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Love, Only Better
Paulette Stout
After a devastating breakup, 28-year-old Manhattanite Rebecca Sloane is left sexually frustrated and questioning her own desires, or lack thereof, until a meet-cute with her elderly neighbor’s nephew, Kyle, sends her on a journey of self-discovery in this steamy, contemporary romance. Labeled a “frigid ice queen” by her ex, Rebecca participates in a research study in hopes of solving a “sexual problem” that has prevented her from ever experiencing an orgasm. However, after a series of embarrassing, “creepy” interviews, Rebecca leaves the study and decides to tackle her sexual dysfunction on her own, with a little assistance from Kyle, “a gorgeous young man in a black T-shirt.”

Stout is adept when it comes to exposing the vulnerability of her characters, and Rebecca’s feelings of inadequacy are evident from the opening lines, where she ruminates over an ex labeling her “frigid” and “an ice queen”: “It wasn’t as if the words were unexpected. Hell, Rebecca said them to herself a thousand times over. Only, this was different. Hearing someone else say them.” These feelings spur the plot while setting an impeccable start to a well-developed character arc. Stout excels at describing and dramatizing Rebecca’s issues, seizing a welcome opportunity to address common (but often avoided) issues surrounding female sexuality and intimacy.

Although much of the story’s plot revolves around sex, the steam between Rebecca and Kyle doesn’t truly rise up until later in the story, and most of the heat occurs during scenes of self-pleasure that range from moderate to scorching. Rebecca manages to ruin romantic moments with Kyle on several occasions, which may cause some readers frustration, while others will empathize with her apprehensions surrounding sex and the measures she takes to address her intimacy issues. High tension, flirty exchanges, and intense sexual situations that eventually lead to love make this book perfect for readers who enjoy angst-filled romance.

Takeaway: This steamy slow-burn weaves romance together with lessons on intimacy, women’s health, and the female body.

Great for fans of: Jasmine Guillory’s The Wedding Date, Alice Clayton’s Wallbanger.

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

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Purpose and Possibilities: How to Transform Your Life
Elaine J. Brzycki and Henry G. Brzycki
The Brzyckis’ (Mental Health for All Toolkit) newest self-help work offers an engaging new exploration of the connection between a person’s sense of purpose and their well-being. Intended to be transformative, this workbook encourages readers to engage in reflection to generate a fresh self-understanding through exercises that develop awareness and explore the holistic nature of “self,” which the authors, a psychologist and an educator, characterize as an interconnection between body, mind, and soul, as laid out in their “Integrated Self Model” of 30 self attributes. Other instruments include a “Success Predictor” designed to help readers analyze different aspects of their lives—being, purpose, mission—to reveal the “highest expressions of what is possible for them.”

With accessible language and explanations broken down into digestible paragraphs, the authors demystify complex topics, including the effects of stress, attributes of the self, and internal and structural tensions (“the energy created when an individual concurrently envisions a desired future state, while being completely aware of the limitations of current reality”). The exercises are clear and well-defined, often incorporating a simple scoring system to help readers gauge their overall comprehension. Particularly useful is the exercise ranking the eight dimensions of well-being—emotional, environmental, physical, occupational, spiritual, social, financial—as it offers a solid framework for the more sophisticated principles introduced in later chapters.

The book has been structured with a tiered approach, moving from broad concepts at the outset to narrower and more specific ideas deeper in. To speed progress, the authors suggest working backwards by first identifying desired results, followed by evaluating whether current behaviors will produce those outcomes (or not). The authors acknowledge throughout that ego, habit, and other factors can be obstacles to growth but argue that truly knowing your self will “lay the groundwork for a flourishing life.” Readers open to new principles and some challenging material—as well as truly facing themselves—will find that Purpose and Possibilities encourages the openness and perseverance that it takes to make transformative change.

Takeaway: A meaningful guide that challenges readers seeking transformative change to be honest and deliberate in seeking their purpose.

Great for fans of: Marc Reklau’s 30 Days: Change Your Habits, Change Your Life, Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements.

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

Love for a Deaf Rebel: Schizophrenia on Bowen Island
Derrick King
King’s memoir, set in British Columbia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, opens in a mall food court, where young King is approached by Pearl, a charismatic deaf woman who’s not shy about striking up a conversation with a stranger. Their chat, at first scribbled on napkins, flows easily, and a friendship blossoms. From there, interest in one another builds quickly, as they strike up a romance and King learns sign language in an attempt to strengthen their connection. When they move together to isolated Bowen Island, though, it becomes clear that Pearl’s increasingly erratic behavior is an indication of schizophrenia.

