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Running Naked: Surviving the Legacy of Family in Rural Nebraska
Colby Coash
At the core of Nebraska native Coash’s thoughtful memoir is a revealing generational conflict: how can Coash reconcile fleeing his hometown with the need to impress his father, who embodies the generational steadfastness of their rural community? The answer turns out to be work, the kind of focused dedication to a task that combines resilience and tenacity with ferocious loyalty. His father kept the family fertilizer business afloat during the 1980s farm crisis with this mindset, but since Coash is a doer, not a planner, this leads him to jobs that could be classified as dead-end, a concept he roundly rejects.

Building his memoir from ”glad I dids,” Coash provides inspiration at the expense of introspection, exploring, with insight and wit, how places like Nebraska prepare residents to succeed in the wider world. He expresses gratitude that loved ones don’t question his life decisions, preferring to avoid emotional discussions even if it means dealing with consequences on his own. Coash also doesn’t identify as a workaholic, but he uses work to both mask insecurity and smother pain, especially concerning his mother, another native of small town Bassett who fled for a bigger life. She functions as a cautionary tale: someone who remade her identity to fit a desired future. Her equally restless son would keep his options open.

Nominally a coming-of-age memoir, Running Naked is even more than the story of making of an accidental politician, someone determined to make a difference. Coash was elected to the Nebraska State Senate in 2008, and rallied his fellow Republicans to abolish the death penalty (his vivid account of the “ugly” atmosphere outside the penitentiary during an execution begins to explain why). In an election year when politicians are seen as cynical attention mongers, Coash’s frank account of the struggle to find his career path—and become a trustworthy man—will resonate with readers eager for a positive narrative about the call to public service.

Takeaway: Optimistic memoir of falling into politics after coming of age in rural Nebraska

Comparable Titles: Tom Brokaw’s Never Give Up, Cheri Register’s Packinghouse Daughter.

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

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A Quest to Discover the Essence of Faith: Coming out of the Darkness, on my Life's Journey, to Find Faith
Evangelia VanPatten
In this touching memoir debut, VanPatten shares her journey to connecting to God, understanding the meaning of having faith, and the trials and tribulations that shaped her relationship with a higher power. Growing up in the Greek Orthodox Church, she was always exposed to God, the Virgin Mary, and the Bible, but VanPatten transparently recounts how, as she faced life’s challenges, she grew into it all more deeply and personally, learning to trust in the presence and will of God all around her through connections with nature, those she loves, and everyday experiences. Through dealing with her husband's depression and addiction, her father's diagnosis with prostate cancer, and her struggles with conceiving a child, VanPatten recounts always turning to prayer and her faith to get her through the darkest days of her life.

VanPatten holds nothing back in this raw and honest account of her lifelong relationship with God. "Faith is trusting that no matter what happens in life for good or for bad, God will provide," she writes. Through such emotive storytelling, she delves into the ways her faith and belief in God pulled her through hard times, including the end of a marriage and the enduring of loss. She is passionate in her conviction that there is a purpose behind the many ups and downs one faces, even though that purpose may not be clear in the moment. That certainty, though, is hard-won, and VanPatten touchingly explores how even a believer can face doubts.

Through inspirational prose and a constant positive outlook even when frankly describing dark moments, VanPatten’s story shines a light in the darkness of doubt and despair and highlights how the struggle can aid in making believers stronger than they thought possible. Centering on familial relationships, life milestones, and spiritual connections, A Quest to Discover the Essence of Faith is a testament to finding blessings and hope in each new day and circumstance.

Takeaway: An inspirational memoir about exploring one's faith and understanding God's will

Comparable Titles: Becka L. Jones's Meant To Be, Anna Gazmarian’s Devout.

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

The Four Forces of Human Nature: A Unifying Theory
Roberto Treviño Peña
Linking human behavior and up-to-date neuroscience to physics’ four fundamental forces of nature, this incisive and surprising survey posits that a quartet of “human forces”—affective, cognitive, communicative, and socio-environmental—influence our responses, choices, values, beliefs, fears, and more in life. Via analogy Peña, a doctor with research specialization in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and brain physiology, links each of these motivating forces to those fundamental forces of nature (weak, strong, electromagnetic, gravity), a metaphoric connection he explores but does not belabor. More immediately illuminating and practical is Peña’s linking of his human forces to individual but sometimes overlapping “processing centers” in the brain, which aim to “get, keep, and increase” four key human necessities: “health, status, wealth, and basic drives (eat, sleep, sex).”

