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Girl Intrepid
Leslie Armstrong
Armstrong’s (The Little House) poignant memoir is a nuanced drama. In the summer of 1947, in the wake of her parents’ divorce, Armstrong moves with her mother from Boston to New York City. Enrolled at her mother’s alma mater, the Brearley School, Armstrong struggles to fit in, while her mother struggles to land a spot in a law firm. Despite being cash-poor, Armstrong spends summers with her mother in lavish digs around the world, whereas her time with her beloved and temperamental father hinges on sailing and his drunken tirades.

While Armstrong’s life is fascinating, it is her mother, Barbara, who captivates. A single mother, Barbara has a brief stint with depression before she pivots and establishes herself as a firm scion of survival: she becomes an international spy—until she marries a doctor, allowing her to resume her career as a lawyer and affording her daughter a wealthier lifestyle. Like her mother, Armstrong is pioneering and full of grit, becoming an award-winning architect at a time when the field was largely a boys’ club. She teeters emotionally between her mercurial parents, and it plays out in her personal life as she searches for parental figures and embarks on three ill-fated marriages.

Armstrong excels at allowing the reader to empathize with an intimate portrayal of her search for connection, stability, and love. The added bonus of a photo gallery in the center of the book features her family and important figures in her life and showcases her work as an architect. This is a moving coming-of-age memoir that will enthrall readers as they travel through the dizzying turns of Armstrong’s life, from her early childhood to the death of her enigmatic mother.

Takeaway: A candid memoir of the dynamics between a compelling mother and her independent, tenacious daughter.

Great for fans of: Jeannette Walls, Ariel Leve.

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

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2 by South - Precious Blood and Rattlesnake in a Cooler
Frank E South III
“A family for the most part does not want its belly exposed,” reveals Connie, a nurse, halfway into “Precious Blood,” the first of this collection’s two harrowing, accomplished one-act plays. South’s “Precious Blood” and “Rattlesnake in a Cooler,” which hit Los Angeles and New York in 1981 in a production directed by Robert Altman, demonstrate the playwright’s commitment to exposing American underbellies—and ripping at the scars he finds there. In both, South offers a vision of what at first seems to be the mythic white, rural ordinariness that is still sometimes treated in American culture as synonymous with terms like “heartland.” But soon, the secrets spill out—and the knives tear flesh.

“Precious Blood,” a tangle of three overlapping monologues, opens with tender and funny evocations of life in the hilly marshland of Missouri, but crescendos to rape and murder. That nurse, Connie, starkly reenacts a brutal crime, haunted by it but also so grimly accepting of all that men are capable of that she never bothered reporting it. The blistering “Rattlesnake,” meanwhile, concerns a doctor who abandons his career for the rodeo life, a fantasy right out of the country music records he loves. In South’s America, though, the outlaw life’s not a song, but a horror show.

South’s plays obsess over cruel and ugly violence—violence unleavened by Hollywood’s reassuring distinction between good guys and bad guys. Connie compares the occasional surges of rape cases she sees in a Kansas City hospital to a “rush” at a restaurant, and the tough-talking narrator of “Rattlesnake” aspires to be a cowboy hero but winds up a killer down in the mulch with people he only knows as Bad Smell and Pissing Guy. In these plays, it’s cruelty and mourning in America.

Takeaway: These harrowing 1981 one-act dramas, once staged by Robert Altman, lay bare the dark side of American idealism.

Great for fans of: Eric Bogosian’s Drinking in America, Sam Shepard’s True West.

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

Toot Fairy
Brian Donnelly
This delightful story recounts the socially awkward journey of Irma, a would-be tooth fairy in training who has a dairy aversion that threatens her studies and eventual graduation from Tooth School. Rhythmic prose accompanies Irma on her travails as she desperately tries to fit in with the new recruits in school. When she drinks the milk provided at snack to avoid being judged by the other fairies, Irma’s school performance takes an embarrassing turn for the worse.

