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Long Journey Back
Jeanne Bandolina
Bandolina’s debut, a mystery-thriller set in North Carolina, jumps into the thick of the plot right at the start, as an unexpected explosion rocks one of the concourses at the Greensboro airport. Galaxy Airline pilot Alex Decker had been slated to land a jet there, but was warned away at the last minute, as a mysterious policeman told him to request a different gate. In the aftermath, Decker teams up with FBI Special Agent Maria Rodriguez to uncover the culprits behind the explosion. What ensues is a journey from Greensboro to Africa to Central America, full of unexpected twists and turns, encompassing everything from fast-paced shootings to raw diamonds to encounters with the dead.

The story is both propulsive and intricate, and hurls forward with full force. Bandolina keeps readers on their toes, using every opportunity to introduce new characters, unexpected plot twists, and violent clashes. Chapters end on page-turning cliffhangers (“Alex needed answers, and the place to start was at the airport”), throwing thriller fans into a fabulous world full of swift high-stakes storytelling. Bandolina grounds the tale’s implausible elements by demonstrating a firm grasp over the technicalities of drone strikes, flying an airplane, and how battles get waged in the desert.

Still, the sheer number of moving parts can get overwhelming. It’s hard to keep track of the wide array of characters and the intricacy of the plot at times edges into inscrutability. The relentless twists and turns also have a tendency to stretch the imagination, risking reader incredulity. However, Bandolina’s prose and motley set of characters prove engaging enough that readers willing to roll with Long Journey Back’s wildest notions and purposeful momentum will be sucked into its shady world and the fate of its cast. Lovers of fast-paced mysteries and airplanes will enjoy this ambitious globe-hopping thriller that’s both personal and larger than life.

Takeaway: This fast, twisty, thriller sends a pilot around the globe after an attack on a North Carolina airport.

Great for fans of: Irene Hannon, Dee Henderson.

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

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Home is Within You
Nadia Davis
11/30 HOME IS WITHIN YOU In this singular memoir, Davis—a public figure, attorney, and mother with a history of public service—has written heartfelt letters to her children revealing what she has faced throughout her life, touching on addiction, abusive relationships, and broader ideas about hope, justice, poverty, and courage. “It is not easy to have courage to be vulnerable,” she notes in one, though she exhibits that courage throughout the collection, juxtaposing this intimate disclosure of her actual self against all that has been said about her in media coverage. The amount of interpersonal work Davis has done is evident, and this memoir is a tribute to how much effort she has put into her health—and to setting up a hopeful future for her family.

Opening with lessons drawn her father’s impoverished upbringing and closing with the touching story of telling her son, as he applies for college, that “Sometimes we don’t realize the challenges we’ve walked through until they are over,” Home Is Within You is alive with Davis’s honesty and vulnerability, threading both her pain and the hard work of recovery and healing into its pages. Her frank accounts of grief, loss, and assault are upsetting, but the memoir’s hopeful trajectory sees Davis—“that little bright-eyed brown girl who simply wanted to save the world but sometimes hid in the closet”—building a thriving career, giving back to the community, and finding the strength to face trauma head on.

Her account of her journey will help readers build understanding, empathy, and hope, though due to the intensity of some of the accounts and the length of the book the most pleasurable reading experience likely involves taking in a couple of letters at a time. Even when recounting instances when the press or people she counted upon have been unfair to her, Davis’s grace and humanity are striking. She is kind to those in her life and, after much work and learning, to herself.

Takeaway: In these tender, urgent letters to her sons, Nadia Davis reveals her life, vulnerability, and journey toward healing.

Great for fans of: Stacey Patton’s That Mean old Yesterday, Kimberly Rae Miller’s Coming Clean.

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

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The Friendly Bookshelf
Caroline and Katherine Brickley
In the wondrous world of children’s books, it is not unusual for inanimate objects to start walking and talking–but the Brickleys’ sweet and imaginative picture book is the rare title to anthropomorphize a bookshelf. In the back corner of the library, Bibli the bookshelf spends his days listening to kids enjoying stories about adventure, magic, and friendship but knows deep down he has an important story of his own to share. The other bookshelves are skeptical and shoot down his dreams: “Bookshelves are meant to hold stories, not have ones of their own,” one particularly uptight shelf tells him. But soon, Bibli meets a little girl named Cassie who gives him the opportunity to create like he’s always imagined.

