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An Audience for Einstein
Mark Wakely
Through the framework of a contemporary sci-fi drama, Wakely offers a clear, enjoyable meditation on the value of a life. Professor Marlowe, an aging yet brilliant astrophysicist, is given the chance to be young again and continue his groundbreaking work by transferring his memories, and thereby his consciousness, into the mind of another. All that the creator and practitioner of this surgery, Doctor Dorning, has to do is find someone young who is willing to give up their life for Marlowe’s. He soon encounters what seems to him a fitting subject: an 11-year-old named Miguel, a boy who's living on the street and whose parents are in no situation to find him should he disappear. Of course, not everyone finds this ethical, including Professor Marlowe. But when it feels so good to be young, can principles endure? In the end, the boy’s life hangs on whether Marlowe will give himself up for Miguel–and whether Dorning, or anyone, will let him.

Wakely deftly articulates character and feeling through action, and uses tension to keep readers engaged, all while even incorporating some actual hard science, as per the author’s background in astronomy. Some nuance is lacking: Marlowe is written as a moral center and contrasts Dorning’s purely utilitarian worldview, but, while Marlowe is conflicted, he is complicit in the continued hijacking of a child’s body, and this complicity doesn’t get explored in depth. Such potentially rich character material might have given this thoughtful thriller more bite.

Still, this meditation about the value of a life is clear as are the characters that embody it. Dorning believes that achievement makes for a worthy life, while Marlowe recognizes that there’s more to life than just work–and that Miguel is an innocent caught up in all this. Couple this with an easy and readable writing style, and this is a succinct narrative that hits most of the elements of a compelling morality play.

Takeaway: This short, accessible science-fiction morality play compellingly considers the value of a life.

Great for fans of: Charles Soule’s Anyone: A Novel, Robert J. Sawyer’s Mindscan.

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

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WHY ARE THERE MONKEYS? (and other questions for God): --
Brooke Jones
With whip-smart wit and a breezy frankness, Jones (Breast Cancer Warrior) opens this appealing account of briefly dying in 1975 and engaging in (what she perceived to be) a colloquy with God with a succession of quotable laugh lines. “I had never heard of ‘Near Death Experiences,” she writes, after brisking readers through the basics of her childhood, college experience, and religious beliefs. “For me, born and raised in and around New York City, bright lights and tunnels were nothing more than the basic ingredients of traffic jams.” Jones, in her 20s, overdosed and was briefly, clinically dead; after a comic introduction, the book recounts her memories of what she felt, saw, and discussed before she came back. “It’s amazing what a dead girl can do in eight minutes,” she notes, before offering a series of comic conversations with a booming, disembodied Voice—a God who, she’s relieved to learn, has a sense of humor.

That Voice asks Jones the most imponderable of questions: “What would you like to know?” The book’s title offers a hint about the nature of the ensuing discussion, and as Jones and this God engage in patter-comedy routines, readers open to playful considerations of spirituality will find both pleasure and insight in the back and forth. This God offhandedly reconciles Darwin and the Biblical story of Creation, tosses out provocative possibilities (“Who said the Garden of Eden was on Earth?”), confirms the existence of a devil (“one of My very best creations”), and toasts the 1969 Mets as an exemplar of miracles.

“Making God laugh is a trip,” Jones notes, and that casually irreverent tone characterizes a work that’s both funny yet serious. Readers may wonder at first whether this is a fictional prank, but it’s soon clear that a spirit of conviction powers her story, even as that story’s told by a gifted entertainer who can’t resist punching it up. She’ll make you laugh, too.

Takeaway: An irreverent yet wise account of a near-death experience and a talk with a chatty, amused God.

Great for fans of: Kelly Barth’s My Almost Certainly Real Imaginary Jesus, Avery Corman’s Oh, God!.

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

I Never Knew You
Elliot Brent
This stinging treatise from Brent (About My Father’s Business) exhorts Christians to heat up or cool down what he sees as the “lukewarm” water of belief common in the contemporary church, arguing “the water that is lukewarm serves no purpose.” That idea of purposeless water, derived from Revelation 3:15-16, suggests for Brent many of today’s Christian’s relationship with God. He contends that believers have settled for a sort of “mind salvation,” where the intellectual understanding that it’s necessary to be saved does not inspire a commitment to truly knowing and obeying God.

