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Fluffy's Christmas Gift
chuck page
Fluffy, a handmade Christmas snowman ornament, learns the joy of discovering his purpose in this delightful holiday read by Page (Climbing the Upside Down Tree). When young Zach puts the finishing touches on his snowman ornament one Christmas, he names him Fluffy—in a nod to his cotton ball middle—and softly tells him “Fluffy, you’re special. You’re one of a kind.” Fluffy immediately takes that message to heart, despite being shunned by the other decorations, and declares his dream is to hang by the star at the very top of the tree one year.

As the years pass, and Fluffy starts to make his way closer to the top, the other ornaments up their bullying. “Cotton Balls thinks he’s better than the rest of us” they taunt, warning Fluffy that eventually he will lose his special place in Zach’s heart. When he finally earns the coveted top spot, Fluffy’s enchanted by the Christmas wonder revealed from his new view—especially the baby in the Nativity scene—and vows “Someday, little one, I’ll bring you a special present.” Unfortunately, the other ornaments prove correct, and soon Zach is grown up and gone while Fluffy lies broken and forgotten at the bottom of the ornament box.

Young readers will be touched by this moving tale, and Fluffy’s tragic fall from grace will be heart-wrenching and intense. All is not lost, however, as Page lovingly gives Fluffy another chance, crafting a unique spin on his eventual comeback. Bazley’s illustrations evoke holiday nostalgia and warmth, with classic Christmas hues and festive details like yuletide treats and stockings dangling over a crackling fire. Adult readers will find the underlying message of self-worth important—“I will give him the best gift of all: myself”—and Christian fans will appreciate the religious undertones to Page’s book.

Takeaway: A snowman ornament discovers his true worth in this festive tale.

Great for fans of: Carol Heyer’s Humphrey’s First Christmas; Karma Wilson’s Mortimer’s Christmas Manger.

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

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Knocked Down
Russ Thompson
In the fifth installment of Thompson’s Finding Forward series—a collection of novels for reluctant and struggling teen readers—he charts the ups and downs of a troubled young athlete’s high school years. Convinced that he is going to be drafted into the NFL during college, Tennison Sanders cares very little about school. But when he’s caught plagiarizing a report from the internet, he’s forced to start putting in the effort to pass his classes or give up on his dream of playing football. What follows is a tale of cheating, theft, lying, and bad decisions, but in the end, Tennison learns the importance of being honest.

Tennison stands out as a slacker with a know-it-all attitude, smugly certain that he’s got it all figured out, but behind those pretenses is a young man with an abiding passion for football. Tennison’s desire to right his wrongs during the latter part of the story sends a powerful message to young readers: anyone can move past their mistakes, with a little humility, reform, and honesty. Readers will empathize with Tennison as they follow his journey and watch him learn to deal with his past decisions while fighting to become a better person, even if that means giving up what he loves the most. In his own words, “It wasn't fun getting knocked down. But I got up again.”

While Tennison’s decisions can be difficult to comprehend at times, Thompson’s story is well thought out and moving, and the overall message of being honest regardless of the cost is skillfully woven throughout, culminating in an explosive flare of truth-telling that lands Tennison back on the right path. Readers will be invested in Tennison’s outcome, whether that’s in his classes, on the football field, or at home, and ultimately his character trumps his mistakes.

Takeaway: An inspiring sports fiction that teaches the easy way isn’t always the best way.

Great for fans of: Randy Ribay’s After the Shot Drops and Kwame Alexander’s Rebound.

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

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An Enemy Like Me
Teri M Brown
Brown’s (Sunflowers Beneath the Snow) emotional historical drama calls forth the heartfelt patriotism of a classic American World War II experience. When Jacob Miller, brought up by a widowed, German immigrant mother, falls for the once-wealthy Bonnie Phillips, the resourceful couple works hard to build a happy household, despite the Great Depression poverty threatening their stability. When their son, William, is born, the family feels complete, but war quickly devastates their simple life, sending Jacob overseas to endure the trauma of battle in Europe while Bonnie falls back on their timeless love to survive the hardships at home.

