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Saint Badass : Personal Transcendence in Tucker Max Hell
Doug Carnine
“I tend to ask myself all the time: what do I have to be joyful about?” asks Cody, a young convicted murderer sentenced to life without parole in Arkansas’ Tucker Max, a maximum security prison. Cody’s surprising answer: “I’ve begun to realize my answer is: Everything!” In harrowing and dehumanizing conditions, and facing a dark past, Cody finds fellowship, transcendence and mindfulness through Buddhist teachings. Like the three other Tucker Max inmates whose correspondence gets judiciously excerpted in this, Carnine’s second book of Buddhist inspiration, Cody offers frank and moving testimony about what he’s done, what he’s suffered, and how the principles and practices of Buddhism help him in the daily struggle to find meaning and peace.

The work documents letters exchanged between the author, the founder of a Buddhist priory in Eugene, Ore., and four Tucker Max inmates. The title comes from Roy Tester, the earliest of the prisoners to write to Carnine; locked up for life for the murder of parents he describes as abusive, Tester found himself attracted to Buddhist teaching after a fellow inmate pressed a book on him and taught him the peacefulness of deep breathing. Intrigued and eager to leave drugs behind him, Tester wrote to Buddhist organizations seeking more information. Carnine responded, and in the remarkable letters collected here readers can glimpse the flowering not just of enlightenment but also of trust and mutual respect.

Tester brings other Tucker Max inmates into the discussion, and their stories, all self-written, prove engrossing, harrowing, and moving. Readers should expect to learn dark truths about sexuality in jail and life in the hole. Tester, touchingly, gets sent to solitary for shoving a guard to spare the life of a cricket. Carnine’s organization of the material lacks a strong narrative throughline, but the prisoners’ letters pulse with power and insight.This book will move and inspire readers.

Takeaway: Carnine’s collection of letters from prisoners movingly illustrate how humans can find Buddhist transcendence in the most harrowing of conditions.

Great for fans of: Joshua Dubler’s Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison, David Sheff’s The Buddhist on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place.

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

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Journey to the Hopewell Star
Hannah D. State
Sam Sanderson, protagonist of State’s middle grade debut, is used to living with her grandfather while her scientist parents go on mysterious missions. After an alien appears and takes Sam to his wondrous home planet Kryg, because he believes she is the girl “of pure spirit and heart” described in a prophecy about the salvation of both Kryg and Earth, Sam takes on a big responsibility—which she’ll need to fit in while navigating attending school for the first time after being homeschooled.

Slate’s prose is well-crafted and reads smoothly. The antagonist is obvious and simple, almost cartoonishly so: the self-centered mogul of the monopolizing TitusTech, which is destroying the environment and mining space for profit. (Though there are lesser challenges, they ultimately all fall under the same evil umbrella.) Similarly, Sam never really has to make any tough moral choices and is easily led toward others who provide the information she needs to progress, with little solving of problems on her own. Moments that might typically spark difficult feelings and conflicts tend not to: Even though the book opens with Sam “dreading” switching from homeschooling to a typical school, when her grandfather announces it, she’s “eager” and “can’t contain her excitement.” Sam hits a bully at school; her grandfather finds out from a teacher, but just gives her a hug and tells her “mistakes… [are] how we learn.”

But that doesn’t preclude excitement and danger in the plot, or likeable characters: Sam is a kind, altruistic, appreciative, and curious protagonist, and she befriends a trio of sweet nerds at school—Kato and Kobe, who are twins, and Simon, whose dad works for TitusTech. State’s optimistic novel advances ideals of avoiding greed, saving the environment, and connecting with those very different from yourself. Middle grade readers looking for a wholesome adventure will relish this one.

Takeaway: Middle grade readers looking for a hopeful adventure starring a smart girl and her steadfast friends will enjoy this one.

Great for fans of: Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Robert Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel.

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

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Always losing something: A novel of hope, heartbreak and soaring optimism.
Marcus Gerbich
Gerbich’s hopeful debut follows Max Green, a former professional soccer player turned businessman and pseudo-Ironman after the loss of a leg, an arm, and a diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease. In Zelig-like fashion, Green manages to be present at multiple epochal events—losing his leg at the running of the bulls in Spain (where the kind woman who helps him becomes his wife), losing an arm in the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11, and saving his assistant’s mother’s life during the coronavirus pandemic.

