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The Truth About Stepmoms
Renee Bolla
“I heard stepmoms are evil,” a bespectacled young girl declares at the start of Bolla’s humorous, wholesome picture book, which finds its narrator grappling with frightening rumors and myths. She’s heard that stepmothers have propensity for greed, use excessive hot water in the shower, and could possibly be “witches in disguise.” Though the girl has enjoyed a warm relationship with Via, the girlfriend of her father’s who has now become her stepmom, she’s worried that Via’s new status will not just mark an end to their days of “epic” dance parties and make-believe hair salon fun. She’s worried Via will turn into “Momzilla”—and that she’ll lose the Via she’s come to love. But then the child’s father does the unthinkable, leaving her alone with Via for a whole day. The kid is determined to figure out exactly what kind of stepmom she’s up against.

Like Bolla’s other picture books (Finding Bunny and Imagine That), The Truth About Stepmoms takes a lighthearted approach to serious difficulties children face, but it also distills the complex, emotional dynamics of blended families into an accessible narrative for kids and adults alike. Jack Button’s bright, expressive illustrations add a cozy warmth and soft-edged glow to Bolla’s story, and they also illuminate the child’s thriving imagination and sunny home life, which includes an exceptionally loyal (and charmingly designed) house cat and a stepmom who isn’t nearly as bad as the fairytales would have the child believe.

In fact, Via proves to be the kind of stepmom who makes pancakes with extra chocolate chips for dinner, leaves funny notes in lunch boxes, and is “always there to give [...] a tight hug” whenever the child is feeling down. Families seeking a gentle, silly, and well-illustrated tale introducing the concept of stepparents will find this an excellent choice. Rather than a witch, the truth is that stepmoms “will be here to add a little extra love … every step of [the] way.”

Takeaway: Gorgeously illustrated story that busts myths about stepmoms

Comparable Titles: Suzanne Lang’s Families, Families, Families!, Elizabeth Blake’s Greenbean.

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

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Life, Undiminished.: Can humans and nature coexist?
L. Dieudonné Lemmert
Lemmert’s sweeping science fiction adventure, after Life, Unedited, finds biologist Nick and his girlfriend Aurora in a desperate race to save Earth from certain destruction. Building on their adventures from the prequel, Nick is now fully healed from his heart transplant, and the couple are working to expand “the sanctuary,” Earth’s last natural preserve. But Nick is being set up by the extremist Animal Protection Organization (APO), who plan to replace Nick as head of the sanctuary in a bid to stop his work, painting his romantic relationship with Aurora as taboo.

Aurora’s position as an outsider brings to light the limits often placed on love; she muses that Earthlings think of her as “a genetically edited creature from a foreign world – a genetic freak,” and bemoans the harsh treatment of their love affair, observing that “a relationship with a freak from Mitis was simply not something a normal man from Earth should consider.” As the two dig into the sinister motives of the APO, Earth is hit with a devastating virus that threatens to end all life on the planet. Soon, Nick and Aurora are drawn into a deadly race against the clock to uncover the virus’s origins—and to find a way to stop it from exterminating humankind.

Lemmert pens a fully immersive story rich with science, intergalactic travel, and the classic journey of a hero with a conflict between duty and love. Nick and Aurora face seemingly insurmountable odds in their fight to uncover the truth behind Earth’s devastating pandemic, particularly when the virus causing it is revealed to have alien origins. The journey disrupts the deep connection they share, but their paths back to each other are compelling to watch. Throughout, Lemmert plumbs the deeper meaning behind what it truly means to be human—and the sacrifices that come with it.

Takeaway: Sci-fi romance that examines what it truly means to be human.

Comparable Titles: Lauren James's The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, M.R. Carey's The Girl with All the Gifts.