Brown deftly immerses readers in the daily life of World War II through haunting, intimate details—like Bonnie’s vivid grief at bidding Jacob farewell on a train station platform, Jacob’s loneliness in a German foxhole while awaiting enemy fire, and little William’s concern about being “the man of the house” during his daddy’s absence. Alternating perspectives and timeline jumps add relevance to the present day, particularly when an adult William reflects on a life well-lived and dominated by loyalty to his country on Veteran’s Day, 2016. As he struggles with bittersweet memories of a father who returned from war a sterner man, William’s resolve to improve his relationship with his own son will resonate with readers.

Most interesting is Jacob’s inner conflict about his ethnic heritage, to which the title alludes, and his decision to join the military to prove his patriotism, at the risk of losing his family. The pro-Nazi Volksbund movement, its anti-German backlash, and the anxiety it induced in German Americans is seldom addressed in popular literature—and Brown’s depiction of a unique angst within a much-chronicled American era sets this novel apart. History buffs will appreciate the thoughtful salute to those who served our country and their impact on generations of Americans.

Takeaway: A stirring account of a German American family’s joys and sufferings during WWII.

Great for fans of: The Winds of War by Herman Wouk and No Promises in the Wind by Irene Hunt.

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

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Notes and Comments on Robert's Rules, Fifth Edition: N/A
Jim Slaughter
Jim Slaughter (Robert’s Rules of Order Fast Track), with original author Jon Ericson, delivers the fifth edition of an intermediate commentary covering the most asked questions of the parliamentary procedure manual, Robert’s Rules of Order. Employing a Q&A format, Slaughter lays the foundation of several fundamental principles, including the order of precedence, the different types of motions as well as their function, and the amending process, eventually moving on to more auxiliary issues such as quorum, voting, and how to handle electronic meetings. The information, though dense, is thoughtfully structured and clearly organized, with full references to further resources as needed, alongside an index to enhance accessibility.

Readers should come with a basic knowledge of Robert’s Rules already in place, as Slaughter recommends some introductory titles but clarifies that his work covers “the most-likely-to-be-experienced procedures” and the “why” behind parliamentary meeting methods. His history of parliamentary procedure, although brief, is helpful in setting the guide’s context, and he includes several charts for quick reference—as well as an exhaustive resource list that identifies organizations for further training and materials for more in-depth study. Slaughter’s clever use of humor enlivens the complex subject matter while still managing to deliver precise, straightforward explanations. Most importantly, he offers readers both sides of difficult scenarios, along with his wisdom and expertise, leaving them the necessary space to draw their own conclusions.

While intended as a commentary rather than a stand-alone volume, Notes and Comments will prove invaluable when combined with Robert’s Rules and other resources. Throughout, Slaughter recognizes the core goal of parliamentary procedure as balancing the rights of the individual in a meeting with the majority right for that meeting to be efficient and productive. Any readers already familiar with parliamentary procedure will find this a helpful guide to sharpen their skills.

Takeaway: An expert guide addressing the most commonly faced issues from Robert’s Rules of Order.

Great for fans of: Robert's Rules of Order in Action by Randi Minetor; The Guerrilla Guide to Robert's Rules by Nancy Sylvester.

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

Place of Cool Waters
Ndirangu Githaiga
Githaiga (Ten Thousand Rocks) explores the duality of identity and belonging in this heartwarming story. Jude Wilson, adopted child of Scoutmaster Tom Wilson, grew up in an idyllic childhood overflowing with time spent outdoors, camping, and challenging his father to scouting tasks, while Qadir Mohamed, a Somali living in Kenya, is also adopted—by his uncle Hussein—and desperate to make a life for himself, despite the dangerous prejudice he faces. Their paths inevitably cross when Jude embarks on a quasi-pilgrimage to Kenya (to visit the gravesite of Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the worldwide Boy Scout movement) and runs into Qadir, the manager of his hostel.

Jude’s voyage takes a deadly turn when he rejects Qadir’s offer to help procure a taxi, a decision that leaves him robbed and left to die in the bush. Readers will appreciate Githaiga’s skill at mirroring the two men’s alternating perspectives, prompting reflection on the similarities in their vastly different worlds while driving home the pervasiveness of their discrimination. Jude, the only Black person in his workplace, first experiences racism when his boss targets him on the job, and his reluctance to protest this treatment is vividly portrayed while managing to stay relatable. Meanwhile, Qadir’s exposure to prejudice as a Somali is equally arresting, particularly in the details Githaiga uses of a terror attack on a local mall, and later scenes of Jude visiting a memorial effectively build the case that white men portrayed as heroes may have been misrepresented.

