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I Wish You Happiness: Empower Children To Be The Best They Can be
Michael Wong
Wong (the Picco Puppy series) and Baratashvili combine sweet words of inspiration with beautiful digital paintings of children embarking on adventures. The bold and enthusiastic characters include young versions of celebrated figures: Neil Armstrong climbing to the moon as Katherine Johnson aims his ladder, Amelia Earhart flying a balloon that’s a giant dandelion puff, J.K. Rowling scribbling in a notebook. Wong’s brief phrases (“I wish you knowledge and wisdom, for they are the foundations of a successful life”) are lifted by the nuanced, upbeat, and spirited portraits of children playing in the snow, lying on the grass, and sharing an umbrella in the rain, often accompanied by favorite toys and delightful pets.

The positive and encouraging text is warm and sincere without being overly sentimental. Wong doesn't shy away from abstract concepts such as resilience, faith, and prosperity, but the rich colors and picturesque details of the images help to make their meaning clear, though young children may press for further explanations. The final page of facts about the historical characters and trivia about the different breeds of dog (and one cat) depicted throughout the book will encourage rereading and help the work hold children’s interest as they grow.

Gently encouraging readers to cherish their luck, seek tranquility, and hope for the best, Wong elevates kindness and quiet joy over material success, a valuable message for many parents as well as for children. Baratashvili takes care to include a variety of ethnicities and a girl in a wheelchair, helping children to see themselves in the book and believe that these wishes really are meant for them. The wide-ranging affirmations and lovely artwork make this an excellent baby shower gift or a whimsical graduation present. Both adults and children will find this bedtime read worth returning to again and again.

Takeaway: This enchanting and encouraging picture book will capture the imagination of developing readers and the adults who want only the best for them.

Great for fans of Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Litchenheld’s I Wish You More, Marianne Richmond’s Be Brave Little One, Lisa Mantchev and Jessica Courtney-Tickle’s The Perfectly Perfect Wish.

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

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Deja Vu: Here We Go Again...
Melody Saleh
Saleh follows Facade with further entertaining moments of struggle and glory in the lives of friends navigating life, love, and relationships in sunny South Florida. Widowed and pregnant, Debra Harris realizes she said “yes” to the wrong man. Dominque “Dom” Patterson is madly in love with her boyfriend, Tad Johnson; however, her debilitating illness threatens their relationship. Fashion designer Zya is a single mother of two, struggling to maintain a career and love life amid chaos and a custody battle. Esteemed journalist Amber Fiore finds herself at the center of a homicide investigation after her vengeful twin sister, Brandy, makes an unexpected return.

The large cast of characters is headlined by these four ladies, whose stories are drastically different but all center on love and romantic relationships. This installment resumes where the action stopped in the first book’s cliff-hanger ending, immediately thrusting readers into the fast-paced plot. New readers may initially struggle to understand the overlapping, complex plotlines and keep track of the numerous characters and their various motivations. The powerful bond among the friends, and their resilience, surpasses the cluttered plot to create a romantic drama that underscores the importance of maintaining supportive friendships and the healing power of love.

Saleh writes passionately about Dom and Tad’s difficulties, poignantly depicting the impact of terminal illnesses on relationships. Although the book includes murder, sexual assault, bullying, and elements of mystery, at its heart it’s a love story. Elegantly written sex scenes provide breaks in the story’s rapid pace while highlighting the romantic bonds between partners. This emotionally affecting page-turner is a must for any hopeless romantic who prefers a touch of angst with their happily ever after.

Takeaway: Fans of romance and women’s fiction will enjoy this dramatic, passionate story of love and redemption.

Great for fans of Robyn Carr, A.C. Arthur, Terry McMillan.

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

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Hidden Magic: The Eldritch of Hallows
Elana McDougall
A woman on the run from her abusive ex-fiancé grapples with secrets from her past and her attraction to a sexy sheriff in McDougall’s steamy debut. When Sasha’s car breaks down outside the small town of Hallows, N.C., she realizes that the lack of internet and cell phone reception make the charming town an ideal spot to disappear. But Sasha isn’t the only person hiding in Hallows. For centuries, the town has been a haven for mages, shapeshifters, trolls, and fae, many of whom see Sasha’s arrival as a threat to their safety. Jake Wulfrik, the local sheriff, won’t let anyone harm the woman he feels so drawn to, but when real danger comes to Hallows, Sasha may not be able to risk trusting Jake.