Chapters alternate between the book’s present in 2030 and the past, beginning with Green’s childhood and working up chronologically. The structure is episodic, more like a series of loosely connected vignettes than a fully fleshed-out novel. The novel revolves around Max’s life and worldview to an extreme degree; supporting characters mostly exist to forward Max’s plot, enrich his life, and show how cool or suave or smart or philanthropic he is, with little emphasis on character development. Indeed, it’s only Max and his band of famous or rich friends who can save the day, with their copious money and that of their business connections. Some readers may be troubled by the conclusion that ALS can and should be cured by private investors because they’ll make money on the treatments. Others may be left cold by the way the narration glosses over both how Max made his money and how he feels about the extraordinary events of his life.

This book melds genres, combining science fiction’s futuristic technology, an adventure novel, a fictional life story, and a saga about the quest for a medical cure. It’s full of heart and filled with frank depictions of the reality experienced by people living with ALS. Readers who love stories about one exceptional man saving the world will find their wishes fulfilled here.

Takeaway: This novel, which recounts one man’s pursuit to end ALS with all the money and heart he can muster, will appeal to readers who like exceptional heroes singlehandedly saving the world.

Great for fans of: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.

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

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Still Crazy
Judy Prescott Marshall
Marshall’s (Be Strong Enough) book of inspirational women’s fiction explores personal growth and unconditional commitment despite betrayal. Devout Christian Julie Holliday, 49 years old and celebrating 30 years of marriage with the love of her life, Dan, has always suspected that he is serially unfaithful. After discovering a note from an unnamed woman on his desk, Julie’s past fears of his affairs return. She avoids Dan, who continues to perform sweet acts of spousal devotion; shadows the woman she believes is his mistress; prays for guidance and strength; and cries on the ever-supportive shoulder of her best friend and employee Lynnae, who tries to reassure her. After more than a year of Julie being eaten up inside, Dan reveals a decade-ago affair. Julie sells the bakery to Lynnae, leaves notes for her husband and a few friends, and disappears from their New York town to the Rhode Island coast. There, Julie’s pursuit of the dream of building her own inn leads to her discovery of forgiveness and purpose.

Julie’s introspective suspicion of Dan occupies the entire first part of the novel and can be somewhat monotonous, but readers will keep turning the pages due to Marshall’s well-crafted prose and charming settings. Julie’s bakery, for example, is cozily described, down to the cookbooks on its kitchen shelves. And when the action shifts to Rhode Island, readers will find a picturesque Rhode Island landscape and Julie’s colorful gardens provide a dazzling backdrop for her success as an innkeeper.

The extensive cast of characters is another appealing element. From Lynnae to the Rhode Island locals Julie hires at her inn, the side characters’ relationships, marriages, and pregnancies spark interest. Julie’s perseverance in building the inn is inspiring, and those seeking a happy ending will eventually be rewarded. This cozy tribute to faith and unconditional love will please hopeless romantics.

Takeaway: This homage to faith and unconditional love will appeal to hopeless romantics.

Great for fans of: Debbie Macomber’s White Lace and Promises, Nicholas Sparks.

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

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Toughing It Out: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur
John Holliday
Entrepreneur John Holliday (Clara Colby: The International Suffragist) delivers a combination memoir and collection of advice about what he’s learned during decades of worldwide business ventures, from his first job as an 18-year-old to his 10th business endeavor. In his recounting, he displays a seemingly insatiable hunger for new projects and opportunities: regardless of risk, he frequently makes career shifts to avoid the boring life of what he terms an “office worker straight out of a Dickens novel.” In his own words, he “never stop[s] thinking about business opportunities, even those that might not be very realistic.” These experiences are the springboard for Holliday’s reflections on the pursuit of success, and he adds entertainment value for readers by sprinkling in stories of the colorful characters he has met along the way. To Holliday, “life is one, long networking event,” and every connection and idea is worth pursuing.

At times, Holliday’s intended audience becomes unclear: while those who know him will appreciate the attention to detail in personal stories, the average reader focused on learning about business could find them extraneous. These moments are saved, though, by the nuggets of wisdom and positivity peppered throughout his narrative, such as “I always think that every problem has the potential to be turned around into an opportunity.” Holliday also presents interesting reflections on corporate culture and the ways in which upbringing and status can hinder social mobility in certain countries (“IBM United Kingdom was modelled on the American way of doing business, creating a refreshing and motivating environment that was absent from the staid British organisations I had worked for. Hiring and advancement within the company was based on merit, and not on your accent or what school you had attended”).

