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Lyrical: Poems that will blow you a kiss or punch you in the stomach
James Strazza
Strazza, a former musician and songwriter, “used to think poetry was stupid.” However, he recounts, as his chronic illness worsened, he became bedridden, and he lost his ability to play music, poetry became an expressive outlet and a refuge from his daily struggles. This collection is divided into five sections: “Blowing Kisses,” about love; “Heartache,” about loss and yearning; “Stomach Pains,” about his experiences with illness; “Heretic,” about controversial elements of our world; and a fifth section of song lyrics, blurring the lines between standard poetry and the poetics of music. Through brutal honesty and beautiful metaphor, Strazza offers countless quotable lines about the human condition: “They say the best art comes from pain, / but that’s incorrect. // The best art comes from honesty; it’s just / that pain has a funny way of making / people very honest.” Interspersed with the poems are a few illustrations by various artists that touch on some of the text's themes.

Strazza’s poetic strength shines in his shortest poems of just a few lines, as these allow his exacting word choice and mastery of rhyme to take center stage. His economy of language and punctuation create a sense of closeness between him and the reader. His past experience as a lyricist is evident in his use of metaphor and rhyme; for example, in “Houseplant:” “i’d bloom in early season / and never be a chore / i’d shine my waxy coating / for no other reason / than for you to adore.” “Houseplant” is just one of many poems in which Strazza personifies objects or animals as a way to envision life outside of his bedroom. He also relies on bodily imagery as a way to explain his thoughts and feelings within the confines of his room.

At the end of this collection, Strazza writes: “if you made it this far / you deserve one more kiss blown. // thank you / for taking my heart / into your home.” Sometimes funny, sometimes emotionally gutting, and always beautiful, Strazza’s poems inspire readers to contemplate the importance of words as vehicles for empathy. Readers and music fans will love this poignant collection of masterfully written poems.

Takeaway: Readers and music fans will love this poignant collection of masterfully written poems.

Great for fans of: Rupi Kaur, Rumi’s The Love Poems of Rumi, Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing.

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

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The Unicorn Diet
MK Lorber
Lorber’s high-spirited, eminently reasonable guide to intentional weight loss lands squarely in the category of diet books promising straight talk, offering a crash course in nutrition rather than yet another gimmicky crash diet. Lorber, an optometrist, cheekily acknowledges that she first came to her subject as an amateur—“another exhausted, middle-aged parent who had to figure this out on her own.” But she demonstrates throughout the book both a practical understanding of the science of nutrition and the ability to communicate that understanding with wit and clarity.

Lorber lays out what she’s discovered in crisp, clean prose, always with an eye toward what readers need to know. Her chapters are lean, but marbled with humor and conversational asides. (She apologizes, when working through some relatively complex material, for the text briefly resembling “acronym vomit.”) Her explanations of fat types, antibodies, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (“just a swanky phrase for the amount of energy required for your body to return to baseline after a hard training session”) boast a welcome verve, as does her advice. On exercise, she writes, “Find something you love, or just walk until you do.”

Lorber has tough words for “charlatans and diet companies” who promise readers and consumers more than their latest plans can deliver. The Unicorn Diet argues, in engaging and tightly structured chapters, that a slow and steady approach to intentional weight loss (monitoring calories, changing sleep habits, developing an exercise routine, incorporating these new habits into your sense of self) remains the healthiest path. Dieters seeking a down-to-earth guide will appreciate this one.

Takeaway: This witty, science-backed book persuasively advocates for dieters to take the slow and steady approach.

Great for fans of: Joel Kahn’s The No B.S. Diet, Michael Greger’s How Not To Diet, Glenn Livingston’s Never Binge Again.

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

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Take Me Out To The Ballgame: After These Incidents The Players Were Taken Out Of The Game
Dave Berger
This slim, easy-to-read book thoroughly details a niche part of baseball lore: the freak injury. With long seasons, frequent travel, and demanding game play, baseball players are susceptible to weird and wild accidents, collected here by Berger for reader amusement. The author provides an ample history of all 30 current, and one defunct, baseball teams through the lens of their players’ most intriguing injuries. Notable highlights include a drone repair gone wrong, Guitar Hero overload, animal bites, catastrophic food poisoning, and an oblique injury sustained while fluffing a pillow. Peppered with statistics, fun facts, and occasional personal tidbits about the author’s life, this book is perfect for MLB fans looking to delve into one of the weirder sides of the game.

