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The Execution of Jesus the Christ: The Medical Cause of our Lord's Death During His Illegal Crucifixion
Mark J. Kubala
Catholic neurosurgeon Kubala combines his work and faith in his debut book, a historical-medical investigation into the possible causes of Jesus Christ’s death that is both factually dense and accessible to the average reader. It takes most of the book to arrive at Kubala’s own theory, but readers familiar with Jewish and Christian stories will be impressed by the lead-up, which includes a deep dive into the history of Judea, its politics, and its religious leaders as well as a play-by-play of the week and hours leading up to Jesus’s death that is more detailed than an Easter service.

The book’s specificity defines its most likely readers. As Kubala points out, his fellow medical professionals will likely “find the language to be somewhat elementary.” However, laypeople may think it reads too much like a textbook. Some knowledge of the Bible is assumed, and non-Christian and Christian alike will occasionally feel preached at. But for intellectually curious Christians and history buffs interested in the era, Kubala’s work is a treasure trove of research. Even the seasoned churchgoer will learn something new—Kubala sometimes strays quite far afield, as when he explains the etymology of the names Golgotha and Calvary—and all readers will appreciate the clear, objective prose.

Anyone looking for a gripping narrative, emotional argument, or devotional text should look elsewhere. Kubala’s restrained writing style and well-reasoned arguments resemble those of medical journal articles. What he does successfully provide are the tools to allow anyone to consider the details of Jesus’s execution—local history, medical understanding, cause-of-death theories—and an invitation to remember Jesus’s sufferings and rejoice in the triumph of his resurrection. The descriptions are gruesome, the illustrations are basic, and the message is explicitly Christian, but those in the target audience will find it genuinely moving.

Takeaway: This scientific yet tender exploration of Jesus’s final week and execution will find a home in Christian bookstores, Bible study groups, and discussions of apologetics.

Great for fans of Lee Strobel, N.T. Wright.

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

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The Lord Chamberlain's Daughter
Ron Fritsch
Fritsch’s solid revisionist take on Shakespeare’s Hamlet uses Ophelia, depicted as living a quiet agrarian life a decade after the events of the play, as its reflective, tell-all narrator. King Fortinbras, who has just learned that Ophelia is alive and traveled to see her, listens to her version of the story. Four childhood friends, Hamlet, Ophelia, Laertes, and Horatio, are united in opposing the war with Norway, but they grow apart as Hamlet and Laertes study abroad while Ophelia secretly leads the rebellion against conscription and uses her position as Hamlet’s desired bride to listen in on the deliberations of the royal chambers.

Fritsch’s alternative plot is logically worked out and clearly told. He successfully sells the premise that an Ophelia with no actual interest in marrying Hamlet but much interest in bringing Denmark to peace under a good leader could have orchestrated all of the deaths in the play. But Fritsch misses an opportunity to truly change the point of view. His stepwise reworking of the story comes at the expense of developing a passionate voice for Ophelia as either a cold schemer or a populist hero, and will be most interesting to Hamlet fans who appreciate the care with which he reworks canonical events. He slips into a third-person omniscient view for scenes where Ophelia is not present rather than developing a second narrator or relying on readers’ ability to fill in the blanks, another distancing choice.

The modern language generally works fine, though profanity sometimes sits awkwardly in the characters’ mouths. New characters—Eric, Claudius’s servant, and Christina, the Swedish ambassador—add little. Feminist readers may be frustrated that the role of Gertrude is mostly unchanged, but will cheer Ophelia’s agency. Though Fritsch doesn’t fully transform the character of Ophelia, his storytelling brings freshness to a classic.

Takeaway: Shakespeare fans will enjoy this adaptation of Hamlet, which gives a woman center stage without straying too far from the original.

Great for fans of Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time.

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

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Kahana: The Untold Stories
Ann Kennedy
History and Hawaiian culture are interwoven in Kennedy’s promising novelization of stuntman and actor Kim Kahana’s life, developed in consultation with Kahana’s wife. Kahana’s serene life as a young boy in Hawaii is shattered in 1941 by the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the beginning of WWII. Soldiers tell Kahana stories of America, fueling the boy’s desire to go to the mainland. In 1945, after the war has ended, Kahana stows away on a cruise ship to San Francisco. During his convoluted travels through the continental United States and service in the Army, he encounters kindness from strangers, opportunities, bad luck, and second chances that set him on the path to becoming an actor and stuntman.

