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The Boy in the Barn
Syneca Featherstone
The latest from Stone, author of numerous western romance series plus other works, is a compelling small-town thriller in which the lives of a cult leader, a mother, and a long-lost lover get tangled up with the secrets of the past. When Sophie Morgan’s mother dies, she is forced to return to her small hometown in Georgia to handle her mother’s affairs, despite her aversion to spending time on the family’s farm. Bizarre occurrences start happening all around her, and when she’s flooded with memories from her childhood, she must begin to unpack some of her generational trauma. The mystery around her family and their land is uncovered when Sophie reunites with Luke, the love of her life. But while she attempts to reconcile the loss of her mother, Sophie also finds herself face to face with an unexpected evil.

The Boy in the Barn is entirely engrossing, although the content, which includes abuse and torture, may be difficult to digest. Stone’s scene-setting finesse and emotional acuity are impressive, and despite a heavy emphasis on violence, she delivers a skillful story powered by crisp dialogue and narrative momentum, using flashbacks to give her characters depth—and provide readers with welcome relief from the intensity of her plot, although at times the characters memories prove wrenching, too.

The joy of this mystery is embedded in its characters, specifically Sophie, a cautious but brave protagonist who will enrapture readers. The fight for good over evil and chaos rings throughout, and readers will cheer for Sophie and Luke’s love to win in the end. The character of Gideon, a most heinous antagonist, is compelling but lacks intricacy. Fans of mystery novels will find familiar plot points, but the narrative’s charm lies in the nuance of Stone’s people’s complex emotions, which make this combination of mystery and romance shine.

Takeaway: Returning to her childhood home reveals a sinister plot against the heroine’s life in this compelling mystery tinged with romance.

Great for fans of: Willow Rose’s Don’t Lie to Me, Shanora Williams’s The Perfect Ruin.

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

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Cats in the City of Plague
A.L. Marlow
Marlow's fiction debut delves into the world of 14th century France, presenting a thoughtful portrait of a historical plague from the unique perspective of a city's cats. Leander, who considers himself a good cat, upholds his end of the bargain between humans and felines by keeping mice out of the apothecary garden. But the humans of the city are acting strange, and the cats can’t understand why. As plague ravages the town, the humans’ fear turns to distrust and violence against anyone suspected of the Devil's work—from Leander's beloved apothecary, whose herb garden has long been a refuge, to the cats themselves. With the city no longer safe for them, they must make a dangerous journey to an uncertain future in the forest, with only each other to rely on.

Plague is certainly a timely subject, and Marlow's choice to present it from a non-human perspective creates a welcome, fascinating distance. The many cats of the city have charming and distinct personalities, from the brash Eusebius, to the inquisitive twins, and the wise and powerful Innocent. However, the cast is extensive, and the short length of the novel precludes much in-depth characterization. The human interactions are informative but often lack narrative momentum. Still, the theme is engaging, and the unspoken comparisons with today's world will ring true with readers: on one hand, the humans seem to be taking the plague seriously, but on the other, many turn to wild rumors of miracle cures, desperately seek scapegoats, or distrust actual sources of medicine.

Although Marlow’s plot is slow to get started, it eventually transforms into a tense and dramatic journey through the city, powered by the danger and sacrifice inherent in tales of epic quests. Ultimately, the story will appeal more to fans of historical fiction than to animal enthusiasts, but cat lovers will enjoy the lore of Le Chat and the eccentric relations between the humans and felines.

Takeaway: This intriguing story of cats facing the Black Death presents well-researched history and an engaging quest.

Great for fans of: Tad Williams’s Tailchaser's Song, Richard Adams's Watership Down.

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

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Wylde Wings
Kate Ristau
A young boy grows wings and embarks on a magical adventure in Ristau’s (The End of Time) newest middle grade fantasy. Before she died, Gwyn’s mother used to tell him fantastical stories, including promising him that on his 12th birthday he’d grow a pair of wings. When Gwyn at last wakes up that fated morning and discovers he’s still wingless, he feels as if he’s lost one more connection to his mother. But when a mysterious ball of light appears during his class field trip, Gwyn suddenly finds himself flying, launching him on an otherworldly adventure he isn’t sure he’s ready for.

