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Circumcision Scar
Jay J. Jackson
Jackson’s searingly angry and honest book, in which he reveals the lifelong trauma left by his circumcision, is equal parts memoir and polemic. Jackson’s memories of his botched circumcision as an infant reverberated into his adulthood, resulting in recurring nightmares, body dysmorphia, and painful erectile dysfunction. He details his long, painful journey to restore his foreskin, a process that included plastic surgery and the use of an “advanced restoration device.” Jackson angrily compares circumcision to ritualized sexual assault and urges parents to really think about what they're doing when they circumcise their sons.

Jackson tends to write in circles, repeatedly falling into spiraling rants and rambles. The book occasionally loses focus for dozens of pages at a time, resulting in a 400-page narrative that would have been far more effective at half the length. It occasionally reads like an unedited journal, which can detract from the points Jackson’s trying to make. When he declares that any circumcised male who doesn’t share his viewpoint has been brainwashed, or says circumcision is equivalent to rape and pedophilia, it alienates readers who don’t already agree with him, eroding the potential power of his message.

When the story is focused on the author’s personal experience, however, the book has a powerful sense of furious momentum. Jackson describes the physical and emotional abuse he suffered at the hands of his bigoted family with heartbreaking vulnerability. He includes several powerful anecdotes describing the enraged reactions to his beliefs about the evils of circumcision: urologists hurl homophobic insults at him in full waiting rooms; a cousin-in-law threatens to force Jackson and his husband to circumcise a hypothetical future child. In these passages, the author effectively calls out the indoctrination in both religion and medicine. Despite the lack of clear focus, this is a powerful and moving narrative of suffering and recuperation.

Takeaway: This unflinching memoir could be a valuable resource for readers researching the negative effects of circumcision.

Great for fans of Ronald Goldman’s Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma.

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

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13 Billion To One
Randy Rush
Rush’s fast-paced debut memoir, narrating the thrilling highs and devastating lows of winning the Canadian lottery, serves up an entertaining cautionary tale of good intentions exploited by bad actors. Having grown up on welfare, Rush recounts, he was all too familiar with struggling to make ends meet. But in 2015, during a routine trip to the corner store to pick up cat food for his beloved Conway Kitty, Rush finds out he’s won the $50 million jackpot. After traveling, giving away a million dollars, and splurging on swanky sports cars, Rush decides that it’s time to use his money for good. Despite misgivings, he invests millions in a software startup run by a friend’s son, the young and ambitious Jeremy Crawford.

Rush’s reservations about his business partner are proven right when he catches wind of Crawford’s extravagant spending. Rush launches a court case against him, hoping to both get his money back and bring attention to white-collar crime. Rush’s writing is effortless and casual; he shares everything from his experiences growing up and his naïveté about giving away money to his slow-building anger at being taken advantage of. The gullibility he recounts displaying occasionally makes for a frustrating read, but it serves to hammer home just how unprepared the average person is for sudden wealth.

This narrative expertly shows readers the joy that can come from financial comfort while making it very clear that even the best friendships can be threatened when that much money is on the line. Rush uses his experiences to make larger points about white-collar crime, rather than just villainizing his thieving former partner. Rush’s evolution from naive lottery winner to philanthropist and activist is admirable, and readers will enjoy this rags-to-riches memoir about bringing a con artist to justice.

Takeaway: Fans of fast-paced stories of con artists getting their due will celebrate lottery winner Rush’s victories against white-collar crime.

Great for fans of Frank W. Abagnale’s Catch Me if You Can, Tom Wright and Bradley Hope’s Billion Dollar Whale.

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

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Trail of Pyres
L. James Rice
In Rice’s exciting sequel to Eve of Snows, most members of the Silone Clans have abandoned their home, Kaludor, to the demonic Shadows of Man. They find uneasy refuge in one of the Tek nation’s Hundred Kingdoms. The three series protagonists are separated. Eliles and the small group who remained behind in Kaludor discover that the towering walls of flame she conjured have mysterious repercussions, and something seems to be moving inside them. Ivin’s attempt to negotiate a formal peace with the Hidreng ends in a stalemate, as he is forced to make the impossible choice between sacrificing his people’s lives and severing their connection to their gods. A desperate plan to find allies sends Solineus to seek the protection of the Edan people; in return, he must arrange a meeting with the Touched, a being of immense power.

