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The Meaning of Life: A guide to finding your life's purpose
Nathanael Garrett Novosel
This inviting mix of philosophy, science, and self-help dives into a question that thinkers and teachers have pondered for thousands of years: What is the meaning of life? While considering how this complex question can be viewed through the lenses of growth, experience, desire, belief, emotions, ethics, support, and choice, Novosel encourages each reader to independently develop a sense of purpose and direction. He grounds the quest in research into human psychology and the microbiological origins of life, asserting that the scientific “how” of life and the philosophical “why” of life are entangled rather than distinct and making analogies between the growth of living organisms and the personal growth that gives life value.

A brief introductory quiz asks readers to rate statements such as “I appreciate what I have in life” and “I live my life with a sense of purpose.” After each chapter’s introduction, there is a lengthy explanation of each core concept. These sections can read like scholarly articles (“With more time, effort, and attention, humans maximize their abilities”), but they’ll appeal to readers who are moved by scientific analysis. Pragmatic tools at the end of each chapter help the reader make more personal connections to each of the eight concepts. At the end of the book, the reader returns to the initial questions to see how their understanding of the meaning of life has changed.

Thoroughly and consistently covering every aspect of the quest for the meaning of life, Novosel helps readers to walk away with a concrete sense of personal discovery. He neither leans on nor tries to refute religion, making the work accessible to readers from the staunchly atheist to the deeply devout. Whether readers are struggling in difficult times, experiencing uncertainty, or living their best lives, this book will help them find their footing and develop unique individual concepts of direction, purpose, and meaning.

Takeaway: Anyone curious about the history of the quest for meaning or in need of a personal sense of purpose will benefit from this thorough guide.

Great for fans of Maxie McCoy’s You’re Not Lost, Misty Edwards’s What Is the Point?, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans’s Designing Your Life.

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

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Does It Hurt?: A Dialog to Help You Understand and Trust Acupuncture
Burton Moomaw
Moomaw, a licensed acupuncturist, effectively demystifies acupuncture in this beautifully presented and informative debut. He gives detailed responses to eight common questions about acupuncture, including “Does it hurt?”, “Does it work?”, and “What health problems does it treat?”, and explains how hair-thin needles, inserted into the skin and muscles, manipulate the body’s chi (energy) flow. For those still intimidated by acupuncture, Moomaw briefly introduces other common Chinese medical treatments. He also discusses how imbalances in the body can affect health, and analyzes some of the contrasts between Chinese medicine’s qualitative science and whole-body-approach and Western medicine’s quantitative science and treatments based mainly on pharmacology and surgery.

Moomaw’s organized and succinct writing make this a comprehensive look at the practice of acupuncture as well as Chinese medicine’s other energy-focused treatments. He fairly portrays the strengths and weaknesses of Chinese and Western medical systems, encouraging readers to make informed judgments on their options for medical treatments. Straightforward language and the use of highway metaphors to describe the interconnectedness of the body’s energy meridians make it easier to understand and visualize the flow of the chi.

The crisp photographs clarify the descriptions in the text, showing how fine an acupuncture needle is, how it’s inserted, and where the energy channels are located in the body. The images in the book are monochrome, but Moomaw helpfully provides a link to view the same images in full color. Diagrams and charts such as the map of the tongue and how the five elements relate to various organs help readers understand the body’s relationship to chi and how acupuncture can affect it. Successfully educating readers about acupuncture and Chinese energetic medicine, this book will also stimulate discussion of medical treatment options and is an excellent starting point for further research.

Takeaway: This is a perfect introduction to acupuncture and Chinese medicine for the curious newcomer.

Great for fans of Andrew Weil’s Spontaneous Healing, Steven Cordoza’s Chinese Holistic Medicine in Your Daily Life.

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

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The Midnight Hour: A Jungian Perspective on America's Current Pivotal Moment
Bud Harris, PhD
In this “message-driven memoir,” Harris (Students Under Siege: The Real Reasons Behind America’s Ongoing Mass Shootings and How to Stop Them), a Jungian psychoanalyst, asserts that an American addiction to “positive thinking” has resulted in not being able to acknowledge a fear of personal or financial misfortune, leading to a decline of empathy for those who experience such misfortune. His own devastating losses in the 2008 financial crash put him on the receiving end of this empathy gap and shocked him into political awareness. He encourages readers to view this time of sociopolitical change as an opportunity to employ creative citizenship, develop empathy and understanding, and move beyond division in order to reclaim the essence of American democracy.