At the core of Brent’s argument is the conviction that the church of this material era has sunk into its “Laodicean” age, named for the “lukewarm” church referenced in the Revelation of John. “This Laodicean church does not know Love,” Brent thunders. “Love gets up close and personal and tends to one another’s infirmities.” In an introduction, he notes that believers in his own church failed to aid him in a time of hardship, but that “up close and personal” love is not just between believers. With persuasive power and impressive command of scripture, he insists the Laodicean church is “too concerned with programs, traditions, routines, and thought-processes of our own or of the world to allow the Lord Jesus to have his way in his church” and notes that believers rarely enter the “realm” of worship outside of church.

Believers will find little to gainsay in the broad sweep of Brent’s powerful screed, though the few concrete examples of ways that believers fail to know God are less persuasive. He singles out membership in Black Greek Letter Organizations or participating in Easter egg hunts as violations of the covenant between God and believers, but doesn’t dig deeply into the gravity of these infractions. Are they more disappointing to God than other secular activities? But on the general gulf between belief and commitment Brent’s voice is potent.

Takeaway: An impassioned cry for Christians to commit to knowing God at all times, not just on Sunday mornings.

Great for fans of:Mark Dever's What Is a Healthy Church?, Eric Mason’s Beat God to the Punch: How to Seize a Grace-Filled Life.

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

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Money, going out of style: The story of money and mystery of its demise
Zvi Schreiber
Schreiber’s debut economic guide uses the story of a fictitious island and its inhabitants to introduce readers to the basic concepts of money, banking, and macroeconomics. Using the U.S. economy for historical context, the book follows the development of the island’s economy from the establishment of private ownership up through contemporary issues such as wealth inequality, cryptocurrency, and the effects of COVID-19 on inflation and the global economy. Critical of economists who, “often pretend that they understand money and the economy a lot better than they do,” Schreiber writes with the expressed goal of helping readers understand these concepts “at least as well as the politicians interviewed on the news.”

Focusing on positive growth scenarios, each short chapter explores a key concept through accounts of everyday situations and interactions between the fictional island’s inhabitants, following their development over two centuries from a shared agricultural society to a post-industrial, service-based economy. Schreiber reiterates established economic principles, but offers detailed first-person observations and opinions at the end of each section that at times challenge the popular consensus. His explanations are concise and inviting: “Note that nominal in economics always means measured in terms of money, while real always means measured in terms of stuff.” Scattered throughout are easy-to-follow charts and graphs that Schreiber uses to smoothly illustrate economic concepts and trends.

Schreiber argues that macroeconomics “is in a bit of a crisis after the first two decades of the twenty-first century.” Although not an economic professional, Schreiber uses an outside perspective, historical data, and monetary theory to back up his assertions. In the final two sections he dives deep into current economic issues using hypothetical situations that mirror modern tax policy, interest rates, and economic stimulus packages. This guide delivers valuable economic information while delivering Schreiber’s message that money as we know it today is going out of style.

Takeaway: Using fiction for clarity, this guide to real-world economics will appeal to readers interested in alternative approaches to modern economic policy.

Great for fans of: Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s Freakonomics, Charles Wheelan’s Naked Economics.

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

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CHICAGO MAY
Harry Duffin
Award-winning British screenwriter Duffin (Coronation Street) transforms a naïve Irish lass into a cunning grifter in this enchanting historical caper. Sixteen-year-old May Sharpe escapes her abusive father in Ireland by hopping a ship to New York in 1919. Not wanting to be branded a thief for stealing his money for the voyage, she bypasses Ellis Island processing with the help of soldier Henry Rawls, just back from the Great War overseas. Innocent but comely, May is quickly noticed by local scallywag “Society Eddie” Young. Eddie and his girlfriend Alice train pretty girls to scam rich, gullible New York society men. Trouble ensues when Alice becomes jealous of May, Henry starts working for Eddie as a strike buster, and May comes to the unwanted attention of two of her recent marks: kindly neighborhood cop Joe Perski, who wants to make detective, and depraved Judge Bennett Palmer, who likes little girls and can be easily bribed. Both men vow to stop May from working her grift.

Duffin evokes a palpable sense of place in both the squalid life of the city’s poor and the opulence of the distracted elite. His dialog evinces Eddie’s street smarts and May’s Irish brogue, and he skillfully dramatizes May’s tangled life of crime. When things get too hot in New York, she convinces Eddie to run to Chicago with her, where after a bold diamond heist she declares herself “Chicago May.” Spurred by the 1920 vote for women’s suffrage, May realizes “more and more courageous women were making lives of their own, independent of both fathers, husbands or boyfriends.”