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

Click here for more about Life, Undiminished.
Brave Mermaids: The Treasure
Maria Mandel Dunsche
Dunsche continues her Brave Mermaids series (after Shell of Magic) with this playful tale of shipwrecks, hidden treasure, and working together. Mermaid sisters Livi and Lexa are back, exploring the deep blue with their merpup, Finn, when Livi zeroes in on a shipwreck she spotted one day while playing—a discovery so impressive that Lexa declares it to be “splashtastic!” Even the resident shark can’t dampen their spirits as the bubbly pair set about exploring, in the process uncovering a sparkling golden treasure chest.

The loot proves irresistible, but the sisters soon realize it won’t be an easy task to open the chest; after several attempts, Lexa gives up, while Livi vows to unseal the treasure at any cost (and calls Lexa a “seapooper” for losing interest). The girls eventually call in the help of several sea-dwelling friends, including familiar faces from the first in the series. Soon, it’s all hands on deck as the group works to crack open the chest: seacorn Aria tries tickling it with a pirate’s feather, and when that doesn’t work, Sparkles the dolphin insists a pirate polka will do the trick. That’s delightful, of course, but after their attempts fail, Livi, true to form, still refuses to give up, suggesting the friends band together to try their ideas all at the same time—a breakthrough that will please readers.

De Zoysa’s luminous illustrations are splashtastic themselves, evoking an ocean teeming with life; whether it’s the sisters’ iridescent mermaid tails, flashy fish swarming around the ship’s wreckage, or the treasure in all its glittering glory, younger readers will find a torrent of eye-catching visuals in this cheerful tale. Ultimately, the friends’ decision to work together pays off: Livi finally gets her treasure, and, as a thank you to her friends for their help, everyone gets their own piece. Dunsche includes a treasure-themed maze for younger readers at the end.

Takeaway: Mermaid sisters rely on their friends’ help to uncover shipwrecked treasure.

Comparable Titles: Kim Ann’s Where Do Mermaids Go on Vacation?, Rachel Bright’s The Squirrels Who Squabbled.

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

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Marriage and Hanging
Genevieve Morrissey
Inspired by a notorious real 19th century case, Morrissey (author of the Antlands science-fiction series) delivers an engrossing murder mystery set in 1830s New England and thoughtfully tethered to the faith, expectations, and marital customs of the era. In Milltown, a mill girl named Mary Hale is found hanged and, mysteriously, pregnant. While her death initially is deemed “a clear case of self-murder,” the town gossips suggest there’s a darker truth, and soon enough the sheriff arrives at the home of Rachel Woodley, eager to question her husband, the Reverend Josiah Woodley, who fits a witness’s description of "a tall man, in a long coat, with a fur hat.” With Josiah behind bars, Rachel steels herself to discover the truth, including what he meant when he said, "It is on my conscience."

That premise grabs attention, but what sets Morrissey's novel apart is its deep dive into 1830s life, from the miserable and dangerous conditions endured by mill workers to Rachel’s disappointment that her marriage, even before the accusation, is cold and distant. (Rachel knows that if she were to ask local notables for advice, she would be encouraged only to “prayer, patience, and womanly submission.”) With that richness of milieu, the pacing is deliberate but steady, as Rachel’s investigation offers Morrissey opportunity to examine matters of belief, morality, and the suppression of women’s individuality, especially among the mill girls, whose independence is treated by society as something improper.

Deeply grounded in early American Christianity, the narrative highlights the low regard that institutions held for women—Rachel is forbidden to testify on behalf or against Josiah. As she and her maid, Kitty, work the case, Rachel balances a laid-back amiability with a shrewd doggedness. The mystery itself proves gripping, with Morrissey deftly teasing revelations and then showing her cards at the perfect moment. Readers will be privy to gossip, occasional prison rendezvous, undercover investigations, and an ending that satisfies but finds Rachel facing an uncertain future.

Takeaway: This deft historical New England mystery digs deeply into women’s lives.

Comparable Titles: Robert Brighton's The Buffalo Butcher, R. J. Koreto's The Turnbull Murders.