Blending the psychoanalytical and the political, Harris segues between transformational experiences in his personal life and relevant observations regarding the American body politic, scolding politicians regardless of party. He employs the recurring motif of “shadow,” an element of Jungian psychoanalytic theory, to explore the concept of a crisis of empathy within a fractured and factionalized America. Harris also includes literary and social science perspectives that bolster his case for the need to recreate a nexus of citizenship and shared humanity.

Some readers might benefit from a few introductory paragraphs on the basics of Jungian analysis, but the text is mostly accessible to a general readership. Harris’s considerations are timely, relevant, and incisive. He describes himself as “full of rage and pain and heartbreak” while maintaining compassion for others, and he clearly renders some potentially complex concepts, such as the individual responsibility to create a better collective society. This memoir provides a graceful yet challenging vehicle for the positing of some pointed observations and difficult questions regarding the meaning and responsibilities of American citizenship and membership in the human race.

Takeaway: Readers craving meaningful civic engagement and a well-functioning American democracy will value this insightful and challenging call for empathy.

Great for fans of Sahar Ghumkhor’s The Political Psychology of the Veil: The Impossible Body, James Hollis.

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

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What I Tell Myself FIRST: Children's Real-World Affirmations of Self Esteem
Michael A. Brown
Brown, a former police officer, college professor, and anger management specialist, combines his empowerment training with his love for children in these powerful lessons in self-esteem. The text opens with the declaration, “I am alive, alert, and able.” It continues with a reminder to breathe, room for journaling, and various affirmations (“Not everyone will like me. That is okay! I like me!”) and imperatives (“I must always tell myself the truth”). This inspiring text is accompanied by Ranucci’s gorgeous digital artwork.

While the text is minimal and simple, the ideas are complex and important. Statements such as “I am beautiful/handsome TO ME” and “How I speak can earn respect” will prompt caregivers to talk to kids about their bodies, their relationships, and their feelings. Some adults may disagree with a child stating “It is NO ONE’s job to ‘Protect Me’ from anything. That is my job,” but the general message of independence and self-care is valuable. A toddler may practice saying “I like me!” while older kids can start learning about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from the diagram in the back of the book.

Some of Brown’s affirmations are too fragmented to be clear or are insufficiently explored. A statement such as “In my work, I am worth” is very vague standing on its own. Fortunately, Ranucci’s illustrations carry the text. She beautifully portrays children of various ethnicities and body shapes and sizes, including a boy in a wheelchair and a girl wearing a hijab. The statement regarding work and worth is accompanied by kids walking dogs and mowing the lawn, giving readers smiling examples of odd jobs and ways to help their neighbors. The colors are vibrant, the cartoonish style is warm, and the pictures are varied. This positive and heartwarming text is one that educators, caregivers, and children can learn from again and again.

Takeaway: This beautifully illustrated picture book will enhance both homes and classrooms with its positive affirmations and gentle lessons in self-worth.

Great for fans of Grace Byers’s I Am Enough, Marlo Thomas’s Free to Be... You and Me.

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

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Arnold Falls
Charlie Suisman
Suisman’s debut is by turns hilarious and poignant as a mayoral election, a fight to prevent the construction of a tire factory, and efforts to save a charismatic turkey from becoming Thanksgiving dinner coincide. Arnold Falls, N.Y., is a small town rich in eccentric residents and odd traditions, and Jeebie has lived there long enough to become accustomed to both. When his friend Jenny Jagoda prepares to run in the upcoming mayoral election, Jeebie is eager to help her with canvassing, pranking the competition, and saving Arnold Falls from ruthless businessmen and bloodthirsty chefs.

Half the charm in Suisman’s debut comes from the town itself, a place inexplicably named after Benedict Arnold by the miscreants who founded it. Suisman’s attention to detail and the quirky details in particular—such as the abnormal climatic conditions that cause “Old Testament-style barrages of idiopathic hail several times a month, irrespective of cloud cover, temperature, or best-laid plans”—make Arnold Falls come to life. The characters add to the general air of comedy and chaos, including a talented pickpocket who’s also a talent agent and the dear old lady whose mother ran one of the town’s most popular bordellos during its red-light heyday.