Githaiga chooses to divulge heavyweight secrets in the prologue, which plays down the novel’s surprises and sacrifices tension in favor of setting the scene—however, although some fans may wish for a heftier build-up to Jude’s reveal, the story gains traction when contemplating the men’s separate but intertwined experiences, leaving readers with much to consider.

Takeaway: This warm story explores the interplay between identity and discrimination.

Great for fans of: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini; Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.

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

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Naked Butt Busts Out!
Jane Smith
Smith (Miss Meow) entertains with this unapologetically silly picture book for young children, following a comical bunny, Naked Butt, as he learns the value of being unique. Befitting his name, Naked Butt doesn’t care much for clothes, frequently discarding his outfits in favor of the freedom that comes with “the cool breeze in his fur [and] the sunshine on his tail.” Not surprisingly, when his antics carry over to preschool, t-ball practice, and even the grocery store, his mother and the other adults in his life urge him to stay dressed: “Bunnies expect other bunnies to keep their tails covered,” his mother patiently explains.

In true showstopping form, Naked Butt will not be deterred, and the next time his clothes itch and scratch, he quickly finds himself sprinting bare-bottomed through a bustling city square—where his mother promptly loses sight of him in the crowd. Ultimately, she’s able to find him thanks to his furry white backside standing out in a sea of fully clothed rabbits, and, to his surprise, gives up trying to dress him. “I never would have found you if you’d had your clothes on! Thank goodness for naked butts!” she declares. This au naturel celebration may prove confusing to younger readers given the potential for safety concerns to spring up in real life, but thankfully, Smith’s animals quickly point out that “Bunnies don’t need clothes! We’re furry!”

Smith’s colorful, playful illustrations are sure to elicit giggles from most children, particularly when Naked Butt pulls his shirt over his ears in the grocery store’s produce section, and his emotions—ranging from happiness to frustration—are cleverly portrayed, emphasizing his ease when not conforming to others’ standards. Smith also smartly depicts the concern of bystanders over Naked Butt’s unusual hobby, which will spark valuable discussions alongside the book’s central message of accepting, and celebrating, everyone’s quirks.

Takeaway: A young bunny shares a one-of-a-kind way to express himself.

Great for fans of: David McKee’s Elmer; Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand.

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

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Marrying Myself
Christine Melanie Benson
Debut novelist Benson’s first offering, a contemporary fiction with hints of romance, is filled with surprises and a delightfully off-beat cast. Julia seemingly has it all—a thoughtful, rich fiancé, a job with purpose, and a coterie of supportive friends and family. But just when everything seems perfect, trouble crops up in the most unexpected places, starting with Byron, the new intern at work, and her fairy tale begins to crumble. Before long, her Swiss castle wedding goes awry, her fiancé, Asher, divulges he’s not who she thought he was, and she’s faced with a very different life than the one she planned for.

Throughout the novel’s events, Julia’s theme of self-discovery and journey to understand her needs independent of the others in her life is carefully nurtured. In returning to her first love, painting, after willingly putting it aside for Asher, she reawakens her artist’s heart, in the process re-evaluating her life’s decisions to determine what suits the woman she’s becoming. None of the answers are easy— including whether she should nourish old hobbies or discard them for the sake of trying something new—and her romantic outcome becomes even more uncertain when past high school friend Sean and close pal David throw their hats in the ring.

Benson’s easy writing style paired with carefully curated descriptions provides for a relaxed, captivating read. Julia’s perspective is richly developed, allowing readers an intimate tour of her mental landscape and an almost-voyeuristic glimpse into the mechanics behind her decisions, and her support network offers appealing viewpoints bolstered by occasional words of wisdom—particularly her best friend, Kat, and her slightly unconventional, quirky sister, Jolene. At times heartbreaking and at others purely entertaining, readers will fall in love with Julia’s story—and the idea that life is a journey, not a destination.

Takeaway: A young woman rediscovers herself after her fairy tale life begins to fall apart.

Great for fans of: Jill Shalvis’s One in a Million; Carley Fortune’s Every Summer After.