Kennedy’s often tender coming-of-age story successfully reveals key moments in Kahana’s adventure-filled life that shaped his career. The timeline is sometimes unclear, but it’s evident that Kahana’s curious nature, streetwise ways, and perseverance both landed him in and got him out of trouble. Readers will enjoy learning how strangers helped Kahana survive by teaching him skills and encouraging him to stay positive.

The novel is illustrated with a handful of photos, though their placement does more to interrupt the narrative than to enhance it. The simple prose (“He knows that quick breathing increases oxygen blood flow, which will give him more power”) suggests that the book is geared toward middle grade readers, but some unnecessary details, such as a paragraph describing the information printed on a business card, may not hold their interest. Any reader can appreciate beautifully descriptive passages that highlight Hawaiian culture, as well as those that capture the horrors of WWII and the Korean War and show how racism permeated American culture at the time. Kennedy’s book portrays Kahana as a model of determination and optimism through these difficult circumstances, and his story is inspiring.

Takeaway: This inspiring fictionalized biography of a stuntman’s life and career may resonate with young teens.

Great for fans of Great for fans of Bill O’Neill’s The Great Book of Hawaii, Jackie Chan’s I Am Jackie Chan.

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

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Physician Career Choice and Satisfaction: Empirical Studies of Practicing Physicians
GERALD OTIS
Psychologist Otis’s report summarizes the results of his longitudinal study tracking how and why medical students eventually chose their career disciplines. The study, initially conducted between 1967 and 1976, ended when funding was cut. Decades later, Otis used the internet to track down many of the participants and learn where their careers had taken them. Using a variety of statistical methods, this book analyzes this data. Otis tracked trends regarding the predictive power of certain psychological profile tests with future career choices. He also studied physicians’ satisfaction with their careers, the types of practice they chose, the kinds of communities they lived in, and other factors.

The book is written as a series of related medical journal articles and is not aimed at laypeople, though the language is fluid and accessible. There are pages of tables and statistics that the average reader might find difficult to parse, along with detailed descriptions of methodology. One key finding is that while most medical students don’t know exactly what they want to specialize in, they have a good idea of what they don’t want. Another is that it’s possible to improve students’ attitudes toward working in community hospitals if they are assigned attentive mentors to provide guidance.

Observing that there are periodic shortages in certain medical specialties, Otis suggests that consortiums of schools coordinate research along the lines of his study, using their results to guide the allocation of resources and help students find the most suitable career prospects. He shares all of his testing methodology for others to use as a model. He also recommends undertaking medical research as a way to advocate for peace, but his vagueness on this issue is at odds with his otherwise rigorous approach. This study will serve anyone interested in the methods by which medical students do and should select their areas of specialty.

Takeaway: Medical students and med school administrators will dig into this study of how physicians choose their careers.

Great for fans of Brian Freeman’s The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Medical Specialty.

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

We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships
Kat Vellos
Vellos, a user experience designer and founder of the discussion series Better Than Small Talk, brings her social know-how to the masses with her marvelous debut handbook on adult friendship. After moving to the San Francisco Bay Area and having a tough time making long-term, quality friends, Vellos decided to study experiences of friendship. In interviews, discussions, and surveys, she found that most people reported a feeling she calls platonic longing. Vellos attributes this longing to the quest for friendship being stymied by frequent moves, busyness, other relationship commitments, and “antisocial media.” She is a firm believer that vulnerability and hard work are the keys to overcoming these obstacles and building quality connections, and her book lays out strategies for cultivating friendships both new and old.

There is so much to love about this handbook. Vellos’s writing is easy and conversational; she shares stories of cooking with housemates and neighbors as if chatting with the reader over a meal. Such anecdotes are seamlessly accompanied by robust research that helps readers understand the value of relationships in measurable ways. At the end of each chapter, a “Try it” section is filled with activities, journal prompts, and more invitations to dig deeper. Vellos’s own charming drawings complement the text.