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

Click here for more about Marriage and Hanging
Meet Zoe Richards
Joshua A Stauffer
In this heart-warming middle grade novel, Zoe Richards, a new fourth grader at West End Elementary, learns a lot about herself and her classmates when they’re all assigned an autobiography project. While pondering what she will share about herself, Zoe befriends a fellow classmate, Joshua, who eats lunch alone and is considered weird and hard to deal with at times—at least according to her friend Victoria—due to having autism. With the help of her neighbor, Felix, Zoe puts in the time and care to learn about Joshua and autism, and she and Joshua become closer. Through Zoe’s empathetic story, readers will get to meet Joshua, to, and learn about his boundaries and the way he sees the world.

Stauffer approaches the topic of being an outsider amongst peers with sensitivity and insight through the inviting figures of Joshua and Zoe, a new student distinguished by her compassionate spirit and inquisitive nature. Set in 2006, Meet Zoe Richards pulses with an undercurrent of nostalgia for a simpler time before social media upended young lives and relationship dynamics. For her autobiography project, Zoe reviews old VHS tapes of her childhood and learns the valuable lesson—still resonate today—that time stands still for no one. Zoe comes to terms with missing her old home and neighborhood, while adjusting and finding new ways to enjoy her current home and school life.

Filled with themes of family, friendship, and diversity, this story will touch the hearts of young readers with real world situations such as learning disabilities, the complexity that comes with growing older, and facing school bullies. Meet Zoe Richards is a feel-good children's story that will teach middle grade readers empathy, compassion, and the realistic nature of what Zoe herself identifies as the "bittersweet transition" into adulthood. “I thought growing meant getting bigger and stronger. Instead, I feel like the world is getting smaller, and I’m just getting old,” she declares, the words sure to strike older readers, too.

Takeaway: Touching story of friendships among outsiders and facing adulthood.

Comparable Titles: Meg Eden Kuyatt's Good Different, Kereen Getten's When Life Gives You Mangos.

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

Click here for more about Meet Zoe Richards
Genesis: The Grail Knight (Footnail)
AK Howard
Genesis “Gen” Isherwood is back in the thrilling fourth installment of Howard’s spiritual adventure Footnail Series. As nail bearer and protector of the footnail—as in, the nail that staked Jesus to the cross—Gen is gifted with visions of Jesus possessing a mysterious white slab presumed to be the Holy Grail. The Grail, it seems, was split into three pieces, and with this information her mission becomes clear: find the splintered pieces, reunite them, and keep them out of the hands of evildoers. Gen leans on her trusted and familiar teammates to carry out the daunting, dangerous task, but old foes and new conspiracies hinder their success. The team must divide and conquer if they are to achieve victory, but Gen fears the close-knit group of vigilantes are becoming fractured in more ways than one.

Magic, action, and mystery unite to set an immersive stage perfect for battling evil. Two timelines dominate the story: the ancient past, from early 300 A.D. to the12th century, and the present that past has shaped and shaken. While the past offers tense skirmishes and useful insights, some contemporary readers may feel the present timeline provides more engaging, fast-paced drama. The large cast ensemble find themselves in nail-biting clashes where their lives are often on the line. Combined with secret portals, teleportation, and time reversal, Howard takes readers on a wild high-stakes ride packed with mystical fanfare.

Readers jumping head-first into the series with the fourth book may wish to pause and visit the earlier novels to get a stronger sense of the characters’ prior relationships and to better understand the historical elements of the footnail; however, those eager to dive in will appreciate Howard’s interludes, which provide ancient context about Gen’s visions. In addition, readers can browse the “Historical Context'' endnotes to assist filling any gaps in knowledge about Jesus, the Holy Grail, and the footnails.

Takeaway: Thrilling fantasy of holy relics, ancient adventure, and wild tech and magic.

