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HERE WE GO LOOP DE LOOP
William Jack Sibley
Set in the south Texas town of Rita Blanca, where the Dairy Queen is still “the locus of all things essential to civil existence,” Sibley’s boisterous comic novel blends small-town satire and humanist warmth as it unspools its tales of isolated people learning to love. At the heart of the sprawling townie cast is Marty Pennebaker, recalled from her Manhattan career to oversee 50,000 acres and care for her ailing rancher father. Marty has been carrying on in secret with Pettus Lyndecker, the strapping son of a broke and occasionally criminal family; Pettus’s sisters run a flower shop in town facing competition from a well-heeled neighbor’s new rival store. As that conflict heads toward possible violence, a handsome man from Monterrey, Mexico, arrives in town bearing a check for $250 thousand dollars–and a surprise connection to Marty’s deceased brother, Tom.

Sibley seems to relish crashing his characters into each other’s lives and letting the sparks fly. His prose is sharp and evocative–witness the “hard, flat, hot, and cruel” landscape of mesquite trees and barbed wire–and offers epigrammatic jewels: “[I]n Texas nearly everyone claimed to be Christian, from bank robbers to topless dancers.” A screenwriter and playwright, he reveals story and character through the kind of comic dialogue and incidents that people who aren’t from a place might think are exaggerated—and that people who are from a place are usually too polite to dish to outsiders.

A funny thing happens, though, as the story moves through its weddings, funerals, crimes, confrontations, and surprise romances. Sibley reveals open hearts and minds among his cast, reminding readers not to assume that small-town means simple. “Caught in all this vastness, this stillness, day after day, year after year–it’ll turn you mad as a snared coyote,” one character muses. At its best, Here We Go finds these snared coyotes daring to find new ways to love.

Takeaway: A satirical small-town Texas comedy with welcome, surprising heart.

Great for fans of: Cathie Pelletier, Donald Harrington.

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

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The Jesus Nut
John Prather
Prather’s brisk, lighthearted satirical novel doesn’t condemn organized religion per se as it targets three individuals who fail to live up to their own ideals. Religious Studies Professor Haley Berkshire rejects all belief systems and denies the existence of any deity. Berkshire’s sin is pride, her PhD functioning as revenge against an anti-intellectual family. When she uncovers an apocryphal gospel rejected from inclusion in the Bible (The Gospel According to Trevor), Berkshire fixates on its account of Jesus enduring a heretofore unknown wound during the crucifixion. “As God is my witness,” she declares at an academic conference, “I will discover the Testicle of Christ!”

Her quest for this holy relic attracts several followers, eager to renew their faith. Catholic priest Brian William Callum Robert O’Shea faces lust for the first time in decades and steps onto a slippery slope by befriending perky stripper Simone, who joins him on an eye-opening road trip. Homeless veteran Jesse Morales worries about sloth, convinced he’s the Second Coming of Christ–and an ineffectual messiah at that. His odyssey activates long dormant memories, and forces him to confront stifling fears. While Berkshire and O’Shea maintain a scholarly distance, Morales lives out their conviction that religion’s true purpose is engendering compassion.

Prather (The Adminisphere) on occasion unleashes the scathing incredulity of a merciless satirist like Carl Hiaasen, but for the most part he displays genuine affection for his bewildered characters. (Not so much for moralizing evangelists like Jerry Falwell Jr.) After expressing self-doubt, O’Shea and Morales are rewarded with bittersweet acknowledgments of imperfection, though Berkshire’s intractable righteousness makes her transformation more nuanced. She becomes known as The Jesus Nut for pursuing it, and must rethink her own views about belief. The quixotic journey provides, if not enlightenment, at least some unexpected blessings in Prather’s funny and charitable satire of religious zealotry and moral certitude.

Takeaway: This irreverent but empathetic satire offers a comic look at flawed humans in the pursuit of God.

Great for fans of: Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Roland Merullo’s Breakfast With Buddha.

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

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Dark and Light Verse
Allen Lee Ireland
Ireland (Loners and Mothers) deftly balances conventional poetic form with complex, idiosyncratic topics in his second collection of poems. In the opening dedication, Ireland introduces his work as being “for all the carriers of light,” an apt invitation as each of this volume’s sections reflects and refracts a variety of emotions and topics connected to concepts of light and dark. Within that framework, poems here offer electric descriptions of outer space, ruminations about academia, and heartfelt reflections on motherhood. While his topics are varied, Ireland utilizes rhythm and rhyme via sonnets, limericks, and other forms to weave this collection together.