Despite his wish to be able to fly, Gwyn is confused and frightened—and quickly becomes exhausted—when an owl mysteriously appears and guides him to a boat piloted by his Nana, who reveals that all the fanciful stories his mother ever told him are true. What follows is a frenetic adventure. Danger lurks around every corner—the father of a friend tracks him with seemingly nefarious intent, and Gwyn encounters a cursed summer camp counselor, a demon dog, and a mass of blue zombies in the woods by his Nana’s house. But during the journey, he learns secrets about himself, and his Nana too, that give him a chance to feel hope again.

Though the writing is engaging, Ristau’s plot races from point to point so quickly that the tale is slightly disjointed, with major developments not always having time to breathe. As a result, there’s very little character building, especially with the large cast of friends that accompany Gwyn on his adventures. Brian W. Parker’s illustrations—which include scenes from Gwyn’s past—help with the pacing, particularly those depicting time spent with Gwyn’s mother, producing a grounding effect and cementing his character during breaks in the action. Despite his supernatural gift, tweens will find Gwyn relatable, and the story is packed with action as mystery and magic converge.

Takeaway: Tweens with a sense of adventure will be swept away by this magical tale of a boy who discovers he has supernatural abilities.

Great for fans of: Madeleine L’Engle, Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted series.

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

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The Hidden Peace In Poems
Eric Bruce Smith
“When I listen with my heart the words just come,” Smith writes at the start of this intimate debut, which finds the author listening to—and following—his heart. A soaring introductory poem sets the tone (“From jungle bird to jungle boy roaming the cement jungle we conquer”) for a collection of verse and short essays that embraces life as its lived—focusing on childhood, parentage, love, vulnerability, and the glories of Oakland—while finding transcendence in the everyday. “We had the best candy shop in all of Brookfield, and that’s all that mattered to us,” Smith writes in one touching memory piece, a thoughtful reminiscence that acknowledges hard times but also emphasizes the joyous.

Smith’s follow-the-heart approach to writing seems reflective of an inviting approach to life itself. That’s not to suggest that The Hidden Peace in Poems and its many moments of warmth shy away from this world’s harshness. Instead, pieces like “Shelter Inside” center on an agitated narrator who feels disconnected from those around them (“Maybe I’ll just wait until a real person seeks me, with a sincere spirit”) while poems like “What Has It Done?” express frustrated despair at how “Spirits full of selfishness, vindictive behavior, and scornful thoughts” prevail over our better angels.

The portrait that emerges as the pages pass is of a soul seeking love, beauty, and justice yet sometimes stymied by forces large and small, the societal and the personal. Above all, though, Smith evinces a compelling drive to keep going, making art out of the very struggle to express one’s self. Frank and direct, the standout prose pieces “Longing to Be Heard” and “Feeling Unneeded” state truths so many can relate to: “I may not say everything correctly, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know. It doesn’t mean I don’t care. It doesn’t mean I can’t help.” The act of following his heart –and the example of being heard that this book represents—shows that he can.

Takeaway: This touching collection celebrates the transcendent in the everyday while frankly acknowledging the world’s harshness.

Great for fans of: Oakland’s Citywide Poetry Anthology, Arisa White’s Who’s Your Daddy.

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

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The Invisible Girl: A Memoir
Yvonne Sandomir
“If you remember nothing else from my journey, please remember this,” Sandomir writes early in this wrenching yet hopeful account of surviving abuse and finding the courage to escape and to share her story. “It’s okay to ask for help,” she continues. “It’s okay to tell your story, and it’s okay to feel all the things you don’t want to feel.” In that spirit of outreach, empathy, and leading by example, Sandomir discloses the intimate, harrowing story a childhood marked by the betrayal and abandonment by the adults around her; years of abuse endured as a young woman; and the breakthroughs and triggering moments that brought her, in adult life, to face the past.

Sandomir recounts the “torturous” experience of dredging up old memories in the therapy sessions her new husband urged her to try, plunging herself into depression and stirring up intrusive thoughts as she learned to develop healthy coping strategies. Her memories of violence stretch back to the age of three, and while she’s frank about what happened she describes unspeakable acts with sensitivity, with an emphasis on their impact upon her development, relationships, self-worth, and a tendency toward self-sabotage. The line she draws connecting the trauma of childhood abuse to a pattern of abusive relationships in later life is stark and persuasive.