Bibli and Cassie become instant friends, and before long Bibli is handing out books to children, making silly faces at babies, and looking on happily as pets rest on his shelves, “lending the kind of helping hand that only a bookshelf can.” Eventually Cassie writes a book about Bibli and reads it to the other kids at the library, underscoring the central message that everyone has a story worth sharing. This theme is based on the authors’ social-emotional learning research, “written to build self-confidence and self-esteem as well as encourage inclusivity.” The story accomplishes these goals by highlighting the value of a familiar yet often overlooked object, giving kids and parents the chance to discuss the quiet yet essential contributions of other people and things in their lives.

Daniela Pérez-Duarte’s colorful illustrations convincingly bring Bibli to life, showing the ebullient little bookshelf smiling, bending, and twisting on his legs to interact with Cassie and the other kids, who appear cheerful, curious, and friendly. Ultimately, seeing Bibli find a way to share his journey with the world will inspire kids to look for the significance of their own stories, as well as recognize those untold narratives in the world around them.

Takeaway: This sweet picture book brings to life a little bookshelf who wants to share his story with the world.

Great for fans of: Ashley Spires’s The Most Magnificent Thing, Adam Rex’s School’s First Day of School.

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

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Getting to Alpenglow
JEANETTE SHIVERS
Shivers makes her fiction debut with this young adult novella in which fifteen-year-old Aretha–better known as ReRe–narrates her extraordinary and ordinary dramas, including major family conflicts, attempted assault, run-ins with police, and everyday worries like feeling less attractive and popular than her older sister, Tori. Indeed, ReRe’s story is also that of Tori, a difficult teenager if there ever was one. As internal and external pressures build, resilient ReRe fights to keep a positive spin on things. ReRe cheekily says, “If I ever decide to write a book about our lives, I know that it would be categorized as a fiction because no one would ever believe that a person would have to live through so much just to come into their own.”

Endearing and engaging, Getting to Alpenglow is a fluently written account of a modern, fatherless teenager both before and after the Covid-19 pandemic. Each chapter takes its name from ReRe’s color-coordinated mood—the organizing principle of the book—and these especially ring when they correlate to sweetness, such as in “Cotton Candy Pink,” a chapter on ReRe’s very young (but age-appropriate) romance.

No quotidian teenage subject is left undiscussed, from church to high school to small town gossip to the onslaught of quarantine. A tone that is loose, laid back and associative often evokes the feel of a diary entry, with the narrator making the occasional precious, revealing mistake or typo, as when she appropriates adult phrases, such as calling a stick in the mud “stuck in the mud.” ReRe’s breathless teenage voice is persuasive, and is engaging and relatable enough to appeal to anyone with youth in their life (or veins.) Eventually, Getting to Alpenglow reveals a focus on mental illness and its impact on families, material handled with such sensitivity that readers of serious young adult fiction will acclaim the book for its timeliness and relevance.

Takeaway: This relatable YA novel boasts a compelling teen voice as its narrator faces love, mental health issues, and the start of the pandemic.

Great for fans of: Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Helena Fox’s How it Feels to float.

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

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Bible Letters to the Public Editor by Dan Arthur Pryor Hal Arthur Pryor ISBN # 978-1-4809-4535-7
Dan Arthur Pryor
A record in crisp, clear language of where two Catholic men stood on the issues of abortion, gay marriage, pre-marital sex, and more, Pryor’s collection compiles letters he penned to New Jersey and Pennsylvania newspapers during the Obama era, as well as some earlier missives from the 1990s and early 2000s written by his father. Both men prove adept at the direct, concrete style of opinion letters, holding firm to their principles but evincing a sense of play even when outraged. That’s not to suggest that the often inviting tone of these short pieces (“Concerning the Affordable Care Act, I believe the Catholic has common ground with the atheist with the right to life in the womb”) diminishes their fire and fury: In most of these several dozen dispatches, the Pryors denounce abortion, homosexuality, and “fornication.”

The younger Pryor’s polemic technique centers on scripture, Catholic tradition (especially the Didache catechism), occasional appeals to the wisdom of the founding fathers or the clarity of Webster’s, and a talent for the pungent kicker: “Lucky for Obama he wasn’t one of those infants left to die on a cold hospital tray after sneaking past the abortion doctor’s knife,” he wrote to The Express-Times of Easton, Pennsylvania, in November of 2016. In a preface, Pryor describes himself and like-minded Catholics as applying the millennia-old teachings of Jesus’s New Covenant “to our everyday lives regardless of the opinion of the evolving society.”