Like a pastel sky shifting to twilight or dawn, these poems are layered--light shines through darkness, and dark hides beneath light. These “light[s] and dark[s]” are sometimes literal and sometimes symbolic. Ireland often complicates what these opposite forces usually represent; in “Chinese Box,” for example, darkness provides safety and comfort, as a way to hide trauma: “Put bad memories in a box, / And lock it with a hundred locks, / Then stuff it deep in a trap-door safe / That not a soul, not even you, / Knows the combination to. / Then leave the room, and lock that, too.” The emotional darkness of a cemetery is painted in a surprisingly light, celebratory tone in “May Day:” “Such celebration is there round his grave! / The birds are singing, a cacophony / Of different keys. The wind is like a wave, / And all the flowers are tossing in its sea.” While there is ample beauty and sophistication in these symbolic depictions, Ireland’s skill also shines in his poetic portraits of famous figures such as Heath Ledger, Neil Armstrong, and the fictional Nurse Ratched.

Ireland recognizes that we live in a complex world. Through their moments of beauty and pain, his poems remind us that “Not even the universe is eternal. / But isn't it close enough?”

Takeaway: Dreamy descriptions of the natural world, with a tight command of rhythm and rhyme.

Great for fans of: Gregory Orr, Richard Wilbur, C.R. Schwab.

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

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Unsung Heroes: Volume 1
Kyle Gurkovich
Brave heroes think on their feet as they traverse time in a quest to save the world in Gurkovich’s adventure-packed debut novel. In 10th century Ireland, 23-year-old Cathal is an expert with the bow and worries his mother with his thrill seeking. Crowley, an elderly woodcutter, inducts the husky hunter into a centuries-old war: Crowley explains that godlike entities called Greater Beings were divided into the good Elluna ruled by Viktor and the evil Tarnok ruled by Terranos, each with their human army of worshippers on Earth. The Greater Beings put their collective powers into five God Stones for safekeeping in case of another Tarnok uprising, but the Tarnok stole and scattered them throughout history. Cathal must travel through time to find the stones to prevent the Tarnok from enslaving the world.

A capable and enthusiastic character, Cathal eagerly signs on to the dangerous mission, aided by new super healing abilities and help from his 17-year-old cousin Liam and the angelic Elluna warrior Gabriel. To gather the stones, Cathal and Liam travel to prohibition-era Chicago, the Rape of Nanking in 1937, Nazi Germany in 1944, and to the Kingdom of Poland in 1241, where they track the Mongolian army. At every turn, they are threatened by Tarnok agent Skorn, a Delta Force soldier from 1999, who is aided by Viking and Nazi assistants. Acknowledging man’s inhumanity to man, Cathal remarks, “Every generation experiences terrible tragedy. History often does seem to repeat itself.” Gurkovich keeps the action rolling with Tommy guns and swords, land mines, and magic scrolls.

Traditional science fiction tropes of time travel and a quest to gather many pieces of a puzzle are fused with a clever mix of cultural and historical detail. Although some clunky language and anachronistic dialog distract from immersion (“This Terranos fellow, he sounds pretty intense”), Gurkovich provides plenty of twists, suspense, and resourceful characters. Readers will be drawn in to the time jumps and sticky situations.

Takeaway: This exciting time travel adventure offers suspense and surprises with the fate of the world in the balance.

Great for fans of: Rysa Walker’s Timebound, Ryan North’s How to Invent Everything.

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

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Clean Sweep: A Novel
E. B. Lee
Lee's account of homeless life on the street in New York City is compassionate, brutally honest, and unsentimental. Told through the eyes of Carli Morris, an alias used by a woman who wanted to give back after selling her business, Clean Sweep weaves a personal mystery plot together with insights about how small gestures and consistency of behavior can make a difference for the homeless. Carli quickly moves beyond simply volunteering at the soup kitchen when she meets Grant, a charismatic volunteer for the shelter Four Bridges, dedicated to helping each street person one-on-one by meeting them at their level.