Frank and clear-eyed, The Invisible Girl finds Sandomir taking account of a life in which the suppressed memories of abuse shaped her choices in ways she hasn’t always understood, where a “once-loving relationship” could become “a full-blown psychological ordeal” she didn’t accept she could leave. (Not being able to leave becomes a frightening theme, especially when she describes being held at a hospital against her will.) What lingers after reading is the strength it takes to heal, how Sandomir eventually accepts that “unburdening” herself of her past is “the only path to laughter, self-love, awareness, and happiness.” Her book stands as a demonstration of how to heal.

Takeaway: A frank, encouraging memoir of healing after enduring cycles of abuse.

Great for fans of: Christy P. Kane’s Fractured Souls and Splintered Memories: Unlocking the "Boxes" of Trauma, Jennifer Debellis’s Warrior Sister: Cut Yourself Free From Your Assault.

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

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The Horn's Hoax: Dark Energy Has A Price
Hector Cantu Kalifa
Kalifa’s sorcerous debut follows the unexpected adventure of two brothers who accidentally travel to another world. Henry and Moris—just a few short months after their father mysteriously goes missing—are playing their favorite make-believe game when suddenly they are transported to a different universe and planet, leaving behind their mother and sister. When each brother is captured by warring wizarding houses, the Veneficums and the Milaculums, they stand the chance of losing each other forever. The boys have too many unanswered questions, and they don’t know who to trust, but in their attempt to find each other and return home, the brothers discover truths about themselves––and their father––they never could have imagined.

Kalifa introduces an expansive world rich with strange creatures and wizards who have clashing motives. After a brief introduction to their life on Earth, Henry and Moris quite literally fall into the middle of a fantasy, and they go through trials and tests independently to learn about themselves along the way, as Kalifa crafts an increasingly complex relationship between the two. When Moris, who is “obsessed with magic” finally finds the power he’s dreamed of, the cost of his revelation may be more than the boys are willing to pay–and after they encounter new friends and an appealing new world, their desire to go back home to those they’ve left behind is at risk.

Kalifa’s storyline is well-planned, easily paving the way for the next in the series, but at times he sacrifices character development for intense world building and plot formation. Switching between the perspectives of two brothers emphasizes an engaging family dynamic that makes the narrative relevant for middle grade and YA readers—although readers may find the somewhat traditional fantasy world of Dantus familiar. The teaser of an ending will leave fantasy fans eager to catch the next story.

Takeaway: A middle grade fantasy novel that emphasizes family bonds, perfect for readers who can’t get enough of magic, wizards, and traveling between worlds.

Great for fans of: Victoria Aveyard’s Realm Breaker, David Levithan’s The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S., Jenny McLachlan’s The Land of Roar.

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

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Basil's Quest, A Tale of Dogged Determination
Gracie H. Vandiver
By giving voice to a compassionate canine, Vandiver turns this story of a rescue dog’s journey to a loving home into a powerful empathy-building exercise for young readers. The three-year-old black Labrador Retriever has spent most of his life outside, sharing a yard with two hostile dogs who frighten and dominate him. Gentle Basil doesn’t get enough to eat, let alone the affection and companionship he craves. Without making Basil’s family into villains, Vandiver shows how owners can harm their pets by not fully understanding the responsibility of caring for a living creature.

Basil was adopted from a shelter for ten-year-old Marina, whose parents were divorcing, and he was happy to comfort her. “I had a good life. I had a purpose,” Basil recollects. But the apartment building where Marina and her mother lived didn’t allow dogs, so Basil ended up at the house of her angry, resentful father. Vandiver’s decision to tie Basil’s struggle to family conflict (as opposed to the neglect and cruelty that many rescue dogs endure) makes her debut chapter book resonate even more deeply, allowing young readers to view the world from a dog’s perspective while seeing aspects of their own lives reflected in his experience.

When Basil gets frightened or frustrated, he runs away, but he’s lucky to be found by patient and determined adults who value his well-being. Vandiver adroitly expresses Basil’s insights—“Feeling what my humans are feeling is one of my superpowers”—while also acknowledging the limits of his perceptions and thinking. Hannah, who runs a doggie day care and fosters Basil, makes tough decisions that he only partly understands. She challenges him like a good teacher, and guides him forward. The optimism of Basil’s Quest reflects not only the hopeful doggedness of animal rescuers, but also offers young readers a pathway from a painful past into a positive future.