McDougall entices readers into a world where magical beings hide in the shadows, fearing persecution and exploitation by humans. Hallows is a complex society with political structures, social hierarchies, and a rich but bitter history. As Sasha settles in, vivid descriptions paint both the town and its inhabitants clearly in the imagination. A violent murder just outside city limits introduces an element of intrigue and keeps readers guessing as to the true nature of the threats to Hallows and Sasha.

Jake and Sasha share an intense physical attraction, but the reader’s impression of their compatibility suffers from a lack of depth in their personal interactions. In the context of Sasha’s traumatic previous relationships, the absence of a developed trust base sets off warning bells in the mild power play flavoring the sex scenes. However, there is a satisfying sense of growth in the bonds Sasha forms with her newfound friends and the way the magic of Hallows awakens secrets from her childhood. McDougall’s well-formed magical world will hold the reader’s interest as the mystery and romance unfold.

Takeaway: Paranormal romance readers who relish suspenseful plotting and alpha male heroes will enjoy this tale of self-discovery.

Great for fans of Carol Van Natta’s Shifter Mate Magic, Sedona Venez’s Taming the Beast.

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

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Bladeseeker: Convergent Fates
Roy Blackstone
Blackstone’s crisply written young adult fantasy debut follows a motley crew of characters in the kingdom of Nemea, where ancient artifacts known as soulblades have been mysteriously appearing. These powerful swords bestow dark magic on their finders, so people race to recover them. Meanwhile, various forces clash in a takeover bid for the king’s throne, and 14-year-old treasure hunter Tyr, an unnamed girl warrior, royal guards, and seraphs—isolated creatures living in a floating city—are just some of the interesting characters caught up in epic battles for power.

Blackstone weaves the characters’ complex journeys into a broad view of the hunt for soulblades and the consequences that arise when they are found. The novel is ostensibly titled after Tyr, who opens the story with his quest to find a soulblade and be knighted, but all the central characters wind up as bladeseekers in a way, and the interlocking effects of their actions strengthen the overall narrative. Most compelling is the unnamed character whose backstory and character development unfold slowly, and the many unanswered questions about her will leave readers craving the next installment.

The story is dark at times, especially with some of the battle deaths. The setting is vividly rendered with crisp depictions of bold landscapes and dangerous weather. Readers will glimpse each character’s motivation and loyalties through the articulation of their internal thoughts and conflicts, with unexpected players generating the biggest impact in the end. Blackstone succeeds in fully fleshing out characters and building a sinister world of magic with dire consequences. Full of combat, quests, and soul-searching, this thoughtful fantasy asks readers to question both history and destiny.

Takeaway: This action-packed and thoughtful fantasy quest story will enchant readers with its charming characters and surprising revelations.

Great for fans of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, Rick Riordan.

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

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The Ancestor
Lee Matthew Goldberg
Goldberg’s meticulously constructed thriller entwines a touching examination of family with deeply disturbing horror and taut suspense. Wyatt, a prospector, was frozen solid during the Alaska gold rush of 1898. He thaws out in 2020 and immediately meets his great-great grandson, Travis, an out-of-work father and husband who looks identical to Wyatt. Wyatt befriends Travis, but the relationship quickly turns sinister as Wyatt decides to replace his long-dead family with Travis’s wife, Callie, and son, Eli. The tension between the past and present slowly builds as Callie and Travis’s marriage falters and Wyatt works himself deeper into their life, coming to a crescendo deep in the Alaskan wilderness.

It’s unfortunate that the female and non-white characters, particularly Aylen, a Native American sex worker, are often treated like objects by the white male protagonists or by the narrative. For example, Wyatt’s obsession with Callie hinges only upon her resemblance to his dead wife, and has nothing to do with her personally. Many of Travis’s 21st-century problems are reflected in Wyatt’s past, which is laid out in unevenly distributed, exposition-heavy flashbacks, stuttering the plot’s pace. Otherwise, Goldberg (The Desire Card) is an efficient writer, drawing complex, sympathetic portraits of Callie, Wyatt, and Travis, all of whom are flawed and compelling in their own ways.