The residents of Arnold Falls face very human problems—struggles with depression, caring for a friend with leukemia, and affections that arise from a disastrous first date—and Suisman paints a picture of a community where people care deeply for one another. Their schemes to save Chaplin the turkey are hilariously grand, while efforts to prevent construction of the tire factory take a more bittersweet turn. Suisman’s comedic novel will charm readers with its endearingly eccentric characters and its slice-of-life portrait of a disreputable corner of New York State.

Takeaway: This charming, funny novel is ideal for those who love small towns and eccentric local characters.

Great for fans of Jonathan Dunne’s Balloon Animals, Tom Sharpe.

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

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Just the Way He Walked: A Mother's Story of Healing and Hope
Kathleen Pooler
Pooler (Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey away from Emotional Abuse) chronicles her son Brian’s tumultuous 23-year struggle with substance abuse and addiction in this emotional memoir. Beginning in his mid-teens, Brian’s life devolves into a cycle of episodic drug use and alcohol bingeing, periods of sobriety, new beginnings, lost opportunities, encounters with law enforcement, and a revolving door in and out of rehabilitation programs. Pooler, a single mother, tries to support Brian and his sister, Leigh Ann; pursue a career in nursing; and tentatively start dating again. When she’s diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, her identity as a caregiver is disrupted, and she gradually realizes that she needs to let Brian find his own path to wellness.

The narrative doesn’t shy away from exploring Brian’s father’s history of alcoholism as well as Pooler’s codependency with her son: “I needed to let go of my need to fix what he could and should do for himself,” she writes. “I continued to enable him, which robbed him of his ability to experience self-empowerment.” The book is primarily narrated by Pooler, but the inclusion of other relatives’ perspectives (filtered through Pooler’s recollections and voice) reminds the reader that addiction affects an entire family. The experiences, behaviors, and feelings of Pooler, Brian, and their loved ones are always at the forefront.

The short chapters and interludes mark the passage of time, introduce new characters, and delve deeper into connections and contrasts in Pooler and Brian’s intertwining stories. These elements are not always in chronological order, which can be disorienting but allows the reader to experience Pooler’s emotional roller coaster. Pooler refers often to her Catholic faith but doesn’t evangelize. An appendix includes concise lessons Pooler has learned, as well as resources for parents. Through telling her own story, Pooler provides a touchstone and plenty of hope for those facing similar challenges.

Takeaway: Anyone who’s seen a loved one wrestle with addiction will appreciate this gripping account of despair, hope, and redemption.

Great for fans of Great for fans of Robin Barnett and Darren Kavinoky’s Addict in the House, Lisa Hillman’s Secret No More.

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

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The Greatest Gambling Story Ever Told: A True Tale of Three Gamblers, the Kentucky Derby, and the Mexican Cartel
Mark Paul
Paul’s narrative nonfiction debut explores what went on behind the scenes of a young filly’s surprising win at the 1988 Kentucky Derby. Paul gives Winning Colors’s colorful history, from her purchase by billionaire Eugene Klein to the day she won the Derby. Meanwhile, three gamblers—Miami (the author himself), Dino, and Big Bernie—carefully watch her climb to fame, betting early that she’ll win the big race. They risk their lives making the bet in Mexico, where the odds are 50-1 and their payout could financially ruin the cartel-owned track. After they win, the three gamblers must find a way to retrieve their winnings and safely return to the U.S.

Both readers new to horse racing and longtime fans will learn much from this account. Paul explains how Winning Colors’s team prepared her to become a winner, introducing the people involved and toting up the incredible costs of her care and training. He shows how she compared to other horses and why he and his fellow gamblers knew from the beginning she would win. Conversations among Winning Colors’s owners, trainers, and carers (presumably reconstructed or imagined by Paul) bring these characters to life, making readers root for their hard work to pay off.