King tells this emotional story in crisp, quick prose, recounting major events with little transition between one day and the next: “Our lives changed quickly. Pearl moved in with me six months after we met. I reserved a U-Haul truck, collected cartons from the supermarket, and bought Pearl a negligee as a welcome gift.” King omits excessive detail—in about twenty pages, roughly three years’ worth of experiences ( the construction of a house, King’s graduation with a MBA, and the couple’s choice to get married) get laid out, which some readers might find jarring. What matters most, though, is King’s openness about this relationship and his respect for Pearl’s story, right up to its bittersweet finish.

Too many narratives concerned with mental health focus intensely on the disorder itself, forgetting the person who is afflicted with it. Not so, here, as King takes pains throughout to capture Pearl as a vital presence as the couple rough it on Bowen Island, sharing a life of livestock and ferry rides. Readers interested in life with mental health issues can enjoy the insights and slight suspense in this honest story, which closes with a personal letter from Pearl’s family and welcome commentary from King about how a sad ending for some can be a blessed beginning for others.

Takeaway: A love story and memoir that touches on deafness, schizophrenia, and roughing it in isolated British Columbia.

Great for fans of: Marin Sardy’s The Edge of Every Day, Donna McDonald’s The Art of Being Deaf.

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

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A Hundred Sweet Promises
Sepehr Haddad
Haddad’s moving debut is based on the true story of Nasrollah, a Persian musician returning to Tehran from St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1905, half-way through his studies, to help his father establish musical education in their own country. Struggling to adjust, Nasrollah, who goes by the honorary title of Nasrosoltan, initially worries that his ambitions will be frustrated, but eventually enjoys success as the leader of a military band. When his mentor and professor dies, Nasrosoltan returns to St. Petersburg and meets the elegant Madame Lazar, private music tutor to the Princess Irina, and sets off a chain of events leading to a passionate love affair that crosses class lines, all as revolutionary violence grips Russia.

Inspired by true stories passed down from the author’s grandmother about his grandfather, Nasrosoltan, Haddad’s novel uses fiction to bring life to family history. His portraits of Persian influence on Russian court life at the turn of the 20th century are compelling, and family photographs add a personal touch that readers will appreciate. That history adds power to Haddad’s depiction of Nasrosoltan yearning for the vibrancy of St. Petersburg and his talented peers or his thrill at returning during “babe leto, or ‘grandmother’s summer,’ those rare days that summer’s comforts extended well into the fall.”

As a storyteller, Haddad relies heavily on exposition, with incidents often summarized rather than fully dramatized, and the characters have a habit of recounting anecdotes that are not entirely connected to their development or the needs of the story. This, along with some clunky dialogue—“What have you done? The governor is terribly upset that you escorted Shamsi to Margoon and were alone with her for two nights”—diminish the impact of the narrative. But the plot and tone are quite operatic, which will appeal to readers who enjoy dramatic historical fiction.

Takeaway: A deeply personal historical novel blending music, love, and turn-of-the-century revolutionary politics.

Great for fans of: Vanora Bennet’s Midnight in St Petersburg, Anne Glenconner’s Lady in Waiting.

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

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Bloodroot
Daniel V. Meier, Jr.
Meier (The Dung Beetles of Liberia) transports readers back to Jamestown, 1609, in this dramatic historical fiction. Matthew, an English carpenter on the run after assaulting his boss, embarks on the long voyage to Virginia with the hopes of a new beginning with his best friend Richard, an optimistic scholar. Matthew adapts to the harsh environment of the Americas, learning to use a gun and contribute to the settlement, winning favor in the eyes of colony leaders like Captain John Smith. Richard, though, struggles to see Jamestown for anything other than an Eden where he can start a new civilization and spread Christianity to the local Native Americans.

The men’s friendship illustrates opposing viewpoints of early settlers’ adjustment to Jamestown. While Matthew hardens to the reality that the settlement is not a promised land brimming with gold, Richard struggles to learn survival skills, falls in love with an Englishwoman, and insists on his mission to “begin the world over again, the way it should be” by spreading “the light of Christianity.” Both men's morals are tested as they face the harsh reality for the unprepared English settlers, striving to find food in a punishing winter. Meier doesn’t sugarcoat the settlers’ attacks against the Native Americans or the retaliations: the brutality of Jamestown life, and the battles between the Native Americans and the English, are deftly laid out with clarity and power, inviting readers to experience them alongside Matthew.