Comparable Titles: Mark E. Fisher’s Days of the Apocalypse Series, D.L. Hennessey Neirgel Chronicles Series

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

Click here for more about Genesis: The Grail Knight (Footnail)
Zodiac Pets
Eric Giroux
This potent novel of growing up and facing the world delves into the intersection of democracy and everyday life in the small town of Pennacook, introduced in Giroux’s Ring on Deli, where challenges such as floods and roaming boars upend lives, with citizens mired in a state of fear and resignation. Amidst this backdrop we meet Wendy Zhou, a middle schooler, who emerges as the protagonist to confront the stagnant status quo of water-filled roads. Her journey to Pennacook follows the death of her father, with her mother consumed by apathy, distant and uninvolved. Despite this, Wendy’s sharp observations and budding writing skills lead her to volunteer at the Beat, the town’s weekly newspaper under the haphazard leadership of Graham A. Bundt. Bundt’s journalistic approach leaves her searching for tangible evidence and a newsworthy mentality. The amusingly drawn Beat staff—a “piccolo playing snot named Delmore,” Denise, and Sall—struggle to work as a team.

As Wendy’s curiosity ignites a mission to unravel the mysteries behind the town’s plight. Giroux weaves a gripping narrative, laced with humor, that interrogates and encourages reflection on individuals’ susceptibility to the influence of those in power. As Wendy navigates the complexities of middle school relationships, or in her case the lack thereof, she becomes increasingly aware of the townspeople’s unquestioning acceptance of their situation without question, a classic coming-of-age discovery—adults don’t always actually know what they’re doing!—that here is developed with incisive power.

This quest persists into Wendy’s college years. As a senior, she digs deeper into the reasons behind Pennacook’s decline and seeks companionship with Lena whose tendencies mirror Wendy’s suicidal father. The story serves as a poignant reminder of how easy it is to succumb to the status quo, relinquishing our responsibility in the process. Through Wendy’s eyes, readers see how unquestioning acceptance can lead to our own undoing, making this a compelling and thought-provoking read.

Takeaway: Resonant novel of a young journalist digging at hard truths about her hometown.

Comparable Titles: Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting, Brandon J. Wolf’s A Place for Us.

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

Click here for more about Zodiac Pets
Kill Well: The Steep Climes Quartet: Book One
David Guenette
Set in a near future where the DSM 7 includes a diagnosis of “climate anxiety,” the first entry in the Steep Climes Quartet, Guenette’s pointedly realistic thriller series, opens with a bang, as Cynthia Wainwright witnesses the murder of the boss, apparently at the hands of a police officer, amid the scrub of the Mojave Desert. Cynthia had been scheduled to meet him to drive to a meeting with the head of an investor group interested in their company Carbon’s End, which is committed to “fossil fuel divestiture.” When Cynthia, stunned, gets a text from the boss she has just seen get killed—a boss with whom she has been sharing a sexual relationship—she flees the scene in a panic. She’s hunted (by a killer, by PIs she’s not sure she can trust) but eventually finds possible security with young Jimmy, a recent college grad she encounters on a train leaving a Chicago roiled by brownouts and climate riots.

Jimmy’s heading to the Berkshires to see his father, Davin Caine, an artist/farmer/consultant and “COVID divorcee” currently applying his skills to helping a local news startup survive. The mystery of who wants Cynthia dead will upend both men’s lives, as they uncover a conspiracy involving oilmen, lobbyists, PACs, and a powerful effort to protect fossil fuel profits. Guenette demonstrates a sure hand throughout for step-by-step investigations and how the world actually works: tracking, hacking, oil business shenanigans, how contract killers communicate, and even the struggles of raising sweet corn and running an Airbnb.

Despite the crackerjack opening, the novel is chatty and fitfully paced, especially in a first half that alternates Cynthia’s flight (and sensitively handled mental struggles) with Davin’s gardening, consulting, and property management. In these, Guenette explores, with a convincing edge of reportage, the realities of climate change, and plants seeds for this long novel’s strong final third. It’s all convincing and plausible, but thriller readers will be eager to get back to Cynthia.

Takeaway: Pointedly realistic thriller of murder, the fossil fuel industry, and climate activism.

Comparable Titles: Brooks B. Yeager’s Chilly Winds, Joel Burcat’s Amid Rage.