Small-town Alaska is brought to vivid life with tight prose and clear descriptions (“Morning brings out the fishermen along the docks. Pungent smells lining the air. Bristly beards and heavy gear to stave off the sleet”), creating a perfect quotidien backdrop to Wyatt and Travis’s eerie rivalry. The bloody opening scene, in which a newly revived Wyatt strangles and eats a wolf, is an outlier; the bulk of the novel is light on physical violence and will please fans of more psychological suspense. This richly imagined story of ancestors and descendants is written in a confident voice and well suited to anyone interested in the complexities of identity and legacy.

Takeaway: This compulsively readable thriller will disturb and delight anyone who has ever contemplated what it means to be an ancestor or a descendant.

Great for fans of Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, Laura Sims’s Looker.

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

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Lost Secret of the Ancient Ones: Book I - The Manna Chronicles
Chris Reynolds
The first Manna Chronicles thriller, spun off from Reynolds’s The Lion’s Gate, sends 20-something adventurer Maya Harrington on a mind-bending trip all over the world and into the depths of her own mind in a mystic quest to uncover long-forgotten truths and find her explorer father while battling shadowy enemies. Working for a secretive and powerful international company, Maya gleans hidden knowledge from a shaman in the Amazon rainforest and a Ukrainian priest who belongs to an ancient sect. She also learns an out-of-body technique called remote viewing as she and her friends, history expert Johnny “JW” White Feather and computer genius Layla, use all their wits to decipher her father’s diary and beat their enemies to dangerous revelations.

Reynolds, who describes himself as an explorer and adventurer, has an assured hand as he portrays the fascinating details of myths and rituals from a wide range of cultures. Especially effective are the forays into the paranormal and spiritual. For example, Maya’s trip with a psychoactive brew under the guidance of a Navajo elder is suffused with striking imagery and language, "her consciousness freed from the shackles of her mind and the human prison of matter." Occasionally, the plot strains credulity, as when it gives supernatural explanations for historical events. However, the ancient settings and the book’s mythos never fail to engage.

As grand themes abound, Maya’s relations with her stalwart friends lend a welcome lightening touch. JW accompanies Maya on most of her odyssey and is protective and helpful. The more flamboyant Layla provides an effective contrast. A searing event from Maya’s childhood fleshes out her character and nicely sets the stage for Maya’s further interactions with her mysterious employer. The appealing new adult protagonists and the colorful locales will keep readers invested in the richly detailed myth-laden plot of this vibrant voyage into the unknown.

Takeaway: Fans of global adventure mysteries will be entranced by this thriller’s nonstop supernatural action and winning characters.

Great for fans of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, Michael Crichton’s Congo.

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

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Space Throne
Brian Corley
This entertaining space opera starts fast and doesn’t let up. Years ago, Prince Parrtec, heir to an interstellar empire, faked his death to escape his duties and take up the life of a trader and smuggler. When he learns of his parents’ sudden death, he’s ready, though reluctant, to return home and take up the throne. All he must do is find a way to pass through the shield protecting his homeworld without revealing his identity too soon—a plan that proves more difficult than he imagined when a relentless bounty hunter picks up his trail. Now Parr must rely on his old friend Manc Yelray, a shady pirate, and his new friend Ren, who’s the charming and opportunistic, to outsmart, outfight, and outfly enemies at every turn.

With its ragtag crew of unlikely allies poised to double-cross each other, this space opera wastes no time in leaping right into the action, pitting its prince-in-hiding against a galaxy of potential enemies. Corley (Ghost Bully) brilliantly constructs a universe populated by rogues, miscreants, and plausibly weird aliens. However, the constant barrage of unfamiliar names, terms, and slang may overwhelm a reader expected to decipher them through context. More familiar are the thrill-seeking Parr’s fondness for his ship, Aurora, and his contentious relationship with Manc, which may remind readers of a certain scruffy nerf-herder.

Corley’s protagonists rarely have time to catch their breath, plunging from one mess to the next, yet they still manage to grow as individuals, although Parr’s continuing obliviousness concerning his sister’s potentially sinister plans is a little hard to swallow. A trace of humor runs through the story, edged with self-awareness. As Parr and his allies fight for their lives, he’s forced to consider the privileges of his upbringing, though this theme doesn’t get as much examination as it deserves. This character-driven starfaring adventure hits the spot, while leaving a few loose threads for future installments.

Takeaway: This fast-paced interstellar romp will satisfy readers looking for action, double-crosses, and a touch of wacky hijinks.

