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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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Better Than A Bully
Tina Levine
A reluctant bully begins to question her choices after gaining empathy for her victim in the Levines’ heartwarming middle grade debut. Tara has many friends in her fourth grade class, but plump, redheaded Annie isn’t one of them; instead, Tara and her friends nickname her “Carrot Top” and bully her. Much of the taunting was started by Tara’s friend, Ace, but Tara and the rest of her friends regularly join in. After Annie helps Ace out of a dangerous situation, Tara learns more about Annie’s struggles as the child of a disabled, impoverished single mother. Tara sees how unfair bullying is and realizes her own power to make it stop.

The unusual point of view of a tween caught between bully and bullied will invite readers to inhabit Tara’s internal conflict of wanting to be nicer to Annie while fearing being mocked by others for showing kindness to a designated pariah. Annie’s continued positive attitude can feel a little unrealistic, but it drives home the point that victims don’t do anything to deserve being bullied. Glimpses of Ace’s own troubled home life go some way to explaining his own reasons for harassing others. Middle grade readers will grow in understanding alongside Tara as she becomes a force for kindness among her peers.

Tina Levine combines her own experiences of being bullied with her expertise as a teacher who sees students on all sides of the bullying dynamic, creating deeper understanding and relatability for young readers. The protagonists can be lovable and funny as well as serious as they cope with difficult situations that many children will find personally relevant, and the moral lessons don’t feel heavy-handed. Discussion questions at the end will prompt dialogue and deeper explorations of the theme. Ned Levine’s evocative monochrome spot illustrations add depth to the story and its characters. The profound messages of acceptance and empathy shared through realistic situations, with a solid dose of humor sprinkled throughout, will win readers over.

Takeaway: Young readers feeling pressured to bully others will relate to this story of a onetime bully who steps up to teach kindness to her peers.

Great for fans of Patti Kelley Criswell’s Stand Up For Yourself & Your Friends: Dealing with Bullies and Bossiness and Finding a Better Way, Tonya Duncan Ellis’s Sophie Washington: The Snitch.

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

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Corona Daze
Jennifer Angel
Angel debuts with a clumsily executed but sincere and heartfelt story of the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on children—namely her daughter, Eva. Like many other children, Eva is stuck inside her house, feeling worried and scared about the changing world around her. She is no longer able to attend school, go to the grocery store, or visit her grandparents. Despite all of the challenges she faces in this new world, Eva maintains a positive attitude, demonstrating to other kids that they too can be scared and strong at the same time.

The book seems to have been hastily completed to meet an urgent need, and due to the ever-changing nature of a global pandemic, some of the facts are already outdated. Adults using this book to explain the epidemic to children may run into places where they have to contradict what it says. A few illustrations show behavior that’s now discouraged, such as going to the park without wearing masks (albeit while keeping distant from others). The explanation of the virus is too simplified for older children, and its effects are ominously shown in pictures of a hospital patient and a coffin that younger children may find too frightening. Many illustrations are black-and-white photos enhanced with digitized Sharpie sketches, often poignant but sometimes disharmonious; the strongest drawings are the ones that stand alone.

Clearly a labor of love, this picture book effectively validates a child’s experience of quarantine and the intimidating emotions that accompany it. After the litany of things Eva can no longer do, readers will appreciate the pages about how she spends her time now, including playing with her brother, studying engineering by building graham cracker towers, and going for walks. Angel’s simplistic story is a useful jumping-off point for sparking discussions with young children about these tumultuous and confusing times.

Takeaway: This timely portrait of isolated life in the pandemic era will help little readers feel seen and validate their complicated feelings.

Great for fans of Mo Willems’s Knuffle Bunny series, Hailey Glynn’s When Virona the Corona Came to Town.

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

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Uprooting Fear
Aura Camacho-Maas
Camacho-Maas’s debut is a profoundly passionate memoir celebrating her discovery of spiritual strength and recognition of signs from the divine. Camacho-Maas begins with tracing her distressing early years in Bogotá, Colombia. Her father’s violence led her to construct an independent life at a rather young age. Once out in a world promising adventure, awareness, and freedom, Camacho-Maas took one faith-based step at a time, plunging into the arms of divinity and exploring the secrets of nature. In passages that are more exploratory than inspirational, she describes intense shamanistic experiences and details extensive paranormal encounters that helped her see and understand the portents all around her.