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

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8-Second PR: New Public Relations Crash Course
Liz H Kelly
PR expert and entrepreneur Kelly sums up her multifaceted public relations (PR) approach to educate fellows in her field and newcomers to the art to be PR superheroes in this polished and inviting second edition. Gifted at making information stick, she offers both useful one-liners ( “funny=money”) and long-haul action plans, while laying out guiding questions and achievable steps at the close of every chapter, not just encouraging success but showcasing the tools to achieve it. Foundational to her advice on social, print, TV, and radio media—essential tenets to any marathon PR strategy—is that “your brand story is ten times more powerful if it includes how you helped someone.” She also recommends putting earned media over paid media and testing different pitches and POVs via social media, both strategies she’s relied on heavily.

Kelly doesn’t shy away from highlighting her professional pitfalls, reminding audiences that there’s a lesson to be learned with every mistake. Specifically when pitching to major media outlets, those aspiring to be PR superheroes should expect minimal responses and some outright rejections—but she’s clear that the relatively few successes are each to be celebrated. Kelly’s advice can be repetitive, though in this case that both reflects the nature of the work, and what it takes to find success with a media hook, all while making the book easy to dip into.

Kelly’s especially good at recommending actionable, relevant tasks and techniques for the development and promotion of memorable hooks. She recommends, in clear and inviting language, many websites, platforms, and strategies, and she backs up her success stories with testimonials that will read persuasively to today’s media-savvy audience. The guide’s title refers to that audience’s attention span, the amount of time a PR pro has to get a message through, and Kelly recommends a tried-and-true path to connecting during that brief window—and achieving higher ROIs for a variety of clientele.

Takeaway: Polished, proven, actionable steps to PR success from an expert in the field.

Great for fans of: Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes, Jennefer Witter’s The Little Book of Big PR: 100+ Quick Tips to Get Your Small Business Noticed.

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

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Acting Up
Janice Bryant Howroyd
“My mother was my first role model for who I wished to become in life, and Aunt Sarah was my earliest memory of seeing a self-appointed, empowered woman,” Howroyd (The Art of Work) states in this inspirational memoir . Focusing on entrepreneurship, Howroyd honors the “dynamic examples” shown to her by family members who ran successful businesses in the segregated South, while highlighting her personal journey of growing her company, ActOne Group, from a one-room office in Beverly Hills to a multi-billion dollar multinational conglomerate. Written for aspiring business owners and “entrepreneurs of every color”, Howroyd shares core principles and values referred to as “ingredients of success” and how these ingredients combined with taking calculated risks and spontaneity are essential to achieving goals.

Part memoir, part business success guide, Acting Up shares real-world business lessons alongside candid, personal experiences with racism, sexism, insecurities and imposter syndrome. As the title suggests, readers are encouraged to be more aggressive and dynamic with risk taking with the goal of causing disruption to a much larger market—a process Howroyd calls “acting up.” The advice presented is straightforward and unflinching. She warns: “Business is war. There are wolves on Wall Street.” Readers are then provided with the tools needed to become “empowered warriors,” or entrepreneurs who are prepared and READY—resourced, educated, authoritative, and ready to deliver.

From the importance of maintaining a reputable online presence to cybersecurity and self-discipline, every aspect of running a successful business or brand is touched upon. Readers are sure to find inspiration as Howroyd shares the experiences that shaped her life and success. Encouraging readers to “live what you believe,” she states, “Whatever you believe, live it fearless and fundamentally every day.” Awe inspiring and dripping with Southern charm and wit, this memoir sheds unwavering insight into the entrepreneurial journey.

Takeaway: An inspiring memoir that provides the ingredients to business success.

Great for fans of: Jo Malone’s My Story, Arianna Huffington’s Thrive.

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

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Rebuilt Recovery Complete Series Books 1-4: A Journey with God
Heather L Phipps
Presenting Christian discipleship as essential to recovery from trauma, addiction, depression, anxiety, and a host of other common mental and emotional issues, Phipps’s Rebuilt Recovery urges readers toward “complete” healing that encompasses the physical, mental, and spiritual, all “in a cooperative effort with the Lord.” Crucial to her program is the love of God, love of others, and love of the self in Christ, but not a “worldly” love—instead, she calls for a “sacrificial” love, “defined by respect and admiration.” True healing, she argues, comes only after discovering the root of the “problematic thinking” and replacing it with “God’s unshakable and unchanging truth.” To that end, the four books included in Rebuilt Recovery present, in clear language and with many practical tools and strategies, a path toward surrender to God and find peace.

