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Better Than A Bully: Carrot Top's Surprise
Tina Levine
A reluctant bully begins to question her choices after gaining empathy for her victim in the Levines’ heartwarming middle grade debut. Tara has many friends in her fourth grade class, but plump, redheaded Annie isn’t one of them; instead, Tara and her friends nickname her “Carrot Top” and bully her. Much of the taunting was started by Tara’s friend, Ace, but Tara and the rest of her friends regularly join in. After Annie helps Ace out of a dangerous situation, Tara learns more about Annie’s struggles as the child of a disabled, impoverished single mother. Tara sees how unfair bullying is and realizes her own power to make it stop.

The unusual point of view of a tween caught between bully and bullied will invite readers to inhabit Tara’s internal conflict of wanting to be nicer to Annie while fearing being mocked by others for showing kindness to a designated pariah. Annie’s continued positive attitude can feel a little unrealistic, but it drives home the point that victims don’t do anything to deserve being bullied. Glimpses of Ace’s own troubled home life go some way to explaining his own reasons for harassing others. Middle grade readers will grow in understanding alongside Tara as she becomes a force for kindness among her peers.

Tina Levine combines her own experiences of being bullied with her expertise as a teacher who sees students on all sides of the bullying dynamic, creating deeper understanding and relatability for young readers. The protagonists can be lovable and funny as well as serious as they cope with difficult situations that many children will find personally relevant, and the moral lessons don’t feel heavy-handed. Discussion questions at the end will prompt dialogue and deeper explorations of the theme. Ned Levine’s evocative monochrome spot illustrations add depth to the story and its characters. The profound messages of acceptance and empathy shared through realistic situations, with a solid dose of humor sprinkled throughout, will win readers over.

Takeaway: Young readers feeling pressured to bully others will relate to this story of a onetime bully who steps up to teach kindness to her peers.

Great for fans of Patti Kelley Criswell’s Stand Up For Yourself & Your Friends: Dealing with Bullies and Bossiness and Finding a Better Way, Tonya Duncan Ellis’s Sophie Washington: The Snitch.

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

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Corona Daze: Eva's time at home during Covid-19
Jennifer Angel
Angel debuts with a clumsily executed but sincere and heartfelt story of the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on children—namely her daughter, Eva. Like many other children, Eva is stuck inside her house, feeling worried and scared about the changing world around her. She is no longer able to attend school, go to the grocery store, or visit her grandparents. Despite all of the challenges she faces in this new world, Eva maintains a positive attitude, demonstrating to other kids that they too can be scared and strong at the same time.

The book seems to have been hastily completed to meet an urgent need, and due to the ever-changing nature of a global pandemic, some of the facts are already outdated. Adults using this book to explain the epidemic to children may run into places where they have to contradict what it says. A few illustrations show behavior that’s now discouraged, such as going to the park without wearing masks (albeit while keeping distant from others). The explanation of the virus is too simplified for older children, and its effects are ominously shown in pictures of a hospital patient and a coffin that younger children may find too frightening. Many illustrations are black-and-white photos enhanced with digitized Sharpie sketches, often poignant but sometimes disharmonious; the strongest drawings are the ones that stand alone.

Clearly a labor of love, this picture book effectively validates a child’s experience of quarantine and the intimidating emotions that accompany it. After the litany of things Eva can no longer do, readers will appreciate the pages about how she spends her time now, including playing with her brother, studying engineering by building graham cracker towers, and going for walks. Angel’s simplistic story is a useful jumping-off point for sparking discussions with young children about these tumultuous and confusing times.

Takeaway: This timely portrait of isolated life in the pandemic era will help little readers feel seen and validate their complicated feelings.

Great for fans of Mo Willems’s Knuffle Bunny series, Hailey Glynn’s When Virona the Corona Came to Town.

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

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Uprooting Fear : The Heart's Accidental Journey to the Divine
Aura Camacho-Maas
Camacho-Maas’s debut is a profoundly passionate memoir celebrating her discovery of spiritual strength and recognition of signs from the divine. Camacho-Maas begins with tracing her distressing early years in Bogotá, Colombia. Her father’s violence led her to construct an independent life at a rather young age. Once out in a world promising adventure, awareness, and freedom, Camacho-Maas took one faith-based step at a time, plunging into the arms of divinity and exploring the secrets of nature. In passages that are more exploratory than inspirational, she describes intense shamanistic experiences and details extensive paranormal encounters that helped her see and understand the portents all around her.