The account could be slightly more structured. The chapters, each focused on a team, are ordered based on Major League Baseball's divisions, with an alphabetical player index at the back, should readers want to seek out a particular player by name as well as a team index. And entry length and contents vary: some players have extra fun facts, some have photos, some have more than one injury listed at a time, and others have barely anything—merely a very brief sketch. Because many of the entries include information beyond injuries, the book sometimes crosses the line into general facts and figures, somewhat muddling its purpose. It works best when focusing on the freak mishaps, carving out a niche purpose in the world of baseball reference material.

This book is an ode to what makes baseball great—its players’ quirks. Berger’s descriptions impart a sense of the wonder and awe associated with the sport, and he is not only knowledgeable about his topic of choice but clearly inspired by it. Those who are not already baseball fans might find themselves slightly confused by game terms and stadium locations, but any trivia buff will be sucked in by the bizarre anecdotes.

Takeaway: Trivia lovers and sports fans alike will appreciate this thorough compilation of MLB injuries and fun facts.

Great for fans of: Bill O’Neill’s The Great Book of Baseball series, Jamie Frater’s The Ultimate Book of Top Ten Lists.

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

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Tideon: A New Myth
Elizabeth MacDonald
Tideon is a little boy who loves the ocean. He loves it so much that he has been blessed by the goddess Diana to understand the language of the sea. Even though others in the village think it is strange or wrong, Tideon is happiest when he is in the water, chatting with the sea creatures and watched over by his loving mother. Though his mother does not always understand him, she is determined to protect him from the often cruel and uncaring world. But when human forces threaten to take him away from all that he loves, only a miracle can save him.

Sometimes dreamlike and sometimes nightmarish, Bron Williams’s breathtaking illustrations create a powerful vision of a magical world. The watery textures keep the ocean motif at the forefront and show the world through Tideon's eyes. The narration waxes poetic, sometimes to a degree that may make it hard for young readers to follow along. A description of skeletons "fixated, forever gazing at the filigranes of coral reef pluming to reclaim" may be too advanced and abstract for an impatient child who might otherwise prefer to spend their time looking at the pictures.

Fortunately the text often takes backseat to the illustrations, with several pages in a row of immersive images. Even the more text-heavy pages have enough decoration to be visually interesting. Overall the result is beautiful and would make a good challenge for advanced or adventurous picture book readers. It is a good choice for caretakers to read with children, as one of the central themes is a mother's unconditional love for her child who does not fit in. The vivid, imagination-stimulating illustrations and warm story make up for the sometimes flowery prose in this magical picture book.

Takeaway: This story makes for a good read-aloud for older kids and their adults who enjoy mythic tales and beautiful pictures.

Great for fans of: Lon Po Po by Ed Young, Sukey and the Mermaid by Robert D. San Souci.

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

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A Story of Karma: Finding Love and Truth in the Lost Valley of the Himalaya
Michael Schauch
Schauch’s deeply personal, wondrous debut travel memoir begins with mountain climbing but leads to a more profound discovery in a small village in Nepal. Mike Schauch’s love for mountain climbing began at a young age, becoming an undeniable passion that took him, and eventually his wife, Chantal, on trips around the world. The moment he saw a friend’s picture of the mountain he referred to as “the pyramid mountain” in Nepal, he knew this had to be his next climb. Although the trip didn’t go as expected, Mike recounts, it turned out even better than he planned, because they met a bright little girl named Karma and changed the trajectory of all of their lives.

When planning the trip through Nepal, Mike and Chantal put a team together to document their journey and the Lost Valley of Nar Phu, hoping to bring to light its history and culture and the negative impact modernizing could have. What they ended up experiencing and documenting was much more profound. Each village brought different experiences that opened the eyes of all the travelers, all of which is beautifully documented and brought to life by Mike’s powerful, immersive writing and photographs taken by Chantal and photographer Arek.

What begins as a mountain trek turns into a quest to ensure that a smart, curious little girl named Karma and her sister, Pemba, will receive the best possible education that either Nepal or Canada can offer, while continuing to grow in Tibetan Buddhism and never forgetting where they came from. Schauch relays the extensive research, paperwork, and travel he, Chantal, and Karma’s parents undertook, making tangible the dedication all the adults share to a beautiful future for the girls. This story of cross-cultural love and devotion will move readers.

Takeaway: Readers looking for a beautifully written, moving travel memoir will be drawn in by everyone Mike Schauch and his friends meet in Nepal, especially a little girl named Karma.