Vellos powerfully and personally challenges the reader. Her tips are more like life coaching sessions, pushing her audience to defy awkwardness and ask thoughtful questions. Those reading this book to improve their friendships may end up improving themselves as well. The only limitation is that Vellos’s advice is focused on face-to-face relationships in urban environments, though much of it is applicable in other situations. If every person who reads this book takes it to heart, there will be a lot more friendship in the world.

Takeaway: This tender, practical handbook will help lonely millennials, isolated elders, the recently heartbroken, and anyone else eager for more and better friendships.

Great for fans of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, Brené Brown, Mari Andrew.

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

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The Astrologer's Curse
Arunesh Choubey
Australian author Choubey (The Migrant) paints a bleak portrait of the dangers of obsession in this muddled novel. The book opens with Dr. Walter West celebrating a triumph with colleagues at the Mind Experiments Corporation, which builds machines that can share and alter consciousness and memory. Then Walter is hit by a truck and glimpses a man who carries a blue diamond. The rest of the book covers the events of the preceding five days. Indian schoolteacher Bhanu Roy travels to a remote island and meets Spanish actress Camila, Malian general Mali, Iranian wrestler Farhad, and Russian oligarch Pushkin. All have fled scandals in daring escapes. Roy believes the island houses a magical blue diamond that can make his dreams come true, and he embarks on a desperate search.

This concept is promising, but the execution makes it challenging to follow. The point of view changes from one sentence to the next, making it difficult to really get to know the characters. The narration dispassionately describes reactions without evoking emotion (“Mali’s face displayed a look of shock and regret”). This does little to build a connection between the reader and the characters, and when danger threatens, it’s hard to get excited about it. The timeline jumps around quite a bit, and it’s not always clear whether the events of the book are dreams, fantasies, or reality.

Readers who persevere will be pleased with a philosophical section near the end of the book that explores the nature of the self. Unfortunately, the final revelations about MEC’s experiments fall flat. The glimmers of intriguing philosophy are hidden beneath a slippery story that, like Roy’s quest, offers much challenge and little reward.

Takeaway: Philosophical readers may appreciate this discursive thriller, which pivots around concepts of the self.

Great for fans of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees.

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

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The River Nymph
Anne Lovett
This richly poignant and romantic novel from Lovett (Rubies from Burma), set in 1920s Georgia, follows a poor young woman’s struggle to improve her life. Tenny Oakes leaves Weedy Grove and travels to Ashbyville to escape the unwanted attentions of landlord Arno Shackley and to search for her brother, Byron, who went off to serve in the Army and never came home. Eventually Tenny trains for a career in nursing, where she encounters intern Pete Godwin. Unbeknownst to Tenny, Pete’s cousin Gussie accidentally photographed her while she was bathing in the river some time before. Gussie reluctantly gives up photography to marry Ned Fletcher, a mill manager who looks much like Byron, while Pete and Tenny develop a friendship that’s strained when he weds snooty socialite Swanee Burkett. When Swanee has a stroke after giving birth, Tenny leaves the hospital to care for her, and she struggles to stay professional demeanor while pining for Pete, who suffers from Swanee’s disdain.

Lovett’s writing style is lyrical, with humble sensory depictions—an “evil-smelling” iron tonic, a clip-clopping mule—that pull the reader in. Her narrative expertly combines the stories of a host of characters, though Tenny always stands foremost. Tenny’s transformation from the daughter of a sharecropper to a well-educated nurse is admirable and uplifting, highlighting her grit and determination at overcoming the odds against her as she endures rape, an unwanted pregnancy, and heartbreak.

The author’s attention to class and racial distinctions reveals the tenor of the times. She references how both Ned and Tenny have changed their manner of speaking to distance themselves from their poor origins and alludes to the ease at which a black man is framed for a hit-and-run car accident. The pace of Lovett’s writing never falters throughout the lengthy narrative, which will appeal to any fan of stories set in the early-20th-century South.