This mission finds him taking issue with Dear Abby’s advice to a college student about sex before marriage (“Dear Abby needs to consult a priest about moral advice according to God’s law which will supersede any civil law that is contrary to God’s law”) and frequently alerting readers to scripture that condemns homosexuality. The approach might resonate with an audience of believers, but readers who have not already accepted the premise that Christ’s teachings “are timeless and [do] not evolve for any reason” will likely remain unpersuaded.

Takeaway: A Catholic father and son’s impassioned letters to newspapers offer scriptural condemnations of abortion and more.

Great for fans of: Austin Ruse’s Under Siege, William E. May’s Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life.

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

Honor Through Sacrifice: The Story of One of America's Greatest Military Leaders
Robert E. Lofthouse
Lofthouse’s debut tells the story of Gordon Lippman, his cousin, who served in the US Army from the Second World War, as a paratrooper, until his untimely death in Vietnam, where he was deployed as an executive officer with the 3rd Brigade’s 1st Infantry division. “We need heroes today, and Gordon fits this description,” Lofthouse writes. He emphasizes Lippman’s bravery in combat, his zeal to serve his country in three wars, and his impressive collection of medals. At the core of the biography is a question that Lofthouse asks with wonder: “Where does America get such gallant men?” Lippman—one example, Lofthouse argues, of many such heroes—exemplified “leadership, humility, courage, faith, and loyalty.”

Lippman grew up in South Dakota and enlisted when he turned 18 in March of 1943, going on to fight in Italy, France, and at the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, he got married, adopted children, and went to further his education while continuing to serve in the Army. During the Korean War, he served with valor as the white officer of the 24th Infantry Regiment, a historically Black unit. When the Vietnam War began, he again answered the call of his country and served until his death in an attack on a U.S. base in 1965, which is recounted in vivid, moving language by a captain (eventually a lieutenant colonel) who bore witness.

Lofthouse draws on extensive background research and makes able use of photos and maps, and a closing appendix offers reminisces from his family. He aims to tell this story as one of both courage (which is well attested, through the medals Lippman won) but also as one of Christian faith, which is less well demonstrated in the narrative. More attention to Lippman’s life outside of his military service may have presented a more well-rounded portrait and lent weight to his faith. Still, Lofthouse does an excellent job relating Lippman’s valor in such a way that it is sure to inspire more.

Takeaway: This soldier’s biography, penned by a cousin, celebrates courage, service, and uncommon valor in three U.S. wars.

Great for fans of: Bill Richardson’s Valleys of Death, James K. Cullen’s Band of Strangers.

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

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Doctor Hate
Richard Helms
Eamon Gold, private investigator, is back in action on the streets of San Francisco in Helms’s dramatic detective mystery, which kicked off with 2004’s well-received Grass Sandal. Brandon Hunt, nicknamed Doctor Hate, is a notorious tenured professor who wears his racist and sexist points-of-view on his sleeve. Many in the progressive Bay Area wish upon this outspoken man who makes no effort to hide his vile opinions and might even relish the shock value. After a physical assault leaves him shaken, Hunt seeks the protection of Gold. Gold eventually accepts the case and quickly finds himself unraveling an enigma soaked in vengeance. It’s up to him to keep Hunt safe as the stakes are raised and the tension bubbles over.

Quick paced and packed with action, Doctor Hate holds nothing back as Gold navigates the unsavory secrets of the professor’s personal life. A captivating protagonist created by an accomplished and experienced mystery writer, Gold evokes the private eye of a great black-and-white noir flick with a chip-on-his-shoulder for always doing right by his client, even if that client is as despicable as Brandon Hunt. Helms’s realistic dialogue, characterizations fitting for each character’s unique personality, and vivid sense of place all invite readers into a world that mystery lovers will relish the chance to explore. The many twists will keep them on their toes, turning pages, guessing until the final moments.

While Eamon Gold has appeared in previous books, readers unfamiliar with this self-described “meat and potatoes blue collar private cop” will quickly feel as if they are spending the evening with a close friend. The relevant background information is seamlessly filtered into the story, revealing just enough to add another layer of intrigue and personality to characters without weighing down the action. Helms’s crisp, blunt dialogue and prose and assured sense of mystery construction will please readers looking for a tantalizing detective story in the classical mode.

