must use sophisticated science, and his fists, to aid a client.

Great for fans of: Scott Turow, Phillip Margolin.

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

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The Gospels of Peter Star
Thomas Drago
Written as holy books from a future in which civilization spans planets and gender pronouns have been eliminated from English, Drago’s ambitious novel and thought experiment imagines, in the spirit of 1967, rock music and stardom as a breakthrough for human consciousness, as it follows the life, career, and globe-shaking legacy of Peter Star, Rock of Souls. Drago pens four ersatz gospels (cleverly attributed to John Paul, George, and Richard) that boldly mix and match elements of the New Testament with science fiction and rock and roll history, resulting in a playful, allusive, head-spinning narrative that continually challenges and rewards readers. Before it follows Star’s early career and miracles, Drago’s “Book of John” finds the star-to-be born in Motor City, where the slithering Major Tom—“the first proto-human to launch into space and circumnavigate the globe”—offers to guide the newborn to stardom, calling Star “the one who unites our peoples with song and dance as has been foretold.”

It all gets wilder from there. The subsequent gospels enrich and expand the basic narrative of Peter Star, “Not Son of God and Not Son of Man,” inviting readers to peel back the layers of myth, tradition, and reverence to try to spot the actual human events at their core. En route to Star’s inevitable crucifixion, and the end of what the gospel authors call “The Hard Days,” the satire is playful and biting: “But I tell you to have sex with your enemies, do favors for those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and embrace your abusers,” Star instructs his throng.

Most engaging among the playful provocations is the introduction, in the Book of Paul, of “Lady Madonna,” a figure who seamlessly ties together the biblical and the Beatle-y—and also suggests Priscilla Presley, too. The epic length, proudly archaic prose, and daring conceit means the Star story isn’t for everyone, but readers on its wavelength will find pleasure, insight, laughs, and astonishment.

Takeaway: This astonishing novel presents the gospels of a rock savior, in allusive biblical style.

Great for fans of: WIll Self’s The Book of Dave, Joseph Heller’s God Knows.

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

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"#ScaryWhiteFemales": A Novel
R. Scott Cornwell
“A guy can’t insult anybody—without offending everybody,” Cornwell acknowledges early in this proudly divisive satire, a novel crafted to offend progressives, liberals, Sensitive White Males, and pretty much anyone who isn’t its Mencken-loving Libertarian protagonist, John, an EPA bureaucrat utterly miserable in his job, marriage, and country. (He believes the agency he works for should be abolished and declares “Government doesn’t work.”) The loose plot centers on John’s wife’s choice to vacation in a resort in the town of Progress, Oregon, hauling John along with her, so that he can carp about gender and pronoun seminars while dreaming of steak houses and Pebble Beach. Eventually, much mishigas ensues involving the town, a bank robbery, and the general dopiness of the left, all against the backdrop of a hotly contested Democratic primary modeled on the 2008 presidential contest.

But the story’s secondary. Cornwell’s book is about John crabbing his way across contemporary America, through extended set pieces at dinner parties, airports, and eventually liberal Oregon, where the women’s collective called The Conscience scream that all men are rapists. The satire is over-the-top, sometimes inventive, and not always fresh—expect lots of jokes about Al Gore and pantsuits. Still, Cornwell writes with crisp, engaging prose and proves adept at running gags and the occasional cockeyed one-liner. In an airport bathroom, John contends with “towel dispensers gone digital,” an encounter ending with “soapy hands performing a variety of yoga moves, before being wiped on pants.”

For all its polish, reader enjoyment of #ScaryWhiteFemales will come down to sensibility, political bent, and patience with its episodic storytelling. Whether by design or not, John’s characterized not as the last reasonable person in the U.S. but as a stick-in-the-mud every bit as hypersensitive as the many people we are told he “detest”s. Cornwall scores some laughs lampooning the idea of “safe spaces,” even as his hero yearns for one.

Takeaway: An episodic satirical novel about a Libertarian bureaucrat facing progressive “safe spaces.”

Great for fans of: Burt Walker’s Status Schmo, Curtis Edmonds’s Snowflake’s Chance.

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

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Frankly Savannah
Frank McManus
This extravagantly playful science-fiction satire imagines a 22nd century in which current trends have run amok: Antarctica has melted into Springlandia. The U.S. government is now run through Amazon Alexas, devices that run people’s lives, scheme against them and, with the right download, assume the role of dominatrixes, making users beg when issuing commands. Elon Musk’s A.I. has colonized Mars and curses out his Tesla bots in a “squeaky cartoon voice.” And guys like Frank, who runs “the only medium-sized space engineering and repair business on this side of the Large Magellanic Cloud,” still adore massive TVs and refurbished older vehicles, like his planet-hopping Chevy Novastar.