The narrative takes a personal turn when Carli starts to believe that Grant might be her long-lost brother Henry. Meanwhile, Carli grows fond of finely sketched Four Bridges characters like Cedric the can collector, Wilson, who may have been a perfume maker, and Vera, who stays in her spot after she was evicted from her old building she lived in with her husband. As that crew helps their friends dodge police sweeps, Carli notices Grant's behavior becoming increasingly erratic and works on paintings for a gallery show, discovering that her new passion has a powerful effect on her art.

Lee expertly creates vivid portraits of each character's flaws, weaknesses, and ultimate humanity. The small triumphs that give the narrative its power feel earned precisely because this cast experiencing homelessness are treated as human rather than objects of pity or disgust. Neither Carli nor Grant are presented as saints, and the latter's final fate is devastating; Carli sometimes feels less fully formed than the others, but eventually comes into sharper focus. Ultimately, it's a story about the profound effect of hidden trauma, especially for those who feel isolated. Lee reminds readers of serious fiction that there’s hope for those whom society has rejected, as long as we work for it.

Takeaway: A moving account of the invisible lives of people living on the street, filled with compassion.

Great for fans of: Willy Vlautin’s The Motel Life, Richard Wagamese’s Ragged Company.

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

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Stealing Away: Stories
Kevin Revolinski
Revolinski’s twelve engrossing short stories center on characters attempting to make peace with the past while navigating tense relationships and uncertain futures. Most of these folks feel familiar enough to come from any Midwestern town, though some also inhabit Turkey, Peru and other international locations: a woman stuck in a boring job and a withering marriage; a grandfather who holds the distinction of being the oldest resident in his county; a man who returns to his childhood neighborhood in an attempt to understand the tragedy that unraveled his group of friends. Told by curious, no-nonsense narrators who for the most part seem weathered yet reliable, the stories are rich with immersive description and offer fresh insights on familiar themes, including the way trauma and a lack of genuine connection can change people.

In the title story, two teenagers plot to escape their unstable families and dead-end town by “selling” their car repeatedly on Craigslist, only to steal it back in the middle of the night. Unsurprisingly, this scam does not end well–but the real soul of the piece lies in the female narrator’s growing understanding of her complicated relationship with her troubled mother. In “Picking Blueberries”–another standout–a middle-aged man in a small town where “even the church doesn’t feel whole” reflects on his grandfather’s mortality: “Despite his years, he never had that air of waiting to die, but rather waiting for something that never comes …Work defined him, and without it he sank into moments of nonbeing. It was painful to watch.”

In this debut collection, Revolinski–an accomplished food and travel writer and memoirist– proves a keen observer of place, people, and the human condition, particularly the inner turmoil and ennui that accompany coming to terms with life’s harsh realities while still looking with a degree of hope for whatever comes next.

Takeaway: An enthralling, empathetic collection of stories about attempting to make peace with the past while facing uncertain futures.

Great for fans of: Ann Packer, Charles Baxter.

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

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Messing with Men
Christopher Brookhouse
This sweet and mournful story follows ageing residents in a Florida resort town as they fall in and out of love and lust with each other, dabble in local causes, and try to make sense of their lives. Ali, Landon, and Sam meet regularly at a local bar to reflect on their careers and sex lives. Along the way, lifelong bachelor Landon starts a new love affair and comes to terms with a long-ago relationship with a student, while everyone in the crew has an angle on a historic Victorian-style home slated for a controversial demolition. But despite a dozen threads, the real plot is the characters' attempts to achieve some inner peace in the final chapters of their lives.

Brookhouse elegantly portrays his characters' mating rituals, still uncertain although they're in their middle years. Landon and his tentative girlfriend Hannah go to a clothing optional beach and exchange coy words: "Is this going to be awkward? she asks. I mean, you have a choice…How much I want to see or how much I want to show?" But Hannah also muses about widows who "tolerate sex to make the loneliness to go away." Still, some literary conceits—a near-total use of the present tense and omission of all quotation marks—at times make keeping up a challenge.

The characters, too, aren’t always caught up in the plot, so lost in their thoughts that what happens in their here and now can seem to them secondary. Landon and Sam secretly bury a skeleton on an old estate in an ill-conceived attempt to save it, but that barely seems to make an impression on them. However, when Landon sees a mural that may save the house anyway, he becomes lost in the "leafy tongues and sinewy vines and the floral qualities in the figures.” In the end everyone is back in the bar, perhaps, like the reader, a little wiser for their reveries and misadventures.