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

Life Plans On Dive Bar Napkins
Paul Manser
Blending concision with tales of excess across the world, Manser’s compact debut packs a potent punch. The 33 chapters, some just a few paragraphs long, tell stories of adventure traveling—in Japan, Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Norway, the U.S., and more— from the perspective of a man who calls the heavily mustachioed Mexican cop shaking him down for a bribe “Officer Porn Star.” The kind of adventure that Manser describes only comes when one eschews all-inclusive cruise packages and ventures freestyle into the world, armed with a quick wit, sense of adventure, a trusted buddy, and alcohol. Lots of alcohol. But this collection is more than a catalog of drunken tales. Manser’s stories are poignant, well observed, and build to bittersweet endings of not-meant-to-bes and lessons learned the hard way. Ever humble and looking for the bigger picture, Manser spares us Hemingway-esque machismo and produces a book as surprising as the locales it covers, all while holding the reader in rapt attention.

An accomplished magazine and travel writer, Manser brings readers the globe in a spare, polished, self-revealing voice. With crisp, vivid description and bursts of wit, his stories can verge from the somewhat comical to the truly frightening in short order. In describing his trip to the Arctic Circle we can feel the cold claustrophobia as his dog-hauled sled spins out of control: “My face is pushed into the snow… The sled falls over my legs. I can’t breathe.”

The stories are just as likely, though, to turn comic, as in encounters with a Guatemalan tarantula or the beautiful woman at a Reykjavik bar who notes that she could possibly be Manser’s cousin. Manser’s stylish prose is matched by a sleek layout and strong photography, with design elements that handle the chores of place-setting, freeing Manser to start his tales at their high points. The result is inviting and exciting, a triumph of travelogue and design that’s full of surprises.

Takeaway: Tautly told global travel misadventures, with a keen eye for design.

Comparable Titles: Adam Fletcher’s Don’t Come Back, Eileen Kay’s Nothing Went to Plan and Other Silver Linings.

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

Click here for more about Life Plans On Dive Bar Napkins
Verse of Life
Joel David Kilgore
Kilgore’s spirited and hefty second collection (following The Spirit’s Call) uses poetry as ministry to reinvigorate faith in the hearts of Christian readers, examine the relationship between America and God, explore theological mysteries, and plead in the face of injustice to “Let us all be seen as children / Of the God that we believe.” Whereas Kilgore’s debut offered a general overview of his Christian faith, the almost 200 poems constituting Verse of Life focus on the innumerable ways Christ presents Himself in the poet’s life and the employment of faith as lifestyle rather than mere belief. “The art of holy living,” Kilgore writes, “Is in a single prayer, // To ask and then be faithful // That God will meet you there.”

For Kilgore, poetry functions as prayer—a subject upon which he devotes many lines and guidance, noting “It just takes one prayer / To know Him e'er true”—but also as a means of channeling the voice of God. In “From Whence It Comes,” the speaker notes, “as words do hit the paper // They jingle life and rhyme, // They often tell a story // That truly isn't mine,” but instead “a gift from God.” That might sound lofty, but these simply structured rhyming verses express a faith “All sprinkled with humility / And a pinch of humbleness or two.” Spiritual reflections on earthly matters are striking: “Let Me Breathe,” for example, is a poignant elegy for George Floyd.

“Congressional Seat” and “The Leader” also utilize Christian morals, condemning dishonesty and sin among sitting members of congress and presidents past, but the thread that binds Kilgore’s collection together amid topics secular and spiritual is a forthright commitment to “life with God” that is profound in its plea simply to pray and have faith in God’s answer. Through verse, Kilgore searches, connects, and rejoices, inviting readers to join him.

Takeaway: Prayerful poems that examine living in the path of Christ.

Comparable Titles: Christian Wiman’s “Hammer Is the Prayer”; Geoffrey Hill.