Van Gool’s vivid and polychromatic illustrations give depth to the storyline and illuminate Irma’s inner struggles, drawing readers’ attention to the minor eccentricities—from her showy socks and shoes to her distinctive bracelets—that make her stand out from her peers. Despite feeling forced in some sections, Donnelly’s rhyming prose lightens an otherwise heavy topic for kids who have been ostracized for their differences and adds an element of fun to some uncomfortable social situations. Irma’s attempts to conform to the expectations of her teacher, in spite of her very real physical struggle during assigned tasks, is painful to watch and will elicit compassion and empathy in readers.

Donnelly brings gentle attention to tangible challenges that many youth and adults face, both in the overt example of dairy intolerance and in the more hidden theme of being shunned and excluded for individuality and distinctiveness. The parallel theme of perseverance, even in the face of ridicule and seeming failure, sends a message of hope and optimism to a young audience. Irma’s eventual success, earned by channeling her unusual talents and creative thinking, will resonate with readers as a victory for underdogs and a method of celebrating uniqueness. Though simple in its presentation, this unconventional tale revels in what makes each of us exceptional.

Takeaway: This playful tale celebrates individuality and pays tribute to the power of perseverance.

Great for fans of: Maria Dismondy’s Spaghetti in a Hot Dog Bun, Julia Finley Mosca’s The Girl Who Thought in Pictures.

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

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The Spell
C.V. Shaw
Shaw debuts with an enchanted story of the royal family of Fleurham—Queen Lilac, King Maurice, and Princess Isabella—and the mysterious struggles that ensue after Princess Isabella is wounded by a potentially cursed arrow. King Maurice pursues the archer, only to end up trapped and bewitched by a woman named Maggy Mae and her grandmother. Queen Lilac seeks out self-interested allies and becomes consumed by her need to rid Isabella of the curse. As the princess grows, this tension drives the fragile royal household apart, and Isabella decides to try to break the curse herself.

The premise is promising, but readers may be frustrated by the loose ends that remain: neither the identity of the archer who shot Isabella nor their motive is revealed. In addition, Shaw relies heavily on stereotypical depictions of women: Isabella, nicknamed “China Doll” because she is “so fragile and easily broken,” remains largely passive throughout, and her character development is tied primarily to her lovers.

The narrative is at its strongest when avoiding these clichés and focusing on the consuming dynamics between its protagonists, such as the tense relationship between Isabella and her mother. Shaw’s portrayal of the Kingdom of Fleurham—as charming but faded, saturated with tension between the English and French residents, and filled with “bewitched and enchanted villagers”—is compelling, too. Readers who enjoy European-flavored fantasy with traditional gender roles will be ensnared by this fairy tale.

Takeaway: This royal story is best suited for readers who enjoy classic fairy tales with European settings and damsels in distress.

Great for fans of: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

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

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Einstein's Last Message
Rod O'Connor
Debut author O’Connor, a cognitive psychologist, packs an overflowing helping of wisdom and heart into this slim volume about mindfulness and its role in humankind’s future. Galvanized by a 1946 Albert Einstein interview, O’Connor asserts that a new type of thinking is essential if humankind is to survive such crises as global warming and the Covid-19 pandemic. He posits that four “thinking worlds” inform all decisions, good and bad: the material world, trying to understand people, inner self, and an internal sense of right and wrong. Using a metaphor readers will easily understand, he compares these four worlds to Russian nesting dolls. O’Connor, painstakingly explains how the four worlds nest within each other and coexist when making both good and bad decisions.

Using that frame and sensible, easy-to-understand prose, he examines empathy, intuition, greed, the placebo effect, and global destruction with an unwavering and realistic gaze, and offers practical strategies for readers to do the same. Comfortingly, he describes mental time travel to lance any festering wounds from one’s psyche, a path easy to undertake from one’s favorite living room chair. While he is for the most part optimistic, O’Connor is a realist about human error: he notes that memory shortcomings, incendiary language, and confirmation bias can effectively derail the truth, but offers methods to avert such pitfalls.