Great for fans of Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Mike Brooks’s Dark Run, R.E. Stearns’s Barbary Station, James Lovegrove’s Firefly series.

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

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An Evening Pastiche
Brad Ramsey
A love of classic English poetry, or at least some familiarity with it, will serve readers well when diving into this collection, which pays homage to 19th-century English romantic poetry with a series of William Wordsworth pastiches that address 21st-century urban living. In wry references to Wordsworth’s evening walks, Ramsey writes of roaming Toronto’s streets and encountering light pollution, skyscrapers, graffiti, and a woman who reminds him of Ishtar as he asks her to light his cigarette.

The author has mastered the tone and dialect of romantic poetry, and he uses them to explore quotidian urban matters as familiar to 21st-century readers as daffodils were in Wordsworth’s day. In “The Idle Corner-Boys,” two young men attempt to prove their manhood by challenging each other to grope women. Seeing a woman already in distress, they forfeit their plan of feeling her up and instead help her find her missing brooch. "The Sewer and the Maple Leaf" has an engaging use of personification, as it finds a sewer grate and a maple leaf in an interesting exchange about the maple leaf's survival of winter. In “The Shepherd’s Blues,” stars are hard to see in “the city haze,” but starlets proliferate.

Each piece showcases Ramsey's knowledge of different poetic styles as he employs couplets, triplets, free verse and multiple other forms. There’s a seeming paradox in imitating Wordsworth’s language, which was meant to replace florid 18th-century poetry with earthy everyday speech but sounds nearly as fancy to modern ears. However, Ramsey blends in plenty of current idiom, and the juxtaposition of “crack alley” with “poor hovels” or “a bus shelter/ Of plexiglass and yellow steel” with the “whirl-blast” of snow is delightful. Readers who know enough about romantic poetry to get the joke will enjoy this witty homage.

Takeaway: Aficionados of 19th-century romantic poetry will enjoy this clever update of William Wordsworth’s style with 21st-century subjects and language.

Great for fans of William Wordsworth, William Blake.

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

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Cooper B.: and the Scavenger Hunt
Michael Shane Leighton
Leighton’s first Cooper B. middle grade fantasy-mystery brims with adventure and charms with its simplicity. Cooper B., age 11, has been in the foster system his entire life. The only constant has been Ms. Pedigree, his social worker. Upon placement at Saint Mary’s Academy for Exceptional Youth, Cooper quickly befriends two of Ms. Pedigree’s other charges, Miles and Aria. The trio discover their fourth, Serra, who comes from a parallel world called Alyssum. Strangest of all is that Cooper B. is apparently known in Alyssum as a boy with a cryptic history.

Leighton easily sweeps readers into the world of Alyssum, which is familiar enough to be comforting but distinctive in a beguiling way. Though readers may detect echoes of other stories about orphans thrust into magical places full of friends and foes, the wide-eyed wonder Cooper feels in Alyssum is original and beautifully described. The smoothly written prose flows effortlessly, liberally dotted with enticing details and vivid characterizations. The novel allows children to be children, giving them room to grow, develop, and explore freely. There’s plenty of adult supervision, but it’s clear that the quartet have autonomy to discover new opportunities and initiate fresh experiences.

Cooper’s perspective isn’t always consistent; there are several instances where his voice and word choice suggest an adult, or someone with more maturity than one would expect from an 11-year-old. The tale intermittently reads as if Cooper is an adult reminiscing about his past rather than a child experiencing these events for the first time. Young readers who find those passages confusing will still enjoy the rest of the story and de Souza Sinclair’s elegant digital chapter-head illustrations. Conveying a sense of awe and delight, Leighton delivers an absorbing and entertaining story that touches just enough on serious topics.

Takeaway: A sophisticatedly crafted world and vividly imagined characters will draw readers of all ages into this adventure filled with lessons and wonder.

Great for fans of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series.

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

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The Broker: Deals, Steals and Moving Forward
D. Sidney Potter
Potter, a former broker at what he calls an “alpha-male” real estate firm, shapes this singular volume as a survey of what it takes to succeed in commercial real estate, a disquisition on race in his line of business, and a memoir of his own most interesting moments on and off the job. Energetic, ribald narration adds vigor to chapters on the psychology of cold-calling and the importance of escrow, and his insistence on dishing the unvarnished truth makes this less a how-to book than a memoir of life on the front lines of American capitalist masculinity.