Great for fans of: Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, Dorje Dolma’s Yak Girl: Growing Up in the Remote Dolpo Region of Nepal.

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

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The Actor
Mharlyn Merritt
Merritt’s slow-burn romance-thriller explores the corrosive effects of celebrity, as a washed-up singer enters a complicated relationship with a world-famous actor. Felicia Lake, better known by the moniker “Babe,” is a thrice-married cinema junkie, visiting London with her best friend, cyberpunk writer Raymond T. Pickles. Pickles introduces Babe to the Actor, known for his onscreen magnetism and violent sexual proclivities. Meanwhile, the paparazzi poke into the mysterious disappearance of Philippe Noiret, the Actor’s onetime assistant and former lover. As Babe gets sucked back into the world of all-consuming fame, she begins to wonder whether her new boyfriend is responsible for Philippe’s demise—and whether she’s next.

Merritt delves into Babe, the Actor, their relationship, and their drug and alcohol abuse. The misfit cast of characters, shoved into the unrelenting spotlight, are unique, raw, and emotionally unstable. There is no shortage of plotlines, side mysteries, and surprise reveals, some of which are dropped, inadequately explored, or awkwardly paced. The first chapter is unconnected to the rest of the action: Babe is fired from a teaching position, visits her brother, and struggles with money, three plot points that are never mentioned again. But the introduction of the Actor establishes a focus and a more consistent tone.

In Babe, Merritt has created a well-developed and compelling main character with a killer voice—funny, sarcastic, quick-witted, and narcissistic. Readers who prefer their thrillers with character depth will enjoy this one, and cinema fans will appreciate references to the films of the ’40s and ’50s; Babe parallels her life with those of classic Hollywood stars, and each chapter begins with a relevant quote from a member of Hollywood’s old guard. Toeing the line between romance and suspense, Merritt successfully probes the darker, violent sides of fame and love.

Takeaway: A missing-persons thriller for movie lovers, this story of Hollywood weirdos living in London is perfect for those curious about the detrimental effects of fame and fortune.

Great for fans of: Adam Shankman and Laura L. Sullivan’s Girl About Town, Stuart Woods’ The Prince of Beverly Hills.

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

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Into the Carpathians: A Journey Through the Heart and History of East Central Europe (Part 2: The Western Mountains)
Alan E. Sparks
Sparks (Dreaming of Wolves) finishes his trilogy of hiking travelogues of Eastern Europe's Carpathian mountains with amusing observations and a wealth of historical detail. Concluding the “Way of the Wolf“ journey with a team tracking various natural predators in the mountains, this final volume is light on wolf sightings but rich in challenging terrain and amusing anecdotes. The team travels through Slovakia, Poland, the Czech Republic, then back through Poland as the author alternates between the cultural history of each region, with vivid descriptions of the local topography, and funny stories about encounters with locals. The attempts made by his group to communicate with locals often comes down to hand signs, and one of his party members laments cultural imperialism's impact on the uniformity of worldwide youth culture. The team's outreach results in a pickup basketball game in the Czech Republic and a dance party in the tiny Polish tourist destination of Jedlina-Zdrój.

There are times when the historical sections ramble or interrupt the travelogue's momentum, especially when a plethora of names and dates are packed in a relatively short space. But readers will appreciate the thoroughness of Sparks’s research, and the way he tells the story of the trip will keep them turning the pages.

The lasting political instability in the region is emphasized in the chapter on Slovakia, when a local interpreter mocks the police after Sparks's car is broken into. He introduces the history of the Lemko people by way of their museum dedicated to Andy Warhol, an ethnic Lemko. The illustrations are a boon: colorful pictures of meticulously crafted wooden churches and the massive Spiš castle bring Sparks's stories to life. The photo of the Skull Chapel of Czermna is a particularly interesting, if gruesome, highlight. Sparks honors his journey and teammates with a thoughtful and historically dense, but still lighthearted, account of their time together, blazing a new trail.

Takeaway: Travelogue fans will appreciate Sparks' deep dive into both a visitor’s view of local cultures and historical research.

Great for fans of: Francis Tapon's The Hidden Europe, James Roberts' The Mountains of Romania: A Guide to Walking in the Carpathian Mountains.