O’Connor tackles daunting subjects with a deft touch, making complicated concepts accessible for the average reader, and his suggestions and principles are sound, well-reasoned, and meticulously footnoted. Two concise, helpful appendices recap the author’s most important points, providing valuable cheat sheets for those pondering important decisions or trying to overcome faulty reasoning. Any reader concerned for the future of humankind will find wise nuggets of information to take and implement on the journey forward.

Takeaway: This passionate plea for a thoughtful and intentional future will touch everyone from dedicated environmentalists to college students.

Great for fans of: Louise Hay, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra.

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

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Bad Bitches and Power Pitches:
Precious L. Williams
Williams, a pitchmaker, speaker, and entrepreneur who has won more than a dozen elevator pitch competitions, draws deep on her saleswoman talents to present the “bad bitch” as an appealing and transformative model for women in business, with an acknowledgment that it’s not for the meek or those who are uncomfortable with self-promotion. It’s a multifaceted figure, too: Williams examines seven different types of “Branding Bitches” (The Unstoppable Bitch, The Creative Bitch, The Flawed Bitch) and suggests that readers should incorporate aspects of all of them when crafting a pitch for a brand, business, product, or service.

The author takes several chapters at the start of the book to explain precisely what she means when she claims for herself the term “bad bitch”—and why she’s encouraging readers to aspire to it, too. Williams is talking about a proud woman of power, a “female who knows what she wants and knows how to get it,” who “is not afraid to be her authentic self at all times” and seizes “the opportunity to shine, teach other women to bask in their femininity, promote their brilliance, and become downright ‘sheroes.’”

Williams is a compelling writer and role model. The book’s strongest chapters concern the power and promise of seizing her brand of girl power. An early chapter lays out strategies for drafting a winning pitch, with clarifying and practical tips, but overall Williams is less focused on process than on modeling her vision of a sisterhood of bold movers and shakers. Readers specifically hunting for a step-by-step guide to pitching and brand-building may want to consult more books—but those hungry for advice from a woman unapologetically seizing her place in the world will find just what they need.

Takeaway: This appealing guide to brand-building dares women to be the right kind of bad.

Great for fans of: Jen Sincero’s You Are a Badass, Elaine Meryl Brown, Marsha Haygood, and Rhonda Joy McLean’s The Little Black Book of Success: Laws of Leadership for Black Women.

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

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The Vintage Rolex Field Manual
Colin A. White
White’s manual demystifies collecting the world’s most sought-after precision watches. Geared for both the neophyte and the obsessive, the Chevalier Edition of White’s previously published guide offers fresh content, such as sidebar profiles of watch technicians, sellers, and even a dial lumer—and if you’re curious about what that is, then this manual is for you. Accompanying the new material are dozens of high-quality photographs of vintage Rolexes, with a focus on the details a serious collector needs to consider when authenticating a potential purchase.

The photos are gorgeous, as are the watches, but White’s emphasis is on practical, attainable Rolexes a collector might encounter in the wild, rather than the highest-end luxury items. The backbone of this edition remains his manual, first published in 2019: a helpful and inviting survey of what a potential collector would want to understand before purchasing a pre-owned or vintage Rolex. White takes readers “beneath the lugs,” exposing the period-correct guts of generations of Rolexes, including their winding screws, to a dozen types of hands, and the mechanisms at their ticking hearts (called “movements”). Those particulars are supplemented with a history of the brand and illuminating explanations of unique Rolex terms (“Oyster Perpetual Submariner” is just the start of it).

White’s a welcoming writer, eschewing the “jargon-soup” that he attributes to his hobby’s “insiders.” He addresses common misconceptions and encourages potential collectors to buy watches they’ll love and actually wear, rather than getting too hung up on acquiring a piece of the highest period correctness. White exhaustively catalogs all the information publicly available on more than 1,400 official manufacturing runs of Rolex watches. Even established collectors will find this a valuable resource.