Takeaway: Told from the perspective of an intuitive dog, this appealing chapter book celebrates both individual resilience and a community of rescuers.

Great for fans of: Sarah Lean’s A Dog Called Homeless, Tui T. Sutherland’s Runaway Retriever, W. Bruce Cameron’s Lily to the Rescue series.

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

The Rape of Persephone
Monica Brillhart
Brillhart’s debut breathes new life into familiar Greek mythology and rejuvenates their famous characters. The story is adapted from the Homeric hymn to harvest goddess Demeter, the account of the kidnapping of Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, by Hades, the god of the underworld. While the bones of the ancient tale remain intact, this version expands on the original to create a cunning saga of family drama and political intrigue, incorporating people, places, and events from across Greek mythology. Brillhart’s tantalizing retelling shades the characters with sharper motives and energizes its plot with remarkable pacing and surprising seduction.

In Brillhart’s take, Olympians such as Zeus, Hades, and Demeter are not all-powerful gods, but instead mortals—and once readers adapt to this change, they will find that the challenges of mortality, such as aging and injury, add intrigue to the plot as well as depth to these characters, as these familiar names struggle to achieve their goals without the benefit of immense power. Brillhart deftly conveys detail and dialogue throughout her wide range of characters: Hecate as wizened crone and healer, King Minos as a reformed and thoughtful judge, and Persephone as a naive girl, hopeful but headstrong in her quest to find her father.

Vividly depicted settings blur the historical and the mythological, transporting readers from the earthquake-shattered city of Knossos on Crete to the vast throne room of Mount Olympus and the dark, foreboding caves of Tartarus. Brillhart’s intricate worldbuilding mirrors the complex relationships of her characters, converting a fairly straightforward exposition on the changing of seasons into a probing examination of human nature’s entanglements. Brillhart has crafted a fascinating synthesis of traditional and contemporary storytelling in this reimagined tale of lust, power, and grief—one that will resonate just as readily with modern readers as it did millennia past in the agora.

Takeaway: This dark, passionate retelling of the myth of Demeter and Persephone will appeal to mythology lovers and fans of paranormal romance.

Great for fans of: Madeline Miller’s Circe, Natalie Haynes’s A Thousand Ships, Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne.

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

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Star Revelations
Steven Terry
Diana Willis, a TV journalist, travels through time and space in this mind-bending paranormal odyssey, discovering secrets about herself she never even suspected. When Diana ends up in a helicopter crash after pursuing a story, she inexplicably survives–and starts a journey in which she learns she was kidnapped and brainwashed as a child by a shadowy group looking to exploit her special psychic talents. With a secret cabal of generals and industrialists aware of her powers, Diana starts to realize she can trust almost no one and tries to connect with the mysterious John Herald—a former member of the cabal who may be able to help her—as she fights to find out who she is and what her fate will be.

Terry does an effective job of setting wide-ranging scenes. The prologue skillfully introduces a haunting, fantastical tableau and then jumps nimbly to the world of high-flying TV journalists, with attractive descriptions of the work hard / play harder crowd. Later, Terry segues neatly into fantasy: "The air inside the box shimmered and a small book materialized." At times, the overall plot—along with various characters' motives—can be a little unclear, but the individual scenes are affecting and suspenseful, guaranteeing readers will keep turning the pages.

Although the focus is mostly on plot and theme, Terry brings Diana to life, alongside her small coterie of supporters. It's fascinating to watch her transition from sharp investigative reporter to a sojourner trying to figure out how she relates to the surreal new world she finds herself in. Diana is ably partnered with former colleague Gabe, who is also facing mysterious changes, but he and Diana form an earthy friendship that provides a welcome and believable anchor to the story’s more fanciful elements. Readers who appreciate strong female leads in paranormal thrillers will eagerly race to the end to see how the courageous Diana will avoid her enemies and fulfill her mysterious destiny.

Takeaway: Thriller fans hungry for a touch of the paranormal alike will delight in watching this supernatural mystery unfold.

Great for fans of: Stephen King’s Firestarter, Nathan M. Farrugia’s The Chimera Vector.