The plight of the Silone refugees is central in this installment, so many questions raised in the first book remain unanswered, which may frustrate some readers. Inconsistencies in the plot might confuse others. But Rice takes every opportunity to add depth and nuance to his convincing fantasy world. He also provides a gripping plot, with the determined clan leaders trying desperately to save their people from Tek aggression, and the threat of starvation punctuated by fierce battles.

The constant pressure to outwit the enemy and protect the Silone people is a great crucible in which Rice’s characters grow and develop over the course of the book. Ivin comes into his own as a diplomat and strategist; Solineus’s charisma earns him a rival, and his meeting with the Touched provides new clues and insight into the enigmatic being. The thrilling battles and poignant struggles of the Silone refugees make for a captivating read.

Takeaway: The second Sundering the Gods novel will appeal to epic fantasy readers who love layered conflict and complex story lines.

Great for fans of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, R. Scott Bakker’s The Darkness That Comes Before.

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

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Partner with Purpose
Steve Schmida
In this thorough and thoughtful hands-on guide, Schmida, the founder and chief innovation officer of the global development and corporate sustainability consulting firm Resonance, lays out practical, hard-won advice for companies considering partnerships with governments, NGOs, faith-based groups, universities, think tanks, and other mission-driven institutions. Drawing from two decades’ experience initiating and managing cross-sector partnerships, Schmida persuasively demonstrates how the “logic of interdependence” has made it urgent for corporations to ally with outside organizations to face the business-threatening, multi-dimensional concerns he terms “wicked problems,” such as issues of sustainability, climate change, labor rights, and public health.

In clear, forceful prose illustrated by occasional tidy charts and tables, Schmida uses revealing case histories, such as seafood company Thai Union’s partnerships with the Migrant Workers Rights Network and Greenpeace, to illustrate the challenges of communicating and collaborating across sectors. He provides models of common types of partnerships, a roster of essential roles, frameworks for establishing common goals and sharing risks and rewards, and criteria for the measuring of results. His practical guidelines are especially thorough, covering seeking out, securing, implementing, scaling, and sustaining potential partnerships as well as getting partners across what he calls “The Partnership Valley of Death” and into a committed formal agreement.

The author is attentive to the nuances of cross-sector collaboration, especially the management of expectations when residents of the corporate world find themselves attempting to communicate with those in the public or nonprofit sectors. (“Be willing to meet to get a meeting,” he suggests.) Schmida lays out straightforward, actionable steps to identify potential opportunities and avoid key hazards. Unlike many business books, this one isn’t selling a method, a service, or other products; it is simply a thorough and practical work that knows its audience very well. This valuable guide is both a spirited entreaty and practical road map for powerful collaborations between businesses and mission-driven organizations.

Takeaway: This highly practical guide will light the way for business owners and corporate executives seeking cross-sector partnerships.

Great for fans of David Gage’s The Partnership Charter, Simon Sinek’s Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.

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

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Mr. Moonbeam and the Halloween Crystal
Ryan Cowan
A third grade schoolteacher, Mr. Moonbeam, moonlights as a witch and a guardian of humankind in this suspenseful middle grade fantasy. Primarily a guide for magical children like Elliott, who must hide in plain sight in the nonmagical world, Mr. Moonbeam is tasked by the goddess Enchantra with thwarting an evil being called Noir. Things look grim when Noir successfully steals the powerful Halloween Crystal and goes after his own estranged daughter, Sabrina, but then Elliott’s magic manifests as truth-seeing, which gives Mr. Moonbeam and his team of guardians a chance to foil Noir’s evil plans.

Though the first chapter sets up Elliott as the main character, he is quickly sidelined as the adults learn of the danger to the magical world and prepare to fight back. When Mr. Moonbeam prepares to sneak into Noir’s castle at the climax of the tale, Elliott is finally able to step into the story and use his magic to guide his teacher through the castle, but then is once again sent off to safety when Mr. Moonbeam finally goes to confront Noir directly. While a logical choice, it’s an odd one for a book aimed at younger audiences. The protagonist is a kind and admirable man, but some children may have trouble connecting with the story when their most obvious proxy is routinely whisked away from the action, playing a supporting role at best.