Paul’s own story adds a wild twist. He emphasizes how complicated race betting can be, digging into minutiae of gambling that rarely get discussed in popular stories. Readers with only a passing interest in these topics will likely feel daunted, but passionate fans of horse racing and gambling will appreciate the author’s deep knowledge of the subject and enjoy the excitement of his Mexico adventure.

Takeaway: Devotees of horse racing and gambling will be entertained by this detail-heavy tale of a daring bet on a long-shot horse.

Great for fans of John Perrotta’s Racetracker: Life with Grifters and Gamblers, Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit: An American Legend.

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

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Albert Down A Wormhole
Allan Havis
In this wonderfully subversive sequel to Havis’s 1979 middle grade novel Albert the Astronomer, science-minded 12-year-old Albert Bloom wrestles with the responsibilities of approaching teenhood. Albert has always been drawn to the logic and order of astronomy; navigating seventh grade proves to be more difficult than understanding the laws of the universe. In addition to preparing for his upcoming bar mitzvah, Albert is also juggling his relationship with his astrology fanatic girlfriend, Lenora (whose full name is “Lenora Conte who knows everything”), and learning how to stand up to the school bullies with the help of his new friend Raymond. Just as things begin to look up, his father’s health takes a turn for the worse, and Albert has to grow up much more abruptly than he expects.

Havis reintroduces readers to Albert in a personal and relatable way that doesn’t feel at all dated, giving a sympathetic view of the struggles of adolescence. As Albert studies for his bar mitzvah, he integrates the theology that baffles him into the science he understands, asking his bemused rabbi, “The laws of physics don’t apply to black holes, and maybe it’s the same about the miracles in the Torah?” He takes a similar approach to emotion as he copes with his father’s illness and death: “Hurt can last as long as time and as far as the universe can be measured.” These analogies are so deeply sincere that they never feel facile or jokey.

Through the more tense moments of the story, Albert’s relationships flourish on the page and give each character depth. Havis never falters as he puts real emotional and practical weight on coming of age. Pre-teen readers grappling with the challenges of adolescence, and especially those trying to find a way through grief, will find comfort in the busy yet reassuring thoughts of Albert Bloom.

Takeaway: Older children trying to understand life’s mysteries will love this sympathetic, complex take on coming of age.

Great for fans of Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish, Michelle Cuevas’s The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole.

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

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Matamoros
James M Kahn
This atmospheric debut novel draws readers into the Mexican port city of Matamoros, just across the Rio Grande from Texas’s southern tip. It’s 1863 and Matamoros has gained sudden strategic importance for the Confederates, since the Union has blockaded all the Southern ports. Clayton Wilkes, a gambling den owner, con artist, smuggler, and scoundrel, is a plantation owner’s son and apparent Confederate sympathizer, though actually he’s a Union spy. His long-ago love is fellow swindler Allie Stoneman, a Confederate widow who comes to Matamoros to sell her cotton crop. Old feelings resurface between Allie and Clay, but she realizes he’s helping the Yankees and stealthily counters his efforts. A substantial cast engages in double-crosses and side scams against the backdrop of the battle for Texas.

Kahn’s descriptions create urgency and ambiance. Clay’s bar smelled like “tobacco smoke, chorizos grilled in the kitchen by Milagra, his ancient Mexican cook; the sweet perfumed women at the bar, warm beer, burning kerosene and oiled boot-leather.” This poetry only falters during Clay and Allie’s love scenes, which are weighed down by clunkers such as “their mouths met like hungry animals.” The romantic subplot feels hollow in a book full of tragedy, but all the con artistry and the tensions of wartime more than make up for it.

History aficionados will appreciate how well Kahn weaves facts into fiction. Thespian John Wilkes Booth, Clay’s relative “by marriage—or at least by adultery,” is well integrated into the plot, as are various pivotal events. Kahn never romanticizes the war, painting sympathetic portraits of deserters while taking jabs at profiteers. Readers looking for a strong sense of time and place, most particularly Texas history lovers, will find this hits the spot.

Takeaway: Texas history aficionados will love this dramatic tale of love, double-crosses, and sorrow toward the end of the Civil War.

Great for fans of Tina Juarez’s South Wind Come, Edwin Shrake’s Blessed McGill.