Readers might be surprised by how many of Potter’s anecdotes concern fistfights with movie theater workers and rental-car company managers, altercations with police, and “yell fests” with a detested colleague whose wife’s resemblance to Salma Hayek has dampened Potter’s affection for the actress. Potter admits he’s taking liberties with readers’ expectations: “How this relates to commercial real estate, I couldn’t really tell you,” he confesses after recounting a dust-up. But his raucous storytelling, with its focus on conflict, illuminates the advice he gives to readers who want to be “Kong Dong” sales managers: “Be acutely aware of [your] scope of power.”

Questions of power figure into Potter’s more advice-focused chapters. They also play out in his discussions of how brokers stereotype various ethnic populations. There's humor in scenes such as Potter sitting under a desk on the brokerage floor in search of relative quiet. The fast-paced stream-of-consciousness storytelling, which reads like it came straight out of the author’s Dictaphone, isn’t always coherent, but readers will skim past the typos and tangled sentences in a rush of secondhand adrenaline. If action movies were made about real estate, this book would be one.

Takeaway: This vigorous memoir will entertain anyone looking for an action-comedy peppered with fistfights and commercial real estate deals.

Great for fans of Alison Rogers’s Diary of a Real Estate Rookie, Joe Ricketts’s The Harder You Work, the Luckier You Get.

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

Before the Distance
Pasquale Trozzolo
Trozzolo’s charming and breezy collection of poems about life during the era of social distancing acknowledges the hardships of the pandemic while sounding a hopeful note. His sense of humor is cheeky and playful, as in “Heavy,” which uses a vertical stacking structure to indicate thinness as he suggests even writing a short poem can be beneficial. “Reputation” is similarly sarcastic, as Trozzolo notes how unusually nice he’s being to people, and how “If this virus doesn’t kill me/ It’s going to ruin my/ Respectability.” The verses are alternately reflective, mournful, fearful, wistful, and anxious. Trozzolo covers a lot of ground with a pithy style that gets straight to the point but never takes itself too seriously.

While Trozzolo is usually thoughtful in formulating his observations and ruminations, most of these poems have a spontaneous feel to them. They quickly and sketchily capture a mood, as in “Walls”: “Can you/ Climb walls/ while/ Sitting in a/ Chair?” These brief verses are more effective than some of the longer poems, such as the overly labored “Blue,” which loses its impact as Trozzolo works hard to create rhymes. Trozzolo’s humor also works best in small bursts, as opposed to poems like “It Is,” in which Trozzolo belabors references to the song “You’re So Vain” in order to craft a joke.

Most of Trozzolo’s poems don’t fall into the trap of being clever for their own sake. Even when he’s playing around, he focuses on communicating his ideas through vivid, spare imagery. He’s candidly direct and sincere in expressing his thoughts on how the pandemic has changed daily life, and communicates gratitude for the remnants of meaning he can still find. Trozzolo distinctively touches on the strangeness of pandemic life while embracing its absurdity, and his quirky poems offer laughter and genuine insight without being pretentious.

Takeaway: Readers looking for a poetic take on life sheltering at home during the pandemic will relish Trozzolo’s wit, empathy, and economy of words.

Great for fans of Kit Falbo’s Pandemic Poems, Christoffer Petersen’s Pandemic Poetry.

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

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Lassa the Viking and the Dragon's Inferno
Dean Yurke
Yurke’s fast-paced adventure captures the swashbuckling atmosphere of Northern Europe in the 11th century CE, though at times it struggles with a lack of historical accuracy. At age 13, Lassa Erikson knows he only wants to be a healer, but he’s conned by his twin brother, Sven, into joining the Viking army. When Lassa accidentally kills the Saxon military commander Modred, he is hailed as a hero. Meanwhile, 14-year-old Saxon princess Ann is determined to pick up a sword and fight alongside the men, but she ends up as Lassa’s prisoner, and he claims her as his wife to save her from his rough fellow Vikings. When Viking king Magnus is kidnapped, Ann and Lassa are thrust into a desperate battle while a mysterious dragon cult tries to eradicate all of Norse and Saxon culture. Lassa must prove himself as a confident warrior to win Ann’s heart and save the Vikings from the Dragon King.