Holliday does not take the stance of an untouchable billionaire hyperachiever; he willingly acknowledges his many failures, presenting them as helpful learning tools for readers. He accentuates the merit of “hard-knocks experience and working things out for oneself,” cautioning against procrastination as an enemy of business success. Though his guide drags in some areas, he ably regroups to enlighten his audience with fresh ideas, including the concept of building a business as “part science and part art.” Aspiring entrepreneurs will be inspired by this account of one man’s adventurous career.

Takeaway: Aspiring entrepreneurs will be inspired by this account of one man’s adventures in a variety of occupational roles.

Great for fans of: Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup, Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail, Ray Dalio.

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

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Stubby & Friends: Volume 1
Scott Christian Sava and Richard Lanni
This is the first in a series of comics volumes from Sava and Lanni about Sergeant Stubby, a real-life dog who accompanied and aided American soldiers during WWI, and soldier Robert Conroy. Lanni previously adapted the true story for an animated film. This collection of comic vignettes isn’t about wartime exploits, however; it finds Stubby palling around with two dogs and a cat in a small French country house where he and Robert are guests. Sava episodically explores the burgeoning friendships between the American Stubby, British corgi Benson, French bulldog Pierre, and prissy French feline Colette.

The author plays up cultural stereotypes: Colette, for example, evinces a haughty love for French food and culture; Stubby is a can-do American who loves pizza; and Benson misses British tea-time and boasts to the others that corgis founded the American colonies. Sava also emphasizes their identities as animals; the dogs are rambunctious and energetic, while the cat is pampered and has a flair for the dramatic. The animals don't actually speak, but they can hear each other's thoughts. This effective technique allows Sava to give them human personalities while still allowing them to be animals. Bailey's illustrations establish a distinctive look for each character and maximize their emotional expressiveness.

Those familiar with the source material may be surprised to find that the war is barely mentioned. This volume focuses on animal hijinks (attempts to avoid baths), gently humorous domestic situations (anticipating and begging for delicious meals), and Stubby's gregarious nature. The gentle gags and antics of the animals are enhanced by the slightly exaggerated quality of the art, making this an ideal comic for kids who love animals.

Takeaway: Kids who love animals will enjoy the gentle humor, expressive drawings, and silly antics of three dogs and a cat who become a makeshift family.

Great for fans of: Jim Davis’s Garfield at Large, Patrick McDonnell’s The Mutts Diaries series.

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

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Boone: An Unfinished Portrait
Daniel Griffith
Daniel Boone lives large in the American folk hero imagination. Though modernity remembers him as a coonskin-cap-wearing pioneer, Griffith skillfully expands readers’ picture of this quasimythological figure to provide a more complete understanding of Boone the politician, businessman, soldier, and frontiersman. Boone: An Unfinished Portrait blends history and biography with elements of an ecological manifesto. Its eight chapters delve into what Griffith calls “white culture’s two Boones,” or the competing popular depictions of Boone as a civilization-expanding pioneer and a nature conservationist.

Readers shouldn’t expect dry historical prose, however. Griffith writes with an ear for style as well as substance, though some of his turns of phrase can distract from, rather than enhance, the reading experience. Where the book shines, however, is as expansionist history. Griffith approaches Boone’s life and legacy through an ecological lens; as part of his biographical project, Griffith continually reminds the reader of the long history of Indigenous life in and cultivation of what is today the United States. Griffith warns that the true story of Boone might be uncomfortable for readers, but details like these bring his audience closer to the political and cultural reality of Boone’s time.

Fans of United States history, folklore, and its tradition of ecological conservation will love Griffith’s reflections on the connection between civilization and the natural world. As its title indicates, this biography is not meant to be the final word on Daniel Boone’s life and legacy. However, Griffith’s careful research and extensive, balanced consideration of Boone’s life and works make this volume an essential read for anyone interested in the folk hero.

Takeaway: Fascinating, balanced, and well-researched, this nature-centered biography is sure to entertain and inform.

Great for fans of: Howard Means's Johnny Appleseed. The Man, the Myth, the American Story; April R. Summit's Sacagawea: A Biography.