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

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The Travels of ibn Thomas
James Hutson-Wiley
Hutson-Wiley’s follow up to his debut, first in The Sugar Merchant series, follows 12th-century Thoma ibn Thomas, son of an English father and Moor mother. After his father embarks on a dangerous mission to help free Jerusalem from Muslim control, Thoma travels from his home in Eynsham to study medicine in Salermo. Thus begins a series of epic adventures that see him curing Ruggiero of Sicilia and earning the favor of his mother, Adelaide, acting as Regent, escaping pirates and freeing slaves. His quest to discover his father’s fate has him traversing the length and breadth of the Christian and Muslim worlds, healing as he goes.

The author’s extensive historical research adds realism to the novel with depictions of actual historical figures and events. Those unfamiliar with the turmoil and conflict, including wars, between different faiths and cultures in the 12th century, as empires expanded and contracted, may find the plotline challenging to follow. The addition of a glossary at the conclusion, however, helps familiarize readers with the terminology referencing places, religions, and other terms with Latin, Arabic, and Persian origins.

Though Thoma is a 12th-century physician, his internal conflicts and musings about his Muslim origins and subsequent Christian baptism is a conflict that transcends time, providing him with an authentic voice that will resonate with contemporary readers: “There was no escape from my difference. Half Moor, half Christian; half English, half Arab.” As Thoma comes to terms with his religious convictions, he must figure out how to balance his duties as a physician with his vow to discover what happened to his father. These ever-present thoughts form the basis for many of Thoma’s decisions, propelling the plotline swiftly forward as his travels and adventures are highlighted by an undercurrent of mystery and ever-present dangers. This thoughtful, detailed narrative will draw readers in.

Takeaway: A 12th-century physician navigates the dangers of illness and religious battles while searching for clues to his father’s fate in this intriguing novel.

Great for fans of: Dan Jones’s The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God's Holy Warriors, Susan Peek’s Crusader King: A Novel of Baldwin IV and the Crusades.

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

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The Fiddler in the Night
Christian Fennell
Fennell’s debut novel follows 16-year-old Jonathan on an adventure-filled road-trip through the backwoods of America in a desperate search for his missing mother. While living with his parents on the family sheep farm in a small town his ailing father dies. On the night of the wake, his mother goes missing and a gun and truck disappear from the house. Jonathan embarks on an epic quest to find her, unaware of the dangers before him—including a killer close at hand. On his journey, Jonathan meets and falls in love with a young woman escaping her own violent past. The road is filled with strangers and bloodshed, but also love and camaraderie as he encounters others who have likewise been touched by violence.

Fennell describes Jonathan’s journey in evocative, crisp prose. Some passages—“So beautiful. Her hand upon his face. The madness in his eyes dissipating”—read almost like poetry. Jonathan and the group of people he amasses are all fully realized characters with compelling stories. Leonard, the violent criminal pursuing Jonathan, is relentless and frightening. In one scene, he crushes a baby chick’s skull to make a point about culling the weak. All of this creates an eerie, dark atmosphere throughout the book.

Some readers might be put off by the extreme violence, especially as most of that violence is directed towards female characters. The middle section of the book can get repetitive, with Jonathan introducing himself to new allies and repeating his story as he searches for his mother. It is also not clear who certain characters are or why they are being focused on until the final act. When it all comes together, however, the destination is worth the slightly meandering journey. Readers who enjoy coming-of-age road trips and horror tales will enjoy this intense, dark novel.

Takeaway: This dark coming-of-age story will impress readers with its distinctive writing and intense, at times violent, story.

Great for fans of: Randy Kennedy’s Presidio: A Novel, Max Porter’s Lanny.

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

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The Soul Grows in Darkness
Loren E Pedersen, PhD
Pedersen’s deeply affecting memoir is an elegiac meditation on suffering, adversity, and spirituality. Born partly deaf to neglectful parents in a violent Chicago neighborhood, Pedersen describes grappling with the fallouts of mindless gang brutality and desolation of a postwar world. His formative years are ruefully colored with unforeseen deaths of his loved ones and an unsupportive, turbulent household. The sweet ordinaries of a normal teenage life brush past him as he spirals into angst, hopelessness, and terrifying violence. Then, he recounts, he spent his years as a premed student struggling in a failing marriage and questioning his purpose in the larger scope of human existence. His experiences lead him to a career in psychiatry. He intelligently explores the rotations of grief that inform his insights into organized religions, antiwar movements, and the search for ultimate truth.