The writing is simple and, if sometimes a little repetitive, appropriate for a grade school chapter book. Elliott and Mr. Moonbeam are likable and good-hearted heroes, and both are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to stand up against evil and destruction and to protect the magical world they love. This fantastical battle between good and evil magic will please fans of classic children’s fantasy.

Takeaway: This magic-fueled battle between light and darkness will appeal to cautious young readers who wonder why kids in books are always left alone to save the world.

Great for fans of E.S. Ivy’s Miri Attwater series, Madeleine L'Engle.

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

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Maximum Rossi
Paul W. Papa
Papa (Haunted Las Vegas) demonstrates a gift for gritty crime fiction with this page-turning debut novel. The only thing left for Max Rossi in 1950s Boston is the family business—organized crime—so he picks up stakes and moves to Las Vegas. Rossi has a moral streak despite his father’s work as a mob fixer, and when he sees powerful Chicago gangster Joe “The Barber” Bilotti hit a woman, he punches Bilotti in the face. That act of chivalry puts him in law enforcement’s sights as the prime suspect after Bilotti is murdered, forcing Rossi to turn gumshoe and find the real killer.

Papa, whose previous work includes two Vegas travel guides, makes good use of what he knows about the city. He plausibly recreates the feel of Las Vegas in the 1950s without anything feeling forced, anachronistic, or used to foreshadow future events. He also does a good job of balancing nicely noirish prose (from the opening sentence, “I was two eggs into a three-egg omelet when my breakfast was interrupted by a man who slid into my booth across the table from me”) with gradually and effortlessly supplying Rossi’s backstory.

The premise of a mob-affiliated man turning PI may not be original, but Papa puts his own spin on it. The action scenes are tightly written and avoid clichés, coming across as fresh and novel in a genre where that is no small achievement. The occasional poetic flourishes, as when Papa describes a character moving “with a certain resistance—a man who didn’t want to get where he was going,” add an extra layer to the narrative. Rossi’s guilt about the unexpected consequences of an effort to be generous comes across as sincere and heart-felt. This is an excellent hard-boiled mystery: cleverly written, smoothly paced, and with a protagonist who’s compelling enough to sustain a series.

Takeaway: Fans of old-fashioned crime fiction will be delighted by Papa’s outstanding debut, featuring a kind-hearted mobster turned PI in a perfectly described 1950s Las Vegas.

Great for fans of Loren D. Estleman, Martha Grimes.

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

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In This Delicious Garden
Seth Thomas Pietras
With a mind-bending blend of history and loosely connected vignettes, debut novelist Pietras pens a literary love letter to the myths, mountains, and characters of Chamonix, France. A haven for extreme sports enthusiasts in almost all seasons, Pietras’s Chamonix has its share of legends that flourish among the secretive, tourist-tolerating locals. Little perturbs them, though they tend to steer clear of the murderous Chevaux des Bossons—a pack of reputedly bloodthirsty horses cared for by Madame Champignon, who’s a bit of a local legend herself. When stranger-than-usual deaths begin to occur and there are quiet mentions of monkeys spotted among the area’s peaks and glaciers, both are quickly attributed to the strange, eccentric nature of Chamonix—though the author declines to say why.

At once a work of “fact-ion” and a detailed examination of a cultural subdivision, the novel contains elements of intrigue, fantasy, spirituality, and psychological terror, but focuses more on descriptions and character histories than on plot. Casual readers may find their attention wandering from the cerebral, labyrinthine prose, which can obfuscate Pietras’s subtle, clever commentary on politics and philosophy. Transitions are particularly jarring, and readers might need to reread earlier sections to follow the connections the author tries to make.

Pietras’s intimate character sketches have a fresh, whimsical feel, especially when paired with intricate, expansive descriptions of a beloved town. The novel is sometimes more thoughtful than coherent. This beautifully crafted but sprawling blend of travelogue and fiction will appeal to literary readers with a love of wordplay.

Takeaway: Readers with overlapping interests in extreme sports, history, and philosophy will appreciate this beautifully crafted, sprawling blend of travelogue and fiction.

Great for fans of Jon Krakauer, John Kennedy Toole.