Camacho-Maas employs concise and effective writing as she shares earnest autobiographical accounts in episodic, intimate, and reflective observations that support her evolving intuitions and worldview. She sees fear as the basis of discord and discrimination in the world. Her easygoing sophistication makes the analysis of her revelations accessible while she probes the deeper meaning behind each experience. She does not shy away from discussing her mental health struggles, repressed anguish, and emotional burnouts with gentle sensitivity, seamlessly blending her interpersonal, psychological, and spiritual experiences in the later chapters.

Readers may be taken aback when the tone markedly shifts from sentimental to businesslike as Camacho-Maas describes her initial years founding her nonprofit agency, the Latin American Resource Center. The memoir subsequently loses some cohesion, and it takes a while to bring the reader back into the core subject. Fortunately, the included illustrations by children from a variety of backgrounds, part of a traveling exhibit Camacho-Maas coordinated through her work with international school systems, help to link her work with some of her more personal insights. Camacho-Maas’s lessons in the healing and dismantling of the self are profound and make her journey feel both mystical and wholesome.

Takeaway: This memoir of spiritual seeking is a perfect fit for readers looking for storytelling with a transcendental quality.

Great for fans of Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, Deepak Chopra’s The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success.

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

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Dance of the Deities : Searching for Our Once and Future Egalitarian Society
Patricia A. McBroom
McBroom (The Third Sex: The New Professional Woman) uses her own experiences as an anthropologist, a science writer, and a woman navigating modern society to fashion a memoir of her “search for equality and the sacred female.” She examines the influence of goddess worship on human culture, establishing that many societies that worshipped female deities gave men and women equal power. She combines her research with her personal experiences to clearly demonstrate her view that society would function better with a more egalitarian structure. Her approach is compassionate, not militant; while grieving the effects of patriarchy in her own life, she asserts that women don’t want to rule over men, only to share their power.

Drawing on her several decades of science writing and archaeological research work, McBroom provides well-informed historical examples of egalitarian cultures that paid a steep price when male-dominated colonizers took over, examining the effects of European patriarchal structures on the Iroquois and the Maori. Her passion for female deities is clear throughout the narrative, but she’s careful to reinforce her personal opinions with informed analysis of ancient objects and other archaeological findings.

McBroom comfortably invites readers into her life. As she discusses the importance of goddesses in Neolithic cultures, she transitions seamlessly to examples of how a respectful view of women either did help or could have helped her. Sharing painful stories such as being scapegoated at work because she was a woman, and joyful ones such as living for 19 years in a cohousing community where everyone governs together, McBroom effectively illustrates the significance of recovering “the cultural history of the sacred female.” This mix of memoir, theory, and research will interest any reader who’s passionate about building a more egalitarian world.

Takeaway: Feminists and history buffs will be drawn to this passionate, well-researched memoir that explores the past and possible future of gender-equal societies.

Great for fans of Marija Gimbutas and Joseph Campbell’s The Language of the Goddess.

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

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Half Awakened Dreams: Volume II of the Carandir Saga
David A. Wimsett
The second installment in the Carandir Saga follows a sprawling cast of characters dealing with an uprising against King Ryckair and Queen Mirjel. A group of discriminatory Western purists plots to overthrow Mirjel, the Eastern queen who has failed to produce an heir. Meanwhile, Ryckair is kidnapped by the Zerites, an ancient race of nonhumans, and tasked with finding the evil dragon Baras, who threatens to upend the order of the world. While Ryckair and Mirjel’s love is tested by infertility, Ryckair’s illegitimate son, the ruthless boy general Dhamar, is tempted by the wicked sorcerer Petstra to overthrow his father and serve Baras.

While Wimsett immerses the reader in the world of Carandir, thoughtfully including maps of the kingdom and a glossary of the trading language, readers may be overwhelmed by the many characters (some of whom have extremely similar names, like Deh and Dek) and story lines. No single plotline gets the attention it deserves, and emotional investment may suffer as a result. In key moments, it can be difficult to keep track of who is who, lessening the intended weight of the story. (Reading the first installment might help.)