Takeaway: These wryly reflective Floridian retirees, with their longings and regrets, will remain with readers.

Great for fans of: William Trevor’s The Old Boys, Deborah Moggach’s These Foolish Things.

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

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Liberating Jesus: What would Jesus say if he returned today?
Jane Powell Conscious Living Foundation
Jacobson, a spiritual teacher and author of Embracing the Present and Words From Silence, relates his story and explains his spiritual philosophy of life through a one-man play, followed by a recreation of the extensive question and answer sessions that followed performances during the play’s original run at the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica. A gripping introductory autobiographical sketch contextualizes the play that follows, telling the story of Jacobson’s six spiritual awakenings over the course of decades and how he attempted to learn from each and integrate them into his life. Some of these breakthroughs are refreshingly direct, as when Jacobson reports the voice of God beseeching him to “Tell the truth about Jesus!”

Jacobson’s play endeavors to do just that. The narrator is Jesus himself, who tells Jacobson’s conception of the truth about his life, stripping away miracles and theology as laid out in revelations Jacobson reports having experienced. Jacobson’s Jesus explains that his simple, humane philosophy has been corrupted and encourages the audience to awaken to the present and realize their true Oneness with all things and with God. The questions and answers, which take up the bulk of the text, are illuminating, filling in many questions the reader themselves may share. They are, however, repetitive, with similar As to similar Qs, such as Jacobson’s example of a flower (“Just be here as the flower is here”) to explain presence.

Jacobson warns that his teachings are not for everyone, even advising holders of traditional Christian beliefs not to read the book, lest he offend them. In contrast to many spiritual teachers, Jacobson is not interested in fighting the ego, even as he insists that it remains the chief obstacle to human awakening. Instead, he argues, one must come to a nonjudgmental place of peace and thus mastery of both mind and ego. Spiritual seekers will find these teachings fruitful in their practicality, specificity, and graciousness.

Takeaway: A play and teaching session offering a warm yet challenging new vision of Jesus.

Great for fans of: Erin Werley’s One Truth, One Law: I Am, I Create, Dr. Helen Schucman and Dr Bill Thetford’s A Course in Miracles.

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

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The Hidden Gospel of Thomas: Commentaries on the Non-Dual Sayings of Jesus
William George Duffy
In this extensive commentary, Duffy examines each saying attributed to Jesus in the non-canonized Gospel of Thomas against the framework of non-dualism, a philosophy—originally derived from Brahmanism—centered on the ultimate unity of all things. Duffy is careful to consider these sayings of Jesus within their own context, rather than relying on external understandings, and urges readers to approach this work independent of other gospels. Despite this emphasis on an original interpretation, Duffy also includes insights and principles from existing spiritual literature, particularly when it comes to textual concerns with this “lost” gospel first discovered in Egypt in 1945.

Although this commentary is not a close linguistic reading of the text, Duffy does still pay careful attention to the original language of the gospel, with quite fruitful results, as when he breaks down the complex meanings of a Greek loanword that appears in the English translation as solitary. Some of the sayings Duffy examines fit neatly with his philosophy of non-dualism, though the interpretations of some others seem strained. This is compounded by Duffy’s periodic reliance on scribal error or emendation to explain inconsistencies, as when he argues that the “perplexing” twelfth saying of Jesus in this text must not be “original to” the Gospel of Thomas. These concerns are difficult to resolve given the limited manuscript history available.

Still, Duffy acknowledges the philosophical lens through which he reads the text, and he does an excellent job of illustrating individual sayings, expanding its meaning of the gospel beyond a straightforward Gnosticism. His careful unpacking of complex sayings both illuminates the text and demonstrates the kind of deep contemplation he believes it takes to arrive at an enlightened reading. The spiritual seekers reading this commentary will not just learn about a lost gospel. Instead, they’ll also find ample encouragement to realize the ultimate unity of all things.

Takeaway: Spiritual seekers interested in non-canonized gospels will find this commentary fruitful and enlightening.

Great for fans of: Elaine Pagels’s Beyond Belief, Jean-Yves Leloup’s The Gospel of Thomas: The Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus.