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

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Grocery Girl: Green Hills Book 1
Virginia'dele Smith
Two small town residents experience sudden attraction but a flickering relationship thanks to the man’s trauma in this wholesome contemporary romance. Fabric designer and quilt store owner Maree Davenport lost her parents when she was young, and has built a vibrant life for herself in Green Hills, Oklahoma. She makes an instant connection with new firefighter Rhys Larsen, who has closed himself off from love after the death of his twin brothers in the fire that drove him to his career path. Maree and Rhys share some pleasant dates, but their relationship stumbles when Rhys pulls away because he cannot give her more. A car accident that leaves Maree seriously injured, however, activates Rhys’s protective streak. He agrees to nurse her back to health with the whole town keeping an eye on the couple, but still struggles to open himself up.

The tenderness between Rhys and Maree, and Smith’s crisp descriptions of their attraction, are highlights of this novel. Lots of kissing, but nothing more despite several instances of temptation, keep this romance squarely on the side of clean. Side characters, like Maree’s protective older brother, pro football player Max and Rhys’s charismatic coworker Davis, add the crucial extra pressure for the two leads to accept their feelings. Smith can fold in backstory and rationales without losing the thrust of her story, and Rhys’s worry over opening himself up seems genuine.

The shifting perspectives between Rhys and Maree start off a little rocky, but the pacing improves as the story moves on. Smith sometimes pairs unusual sets of descriptors, but the writing flows smoothly and the stops and starts to the relationship never feel overly contrived. The subplot of an arsonist in town could have been more developed, but Smith seems to be laying strong, viable possibilities for future installments set in Green Hills. Small town charms and real pain add heft to this cozy romance.

Takeaway: This small-town story between a competent woman and an emotionally wounded newcomer will comfort fans of clean romances.

Great for fans of: Catherine Anderson’s Mystic Creek series, Shanna Hatfield’s Summer Creek series.

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

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Get Your Startup Story Straight: The Definitive Storytelling Framework for Innovators and Entrepreneurs
David Riemer
Drawing on experience in business and the theater, Riemer urges entrepreneurs and marketing professionals to embrace the power of storytelling, walking readers through the techniques that it takes to drive and foster innovation, while building stronger customer narratives in this clear and concise business guide. Reimer focuses on the classical elements of storytelling essential for driving market innovation, strengthening elevator pitches, and shaping product strategy. After explaining the critical elements of story structure and constructing a narrative, Riemer delves into the primary strategies and tactics used by good storytellers to grab the attention of their target audience.

Riemer explains how core elements of drama also apply to a good product story. Broken into three acts, Get Your Startup Story Straight covers the basics of business storytelling, such as developing a strong narrative structure with an emphasis on techniques like using storyboards. The second act takes up the bulk of the guide as Riemer lays out various approaches to storytelling and how successful product innovators use these strategies to persuade and influence potential customers and investors. Practical examples with cogent explanations abound, as Riemer offers clear-eyed advice for setting a clear, compelling narrative. Story archetypes are introduced in the third section, where Riemer expertly employs his own advanced storytelling skills to illustrate common themes found in innovation narratives and how these tropes can assist in polishing a product’s story.

Riemer uses a number of personal and professional experiences to reinforce his main message– “you can’t tell a great story unless you have a great story to tell.” The most notable example walks readers through the development of Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story franchise and how even a skillfully crafted product story is never truly finished. Although written for entrepreneurs and product innovators, aspiring authors and blocked writers alike will appreciate the information presented in this creative business guide.

Takeaway: Entrepreneurs, startup companies, and fiction writers will appreciate the relatable way storytelling techniques and strategies are presented in this guide.

Great for fans of: Seth Godin’s All Marketers are Liars, Paul Smith’s Sell with a Story.

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

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The Santorini Setup
Becky Bohan
After the death of an artist with connections in Criminal Investigative Services, Senior Foreign Service Officer Susan Marcello is recruited to keep an eye on the Akrotiri dig taking place on the Aegean island Santorini. She reaches out to Britt Evans, a professor of Classical Studies, who’s visiting the island and excavation site. But before Britt even has the opportunity to get to Santorini, she and her friend Nicki are already facing danger in Athens. She quickly notices that things don’t seem quite right on the island–items in dig inventory are mysteriously disappearing and reappearing, there’s something off about deliveries of grapes to a winery on the island, and a dangerous accident at the docks seems like a prelude to disaster.