Takeaway: This field manual gives an illuminating introduction into the world of Rolex collecting.

Great for fans of: Benjamin Clymer’s Watches: A Guide by Hodinkee, Gene Stone and Stephen Pulvirent’s The Watch, Thoroughly Revised.

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

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Post-Traumatic Growth
BRENDA T UNGERLAND
Ungerland draws on clinical and personal expertise to inform this thoughtful, compassionate guide to moving on from trauma. The work starts from the premise that trauma happens to everyone, assuring readers that authentic, albeit painful and messy, personal change is a possibility for all people and advising readers to cultivate fluidity and mindfulness. Ungerland puts forth a seven-stage process of growing and healing after trauma, terming the stages immobilization, unraveling, surrendering, awakening, emerging, integrating, and evolving.

Ungerland clearly explains her framework in sophisticated yet clear and accessible prose. Each chapter describes the experiences of patients who have been in this stage, explains relevant concepts and views on psychology and spirituality, includes exercises for readers to try to build resilience, and ends with a brief shorthand summary to remind readers of the contents at a glance. Bonus material presented at the end, including tips on cognitive restructuring and basic principles for change, could stand alone as opposed to being subsumed into other sections.

She has clearly read widely in psychology, philosophy, spirituality, literature, and poetry; the text synthesizes existing work in positive psychology and Buddhism, and it is studded with quotations from a wide range of sources, including Martha Graham, Alice Walker, Albert Einstein, and Rumi. The case studies illuminating each stage are a strength, as is the text’s capacity to inspire hope for surviving chaos and growing resilience. This empathic, instructive, well-written guide will find a home on the bookshelves of both clinicians and readers pursuing healing after trauma.

Takeaway: Mental health professionals and readers seeking well-defined, easy-to-implement principles for transformational growth after trauma will find this guide both insightful and practical.

Great for fans of: Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart, Susan Anderson’s The Journey from Abandonment to Healing.

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

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Human Resources A to Z
Ted Smith
Smith (The Train Blog) puts his years of experience in human resources to good use in this guide to common challenges professionals may face. After a brief introduction and description of his impressive career, Smith dives into advice about everything from ADHD to zombies (unmotivated workers, not flesh-eating ghouls) in alphabetically ordered sections named for their subjects. He draws upon his own career, using anecdotes to illuminate a variety of potential career situations, all united by his core theme of dignity in the workplace. Whether the problem is an employee’s lateness (which may be resolved with a “gentle private chat”) or a cancer diagnosis (which makes sickness absence rules “irrelevant”), preserving the worker’s dignity and helping them thrive is Smith’s key recommendation.

This manual should not be mistaken for professional legal or medical advice, but Smith’s guidance is thoughtful and can be modified to fit varied circumstances. His approach is humble: when he is not an expert about a topic under discussion, Smith seeks advice from and gives credit to others, which is particularly helpful in his sections about autism, blindness, and working across cultures (for example, in Japan or the U.S). Readers will be able to imagine Smith as an older mentor joining them for coffee and conversation as they work through some knotty problem that has arisen at work.

Though the more granular advice is most useful for those who share his United Kingdom context, HR professionals anywhere can learn from Smith’s good sense. This wise and good-natured survey of common human resource concerns and challenges would make a meaningful and useful gift for someone starting out in the profession.

Takeaway: Human resources professionals, especially in the U.K., will find this wise, good-natured compendium a valuable guide.

Great for fans of: Jeffrey Liker’s The Toyota Way, Sharon Armstrong and Barbara Mitchell’s The Essential HR Handbook.