Takeaway: This engrossing tale of a determined young woman escaping poverty in 1920s Georgia will capture readers’ hearts.

Great for fans of Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing, Jojo Moyes’s The Giver of Stars.

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

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Individual Performer To Manager: A Practical Guide to Career Advancement into Management
Norm E. Oshiro
Debut author Oshiro’s straightforward, sensible guide to excelling as a manager contains a wealth of valuable advice from his decades-long career in leadership. Taking the tone of a trusted mentor, Oshiro sets out to impart hard-won knowledge and help aspiring executives get ahead. Chief among his lessons are investing in one’s own training, learning how to understand and please one’s superiors, and battling through overwhelming tasks. Once readers take their first steps onto the leadership ladder, Oshiro counsels them on how to keep growing—emphasizing the importance of maintaining scrupulous business ethics, doing due diligence when hiring and firing, and dealing straightforwardly with complaints and discontent.

Oshiro's clear account of his career—including both achievements and failures—gives readers confidence in his advice, and he advocates for readers, advising them to believe in themselves and to move on from employers who don’t sufficiently value them. He shows managers how to encourage top performances and balance work and life demands. Oshiro also offers an unflinching and realistic look at doing what one must do to stay afloat during hard times, using his short-lived sales career as an example. Admirably, Oshiro focuses on the positives of his former employers, and he is especially generous in praising his time at Ross Perot’s company Electronic Data Systems, singling out Perot as a guiding light in his working life.

Suitable for executives and would-be managers at all levels and stages of their careers, Oshiro’s practical guide will serve as a handbook for success for those who follow its wise advice. His own sterling ethics are on display throughout, and his empathetic tone and well-paced narrative will easily draw readers in and invite them to soak up his knowledge.

Takeaway: Managers at any stage of their careers can benefit from this mix of thoughtful memoir and timeless business advice.

Great for fans of Bill George’s True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, Peter F. Drucker’s The Effective Executive.

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

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BFF: A Story About Bullycide
Lindsey G. P. Bell
Bell examines the heart-breaking consequences of bullying in her moving YA debut. Financial straits force Abby Feldman and her father to make an unwelcome move from San Francisco to the small town of Kissimah, S.C. A chance meeting leads Abby to meet Hollis Wickwire, whose dog promptly drags them into a muddy pond, and they form a delightful friendship full of adventures. However, the start of school brings new shocks as Abby discovers a tyrannical bully, Lexie Cross, rules seventh grade and that Hollis is Lexie’s favorite victim.

Bell draws on personal experiences to weave a revealing narrative on bullying and “bullycide” (when a person commits suicide because of bullying) into an otherwise nostalgic teen story. Lexie’s savagery shatters the idyllic sense of the initial chapters. When Lexie starts terrorizing Abby (including over Abby being Jewish) and Hollis with a wide variety of physical, verbal, and emotional abuse, she sets them off on a downhill ride to a sad conclusion. Bell skillfully portrays the psychological effect of Lexie’s bullying on the rest of their class as well. It’s particularly thought-provoking and saddening to see the failure of parents and school authorities to address Lexie’s behavior in a meaningful way.

Hollis and Abby are memorable, likable characters, and their attempts to capture an injured heron while evading alligators and bugs result in an endearing friendship. Bell’s crisp descriptions of fictional Kissimah give a clear sense of the teeming wildlife, and the townspeople vividly showcase the cultural nuances and complexities of the South in the 1980s. The framing of Abby’s adult recollections and the lively prose and pacing make the story immersive. The memorable characters and the questions raised in Bell’s heart-wrenching debut will stay with readers long after the final page is turned.

Takeaway: Both adult and teen readers will be moved by this poignant story and find it a valuable resource in discussing and countering bullying.

Great for fans of Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places, Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why.

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

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The City
Brad Ramsey
Inspired by the work of English poet George Crabbe (1754–1832), Ramsey’s lyrical debut book-length poem takes a rhapsodic tone while recounting his experiences living in community housing. Writing in the style of Crabbe’s “The Village,” which sought to depict the grim realities of village poverty in the 18th century, Ramsey gives an honest view of impoverished 20th-century urban life through untitled poems with a wide range of topics. Excoriating the gap between the privileged and the destitute (“The wealth around them makes them twice as poor”) and confronting the fear of dying homeless and alone (“Here, to the church behold no mourners come”), Ramsey paints a heartbreaking picture.