Connecting our emotions to the world outside of us, the affective force, for example, is rooted in the amygdala and serves as a sometimes overzealous first responder, protecting us from perceived threats to those necessities. The affective force can “dull” and “excite” us, turn on auto-immune systems, “incite a passion,” or trigger fight-or-flight behavior, all in response to our need to gather or protect those necessities. The less potent cognitive force, by contrast, exists to “memorize and reason,” working to understand and estimate the impact of our actions, at times putting it in conflict with the affective force.

Peña brings ample reason and passion to his clear, concise introductions of these ideas, presenting the science with authority, precision, and a strong sense of what readers will find fascinating. Readers not steeped in the distinctions between cortexes will have no trouble following as Peña ventures into unexpected places—meme science, say, and a discussion of the question of whether language comes from our genes or our culture. Peña resists self-help advice or promises of controlling one’s brain in favor of thinking through, with ample citations and frank caveats, why we act as we do, how our brains shape us and our society and culture, and the urgent question of what we still have to learn.

Takeaway: Illuminating survey of “human forces,” necessities, and brain regions governing behavior.

Comparable Titles: Robert M. Sapolsky’s Behave, Troy A. Swanson’s Knowledge as a Feeling.

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

Janie Ligon's Revenge
Danny Levin
This brisk novel of divorce and vengeance finds Janie Ligon, an American executive working in the UK, facing the end of her marriage and finding herself consumed, at the start of a tricky divorce, by anger and a desire for retribution against Samuel, her husband of 24 years, and his aspiring trophy wife, Alison. After spotting a hickey on Samuel and urging him into couples therapy, Janie knows the marriage is ending, and soon is taking steps toward “maximizing her share of their joint assets” and securing parental rights over their daughter, Hannah. Samuel, meanwhile, has been facing a midlife crisis, pouring his energy into squash and, eventually, with much self-forgiving naivete, Alison, to whom he pens gooey love letters praising her star sign profile and insisting she makes him feel like he’s 15.

Levin sets this story of a woman scorned in the mind 1990s, the dawn of the digital era, when “E-mail was a novelty few used, at least in England.” Janie must adapt to the new technology in her quest for revenge. Samuel’s correspondence with Alison is old-school, letters in which the pair address each other with real yearning, with Samuel’s sincerity somewhat undercut by what readers may interpret as Levin’s satiric bent—despite his elaborate wooing of the respondent to his own personal ad, Samuel is surprised that love letters and dates lead to love making.

Chapters from Janie’s perspective pulse with justified bitterness, creating a tense, engaging contrast that powers the plot. She is no fool and refuses to let any make her a caricature of the abandoned aging ex. Deep concerns of reputation, deftly captured by Levin, motivate both leads throughout, which makes the muted reaction to the breakup from daughter Hannah a telling, relatable detail. Despite the title and the power of Janie’s anger, the letters and the love story overshadow the story’s most compelling element: Janie’s rage at betrayal.

Takeaway: Human story of love, betrayal and retribution, at the dawn of the digital era.

Comparable Titles: Fay Weldon, Elizabeth Berg.

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

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Submerged Within Shadows Book 1
Shad'e Zuiweta
This powerful coming-of-age thriller from Zuiweta (author of Adulterous SIns) centers on the dual personalities of teenage Mallory, who finds herself plagued with nightmares about the lifeless body of Elijah Campbell, the arrogant son of a prominent detective, in the deep waters of Florida’s Lake Harris. Mallory harbors no doubt that the one responsible for the death is Cadence, the protective alter ego who emerges like a fierce guardian whenever Mallory is in danger. Unable to sustain the cost of living in Florida, her family relocates to a small town in rural Mississippi, where Mallory hopes to make a fresh start. But the world is rife with bullies like Elijah preying on the meek, so Cadence’s voice grows stronger, and sinister events begin to hunt the once-peaceful Englander Falls.

Mallory’s eccentricity makes her a target for ridicule, and her attempts to confide in her parents fall flat as they dismiss the voices in her head as her imagination. Through this unnerving narrative, Zuiweta effectively wills Mallory's torment to her advantage, revealing a neglected and abused child whose cries for help often go unheard. Each betrayal deepens her wounds, turning her into a ticking time bomb—“Cadence won’t like that,” Mallory replies when a pastor’s daughter asks pressing questions—that is primed to explode. The betrayal of those she considered friends sabotages her capacity to trust, twisting her into a cynic. She is forced to be her own hero, even if it means becoming a monster.