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

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Brothers in Arms: Remembering Brothers Buried Side by Side in American World War II Cemeteries
Kevin M. Callahan
Inspired by author Callahan’s many trips to overseas cemeteries established during WWII for fallen American soldiers, this poignant memorial will warm hearts and inspire readers. When Callahan and his two sons came across a pair of brothers from Iowa buried side-by-side in Italy, he realized he had stumbled on a fascinating, though narrow, unknown bit of WWII history: there was a concerted effort by the U.S. government to bury brothers who fell in battle together in the same cemetery. Brothers in Arms tells the stories of 286 sets of brothers uncovered by Callahan and his research team.

Callahan depicts the profound experiences of American brothers in battle, including the circumstances surrounding their deaths and their detailed personal backgrounds, in an intimate and engaging way. Though its subject matter limits both its audience and the diversity of its stories—as Callahan admits, this is predominantly a history of white American men—this collection of personal histories skillfully blends narrative with archival information. Brothers in Arms combines a wealth of photographic evidence alongside the often-neglected histories of postwar cemeteries.

Callahan organizes its contents according to overseas graveyards, a decision that both highlights the guide’s utility as a reference and calls attention to its lack of exhaustiveness (three cemeteries are excluded, due to “a lack of time, space, and our inability to contact the family members of brothers buried there,” and brothers who died at sea aren’t included). Although readers will not find a complete account of all brothers-in-arms in this single volume, Callahan’s goal is not to provide an encyclopedia of brothers buried overseas, but rather the first entry in an ongoing “living project” that readers themselves can participate in via social media (@brothersinarmsbook). Like the guide itself, which contains a wealth of primary sources ranging from photographs to dance invitations and personal correspondence, the project will continually update with more materials and memories online as the research team receives submissions from family members. Perfect for genealogy enthusiasts and history buffs, Brothers in Arms is an exciting and evolving resource.

Takeaway: Reflective and thought-provoking, this is a worthy entry on any WWII buff’s reading list.

Great for fans of: Sally Mott Freeman’s The Jersey Brothers; TIME-LIFE World War II in 500 Photographs.

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

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The Undergrounds
Geert Heetebrij and Jonathan Lareva
In this appealing graphic novel, the Cooper family goes from mundane move to magical adventure when the children discover a tunnel in the backyard that leads to various magical worlds. Neil, his wife Kristen, and their four children—Elyse, Claire, Lauren, and Rob—are a typical family with typical bickering and strains, and when they and their dog Cash arrive at the semiderelict home they’ve just bought, the children are banished to the yard to keep them out of the way of the movers. There they find a deep and mysterious tunnel lined with doors that seem to open into other realms. When they accidentally lead a group of pirates back to their home, the whole family has to work both independently and together to get home safe and sound.

As the family gets split up and each person or duo face their own perils, they learn to stop taking each other for granted and to work together to save the family. While some try to outmaneuver pirates or escape unfamiliar worlds, bookish Claire ends up in a magical library that may hold the key to steering her family toward a happy ending. The story is supported by clean, clever, evocative art that gives each person (and family pet) a distinct characterization. Personality and mood are expertly conveyed with simple lines and partially colored panels that never distract or detract from the story taking place, but support and enhance it.

Told in a total of eight chapters, the overarching plot takes the family from loving-yet-contentious to a point where they can set squabbles aside and truly appreciate one another, adeptly exploring the themes of teamwork, respect, and the triumph of the family bond. The writing strikes an excellent balance with the graphics, and the story itself is appropriate for younger readers without losing appeal for adults either. Readers of all ages will find this a real gem.

Takeaway: Readers of any age who enjoy portal fantasies will love this expertly crafted adventure.

Great for fans of: Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet series, FGTeeV’s FGTeev Presents: Into The Game!, Peter Wartman’s The Dragon Prince: Through the Moon.

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

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Between Tads and Toads
Christine May
May’s whimsical illustrated poem is a parable for adults about the emotional price of focusing too much on appearance, told through the experience of Frederic, an anthropomorphic frog who lives in a community that surrounds a pond. As alternating pages of quatrains and illustrations explain, “pondling” society is made up of two groups: Frogs—who are beautiful, elegant, and perfectly proportioned—focus on being charming “living Art,” so they take ballet classes to develop their grace and abstain from treats to keep their figures trim. Toads, on the other hand, are highly educated, eschew too much physical activity, and love good booze, fancy vittles, and custom-tailored tweed suits. The pondlings go on fancy picnics, compete in swimming races, and carouse at nightclubs; Frederic participates, but inside he feels more and more empty, desperate, and self-critical.