Duffin’s May comes across as less malicious than the historic figure who inspired her. Despite being a thief and a blackmailer, May proves endearing with her grit and drive, and fans of strong women protagonists and last-century crime stories will eagerly follow her adventures, which range from comic to thrilling to harrowing.

Takeaway: Readers will cheer on this Irish teenager who becomes a grifter queen in the roaring 1920s.

Great for fans of:Renee Rosen’s Dollface, Douglas Perry’s The Girls of Murder City.

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

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Twisted Silver Spoons
Karen Wicks
“The silver spoon lodged in George’s throat was choking the life out of him,” Wicks writes in the prologue to her debut, a novel that finds the scion of a family of immeasurable wealth and power uncertain that he has it in him to take the reins of his inheritance, a business empire that demands ruthless leadership. In the mid 1980s, as he’s being groomed to run Leibnitz Enterprises, young George wishes to be something more than a “marionette bending to his father’s will,” especially since he suspects that his father of possibly intentionally triggering the death of his father, the family patriarch, in 1968. His family history shaped by scandal and tragedy, the indecisive George seems to find some direction when tasked with learning the ropes of the family business in Manhattan–and when he makes the acquaintance of Marianne, a singer and NYU doctoral student.

Wicks invests great empathy and compelling detail in her portrait of a princeling who bristles at donning a crown. George stammers, bristles at his father and cousin’s ideas of strength, cocks up his bar exam, and consults for long dialogue scenes with a therapist who is eager to emphasize the story’s themes: “Are you feeling trapped in some notion of who someone has said you should be and you’ve been found wanting?” The Leibnitz milieu of globe-straddling wealth is persuasive and alluring, even as George considers bucking it. Still, as Wicks teases out a succession of secrets and betrayals and private-jet excursions, she keeps her focus on George and Marianne’s hearts.

The relationships among the ensemble cast are interesting, with family members scheming, sometimes cruelly, for power. Revelations, confrontations, and fractious meetings and soirees power the novel’s compelling back half, as a true villain emerges, but the set-up chapters tend to showcase characters talking about the themes and relationships rather than dramatize them. Still, fans of the fiction of dynasties will find much here that’s lively, surprising, and ultimately hopeful.

Takeaway: A young man dares to find himself and fall in love in the face of his scheming wealthy family.

Great for fans of: Cristina Alger’s The Darlings, Susan Rieger’s The Heirs.

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

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Love Has No Limits
Armine Papouchian
Papoucian debuts with a contemplative account of love and resilience, beginning with her emigration from Armenia to Los Angeles at age seventeen. Papoucian’s family trek is agonizing, though having just fallen for her first love, Alex, she manages initially to keep her hope of returning to Armenia alive–but when her dream of reuniting with Alex starts to fade, she adjusts to life in the United States and searches for love again. Once she opens herself to new possibilities, she discovers romance with Richard and Marcelo, a maternal love for her son Kyle, and familial love for her parents and sisters. Despite wrenching circumstances, Papoucian’s resilience is powerful, and her continual search for love wins out in the end.

Papoucian’s memoir is an inspiring and quick read, with a linear timeline that allows readers to step into her world and seamlessly experience her life. The candid snapshots of young adulthood, parenthood, and middle age are captivating, and Papoucian’s disciplined choice to truncate large portions of her story and focus instead on love—her main theme—is remarkable. Although she touches on some extreme circumstances, including suicide and abuse, that could trigger certain readers, Papoucian is sensitive and avoids excessively graphic details.

Papoucian characterizes the most influential people in her life in a deeply personal way, allowing fans to glimpse her inner motivations. When her narrative in the current day, she summarizes what she has learned on her own journey and offers poignant life lessons for readers to inspire and motivate them in their own lives: “Everything that had happened to me was for me, and I gracefully accepted it as a gift and as my path to who I was meant to be.” Papoucian’s storytelling is charismatic and appealing. Readers will feel a kinship and be eager to know more about her travels, further healing, and her next steps in love.

Takeaway: A migrant’s encouraging story of finding life and love in the U.S.

Great for fans of: Glenn Dixon’s Juliet’s Answer, Allison Pataki’s Beauty in the Broken Places.