The book works best when characters have clear goals. Ryckair’s journey with the Zerites is one of the most enjoyable sections to read. Sif and Tarawee, his Zerite guides disguised as humans, inject some much-needed humor into the story, and the group suffers relatable setbacks and successes. While the author takes on a lot of information and detail at once, the world he creates is engrossing. Fantasy readers will appreciate the dedication to detail.

Takeaway: This immersive tale combines palace intrigue, military coups, and sorcery—perfect for fantasy fans with a political bent.

Great for fans of: Frank Herbert’s Dune, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings.

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

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DEATH ON THE HIGH SEAS
Richard V Rupp
Rupp’s slow-burn thriller leads readers on a global adventure. Special Agent Dick Hartmann and fellow FBI agent Coleen Ryan embark on a relaxing getaway aboard the Pacific Wonder cruise ship, where the Bon Appétit Insurance Company plans to hold its annual meeting. The insurance company manages finances for various high-level criminals, including Juanita Ramirez, head of a Mexican drug cartel. With the help of her girlfriend, Emelia Björk, Juanita strives to keep the cartel’s shady financial dealings under the FBI’s radar at any cost. When Bon Appétit’s CPA Greg Lemons notices discrepancies in the company’s bookkeeping, he is murdered to keep that information from becoming public. Dick and his team must unravel the mystery of the man’s death and bring the killer to justice.

Readers must suspend disbelief to fully appreciate this thriller. Juanita too-readily divulges highly sensitive information, including the inner workings of her business, to Emelia. Dick also acts questionably. After he’s summoned to meet with the captain about Greg’s murder, he pauses to take a shower and change clothing, a shocking delay considering the situation. Exposition is often repeated, slowing the pace despite a whirlwind plot and large ensemble cast filled with FBI agents and criminals. The frequent objectification of women (including by other women, as when Emelia eyes the “boobies” of “circle of dykes” at a party) a missed opportunity, undermining the promise of strong heroines and multidimensional women villains.

Rupp’s extensive world travel shines on the page. The truly varied assortment of settings includes Berlin, Monaco, and North Carolina. As each new locale is described, readers will find it easy to picture the characters there. His background in the commercial insurance industry paves the way for a sophisticated insurance scheme that keeps the pages turning as layer after layer is uncovered. Armchair travelers will get the most from this cruise through bloody waters.

Takeaway: Fans of financial thrillers and literary vacations will enjoy this tale of crime and scheming on a cruise ship.

Great for fans of Catherine Ryan Howard’s Distress Signals.

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

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Across the Bridge of Ice: The Bridges Trilogy #2
Ruth Fox
Fox’s second novella in the YA trilogy The Bridges finds a plucky teenager tracking a vision through a magical telescope into a harsh and dangerous ice world. After 15-year-old Keira Leichman breaks her ankle during a bizarre blizzard in her desert town, she fears she’ll never play soccer again. She’s plagued by strange dreams, is turning pale, and is drawn to her friend Jake’s mysterious brass telescope—which pulls her across an ice bridge along with Jake’s 9-year-old brother, Daniel, into the parallel world of Shar. The Sharians, who have monitored Earth for millennia, are horrified by Earth’s climate devastation, war, and violence. In their beautifully described crystal city, Keira and Daniel are feared, medically examined, and imprisoned. She learns from Archon, who is half human and half Sharian, that Shar may be planning to invade Earth. Meanwhile, she’s developing a mysterious ability to use the Sharians’ magical powers.

Rather than delving deeply into character motivations and the social context of Shar, this story focuses on plot, which proceeds according to schedule. The premise of Shar is fascinating, and readers may wish there was more information about the city, its people, and its relationships with humans.

Readers will warm to the teenage spunk of energetic and tough Keira, who vows to find a way back to Earth with Daniel. Archon, too, is a complex character, doing his duty as a scientist but unable to ignore the cruelty and paranoia of the city’s leaders, the Guardians. Young readers will enjoy the enchanted ice city, handsome characters, and magical charms of this thrilling YA fantasy.

Takeaway: This magical adventure will satisfy YA fantasy readers who enjoy spunky heroines and fairytale charm.

Great for fans of: Robert J. Crane’s The Girl in the Box series, Skye Malone’s Awakened Fate series.