Phipps’s strategies include catchy, comforting advice like how to “Stop, Drop, and Roll” to replace “wrong thinking with God’s Truth,” or training one’s self to relax safely, treating this as a “preemptive, routine practice” like exercise. Sets of questions focus the somewhat sprawling material on the individual needs of the reader, while verses from scripture and Phipps’s reminders that “complete healing does not mean that you will never experience difficult emotions or temptations” keep it all inviting. That’s also true of the many encouraging essays in the end matter, which find Phipps addressing questions of who decides an individual’s worth, how to face regret, and how to understand the sources of feelings.

The book’s main draw, though, is Phipps’s thoughtful, thorough, empathetic laying out of techniques, insights, and inspiration. Rebuilt Recovery presents healing as an ongoing process, one that demands serious self examination, understanding toxic behaviors and unhealthy relationships, and learning to forgive and accept forgiveness. Phipps never over-promises or advocates an easy fix, and she takes care to advise readers not to attempt to diagnose themselves or others. Instead, she offers believers a clearly defined, always inviting path.

Takeaway: This Christian guide to recovery from trauma, addiction, and other issues is encouraging and user-focused.

Great for fans of: Kathryn Greene-McCreight’s Darkness Is My Only Companion, J. Keith Miller’s A Hunger for Healing.

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

The American Outsider: a novel, 978-0-9779780-3-8 : a novel
Homa Pourasgari
Centered on an American animal rights activist, the third novel from Pourasgari (The Dawn of Saudi) is a charming read with characters who come to life on the page—and who live for a cause whose urgency shines through the story. Tessa Walker is a veterinarian on a visit to Japan who wishes to combine her vacation with some activism in support of animals. She meets Toshiro Yokoyama, the lazy son of a rich businessman, and much against her better judgment starts to feel something for him. His willingness to play tour guide ensures they spend some great time together. A skilled scuba diver, Tessa, with the help of Japanese activists, films the slaughter of the dolphins at Taiji to spread awareness of the massacre, risking her life and drawing the attention of the authorities.

Pourasgari retains the interest of the reader till the end, weaving Tessa’s activism and her reluctant love for Toshiro into an interesting narrative while evoking the conflict between the traditional members of Japanese society and those with a more modern and liberal outlook through the relationship between Toshiro and his father. The plot turns on an accident and an instance of short-term memory loss, a familiar justification in romance stories for keeping couples separated, and at times the narrative edges into travelogue, slowing the momentum.

Tessa, of course, is attempting to make changes in a society that’s not her own, and The American Outsider faces the question of why, when her own country allows so much inhumane treatment of animals, this gaijin travels across the world to protest. Throughout the story, as she risks prosecution and even imprisonment, Tessa makes new discoveries about Japan and its culture, while Toshiro likewise learns much that he never expected, about her past, her passion, the depth of feeling of dolphins—and about himself. Tessa’s commitment to the welfare of all of Earth’s creatures will inspire animal lovers.

Takeaway: The engaging story of an animal rights activist bringing her cause to Japan and finding romance.

Great for fans of: Fiona Mountain’s Lady of the Butterflies, Deb Olin Unferth’s Barn 8.

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

Forty to Finish
Larry Walsh
In this high-spirited memoir, Walsh relates his epic journey on the Trans Am Bike Race, biking from Oregon to Virginia in a feat of endurance. Through storms and a periodic lack of water, he is able to not only finish, but complete the race in under forty days through careful pacing, hard work and an adequate amount of luck. Forty days is an even more aggressive goal time than he originally set himself, a demonstration of the importance of not aiming small. His epic physical endurance is echoed by his reflections on his place in the world, as the race is actually his second cross-country trip following an unexpected firing from his job in pharmaceutical sales.

Walsh includes a handful of pictures from his trip, particularly compelling are the selfies which he is required to submit to the race organizer daily to show his continued health. They track the ups and downs of his energy as the book proceeds and the miles continue (as well as the growth of his beard). Walsh’s interactions with people on the race also wax and wane depending on his location and energy level—starting off with plenty of conversations in Oregon and trailing off in the Midwest before picking up again in the East with” trail angels” who aid his journey.