May’s verse tends to be more musical than sensical, and includes some forced rhymes: “incomplex” to rhyme with “Sussex,” “aspire” used to mean “aspiration” for a slant rhyme with “bow tie.” (*At a few points, it’s difficult to understand the intended meaning: a swimming race is described with the sentence, “In three lanes, amphibs defile.”) But despite the occasional linguistic idiosyncrasy, the story is charming, and so is the amphibian society depicted: toads in tailcoats and frogs in ascots eating ice cream on park benches, being measured for bespoke ensembles, and skiing. The pen-and-ink illustrations are a highlight, as whimsical and elegant as the characters they portray. Frederic gazing at his reflection in a pond hearkens back to the myth of Narcissus, and the amphibians’ automobiles and swimming costumes evoke the early 20th century. A graceful frog waiter serving wine in arabesque position, Frederic dancing with a handsome toad, and tadpoles in earmuffs warming up after sledding are particular highlights.

The ending is more an implication than a fully realized denouement. Frederic ditches a ski outing and lies down in the snow to die. A pretty girl frog finds and revives him; he confesses misery, she counsels him that being beautiful isn’t enough to make one happy, and he realizes he needs to change his life. The reader doesn’t get to see how that happens, but the last image is of Frederic crossing a bridge with a little smile on his face, suggesting he’s headed for better things. This idiosyncratic will charm and intrigue readers.

Takeaway: This whimsical verse story for adults about a depressed amphibian playboy will charm and intrigue readers.

Great for fans of: Kenneth’s Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

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

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Everything That Came Before Grace: A Father-Daughter Story
Bill See
See (33 Days: Touring in a Van, Sleeping On Floors, Chasing a Dream) details the trials and triumphs of a single father struggling with mental illness in this poignant, disarmingly honest novel. Los Angeles native Benjamin Bradford battles daily against depression and anxiety while striving to raise his daughter, Sophia, with the sense of safety and routine missing from his own childhood. Benjamin’s life changes when he receives an invitation to his college friend Keith’s wedding to Anna—Benjamin’s one true love. The invitation triggers a narrative segue to their college days, and in the present readers are immersed in the internal turmoil as Benjamin still pines for Anna and feels lonely as adult friendships wax and wane.

See captures the common struggles of single parenthood in pithy, poignant lines that convey how quickly the little mishaps of day-to-day living can spark a downward spiral of anger and guilt when mental illness is a factor. Benjamin is devoted to his daughter and single-mindedly committed to ensuring she grows up happy, healthy, and sane. Propelled by a determination to be different from his unstable mother or absentee father, Benjamin’s resolve to protect Sophia ultimately drives a painful wedge between them as she matures.

See captures Benjamin’s mental health struggles with unflinching clarity, detailing the creeping in of destructive thoughts and highlighting Benjamin’s use of music and compulsive routines to handle them. Benjamin’s enduring love for Anna and immovable belief that they’re meant to be together smacks of obsession; therapy sessions and advice from a colleague illuminate the underlying toxicity in the relationship when Anna and Keith rekindle their friendship with Benjamin. Readers who stick with Benjamin through these ups and downs will find their way to a satisfying ending. See’s tenderly frank portrayal of single parenthood within the miasma of anxiety and depression will have readers engrossed.

Takeaway: Single parents and anyone who’s had to cope with mental illness will find much they can relate to in See’s poignant and honest tale of parenthood on the rocks.

Great for fans of: Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, Mira T. Lee’s Everything Here Is Beautiful, Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone.

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

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The Seagull: Translated and Adapted by Anton Korenev
Anton Chekhov, Anton Korenev
Thick with writers and actresses striving for love and recognition, Chekhov’s The Seagull has long reigned as one of the theater’s most incisive examinations of the thwarted ambitions of the creative class. This new translation from Korenev, the Russian director, actor, and New York City attorney, emerged from another set of daunting creative challenges. Korenev’s off-Broadway production of the play, performed in Chekhov’s original early modern Russian and featuring English subtitles, had been slated to open in April of 2020.