History and fiction blend perfectly in this vivid account of early settlement in an unforgiving new land where morals are tested and sins are committed. Those who grew up learning the stories of Jamestown in history classes will recognize many characters, such as Captain Ratcliffe, Powhatan Chief Opechancanough, Captain Davis, and Sir Percy. Meier provides a detailed map so readers can easily follow along with the characters’ movements.

Takeaway: This well-researched novel of early Jamestown will grab readers seeking a fresh look at history.

Great for fans of: Connie Lapallo, Tony Williams’s The Jamestown Experiment.

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

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Survival Symphony: My Lung Cancer Journey
Louis V Cesarini
Cesarini charts the peaks and valleys of fighting cancer in his powerful memoir. Seemingly healthy before he was first diagnosed in his early ‘50s, Cesarini started writing this day-by-day account of the trial of facing Stage 4 lung cancer in 2019, with a focus on knowing that he must continue to fight-- on choosing to live “rather than accepting a death sentence.” His background, coincidentally in marketing cancer drugs for a major pharmaceutical company, served him well when it came to advocating for himself and making treatment decisions, and as the many photos (and links to musical performances) in the text make clear, community and his passion for music (he plays the french horn) proved key sources of strength.

This diary of his struggle is inspiring in its clear examination of his trials as well as in sharing a spirit of hope. The material can get dense: Cesarini draws on his oncology expertise to explain his medical complications and thoroughly break down the logic of various treatment options, differentiating between CT scans and X-rays, and explaining, in footnotes, how to make sense of terms like “statistically significant.” The journal-style narration (“Sunday, September 8: I feel about the same today as I did yesterday”) conveys the grinding quality of a protracted health crisis but at times may prove monotonous for readers expecting the scenecraft of more polished memoirs. Cesarini’s candid photos throughout invite readers to feel a personal connection–as does his moving closing narration of an imagined vacation with his husband, a memorialization of a trip that Covid-19 made impossible.

Cesarini hoped, in writingSurvival Symphony, to offer hope to lung cancer patients, demonstrating people can live with the disease. In this, he succeeds. He illuminates the urgency of love and community and the importance of being empowered to make effective decisions. Cancer, in his words, “Is not how I’m going to die.”

Takeaway: This detailed memoir of facing cancer offers crucial insights and encouragement to keep fighting.

Great for fans of: Joy Clausen Soto’s Joy, John Kuby’s No Quit In Me.

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

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Well, Doc, It Seemed Like a Good Idea At The Time!: The Unexpected Adventures of a Trauma Surgeon
J. Paul Waymack
In this comic debut, Waymack, clinical surgeon and founder of Kitov Pharmaceuticals, serves up memorable snapshots of his most implausible and amusing moments in the medical field, such as the priceless story of giving mouth-to-mouth to a cherished lab rat. From his first night in emergency room rotation to serving as the lead on an Army burn team in the Soviet Union, he offers entertaining anecdotes from years of experience–and doesn’t shy away from the unpleasant side of medical practice. Reminiscent of diary entries with an emphasis on recording the lighter side of human behavior, the unlikely tales cover both serious challenges alongside the more outlandish memories in an endearing, self-deprecating style.

When recounting the wild events of his first nights in residency, for example, when he still held to the naive belief that “of all the days I will practice medicine, the most insane will be the first,” he fondly recalls the “number-one most used expression” among medical students—“I’ll go get the doctor.” Readers will laugh along at the confusion caused by Waymack’s misinterpretation of an X-ray: A patient’s abdomen appeared riddled with buckshot, and when Waymack, justifiably concerned, asked her when she had been shot, he learned the truth: She had simply enjoyed a dinner of freshly shot squirrel the night before.

This merry memoir delves into more solemn topics as well, covering Waymack’s stint in the U.S. Army and president-ordered mission to the Soviet Union, complete with photographs of the author’s adventures. But, in true Waymack style, he describes being followed by KGB agents and training “Soviet proctologists” to be burn surgeons with an arrestingly light touch. One standout story: Waymack’s habit of posing complex medical questions (““Comrade, what would be a normal white blood cell count for a burn patient in this hospital?”) to the Soviet doctor he suspected was actually a KGB agent. Equal parts incredible and hysterical, this medical mayhem will delight fans of real-life comedy.