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

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Bolting the Furies
Helen H. Moore
Moore, known mostly for children’s books on poetry, transports readers to an alternate version of Earth’s recent past in this fantastic horror novel that combines Lord of the Flies and a gender-swapped Handmaid’s Tale with a supernatural twist. In 1972, 19-year-old college student Senga was a feminist activist. In 1986, she’s a scavenger trying to survive in a wilderness-covered Brooklyn after an unspecified apocalypse. She uneasily shares the fast-growing forest with 30 fellow former activists, the Maenads, who hunt men, rape them in hopes of getting pregnant, and then kill and eat them. To end these vicious rites, Senga must team up with her adopted daughter, Pink, who has never seen a man; her high school friend Buffy, a farmer and stoner; and two unexpected outsiders.

A couple of plot twists feel slightly contrived, and some readers might find the book’s ambiguity frustrating, especially regarding the event that led the survivors to their current situation. This mystery is as intriguing as it is challenging, however, and the book’s conclusion leaves open the possibility of a sequel that could contain more answers. Fluid, self-aware prose and sharp characterization keep the reader entranced. The Maenads can seem like caricatures, but when men are introduced, their shortcomings are depicted with equal wryness, and descriptions of their “flat bellies, and heavily muscled glutes, and thighs that led down to wiry calves” subtly parody the male gaze. Every character is both strong and deeply flawed.

Though the novel’s themes resonate with earlier works of feminist science fiction, Moore’s work is unusual in that it critiques misandry as well as misogyny and depicts a world without men as a horror, not a utopia. She deploys vivid descriptions of violence only when absolutely necessary to drive that horror home while implicitly critiquing books that relish violence against women. Dark but with a glimmer of hope, this gripping work earns its place on the shelf of any post-apocalyptic fiction fan.

Takeaway: This bloody post-apocalyptic thriller critiques gender ideology extremes and will fascinate any connoisseur of feminist science fiction.

Great for fans of Elizabeth Hand’s “The Bacchae,” Naomi Alderman, Margaret Atwood.

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

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Spider's Web: Magdalena #3
Shannon Condon
Events in the tragic past and dangerous present spectacularly collide in Condon’s fast-paced second Magdalena thriller. After a brush with death three years before, special ops agent Magdalena “Maggie” Curran is now helping covert missions succeed from the safety of her basement operations center in a quiet Virginia town. Restless from being sidelined with “safe” duties, Maggie longs to get back in the field despite the danger and the family she loves. She struggles to reconcile this urge with her desires to continue her musical training and her difficulty conceiving a second child with her husband, fellow agent Bernardo. When the son of an old enemy with ties to the Russians reappears and past truths are revealed, Maggie must uncover subterfuge, betrayal, heartbreaking losses,and danger to reclaim her life.

Finding Magdalena introduced Maggie as a teenager in a harrowing tale of love and loss. Now readers get to appreciate Maggie as an adult: agent, singer, mother, and wife. The dialogue can sometimes be stilted or trite (“I need to remember that a lot of women don’t even get one baby”), but the emotions underneath it are real. Domestic issues including fertility problems, jealousy, and mental illness intertwine and juxtapose with dangerous enemies including the mysterious group known as the Brotherhood, and loved ones become collateral damage when covert operations go terribly wrong, showing the tragic humanity in the espionage world.

Condon’s wonderful heroine is a survivor above all else. The story boasts a rare mix of daring spycraft and the domestic life of an extended family, though this sometimes leads to uneven pacing and an overextended plot. There’s much to enjoy as Maggie outwits kidnappers and Russian operatives while facing her own fears and demons. Both new and returning readers will appreciate the promise of this unique series and be eager to follow Maggie wherever her dangerous, fulfilling life takes her next.

Takeaway: A tough heroine with strong family ties brings adventures galore to thriller readers wishing their ordinary lives could be just a little more exciting.

Great for fans of David Baldacci’s King & Maxwell series, Dan Fesperman’s Safe Houses.

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

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Jocelyn's War
Jason Ryan Dale
This complex and gritty third Journeys Down a Long Dark Road work (after Tina and the Big Bad Wolf & Other Stories), which stands well alone, follows two crime outfits clashing in the Philadelphia suburbs. After his release from prison, Bobby the Beast, former sergeant-at-arms of the Ghost Knights Motorcycle Club, begins a war with the mob to reestablish his gang’s credibility. His secret weapon is Jocelyn, a young woman with a sordid family history, who seduces Danny, the son of a mafia bigshot. When Danny’s bar is attacked by the Ghost Knights, Danny launches an investigation, while Jocelyn grapples with her capacity for betrayal.