A plethora of anachronisms pull readers out of the time period and interrupt the story’s flow. There are a number of glaring factual errors: Lassa describes a Viking tune as resembling the Christian hymn “Good King Wenceslas,” a 19th-century song with a 13th-century melody; Lassa’s mentor, Chinese alchemist Choy Yang, predates the documented arrival of Chinese immigrants to England and Norway by hundreds of years. Likewise, language choices for the characters, such as Lassa repeatedly saying things are “cool,” make it difficult to fully immerse oneself in the time period, though the creative liberties may appeal to an uncritical younger audience.

Lassa’s struggle to fit in with the older, tougher Vikings is peppered with boyish humour and palpable nervous tension. Both Lassa and Ann have engaging, distinctive voices, and as they both try to break free from the gender restrictions of their time, they make a very sympathetic couple. Young readers who care more about fun adventure than historical accuracy will enjoy Yurke’s rip-roaring storytelling.

Takeaway: Sweeping atmosphere and a zippy pace will draw adventure-minded middle grade readers to this tale of Viking and Saxon warfare and romance.

Great for fans of Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants, Terry Jones’s The Saga of Erik the Viking.

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

A LONG WAY HOME
Myra Hargrave McIlvain
In McIlvain’s lively but uneven novel, corporate executive Meredith Haggerty escapes her brutal husband, Harvey, by hiding in the chaos following the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. She flees her office with only her ever-present satchel as the building collapses, faking her death. She’s suffused with guilt over driving drunk and getting in a crash that left Harvey partially paralyzed, but she feels she’s paid her dues by enduring his abuse in the decade since. As she rides a bus to Mexico, fellow passenger Father Jacques “Rich” Richelieu, a priest and medical doctor, recognizes a woman in need of help. Rich invites her to stay at his community center in Brownsville, Tex. Once she’s settled, her stash of cash is stolen and she must rely on meager earnings and the kindness of her new community, all while living in fear of exposure.

McIlvain (Stein House) vividly depicts Meredith’s escape against the backdrop of the traumatic events of 9/11, and the scenes of Rich and other knowledgeable people recognizing the clear signs of domestic abuse are well-written and sensitively approached. As Meredith navigates a new life in a place filled with poverty, violence, and sorrow, McIlvain keeps the book’s tone from descending too far into the dark, adding a touch of romance as well as some melodrama in a subplot involving a young Mexican boy.

The writing falters in the last quarter as the author winds up to the denouement, tying up loose ends in brisk fashion. Life-altering decisions for Father Rich and Meredith seem too convenient and neat. Even with these missteps, this novel is powerful and compelling. The mutual misery of Meredith and Harvey’s marriage is capably portrayed, and Meredith is a complicated and appealing heroine. Readers will breathlessly turn pages to the end.

Takeaway: Readers intrigued by heroines on the run and possibly in need of redemption will love this vivid novel of a woman using the events of 9/11 to escape her abusive husband.

Great for fans of Don Winslow’s The Border, Barbara O’Neal.

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

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Third-Person Possessed: How to Write Page-Turning Fiction for 21st Century Readers
Mike Klaassen
Klaassen’s manual for novice fiction writers suggests that the key to a successful novel depends on its style. Klaassen focuses on creating a sense of intimacy in writing that keeps readers engaged. He calls this style “third-person possessed,” a technique for “writing third person in a way that allows the reader to consistently experience the story as if he is inside the character’s mind and body,” and in this eminently readable work, he explains his strategy for maintaining it throughout a novel.

Klaassen argues that most current bestselling authors made their mark toward the end of the 20th century, and though their prose was cutting-edge for its time, new writers won’t be able to achieve similar heights by imitating that older style. He advocates for “third-person possessed” as the path forward in the 21st century. However, when discussing “some of the greatest stories ever told,” Klaassen lists Moby-Dick, The Great Gatsby, and Gone with the Wind. Often uncritical of earlier authors’ prose, Klaassen’s attempt to connect their style to his own technique often undercuts the book’s claim that 21st-century literature needs a new stylistic approach. Works by women and people of color receive fewer mentions. Klaassen recommends against physically describing characters, as a reader who doesn’t share their traits might be jarred out of identifying with them; authors of work that hinges on gender, race, ability, or size may prefer his advice to “give the reader credit for being intelligent.”