Takeaway: Fans of classic noir detective stories will love unraveling this fast-paced crime drama.

Great for fans of: Robert B. Parker, Scott Phillips.

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

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The Confessional
CLAUDIA ERMEY
Ermey’s accomplished, culture-crossing debut novel highlights the devastating impact of the Dirty War of Argentina. After Alberto and Mirta DeSalvo’s daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter are abducted in Buenos Aires by soldiers because of their son-in-law Ernesto’s subversive activities, Mirta is also arrested and taken to a torture center, where her captors demand to know Ernesto’s whereabouts. Desperate to save his wife, Alberto tries to pay the ransom, but when he falls short on the $10,000 demand, he turns to his cousin for help—who eventually convinces her American employer, Julia Parks, to give them the money needed to free Mirta. From this, the DeSalvos and Julia are firmly connected, and their bond transforms in ways none of them could predict.

Ermey excels at integrating historical events into the story, with chilling depictions of the torture endured by Mirta, and she capably depicts the subservience of Argentinian women to their husbands during the 1970s. Her depiction of Argentina’s Dirty War and the corruption of government and church officials is revealing and devastating. Also engaging is her handling of the novel’s surprising connection: after Julia helps the DeSalvos escape Argentina to live in California, the couple agree to work for her as caretakers. Julia, who is pregnant, eventually asks them to adopt her unborn daughter, with the provision that they never disclose that she is the birth mother. Alberto and Mirta readily agree, naming the baby Francesca.

Yet it’s Ermey’s attention to the dynamics between her characters, especially between Mirta and Francesca, that will resonate most with readers, especially as Francesca becomes an adult, has an opportunity to connect with Julia, and begins to compare Mirta to Julia. Anyone who can relate to the intricacies of family bonds across generations and the love and sacrifices that children can discover their parents have made will appreciate this engaging, empathetic read.

Takeaway: A moving novel in which an Argentinian couple escapes tragic loss to start over in California.

Great for fans of: Daniel Loedel’s Hades, Argentina, Ellen Keith’s The Dutch Wife.

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

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Flowers Grow on Broken Walls
Farena Bajwa
Bajwa’s disarming debut collection of intimate, often untitled poems opens with an ending, a black page declaring “The End” and lines in which she writes “‘Click and Delete’ / and gone he was. / Swallowed by the world.” That end is bookended, some 200 plus pages later, with a final beginning, and the urgent promise, seemingly hand-carved into the page like graffiti in a school desk, “YOU WILL HEAL.” The poems and sketches in between find her, with that same engaging sense of play, feeling her way toward that promise, as her verses recount in clear, precise language moments of being adrift, of surprise beauty, of fleeting hopes and connections: “Hey my little cashier boy,” she writes, “you sparked something in me / I didn’t know I still had.”

The portrait that emerges is of a poet healing, facing uncertainty, digging for confidence and meaning. Some verses find Bajwa’s narrator psyching herself up (“‘I can’t do it’ / is the moment before you do it. / -start.”) or contemplating the frustrating complexity of contemporary romance (“Ask me out for a date so you can get to know me / or scroll down my feed until you‘ve seen my personality. / Have you found something you like? / Am I worth the wait?”) Her tone and topics are relatable, her forms inviting, her approaches clever, sometimes wry, often affecting. The feeling is loose and light without being casual: her lines dance with each page’s white space, the layouts lending crucial emphasis.

Bajwa is shrewd enough to anticipate and defuse the criticism of an ungenerous reader--one poem, on the subject of art, asks “Is it my passion, / or / do I just want to be seen?” That question, of course, cannily thumbs the essence of the creative impulse. Less guarded are her spot illustrations, a bevy of vivid, surprising sketches accompanying and enriching most pages. The combination is arresting, both naive and savvy, simple and rich.

Takeaway: Intimate, relatable verse, written, illustrated, and laid out with wit and feeling.

Great for fans of: Nayyirah Waheed, Faraway.

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

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Getting to Know African Animals: with real safari guides
J. P. Taylor
Environmental advocate Taylor (Eye-dentifying Endangered Animals) aims to introduce children to the wonders of African wildlife in this information-rich picture book. He delivers hard and fast animal facts on Africa’s most famous creatures—alongside nature photographs and snippets from actual African safari guides—bringing the “second-largest of all the areas of land on earth called continents” to life. Taylor starts with animals that most young readers will already be familiar with, like the lions of the savanna and the elephants of the bush and forest, but he gradually introduces less celebrated species and entertains with intriguing one-liners, like “Hippos are the only big mammals that live both in the water and on the land.”