The long months of shuttered playhouses that ensued could only satisfy a soul like The Seagull’s Treplev, the dutifully radical young writer who insists, in Korenev’s sensitive and musical new translation, that theater is but “a routine, a superstition” staged for crowds hungry for “some minuscule, easily digestible moral that could be useful in a conversation at home.” Korenev notes in a preface that the shutdown offered him the opportunity to dig deeply into the role of the character he’s slated to play in the revival: Trigorin, The Seagull’s other frustrated writer. Korenev took up this translation partially to understand the work that fills Trigorin up and utterly depletes him: writing.

The result is a nuanced, aching Seagull, attentive to the rhythms and melody of Chekhov’s own language, but unfussily direct in its English. “Life is rough!” declares Nina, the young actress, where earlier versions have opted for “It is a rough life” or “Life is crude.” Korenev’s version emphasizes its Russian-ness, right down to Chekhov’s insistence that this study of disappointment and suicide qualifies as comedy. Korenev’s sensitivities prove attuned to the desperate surges of feeling that grip Chekhov’s artists and lovers. In this rendering, the play’s monologues pulse with an aching vulnerability.

Takeaway: A new translation of Chekhov’s The Seagull pulses with an artist’s sensitivity.

Great for fans of: Sofia Khvoshchinskaya's City Folk and Country Folk, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of Chekhov's Fifty-Two Stories.

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

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The Rage Colony
Shanon Hunt
Hunt’s gripping second series installment (after 2019’s The Pain Colony) follows two intertwining narratives: a utopian colony’s experiments with genetic alteration turn deadly, while a reporter investigates a secretive organization. Eight months pregnant, carrying the colony’s first genetically modified infant, Layla longs for more transparency from her partner, James, the colony leader. She remembers nothing of her “poisoned” life in the outside world, until a new recruit identifies her as Allison Stevens, a wanted murderer. Grappling with her sanity, and experiencing bizarre hallucinations and predatory cravings, she realizes that something is seriously wrong with her child. Meanwhile, reporter Nick Slater is looking for Allison as a mysterious virus ravages the earth. Nick teams up with a group of scientists, exploring the colony’s hazardous genetic engineering, and discovers evidence of human trafficking and a government coverup.

The book strikes a perfect balance between science fiction and scientific realism. As a former pharmaceutical executive, the author’s knowledge of gene editing and the medical field comes in handy. Hunt has written a chilling dystopia, one where gene alteration is used not only to build a strong future, but to destroy those who are considered weak.

Although this is the second book in the series, it works well as a standalone novel. The plot never lags, moving quickly from one shocking discovery to the next, and the two storylines are equally engaging. There are also some bloodcurdling depictions of death and elements of horror throughout, and Hunt does not shy away from the brutality of medical testing. This is a realistic book of ethical quandaries; even the most villainous characters have a streak of morality in them. As with most great science fiction, the questions the novel poses—Should people who make mistakes be given the chance to clean them up? Is justice more important than progress?—will leave readers thinking for days.

Takeaway: This well-written medical mystery, combining the best elements of thriller and sci-fi, is perfect for fans of twist endings and moral quandaries.

Great for fans of: Blake Crouch’s Recursion, Danielle Singleton’s Do No Harm.

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

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Morning Star: A collection of short science-fiction and fantasy stories
Dorian Keys
Keys (Imprint Legacy) delivers 12 science-fiction stories evoking a hopeful future in space in this thoughtful collection. Captain Irene Deris is trapped on the derelict colony ship Morning Star, which is carrying 23 crew and 8,000 human embryos intended to begin a new life for humanity on the other side of the universe. With reserves of food, water, and oxygen, she settles down to wait for the rescue team led by her partner, pilot Adam Kacey, by reading a book of short stories he left behind. This connecting story sets the tone for what’s at stake in Keys’s detailed and engrossing stories.

Despite some less-polished writing and clunky language, the author has a knack for action-packed adventures that employ heroic achievers. In an inventive take on the cause of the Big Bang, “A Universe of Our Own” follows a pair of renegades in mecha suits escaping an oppressive society who steal an energy orb and throw it into a dimension breach. In the emotional “I.R.I.S.,” engineer David Friend must convince the artificial intelligence It Runs ItSelf (IRIS) to help Earth defeat an alien invasion.