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

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Who's There?: A Collection of Stories
Dimas Rio
This uneven first collection from Rio (Dinner with Saucer) brings together five short stories with a dark tinge. The title entry features a man who feels that he’s “forever a tourist on earth,” and whose fiancée’s whereabouts become a cause for concern. In “At Dusk,” a high school student conducts an unsettling interview with an author. The strongest story is the longest, “The Wandering,” whose protagonist is a security guard in desperate need of funds to support the baby he and his girlfriend are expecting. “The Voice Canal” features someone who may or may not be communicating with the dead. In “The Forest Protector,” a mother who self-harms works to protect her comics-obsessed son from the world’s harsh realities.

The translation from Rio’s original Indonesian into English unfortunately has some awkward phrasing and idiomatic missteps. In “Who’s There?”, pouring and drinking liquor is described as a “fluent act,” when it seems the author means “fluid.” Some metaphors are mixed: “But like bubbles that formed as water started to boil, a splinter of truth escaped from his mouth.” Readers might be tempted to stop with this first story and turn their attention elsewhere. The translation errors are less noticeable in other stories, though never completely absent.

The plot twists in the first two stories are illogical or predictable, and not very memorable. “The Wandering” is more enigmatic and surprising, and readers who reach it will be glad they stayed the course. Though not every story equally demonstrates Rio’s talent and imagination, horror fans will appreciate his willingness to strike out into new territory, away from the genre’s most common tropes.

Takeaway: Patient horror readers will be rewarded by the surprising and satisfying keystone tale in this collection of dark fiction.

Great for fans of Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales.

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

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Bucking the Artworld Tide: Reflections on Art, Pseudo Art, Art Education & Theory
Michelle Marder Kamhi
Kamhi, coeditor of the arts journal Aristos, follows Who Says That’s Art?: A Commonsense View of the Visual Arts with this pull-no-punches essay collection deriding abstract art and its postmodernist successors. She systematically and thoroughly beats down the idea that anything can be declared art, “from a pile of wrapped candies on the gallery floor [to] a dead shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde.” She makes a passionate and effective argument that such work is “incomprehensible to the poor viewer” and advocates for representational art to regain its primacy.

Readers who struggle to appreciate some forms of art will sympathize with Kamhi’s difficulty connecting to Pablo Picasso’s sculpture. More controversially, she warns that “a movement has for some time been afoot to hijack art education for purposes of often radical political indoctrination” and scorns abstract art as contrary to “the commonsense attitude that has been a prime virtue of American society.” “What’s wrong with today’s ‘protest art’?” she demands. “Mainly this: it’s long on protest and virtually devoid of art.” Her candid reflections on what she calls “pseudo art” give readers the confidence to make up their own minds about the merits of artwork.

Kamhi writes with vehemence and certainty, and though she may not win over devotees of modernism, readers who find abstract and conceptual art baffling will be thrilled to encounter a kindred spirit. Objectivist thinkers will devour her examination of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of art; however, pop-art lovers will take exception to her harsh views on Andy Warhol and his contemporaries. The book is not illustrated, but Kamhi’s website hosts a resource page with links to all the artwork she cites. This well-researched and thoughtfully written guide is likely too weighty for casual art lovers, but art historians, critics, and artists will enjoy arguing over it.

Takeaway: Artists, critics, and teachers who are troubled by non-representational art will be thrilled to have their opinions confirmed by this clearly argued critique.

Great for fans of E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, Fred Ross.

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

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Transference
B.T. Keaton
Keaton packs this sprawling SF thriller full of surprises and tense action. In the year 2102, the theocratic despot Jovian promises eternal life by transferring people’s souls among bodies. To maintain total control, the Church exiles criminals and undesirables (down to left-handed people) to the mines on the planet Eridania. Prisoner Barrabas Madzimure, about to be executed for killing a guard who was raping another prisoner, claims to be Thaniel Kilraven, one of the few who know the Church did not invent transference technology but discovered it on an alien world. Barrabas is brutally interrogated by Church investigator Corvus, who reveals that Kilraven’s family is alive and in Jovian’s custody. After Barrabas foments a prisoners’ rebellion, the chaos allows him to escape on a ship back to Earth, where he allies himself with a group on the margins of society with the dangerous mission of toppling Jovian.