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

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While I Still Am
Jodie A Cooper
Cooper’s sweetly illustrated picture book debut is full of loving details about a wide variety of endangered species. From the gruff-looking African elephant to the alert koala, each creature is accompanied by a page of informational text, including charming features about the animals—the Beluga whale is called the “canary of the sea” because of its whistling ability—and dangers to their lives and habitats. This volume pulls no punches when it comes to chronicling threats to these animals—the text about Magellanic penguins tells young readers, "my habitat is threatened by climate change causing heavy rains that flood my nesting areas. I get caught and drown in fishery nets. Chronic oil pollution from ocean tankers remains my greatest threat."

Some of the vocabulary and concepts (the equator, marine parks, climate change) will be new to many in the target age range. The book introduces numerous facts per page, and since each animal is illustrated in only one portrait, there are no visuals to illuminate numbers such as “my legs alone are six feet long” or “I can weigh 1750-2800 pounds” to help young kids understand their significance. These attributes make this book one for a child to read and discuss with an adult.

But if a small reader becomes impatient with the facts, the text easily allows for a break before returning, without diminishing the overall message. The recurring refrain "please leave me be while I still am" is a powerful call to action that young animal lovers can understand. This element, combined with the lively watercolor images, changes what could be a frightening set of facts into a positive message of interspecies responsibility.

Takeaway: Adults who want to introduce younger kids to conservation and instill a love of animals will be delighted by this lovely picture book.

Great for fans of: David Wax’s I Wish For You, Miranda Paul’s One Plastic Bag.

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

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Cooking with Magic:
David Connell
In this unusual cookbook, USAF veteran Connell encourages readers to experiment with the benefits of microdosing hallucinogenic mushrooms via food and drink. He begins with practical and important safety recommendations, traces a very brief history of magic mushroom use, and proposes a schedule of microdosages that promises positive, but not overpowering, effects. Connell’s recipes include drinks and desserts, such as Ritual Cup Hot Chocolate and Kickin’ Key Lime and Fun-Guy Pie, as well as three main dishes: a risotto, pot pie, and a sausage and mushroom creation.

With a charming, conversational flair (“Bonus points to those of you who don a solid scientist costume while you work”), Connell breaks down recipes with easy-to-follow steps that even the most amateur home chef will be able to follow. Aside from uncommon mushrooms, the recipes do not require exotic or difficult ingredients. Somewhat confusingly, most recipes are described as yielding a dose of .5 to 1.75 grams, more than the author’s suggested daily microdose of between .1 and .3 grams.

Although some visuals are challenging to read, overall Connell’s presentation has a friendly, retro feel that suits his playful call for experimentation and pleasure. Illustrator Snowflake delivers graphics reminiscent of ’70s psychedelic culture alongside pages featuring quotes from Alice in Wonderland. Readers who want more information about foraging or cultivating mushrooms will need to look elsewhere, as will those who want a more detailed clinical approach to the use of psilocybin. But those curious about the basics of pairing food and magic fungi will find clear guidance shared in an entertaining way.

Takeaway: This accessible, trippy cookbook offers uncomplicated but appetizing recipes for beginners looking to incorporate magic mushrooms into food.

Great for fans of: Edible Dee’s The Happy Chef, Chef Ra’s Psychedelic Kitchen column.

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

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The Albatross: Contact
Connor Mackay
Mackay’s debut novel is an action-packed science fiction odyssey. The story kicks off on Earth in the unspecified near future, when first contact is made with the Lumenarians, a peaceful alien empire that has come to beg for humanity’s assistance in its 150-year war with its mysterious enemies, the Forsaken. The book covers the 18 months following the Lumenarians’ request from the points of view of three characters: Will Reach, an alcoholic former Special Forces veteran seeking to escape his past; Sarah Li, a brilliant astrophysicist who puts off becoming an astronaut to explore the new horizons that the war with the Forsaken offers; and Arthur, the warrior-poet Lumenarian commander who comes to Earth in search of his people’s last hope.