Sympathetic characters in harrowing situations draw readers into game-changing decisions with the fate of Earth and humanity in the balance. In “Hansel,” after a young woman finds a human fossil on a terraformed planet far from Earth, she has visions of her ancestors letting their planet die due to carelessness about the climate. Readers will enjoy Keys’s range of stories. The steampunk thriller “The Fuse” sports cybernetic hearts and floating war platforms. In the story, the disgruntled daughter of a military commander challenges his desire to start a war with the subjugated outer colonies and refutes her arranged marriage to an abusive man. In the fantasy “This Is Not a Bedtime Story,” the king’s mage enchants a stuffed cloth bear to defeat Ommin, trapper of souls, and save the young prince. Readers will find themselves engrossed in this variety pack of sci-fi adventures.

Takeaway: Science fiction readers will be immersed in Keys’s space adventures filled with valiant characters on missions to save the Earth and all humanity.

Great for fans of: Rich Larson’s Tomorrow Factory, Samuel Best’s Another World.

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

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Embaixador
Marcus John Beltran
Beltran’s adult debut is an unconventional work of Christian inspirational fiction. It begins as a classic cautionary tale about a young man, Caleb John McCray, who trades his blessed life—complete with a good job, beautiful wife Tiana, and delightful daughter Taylor—for an affair and some bad gambling bets. After a near tragedy pushes him to the edge, Caleb makes a rash decision that propels him straight to rock bottom. However, at his lowest hour, two strangers approach Caleb, each offering the answers and help Caleb seeks to put his life back on track. And the choice of whose help to accept will have implications not only for him but for the greater balance of good and evil.

Beltran’s novel boasts strong pacing, with short chapters that often end on a cliffhanger or ominous note, enticing readers to keep turning the pages. Surprises and plot twists abound. But in this battle for Caleb’s soul, the otherworldly war between heaven and hell and the more grounded depiction of Caleb’s downfall do not fully mesh. The first half of the narrative reads like a horror story, focused more on Caleb’s moral descent; the fantastical elements aren’t really introduced until the epic concluding battles. For his part, Caleb doesn’t seem interested in determining his own place in the mystery that presents itself during the second half of his journey. He focuses entirely on regaining his family. Consequently, it can feel as though two separate stories are being told.

Far from keeping things prim and proper, Beltran’s book includes strip clubs, gang members, and murder, and his protagonist is apt to exclaim profanities, party, and take drugs. Another distinctive element is the use of Portuguese; many of the characters are from Portugal, and much of the religious terminology is in Portuguese (including “embaixador,” which means “ambassador”). Caleb’s narration is conversational, allowing readers to envision someone relatable sitting across from them, spinning this yarn. Readers of Christian fantasy who are looking for something action-packed and outside the box will find it here.

Takeaway: This unconventional work of Christian fantasy offers a distinctive twist on the genre.

Great for fans of: Frank E. Peretti’s This Present Darkness, William P. Young’s The Shack.

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

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K3+
Erasmo Acosta
Acosta’s science fiction dystopia is a love letter to space exploration. Federico “Fedrix” Tarifa is on a mission to save humanity. As a member of the Space Initiative, a nonprofit organization with a mission to expand civilization into space, Fedrix lives on a spacecraft traveling the universe in search of perfect locations to build Dyson swarms, which are self-sufficient rotating habitats constructed around stars. Humans developed this advanced technology in hopes the rotating habitats would provide safe homes for humanity, which is on the brink of overpopulation and chaos resulting from climate change.

The meticulous details carefully interwoven into this fascinating future allow for a fully immersive experience. The existence described is in many ways utopian: technological advancements allow people not to grow old, injury is extremely rare, and people communicate through thoughts and levitate objects with their fingertips. No detail is forgotten; it’s even mentioned that the clothing is engineered to repel dirt. Several beautiful images help build the setting and give readers crisp illustrations of the Dyson swarm concept.

While at times this book’s extensive definitions of technology can read more like a textbook, hyperlinks are provided to allow readers a quick definition of key words. The need to step out of the story to read these definitions will put off some readers, but the desire to continue following Fedrix on his adventures pulls attention back to the plot. Acosta has clearly done his research on space exploration and Dyson swarms, bringing a high level of expertise to a fascinating subject. His authority reigns on the pages and creates a believable futuristic reality. Readers looking for a dense, technology-driven sci-fi will enjoy immersing themselves in this future in which humanity sets its sights on inhabiting the universe.

Takeaway: Science fiction fans will enjoy this technology-rich space exploration book with a meticulously crafted setting.

Great for fans of: Dennis Taylor We Are Legion (We Are Bob), Stephen Baxter.

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

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