Takeaway: A sidesplitting medical memoir, alive with smart comedy and commentary.

Great for fans of: Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor, Doron Amosi’s Tell Me Where it Hurts.

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

The Witches Three Count on Me!
Yates Davis and Lynda Bouchard
A mischievous kid who loves candies, pranks, and scary situations, headlines Davis and Bouchard’s spooky Halloween adventure. When his mother reprimands him on the night of his favorite holiday, the young prankster escapes into the forest, where he stumbles upon three scary witches—with green flesh and creepy, curly toes—dancing around a fire. The witches seize the boy and fly him on their brooms and into their kitchen, complete with a burbling cauldron labeled “Wee Ones.” To save himself, the hero challenges his captors to solve a counting puzzle that he’s crafted. The witches will lose all their powers if they can’t answer his riddle—but what if they get it right?

The authors answer that question in a story that, despite some strained rhymes, successfully marries the exhilaration of Halloween scares with a clever math trick. At times the authors’ verbosity slows the clever story. The protagonist responds to the terrors around him—“jars of bulging lizard eyes, and cans of buzzard meat”—with anger rather than terror, exercising a hallucinatory agency in his escapist imaginations, a welcome development reminiscent of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. His confident decision to rely on his wits in the face of danger is exciting (“Quick trickery is my thing!”), though the choice to leave him nameless may limit readers’ ability to connect with him emotionally.

Kody Kratzer's atmospheric illustrations heighten the seasonal and supernatural elements, with rich colors, exciting details (the witches’ jack-o’-lantern smiles!), and occasional bumptious action bringing life to the pages. The art boasts a gratifying intensity, though attentive readers may note inconsistencies in the unnamed hero’s physical depiction—he appears childish in initial spreads while resembling a young adult in the final pages. Nevertheless, those eager for spine-tingling anecdotes, fun riddles, and the general merriment of Halloween will find delight in this wittily imaginative adventure.

Takeaway: An eerie and intellectually interactive Halloween adventure that will please curious readers.

Great for fans of: Emma Yarlett’s Beast Feast, Jennifer O’Connell’s Ten Timid Ghosts.

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

Click here for more about The Witches Three Count on Me!
Cassius and Ellendarra
D. C. Armstrong
Centered on magic, inheritance, and prophesy, Armstrong’s enthralling debut fantasy tests the power of good against the power of evil while delving into heady questions of destiny versus free will. Cassius, a prince known for his pure heart and soul, was adopted by King Varimus of Evlontus, already the father of an existing son, Magnus. While the princes were still young, King Varimus managed to save the realms from a powerful evil entity created by the bad choices of the people. Saving the day meant agreeing to let the entity bind with Cassius, though Cassius was able to control the evil. Years later, a jealous Magnus frames Cassius for the king’s murder and then puts him into a deep sleep for years, while Magnus rules the kingdom. But Cassius awakens and, as foretold in prophecy, meets Ellendarra, kicking off a complex battle of light and dark.

Rather than a clear “good guy” or “bad guy,” Armstrong creates characters who are tortured by perceptions of goodness and evil. “Evlontians know that with each act they commit, they empower either the darkness or the light,” he writes, a philosophy that inspires the fear that harboring any darkness inside oneself they must make one evil, as well as the conviction that if a choice benefits the greater good, no matter how evil it may seem, it must still be good. Readers will likely relate to Magnus the most, as his internal conflict and fears make his struggles often seem more difficult than Cassius’s, who literally fights the darkness inside him.

As Cassian armies clash with Evlontians, characters and readers alike will wonder about the nature of prophecy, since each intense battle’s outcome and each character’s choice appears to be already set for them. Armstrong suggests, though, interpretation is everything, and that choice and prophecy can be the same. The detailed, sometimes dense story line and insight into character and history will please fans of thoughtful fantasy.

Takeaway: Fantasy readers will find the swords, sorcery, and magical entities they’re looking for in this high-stakes war of good versus evil.

Great for fans of:Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon's Daughter, Eve Forward’s Villains by Necessity.