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

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The Art of Good Enough
Dr. Ivy Ge
Ge’s debut is a spirited pep talk for working mothers, providing information and strategies to improve emotional, mental, and physical well-being. Ge shares what she learned about being healthy, happy, and confident while balancing her studies in pharmacy school, taking care of an asthmatic son, and buying a new home. She backs up her life lessons with years of research into “mind and body transformation methods.” The book is divided into three parts: “The Mind” discusses attitudes, thinking, and emotions; “The Body” addresses physical needs, aging, and strategies for health and self-confidence; and “The Path” provides encouragement and suggestions for pursuing personal goals outside of family obligations.

Ge makes some pointed observations on American society’s distorted view of beauty and its adverse effect on women, but these are occasionally undermined by judgmental comments that are rooted in superficial, stereotypical standards of physical beauty. She writes that elderly women swing their arms in a way that implies “aging and frailty,” boasts of her own “youthful look” and “hourglass figure,” and suggests that regular lovemaking will give one’s skin an enviable glow: “Think of your partner as a super Botox/filler machine.” Readers may find this approach more dispiriting than encouraging.

With a passionate and positive voice and occasional simple illustrations of core concepts, Ge empowers and educates readers on numerous subjects, encouraging them to give up “perfection” for “good enough.” She gives clear explanations of how to reverse-engineer solutions in pursuit of one’s aspirations, beginning at a goal and working backwards toward the starting point. Ge includes bountiful tips on managing time and resources and breaks them down into easy, actionable steps. Though she occasionally falls back on generalizations, many of her personal anecdotes and evidence from professionals back up her arguments about the use of positive thinking to pursue peace of mind and success in life. Ge’s expansive and practical advice on accomplishing personal goals results in a meaningful and invigorating message for women.

Takeaway: Overwhelmed women will appreciate these encouraging tips for pursuing personal goals and happiness.

Great for fans of Great for fans of O’s Little Guide to Finding Your True Purpose, Shannon Kaiser’s The Self-Love Experiment.

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

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Bound by Beliefs
Joseph C. Way
Way (A Pain in the Gut) throws gasoline on the basic premises of the history of Christianity and lights a match with this provocative work. Writing for his fellow Christians, he takes as his central precept that God “is love and acts only from love,” believing all other elements of religious faith can be derived from that concept, and that any claims contradicting it must necessarily be false. Among his other bold statements, he says that Jesus was a human, itinerant preacher who cared more about doing right while alive than about any notion of an afterlife; that the Bible isn’t meant to be interpreted literally; and that a God who acts from love would never damn souls to eternal hellfire.

Way persuasively argues that a physical resurrection is impossible and unproven. He asks a series of challenging questions, including why Jesus was able to feed 5,000 people from “someone’s snack” a single time but not repeat the process to feed all the hungry people he encountered on a daily basis: “The argument that ‘God can do anything,’ ‘It was only for Jesus,’ or ‘It was for that one special occasion’ is totally illogical, insufficient, and dodges the basic issue,” he writes. He asserts that natural laws come directly from an unchanging God, so tales of miracles that contradict physics must only be stories. He also proposes that “Jesus made deliberate efforts to restore Jewish worship to its Hebrew core, not replace it” and didn’t intend to start a new religion.

Many devout Christians will condemn the work as heretical, but open-minded readers may find Way’s well-reasoned, passionate arguments compelling, and his refrain that God is love and there is no hell will ease the minds of those brought up on hellfire-and-brimstone Christianity. This unusual view of Christianity raises far more questions than it answers and is likely to provoke deep thought and lively conversation.

Takeaway: Open-minded Christians will be drawn in by Way’s passionate arguments for a profoundly loving God and a pragmatic, fully human Jesus.

Great for fans of C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, Scott Shay’s In Good Faith.

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

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A New Chance
Kevin E. Ready
Ready (All the Angels Were Jewish) makes good use of his military and legal experience in this metaphysical novel about a soul being reborn into another person. Mark Kelleher is driving on a California freeway when his car crashes. Mark wakes up and discovers that he is no longer Mark, who he learns has died. He is now Naomi Donnelley, an 18-year-old woman who had been comatose for months after a drug overdose. Mark adapts to life as Naomi, only sharing the secret of his transformation experience with his doctor, Dr. Partridge. Determined to forge ahead in this new life, Naomi gets released from the hospital and resides with a Mormon family as she studies to become a nurse. Naomi draws on Mark’s tenacity and fortitude to turn her life around and embrace her nursing career. She finds romance with Jesse Manzanares, a SWAT team officer, and joins the military as a reservist. Naomi’s foray into a combat zone in Afghanistan highlights her bravery as she risks her life for others, and she dreams about returning stateside to be reunited with Jesse.