Camacho-Maas employs concise and effective writing as she shares earnest autobiographical accounts in episodic, intimate, and reflective observations that support her evolving intuitions and worldview. She sees fear as the basis of discord and discrimination in the world. Her easygoing sophistication makes the analysis of her revelations accessible while she probes the deeper meaning behind each experience. She does not shy away from discussing her mental health struggles, repressed anguish, and emotional burnouts with gentle sensitivity, seamlessly blending her interpersonal, psychological, and spiritual experiences in the later chapters.

Readers may be taken aback when the tone markedly shifts from sentimental to businesslike as Camacho-Maas describes her initial years founding her nonprofit agency, the Latin American Resource Center. The memoir subsequently loses some cohesion, and it takes a while to bring the reader back into the core subject. Fortunately, the included illustrations by children from a variety of backgrounds, part of a traveling exhibit Camacho-Maas coordinated through her work with international school systems, help to link her work with some of her more personal insights. Camacho-Maas’s lessons in the healing and dismantling of the self are profound and make her journey feel both mystical and wholesome.

Takeaway: This memoir of spiritual seeking is a perfect fit for readers looking for storytelling with a transcendental quality.

Great for fans of Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, Deepak Chopra’s The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success.

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

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Dance of the Deities
Patricia A. McBroom
McBroom (The Third Sex: The New Professional Woman) uses her own experiences as an anthropologist, a science writer, and a woman navigating modern society to fashion a memoir of her “search for equality and the sacred female.” She examines the influence of goddess worship on human culture, establishing that many societies that worshipped female deities gave men and women equal power. She combines her research with her personal experiences to clearly demonstrate her view that society would function better with a more egalitarian structure. Her approach is compassionate, not militant; while grieving the effects of patriarchy in her own life, she asserts that women don’t want to rule over men, only to share their power.

Drawing on her several decades of science writing and archaeological research work, McBroom provides well-informed historical examples of egalitarian cultures that paid a steep price when male-dominated colonizers took over, examining the effects of European patriarchal structures on the Iroquois and the Maori. Her passion for female deities is clear throughout the narrative, but she’s careful to reinforce her personal opinions with informed analysis of ancient objects and other archaeological findings.

McBroom comfortably invites readers into her life. As she discusses the importance of goddesses in Neolithic cultures, she transitions seamlessly to examples of how a respectful view of women either did help or could have helped her. Sharing painful stories such as being scapegoated at work because she was a woman, and joyful ones such as living for 19 years in a cohousing community where everyone governs together, McBroom effectively illustrates the significance of recovering “the cultural history of the sacred female.” This mix of memoir, theory, and research will interest any reader who’s passionate about building a more egalitarian world.

Takeaway: Feminists and history buffs will be drawn to this passionate, well-researched memoir that explores the past and possible future of gender-equal societies.

Great for fans of Marija Gimbutas and Joseph Campbell’s The Language of the Goddess.

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

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Half Awakened Dreams
David A. Wimsett
The second installment in the Carandir Saga follows a sprawling cast of characters dealing with an uprising against King Ryckair and Queen Mirjel. A group of discriminatory Western purists plots to overthrow Mirjel, the Eastern queen who has failed to produce an heir. Meanwhile, Ryckair is kidnapped by the Zerites, an ancient race of nonhumans, and tasked with finding the evil dragon Baras, who threatens to upend the order of the world. While Ryckair and Mirjel’s love is tested by infertility, Ryckair’s illegitimate son, the ruthless boy general Dhamar, is tempted by the wicked sorcerer Petstra to overthrow his father and serve Baras.

While Wimsett immerses the reader in the world of Carandir, thoughtfully including maps of the kingdom and a glossary of the trading language, readers may be overwhelmed by the many characters (some of whom have extremely similar names, like Deh and Dek) and story lines. No single plotline gets the attention it deserves, and emotional investment may suffer as a result. In key moments, it can be difficult to keep track of who is who, lessening the intended weight of the story. (Reading the first installment might help.)

The book works best when characters have clear goals. Ryckair’s journey with the Zerites is one of the most enjoyable sections to read. Sif and Tarawee, his Zerite guides disguised as humans, inject some much-needed humor into the story, and the group suffers relatable setbacks and successes. While the author takes on a lot of information and detail at once, the world he creates is engrossing. Fantasy readers will appreciate the dedication to detail.

Takeaway: This immersive tale combines palace intrigue, military coups, and sorcery—perfect for fantasy fans with a political bent.