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

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The Divine Comedy: The New Translation by Gerald J. Davis
Gerald J. Davis
In this new translation of Dante’s complete epic, Davis renders all 100 cantos of the poet’s ascension from Inferno to Paradise in clear, direct prose. He’s committed to ensuring that readers are able, as Beatrice puts it in Davis’s version of Paradise, to “Open your mind to what I now reveal unto you and fix it therein. For knowledge comes from hearing something and retaining it.” To fix meaning in minds today, Davis favors clarity over mystery, the literal over the poetic, offering a Divine Comedy that synthesizes earlier translations, breezily explaining itself at every step of Dante’s journey.

Davis—who has translated classics as disparate as Don Quixote, Gilgamesh, and Le Morte d'Arthur—offers only sparse insight, in a brief introduction, into his sources, methods, or choices. One line, though, captures the spirit of this work: “If any explanations or clarifications are needed, they are embedded in the body of the text, so as not to interrupt the flow of the words.” That approach is exemplified by the moment when Dante and his guide, Virgil, enter a forest in Inferno, and Virgil bids Dante to break a twig off one of the moaning trees. Once the tree speaks, in a lament that Davis captures with some pained power, Virgil doesn’t just point out that Dante should have known from familiarity with Virgil’s work that there was a soul trapped inside—here, Virgil fully cites the source: “[I]f this man could only have believed what he had read described in my verses in the Aeneid.”

Readers seeking an accessible, inviting Divine Comedy will find Davis a welcome guide, despite some flat prose and the occasional tautology. (“Do not marvel if the Family of Heaven is still able to astonish you,” Virgil advises.) The lack of explanatory notes, especially concerning textual issues and the many figures from history and literature who populate Dante’s afterlife, limits this translation’s utility for students, but Davis still offers a clean, approachable rendering.

Takeaway: An inviting prose version of the classic journey from hell to heaven.

Great for fans of: Jason M. Baxter’s A Beginner's Guide to Dante's Divine Comedy, Eric Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds’s Dante in English.

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

The Printer and The Strumpet
Larry Brill
Brill delivers an entertaining caper set in colonial America’s fight for independence in the second volume of his Misadventures of Leeds Merriweather series (after The Patterer). Leeds Merriweather, a journalist and self-proclaimed “wordsmith,” owns a Boston newspaper in 1773–a publication that many colonists deem sympathetic to the Tory cause. When his business debt gets signed over to crown royalists thanks to his best friend’s gambling habits, Leeds is forced to use his press to further the cause of the King, whether he agrees with it or not. Tables turn once his affections are snared by rebel sympathizer Sally Hughes, and Leeds finds himself torn between saving his livelihood or clandestinely using the power of the press to further the Patriot movement.

History lovers will be hooked by Brill’s foray into colonial Boston, especially his portrayal of key battles and memorable strategists who were instrumental in establishing American freedom. Though he takes plenty of creative license in re-imagining significant events, the engaging characters and wry style carry the story line. Brill pairs an amusing satiric style with period appropriate prose, and readers will chuckle at his characters’ catchphrases (“Flog the frog. I’d been had”) and Leeds’s playful narration, such as the barbed “‘Not to overstate the obvious,’ I said, overstating the obvious.” Brill’s sense of play at times flirts with anachronism, as when he concocts a perfectly reasonable justification for Leeds to exclaim “WTF?”

Sally continually risks life and limb in the name of freedom and exhibits plenty of her own gusto, upending mores as the story navigates bordellos and revolutionary politicking. While this power couple has strong appeal, their romance here proves anticlimactic. Still, fans of witty historic adventure will be left wishing for more of Leeds and his covert printing operations–activities that eventually transform him into a “spot-on American.” This bantering account of early colonial freedom fighters and their innovative maneuvers is equal parts rousing and amusing

Takeaway: A playful tale of colonial America, with wry humor and a rebel heart.

Great for fans of: Edward Carey’s Little, Theodore Sturgeon’s I, Libertine.

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

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For the Love of Many
Vivian Dunn
Dunn’s debut novel is a sumptuous sojourn into the grit and glamour of the Roaring Twenties given new life through the lenses of queer identity and the story of the rise of a superstar. Billie, the chosen sobriquet of Lucille Le Sur, one day to become known as Joan Crawford, is a smallish-town girl with a past who only wants to dance on Broadway –and will do anything to get there. Once on the Great White Way, as a chorine in a J. J. Shubert production, she meets Nadine, a fellow chorine with a reputation as a good-time girl and the connections to go with it. As the pair opens up about their pasts and shared experiences, growing intimate, matters like marriages and careers get in the way of what could be, threatening an early closing on their romance.