Dale crafts a world of ruthless characters who unfortunately lack the necessary interiority to engage the reader’s sympathies. Danny and Jocelyn’s relationship is treated somewhat as a romance, but it’s tumultuous and occasionally violent, and readers may find it hard to cheer the lovers on. Moments that provide insight into Jocelyn’s motives (such as needing money to send her younger sisters to college) are welcome but rare. Nearly every character is a murderer, a backstabber, or an abuser, and the protagonists employ disturbing racist language. However, the willingness of many characters to betray one another or change sides adds memorable twists and strengthens the plot.

Keeping track of who’s who is difficult in this sprawling story, which spans multiple generations with interrelated narratives and tangled backstories. It’s peppered with flashbacks, memories, and lengthy monologues about the past, and is most compelling when the characters’ histories tie into their present-day actions. The plot itself is frequently gripping, and fans of the mob genre will appreciate the scenes of bloody action.This thriller will hook readers looking for a twisty story full of characters they’ll love to hate.

Takeaway: Family drama, violence, and a femme fatale make this thriller appealing to fans of mafia stories.

Great for fans of Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night, James Patterson’s Don’t Blink.

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

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Murder at Melrose Court: A 1920s Country House Murder
Karen Menuhin
In this witty and clever salute to interwar mysteries, aristocrat Heathcliff Lennox faces a string of mysterious deaths while spending the Christmas of 1920 at an English country manor. Lennox and a motley collection of relatives get a surprise when his aged uncle, Lord Melrose, announces his engagement to an émigré Russian countess. But murder interrupts the festivities and Lennox turns sleuth, finding that all the guests, including shady financial advisor Peregrine and the countess’s niece, Natasha, have dark secrets. Lennox must navigate family rivalries and financial problems to save himself and uncover a killer.

Menuhin has a firm grasp of the English country house mystery: from page one, readers meet the idle rich, too busy tying a fishing fly to realize there’s a dead body on the doorstep. Also present are loyal, daffy servants; a lovelorn butler appears in a scene reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse. Though Melrose Court is well-populated, the author drapes each character with enough amusing offbeat traits to make sure they stand out, as with cousin-by-marriage Gertrude, an unapologetic kleptomaniac with an alarming knowledge of explosives. There’s a slight stumble toward the end with a rushed introduction of new information, but overall the plot zips along and the cast always entertains.

Though largely comic, this mystery contains some somber scenes that lend depth to the story and anchor it firmly in its time and place, as when Lennox remembers his service in the Great War. The aristocratic Russians fail to grasp that working-class English are not Russian peasants and that their grotesquely lavish world is gone forever. The vibrant characters and meticulously detailed period setting will keep readers smiling and even chuckling all the way to the surprising but wholly believable conclusion. This is a wonderful example of its genre, and readers will eagerly look forward to more from Lennox and his eccentric family.

Takeaway: Fans of English interwar mysteries will delight in this whodunit, which is replete with eccentric gentry and servants, a drafty manor house, and plenty of witty exchanges.

Great for fans of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey series, Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple series.

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

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Amplify Your Job Search: Strategies for Finding Your Dream Job
Jeffrey S. Ton
Ton follows 2018’s Amplify Your Value with a welcome corrective to business advice books that overpromise and underdeliver. The guide makes it clear that readers hoping to land an ideal job will have to work at it, advocating a laser focus (“zeroed in on a specific role”) as opposed to a shotgun approach (“searching for a job, just about any job”). Ton challenges his audience to pursue intense self-reflection, secure the feedback of colleagues, and explore past accomplishments in narrative terms. The manual provides additional steps to “amplify” a personal brand, and the advice, while practical, demands serious self-investigation: as a laser is highly concentrated, so should be a candidate’s presentation of strengths, skills, and achievements.

Ton emphasizes the power of networking in chapters fully updated for the 2020 reality of virtual get-togethers. His suggestions range from the technical (digital Zoom backgrounds “will detract from your image, and if the lighting isn’t perfect, you will look like James T. Kirk transporting to the Enterprise during a power glitch”) to the interpersonal (“look at the camera... like you would look in someone’s eyes in a face-to-face meeting”). Ton proposes asking key questions at networking encounters and includes several examples of direct queries to utilize in both online and offline settings, teaching readers to take goal-oriented action.