Those expecting a fantastical journey across the stars will be surprised by how true-to-life the characters, multicultural society, and story feel. Mackay’s Earth is startlingly realistic, and so are the responses to the Lumenarians’ arrival; one particularly powerful subplot deals with human xenophobia in the face of alien life. The cliffhanger ending will leave readers craving the next installment in McKay’s planned five-book series.

Readers will laugh out loud at the quick-witted internal monologues of the book’s likeable protagonists, as well as at the clever cultural references peppered throughout. Even readers who don’t think they’re into science fiction will find much to love in this novel, from its heartwarming relationships to its masterful interweaving of Samuel Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner alongside laser battles and space travel. The Albatross succeeds as both an adventure and as thoughtful social commentary.

Takeaway: Clever writing meets heart-pounding plot twists in this must-read science fiction epic.

Great for fans of: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, Ursula K. Le Guin.

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

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Sorrow
Tiffanie DeBartolo
DeBartolo—novelist, filmmaker, and co-founder of record label Bright Antenna—crafts a fresh story of love, loss, and music. Thirty-seven-year-old Joe Harper personifies sorrow at the novel’s start: he’s long since given up on his dream of becoming a guitarist, is estranged from his best friend Cal, has recently gone through a painful breakup, and is drunk in a public library. Meanwhile, his ex-lover, renowned performance artist October Danko, has a new transactional piece at SFMoMa, in which she uses her touch synesthesia to understand others’ sorrow. Joe is left to decide whether he should visit her exhibit and attempt to repair his fractured life, or continue on his path of sadness and isolation.

DeBartolo is no stranger to stories and music, and it shows in her carefully crafted details, humorous dialogue, and nuanced characterization. Joe’s depressive ruminations are believable without growing tiresome; he is a character for whom readers will root and weep. Each character comes with a richly layered past that contributes to both their development the novel’s overarching conflicts. Alongside the affecting plot, DeBartolo weaves a playlist through the narrative that perfectly complements characters’ emotions, featuring lyrics from The National, Fleetwood Mac, and Damien Rice.

This cinematic novel employs all five senses in descriptions of its lush California setting, precise attention to little details, and artfully woven plot. The author deftly builds small, seemingly inconsequential connections into significant events that effectively and irrevocably alter characters’ trajectory. This unflinching look at romance, life, and estrangement considers how, as October says, “everything we do and every moment we live can be a work of art.”

Takeaway: Musicians, visual artists, writers, and readers will love this well-crafted, page-turning tale of romance and loss.

Great for fans of: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Meg Wolitzer.

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

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BloodLaw
Blaise Ramsay
Ramsay’s (Bane of Tenebris) gritty vampire crime novel immerses readers in the bloody turf wars of Prohibition-era Chicago, with a supernatural twist. Alastair Maddox fought corruption as a detective—with the scars to prove it—and is taking on the mob as assistant district attorney. He trusts few people other than his girlfriend Charlaine “Charlie” Ware, a journalist; Paul Stone, his partner; and Lieutenant Raymond King, his ex-boss. After a run-in with the mesmerizing murderess Alexandra DeLane, who escapes from a police station and leaves a trail of destruction in her wake, he’s driven to track her down. Two months later, he wakes up naked in the woods with a chunk of his memory missing, an unignorable craving for blood, and more questions than ever. Separated from his friends, who think he’s dead, he teams up with the suspiciously helpful Mason Downing to get to the bottom of it all.

Despite some instances of awkward language and the occasional missing word, readers will be caught up in the motley duo’s shenanigans as they hunt DeLane and the mob boss who’s giving her orders. One of the most enjoyable elements of the story is seeing a new vampire come to grips with the powers, needs, and drawbacks of what Maddox calls his “condition”: once-delicious food seems repellent, he can hear others’ blood pumping, and his newfound ability to “phase” through solid objects comes in handy during a car chase.