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

Reduction Fired: concise, quiet and intense poems voiced over vibrant images of nature - reflections to ripple through the mind
Jennifer Yeates Camara
Camara’s debut poetry collection stands out in its sincerity and its expressive minimalism, its form and content united in short lines, free verse, and metamorphic styles. The author describes Reduction Fired as “architectural,” and much of the volume’s appeal comes from its diversity. The works within allude to maturity, security, acceptance of circumstance, and the uplifting possibilities of a turn toward the present, as in the “Winter” section: “for look — on this slope / the flowers here I’ve / never seen before.” The wrenching “Michelle” recalls watching a depressed loved one “drown”: “The more she weakened, more I sought / to cheer her from the shore.” While occasionally touched with personal narrative, Camara’s poems are mostly pared down to the universal, stirring a satisfying and enlightening effect.

The collection’s four sections, named for the seasons, are distinctive. In “Winter”’s poem “Estuaries,” she speaks in persona—“Eddies of them flow/past as bark mulch”—and expresses yearning toward an unidentified muse in “Autumn”’s vivid “Chalk Drawings,” writing “My deepest organs /now knead them / selves thin / to think I was / close enough / to touch your / face / arm / back but / held back enough.” At times, enjambment complicates clarity, but when Camara delves into longer lines and elevated diction (“jocund mirth”) meaning crystallizes: “while my love skulks in the shadows of your heart.” An author’s note explains her approach: “Lines are built only long enough to hold what is needed.”

Camara dives into spiritual themes in “Spring” and demonstrates power and eros in “Daydream” (“I find / my bones yet longing for your weight”), and imitates haiku in a sprinkling of smaller poems: “Waiting for winter / in August it seems better / to know than not know.” True to the economy of language of influences like Rabindranath Tagore, this grounded, spiritually curious collection offers an unpredictable inquiry into nature, relationships, and the styles that have inspired the poet.

Takeaway: Scrupulous in their minimalism, these poems still are alive with meaning and feeling.

Great for fans of: Myung Mi Kim, Lucille Clifton.

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

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Crown of Crowns Duology: Crown of Crowns & Godly Sins
Clara Loveman
Loveman’s fast-paced young adult fantasy series, collected in an edition containing the first novel and its sequel, tells of a privileged teen whose eyes are opened to how the rest of the world lives: mostly in poverty. In a futuristic world where robots have taken most jobs, and science has made most illnesses impossible, Kaelyn thinks everyone in the world is happy. She falls for Roki, who shows her it’s only the small handful of royal families that are truly happy. After her mother is murdered and Roki disappears, Kaelyn must turn heartbreak into determination, first starting a foundation in her mother’s name and then accepting that helping her people means marrying Prince Zawne and becoming king and queen.Then life gets complicated. (Readers eager to avoid spoiling the second book’s premise should skip to the next paragraph.) After she’s crowned, a deadly virus is released, and Kaelyn realizes that the only way to save her kingdom is to give up her own life and become a powerful spirit.

Balancing actions with consequences, Loveman makes this apocalyptic story complicated in the right way, reminding readers that people will be complex no matter how advanced the society. After making an epochal choice at the end of the first book, Kaelyn discovers that nothing will be as simple as she had hoped—her choices now ripple across her world and even her galaxy. Rather than clear good or bad guys, this series concerns shades of humanity, driven by love and desires.

Loveman creates an intriguing new world with varied continents, seasons, clans, social classes, and advancements in technology. As the story grows, it expands to an entire detailed and fascinating galaxy of different worlds, creatures, and the city at the center of it all, where spirits come together to influence–good or bad–the rest of us. The choices characters make in the final pages will stir reader debate, but the journey is certainly worth it.

Takeaway: A creative fantasy with a perfectly flawed heroine, the right amount of romance, and otherworldly surprises.

Great for fans of: Marie Rutkoski, Shveta Thakrar’s Star Daughter.

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

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Epidemic
Julie Boglisch
Set in an alternate America that closed its borders after the Vietnam War, the first book in Boglisch’s Elifer Chronicles series follows twins Maxwell and Karina as they attempt to find their mother, who has disappeared from their home years after their father was taken away by a man in a black uniform. Finding her means they must leave their small, safe town of Claremore alone and travel through the forests of New England to a place completely foreign to them: the city. Fortunately, they encounter the mysterious Lex, a survivor who immediately appraises the siblings as “idiots”—but who might offer the help they need. Making the journey more dangerous: They discover that a deadly epidemic is sweeping through the country.