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

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AUTUMN: Poetry
Richard Gilmore Loftus
This third collection from Loftus (Fireflies) finds the poet turning his considerable observational powers onto the everyday, including a visit to an Asian market, a woman reading at a truck stop, a dog gazing at the night sky, and a trophy’s “golden boy / preening upon a shelf.” An early standout pays gently comic tribute to a pair of hands muddling through a piano exercise, the rhythm and polish of the final couplet more satisfying than the musical performance: “hand by hand in double time, the right ahead, the left behind,” he writes. The precision of that line exemplifies Loftus’s work. Again and again, he celebrates, with quiet exactitude, the pleasure in a job done right: backing up a trailer; jacking a car up “just the way the Chilton says”; “or the boatwright / scraping hulls, mixing varnish / to brush his world, / all alone in his boneyard cold.”

Occasional inspired echoes (his “See the swan unfurl herself” brings to mind Elizabeth Bishop’s “a heron may undo his head”) will keep readers on their toes, and some inspired play casts new light on the familiar. The dazzling “Fisher of Men” finds fresh meaning in the phrase from Matthew 4:19, asking “After all, what are we?” before contemplating our essence in short, sculpted lines whose individual meanings coalesce into something grander: “Salt, wet, / departure, return, / repeated show / of quick, slow, / still, churning, /descending, ascent /”. The idea, slippery yet powerful, surges on from there, though it’s tempting to double back and revisit the earlier words with the later ones in mind.

Loftus’s work rewards but does not demand that kind of careful attention. He’s adept at evocative yet concrete detail (the “Skoal cans, and shorty Buds” of men out boating) and always imbues a concluding line or couplet with memorable insight, a savvy double meaning, or even a punchline. Autumn offers crisp, memorable verse, but also the opportunity to see what Loftus sees.

Takeaway: These inspired observational poems celebrate and exemplify precision and seeing.

Great for fans of: Ross Gay, Mary Oliver.

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

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Memory Reborn
Steven Nedeau
Nedeau’s science fiction thriller drops readers into a world where unaccountable corporations make life miserable for the impoverished common people–and an unlikely hero is tasked with saving the day. Darien Mamon works at a memory storage facility called MemorSingular, a company that tells the public that it uses its cutting-edge technology only as “an analog-to-digital-memory-recovery company.” But when its more sinister plans and practices are revealed, involving memory implants and even darker abuses of power, Darien must choose between saving his own life or saving humanity, all as everything he thought he knew about his life gets upended.

While the meat of the action stays firmly grounded in the novel’s near-future present, the timeline jumps into the past, touching on Darien’s memories of his early life and college years, with the main story only picking up its pace late in the book. Readers will be rewarded with explosive action scenes in the late chapters, though some may find anti-hero Darien challenging to connect with due to his arrogance and crass nature, while others will be engaged by his desire to become a better man. Nedeau delivers other challenging characters, such as Lawrence Enderby, who works security at MemorSingular and oozes toxic masculinity. Though these qualities match his brass personality and increase his villainy, his excessive demeaning comments toward women will alienate some readers.

The technology, though, will fascinate all who find memory harvest, transfer, and manipulation interesting sci-fi elements. The tech is explained in clear detail, so readers can quickly grasp the rules and possibilities of Darien’s world. At the heart of Nedeau’s thriller is a man whose loyalties are put to the test when he becomes wrapped up as a guinea pig in a secret experiment, centered around a deeply disturbing conspiracy. Those looking for a technology rich sci-fi experience will enjoy this mind-bending read.

Takeaway: A thought-provoking sci-fi mind-bender with unforgettable tech and fully loaded action.

Great for fans of: A.J. Steiger, Earik Beann’s Killing Adam.

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

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The Society: Elizabeth Grant Thriller I
Ariel Fae Heart
Abbot pens a powerful and credible thriller In her debut novel, with story lines echoing the headlines. A white supremacy group, the Society for a Restored America, has installed its members at all levels of the U.S. government—including the vice president of the United States, who has his eye on securing a promotion by having the current Commander in Chief assassinated. The Society’s plan: to begin a race war and frame uninvolved gangs to take the fall. Standing in the way of that plan is Elizabeth Grant, who lost her best friend Loralie mysteriously seven years earlier.