Ramsay skillfully deploys the noir classics—a hero haunted by his past, dangerous dames, and dirty backroom dealings—alongside amped-up action, atmospheric evocations of 1920s Chicago in wintertime, and the paranormal. Readers looking for mystery, action, or vampires will be drawn irresistibly into this fast-paced, inventive whodunit.

Takeaway: Paranormal crime fiction readers will sink their teeth into in this noir story of flawed characters trying to do right in 1920s Chicago.

Great for fans of: LP Kindred’s “Your Rover is Here,” Max Gladstone.

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

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Button's Wings
Liam KJ O'Leary
O’Leary’s whimsical debut tale of friendship and celebrating differences will beguile readers with its appealing narrative and vibrant digital illustrations. Blueberry Wood is full of all kinds of wonderful creatures, but Pebble the owl doesn’t quite fit in. Pebble’s wings are too small for him to keep up with other owls, so they leave him behind. Fortunately, his small size allows him to befriend bugs, including a caterpillar named Button. Button has his own challenge: no matter how many times he builds a cocoon, he can’t fall asleep, so he’ll never become a butterfly. Pebble decides to make wings for Button, but it doesn’t work out, leaving the two of them to accept themselves and each other just as they are.

Though the book is named after Button and primarily focuses on the friendship between Pebble and Button, the caterpillar isn’t introduced until halfway into the book, though he makes appearances on earlier pages. Once Button comes to the fore, the rest of the narrative feels rushed, particularly the ending. However, the cheerful color palette and the characters’ expressive features craft a visual narrative of genuine friendship. Pebble and Button bond over being outcasts with a warmth that may resonate with children who have similarly felt left out, though no mention is made of how the other owls and butterflies might try to be more inclusive and welcoming.

Though it does little to stand out from the many books with similar themes, this charming picture book is still enjoyable. The bond between Pebble and Button will leave readers wanting more from this duo. The lively and magical illustrations are sure to be a hit with younger readers, who will enjoy spotting Button in the fantastical scenes of caterpillars playing at jousting and being pirates, and the straightforward language is easy to read aloud. This feel-good story about unlikely companionship is simple and sweet.

Takeaway: Young readers will delight in this cheerfully illustrated tale of friendship between two outcast forest creatures.

Great for fans of Dan Santat’s The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, C.J. Nestor’s Pokémon: Favorite First Friends!.

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

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Year of the What?
Jennifer Lieberman
Playwright Lieberman explores themes of partying and sexual awakening in modern New York City in this risqué debut. Dana, upset after she discovers that her ex has moved on, decides to use sexual exploration as a means of finding herself. Some encounters, such as a drunken one-night stand with a coworker, test her resolve to push her own boundaries. Others, including a drug-fueled party with an indie rock singer named Edward, leave her feeling sexually liberated and in control. After a year of experimentation and adventures, along with a budding career as a writer and actress, Dana finally feels like she knows who she is and what she wants for her future.

The chapters are titled by month, and each one opens with a thematic preview of a line from later in the chapter, which at first is slightly confusing. Each chapter centers around a particular encounter, consummated or not, and ends with a neat but expository summary of Dana’s feelings about the situation and how it helps or hurts her progress toward self-discovery. That journey is guided in part by Dana’s roommate, professional dominatrix Kelly, who supports and encourages her.

The writing, which can come across as dry and informative rather than immersive, is hung on a solidly constructed plot. However, the book struggles to find a genre, which may limit its audience. Romance readers may be turned off by the serial dating and lack of focus on a character with the potential to be Dana’s long-term partner, erotica readers may be uncomfortable with several instances of questionable consent, and women’s fiction readers may not approve of the casual use of recreational drugs. Open-minded fans of intimate literary fiction will appreciate the heroine’s growth as she sets some of her insecurities aside to learn how to embrace life on her own terms.

Takeaway: This thoughtful story of one woman’s journey toward sexual empowerment will appeal to open-minded fans of intimate literary fiction.

Great for fans of Candace Bushnell’s Sex in the City, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, Lisa Locascio’s Open Me.

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

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