With an emphatic eye revealing Mallory's chaotic internal world, Zuiweta excels in showcasing nuances of how people can fail an innocent, suggesting that this is how a serial killer is made, not born. The result is a hair-raising tug-of-war between good and evil, conscience and retribution that challenges readers to feel for and understand the young killer without necessarily justifying her actions. A satisfying yet unexpected ending will leave lovers of dark suspense yearning for the second installment.

Takeaway: Gripping coming-of-age thriller of trauma, neglect, and a murderous alter ego.

Comparable Titles: Zoje Stage's Baby Teeth, Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer.

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

Click here for more about Submerged Within Shadows Book 1
Unsettled States
Tom Casey
Casey's murder mystery veers from the traditional whodunnit, constructed instead from an ever-expanding cast of individual stories, all centered around Detective Gerard Mallory’s quest to uncover the identity of local woman Ann Wheeler’s killer. Mallory has a host of suspects to choose from, foremost being voyeur Bradley Davis, who spends his free time spying on the nearby homes of his neighbors in their small Connecticut lake town. When Mallory arrests Bradley, his gut tells him therapy is the answer, not prison, kickstarting some sessions with unconventional psychoanalyst Caroline Singer, who suggests to Mallory that Bradley’s “peeping could be the tip of the iceberg. There could be a lot behind it.”

The tangled lives in this small coastal town become every bit as important as solving the murder, and Casey teases out their interrelated happenings parallel to the hunt for the killer. That clever strategy helps build suspense along with plenty of character-driven dramatics, as when neighboring couples engage in an affair but meet their demise in a tragic accident the very day they decide to leave their spouses—driving their abandoned partners together in an ironic twist of fate. In a nod to the philosophical, characters hold lengthy discussions on life’s nuances, prompting an unexpected villain to muse “there are no men of faith on deathbeds, only men who die in hope of perhaps” when facing the consequences of his sins.

Each of Casey’s characters are granted satisfying resolutions, many with surprising relevance to the main plot. Even the final confrontation between Mallory and the killer is more rhetorical in its explosiveness than the typical fight scenes that tend to close out mysteries, and Casey caps the novel with a neat bow on the theme of guilt and self-punishment. The languid pacing, bright details, and delightful indulgence in theology only add to this distinctively off-beat, quality mystery.

Takeaway: Off-beat murder mystery with rich, complex character interplay.

Comparable Titles: Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street.

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

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Mendacity: Americas Best Are Secretly Dwelling Among You
Bryan Clark
Brayden Smith—military man, justice warrior, and ultimate survivor—faces the fight of his life when a mission goes south and he’s captured, held as a “peacetime hostage” in the brutal wilds of Colombia. There, Brayden comes face to face with treacherous corruption, as he confronts external threats from drug cartels and deception within his own ranks that could cost him his life. His journey—recounted in time snaps that jump from past to present—is both chilling and thought-provoking, as Clark explores themes of integrity, betrayal, and the cost of truth, all through Brayden’s desperate attempts to preserve his moral compass while still following orders.

This fleet-footed debut—a blend of suspense, ethical quandaries, and flashes of humor—hits full tilt right out of the gate, and the action never slows from there. That breakneck speed sacrifices some build up in places, but fits well with Brayden’s blistering, no-holds-barred quest to uncover the truth, made more gripping by his penchant for not “follow[ing] the rules” and growing awareness that he’s being set up by the very people he trusts the most. Clark plumbs the dual battle perspective skillfully, adding a rich layer of complexity to the narrative that makes Brayden's fight both charged and pensive.

One of the novel’s most notable features is Clark’s skillful use of humor, with moments of levity strategically injected into an otherwise dramatically intense story, a strategy that humanizes the characters while deepening reader connection. That humor never undermines the seriousness of Brayden’s mission, though; rather, it underscores the human spirit's ability to find light even in the darkest of situations. The dense, expository passages that serve as background for the story’s military framework impede the flow and somewhat mute Brayden’s ability to fully convey his trauma, but still, this is a brisk, engaging debut.

Takeaway: Brisk military fiction with deeper themes of betrayal and corruption.

Comparable Titles: Bradley Wright’s The Secret Weapon, David Bruns and J.R. Olson’s Order of Battle.