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

Click here for more about Verse of Life
The Wannabe Investor: 40 Must-Know Facts Before Buying Your First Stock
Ann Marie Sabath
Approximately 40 percent of Americans shy away from investing in the stock market due to lack of knowledge, funds, or confidence, Sabath (author of What Self-Made Millionaires Do That Most People Don't) notes in this pragmatic guide crafted to invite new investors (ie, “wannabe”s) into the fold. Sabath, herself a wannabe-investor-turned-diversified stock owner, lays out in each chapter a “Must-Know Fact,” each separately numbered. Fact #1 concerns the importance of becoming financially literate. Not doing so, she argues, “hinders us from achieving financial stability” and “building wealth.” She knows that intimately—before applying these lessons in her own life, Sabath was an “ordinary person” whose money went to sleep for a Rip Van Winkle-like 20 years languishing in low-performing certificates of deposit, all while the stock market roared ahead.

Sabath’s 40 facts demystify the world of finance, debunk myths (“I don’t have enough money to invest”), and lay out a clear route to understanding one’s own finances and taking the steps not just to invest but to make informed choices. Sabath explains, in crisp and direct prose, basic concepts as long-term investing, while offering action steps, examples, hypotheticals, and more. She demonstrates that one should contribute to qualified retirement plans while building an emergency fund and eliminating debt. Other issues covered include risk, tax minimization, automatic investing, the importance of working with a fiduciary, and the power of compounding.

Sabath’s straight-talking lessons will open new investors’ eyes in this era of self-directed retirement accounts, long life spans, and a questionable Social Security system. For all her helpful specifics (“allocate no more than 10 percent of your portfolio to a single investment when you’re purchasing it”) perhaps Sabath’s greatest lesson is that the secret to investing success is no secret. Systematically saving and sensibly investing while minimizing taxes and expenses will help one live a comfortable life. As Sabath notes, most of us are capable of meeting such challenges. The Wannabe Investor illuminates the path.

Takeaway: Clear-eyed advice for anyone making excuses not to invest.

Comparable Titles: Jean Chatzky and Kathryn Tuggle’s How to Money, John Bogle’s The Little Book of Common Sense Investing.

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

Red Season
Gary Genard
Genard’s standout fiction debut follows Dr. William Scarlet, surgeon for Scotland Yard in the Golden Age of Queen Victoria’s reign, and man with a secret: he possesses psychic abilities that allow him to glimpse the darkest hearts roaming the streets of London. With just one touch, Scarlet can expose the horrific fate of victims and their killers, a talent that lands him in the spotlight when children start disappearing from London after dark. As the crimes escalate, the supernatural seems to gain in power as well, sparking all manner of intriguing happenings: a séance plunges its participants into visions of snakes and rivers of blood, sleepwalking hints at something darker, and madness abounds.

The blend of mystery, history, and something possibly beyond our ken is enticing. Scarlet, a member of the wonderfully named Society for Supernatural and Psychic Research, is quickly bonded to this like-minded group of gentlemen desperate to solve the horrific crimes. Those crimes, tantalizingly, seem to coordinate with sundown and the moon’s patterns each month, prompting Scarlet and his trusted colleague, Django Pierce-Jones, to initiate a perilous investigation that will please lovers of supernatural-adjacent suspense as the heroes find themselves in the crosshairs of evil from both sides of the veil.

Genard’s cast of characters is rich and engaging enough to build a series upon, including the famous (and slightly pompous) artist Ambrose Reed, a widower who has found love again with fiancée Elizabeth Wilson, as well as Elizabeth's elder sister, Catherine, unmarried and independent, strong of mind and opinion. Added to the mix are Mrs. Bain, the mysterious older woman who woos Ambrose away from Elizabeth, and the late Mary Reed, Ambrose's deceased wife. Genard’s protagonist is both kind and rebellious, unable to stop using his powers as long as they bring peace and aid the public, and his humane use of his powers will endear him to readers—while keeping them eager to see his future adventures.

Takeaway: Scotland Yard faces séances, murder, and the possibly supernatural.

Comparable Titles: Michael Ward’s Rags of Time, T. L. Huchu’s The Mystery at Dunvegan Castle.