The verses have no named characters, but Ramsey exhibits a gift for empathy as he describes the plight of the lower classes through metaphor. However, the pastiche itself can be a barrier. The scansion of the heroic couplets sometimes falters, and many of the concepts can be lost in the anachronistic language. Readers familiar with older poetry may be comfortable with lines such as “Fain would they ask the hoary swain to prove,” but this work will be less accessible to the average reader.

Portraying a small and often unacknowledged slice of life in its rhymes, the book stands as a forceful condemnation of class stratification as well as a respectful homage to Crabbe’s work. Even those readers who struggle with the language will applaud Ramsey’s ambition of conveying 20th-century plights in an 18th-century style, and he succeeds in engaging the reader’s sympathies, as he hopes: “Let this passing song distaste overpower,/ And make you more forgiving from this hour.”

Takeaway: Readers familiar with both 18th-century poetry and 20th-century poverty will appreciate this moving reminiscence in verse.

Great for fans of Giacomo Leopardi, William Blake.

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

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The Great Healing - Five Compassions That Can Save Our World
Stephen Erickson
Erickson’s debut is a comprehensive entreaty to save a rapidly dying Earth with compassionate activism. Erickson fears the planet is facing the end of the Anthropocene epoch, the “Age of Humans.” After citing dire statistics about global warming and vanishing species, he declares, “We are failing to take action to implement the solution because what we lack is awareness.” His five-part strategy is intended to create that awareness; encourage compassionate support for animals, humans, the land, communities, and democracy; and inspire action and collective work to heal the planet. To bolster his arguments, he includes three new short essays by activists, a photojournalist, and a doctor, as well as a reprinted poem by Wendell Berry.

Emotional descriptions (often illustrated by vivid photos) of animal cruelty, oceanic dead zones, and Farm Bill subsidies for “Big Ag” elicit compassion, outrage, and shame. Erickson takes care to balance his concerns with suggestions for solutions. For example, after decrying the ravages of diabetes and related ailments, he prints a brief essay by celebrity doctor Joel Fuhrman on healthy eating (though some readers may take issue with Fuhrman’s suggestion that people suffering from medical problems eschew medications in favor of following Fuhrman’s own trademarked dietary plan). A discussion of topsoil loss due to overfarming is followed by a primer on regenerative agriculture.

Readers who find calling their senators easier than going vegetarian will be relieved by Erickson’s view that government intervention is just as important as individual and community activism. “Realize your power as a citizen in our democracy,” he advises, encouraging readers to push for the Green New Deal and other large-scale actions. Though informed conservationists will know much of this information already, Erickson’s passion and earnestness make it accessible and interesting to a wider readership.

Takeaway: This alarming but not alarmist work provides purposeful, accessible, and concrete ways to counter and prevent ecological damage.

Great for fans of Melanie Joy’s Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows; Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

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

Murder Bytes
Gayle Carline
Carline’s fifth mystery featuring 51-year-old PI Peri Minneopa (after 2016’s A More Deadly Union) is an action-packed venture set in Placentia, Calif., that features a healthy dose of romance and family drama. Peri, rattled by past traumas, has closed her agency and sworn off investigating. Then she receives an unexpected phone call from her estranged older brother, Dev, who woke up in a hotel room next to a dead woman he swears he didn’t kill. Police confirm that the stabbing victim is Tressa Velasco, an electrical engineer who expressed interest in buying a device from Ro-Bet Engineering, where Dev works. When Peri starts pursuing leads, Dev turns himself in and abruptly confesses to the crime, complete with a murder weapon. Unconvinced, Peri becomes more determined to prove her brother’s innocence.