This book is many things at once, pivoting from violence, drugs, and distress to spirituality and awakening in a world where loss and pain maintain a formidable stronghold, with meditations on relationships and science. There is an unwavering strength and necessary tenderness in the recounting of Pedersen’s early years, when the people populating his life help redirect the course of his ambitions. The absorbing details and effective prose carry his moving chronicles across decades with dignity and a poignant discernment.

Readers will never encounter a dull moment with Pedersen’s expertly crafted imagery and energetic pacing. It’s no easy task to retain an underlying sense of hope in a narrative that so heavily hinges upon grief and suffering, but the author pulls it off with marked grace and potency. He paints himself not as a pitiable victim of his circumstances, but as an active participant of his life. This affecting memoir is a careful and rewarding examination of outgrowing toxic roots and pushing through difficulties with grit, determination, and introspection.

Takeaway: Pedersen’s gripping autobiographical accounts will encourage readers to find strength and spiritual wisdom in the face of life’s challenges.

Great for fans of: Paul Ornstein and Helen Epstein’s Looking Back: Memoir of a Psychoanalyst, Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am, Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle.

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

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The Boy Who Cried Christmas
Dennis Bailey
With an eye toward both faith and family, Bailey’s (Army of God) sophomore novel is a beautiful reminder of the true meaning of the Christmas holiday. Nine-year-old Logan Ailshie is a typical, if slightly spoiled, boy excited for presents under the tree. Yet a chance meeting with a homeless veteran changes Logan’s life. Just after this meeting, Logan disappears, transported back in time to witness the greatest event in Christian history at the side of the shepherds sent to the manger. FBI Agent Marcus Garraway is assigned Logan’s case and the unexplained mystery is just enough to pull him from his suicidal thoughts.

Viewed through the eyes of a child, the Christmas story takes on new meaning as the author brings the tale to life with a contemporary twist. In a season known for miracles, Logan’s journey is filled with wonder sometimes missing from modern retellings of Bible stories. Readers will be drawn in as he matures from materialism to understanding the importance of Jesus’s birth, especially with the descriptions of Logan’s time in Israel. Similarly, Marcus’s burden of grief over his wife’s death several years before is nuanced; the pain is palpable.

Where the novel struggles slightly is with a subplot shrouded in stereotypes. Bailey introduces Wendell, a mentally ill young atheist man who’s fallen through the cracks in the system. He hates Christianity fanatically, for unexplained reasons. Passionate in his hatred, he turns to terrorism. Whereas Logan and Marcus’s stories are handled with subtlety, albeit a bit fantastically, the portrayal of Wendell is much less compassionate, treating him as little more than a caricature to be reviled. Some readers will consider this connecting of atheist viewpoints and terrorism alienating, or find that it detracts from the story’s messages of grace and hope. Likewise, the conclusion of the story feels rushed and less polished than what comes before. Logan’s penultimate decision may leave readers confused, if not disquieted. But the book’s beautiful main plot will please fans of the traditional Christmas story.

Takeaway: Fans of the traditional Christmas story will find peace and joy in this beautiful, if slightly uneven, fantastical tale.

Great for fans of: Lynne Gentry’s The Carthage Chronicles, R.S. Ingermanson’s City of God series, Don Furr’s Quest for the Nail Prints.

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

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Your Health is Your Greatest Wealth: Your Journey to a Vibrant, Healthy Mind and Body
Raewyn Weller
“If left to its own devices, your mind always wants to go back to what it knows,” warns Weller, a New Zealand healer and biographer, deep into Your Health Is Your Greatest Wealth, a book that collects a lifetime’s worth of inspiration and advice about wellness and nurturing the mind and body. That precept is key to her wide-ranging program for improving one’s quality of life: “If you want to make successful changes... you have got to make what is familiar unfamiliar and what’s unfamiliar, familiar.” To that end, she challenges readers to make changes to their thinking and habits, harnessing the mind to flood the body with what she calls “happiness chemicals.”

The book’s first third presents Weller’s thinking about the untapped power of the mind, which she likens to a garden readers must tend well to ensure robust health. The balance of the text offers Weller’s “Solutions for Healthy Living.” She illustrates her advice and arguments with spirited examples from her own life, which by her accounting has been healthful and happy. Wittily, she declares herself a bit of a bull, because she’s “Love-able, Cap-able, Answer-able, Account-able” and more. Weller supplements her suggestions with exercises crafted to guide readers toward a similar bullishness.