Great for fans of: Frank Herbert’s Dune, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings.

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

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DEATH ON THE HIGH SEAS
Richard V Rupp
Rupp’s slow-burn thriller leads readers on a global adventure. Special Agent Dick Hartmann and fellow FBI agent Coleen Ryan embark on a relaxing getaway aboard the Pacific Wonder cruise ship, where the Bon Appétit Insurance Company plans to hold its annual meeting. The insurance company manages finances for various high-level criminals, including Juanita Ramirez, head of a Mexican drug cartel. With the help of her girlfriend, Emelia Björk, Juanita strives to keep the cartel’s shady financial dealings under the FBI’s radar at any cost. When Bon Appétit’s CPA Greg Lemons notices discrepancies in the company’s bookkeeping, he is murdered to keep that information from becoming public. Dick and his team must unravel the mystery of the man’s death and bring the killer to justice.

Readers must suspend disbelief to fully appreciate this thriller. Juanita too-readily divulges highly sensitive information, including the inner workings of her business, to Emelia. Dick also acts questionably. After he’s summoned to meet with the captain about Greg’s murder, he pauses to take a shower and change clothing, a shocking delay considering the situation. Exposition is often repeated, slowing the pace despite a whirlwind plot and large ensemble cast filled with FBI agents and criminals. The frequent objectification of women (including by other women, as when Emelia eyes the “boobies” of “circle of dykes” at a party) a missed opportunity, undermining the promise of strong heroines and multidimensional women villains.

Rupp’s extensive world travel shines on the page. The truly varied assortment of settings includes Berlin, Monaco, and North Carolina. As each new locale is described, readers will find it easy to picture the characters there. His background in the commercial insurance industry paves the way for a sophisticated insurance scheme that keeps the pages turning as layer after layer is uncovered. Armchair travelers will get the most from this cruise through bloody waters.

Takeaway: Fans of financial thrillers and literary vacations will enjoy this tale of crime and scheming on a cruise ship.

Great for fans of Catherine Ryan Howard’s Distress Signals.

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

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Across the Bridge of Ice
Ruth Fox
Fox’s second novella in the YA trilogy The Bridges finds a plucky teenager tracking a vision through a magical telescope into a harsh and dangerous ice world. After 15-year-old Keira Leichman breaks her ankle during a bizarre blizzard in her desert town, she fears she’ll never play soccer again. She’s plagued by strange dreams, is turning pale, and is drawn to her friend Jake’s mysterious brass telescope—which pulls her across an ice bridge along with Jake’s 9-year-old brother, Daniel, into the parallel world of Shar. The Sharians, who have monitored Earth for millennia, are horrified by Earth’s climate devastation, war, and violence. In their beautifully described crystal city, Keira and Daniel are feared, medically examined, and imprisoned. She learns from Archon, who is half human and half Sharian, that Shar may be planning to invade Earth. Meanwhile, she’s developing a mysterious ability to use the Sharians’ magical powers.

Rather than delving deeply into character motivations and the social context of Shar, this story focuses on plot, which proceeds according to schedule. The premise of Shar is fascinating, and readers may wish there was more information about the city, its people, and its relationships with humans.

Readers will warm to the teenage spunk of energetic and tough Keira, who vows to find a way back to Earth with Daniel. Archon, too, is a complex character, doing his duty as a scientist but unable to ignore the cruelty and paranoia of the city’s leaders, the Guardians. Young readers will enjoy the enchanted ice city, handsome characters, and magical charms of this thrilling YA fantasy.

Takeaway: This magical adventure will satisfy YA fantasy readers who enjoy spunky heroines and fairytale charm.

Great for fans of: Robert J. Crane’s The Girl in the Box series, Skye Malone’s Awakened Fate series.

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

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Bolting the Furies
Helen H. Moore
Moore, known mostly for children’s books on poetry, transports readers to an alternate version of Earth’s recent past in this fantastic horror novel that combines Lord of the Flies and a gender-swapped Handmaid’s Tale with a supernatural twist. In 1972, 19-year-old college student Senga was a feminist activist. In 1986, she’s a scavenger trying to survive in a wilderness-covered Brooklyn after an unspecified apocalypse. She uneasily shares the fast-growing forest with 30 fellow former activists, the Maenads, who hunt men, rape them in hopes of getting pregnant, and then kill and eat them. To end these vicious rites, Senga must team up with her adopted daughter, Pink, who has never seen a man; her high school friend Buffy, a farmer and stoner; and two unexpected outsiders.