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

Click here for more about Red Season
LOVE AT THE PENTAGON: A Nick & Gia Story
Kimberly A. Biggerstaff
Biggerstaff (author of the Rogov Romance series) tells the story of Nick Foster, a marine who chooses to stay single after the tragic death of his wife and unborn child. His niece, Barbara Harris, determined to follow in his military footsteps from childhood, her mother Deborah, and retired fellow marine Samantha Barrett, along with her unusual family, form his inner circle, until he meets Gunnery Sergeant Gia Lorenzo. Despite the difference in their ages, Nick feels drawn to her in a way he hasn’t experienced since his prior marriage, but their romance could prove dangerous to both their careers—prompting them to keep it a secret.

Biggerstaff’s candid prose is the perfect fit to convey the everyday happenings of military personnel and showcases her experience serving in the Air Force. The characters are uncomplicated and appealing, the loving Gia a perfect fit for Nick, a “marine’s marine,” who manages to be as affectionate as he is hardcore. The possibility of their relationship leading to a court-martial for “fraternizing” is ever looming and complicates the wholesome, sweet flavor of the budding romance, but despite that wrench in the works, the courtship progresses smoothly, with snippets of tension interspersed throughout—including the consequences of an attempted kidnapping and the machinations of a sexual predator.

Those roadblocks introduce welcome conflict into the storyline, and Nick’s struggles with allowing himself the compassion to rebuild his life are palpably wrought. As he continues to rise in the ranks professionally, his feelings for Gia also expand, allowing them the necessary space to create their own happily ever after. Frequent references to the characters in Biggerstaff’s other novels water down the narrative at times, and Biggerstaff’s explanations of military lingo embedded in the storyline can be distracting, but ultimately Gia and Nick deliver a satisfying, feel-good romance.

Takeaway: A breezy military romance between a gunnery sergeant and an emotionally-scarred general.

Comparable Titles: Suzanne Brockmann’s The Admiral’s Bride, Susan Stoker’s Protecting Caroline.

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

Click here for more about LOVE AT THE PENTAGON
Blessed and Beautiful: Psalm 1 (with Psalm 121)
Tayo Oshaye
Oshaye’s third in her Mini Psalm Book series (after I Am Confident in God and Fearless) pairs Bible psalms with a group of animated trees in this endearing story. The tale starts with “God, the Creator” planting five trees—Firi Firtree, Pinely Pine, Larry Cedar, Oaklan Oak, and Juniper Broomley—in a charming forest that’s supported by a meandering river, aptly named Deep Spring. Out of all the trees in Edenwild Forest, Larry Cedar is the most majestic, known for his strong roots and herculean height, but his gifts come with a serious side of arrogance, too, as he often proclaims, “No tree in the forest comes close to what I offer!”

That arrogance predictably drives a wedge between Larry and the other trees, particularly Pinely Pine, who wants nothing more than to win the supermodel medal at the forest’s upcoming talent show. In between her and that dream stands Larry, of course, with a streak of undefeated wins and a colossal ego, all prompting Pinely to eventually lose heart—and threaten to leave Edenwild forever. Luckily, the trees band together and remind Pinely—and Larry—of God’s unconditional love, cultivating their forgiveness of each other and acceptance of their own special talents.

The story’s ending is both prickly and sweet, as a hurricane rolls in and alters the forest’s landscape forever, but the art of Yana Popova, especially the realistic facial expressions on Edenwild’s evergreen residents, gives the tale a soft, entertaining edge. Biblical concepts spring up throughout, as the trees discuss scripture, pray together, and proclaim they are “planted here to display God’s glory.” For younger readers, Oshaye details fun nature facts, like the almost-200 year life span of juniper trees, and closes with a recipe for toasted nut pancakes and a challenge for readers to create their own “friendship chorus” to share online.

Takeaway: Trees band together to discover God’s love in this charming faith-based tale.

Comparable Titles: J. Alasdair Groves’s Tomas Looks Up & Out, Darby A. Strickland’s Something Scary Happened.