Readers will be drawn to Peri’s spunky personality and independence; she refuses to hide behind her affectionate, protective fiancé, police detective Skip Carlton, even when flashbacks double the stress of car chases and shoot-outs. Along for the ride is her quasi-assistant, Benny Needles, an autistic Dean Martin aficionado who proves to be indispensable during the story’s climax. The interactions between Peri and Benny are heartfelt as well as humorous, though Peri’s well-meaning neurotypical perspective can grate. (“Sometimes I get to the end of my rope with him, then I remember that he’s trying to process things the only way he knows how.”) In contrast, Dev’s relationship with Peri is one-note, and the reasons for their estrangement are unclear.

It’s fairly easy to spot the killer, but readers will appreciate Carline’s effective cliff-hangers and her ability to build truly creepy scenes, especially when Peri unearths sinister secrets in a prime suspect’s home. Carline also puts considerable effort into her depictions of PTSD, OCD, and autism. This is a satisfying mystery that will leave readers eager for Peri’s next investigation.

Takeaway: This entertaining mystery is perfect for readers who appreciate a funny and courageous heroine.

Great for fans of Anne George’s Southern Sisters series, Sue Grafton.

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

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Anonymous Is a Woman: A Global Chronicle of Gender Inequality
Nina Ansary
Historian Ansary (Jewels of Allah: The Untold Story of Women in Iran) shines a light on the “obscure lives” of “accomplished yet forgotten female innovators” in this illuminating volume. The title, she explains, derives from Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own,” in which Woolf theorized that women’s genius “never got itself on to paper.” Ansary, hoping to “expose the roots and manifestations of institutionalized gender discrimination” and “inspire women and girls to move beyond gender barriers,” profiles 50 women born before 1900 who anonymized themselves in some fashion, starting with En Hedu-Anna, an Akkadian poet-astronomer in the 24th century BCE. She also cites Jane Austen, who wrote as “A Lady,” and Joanne Rowling, whose “J.K.” pen name is deliberately gender-neutral.

Ansary observes that the work of many of her subjects was stolen by or attributed to men. Spanish philosopher Oliva Sabuco, for instance, asserted mind-body dualism 50 years before Descartes, but her father took credit for her treatise. And though 19th-century scientist Eunice Newton Foote first showed that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and theorized that more of it in the atmosphere would warm the planet, a male physicist who published on the subject three years later is more often regarded as the founder of climate science.

The book’s design is beautiful, with gorgeous watercolor illustrations by Petra Dufkova. It’s best suited to classroom use; the brief profiles might appeal to laypeople interested in women’s history, but they’re preceded by scholarly essays on global calls for women’s rights, gender gap statistics, and the economic benefits of gender equality. Students will appreciate that the variety of women who made the cut—chemists, warriors, artists, educators—keeps reading lively.

Takeaway: Students of history will appreciate this reference work on women’s hidden achievements from the past 4,000 years.

Great for fans of Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women, Jason Porath’s Rejected Princesses.

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

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The Illusion of a Girl: Based on a true story
LeeAnn Werner
Drawing on Werner's own traumatic experiences, this well-crafted debut YA thriller shows a brother and sister coping as best they can with an abusive alcoholic father. When Louis drinks, he gets violent toward his teen children, Brian and Jessie. Their mother, Jan, makes excuses for him instead of protecting them. The siblings must learn how to stay alive. For Brian, that means taking a punch and not letting it escalate; for Jessie, it means running fast. As the emotional strain becomes too much, Jessie begins having out-of-body experiences and not recognizing herself in the mirror. Finally, when she finds her boyfriend kissing another girl, she becomes overwhelmed, a switch flips, and another personality named Lena takes over.

Alternating points of view from Jessie, Brian, and later Lena and toddler personality Annie give readers a distinct sense of dread, conflict, and the weight of every decision the children make. Werner combines the normal stresses of teen life with the oppressive atmosphere of an abusive home, showing how impossible it is for the siblings to ever feel safe. When Jessie’s new personalities appear, they feel almost inevitable, as does the showdown with Louis once sarcastic, violent Lena begins expressing everything Jessie has learned to suppress.