The Trans-America Bike Race is a test of endurance. Walsh finishes after 38 days averaging 109 miles per day. This is reflected a little in the text: There are only so many ways he can recount twelve hours in the bike saddle and still hold the reader’s interest. As with so many grand undertakings, monotony itself becomes a theme—with Walsh recounting his marking off each ten miles and attempting to divert his boredom and maintain focus. This is a journey of accomplishment and discovery, and the reader is privileged to be brought along on it as Walsh meets his goal: forty days to finish and cross the country.

Takeaway: Lovers of sports stories and tales of endurance will appreciate this memoir of cycling across the United States.

Great for fans of: Cory Mortensen’s The Buddha and the Bee, Paul Stutzman’s Biking Across America.

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

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Perils of a Pregnant Sleuth
Dershie McDevitt
McDevitt’s standout follow up to Just Holler Bloody Murder expertly blends romance and mystery as a pregnant biologist living on a South Carolina barrier island contemplates marriage while searching for a killer. Despite nearing the end of her second trimester of pregnancy, biology professor Callahan Banks, returning from the first book, enjoys life on remote Timicau Island off the Carolina coast, though her baby’s father, wealthy John Culpepper “Pepper” Dade, III, the island’s owner who is ten years her senior, continues to pressure her into marrying him. But her life becomes more complicated when the island’s precocious nine-year-old triplets (Tom, Dick and Harry), digging for treasure in the sand, discover a body wrapped in barbed wire. Suddenly, the safe haven becomes anything but as the body count rises, the list of suspects grows longer, and Callahan’s doctor puts her on several days of bed rest.

McDevitt offers just enough mystery and red herrings to keep the reader guessing without overwhelming with gruesome details of the crimes. She draws on her own island-living experiences to create a convincing and enticing setting, luring readers into an idyllic paradise with vividly descriptive prose that evokes the salt air, laughing gulls, and gnarled oak limbs. In Callahan, McDevitt has created a character readers will admire, both for her intellect, her drive, and her unwillingness to marry Pepper, the wealthy (and much sought-after) bachelor, for fear that doing so will put a damper on her sense of independence.

Though their romance simmers throughout the novel, the addition of a host of quirky characters adds to the pleasingly twisty mystery, as Callahan discovers that more than one of the island residents has secrets they want to keep hidden. Alongside the romance and mystery are welcome humorous moments, especially those connected to the triplet boys who ramp up their own detective skills only to find themselves in the crosshairs of a killer.

Takeaway: A fiercely independent pregnant biologist searches for a killer on a remote island.

Great for fans of: Danielle Collins’s Murder Mystery Book Club, Jasmine Webb’s Charlotte Gibson Mysteries series.

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

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the Bringer of Happiness
Karen Martin
The second standalone entry in Martin’s Women Unveiled series declares its boldness of vision from the first line: “I should have assumed with parents known to the world as Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ, I would be different.” In the vividly realized historical novel that follows, playwright/author Martin continues the striking storytelling of Dancing in the Labyrinth, exploring stories of women in history and myth pushing against the boundaries of patriarchal societies. This time, the setting is both Jerusalem, in the years of narrator Sara’s birth, and also 13th century Montségur as the French Royal Forces persecute the Cathars, a Christian sect deemed heretical by the pope. Sara may be “a swaddled babe in a hammock” in 34 AD, but her “memories are future moments yet to be lived,” she tells us. Born to visions, she often awakens inside others, throughout time. Eventually, she awakens in a young Cathar, Sarah-Marie.

In both of the novel’s major time-settings, Sara and her loved ones face religious persecution. In rich, clear, and sometimes playful prose—Sara uses the word “ginormous”—Martin offers a heady meditation on belief and oppression, the strength it takes to persevere, and what Sara calls “the conspiracy of time” as the narratives pass through continents and millenia. Crucial themes center the origins of Christianity in older systems of belief and efforts throughout history to erase those origins.

One gripping passage finds Sara awakened inside a young man during the canonization of the New Testament, privy to discussion about what other books were eliminated and why. While much of the novel is exploratory, with Sara feeling her way through stories and epochs and tribulations, the central thread of Sarah-Marie and her prescribed fate—“death by burning” in a massacre—generates welcome suspense, as Sara tries to find a way to save her. Perhaps what’s most remarkable about this layered, ambitious, poetic novel is its clarity and coherence, as Martin finds dramatic means to explore religious and historical complexities and spiritual connections between women through the ages. The Bringer of Happiness is occasionally challenging but more often illuminating.