Rich with atmosphere and stunning detail, the novel offers an intricately imagined love story viewed from the dual perspectives of Billie and Nadine. Without shying away from the realities of the time period–and what women were forced to do if they wanted their chance at fame–Dunn fully immerses readers in the kaleidoscopic headiness of Broadway life during the Prohibition era, as the women both sing and embody the hit song “T'ain't Nobody's Business if I Do.” Fact and fiction are blended together with a seamless ease, inviting readers into the game of untangling which is which.

The novel has some stylistic quirks. The dual-viewpoint narrative’s quick transitions from one voice to another takes some getting used to and may at times throw some readers off, and intermittent bursts of poetry among the prose provide a refreshing (if odd) change of pace. But this story and romance boasts a solid foundation, compelling characters, and prose that brings the Jazz Age–and what queer existence would have been like in that era–to life

Takeaway: A beautifully penned love story that pays homage to the theater and the queer experience in the Prohibition era.

Great for fans of: Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone, Renée Rosen’s Dollface.

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

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Scarlet Oak
Angie Weiland-Crosby
Weiland-Crosby weaves a moving tapestry of grief, family, and the enduring power of nature in her fanciful debut. Scarlet, a tree sprite, has seen a lot in her fifty years on earth, but she has never met a human until she encounters Finn, an autistic human teenager, seconds before taking his own life. That moment changes everything for both, in ways neither could expect. In their part of the world, the Smis (short for “Southern Maryland in Shadow”) judges all living things when they die, determining whether each soul moves toward the Light or the Dark. Death by suicide, in the Smis’s estimation, means automatic Darkness. But Scarlet is convinced that Finn did not intend to die and begs for a chance to prove it. She is given one year to pretend to be human and prove that Finn’s spirit belongs to the Light.

Audiences will be swept away by Scarlet’s human life as Willow Brook, who learns that fifty years of tree-sprite living have ill-prepared her for love, jealousy, and heartbreak. Her relationship with Finn’s grieving parents will keep readers guessing as to Scarlet and Finn’s fate—expect tears along the way. Weiland-Crosby’s narrative features multiple perspectives, including its eponymous protagonist, Smis, and Scarlet’s tree host, Horace, offering a multifaceted view of characters and scenes. The lyrical style is touched with poetry, providing insight into the world between fairy and human.

At times, that divide seems arbitrary: The afterlife in Scarlet Oak is clearly non-religious, but Christianity and the Christmas holiday are major forces for good in the life of Scarlett and the Smis. The story grapples with mature subject matter—suicide, alcoholism, ableism—but readers should be aware that the depiction of Finn’s autism emphasizes negative effects on those around him. Despite some uncomfortable moments, this rich fusion of connection and resilience will remind readers of their own magic.

Takeaway: Part paean to nature, part family drama, this lyric fantasy examines grief and love in our world.

Great for fans of: Glendy Vanderah’s Where the Forest Meets the Stars, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

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

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Poems from a Gypsy Heart
Verle Jean
First published in 2012, Jean’s hefty (over 600 pages) collection of gentle, nature-minded observational free verse celebrates, among other topics, silence, seasons, spiders, and how “the flute song of the wind/ blows over the green hills.” Unaddressed in these hundreds of short, accessible poems is the title’s cavalier use of a dated term with a history of use as a slur. That’s certain to turn away some potential readers, though a poem called “The Gypsy,” which centers on the possibility (represented by a seagull) of being someplace unexpected tomorrow, suggests that Jean conceives of the term as referring to a general spirit of adventure and curiosity.

Whatever the case, that spirit powers poems like “A Walk Through a Canyon" which finds Jean both ecstatic and contemplative: “in the long time to come, perhaps/ i will remember this is my footprint/ on the red sand, beneath these monoliths of stone/ frozen by time …” Landscape, weather, and time forever reflect each other in Jean’s imagination, a tendency common in dreamy Midwesterners (Jean hails from North Dakota) who have invested years in watching seasons unfold across those limitless heavens. In the playful “White” snow covers trees and ground “as if the sky had fallen down,” while “I Am” finds her engaging in the age-old pleasure of dreaming along with the clouds, which she strikingly likens to “giant leaves / floating across a pond of sky.”