The explosive opening draws the reader into the storyline as Ready cleverly intertwines Mark’s memories with Naomi’s body and life. The complexity of Mark’s journey adds depth to the concept of reincarnation. Naomi’s transformation from a troubled teen to an ambitious young woman is heartwarming, though at times her constant success strains the reader’s belief.

Ready, a former Army and Navy officer, imbues the narrative with a high level of military detail. His captivating depiction of Naomi’s exploits in combat makes the experience vivid and real, and the portrayal of Naomi’s medical career highlights her ability to remain calm in a crisis. This realism, however, occasionally gets bogged down in extensive details, causing the plotline to drag near the novel’s conclusion. This rich exploration of the human soul’s potential is a feel-good tale of achievement and rebirth.

Takeaway: Fans of dramatic novels with a hint of the paranormal will delight in this story of reincarnation and personal achievement.

Great for fans of Gwendolyn Womack’s The Memory Painter, Iris Johansen’s Shadow Play.

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

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The Adventures of Rockford T. Honeypot
Josh Gottsegen
Debut author Gottsegen introduces young readers to the adventurous and charming chipmunk Rockford T. Honeypot in this gripping coming-of-age adventure. Rockford is wrangling his 10-year-old great-grandson, Theo, as they shop at a farmer’s market frequented by woodland creatures. While they’re stuck in the checkout line, other patrons coax Rockford into telling them about his travels throughout the Tropland rainforest. Rockford relates growing up as a bookish, ostracized child who wound up training with mindful chip-monks, riding on the back of a hawk, and learning from a renowned muskrat chef. As the stories get bolder, Rockford’s audience grows. Soon the local news station is broadcasting him live, drawing in people from his past who connect him to the growth, strength, and tenacity that made him who he is today.

Rockford’s stories, gently enhanced by Kleyn’s tidy, detailed chapter head illustrations, introduce a menagerie of vibrant one-of-a-kind characters who are perfectly suited for older children, with gentle lessons to be learned from every interaction. Some of the elements are a little clichéd: Rockford predictably falls for the first female chipmunk he meets, and the faux-Shaolin chip-monks speak in stilted English (“We know pain of loneliness”), quote haiku, and believe in a mystical prophecy. Each chapter ends with a return to the frame story at the farmer’s market, with humor that can feel a little strained. However, the book’s target readers will breeze past these flaws and find the adventure enthralling.

Parents waiting for their children to be old enough for The Hobbit or Redwall will find this the perfect stopgap, with plenty of thrills as well as moral quandaries, somber loss, and emotional growth. The ending will elicit happy sniffles from readers who have gotten caught up in Rockford’s tale. Without stinting the action, Gottsegen delivers a powerful message about the importance of being brave, honest, and true to oneself.

Takeaway: Older children will absorb important life lessons while enjoying this thrilling story of a brave chipmunk’s forest adventures.

Great for fans of Kathi Appelt’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, Barbara O’Connor’s On the Road to Mr. Mineo’s.

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

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Enchanted Everglades
Gail Kowatch
Filmmaker Kowatch brings larger-than-life characters and action scenes to middle grade readers in this highly visual mix of literary seriousness and fantasy adventure. Ocean River and Ellen Hansen, both age 12, are best friends—until Ellen’s father dies in a car crash and clumsy Ocean accidentally disrupts his funeral. When their parents take them on a vacation to the Everglades a couple months later, guilt-ridden Ocean isn’t even sure they can be friends again, and Ellen barely speaks to him. But their airboat crashes, and Ocean and Ellen must work together to find their parents and escape the dangerous swamp. On their journey they acquire supernatural talents and befriend an eccentric wood stork, a guileless soft-shell turtle, and Gumbo, a yoga-practicing, pacifist alligator who’s next in line to become king of the Everglades.

Kowatch’s descriptions and Shinn’s charming digital illustrations will leave readers feeling like they’ve stomped through the Everglades alongside Ocean and Ellen. The relationships are depicted with wonderful depth. Gumbo and his pals often meditate together, Ocean and Ellen talk about grief and growing up, Ocean’s parents share important lessons with him, and each character takes turns leading, encouraging, and sacrificing for the others in a way that feels sincere.