Keaton’s worldbuilding is expansive and effective. The plot provides natural moments of partially explaining the situation on Earth and its history, including Barrabas’s interrogation and his confusion upon returning after decades on a distant planet. Other narrators extend the scope without too much disorientation, though some have few enough chapters to raise questions about the choice. Fans of epic, constantly evolving arcs will be pleased with the multiplying trajectories whose resolutions always propel future events.

The narrative has some unfortunate blips. Having constructed a setting where any body might be inhabited by any person, Keaton twice makes shocking revelations of certain characters’ inner identities, which are hard to reconcile with their behavior. The explication of Jovian’s true motives in a chapter-long “self-righteous soliloquy” is also confounding. Readers who can follow the three-body monte will enjoy the futuristic tough-guy dialogue (“You got some nerve, flarkwad!”), action scenes, and melodrama.

Takeaway: This mix of theology, technology, action, and melodrama gives fans of intricate thrillers much to chew on.

Great for fans of Dan Simmons, James Gunn.

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

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With Dark Understandings
Fazle Chowdhury
Chowdhury’s dense, tense novel follows a man’s desperate attempt to gain power in an unnamed, fictional Latin American country. Plagued by nightmares and memories of his abusive father, Andres Orce defies all odds to outmaneuver his enemies. Fighting against a fascist party in power, a brutal military, and outside interference from global superpowers, Orce pays a heavy price for his activism. An assassination attempt prompts his wife to leave him, taking the 13-year-old twin daughters he adores, but also spurs him into action. Through a series of secret and dirty deals and other skullduggery done “with dark understandings,” Orce pursues a victory for his country and his own healing.

The book is immediately gripping as it focuses on Orce’s horrible nightmares and his relationships with his family and friends. The transition into pure political theater is a jarring one as characters and schemes blur into one another. Chowdhury crafts a startling sense of realism in the parts of the story that deal with policy and politics. However, when he strays away from Orce’s feelings and experiences, the novel becomes dry and didactic. The details of revolution may be irreducibly complex, but when Chowdhury focuses on the fine details of negotiation for chapters at a time, it can be hard to follow.

Some interesting characters, such as an amoral financier named Snell, appear and then disappear. Others receive little development. However, when the book comes back around to Orce and his tragic story, it finishes strongly. The revelation that Orce’s motives are as personal as they are political lends additional depth to his character. The book is stuffed with fascinating economic and political ideas and has a great protagonist, but the extraneous details detract from the drama of its plot as well as the plight of its hero.

Takeaway: Readers interested in the gritty details of revolution will appreciate this story of a rabble-rouser’s personal and political tragedies.

Great for fans of Erico Verissimo’s O Senhor Embaixador.

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

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Searching for Spenser: A Mother's Journey through Grief
Margaret Kramar
In this exceptional debut memoir, journalist and editor Kramar invites readers fully into her experiences of raising a disabled child, grieving his death, and gradually moving on. In early 1991, Kramar and her aggressive, immature husband, Stan, were expecting a robust, healthy newborn. Instead, little Spenser had a large head perched on a thin body. He was soon diagnosed with Sotos syndrome, a genetic disorder causing physical and cognitive disabilities. While Kramar cared for him and precocious toddler Brendan, Stan withdrew, eventually moving out when Spenser was five. As Spenser grew, he flourished, exceeding doctors’ expectations (but not his mother’s) until his sudden death from undetected lymphoma at age 10, just after Kramar remarried.

Kramar’s initial optimistic outlook on life, including in her work as a civil rights investigator, contrasts with her insecurities and frustrations about raising two boys as a suddenly single working mother. (Her account of Stan’s calculated plan for a divorce—emptying the bank accounts and moving out furniture before presenting his stunned wife with a prepared document to sign—is shocking.) She’s bluntly honest about her mingled feelings of love and despair as she adjusts to raising a disabled child with little support, and later adjusts again to life without him. When a medium tells her Spenser’s spirit wants her to be happy, she resists, writing, “Grief is quiet and peaceful; living is noisy, complicated, and tiring.” But her new husband, her stepchildren, and Brendan help her find a path forward.