In a preface, Weller notes that she hopes readers treat Your Health Is Your Greatest Wealth as a reference work, which is appropriate for a book constructed as something of a miscellany. She imbues familiar advice about positive thinking with fresh energy, and writes with charm and conviction. Readers who don’t subscribe to the Law of Attraction—the belief that positive thoughts can bring about success and health, while negative thoughts will cause failure and strife—will be alienated by Weller’s promises that a positive mindset will prevent and cure illnesses and diseases. But readers who agree with that premise will find much to interest them here.

Takeaway: This guide to healthy living will appeal to readers who believe in the Law of Attraction.

Great for fans of: Jennie Allen’s Get Out of Your Head, Catherine A. Sanderson’s The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health, and Longevity.

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

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Flashbacks: A Vietnam Soldier's Story 50 Years Later
Tom Pisapia
Jerde, an American veteran who served in the Vietnam War for 13 months, came back to the U.S. and never talked about that period until his retirement. Once he started experiencing flashbacks to that era, he told his story to Pisapia, a friend of his brother’s, laying the foundation for this account. The narrative shifts between Jerde’s experiences—in boot camp, in a forward fire support base, on leave, and returning to the U.S.—and research from Pisapia to contextualize Jerde’s run-ins with mortars, snakes and, memorably, burning human waste . It also, helpfully, includes resources on recognizing posttraumatic stress disorder and how veterans, or others who have faced trauma, can seek treatment.

Shifting among memoir, research, and psychiatric advice can at times lead to odd juxtapositions—between, for example, the Mayo Clinic’s clinical description of PTSD and the beginning of Jerde’s story, or between a list of cancers that may be caused by Agent Orange and a description of Jerde’s experiences with snakes in the jungle. These pieces individually are illuminating, but sometimes the stitches show. The photos included, though often helpful in illustrating the memories, at times are of low quality or seem unnecessary.

One of the authors’ central points is that much of Vietnam veterans’ stories occurred after their return to the United States. They argue that the trauma servicemembers faced in the jungles was compounded after their return by a lack of care from Veterans Affairs and disrespect from fellow veterans and antiwar protestors. Jerde was only able to tell this story once he begins healing from the trauma he experienced fighting during that war. This account of Vietnam War trauma layers one soldier’s experience, research, and advice to clarify the journey toward healing.

Takeaway: History buffs and Vietnam veterans looking for well-contextualized stories of the Vietnam War will find this combination memoir and history a powerful read.

Great for fans of: Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway’s We Were Soldiers Once... and Young, Richard Hogue’s A Soldier's Story: Forever Changed.

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

Payments and Banking in Australia: From Coins to Cryptocurrency, How it Started, How it Works, and How it May be Disrupted.
Nikesh Lalchandani
Lalchandani’s ambitious survey of Australia’s monetary systems looks back, to indigenous people’s trade in shells and blades long before the continent’s colonization, and forward, to the age of cryptocurrencies and possible decommoditization. In between is a thorough treatise on how Australians have paid for goods and services over centuries. It includes illuminating histories of coins and cash (Australia pioneered the polymer note), banking and lending, credit and debit cards, and monetary management going back to the outlawing of rum as a currency.

Drawing on research as well as his experience helping design payment systems for Australian banks, Lalchandani lays out a clear and coherent history in chapters that are tightly organized despite the sprawling subject matter. He asks, early on, if people today are “slaves” to the payment systems that have evolved with us, but Payments and Banking in Australia is an engaging reference work, rather than a polemic. As the subtitle promises, Lalchandani’s book lays bare how present systems of payment came to be and how they actually work.

To that end, his emphasis is on the systems and processes, both private and government-run, that determine the practicalities of Australian financial lives. Among many other topics, he explains the numbers on banking accounts, the history of banking regulation, and the rise and decline of the ATM. Many parts are fascinating, such as a rundown of Australia’s efforts to limit credit card fees. Throughout, Lalchandani makes helpful moves—exemplified by the detailed table of contents and section headings—to break down this huge subject into discrete, clearly organized chunks. This book will both inform and engage readers.

Takeaway: This rich and thorough history examines how Australians have paid for goods and services over centuries.

Great for fans of: Bill Maurer’s How Would You Like to Pay?: How Technology Is Changing the Future of Money, Jacob Goldstein’s Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing.