This compact guide wastes no energy on filler and convinces readers of the urgency of more demanding self-investigation. Journaling is one of several instruments offered to help applicants obtain their dream jobs. Rather than selling readers a one-size-fits-some system, Ton’s guide stands out and accommodates individuality by instructing readers to sell themselves. Any white-collar job-seeker who’s willing to put some thought and effort into identifying their strengths, weaknesses, and ideal work situation will find this an invaluable aid.

Takeaway: This no-nonsense guide will help any white-collar job-seeker unlock their dream career through self-examination, networking, and staying focused.

Great for fans of Richard Nelson Bolles’s What Color Is Your Parachute?, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans’s Designing Your Life.

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

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Adventures of a Pangopup
Terri Tatchell
Tatchell and Sulima’s magnificent second Endangered and Misunderstood picture book is a timeless tribute to the sanctuary of home. Pangopup, a baby pangolin safely nestled in his underground burrow with his mother, quickly loses patience with being little and ventures out one night while his ever-watchful mother is sleeping. Amazed and slightly intimidated by the unexplored world outside of his burrow, Pangopup attaches himself to a new friend, a brave dik dik deer, with the goal of discovering exciting amusements together in uncharted territory. In the midst of their rousing adventures, Pangopup and Dik Dik run into a terrifying predator, leading to a newfound appreciation of the protection of home.

This amusing and entertaining story brings endangered species to life through thrilling escapades interspersed with more serious messages on balancing independence with security. Sulima’s vibrant, nuanced artwork adds depth to the experience, inviting the reader in to bounce joyfully through brightly painted landscapes full of imaginative details. Tatchell’s focus on the characters’ vulnerability illuminates their tenacity and spirit, endearing their curious and restless natures to readers. The singsong iambic verse (“I’d LOVE to play with you outside! This day can never end!”) is easy to read aloud and will delight young ones and parents alike.

The story’s subtle critique of human trafficking of endangered species is balanced by winsome art and enjoyable text. Young fans will fall in love with the main characters’ inquisitiveness about the world surrounding them, while adults will appreciate the lessons on exploring independence safely, helping others, and always coming home. Tatchell’s charming storytelling and Sulima’s gorgeous renditions of the Kenyan landscape and its inhabitants will earn this lovely picture book a spot on any shelf.

Takeaway: Lovable characters and beautiful art will entice readers of all ages into this story about seeking independence while appreciating the refuge of home.

Great for fans of Audrey Penn’s The Kissing Hand, Bob Darroch’s Little Kiwi Is Scared of the Dark.

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

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Savoring the Camino de Santiago: : It's the Pilgrimage, Not the Hike
Julie Gianelloni Connor
Connor, a retired Foreign Service Officer, recounts her experience travelling the Camino de Santiago, a network of pilgrimage routes leading to a shrine in northern Spain, in this pleasant mix of travelogue and advice. In 1971, following a violent assault, Connor dropped out of Rice University and moved to Portugal, where she learned about the Camino. Forty-five years later, she finally devoted the time to walking the French Way along with her son, James. While describing her experiences, she shares practical suggestions on packing, transportation, and the risks of the terrain. Connor’s anecdotes, including an unsettling encounter with a persistent truffle hunter and her son’s development of debilitating plantar fasciitis, provide a glimpse into the frustrations and joys of her experience, as do the brief and sometimes bland journal entries from each of her 50 days on the Camino.

Curious readers will welcome the blend of recollection and travel tips, and Connor highlights the strain of the walk while emphasizing its accessibility for people of varying abilities. Her section on myths about the Camino experience (such as “a true pilgrim walks the whole way”) and her honest discussion of nondescript trail sections, near-impassable shale, and disappointingly closed churches prepare those planning this trip for a realistic, rather than idealized, journey. Connor encourages readers with her stories of personal realizations and spiritual encounters.

In the journal section, line-drawn maps do not contain a scale or distance and are more evocative than practical, but crisp, well-reproduced black-and-white photographs evoke a sense of place for key moments of the journey. Would-be pilgrims will need other resources to fully plan their trips, but this is a good entry point to understand how the route feels and what it requires. This taste of the Camino will spark interest in completing the long trek while highlighting its challenges.