Elizabeth, in a rare visit to her grandmother’s small Mississippi hometown of Cyprus, becomes determined to find the truth behind Loralie’s disappearance. After a mysterious pre-dawn visit from psychic Madame Antoinette (who soon after is murdered), Elizabeth begins to understand that she, too, has some kind of psychic ability and that embracing it may just save her life from the vicious cabal determined to create a whites-only society. Besides what Elizabeth refers to as "the psychic thing," Abbot’s smart, spectacular thriller—centered on white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, a possible coup, efforts to stoke racial violence, and the Society itself, which peddles poison familiar from some real-life organizations— proves not just credible but sadly believable.

Abbot skillfully stirs reader sympathy for her multi-dimensional protagonists, even the ones with checkered pasts, reminding those of us in the real world to heed the conscience in times of trouble. Well-drawn supporting characters, especially journalist Juanita Alvarez, keep the story quickly advancing. The author’s background in the US Department of Defense lends gravitas to her taut narrative, though her touch is light. Readers will likely forgive minor editing hiccups thanks to a tight plot full of hair-raising twists and turns, which is terrifyingly plausible and expertly told. This is a must-read for anyone who loves thrillers—and America

Takeaway: This skillfully told thriller pits a small-town woman against a white supremacist plot to kickstart a race war.

Great for fans of: Karin Slaughter’s The Last Widow, Alexi Zentner’s Copperhead.

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

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Nothing Left to Prove: A Law Enforcement Memoir
Danny R. Smith
“At some point, everyone breaks,” writes Smith (author of two detective novel series, one named for Dickie Floyd and the other for Rich Farris) in the opening pages of this memoir of his years as a South Los Angeles police detective. Smith hit his breaking point during his 143rd death investigation, in which he faced a human head hanging in a tree. From there, his bracing memoir reaches back to chart the journey to that moment: Smith reveals what he experienced during the 1992 L.A. riots, and then back further, to recount “how a dumb white boy from Newhall” became a sheriff’s deputy and then a homicide detective.

In the sharp, hardboiled prose you would expect from a detective novelist, Smith recounts his first encounters with criminals, while working security; his first law enforcement work; and the “great pride, joy, sorrow, and heartbreak” of his two decades in the field. Smith shares vivid details (the cheap perfume his partner sprayed into his mask before entering a crime scene), hard-earned insights, and stories of courage and terror, told with crisp, raw dialogue, a feeling for the drama of potentially violent confrontations, and an undercurrent of despair, despite many heartfelt tributes to cops he trusted and the mentor whose murder he had to look into.

The cop’s eye perspective stays focused on individual crimes rather than broader contemplation of crime and policing. Many stories here–like the one about the mountain man, the pack of dogs, and Smith’s choice to go in without backup–are doozies. Smith is frank about what urban police work actually looks like: “Okay, we’re not supposed to profile,” he concedes when telling the story of pulling over a car filled with what he guessed to be gang-affiliated parolees. The memoir reels through murder after murder–including the one time he believed it when a suspect said “But I didn’t do anything!”–offering a clarifying portrait of the mind and experience of a detective.

Takeaway: David Leonard’s Real Cop, Corey Pegues’s Once a Cop.

Great for fans of: A Los Angeles homicide detective tells all in this vivid, sharply written memoir.

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

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James A. Bailey: The Genius Behind the Barnum & Bailey Circus
Gloria G. Adams
Millions still recall the flamboyant nineteenth-century showman P.T. Barnum, but fewer are familiar with James Bailey, Barnum’s big-hearted partner in the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Adams’s fascinating, fast-paced biography for middle-grade readers highlights Bailey’s contributions to “the greatest show on Earth” while telling the story of his ambitious and exciting life. Orphaned at the age of eight, Bailey joined the circus just five years later, largely to escape the harsh treatment and severe punishments of his older sister. That was the beginning of a life spent hanging out “every day with elephants, camels, giraffes, monkeys, lions, tigers, bears, horses, and snakes.”

As a determined and innovative young man, Bailey’s clout quickly grew in the circus world. In 1880, the 70-year-old Barnum, a competitor of Bailey’s in the circus world, wanted to buy a newborn elephant from Bailey’s establishment–a purchase that kick-started their history-making partnership. To tell Bailey’s story, Adams intersperses traditional narratives with eye-catching graphics and remarkable circus facts and terms: a tattooed man is known as a “picture gallery,” and the circus elephant required 200 pounds of hay a day. Full pages of colorful, nostalgic circus folklore showing magnificent animals and performers will hold the interest of younger readers and spark their imagination–like the posters for “Evetta, The Only Lady Clown” and a reproduction of an original Barnum & Bailey admission ticket.