Yet all of these elements create a text that is sometimes busy and complicated. Chapters are told from various perspectives and the book blends Seminole mythology with Eastern spiritual practices, which may leave younger readers confused, uninterested, or just wanting more of the lively dialogue. However, the book’s quirkiness and cartoon-style illustrations, as well as its loose ends (perhaps left open for a sequel?), will likely keep them hooked. For kids entering adolescence in the 21st century, an adventure that includes real-life heaviness, environmental awareness and activism, meditation and affirmation, and a little bit of the absurd seems just right.

Takeaway: Tween readers (and their parents and teachers) will love the values, hardships, laughs, and learning in Kowatch’s thoughtful adventure fantasy.

Great for fans of the Magic School Bus series, the Magic Tree House series.

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

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Nephi's Courage
Rory McFarlan
McFarlan’s emotional contemporary romance debut grapples with being a gay believer in a hostile religious environment. Nephi Willard, a 30-year-old devout Mormon, loses his leadership role in his Pleasant Grove, Utah, congregation when he expresses his intention to start dating men. His first attempts stumble due to his deep naïveté and his continued attachment to Mormonism, both of which make his dates bristle. One date, Latino chef Alex, rejects a romantic relationship but agrees to help Nephi navigate gay culture. After causing a stir by bringing Alex to a church activity, Nephi takes in Bradley Hanson, an 18-year-old thrown out by his family for coming out. Nephi and Alex return from a hunting trip to an unfolding tragedy propelled by rumors, the rippling effects of which culminate in a bittersweet but satisfying ending.

McFarlan capably explores the contours of his characters’ inner lives and emotions, especially Nephi’s rigidity after years of closing off his sexuality. The dialogue is sometimes stilted (“I have been reflecting on my standing in the church as a gay man and my state in eternity”), and extraneous details occasionally drag down the pace of the story, but the characters’ strong personalities provide stable footing and enough gravity to keep events from slipping into melodrama.

Early chapters are weighed down by awkward explanations of Mormon practice, but McFarlan folds in some details more naturally, as when he depicts Nephi’s encounter with church discipline. The presence of Nephi’s boss, Mark Stone, who also serves as a major church leader, highlights the messy overlap of religious and professional lives in the insular communities of small-city Utah. McFarlan effectively contrasts the more tolerant but conflicted approach of Nephi’s family with the exceptionally harsh decisions of Bradley’s family. This romantic story will ring true to Mormon readers and help others begin to understand the depth and complexity of trying to reconcile sexual desire and religious beliefs.

Takeaway: This sympathetic exploration of the clash of sexuality and Mormon faith will have broad appeal for readers of contemporary romance.

Great for fans of Keira Andrews, Laura Stone’s And It Came to Pass.

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

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Something Wonderful
Matt Ritter
This beautiful and informative first children’s book from botanist Ritter (California Plants) explains the interdependent relationship of fig trees and wasps in a tropical forest. The story begins the moment a fig tree’s seed falls onto the branch of another tree. It eventually grows roots that overcome the host tree. Years later, the tree’s fruits become hosts to fig wasps, which lay their eggs while pollinating the seeds inside a fig, beginning their own life cycle inside. When grown, the males chew exit holes for the females to escape and carry pollen to the next fig tree. Finally, the figs are eaten by toucans who excrete the seeds.

Using his extensive knowledge as a botany professor and natural history writer, Ritter crafts a riveting narrative about a relatively obscure subject, catering to young readers with an interest in the natural world. Some language may be difficult for younger audiences to understand without explanation (“The seed settled onto a branch and did what seeds do: it germinated”), but the book is ideal for reading and discussing with adults, who may also learn something new. Ritter includes fun and digestible fact sheets about the red-eyed tree frog and the chestnut-mandibled toucan that make appearances in the story.

Gonzalez’s detailed illustrations provide a perfect complement to the story, with colorful, engaging imagery that aids readers in understanding each stage of the life cycles Ritter describes. Going deep inside the fig, Gonzalez shows the female wasp laying the eggs, the eggs hatching, and the new female wasps gathering pollen while the males chew holes. Gonzalez’s clear diagram of the wasps’ life cycle is a helpful addition to Ritter’s dry fact sheet. A tree frog hidden on each page is a delightful addition, gamifying the learning experience. Parents and educators will eagerly share this vivid picture book with budding botanists.