Takeaway: This time-crossed novel examines women, faith, persecution, and the establishment of religious canon.

Great for fans of: Charmaine Craig’s The Good Men, Elaine Pagels’s The Gnostic Gospels.

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

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New Earth, Bringing It Home: A Light Hearted Transformational Journey
Joy-An Tucker
Living up to its subtitle, Tucker’s transformational New Earth, Bringing it Home invites readers to create their own “Temple of New Earth”—“a sacred space of love” in which one can “bring your core passion and joy into relationship with all things”—within their own homes. Despite the heady concepts, Tucker’s guidance is refreshingly clear, laying out the steps for a journey of introspection and vision-realization in prose that will appeal both to seasoned spiritual searchers and readers new to recognizing “the power of Creator’s light within you.” Tucker’s warm tone and personal anecdotes, encouraging explanations of topics like “intention” and sacred geometry, and her linking of the spiritual to home decor “that which makes your heart sing” all result in a calming, engaging read that persuasively conveys a larger message of love, unity, and balance.

The use of physical spaces, materials, sound, and vibrations form the core of the process of creating individual Temples of New Earth, joyful spaces where one can connect to the vibrations of Mother Earth or Gaia—a conscious being, Tucker writes, eager for us to ascend with her. Tucker emphasizes attunement to pink, white, and violet rays, and their affiliate archangels, through crystals, flowers, and step-by-step meditative practice. For readers new to or skeptical of such connections, these goals might come off as vague or utopian, but with the passing of every chapter, Tucker introduces small, achievable tasks that can inculcate a sense of connection and achievement.

Creating an entirely new universe in a small space like your living room can seem like a mammoth experiment, but as Tucker writes, “The difference between just decorating your home and creating a temple or sanctuary of New Earth is intention.” What makes this guide stand out from the pack is its emphasis on practical steps (breathing exercises and meditation prompts, bringing nature indoors, balancing colors, making one’s bathroom beautiful) that, before ascension, will certainly increase one’s peace of mind.

Takeaway: This encouraging guide to spiritual connection lays out how to create a Temple of the Earth within one’s own home.

Great for fans of: Jill M. Angelo’s Sacred Space, Donna Henes’s Bless This House.

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

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Hard Noir Holiday
Kirk Alex
The epic fourth entry in Alex’s Edgar "Doc" Holiday series declares its intentions from the title. Our hero, a Los Angeles P.I. whose veins pump pulp, leaves town only to discover the murder of a friend and myriad other crimes, and there ain’t going to be anything cozy about what he faces as he investigates. For Doc it’s no vacation—he’s got to deal with crooked ex-cops, a cartel south of the border, illegal dog fights, kidney smugglers, the terrifying forked-tongue Moe clan out of Bisbee, AZ, and a car chase involving a hearse and a tow-truck in desert scrub—but readers who get their kicks from the darker crime-noir classics will find much to relish.

Setting Alex’s hard-noir holiday apart is the author’s preference for action over the existential paralysis that sometimes afflicts private eyes. That’s not to say Doc doesn’t despair—“And god was a powerless mook with no more power to do anything about any of it than Bozo the Clown,” he muses early on—but when heavies would work over the likes of Philip Marlowe, Doc will squash one’s eyeball with his sap then draw his Glock. Alex captures the dustups and dangers with crisp, precise language, at times daring the outrageous—"Titus yanked, and continued to do so, taking a chunk of the crotch with him.” That stirs a sense of rugged tension even during shoe-leather investigation scenes. When Doc and co. sneak through cartel tunnels, Alex wrings gut-churning suspense from the possibility of tripwires and armed guards.

The novel’s long, demandingly so, and sometimes proudly over the top, the grim developments penned with a sense of play but still taken seriously. While the thugs and ne’er-do-wells at times edge toward stock types—notable characters include Termite, Slim Biffle, Fede Gu, and Moustapha Standish—Doc and compatriots like Ilsa and Lucretia, whose dog Doc commits to recovering, remain engaging throughout as they “follow the money, find the truth” no matter how dark.

Takeaway: Living up to its title, this hard-edged P.I. epic dives into desert darkness and action.

Great for fans of: Matthew McBride, Max Allan Collins.

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

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