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

Click here for more about Payments and Banking in Australia
Festival of the Elves The Magic Around You
Angeli Elliott
Elliott and Kemble’s spellbinding picture book is saturated with magical characters and cheerful Christmas traditions that champion kindness, merriment, and the magic of sharing. Elf siblings Holly and Noel Figgyworth are eager to extend Grandfather Norris Figgyworth’s Festival of the Elves to families beyond the North Pole. Can they summon enough magic to visit human families and come back home? Despite the hesitations of the Elder Elf Council, Holly and Noel are certain it is possible. After all, Grandfather Norris always maintains, “When you do something for someone, magic grows.” Powers depleted after traveling, Holly and Noel selflessly and enthusiastically plan fun activities for the human Puddington family each day until Christmas. Holly, Noel, and the Puddingtons unassumingly set an enchanting chain of joy and goodness in motion, stumbling across true magic.

The author wields a stimulating vocabulary, enriching the theatrics of the siblings’ adventures. Readers will especially enjoy reading aloud the tongue twisters and fun rhymes that pepper the tale. The plot, suffused with traditional values and holiday pursuits, nevertheless incorporates fresh elements as Holly and Noel endeavor to establish new Christmas traditions. As an amusing extra, Elliott and Kemble provide a comprehensive map depicting the topography of the North Pole in the beginning. Here, Kemble’s snow-dusted spread accompanies the giggles Elliott begets with her nomenclature of places in the North Pole, such as, “Festival Forest,” “Sugar Plum Ridge,” “Hooray Bay,” and “Jolly Point.”

This expertly crafted and wondrously imagined Christmas story delightfully captures the seasonal atmosphere through the eyes of an adventuresome and enterprising sibling duo. Elliott’s voice is admirably seasoned and confident, while Kemble’s intricately detailed and pleasingly composed paintings give an unhurried and winsome quality to Holly and Noel’s world. Together, they create a thoroughly immersive reading experience for their young readers, who will keep coming back to the story for its ability to incite curiosity, wonderment, and warmth.

Takeaway: This festive picture book, replete with seasonal cheer and whimsical sibling adventures, is a perfect Christmas read.

Great for fans of: Patricia Toht and Jarvis’s Pick a Pine Tree, Nicola Killen’s The Little Reindeer, Matt Tavares’s Red and Lulu.

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

Bound
P.L. Sullivan
Despite the vast and diverse world in Sullivan’s adult debut, it is a rare thing to be Bound, to have two independent minds in one body; it is rare even for the Keld, a species of soldiers who are already an anomaly because they can kill. Adin and Shennan are the Keld’s star asset due to their bound nature: when they die, they’re reanimated, and, while the one that died recovers, the other takes over their body. Consequently, Adin and Shennan are destined to protect the Polis, people that have conformed to a system, the Consensus, that biologically instills morality in them. The Polis know no violence. So, when some Polis start randomly turning into the Mad and carrying out interplanetary terror attacks, Adin and Shennan are duty-bound to eradicate the Mad at all costs. This will require their iron will, their dedication, and, most importantly, their utilitarianism. In the end, will it be the Mad who rip away what Adin and Shennan hold dear, or will it be their own actions?

Adin and Shennan work on a series of related but smaller missions that run the gamut of security to spy work, creating more of a slow burn than a thrill ride. This planet-hopping military mission spree is sure to tickle any intellectual’s brain stem. From how Adin’s and Shennan’s dual nature affects their life and abilities, to themes of colonization, social manipulation, and evolution, there’s a lot to chew on. A lot of this is explained through scientific jargon. While this might titillate some, it may dull the emotional impact for others. Additionally, action scenes focus slightly more on strategy than emotion or sensory detail, giving the harrowing bouts with death an almost video-game quality. Sometimes, events aren’t told as they occur and are instead casually revealed after, which can lead to some confusion and detachment.

But readers will be pulled right past those potential barriers into Sullivan’s frank and realistic portrayals of trauma and duty. The novel explores the hard calls people make to protect the whole, even if they have to sacrifice their minds, bodies, and relationships. And this follows through right to the end: there are no easy answers, no easy-to-swallow morals to find here. Adin and Shennan are put through the wringer and go back for more. They’re complicated and broken, torn between peace and violence’s role in it. Their relationships are messy as well, and they must do unspeakable things for the same people who reject them for it. This thought-provoking military sci-fi demands, and rewards, anyone’s full attention.

Takeaway: Somewhat heady but pulling no emotional punches, this sci-fi space mission will prompt readers to ponder big moral questions.

Great for fans of: John Steakley’s Armor, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

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

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