Educators will relish the wealth of knowledge in this ode to learning. Readers will discover how to tell leopards and cheetahs apart (hint: it’s all in their spots), the function of a black rhino’s curved upper lip, and the unique sounds made by wildlife in the African region–among many other noteworthy critter features. Taylor also spotlights the distinctive habitats in the area, from thick forests to savannas, and how they protect and provide for their animal inhabitants. Young readers will be interested to learn that elephants require “30 gallons of water or more every day.”

Taylor distinguishes this animal guide by including original counsel from real-life African safari guides, each of whom is introduced with a photo. Guide Bradden Stevens shares that “We call a group of zebras a ‘dazzle,’” while Kenneth Tumusiime, a 13-year veteran guide from Uganda, reveals that smaller animals congregate around giraffes “because they have long necks and are so tall they can see predators before they attack.” The vivid photos, taken by a wide range of nature photographers, illuminate the region’s stunning landscape and its awe-inspiring animals, particularly the panoramic shot of wildebeest crossing the Mara River during their Great Migration. This survey is sure to ignite fascination—and possibly a conservationist’s passion--in readers.

Takeaway: An entertaining guide to some of Africa’s most memorable wildlife, rich with detail and fascinating facts.

Great for fans of: National Geographic Kids, Sandra Markle’s What if You Had Animal Teeth!?

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

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A Soldier's Quartet
Colin Baldwin
Baldwin's debut, a heartfelt account of the lives of soldiers, is based on true events, with the lead character, Tasmanian retiree Conrad Bentley, looking to fill his days, joining a German-speaking group, a string quartet, and a boating crew. However, it’s his obsession with an old letter—written by a German father about the death of a son in the first world war—that gives him direction and drives the action of the narrative. Baldwin jumps back and forth in time to tell the stories of a group of German soldiers, a pair of Tasmanian natives who were also in the war, and Bentley’s life in the present. The story of the dead German soldier, Wolfgang, and his friends is remarkably warm and rich with detail. Baldwin starts with the death of Wolfgang and then reaches further back to examine the friendship of the four men, dubbed "the quartet" because they were so tight.

This group is obliquely connected to two Tasmanian soldiers whose close bond was tested by the horror of life in the trenches. Their eventual reunion proves deeply affecting thanks to the sensitivity of Baldwin's approach to the trauma of war as well as the depths of feeling between male friends that, often, society does not often encourage.

The emotional power of the scenes set in the past is not diminished by the story’s fast pace. The contemporary sections with Conrad, though, lag by comparison, with quotidian, diary-like detail slowing the narrative momentum, and only some of that material ties clearly into the book's themes (like the son of Conrad's friend getting mixed up with a neo-Nazi group). It’s when the tale creates connections with these soldiers from the past—characters who feel both wonderfully and painfully real—that A Soldier's Quartet is at its most powerful, a story about war that avoids easy cliches and packs an emotional wallop.

Takeaway: A remarkably humane account of camaraderie during war—and war’s human cost.

Great for fans of: Pat Barker, Béla Zombory-Moldován's The Burning of the World.

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

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Daze of Isolation: Diary of a Stuck at Home Mom
Krista Ehlers
Ehlers’s debut memoir uses honesty, empathy, and humor to relate how she and her family coped with more than a year of pandemic isolation. Adapted from Ehlers’s Facebook posts during the Covid-19 shutdown, the story takes the form of a daily log of her pandemic experience, with short entries stretching from “Day T minus Three,” just before schools closed, to “Day 383 of Isolation,” the day her daughter got back on a school bus for the first time since the pandemic began. Ehlers’s chronicle of the days between offers a candid, entertaining look at the trials and triumphs of pandemic life.

While the book makes occasional references to outside events, like the presidential election and 2020’s devastating Western wildfire season, Ehlers’s approach is apolitical and tightly focused on Covid’s impact on daily family life. Readers of contemporary memoirs will relate to major milestones—such as restaurant closings and mask mandates—but Ehlers primarily recounts the pandemic through the lens of stay-at-home motherhood, describing in both harrowing and humorous detail how she tries to help her children manage “eSchool,” social isolation, and cabin fever, tasks made even more difficult due to the “Extreme Parenting” required by her children’s ADHD and related conditions.

