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Ghost Daughter
Helen Currie Foster
Life on Alice MacDonald Greer’s Texas ranch seems pretty idyllic: she’s surrounded by friendly burros, her law practice keeps her busy, and she just got engaged after half a decade of mourning her husband’s disappearance over the North Sea. Fresh off her last experience as an amateur sleuth (detailed in the prequel, Ghost Cat), Alice finds her bliss cut short when her friend and client Ellie Windom returns from a trip to Sante Fe with shocking news: Ellie has found the daughter she was forced to give up for adoption in high school. Ellie, now 72, widowed, and the mother to two bickering sons, wants to update her will to reflect this exciting discovery, but Alice soon finds her dead—with no murder weapon or suspects to be found. What follows is a hair-raising mystery that keeps Alice—and readers—on her toes until the very last page.

Foster has nailed the cozy mystery genre. Her portrait of Texas hill country is both empathetic and witty, and rural readers will find the politics and pleasures of small-town life absolutely true-to-life. This doesn’t mean that this adventure is for the easily scared, however: there are plenty of twists and turns that are sure to give readers chills even as they try to puzzle out whodunit. Though Ghost Daughter is the seventh installment in the Alice MacDonald Greer series, it’s easy to pick your way through its cast of unique characters—in this case, the people of Coffee Creek, Texas —without missing a beat.

Foster’s mastery of imagery and dialogue is on display throughout, her flowing prose making this an inviting, entertaining read. Art-lovers and legal-minded readers will appreciate the nods to these passions throughout; the works of Gustave Baumann, for instance, are pivotal to the plot. Readers are sure to be surprised by the conclusion, but can rejoice that there are many more MacDonald Greer mysteries planned.

Takeaway: Head’s up, cozy mystery fans: Helen Currie Foster’s latest is a must-read for the summer.

Great for fans of: Ellery Adams, Diane Kelly.

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

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Naked Ink: Diary of a Smalltown Boy, Vol I
Tobias Maxwell
In this intimate epic of a diary/memoir, Maxwell (Thomas: A Novel, among other fiction, poetry, memoirs, and more) offers an immersive tour of his adventures in New York City at the end of the 1970s, after moving from Toronto. Presenting vintage diary entries of notable frankness (“I can honestly say it’s the vilest thing I’ve ever woken up to yet!”), as well as some contemporary commentary for context and insight, Maxwell details his efforts to make it as an actor in a city of lofts and sleazy talent agents and endless possibility, while also looking for love, studying Hebrew, working as an art model, engaging in some sex he relished and some he regretted, and navigating the bureaucratic tangle of immigration laws.

Occasionally, life on stage matches up with his life off it: “I’m playing a bisexual Frenchman afraid of losing his student visa, trying to woo this girl while having this male lover around. And ... in real life, I’m a bisexual of French descent, having an affair with a woman for legit reasons, but slowly falling in love with the guy who just happens to be my lover in the play, all while being petrified of anyone in the production finding out my illegal status.” That passage exemplifies Naked Ink’s ethos of pluck in the face of challenges, the storytelling steeped in an irresistible milieu, offering both rich personal and cultural histories.

Maxwell offers delicious offhand memories like “fooling around with this Orthodox Jew” in the bathroom of the Bleecker Street subway station—“payess and all”—between fascinating asides about heartache, auditioning, and long-gone restaurants, plays, theaters, and people. The material’s often dense, and only occasionally dramatic, but lovers of New York cultural history and epigrammatic journals (“I was offered the part of Jean-Pierre in Quadrille for Equity Library Theatre’s Informal Series. It’s so informal we hardly get paid”) will find much to savor.

Takeaway: This journal from late ‘70s New York City dives deeply into theater, sex, life, and priceless cultural history.

Great for fans of: Tim Dlugos’s New York Diary, Allan Tannenbaum’s New York in the 70s: SoHo Blues, A Personal Photographic Diary.