The Santorini Setup is a romantic suspense story that reimagines Bohan’s earlier Sinister Paradise. Britt, who has faced recent struggles with romance and voices a determination to stay single, experiences immediate sparks with excavation contractor Cassie Burkhardt, a development that could put them both in danger as Britt puts together the clues that get her closer to the truth. The narrative balances the intrigue and the romance, though the novel’s short length serves to make the suspense element feel underdeveloped, and the romance escalates quickly. Readers tuned into details will catch the clear opportunity for a future book digging deeper into some elements, especially with Nicki and her godfather Mikos Zerakis.

The setting of Santorini is atmospheric and enjoyable, and Bohan has clearly done extensive research to make the archeological and classical literature references accurate. Despite readers learning of several characters involved in suspicious island activities relatively early in the story, Bohan provides a red herring and a nice, unexpected twist that helps generate interest. The combination of passion, thrills, and a surprise ending make this a satisfying adventure.

Takeaway: Mystery, danger, and romance abound for a professor searching for a life change in Santorini.

Great for fans of: Cat Sebastian, Kristen Lepionka’s Roxane Weary series.

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

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Kraylos: Yellow Finds His Purpose
Shaid Williamson
Williamson paints a magical world named Kraylos in this fanciful debut. Yellow, a crayon, feels immune to the magic around him as he faces age-old existential questions: "What’s my purpose? Why am I made this way?” With direction from his fellow Kraylos citizens, Yellow journeys through a wild world and tries to discover his place in it, asking why he’s yellow in the first place–or whether other colors feel uncertain about themselves, too. Yellow learns that a mythical creature, Detail Dragon, could grant Yellow’s wish for answers. After he is exposed to what the world would be like without his singularity, Yellow understands that all creatures are important, and that his purpose is to just be himself.

Readers will immediately grasp the story’s moral when Yellow learns what his environment would look like without his vital shade. Faced with a bleached-out world, Yellow “is struck speechless at what he sees around” and quickly regrets his wish for a yellow-less Kraylos. Beyond the moral of self-acceptance, which echoes Dickens, classic fairy tales, and It’s a Wonderful Life, Williamson sneaks in lessons on the color spectrum that illuminates how urgently a well-balanced, harmonious world needs Yellow to shine.

Young readers who enjoy rhyming schemes, fantasy, and silliness will find the whimsical and picturesque world of Kraylos enchanting. Some images may seem frenzied, but their intricate details and heightened activity will deliver hours of enjoyment for fans who revel in games like “I Spy,”, and Williamson’s hand-drawn illustrations, crafted with colored pencils, express and inspire intense creativity. Readers who are beginning to explore their value and place in existence will find the story resonant, and Williamson’s pick-me-up messages, painted in the sky (“develop your talent and you will find happiness within yourself”), offer hope and inspiration. The author’s biography sheds touching light on his own search for meaning.

Takeaway: A whimsical fantasy of crayons and colors that teaches the importance of self-acceptance.

Great for fans of: Patty Lovell’s Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon, Dan Bar-el’s Not Your Typical Dragon.

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

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The Phantom Circuit
Austin Farmer
Family ties and paranormal battles abound in Farmer’s debut, a speculative thriller based on the legend of Bloody Mary, set against a supernatural backdrop of time travel, celestial voids, and broken family ties. When Erica Westfield learns that her international star sister, Dianne, has been found dead, she goes online to read condolence messages and is shocked to discover a hacker, Macy Abigayle, who promises that Erica can see her sister one more time–if she is willing to face Bloody Mary, an evil presence lurking on “the other side of the mirror.” Erica takes the bait, joining forces with Macy. To stop Bloody Mary from trapping her sister’s spirit forever, she will have to face and overcome her worst memories.

The idea of tackling painful memories to be freed from the past is intriguing. The main players spend the majority of the novel reliving distressing moments through “neuroflashing,” a distinctive method of time travel that pits them against Bloody Mary and her phantoms in the hopes of preserving their memories and escaping her traps. Still, with so many complex and mysterious supernatural elements, the plotting can be a challenge to keep up with, and some elements of Farmer’s ambitious tale prove hazy, such as Bloody Mary’s connection to neuroflashing, or that between Erica and Macy, described as a spirit from the 1800s trapped in the “Interstate”—a place of “nothingness between the stars.”