Pleasing imagery appears throughout the collection (“The bush was buttoned up/ with red berries”), even in poems concerning more human topics, such as a grandmother’s mending basket or fleeting memories of youth. Still, the book’s bulk and abundance can overwhelm, with the strongest and most specific poems outnumbered by slighter ones, variations on established themes, whimsical doggerel, and lines whose power is diminished by familiar imagery or inconsistent archaic phrasing, like “’tis” or “thee.”

Takeaway: A lifetime’s worth of warmly observational poetry, focused on time, nature, and arresting imagery.

Great for fans of: Mary Ryan, Ted Kooser.

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

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Unchecked Capitalism is Killing Us!: How unfettered corporate greed and corruption have made us poorer, fatter, sicker, less tolerant of others and more dangerously exposed to the coronavirus.
Michael W. Shroyer
Rynerson’s thorough, fierce, nonpartisan attack on contemporary capitalism emphasizes the pernicious influence that corporate power has on the daily lives of average Americans. Comparing the population to the archetypal frog who doesn’t recognize it’s gradually being boiled alive, Rynerson notes that, since the Reagan revolution, regulations on corporations have slowly eroded, allowing them to achieve ever greater profit at the expense of the public, a trend only exacerbated by the globalization of the Clinton era. Without restrictions, “unfettered corporate greed” is unleashed, which leads to corporations corrupting government policy. Rynerson presents an exhaustive list of charges of illegal activity by banks and other companies; he offers evidence of auto companies deliberately stifling innovation; and he charts the alarming history of pharmaceutical companies directly writing legislation to prevent Medicare from negotiating prices for medicine.

Rynerson's arguments prove most persuasive when focused on specific examples of corruption, such as his spirited takedown of the lobbying industry, in which he connects various powerful lobbies to their influence on specific members of Congress. At times, he overreaches, not addressing issues like race and poverty when urging readers to buy electric cars and healthier groceries, or loosely linking the treatment decisions made by oncologists to corruption elsewhere in the medical industry, such as pharmaceutical companies’ efforts to sell opioids. While most of his arguments are easy to follow, they sometimes get swallowed in the avalanche of outrages and references, a tendency that also dulls the righteous power of his anger.

“Unfortunately, corporate control of our nation became complete in 2010,” he laments in a discussion of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allowed unlimited election spending from wealthy donors. Rynerson makes that case with such clear fury that, perhaps inevitably, the solutions he offers (idealistic fixes like the creation of a new, centrist political party, individual-focused changes like eating less sugar) come up short. Still, Rynerson's passion and outrage raise urgent, thought-provoking questions.

Takeaway: A no-holds-barred attack on unchecked corporate power in American.

Great for fans of: David Dayen’s Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate Power, Christopher Leonard’s kochland.

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

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Vandella
M. Ch. Landa
Landa’s debut novel follows Maia Foster––a 17 year-old cancer survivor raised by her grandmother––as she journeys through the afterlife to save her grandmother’s life. A regular high school student with a crush on a popular jock and conflict with local mean girls, Maia sees her world fall apart when her doctor breaks the news that her cancer is coming back. Then things get strange: She wakes up in the hospital and sees a mysterious man touching her grandmother’s forehead. That stranger Sidney, who looks young but has an air of agelessness about him, hints at knowledge of life, death, and souls, and tells Maia that she has the opportunity to save her grandmother’s life, but for a price. Maia accepts, and together they take a dazzling plunge into the afterlife. But there she loses the medallion that protects her and then, one by one, her senses, all as she discovers that Sidney, her self-proclaimed “caregiver,” hasn’t been completely honest with her.

Featuring an angelic language, death personified, plus demigods and dragon, this coming-of-age story covers a lot of fantastical ground. Lovers of young adult romance steeped in fantastical journeys and coming-of-age themes will appreciate this story, if they’re comfortable with the issues of age, power, and consent that mostly go unaddressed in the budding romance between an underage teen and an apparently ageless being who can read her mind, has observed her since her girlhood, and is described in the narrative as a “man” while she’s referred to as a “girl.”

The descent into fantasy is slow and immersive, allowing time for the Maia and readers to acclimate to a convincing world, which helps develop stakes that give the story power. The worldbuilding is strong on both the fantastic and realistic sides, and a moving twist shifts the novel’s focus to familial love and sacrifice rather than romantic love.

Takeaway: Strong worldbuilding and an engaging teen protagonist ground this fantasy in real emotion.

Great for fans of: Archer Lakhani’s The Safekeeper, Neal Shusterman’s Everlost.

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

Click here for more about Vandella

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