Though her descriptions of family conflicts are muted, Ehlers’s openness about them and their impact on her mental health is compelling. In addition to these larger challenges, the day-to-day struggles of Covid living—sourcing toilet paper, celebrating birthdays in isolation, “Fix-It Fridays,” keeping her sourdough starter alive, and finding somewhere to use the bathroom on road trips—drive Ehlers to coping mechanisms that range from prayer to a heavy McDonald’s Diet Coke habit. Whatever their pandemic experience, readers of parenting memoirs will find it easy to connect to Ehlers’s playfulness and sincerity, and they will admire the endurance and love that saw her through her family’s pandemic.

Takeaway: A heartwarming and relatable look into one family’s lockdown that will particularly resonate with parents.

Great for fans of: Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions, Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.

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

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NPE* A STORY GUIDE FOR UNEXPECTED DNA DISCOVERIES
Leeanne R. Hay
An NPE, or “non-paternity event,”is, in journalist Hay’s definition, “the genetic genealogy term for a break in the hereditary familial line and name” and also an acronym applicable to anyone who who discovers “through DNA testing that the man listed on their birth certificate (often known as ‘Dad’) is not their biological father.” In this “Story Guide,” Hay offers people who have turned up a surprising truth about their own paternity encouraging support in the form of real-life stories, new insights, and above all a sense of common cause. “Like most NPEs, I at first assumed that my situation was ‘unusual.’ I did not expect to find thousands of others like me,” she writes.

Hay’s book is rooted in ample research into this pressing but under-discussed topic as well as her own experience as an NPE herself, someone whose “anger and feelings of helplessness were sometimes overwhelming.” She expects that readers reeling from similar discoveries of their own might be facing similar emotions (a chapter studying portrayals of the NPE experience “in fact and fiction” is titled “When Are You Going to Get Over This?”) A journalist by training, Hay busts myths and common assumptions about NPEs, especially the belief that “only one type of occurrence creates an NPE (an adult consensual encounter) with only one outcome of suitable reaction to an NPE (detached tolerance).” From her research, and the many real-life NPEs she meets, she introduces a host of scenarios and responses, some wrenching, as in the case of NPEs who are coerced by their families to keep their discovery secret.

A hybrid of journalistic investigation, personal memoir, and highly focused source of advice and comfort, Hay’s NPE will resonate with its intended audience, which includes people who know an NPE but aren’t one themselves. Occasional awkward phrasing and a tendency to quote at length make the book at times less inviting than it might have been, but throughout Hay proves an effective journalist and coach.

Takeaway: A skilled journalist offers facts and encouragement to people who have discovered surprises about their biological fathers through DNA testing.

Great for fans of: Libby Copeland’s The Lost Family, Stephen F. Anderson’s A Broken Tree: How DNA Exposed a Family's Secrets

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

Sights Unseen
Philip Cosand
Cosand’s debut novel is a quirky and endearing story revolving around two friends whose friendship grows into a beautiful relationship throughout the years. The story begins with Cole Evans when he is five years old and exploring the outdoors in his small town, where he literally stumbles into Bonnie, a girl with an unusual condition of being invisible. Amazed at his new friend’s state, Cole establishes an instant camaraderie with her that continues for years on end, even as his parents believe she’s imaginary. Cole and Bonnie navigate the trials of childhood and high school together—and then grow apart and reunite when they realize their friendship has matured into love and affection.

Bonnie’s character drives this feel-good story. From her invisible roots to a shocking revelation in high school, followed by years of popularity, as she matures Bonnie becomes something of an “It” girl admired by everyone, particularly Cole himself. Cole is no inactive protagonist, though: while he may not have known her face during their childhood, the duo forms a deep bond that only intensifies when (for reasons readers will have to discover) the invisible Bonnie finally makes her appearance. The mystery surrounding Bonnie invites readers to ponder age-old but still pressing questions: Is attraction only skin-deep? And what does it mean to love someone you’ve known nearly your entire life?

Inviting and warm, and offering a few surprise twists, Sights Unseen is marked throughout by a feeling of ease, partly due to the quirky and quaint small-town characters and Cosand’s playful handling of invisibility. (“Bonnie’s hair,” Cole insists, is only invisible “when she has it on her head. When it falls off you can see it.”) Even the high school drama quickly becomes a thing of the past as the leads grow up. Readers who favor gentle romances touched with a hint of the uncanny will remember Cole and Bonnie’s unusual connection long after they’ve turned the final page.