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

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Brisk Verse
Garrison Keillor
Sly, spry, and often touching, Keillor’s 31st book mounts a spirited revival of the art of light verse, as the bard of Lake Wobegon offers poems stripped of pretension but still sharply crafted, alive with feeling, and forever waltzing with readers’ anticipation of the next rhyme. One choice couplet, from a selection concerning light verse itself: “This fatuous talentless ignorant poet. / Oh, for some fresh horse manure—I’d throw it.” Manure chuckers won’t find many targets here, though, as Keillor is in fine form throughout, heeding the advice laid out in the title poem, guidance targeted to entertainers but also broadly applicable: “Brevity is the soul of wit. / Go out there, get ahead, then quit.”

Keillor’s signature mode remains the understatedly comic, and the Lutheran humility he has long lampooned, celebrated, and exemplified powers the collection, both as a subject and the lens through which he sees the world. “Our pastor is not that bad,” one narrator notes, a line that cuts to the quick of a sturdy strain of the American grain. Piquant wit even powers poems about life as an octogenarian, including one daydreaming about the ease of assisted living (“Three thousand a week and they treat us quite well”), though it never undercuts the resonance of Keillor’s elegies and encomiums on a host of worthy subjects: Norma Jean, soon to be known as Marilyn Monroe; medical workers; a grandson; an old cat; great writers; a cougher during a Haydn performance; a warm recasting of Larkin’s most famous line; and the sacrifice of American soldiers, whose youth still astounds the poet.

Highlights abound in this unpredictable collection, including limericks dedicated to authors Keillor loves (“Dear Emily D. of Amherst / Seldom shouted or cursed”); ironic stories of love, death, technological upheaval, and being dumped for voting Trump; and a laugh-out-loud appraisal of Kansas. The lowlights are mild provocations—a poem called “Flatulence”; another imagining incarceration for glancing at women—that at least live up to the title. They’re brisk.

Takeaway: Spirited, sparkling light verse in an understated American grain.

Comparable Titles: John Hollander’s American Wits; William Harmon’s The Oxford Book of American Light Verse.

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

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Jamestown - A New Life
Joyce Crawford
This uplifting historical Christian drama from Crawford (author of Kentucky to Missouri) centers on the turbulent beginnings of the early 1600s Virginia settlement, particularly the troubled Richard de Burton, a young Englishman seeking to renew his life after heartbreak and failure. Crawford’s story focuses on renewal, religion (thundering hell-and-brimstone Christianity, Richard’s more forgiving approaches, and Powhatan as well), hope, friendship, families, self-esteem and trust, as Richard and the other settlers discover that the road to forging a new world—while occasionally clashing with older ones—is long, complicated and dangerous, but in Crawford’s telling faith can light the way.

Richard’s own life often mirrors that of Jamestown, as both are getting a rocky new start. They face challenges and uncertainty, plus connection and sometimes violence in their dealings with the Powhatan with whom Richard shares pipes, knowledge, meals, and looks of “silent friendship.” Richard befriends Na-ta’a-em, a young Powhatan who often rescues Jamestown, whether from starvation, snake bite or attacks from rebellious Powhatan. The scenes that show the developing but still tense friendship between Jamestown and Na-ta’a-em are uplifting. Hovering like guardian angels throughout are Richard’s reliance on God, the Bible and his father’s comforting words of wisdom.

Na-ta’a-em teaches Jamestown survival skills, and the narrative often is focused on rebuilding the fort, council meetings, and the storm-tossed ships, passages that suggest the textures of life. Accounts of atrocities from both sides, including beheadings and scalping, prove wrenching, and Richard, for all his level headed piety, is relatively human: sometimes selfish, growing obsessed with his lost love and making others’s pain or joy solely about himself. Still, this is a hopeful novel, with an emphasis on community building, the power of faith, and cross-cultural friendship, and all that unites us as humans. Especially involving is the well-drawn parallel between Na-ta’a-em’s closeness with his father and Richard’s closeness with Francis and with God.

Takeaway: Uplifting novel of faith, cross-cultural connection, and the settling of Jamestown.

Comparable Titles: Elizabeth Struthers’s A Prayer for Therese, Angela Hunt’s Roanoke.