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

Click here for more about Blessed and Beautiful
My Dark Desire
Parker S. Huntington; L.J. Shen
A daring and sumptuous enemies-to-lovers pleasure for those on its wavelength, this dark romance from Shen and Huntington, the follow-up to their scintillating My Dark Romeo, kicks off with the first of its daring transgressions. Farrow Ballentine, a “survivor since birth” who has always been made to feel unwanted,” hides in the back of the Mercedes SUV taking her viciously rich stepsisters to the mansion of “spoiled billionaire” Zachary Sun. Farrow is on a classic fairy-tale mission, updated for the era of Instagram and chat threads: steal from Zach’s office a pendant that Farrow thinks of as “the only memory I had left of Dad.” Amid A+ wisecracks and deliciously outraged depictions of luxury, Farrow makes her move—only to be interrupted by Zach himself. Her first thought: “So perfect. So glamorous. So soulless.”

From there, My Dark Desire revels in anticipation, as the leads dance teasingly toward and away from each other with a wickedly sharp Cinderella edge. Telling himself that his desire to teach a lesson to his little “Octi”—for “Octopus”—is something other than turned-on curiosity, Zach turns up at Farrow’s stepmother’s house with her missing shoe and, at the point of a knife, he strikes a deal with Farrow: she is to be the help.

The trigger warnings, reader, are justified, as the authors wring this scenario for all it’s worth, emphasizing Zach’s arrogance and wealth, Farrow’s feisty wit, and devising an escalating series of wild, delicious erotic confrontations, all while taking seriously the wounded souls of both leads, as well as the ins-and-outs of wills, inheritances, and the shocking schemes and power of the super-rich. The novel is a feast of quips, insights, and steam, as Farrow tries not to surrender to “his husky command”—and then surprises him with acceptance of his true self. Readers who love this breed of tale will be in a hellish heaven for its full, epic length.

Takeaway: Epic dark romance bursting with wit, passion, and soulful leads.

Comparable Titles: Rina Kent’s Monster series, Elizabeth O’Roark’s A Deal with the Devil.

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

Click here for more about My Dark Desire
Red, White & Verse: Our Myths, Legends & Stories
Greg McNeilly
McNeilly offers a collection of original verse exploring myths, heroes, and history. Clear-eyed about the past but deeply committed to the nation’s founding principles, McNeilly uplifts by celebrating a union that strives to become more perfect and “refuse[s] to accept the world as it is and instead strive[s] to shape it into the world it could be.” The result is a celebration of American figures, beliefs, and civic virtues with a big-hearted spirit that has, in the 21st century, gone out of fashion. Written in a steady, sturdy AA/BB form, paeans to George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thanksgiving, and the War for Independence are rousing despite the familiarity of the topics.

Contemporary readers may find more that surprises in poems on John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, along with delightful odes to several national parks and natural wonders. McNeilly also features American economic dynamos, like Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan, to showcase the country’s get-the-job done ethos: “Work is the organized way we serve one another, //[...] In every humble endeavor, in each monumental task, // Lies the heart of America, beneath our star-spangled mask.” Though proudly patriotic, McNeilly acknowledges that “America is complex,” noting in the preference the shame of slavery and how resistance has met “each new wave” of the immigrants who “came to this continent in search of a better life and often, by brawn and brain, empowered by common values, created that life for themselves.”

McNeilly’s collection is educational, both in its subjects and its revival of a common-cause esprit de corps that has guttered in an age where digital media incentivizes division. Preceding each poem is a biographical or historical summary of the subject, and pen-and-ink illustrations are interspersed throughout. Along with these elements and the rhymed quatrain structure of his verses, McNeilly’s collection has substantial read-aloud value for children and would make for a fun introduction to American history that embraces the country’s greatness and aspiration for continual improvement.

Takeaway: Rousing poems celebrating America’s history, spirit, and potential..

Comparable Titles: Christopher Cole’s Patriotic Poetry, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

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

Click here for more about Red, White & Verse
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