Werner brings a strong, confident voice to a difficult subject. Though the story is fiction, readers will feel the truth in Jessie’s raw emotions, experiences, and unique point of view. Werner gives some lift to the story, mostly in Jessie's romantic entanglements, but shows clearly that there is very little light in the everyday life of an abuse victim. The ending is a little abrupt and leaves some questions unanswered, but it's a deeply chilling conclusion to one major chapter of Brian and Jessie’s lives. This is a somber portrait of children clutching at any way to survive.

Takeaway: This gripping story of surviving abuse will enthrall teen and adult fans of unsettling psychological thrillers.

Great for fans of Katrina Leno’s The Half Life of Molly Pierce, Francesca Zappia’s Made You Up.

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

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The Girl Who Said Goodbye: A Memoir of a Khmer Rouge Survivor
Heather Allen
In precise, evocative prose (“In Phnom Penh, we were living in a house of fractured glass that was on the verge of shattering”), Allen tells the incredible story of her aunt Siv Eng, who fought to survive the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in 1970s Cambodia. Told in the first person, the memoir begins with Siv Eng’s idyllic life as a university student and quickly descends into increasingly nightmarish scenarios as the new regime took hold. She and her family are forced out of their homes, marched to labor camps, and separated. Siv Eng winds up in prison while trying to help her sister, and makes friends only to see them executed. Then the war’s tide turns and a series of unlikely events leads to Siv Eng's liberation and reunion with her family in America.

The episodic storytelling allows the reader to slowly absorb the horror of Siv Eng’s experiences. Grim scenes of violence are balanced with memories both sweet and sad, and the importance of family life is emphasized. Siv Eng’s story isn't sugar-coated, but she gives the reader a thread of hope even in the direst of situations. This is also a story about faith, as Siv Eng sees various signs and dreams that eventually lead her to Christianity.

Siv Eng pointedly mentions a lack of interest in politics, but this is a story of ideology vs. humanity. If it weren't for the kindness of certain chiefs, guards, and soldiers, Siv Eng would be dead. Her will to live and see her family again are inspirational. Allen has a remarkable ability to distill Siv Eng's stories into a smooth, if harrowing, reading experience, and readers will find it impossible to look away.

Takeaway: This harrowing, gripping story of survival in the face of horrific events will equally appeal to students of Cambodian history and fans of poignant memoirs.

Great for fans of Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father and Haing Ngor’s Survival in the Killing Fields.

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

Rigged: Book One of the Falling Empires Series
Miranda Watson
Rosone and Watson (the World War III series) launch a series set in an alternate 2020 America where free elections are at risk. An attack on the email account of President Jonathan Sachs, a Republican who is up for reelection, is followed by bombings of early voting locations. Postal workers bribed by the Chinese government deliberately fail to deliver completed absentee ballots from Republican areas. While Lt. Col. Seth Mitchell and a team of operatives are sent to Kosovo to hunt for the people who orchestrated the attacks, U.S. federal agencies work diligently to unravel a worldwide plot to elect Democrat Marshall Tate.

The authors include plenty of realistic details of Mitchell’s operations in Kosovo and Serbia as he captures an Islamic terrorist leader and interrogates him (using drugs to induce compliance). One can almost hear the IEDs exploding and the helicopter blades whirring. The story line focusing on election security is both believable and current. However, the narrative loses some of its sharp focus following the election. All nine Supreme Court justices are assassinated; unable to have the election results invalidated, Sachs declares martial law. A vast international conspiracy is gradually uncovered. Though technically possible, these events in combination create an air of improbability, and a cliff-hanger ending does nothing to anchor them in reality.

The narrative’s sympathies clearly lie with Sachs, but there are moral shades of gray throughout. Tate scolds an aide who only cares about how the attacks benefit their campaign, a left-wing judge puts aside his hatred of Sachs in the name of protecting democracy, and a letter carrier takes bribes so she can pay off her enormous student loan debt from a Christian university. A wide range of thriller readers will be intrigued by this scary what-if scenario and curious enough to look for its sequels.

Takeaway: This terrifying scenario of a global conspiracy to throw a U.S. election will appeal to a wide array of espionage thriller fans.

Great for fans of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Legacy, Tom Clancy’s Code of Honor.

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

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