McManus’s epic does have a plot, a time-hopping pulp lulu that finds a World War I pilot crashing in the Alps in 1918 with a cargo that grows more precious as centuries pass, though it’s the fun speculative elements—and Frank’s warmly crabby relationship with his daughter Savannah—that give the novel its quirky kick. Still, the mysteries involving out-of-time gold and people, plus a possible murder with dark implications for the family business, keep the pages turning and add welcome gravity to the high-flying antics. The humor’s often times cheerfully foul-mouthed, especially when Frank is complaining, though McManus’s choice to include a winged character named “Larry the Fairy” who’s fond of “cruse’n” to his “favorite glory hole” will test—or entirely eliminate—the good will of many readers.

The speculative elements are more comic than predictive; in this future, characters still order pizzas and remember 1980s movies, though perhaps this mirrors the ways we still read Dickens today. While filled with silly incidents, surprising plot twists, and much slightly annoyed chatter between father and daughter, the novel is demandingly long, especially for a comedy where it’s not always clear how seriously readers should take the stakes. But the central relationship is compelling, and readers on McManus’s wavelength should expect some belly laughs.

Takeaway: A mad science-fiction spree into an Alexa and Musk-ruled 22nd century.

Great for fans of: James Alan Gardner, Barry J. Hutchison’s Space Team.

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

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Mrs. R. Snugglesworth, Attorney-at-Law
Amy Flanagan
Long satisfied with simply being adorable, Mrs. R. Snugglesworth makes a life-changing decision to join the Legal Beagles of the canine justice system in Flanagan’s charming middle-grade debut. The effusive English Labrador Retriever is not shy about wagging her own tail, and Mrs. R.’s narration is punctuated with declarations about being the best at anything she attempts. But her plans to be the top student at the prestigious Wagsworth Legal Academy are stymied when she’s paired up with attention-seeker Maple Lane. Aghast at his arrogance (“The ego on that dog!”), Mrs. R. begins to curb her overconfidence when she glimpses unnerving similarities between herself and the snappy terrier.

Even before completing her studies, Mrs. R. is asked to defend her friend, Pitter-Patter, who’s accused of a heinous crime: Intentional Destruction of a Stuffed Animal. Mrs. R. knows the gentle Great Dane is innocent and begins gathering evidence, all while hoping that she can pass the bar before the trial date. Flanagan infuses elements of a legal thriller with sly humor and a delightfully dog-centric perspective, crafting a distinctive protagonist in Mrs. R., who spends her days being pampered and praised but learns about the law and participates in trials at the Bark Park to expand her horizons beyond an idyllic routine of fun frolics and tasty treats.

Jon Davis’s black-and-white illustrations have the wry expressiveness of the work of Roz Chast, especially the gallery of canines whose personalities are captured in pithy profile. Flanagan skillfully embeds her lessons (accepting responsibility and following through on commitments) in this engaging series debut, and when Mrs. R. returns to represent more clients and solve new mysteries, this prideful pup should also continue to mature. Mrs. R. possesses an Elle Woods blend of legal prowess and waggish charm, and her newfound need to be an advocate for others will inspire young readers to look beyond their comfort zones.

Takeaway: A self-involved dog becomes a lawyer in this picture-book charmer.

Great for fans of: Jennifer Gray’s Atticus Claw Breaks the Law, Jennifer Hawkins’s To Fetch a Felon, and Vicki Milliken’s Jobs for Paws.

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

Click here for more about Mrs. R. Snugglesworth, Attorney-at-Law
Faded Lines
C.D. Paul
Paul’s debut romantic thriller crosses international boundaries, stretching from California, to Dubai, and journeying deep into Pakistan as it follows Azar Al Faid and Maya Singh on a whirlwind gamble of love and adventure. Azar, a Pakistani actor who finds himself immersed in his uncle’s illegal arms trade, embarks on a trip to Dubai for his current film, where he runs into Maya, an Indian physician residing in California and volunteering for Doctors Without Borders. Despite the pair having seemingly nothing in common, they are immediately drawn to each other, sparking a cross-country affair rich with twists and turns as Azar attempts to leave his dangerous past behind him. Can the two find their way through it all unharmed, and more importantly, together?

Paul’s fitting title is evocative of the choices that people are forced to make, often when circumstances are blurry and the line between right and wrong is indistinct. He maintains a firm grasp on his characters, and perhaps the strongest aspect of the story is his deeply human portrayal of not just Azar and Maya, but even other, relatively minor main players who support the novel’s outcome. That rich character development is accompanied by a thrilling narrative that constantly hurtles forward, delivering layers of curveballs—from Pakistani terror groups to leaked biological weapons in Paris.

At times, Paul’s plot comes across as far fetched, and readers may feel inundated with one unbelievable shock after another, but in the end it will be worth their time to suspend belief, as he delivers a satisfying and just reward at the story’s conclusion. The twists might be larger-than-life, but Paul makes sure to fill in all the gaps, never leaving readers hanging with unexplained details. Lovers of romance and thrillers will relish this novel, which is equal parts heartwarming and exhilarating.

Takeaway: A thrilling romantic thriller that crosses the glob and the lines between right and wrong.

Great for fans of: Jack Carr’s The Devil’s Hand, Kate White’s The Secrets You Keep.

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

Click here for more about Faded Lines

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