Takeaway: This quirky literary romance will warm readers' hearts as its main players grow up out of place in a small town.

Great for fans of: Kelley McNeil’s A Day Like This, Catherine Ryan Hyde’s Say Goodbye For Now.

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

Click here for more about Sights Unseen
The Orchid Farmer's Sacrifice: The Red Crest Series Book 1
Fred Yu
Set in ancient China, Yu’s latest martial art’s novel (afterThe Legend of the Snow Wolf) follows Mu Feng as his privileged world as the son of an esteemed Tiger General falls apart––all because of the birthmark on his rear end. After a heavy night of drinking, Feng is attacked by bandits and barely escapes with his life. Betrayed by friends and perhaps family, Feng struggles to stay alive as his sister is abducted and killers in the empoy of an ominous, omniscient judge try to assassinate him. This coming-of-age legend is complete with ample action, a love interest, and two heroic missions: Feng must save his sister and stop war from breaking out.

Strong and complex characters, plotting, and politics distinguish this well-written wuxia novel. Yu adeptly blends wuxia story traditions: the young protagonist who faces a tragedy and is thrust upon a hero’s journey, learning martial arts along the way; his efforts to prove himself to people who doubt him in a world with elements of fantasy and magic; the detective-like figure who uses his problem solving skills to solve a mystery. Yu introduces magic slowly––Feng himself is skeptical of it––and unveils the world of this series with care, though an abundance of moving parts bogs down some of the story’s middle, and Yu at times offers more exposition than readers actually need.

Still, this is a suspenseful, often riveting start to Yu's Red Crest series, especially when Feng realizes that the only people he can trust are two women––Ming and Iron Spider––from the Venom Sect, a powerful group of poison (and magic) users who are stigmatized for their embrace of a dishonorable weapon. Can Feng get over his prejudice to work with the Venom Sect and save his sister––and his own life? And why is everyone after the mark on his butt? Appropriate for young adult readers (there’s binge drinking, talk of sex work, and free usage of the harmful term “barbarian”), The Orchid Farmer’s Sacrifice will leave wuxia fans eager for the next book.

Takeaway: A riveting and suspenseful hero's journey, touched with magic in the wuxia tradition.

Great for fans of: Jin Yong, Fonda Lee’s Jade City, Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty.

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

Click here for more about The Orchid Farmer's Sacrifice
Inspector Mage: Blood on the Floor
Aleese Hughes
The first entry in an ambitious new series blending the fantasy and detective genres, Blood on the Floor details the efforts of young Julie Melton and the giant Russell Gaines, retired but once reputed to be the best investigator in the city of Pirbis North, to solve the murder of John–Julie’s brother-in-law–after Julie’s sister, Eliza, is accused of the crime. Julia, unlike the other members of her family, has not yet discovered her “mage gift,” making her powerless in a family of noble magicians. Russell, whose own mage gift helps him see what others can’t, gave up the investigating game after facing a violent crime with a personal dimension. But once Julie convinces him to take the case, the game is afoot, with morgues to visit, last words to decipher, clues to tease out, and—maybe—a god to face.

Hughes’s mystery plotting is clear and well-executed, with twists that will keep readers guessing and suspense calibrated to keep the pages turning. By focusing on the one character without magic in a family of magicians, Hughes smartly subverts the trope of the “chosen one” while addressing grounded themes of identity, remorse, and duty. The novel is exposition-heavy in parts, as Hughes introduces mysteries, backstories, magic systems, and the world of Dagirus. That’s common in fantasy, of course, but the interesting world-building detail (and some occasional unnatural dialogue) also functions to slow down the plot of the mystery. Elements like illustrations of buildings or front pages of The Pirbis North Daily enrich the storytelling.

Fortunately, the leads develop an engaging rapport as, over the course of the investigation, Russell nurses a flask of whiskey and dazzles with feats of deduction, while Julie at last comes into her own. Meanwhile, Hughes (author of The Tales and Princesses series) reveals an antagonist that will surely loom over future books in the series. Her Dagirus is a world worth exploring, populated by interesting characters, and a strong foundation for the series.

Takeaway: This twisty crime fantasy caper sets up an exciting series, compelling protagonists, and a major villain.

Great for fans of: Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows , V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic.

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

Click here for more about Inspector Mage

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