A couple of plot twists feel slightly contrived, and some readers might find the book’s ambiguity frustrating, especially regarding the event that led the survivors to their current situation. This mystery is as intriguing as it is challenging, however, and the book’s conclusion leaves open the possibility of a sequel that could contain more answers. Fluid, self-aware prose and sharp characterization keep the reader entranced. The Maenads can seem like caricatures, but when men are introduced, their shortcomings are depicted with equal wryness, and descriptions of their “flat bellies, and heavily muscled glutes, and thighs that led down to wiry calves” subtly parody the male gaze. Every character is both strong and deeply flawed.

Though the novel’s themes resonate with earlier works of feminist science fiction, Moore’s work is unusual in that it critiques misandry as well as misogyny and depicts a world without men as a horror, not a utopia. She deploys vivid descriptions of violence only when absolutely necessary to drive that horror home while implicitly critiquing books that relish violence against women. Dark but with a glimmer of hope, this gripping work earns its place on the shelf of any post-apocalyptic fiction fan.

Takeaway: This bloody post-apocalyptic thriller critiques gender ideology extremes and will fascinate any connoisseur of feminist science fiction.

Great for fans of Elizabeth Hand’s “The Bacchae,” Naomi Alderman, Margaret Atwood.

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

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Spider's Web
Shannon Condon
Events in the tragic past and dangerous present spectacularly collide in Condon’s fast-paced second Magdalena thriller. After a brush with death three years before, special ops agent Magdalena “Maggie” Curran is now helping covert missions succeed from the safety of her basement operations center in a quiet Virginia town. Restless from being sidelined with “safe” duties, Maggie longs to get back in the field despite the danger and the family she loves. She struggles to reconcile this urge with her desires to continue her musical training and her difficulty conceiving a second child with her husband, fellow agent Bernardo. When the son of an old enemy with ties to the Russians reappears and past truths are revealed, Maggie must uncover subterfuge, betrayal, heartbreaking losses,and danger to reclaim her life.

Finding Magdalena introduced Maggie as a teenager in a harrowing tale of love and loss. Now readers get to appreciate Maggie as an adult: agent, singer, mother, and wife. The dialogue can sometimes be stilted or trite (“I need to remember that a lot of women don’t even get one baby”), but the emotions underneath it are real. Domestic issues including fertility problems, jealousy, and mental illness intertwine and juxtapose with dangerous enemies including the mysterious group known as the Brotherhood, and loved ones become collateral damage when covert operations go terribly wrong, showing the tragic humanity in the espionage world.

Condon’s wonderful heroine is a survivor above all else. The story boasts a rare mix of daring spycraft and the domestic life of an extended family, though this sometimes leads to uneven pacing and an overextended plot. There’s much to enjoy as Maggie outwits kidnappers and Russian operatives while facing her own fears and demons. Both new and returning readers will appreciate the promise of this unique series and be eager to follow Maggie wherever her dangerous, fulfilling life takes her next.

Takeaway: A tough heroine with strong family ties brings adventures galore to thriller readers wishing their ordinary lives could be just a little more exciting.

Great for fans of David Baldacci’s King & Maxwell series, Dan Fesperman’s Safe Houses.

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

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Jocelyn's War
Jason Ryan Dale
This complex and gritty third Journeys Down a Long Dark Road work (after Tina and the Big Bad Wolf & Other Stories), which stands well alone, follows two crime outfits clashing in the Philadelphia suburbs. After his release from prison, Bobby the Beast, former sergeant-at-arms of the Ghost Knights Motorcycle Club, begins a war with the mob to reestablish his gang’s credibility. His secret weapon is Jocelyn, a young woman with a sordid family history, who seduces Danny, the son of a mafia bigshot. When Danny’s bar is attacked by the Ghost Knights, Danny launches an investigation, while Jocelyn grapples with her capacity for betrayal.

Dale crafts a world of ruthless characters who unfortunately lack the necessary interiority to engage the reader’s sympathies. Danny and Jocelyn’s relationship is treated somewhat as a romance, but it’s tumultuous and occasionally violent, and readers may find it hard to cheer the lovers on. Moments that provide insight into Jocelyn’s motives (such as needing money to send her younger sisters to college) are welcome but rare. Nearly every character is a murderer, a backstabber, or an abuser, and the protagonists employ disturbing racist language. However, the willingness of many characters to betray one another or change sides adds memorable twists and strengthens the plot.