While animal-oriented circuses have gotten a bad rap in recent years, this upbeat stroll down memory lane recalls the curiosity and intrigue of a time when gathering under the big top to see musical donkeys and Jumbo the elephant was truly a novel experience. Adams’s snappy prose will be easy for young readers to follow and understand as they become acquainted with Bailey–along with the exhilaration and adventure of being swept up into the golden age of the circus.

Takeaway:With sharp prose and colorful images, Adams does justice to the exciting life of James Bailey, co-founder of the Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Great for fans of: Jen Bryant’s Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille, Deborah Heiligman’s Vincent and Theo.

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

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Destiny of Dreams: Time Is Dear
Cathy Burnham Maartin
Martin (Good Living Skills: Learned from My Mother among other titles), author of an eclectic array of non-fiction titles, offers a novel based centered on her family’s history and the Armenian genocide. Cassie is thirteen years old in the 1960s when she experiences terrifying nightmares about weary men riding horses–and then being killed by swordsmen. Her grandfather recognizes this vision and insists that Cassie is dreaming about how his father and grandfather were attacked in Armenia by the Ottoman Turks. He believes that his deceased sister may have been reincarnated as Cassie. In a parallel narrative, Aram, the older brother of Cassie’s grandfather Hrant, is preparing to travel to the U.S. to study to become a teacher or doctor in the early twentieth century. As nine-year-old Hrant discovers tunnels under the city of Van, his father tells him about the Armenian massacre that occurred before his birth. With rising tensions between the Armenian resistance and the Turks, Hrant is forced to flee to Russia with his mother and brother and later emigrates to the U.S.

Martin capably highlights the brutality of the Armenian genocide while emphasizing the impact that the murders of her ancestors has had on future generations. While focusing on her own family, she capably weaves historical details and events into the narrative and delves into cultural differences between Turk and the Armenian populations, such as the treatment of women or the roles of arts and education.

The journey of the Gulumian family to Russia to the U.S. is fast-paced and richly enhanced by Martin’s depictions of ever-present dangers–from Turkish soldiers, from illness in Russia’s refugee camps. Martin captures the family’s fortitude as they continue their journey despite grave losses. Though some of the short, terse sentences break up the narrative flow, they do not significantly detract from this immersive story about one family’s determination to survive and thrive against the odds.

Takeaway: This immersive historical novel celebrates the endurance of an Armenian family fleeing persecution.

Great for fans of: Aline Ohanesian’s Orhan’s Inheritance, Nancy Kricorian’s All the Light There Was.

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

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Better Than A Bully: J.J.'s Friendships & Secrets
Tina Levine
Fifth grader Justin Jon, nicknamed J.J. by his best friend Ace, struggles to conquer a resident bully in the second title in Levine’s J.J.’s Friendships & Secrets Series. J.J. and his pals decide to form a band–his dream since third grade–and get caught up in adding new members and the joy of making music, until J.J.’s run-ins with an older student and bully, and Ace’s challenges with his brother, Billy, threaten to put a stop to the fun. The group has to figure out how to end the bullying, with the help of teachers and parents, while meeting new friends and coping with school along the way.

J.J.’s attempts to handle being bullied are relatable and will resonate with young readers familiar with similar situations. When he has to get glasses, which his friends think look cool, bully Eric takes his torment to another level (“Know who has more than two eyes? Bugs! You a bug?”). J.J. fears that confronting the situation will only make things worse, but everything comes to an inevitable head when Eric’s attack during recess breaks J.J.’s glasses and causes serious injuries. With the help of teachers dedicated to rooting out bullying in the school, and his concerned parents, J.J. joins the school-sanctioned Better Than A Bully Brigade and confronts Eric in the process.

Levine skillfully tackles a heavy topic with welcoming prose that will reel in middle grade readers, and Ned Levine’s black and white, comic-strip-like illustrations add to the experience. The author alerts readers to different roles involved in bullying, differentiates between types of cruel and bullying behavior, and clarifies how kids can confront the issues without falling into the stereotype of being a “tattletale”–all in an easy-to-follow storyline that illuminates the emotional impact of bullying. Parents, educators, and middle grade readers will welcome this creative foray into bullying prevention.