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

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The Miller's Angel Baby: A Memoir of My Alcoholic Father's Secret Life
A.R. Miller
In this compelling debut memoir, Miller shares her complicated relationship with her 74-year-old father, Alec, his tragic death from prostate cancer, and the lifelong secrets she uncovers from his past, weaving a story that is rich in generational family history and unflinchingly honest, layered in buried truths. Miller pulls readers in from the start, recounting her role as a military wife and mother of two, juggling her household responsibilities with an interior design career, all while navigating the pitfalls of a conflict-ridden relationship with Alec, who she describes as a relapsed alcoholic with a troubled history, increasingly dependent on her help as he ages.

When Alec’s health starts to fail, Miller becomes more involved in his estate, uncovering a tangled web of complications he’s facing, including uncooperative renters, his declining physical condition, and financial strain. When he dies, Miller assumes the role of orchestrating his final affairs, in the process stumbling onto a family secret that changes her world forever—and opens a door to the familial ties that she’s always longed for. Readers will empathize with Miller, as she recounts secret after secret that come crashing down, musing “is there some golden rule dictating how many times a person can successfully undergo personal reinvention?”

This riveting and emotive journey through tumultuous family dynamics teaches the importance of holding onto one's faith, ultimately allowing acceptance and forgiveness to win out in the end. Through her unflinching honesty, Miller explores prejudice, found family, emotional abuse, and the rippling effects of dark family secrets; despite those weighty themes, she writes with a relatable, encouraging tone that results in an uplifting and impactful narrative. The twists are shocking, uncovered as Miller digs into the buried grit of her father’s past, but she delivers them against a backdrop of faith and love, summing it all up with the wise insight that “we all have skeletons.”

Takeaway: Emotional memoir of family secrets, grief, and, ultimately, forgiveness.

Comparable Titles: Gail Lukasik's White Like Her, Judy Bolton-Fasman's Asylum.

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

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Snowbound on Skye
Kate Lloyd
Lloyd (author of Reinventing Ruthie) delivers a delightfully chaotic romance celebrating the power of sisterhood in her latest. Denny Campbell and her elder sister Maureen have been at odds for a long time. When Maureen—who’s trying to steer her hugely popular cooking show while coming to terms with her failing marriage—invites Denny on an all expenses paid, impromptu trip to their ancestral Scotland, the two are forced to face their differences head on. Adding to their turmoil, Maureen’s troubled 14-year-old daughter Amanda tags along for the fun, along with her young Amish-born nanny Lydia, recently departed from her home community to live in mainstream United States culture.

The women’s inherent differences emerge subtly, as the group meanders across the Isle of Skye, each in search of very different outcomes. Denny has always been the type to follow her dreams, despite her father’s criticisms, and, as the proud but struggling owner of a bookstore, she’s at the end of her emotional rope following the death of her parents—and her own physical health problems. Maureen’s soul searching and Denny’s grieving form the backbone of the story, alongside their fractured relationship, though Amanda’s temper tantrums—and Lydia’s secrets—pop in for surprise appearances from time to time. The trip is not without its pitfalls, and local hunk Alec, the women’s hired driver, throws a wrench in the works as well, when both Denny and Lydia are swept into the magic of his “dreamy hazel-brown eyes.”

Lloyd’s masterful scene setting and keen eye for Scottish history transform this novel into a stunning tapestry of love, loyalty, and family. Some chaotic transitions disrupt at times, but Lloyd’s relatable characters—and a darling cairn terrier with a new brood of puppies—steal the show, making this not just an appealing love story, but a firm testament to self-empowerment.

Takeaway: Three women pursue personal growth while snowbound on a Scottish island.

Comparable Titles: Kennedy Kerr’s The Cottage by the Loch, Sophie Kinsella’s I Owe You One.

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

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Talisman: Gifts of the Shavtal
Toni Yap
Yap’s debut blends the 1970s coming-of-age story of a 12-year-old Filipina-American facing abuse with a fantasy of auras, fae, chatty crows, and other surprises. Georgina, aka Gina or Gi-Gi, has been through a lot: bearing witness to her mother's abuse at the hands of her stepdad, enduring bullying and racism from her classmates, and making sense of the auras that she has seen since she was young, like the “cotton-candy pink and shades of faded orange” of her mother, in her most “loving mode.” But things changed one night when her stepdad—aura: a coiled black cloud—went too far. Since then, Gina has been able to use her ability to affect those around her. With this awakening, she meets the twins Irra and Ravanna, who boast pointed ears and “fang-like teeth” and reveal the truth about Gina’s powers: she is half fae, and all three of them share the same father.