Readers who crave twisted storylines rich with paranormal angst will appreciate Farmer’s writing, as he adds depth through his focus on the family dynamics behind his characters’ actions: Erica’s attempt to mend her broken relationship with Dianne through otherworldly battles and sacrifice helps ground an otherwise nebulous plot. For all of this thriller’s fantastical elements, which can at times prove overwhelming, the humanity of the characters is clear and engaging. Lovers of paranormal legends will be rewarded by this complex, inventive debut.

Takeaway: Bloody Mary, time travel, and the realm between life and death power this inventive paranormal debut.

Great for fans of: Holly Black’s Book of Night, Chuck Wendig’s The Book of Accidents.

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

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make believe
Tom Epperson
Set in the bright lights of Hollywood, Epperson’s Make Believe centers on high-rolling screenwriter Dustin Prewitt and a series of events that challenge his cynicism. Dustin is married to the erratic Laura Keene, an actress experiencing a fall from fame and who has a pattern of cheating on her husband. After she discovers his own liaison with a Polish actress about to reach her own zenith of stardom, Laura goes off the deep end, disappearing into the sea and presumed drowned, leaving a note directly blaming Dustin for her death. In the aftermath, Dustin evaluates what his life has come to in the volatile world of celebrity and wealth, asking what he actually wants from himself. Does it include the selfless pet lover Penny?

Making Make Believe stand out from others in the awakening-from-cynicism genre is its light touch and the convincing internal thoughts of its screenwriter protagonist, which prove almost meta in their analysis of his own life, as this storyteller proves an engaging stand-in for readers who are just as cynical or well-read (take your pick) when it comes to stories of romance or thoughts about how life imitates art imitates life. It’s all bundled together in Prewitt’s telling, which boasts crisp, engaging dialogue, insider Hollywood detail (“It’s always an ominous moment for your script when someone says he has some notes”), and a story that finds him building toward change–maybe even happiness.

The stakes get gradually higher and higher through each section of the novel, culminating with the reserved and logical narrator achieving an epiphany in surroundings he’d never have anticipated: maybe sometimes happy endings aren’t just for the rom-coms he occasionally writes, and that sappiness and cynicism are both just states of minds. Readers of upbeat commercial fiction who believe the same–and are tired of rom-com formula–will find a protagonist to root for and a story to savor.

Takeaway: This accomplished, upbeat novel finds a screenwriter facing his cynicism and maybe feeling his way toward love and happiness.

Great for fans of: Bridget Morrissey’s Love Scenes, Rachel Winters’s Would Like to Meet.

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

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My Brother Is Not a Monster: A Story of Addiction and Recovery
Lee S. Varon
Clinical social worker Varon’s cautionary children’s tale takes on the effects of substance use disorder. Sophia is excited to go trick-or-treating with her friend Casey and her older brother Joey, but when Joey doesn’t show up for costume shopping, it’s only the first of many let-downs that she faces this Halloween. As Sophia reflects on Joey’s past behavior compared to how he is now—secretive, sneaking off with a friend, and smoking “stupid cigarettes” that smell funny—she realizes that she doesn’t know who her brother is anymore, and she feels scared of him. The situation quickly escalates as Sophia, Joey, and their mother try to navigate the ups and downs of a family crisis.

Varon’s passion for raising awareness around substance abuse is clear and ultimately guides the story. Crafted to educate and soothe younger readers, Varon’s narrative is straightforward but also oversimplified, moving quickly to make its encouraging points but not developing dramatically. The narrative takes off immediately and is soon resolved: readers are introduced to the characters, given one spread of when Joey was a caring brother, and then hit with a dramatic twist that is wrapped up just a few short pages later. The remainder is filled with mental health resources for kids and parents.

Varon’s great care and thoroughness distinguish the end resources. She includes multiple journaling and reflection prompts for kids about emergency responses, coping methods, and self-esteem, as well as lists of organizations to help all family members involved in the recovery process. This story is best suited for younger children or those readers new to the concept of substance abuse and recovery. Despite the abbreviated storytelling, the empathetic My Brother Is Not a Monster is an opportunity to help a highly targeted audience of readers.

Takeaway: A story of one family’s journey through substance abuse, paired with welcome mental health resources for kids and their parents.

Great for fans of: Claudia Black’s My Dad Loves Me, My Dad Has a Disease, Jill M. Hastings and Marion H. Typpo’s An Elephant in the Living Room; Anthony Curcio’s Critters Cry Too.

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

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