Everyone, including Kramar, is shown warts and all. Kramar conducted extensive interviews with Stan, Brendan, and others who knew Spenser, an unusual approach that creates a nuanced portrait. Spenser is never oversimplified into an object of pity or inspirational legend. Readers will close the book feeling fortunate to have gotten to know a gregarious, theater-loving boy who “simply did things his way” and a mother who did the very best she could for a child she deeply loved.

Takeaway: This heartbreaking yet uplifting memoir of parental love and loss will touch the heart of any reader.

Great for fans of Marie Killilea’s Karen: A True Story Told by Her Mother, Paul Daugherty’s An Uncomplicated Life.

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

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It's Just the Way It Was: Inside the War on the New England Mob and other stories
Joe Broadmeadow
Doherty, a retired Rhode Island state trooper, recounts his life and career fighting New England’s old-school mobsters in this low-key collection of anecdotes anchored by short historical interludes. Doherty started his career in 1980, but his familiarity with the state’s notorious mobs began far earlier. He had family members on both sides of the law and grew up with an intimate understanding of how men in the mob operate. His career investigating organized crime and public corruption coincided with a sea change in organized crime: the end of old-school, omertà-style loyalty along ethnic and family lines and a new generation of tech-infused criminal entrepreneurship.

Mentioning but not analyzing this cultural evolution, Doherty, aided by author Broadmeadow (Silenced Justice), focuses closely on the colorful characters he encountered over his storied career. Some of these, such as Raymond Patriarca Sr., will be familiar to anyone with an interest in New England’s Mafia families. Doherty expertly depicts the psychology of men steeped in organized crime from their childhood, demonstrating insight and sympathy. The pages are populated with men of inner duality, brutal killers who donated monthly to their churches and cried during their mothers’ funerals, who flagrantly broke the law but respected the troopers who enforced it.

The authors briefly mention big events such as the Rhode Island credit union crisis but don’t discuss them in depth. Without this context, the anecdotes don’t offer much for readers of history. Doherty is a delightful storyteller, but his tales sometimes wander and feel repetitive, and his personal experiences can’t carry 400 pages alone. This memoir is a beach read for true crime fans, less intense than a thriller but with plenty of humor and character to keep the reader entertained.

Takeaway: These loosely organized reminiscences of a Rhode Island state trooper who took on the mob will entertain New England Mafia history buffs.

Great for fans of Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s Whitey, Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier’s Crimetown podcast.

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

Burning Justice
Marti Green
An attorney’s quest to overturn a woman’s death penalty conviction leads to an uphill battle in Green’s gripping sixth Innocent Prisoners Project legal thriller (after Justice Delayed). Dani Trumball moves from Bronxville, N.Y., to Stanford, Calif., with her husband, Doug, and children, Ruth and Jonah, after Doug gets a job as dean of Stanford Law School. Dani, an attorney for the Help Innocent Prisoners Project (HIPP), takes the case of Becky Whitlaw, a woman on death row in Texas. After Becky’s three young children died in a suspicious fire, she was convicted of murder. Dani files multiple appeals and searches for evidence that the fire was accidental, but the courts continue to rule against Becky, sometimes with apparent political motivation. When Doug becomes ill, Dani has to juggle her work with guiding her family through a harrowing time.

Readers will appreciate Green’s sympathetic portrayal of Dani as a wife, mother, attorney, and advocate who’s trying to devote sufficient time and energy to every aspect of her life. Even when Dani’s feelings and struggles are highlighted, the depths of her personality remain hidden. Her stoic persona is essential to her functioning both at work and at home, but the reader is never allowed to see all the way behind the mask. However, the characterization is sufficient to carry the narrative, and series readers may gain more of an understanding of Dani’s psyche over time.

Green, an attorney, goes into the details of the difficult appellate process but doesn’t let the story get bogged down, always keeping the human element front and center. Every step of Dani’s work is easily understandable, and the twists and setbacks will keep readers wondering how Dani and Becky can prevail against a harsh and biased system. Fans of legal thrillers that lean hard on compassion for the most vulnerable will be drawn to this novel’s admirable protagonist and fast-paced plot.

Takeaway: This gripping legal thriller about saving an innocent woman from execution will draw fans of capable, compassionate heroines.

Great for fans of Scott Turow’s Innocent, John Grisham’s The Guardians.

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

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