Irra gifts Gina a talisman, a fae family heirloom, created when Gina was born, that enhances the wearer's power, and Yap's story explores what happens when a young girl receives a great power and no guidance in mastering it. Except for a neighbor, Mrs. Jenkins, no adults have stepped in to stop the abuse in Gina’s life, so of course Gina, endowed with potent new agency, will strive to protect her family, despite the warning emblazoned on her keepsake pendant: “With this talisman, I bear the responsibility of my new powers, never to use them for revenge.”

Yap explores themes of abuse and racism with jolting frankness, and the story moves briskly, with emotional urgency, though the prose often lacks polish and dialogue tends toward the expository. (Characters declare things like “It’s the 1970s” with regularity.) The mechanics of aura-reading are smartly left intuitive, without explicit rules, and the mysteries Yap teases entice—and, in the spirit of series starters, don’t all get resolved. Powering the novel, though, is the potent central dilemma of power and how to use it, as Gina finds magic doesn’t relieve her from real-world consequences.

Takeaway: A young girl, touched with fae magic, must protect her family from abuse.

Comparable Titles: Jodi Taylor’s The Nothing Girl, Kyrie McCauley’s If These Wings Can Fly.

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

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Frank Lloyd Wrong
Frances Grote
Grote (author of Death, Madness and a Mess of Dogs) takes readers on a delightfully imagined journey with a flawed mother, kids trying to survive from day to day, and a good-sized chunk of hope. The ironically named Kimberly Clark (daughter of a former Kimberly Clark employee) has minimal time for her children and a yen to run away with any man who can support her, while her 14-year-old son Christian is trying hard to keep things together for his younger siblings. When Kimberly unexpectedly hooks up with the Lamborghini-driving, eccentric Frank Lloyd and disappears, Christian panics, until an unlikely savior appears on the scene, paired with an evil man who could steal the children’s futures.

Grote navigates Christian’s unfair life with skill, depicting his pseudo-parenting of younger siblings and overwhelming burden of responsibility through tight plotting that swiftly propels the story. Kimberly’s flakiness—she’s dated loads of “uncles” and instructs her kids on the best way to run cons on unsuspecting marks—is a grim measure for the family, but it gives Grote a jumping off point to introduce a slew of quirky but lovable characters. Those include the children’s grandmother, who smuggles them into her seniors-only community, where “the surviving male population still wore pants the color of canned fruit,” and a grandfatherly man living there who takes them under his wing, though the kids don’t realize until later that his game-changing wishes will play a significant part in their futures.

Readers will sympathize with Christian and his valiant efforts to make sure his family remains intact—and cheer when a responsible adult finally enters their orbit. The ending may not be a classic happily-ever-after, but, even Christian wisely observes that “everybody needs to have a family. And if life doesn’t see fit to give you one the usual way, you got to make do with what life gives you instead.”

Takeaway: Spirited adventure bursting with quirky but lovable characters.

Comparable Titles: Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, Jerry Spinelli’s Crash.

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

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My Father Once Told Me
Blas Telleria
Telleria gifts readers with a vision of “the rich tapestry of tribal histories” in this lavish picture book debut. When a young boy asks his father to recount how the world was created one night, his father is glad to share, telling his son “my father once told me… the animals in the stars made it.” Thus begins a breathtaking creation story, centered around a father and son’s nighttime campfire, that draws from nature’s landscape as generations upon generations pass down how the evening stars crafted a living, breathing world.

“In the beginning, the Great Spirit and his children were… the only light that could be seen in the darkness” the father’s story begins, describing how his children’s boredom led the Great Spirit to fashion a “very beautiful, blue Something” out of the dark void. Konkol accompanies that reverent story with lush illustrations, illuminated in much the same way as the night sky on a clear evening, with iridescent constellations dancing across the pages. As the Great Spirit and his children infuse the world with light, so, too, does Telleria’s story shimmer with otherworldly whispers, as the blue Something transforms into a billowing aquamarine ocean punctuated by striking earth-toned animals.

This is truly a gorgeous retelling, and the Great Spirit’s playful children will delight younger readers as they scamper, skate, and stir across the oceans, creating islands in the water and framing the seascape with rippling mountains. As the “growing Something” rises from the depths, the Great Spirit’s daughter Mountain Lion and son Mountain Goat “[spring] from peak to peak,” kickstarting a cavalcade of animal brothers and sisters that shape, reform, and populate the Earth. When the animals grow weary, the Great Spirit calls them home, painting their textured shapes across the sky—and leaving a strumming legacy of light for the young boy, who whispers to his father “I [can] see them all.”