Takeaway: Older children interested in ecosystems will enjoy this fun picture book about the interdependence of fig trees and fig wasps.

Great for fans of Rebecca Bielawski’s Bees Like Flowers.

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

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The Vibrant Landscape
Gary Paul Levinson
This breathtaking book collects two decades of Levinson’s natural and urban landscape photographs, with nearly 100 color plates showing both iconic and unfamiliar locations, including Joshua Tree, Yosemite, and Zion National Parks. Levinson’s photos of waterfalls and autumn foliage are especially beautiful; he captures the sheer intensity of the color in Zion’s mix of red rocks and bright leaves. Margaretta K. Mitchell’s helpful essay on the history of landscape photography contextualizes Levinson’s work.

The book is thoughtfully organized, often pairing complementary images. A shot of Lake Tahoe is next to one of Lee Vining in California; the Tahoe shot has water and mountains and the Lee Vining photo is dominated by shrubbery and a forest, but both make extensive use of foreshortening. Photos of the Montreal skyline and biosphere are followed by a lone blooming shrub in Joshua tree, and then the starkness of Death Valley. There are also contrasts of color, as in a sunset overlooking a lake in Alaska accompanied by a moonrise above California’s Mono Lake. They’re composed in the same way, with the emphasis on the horizon, but the juxtaposition of the colors is striking. Levinson’s shots of the New York and Montreal skylines give a different kind of contrast as they carefully balance water and greenery against the constructed urban background.

Thematically, Levinson leans toward an even split between foreground and background images and a deliberate balance of foliage, water, and rock. That creates cohesion from image to image as well as the book as a whole. He’s able to vary this formula enough so as not to be repetitive, keeping the conceptual elements static while wildly varying the actual subjects. The fluidity of the compositions across the book makes the natural colors pop even harder. Every page of this exquisite book is a new and exciting experience for the reader.

Takeaway: Anyone who enjoys beautiful, vivid, and varied landscape photography will treasure this book.

Great for fans of Q.T. Luong’s Treasured Lands, T.H. Watkins and David Muench’s American Landscape.

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

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Talisman
Tam DeRudder Jackson
In Jackson’s jam-packed debut, a contemporary romantic fantasy, grad student Alyssa Macaulay discovers her Celtic mythology research has more personal significance than she had imagined. After strange noises outside her remote Montana home send her to security consultant Rowan Sheridan, warrior Rowan identifies her as his talisman, or fated mate. He tells her she has inherited paranormal powers needed for a mythic battle against the goddesses Maeve and Morgan, whose curse kills any warrior who fails to marry his talisman before he turns 28. Their sexual attraction beguiles Alyssa despite her initial doubts, and additional discoveries about her family history reveal their connection is vital to the cause. Alyssa must learn to use her powers, navigate her relationship with Rowan, and fight for their lives.

The novel’s grand scale, straightforward prose, thorough scene-setting, and detailed worldbuilding are its strong points. However, the dialogue can feel unwieldy, particularly when used to communicate large chunks of background information about warriors, talismans, and their goals. The same information is repeated, with similar wording, throughout the book. The action scenes are brief, with most fighting happening offstage or ending quickly; the emphasis on conversation and descriptive passages slows down the pacing and renders the protagonists’ ultimate victory somewhat less thrilling.

Alyssa’s personal journey includes learning more self-confidence as she takes responsibility in battle, but her total ignorance of the world she was born into means she’s subjected to endless lecturing by Rowan and others, limiting her ability to define herself. Rowan’s dominance at the start of their relationship causes communication problems between them that aren’t addressed until the very end—and Rowan never apologizes for his errors, instead blaming Maeve for making Alyssa feel insecure and unlovable—so the romantic resolution feels rushed. Though billed as a paranormal romance, this novel is best suited to fantasy readers who will love the setting and won’t mind the romance being more of an afterthought.

Takeaway: Fantasy readers with a taste for intricate worldbuilding and centuries-old drama will enjoy this tale of curses and fated love.

Great for fans of Leigh Ann Edwards, Kathy Morgan.

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

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