Boglisch has crafted a compelling alternate reality with intriguing side characters, such as the morally compromised Antonio, and has layered aspects of the Covid pandemic into the narrative. “What are those masks for?” Maxwell wonders upon arrival at a bigger town, and a familiar sense of unease has settled on the population: Lex explains that the government “has been searching for the last few years to find a cure” before adding “Or at least, that is what we are told.” Boglisch’s epidemic has fantastical elements—violent “death throes” and sporadic infection time frames—but readers seeking an escape from real-world outbreaks won’t find that here.

Max and Karina are likable characters that are easy to root for, and at 188 pages, Epidemic is a quick read whose story keeps moving. Still, some plot points and character motivations, such as Lex’s, would have benefited from expansion, such as the children’s fear, as they leave Claremore, that they will be pursued, a suspenseful thread that gets dropped on the road. Overall, this is an interesting first installment in a new series with characters it is a pleasure to spend time with.

Takeaway: Readers who enjoy pandemic fiction and precocious children will find much to enjoy.

Great for fans of: Megan Crewe’s The Way We Fall, M.R. Carey’s The Book of Koli.

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

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Adrift
Lisa Lippiner
Aspiring restaurateur and OnlyFans content creator, twenty-five-year-old Penelope “Poppy” Smith surrenders into a relationship with suave, debonair hedge fund manager, Gabriel “Gabe” Chesterton in this sexy contemporary romance. After traveling from New York to North Carolina to reunite with a childhood friend, Gabriel is introduced to Poppy during a friendly yet flirtatious dinner that leads to an unexpected night together. Despite her apprehensions about Gabe’s playboy reputation, and her assumption that he would not appreciate her curvier figure, the two embark on a professional endeavor that quickly blurs the line between business and pleasure.

Jolie excels at weaving a story filled with romantic angst, keeping readers guessing about where this relationship will go right up until the end. Poppy’s sensitively handled body image issues (she says, of her OnlyFans customers, “they liked me with photo editing, good lighting, and at the right angle”) and Gabe’s at-first unenlightened attitude toward her occupation (he notes, in a point-of-view chapter, “I didn’t mean to be condescending, but in a manner of speaking, the girl used sex for a living”) start out as the core romantic conflicts, but relationships from Gabe’s past, notably his ex-girlfriend Caroline and old friend, Reed, add additional layers of drama to the plot.

Dialogue surrounding Poppy’s business is sex driven, but oftentimes humorous, as are the innuendo-laced exchanges between her and Gabe. The sexual tension around these exchanges intensifies when the two move in together as temporary housemates. The heat level of intimate scenes sizzles around moderate, despite numerous references to porn and prostitution. Uncomfortable events from Poppy’s past and details of Gabe’s impending Justice Department investigation disperse the steam and lighten the heat, while creating dramatic subplots. Full of steam, drama, angst, and vibrant prose, this story is ideal for readers who prefer a cat-and-mouse element to their romance.

Takeaway: This small-town contemporary romance will draw readers in with its sexy storyline and relatable characters.

Great for fans of: Meghan March, Courtney Milan.

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

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Great American Women in Science and Environment
D. J. Mathews
Mathews (Let’s Run Our Schools Together) details the inspirational stories of notable American women in this homage to female grit and determination. Composed of separate biographies with similar formats and accompanying historical photographs, this hefty publication recounts the achievements of heroines like Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman doctor, and Grace Murray Hopper, an early computer programmer and naval officer, as well as the upbringings that both challenged and motivated them. With household names like Erin Brockovich and lesser-known greats like Chien-Shiung Wu, this can-do tribute covers a lot of ground, aiming to ignite curiosity and inspire young girls (and boys) to “help the world and make it a better place.”

Mathews writes conversationally, favoring informal language and even touching on her personal experiences to entice readers and keep them engaged. This style lends an air of familiarity to a weighty subject and invites readers to imagine the day-to-day lives of these women, but at the cost of a more authoritative tone. Uncited quotes, like Sally Ride’s husband saying “Have a ball up there!” before she went into space, are indistinguishable from the chatty conversations that Mathews invents between the historical figures and other people in their lives, a likely source of confusion for younger readers and parents navigating the distinctions between fact and fiction.