Takeaway: Gorgeous retelling of the Great Spirit’s creation of Earth.

Comparable Titles: S.D. Nelson’s The Star People, Kevin Locke’s The Seventh Direction.

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

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How Contempt Destroys Democracy: An American Liberal's Guide to Toxic Polarization
Zachary Elwood
Cooler heads strive to prevail in this call for calm from Elwood, author of the companion book Defusing American Anger. Targeted at liberals, this pained, hopeful treatise finds Elwood decrying “Toxic Polarization,” a term that crystalizes the phenomenon of a group—or, in this case, a nation—that has effectively divided into two distinct groups with opposing viewpoints, both seemingly getting nastier by the minute. Elwood argues that, in the U.S., polarization is a “feud” rooted in distorted perceptions of the enemy more often than policy differences.

Noting that “we have little influence on our political opponents” and that our instincts for facing conflict are “amazingly bad and often drive us deeper” into it, Elwood argues that, because “no one is in charge,” liberals should undertake the “morally righteous and vitally important endeavor” to reduce polarization. This demands humility, he notes, though he acknowledges that it’s possible to do this work while still believing the conflict is “mostly the other side’s fault.” After exploring the polarization feedback loop that continually encourages dehumanization, and examining declining trust in media and the complexities of asymmetrical conflict, Elwood lays out steps for lowering the temperature: pushing back against divisive behaviors on one’s own “side”; talking about and modeling behaviors that diminish conflict; avoiding “language that we know will anger the other side for no good reason and for no practical benefit.”

Elwood demonstrates persuasively that insults and contempt fueled by hate, ignorance, and fear lead groups to barely recognize each other, making the impasse difficult to bridge. Speaking of contempt, Elwood makes no secret of his feelings about Trumpism, but he does take ownership of his own anger and disgust, admitting that, after the 2016 election, “I behaved in ways that I now realize were childish and only added to our divides.” There’s much to reflect on in his urging liberals to perform the middle-child role of peacemaker, even at a strategic level: shaming the “bad guys” never persuades them to listen.

Takeaway: A liberal’s call for his side to lower the temperature of American politics.

Comparable Titles: Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized, Justin Lee’s Talking Across the Divide.

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

Click here for more about How Contempt Destroys Democracy
The Epsilon Account: Book One of the Golden Harvest Series
Joni Lynn Parker
In this second-world fantasy of elves, myth, debts, and golden starships, Lady Alexin Dumwalt, recently released from exile, returns from our mortal world circa 2034, where she holds the glamorous job as a runway model, to the elfin world of Eledon to fulfill her duty as Keeper of the Keys. As Keeper, Alex serves as a sort-of fixer to the Elfin Council of Elders, as protector of the 13 Keys of Nimbus, and as the bearer of responsibility for Eledon's gold inventory, which is given as tribute every four millennia to the Mentors, the price of living in Eledon. But two centuries before the third payment is due, the Mentors show up, demanding payment over 200 years early, Alex and her family must uncover the truth behind the Mentors’ early arrival and secure their home.

Weaving in familiar gods from Greek mythology—Hades himself has stolen Alex's Titan magic—and creating imaginative elf lore, Parker builds an intricate universe full of magic, surprise (Glock-wielding Elves!), and thousands of years’ worth of tradition. But Alex's rebellious spirit and sarcastic wit keep the narrative light and engaging, even in the face of deaths, enemy fractions, journeys to the stars, and questions of family loyalty and predestined obligation. Trained as a soldier since the age of four, Alex is not new to danger, yet navigating the responsibilities of her duty as Keeper and following the rules of political protocol are almost as formidable as her adversaries.As Alex works to uncover the duplicitous plan of betrayal by other factions, Alex finds that not only is the fate of Eledon and the elfin gold at risk, but so is her life.

Fans of elf fantasy, mythology, and genre-crossing fantasy involving the likes of “Star Elves” will enjoy the world building and character arcs. Telling the story herself in brisk first-person, Alex is a quick witted, powerhouse of a heroine that readers will be happy to learn will return in later books

Takeaway: Inventive space-faring elfin fantasy boasting a quick-witted Earth heroine.

Comparable Titles: Lindsay Buroker's The Elf Tangent, Analeigh Sbrana's Lore of the Wilds.

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

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