Over 13 short chapters, Klaassen discusses how to cultivate a compelling narrative, fleshed-out characters, consistent prose, and a fully revised book manuscript. Many tips are sourced from Wikipedia or older writing manuals. Though purportedly aimed at novelists of all levels, the book is primarily for novice authors who lack access to a professional editor. This overview of intimate prose style techniques is most useful as a crash course in grammatical and literary devices that create an intimate reading experience.

Takeaway: Klaassen’s persuasive guide to writing intimate third-person narratives provides useful tips to authors working on their first manuscripts.

Great for fans of Stephen King’s On Writing, Karen S. Weisner, John Truby.

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

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How to Design a Threshold
Ted Bernal Guevara
This ingenious venture from Guevara (Films) launches the main characters—Chereb Antonisz, a Jewish socialite; Zeyad Mugrabi, a Muslim stowaway; Asha Guitierrez, a Filipina schoolgirl; and Father Schoeff, a prophetic priest—into a collision with mystical implications in 1950s New York. At Schoeff’s first sermon at St. Jude’s Cathedral, he predicts the years the Yankees will win the pennant, to the displeasure of Msgr. Randolph, St. Jude’s senior priest. Schoeff’s awkward behavior garners media attention. During a radio interview, he explains that he makes predictions because “Free will can be enhanced, and that is [his] primary duty.”

The reader’s enthusiasm for the plot twists may begin to ebb when a character explicitly discloses why Zeyad, Chereb, Asha, and Schoeff were brought together, undermining the pleasure of discovering the plot as the story unfolds. But their interest will be recaptured by Guevara’s tight, poetic wording, which deftly depicts and evokes emotion: “Chereb... fell like a soft stone. Her otherwise street-brass heart at twenty couldn’t be more curious.” Mundane characters drop philosophical nuggets into Schoeff’s lap, and he encounters the divine in the guise of a stranger. Guevara paints a clear picture of these minor characters with vivid phrases and details: “His face had a scar that mowed a line down to his bearded chin... his trousers leaking at the hems.”

Even though death—often gruesome—laces through the story, comedy is there in greater measure. Chereb’s sublime humor bordering on mischief and Msgr. Randolph’s dry sarcasm balance Schoeff’s almost slapstick take: “When Uncle Dam passed away, Schoeff saw the humor of life slip away on ice. It was up to him to maintain balance and not fall.” Snippets of dialogue incorporate the racism of the 1950s, adding a layer of reality and context. Readers of magical realism will enjoy deciphering what is real and what is imagined in this sly, clever novel.

Takeaway: This poignant novel set in 1950s New York engages readers of magical realism with rich language, humor, and deep emotion.

Great for fans of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Darcie Little Badger’s “Skinwalker, Fast-Talker.”

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

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Death!: Where is Thy Victory?
Douglas Holden
Holden’s examination of the New Testament’s theology of death makes the vigorous case that the ancient authors had no qualms about discussing such a challenging topic. Through examination of the Synoptic Gospels, Paul’s letters, and John’s corpus, Holden explores the centrality of the resurrection of Christ for the writers of Scripture and their understanding of death and eschatology. He places it in stark contrast with the Greek philosophical conception of immortality of the soul: rather than a continuity, there is a deep discontinuity and a greater life anticipated after death, with the precise details differing depending on the biblical author.

Though Holden carefully explores all the major New Testament discussions of death, he is mostly satisfied with individual exegeses and makes little attempt to integrate them all into a larger vision or theology. His discussion of technical details of language and form are detailed enough to lose the interest of the casual reader while being not conversant enough with the modern literature to satisfy the Biblical scholar.

Christians will find Holden’s proclamation of Christ’s victory over death inspiring. In the three resurrections recorded in the Gospels as well as in Christ’s own death and resurrection, Holden sees an acknowledgement of appropriate grief, together with an expression of God’s deep compassion. Paul’s letters, especially, focus on Christ’s death on a cross and the new age brought by his resurrection, in Holden’s reading. Likewise, Holden observes, John’s writings are so driven by the desire to share life that its antithesis, death, is always before him. To John, these broad concepts are always focused on the life and death of Jesus Christ as events of cosmic significance. Holden’s explications of New Testament writings clearly illustrate the focus biblical authors placed on the resurrection of Christ in their understanding of death.

Takeaway: Christians seeking to understand the New Testament authors’ theology of death will appreciate this powerful case for the centrality of Christ’s resurrection.

Great for fans of N.T. Wright, G.K. Beale.

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