Keeping track of who’s who is difficult in this sprawling story, which spans multiple generations with interrelated narratives and tangled backstories. It’s peppered with flashbacks, memories, and lengthy monologues about the past, and is most compelling when the characters’ histories tie into their present-day actions. The plot itself is frequently gripping, and fans of the mob genre will appreciate the scenes of bloody action.This thriller will hook readers looking for a twisty story full of characters they’ll love to hate.

Takeaway: Family drama, violence, and a femme fatale make this thriller appealing to fans of mafia stories.

Great for fans of Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night, James Patterson’s Don’t Blink.

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

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Murder at Melrose Court
Karen Menuhin
In this witty and clever salute to interwar mysteries, aristocrat Heathcliff Lennox faces a string of mysterious deaths while spending the Christmas of 1920 at an English country manor. Lennox and a motley collection of relatives get a surprise when his aged uncle, Lord Melrose, announces his engagement to an émigré Russian countess. But murder interrupts the festivities and Lennox turns sleuth, finding that all the guests, including shady financial advisor Peregrine and the countess’s niece, Natasha, have dark secrets. Lennox must navigate family rivalries and financial problems to save himself and uncover a killer.

Menuhin has a firm grasp of the English country house mystery: from page one, readers meet the idle rich, too busy tying a fishing fly to realize there’s a dead body on the doorstep. Also present are loyal, daffy servants; a lovelorn butler appears in a scene reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse. Though Melrose Court is well-populated, the author drapes each character with enough amusing offbeat traits to make sure they stand out, as with cousin-by-marriage Gertrude, an unapologetic kleptomaniac with an alarming knowledge of explosives. There’s a slight stumble toward the end with a rushed introduction of new information, but overall the plot zips along and the cast always entertains.

Though largely comic, this mystery contains some somber scenes that lend depth to the story and anchor it firmly in its time and place, as when Lennox remembers his service in the Great War. The aristocratic Russians fail to grasp that working-class English are not Russian peasants and that their grotesquely lavish world is gone forever. The vibrant characters and meticulously detailed period setting will keep readers smiling and even chuckling all the way to the surprising but wholly believable conclusion. This is a wonderful example of its genre, and readers will eagerly look forward to more from Lennox and his eccentric family.

Takeaway: Fans of English interwar mysteries will delight in this whodunit, which is replete with eccentric gentry and servants, a drafty manor house, and plenty of witty exchanges.

Great for fans of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey series, Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple series.

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

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Amplify Your Job Search
Jeffrey S. Ton
Ton follows 2018’s Amplify Your Value with a welcome corrective to business advice books that overpromise and underdeliver. The guide makes it clear that readers hoping to land an ideal job will have to work at it, advocating a laser focus (“zeroed in on a specific role”) as opposed to a shotgun approach (“searching for a job, just about any job”). Ton challenges his audience to pursue intense self-reflection, secure the feedback of colleagues, and explore past accomplishments in narrative terms. The manual provides additional steps to “amplify” a personal brand, and the advice, while practical, demands serious self-investigation: as a laser is highly concentrated, so should be a candidate’s presentation of strengths, skills, and achievements.

Ton emphasizes the power of networking in chapters fully updated for the 2020 reality of virtual get-togethers. His suggestions range from the technical (digital Zoom backgrounds “will detract from your image, and if the lighting isn’t perfect, you will look like James T. Kirk transporting to the Enterprise during a power glitch”) to the interpersonal (“look at the camera... like you would look in someone’s eyes in a face-to-face meeting”). Ton proposes asking key questions at networking encounters and includes several examples of direct queries to utilize in both online and offline settings, teaching readers to take goal-oriented action.

This compact guide wastes no energy on filler and convinces readers of the urgency of more demanding self-investigation. Journaling is one of several instruments offered to help applicants obtain their dream jobs. Rather than selling readers a one-size-fits-some system, Ton’s guide stands out and accommodates individuality by instructing readers to sell themselves. Any white-collar job-seeker who’s willing to put some thought and effort into identifying their strengths, weaknesses, and ideal work situation will find this an invaluable aid.

Takeaway: This no-nonsense guide will help any white-collar job-seeker unlock their dream career through self-examination, networking, and staying focused.

Great for fans of Richard Nelson Bolles’s What Color Is Your Parachute?, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans’s Designing Your Life.

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

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