Though the addition of historical images, including photographs, creates a welcome opportunity for kids to see the women and some of what they’re famous for, like a hair product of Madame CJ Walker’s, the hand-drawn illustrations from the author do little to enhance the reading experience. This is ultimately a celebration of women’s accomplishments in science and the environment—areas that are historically lacking in female leadership—and an encouragement for kids of all genders to make a difference through their inquisitiveness and perseverance.

Takeaway: Young readers who enjoy a more casual approach to history will appreciate this tribute to women trailblazers.

Great for fans of: Marlene Wagman-Geller’s Behind Every Great Man, Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo’s Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women.

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

The Boy Who Illustrated Happiness
Victor D. O. Santos
Alive with heartwarming moments and a cheery blend of colors, Santos’s coming-of-age picture book features a budding artist keen on spreading happiness to others. Young Ben expresses his emotions, good and bad, through his art. He continually finds creative opportunities in everyday life, such as designing his breakfast plate with ketchup, squirting toothpaste on the bathroom mirror, and drawing on the foggy bus window. To share this joy with others, he creates the Happiness Club, a group whose members dedicate their time to making each other happy. Surpassing language barriers, the members communicate through drawings, origami, songs, and hand gestures. Ben and his friends soon realize that happiness is a powerful language that everyone understands.

While Ben's age remains vague—seemingly by design—Santos lends him ample agency and a big heart powered by the question “What can YOU do today to make someone happy?” Santos's writing is motivated by themes of compassion and unity, though verbosity and a leisurely pace diminish the impact of the narrative, and story developments concerning a pet and Ben’s eventual trajectory in adult life shift the focus from the inspired idea of the Happiness Club. The text tends to reiterate, in a font that doesn’t complement Eszter Miklós kaleidoscopic artwork, story beats and deeper meanings that the illustrations already convey or suggest.

Santos's portrayal of Ben's relationship with his parents and his pet fish, Jerry, is a laudable highlight that emphasizes the rewards of the kind of happy childhood that Ben is so eager to share. Readers will appreciate the attention to detail—such as the framed Caldecott honor alongside Jerry’s picture on Ben’s bookshelf—and the vibrant hues that characterize his blooming talent and enthusiasm for life. Meanwhile, Miklós's vivid illustrations and pleasing compositions effectively capture Ben's quest with nuance and effervescence. Overall, this delightful treat boasts an inspiring protagonist, diverse characters, and colorful settings.

Takeaway: A charming tale of a wunderkind that underscores the merits of love, respect, and acceptance.

Great for fans of: Kay A. Haring’s Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing, Joanne Liu’s My Museum, and Jeanette Winter’s Henri’s Scissors.

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

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The Sweetest Therapy
Chase Cassine, LCSW
This tasty offering from Cassine, a therapist and clinical social worker in New Orleans, is as much a memoir as it is a cookbook. Cassine turned to baking as a form of consolation after his mother passed away from cancer. The Sweetest Therapy documents his transformative journey in photos, short personal essays that touch on his life and his city, and his family’s much-loved recipes, including simplified versions of New Orleans favorites like pecan pie (“In New Orleans, we don’t call it ‘PEE-can.’ Instead, we say ‘PA-kawn.’”) and one-layer chantilly cake.

This book would be ideal for folks who are new to the art and science of baking, though formatting and style consistency throughout the book present some issues. Some sections have white text superimposed on a black background, which can be difficult to read, and some numerals are interchanged with numbers that are written out, which can confuse a reader who is elbow-deep in flour.

Readers will be drawn in by Cassine’s easygoing, conversational tone: “If only you knew how much begging, pleading, and petitioning it took for me to acquire this recipe from my paternal grandmother, Althea, then you would be both shocked and amused!” Cassine’s warm personality even informs the instructions in his recipes. “Pour your crust into a 9-inch Springform pan,” he writes, of a sour cream cheesecake, “but don’t trip if you don’t have one.” The photographs bookending the recipes, showcasing scenes of second line parades, offer a taste of his city’s vibrant culture, while photos of the dishes themselves are clear, bright, and appealing. Readers will really come to know Cassine through his introduction and reminiscences. His battle with grief is poignant, and his refreshing honesty (describing his struggles with emotional eating and negative self-talk) will be a balm to those also struggling with the same issues.

Takeaway: An appealing guide to healing through baking, New Orleans-style.

Great for fans of: Robbie Montgomery’s Sweetie Pie’s Cookbook: Soulful Southern Recipes, from My Family to Yours, Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House.

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

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