Takeaway: A relatable story of the emotional and physical impacts of bullying–and how to address and prevent it.

Great for fans of: M. Evan Wolkenstein’s Turtle Boy. James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts’s Middle School, The Worst Years of My Life.

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

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VOICES IN THE WIND: A Matter of Honor
TONY MANERA
Novelist and memoirist Manera (The Company of Friends) weaves a memorable Mafia story that centers less on traditional “family” battles than on the modern-day arena of backroom deals. The narrative chiefly follows Don Pasquale, a Sicilian Mafia leader with the veneer of a legitimate businessman, and his boyhood friend Filippo Bellini, now a police inspector who has dedicated his life to taking Pasquale down. An admirer of Machiavelli and Donald Trump, Pasquale harbors ambitions beyond wealth: he dreams of financing a history-making bridge that spans the Strait of Messina–and enshrines his name in history. He’s willing to do anything to achieve this, including having a rival assassinated. The novel follows his wrangling to get this built as Bellini nips at his heels.

Manera depicts Pasquale as shrewd but arrogant, a tragic antihero hamstrung by paranoia and jealousy. The story's heart is in the relationship between Pasquale and Bellini, who engage in both a literal and metaphorical chess match (on Pasquale’s gilded chess set) in which Pasquale always seems a step ahead of his old friend–unless he at last makes one mistake too many, and the dogged Bellini can pounce. The other characters are drawn more thinly than this compelling pair, serving as plot devices, with Pasquale's wife Rosa offering a collection of anecdotes and complaints, and the other mob members (as well as Pasquale's financiers) edging toward caricature.

Manera lingers over local details in the early pages, but the leisurely pace lasts only until all the pieces are in place and the stakes are fully established. Then, the indirect conflict between Pasquale and Bellini becomes tense and thrilling, right up until the end. Manera's offbeat plot, narrative swerves, emphasis on local culture (“There’s an old Sicilian proverb. ‘You can force someone to cry, but not to sing.’”) and careful attention to the complex relationship between the two leads delivers a fresh take on an old genre.

Takeaway: A mafia story full of unexpected twists, betrayals, and local details that delivers a welcome change of pace.

Great for fans of: Tod Goldberg’s Gangster Nation, Leonardo Sciascia’s The Day of the Owl.

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

Click here for more about VOICES IN THE WIND
Starring... John Dillinger
Bill Walker & Brian Anthony
In this sly and witty alternative history adventure, 1930s gangster John Dillinger isn't gunned down fleeing a Chicago movie theater but instead wrangles a new career in Hollywood—which may prove as treacherous as his life of crime. Behind bars, Dillinger convinces the authorities to let him make a movie that will encourage children to remain upright. He does, and it’s a hit, enough so that studio head Jack Warner gets him a pardon so Dillinger can become a star. Dillinger quickly realizes he'll need the same wits to survive in his new life as he did in his old, even as his nemesis, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, continues to watch him.

Walker and Anthony turn a lively eye on Hollywood, seen fresh through Dillinger. We meet a pugnacious James Cagney, a seductive Bette Davis and tough director John Ford. Both authors have a film background, and their sharp yet loving portrayals of these characters and the Hollywood milieu they inhabit give the book its richness. A scene showing legendary acting teacher Maria Ouspenskaya forcing Dillinger to endure humiliating acting exercises serves as an amusing send-up of Hollywood at its nuttiest. Readers should already be familiar with old-time Hollywood legends to get the most out of this, but everyone can enjoy the well-limned principal characters and swift-moving plot.

The greatest joys come from watching Dillinger, here portrayed as intelligent and introspective. His friendship develops with Cagney, who amazes Dillinger by explaining the differences between screen violence and real violence—which gets him to thinking about his own past and future. We see his sensitive side in his warm and surprisingly modern relationship with his long-term girlfriend Billie, a refreshing change from the usual gangster-moll trope. But he never loses his street smarts, and partners with legendary G-Man Melvin Purvis to get ahead in his career. Dillinger brings together the various strands of his life to a surprising and satisfying conclusion worthy of his character—and of golden-age Hollywood.

Takeaway: Fans of old-time Hollywood and 30's crime fiction may tear through this amusing caper in a single sitting.

Great for fans of: Renee Patrick’s Lillian Frost and Edith Head series, Stuart Woods’s The Prince of Beverly Hills.

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

Click here for more about Starring... John Dillinger

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