Takeaway: Fans of armchair travel or those exploring their own interest in walking the Camino de Santiago will get a lot from this down-to-earth guide and memoir.

Great for fans of Rolf Potts’s Vagabonding, Rosemary Mahoney’s The Singular Pilgrim.

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

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Dead Ball: A Novel of Murder and Passion
GP Hutchinson
Hutchinson’s engrossing second historical baseball thriller (after Over the Right Field Wall) begins in 1912 when St. Louis Cardinal Hal Gerecke throws a life-altering pitch at Boston Braves shortstop Rube Wannamaker. Rube doesn’t see the toss coming due to the ball’s dirtied state and is rendered comatose, later vegetative, by the impact. Gutted by his mistake, Hal abandons baseball for married life with spunky Gracie Matthews, but recruiters for the newly formed and supposedly safer Mutual League soon pull him out of retirement. However, certain folks—including mysterious baseball newcomer Johnny Wagner—believe Hal purposely maimed Rube and are out for blood, putting Hal’s life in serious danger.

Hal, Johnny, and Gracie are the most developed characters; the others can feel slightly flat. As Johnny and other players threaten violence, readers will admire how Hal maintains integrity by rarely picking a fight and always thinking of his wife’s safety first. Though this distinct moral compass can seem slightly exaggerated, it leaves readers reassured that Hal would never intentionally harm Rube. Hal is an honorable man whose chivalry is emphasized through his respectful treatment of Gracie and Hannah McGuire, a Boston nurse he befriends. His bashful awe of the two women’s beauty is a little reductive but sweetly innocent, and gives readers another reason to root for him.

Hutchinson echoes film noir and hard-boiled crime novels through ominous foreshadowing and chapter-ending cliff-hangers. Readers observe Johnny’s moves where Hal doesn’t, creating a larger sense of danger for the protagonist. It’s exhilarating to follow Hal and Gracie through the historic streets of Boston, New York, and St. Louis as they try to deduce who is truly after them and sort the good guys from the bad guys in the intense world of pre-regulation baseball. Crime fans and baseball fanatics alike will be enthralled by this retro tale of love and revenge.

Takeaway: Historically accurate details of pre-regulation baseball and nail-biting suspense will captivate crime and sports fans.

Great for fans of Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out, Darryl Brock’s If I Never Get Back, David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49, W.P. Kinsella.

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

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High Plains Redemption: Cimarron Jack Western Series Book 2
GP Hutchinson
The action-packed standalone second Cimarron Jack Westerns novel (after 2018’s Cimarron’s Law) is an appealing window into a world of cowboys, liars, and tough-as-nails women. Bronco rider Quint Woodall, taking the train home to nurse a back injury, meets Cora, a young woman from a powerful family, who asks for help escaping Julius, her abusive fiancé-to-be. Despite Julius’s attempts to steal her back, Quint and Cora make it to his mother’s ranch, where their troubles only grow. As Quint faces legal trouble for helping Cora, he must also contend with Hew, a violent ranch hand with a powerful hold over Quint’s mother.

Hutchinson strives for historical accuracy in his setting and language but modernizes his characters’ politics. Though the narrative focuses on a damsel in distress, Cora is a fully fleshed-out and profound character. The chapters switch perspectives, so Cora never feels like an afterthought in her own story; she and Quint have fully separate reactions to (and feelings about) specific situations. Hutchinson hits on the important hallmarks of a traditional western, setting Quint and Cora firmly in a world of clear rights and wrongs, but he still manages to imbue the narrative with appealing sensitivity.

There are a few extraneous characters and side plots. One, involving Cora’s father and Julius abusing railroad workers, feels particularly sadistic and out of place, especially since it never factors into the end of the story. However, for the most part the narrative is lean, fast-moving, and well-structured. Though the bulk of the action takes place in a courthouse, the dialogue and setting feel distinctly western and the tension is as high as in a shootout. Hutchinson brings the western up to date without losing any of the genre’s historical charm in a gripping story with broad appeal.

Takeaway: This historical western with a thoughtful modern sensibility will enthrall both longtime genre fans and new readers.

Great for fans of Zane Grey’s The Lone Star Ranger, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove Series.

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

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