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

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House of Fragile Dreams
Anne Moose
Moose creates an intriguing mix of family conflict thriller and classic romance in a contemporary interracial love story, complete with a light gloss of social activism. White divorcee Rachel Hayes randomly meets Nate, Black veteran and father to five-year old Isaiah, and feels inspired to invite them to move into the guest cottage on her late parents’ property. But Rachel’s life is complicated by her aggressive brother Dan, who harasses her after believing that she cheated him out of part of their inheritance while secretly using her house to stash his white supremacist gun collection. Rachel’s clumsy attempts to resolve the issue will endanger Nate and his family.

The core romance between Rachel and Nate feels sweet, easy, and natural, and Rachel’s comfort with it given her positive history with her Black stepfather makes sense. Although Isaiah is underdeveloped as a character, Moose thankfully resists the trope of leaning on the child as a matchmaker and places the primary barrier to the relationship as Rachel’s thoughtless choices, delivering a satisfying emotional resolution at her relief when things work out.

Readers drawn to social commentary will find that aspect of the story less engaging than the personal material, and those interested in the procedural aspects will likely find the police characters too generic. Moose maintains relationship mystery, but the choice not to inhabit Nate’s perspective means the novel doesn’t seize the opportunity to dig deeply into class and racial issues. White supremacist Dan, meanwhile, is an extreme yet vague antagonist, and the story leans more on the rich/poor side of the cultural gap than the racial one. Moose brings up rich themes of disability and sex by having Nate mention injury-related erection issues, but doesn’t explore them. Despite some missed chances for deeper character analysis, readers eager for love stories will want to indulge in this introspective success.

Takeaway: A class-crossing interracial romance powers this light, socially-conscious love story.

Great for fans of: Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names, Sandra Kitt’s Between Friends.

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

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The Garbage Can Gang Home At Last
Dewitt Zachary Smith
A dynamic dog duo wanders the city streets looking for food, shelter, an escape from Animal Control, and perhaps a better life. Little Pancho, a ten-year-old Chihuahua, and a young Staffordshire Terrier (aka a pit bull) named Doofus become friends on the street, and eventually meet another dog friend, Meghan. The three work together to navigate the transient life of street dogs, each either missing their past lives and owners or hoping to create a better future. (They refer to themselves as “homeless.”) Told in quick chapters full of action and featuring occasional full-page digital illustrations, Smith’s debut is a quick and fun heart-filled read for younger dog lovers.

Half-way through the story, Smith reveals the dogs’ back stories, adding much-needed insight into the characters but painting a troubling portrait of two of the previous owners. Doofus’s previous owner lives in a trailer park, is unemployed, lazy, angry, and won’t work for money and so orchestrates dog fights instead. This stereotypical poor white couple is matched by the Mexican family who once owned Pancho, the man working in construction, the woman bearing six kids, and her kids each having six kids of their own. That portrayal is presumably intended as complimentary, but it smacks of the “model minority” myth.

Despite the flawed human characterizations, The Garbage Can Gang still manages to tug at the heartstrings and show how small things like kindness can make a difference in people–or pups’–lives. Ale Moreno’s lively illustrations also bring welcome personality to the characters, focusing on the details of the dogs, like the scar on Doofus’s face, or the poofy hair on Meghan. Ultimately a tale of adventure, friendship, and the joys of home, dog lovers will find pleasure in The Garbage Can Gang: Home At Last, though adults should be prepared to discuss stereotypes with young readers.

Takeaway: A heartfelt entry in the storytelling tradition about dogs and the powers of love and friendship.

Great for fans of: Jamie White’s Shelter Dog Blues, Sarah Clark Jordan’s The BossQueen, Little BigBark, and the Sentinel Pup.

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

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The Revelation of Three
Sara M Schaller
This inviting second title in Schaller’s Empyrean Trilogy (after The Genesis of Seven) brings three childhood friends back together at nineteen to discover they were destined to play an integral part in stopping an escalating battle between Heaven and Hell. All raised in the same orphanage, Dane, Sophia, and Jordan kept in contact with the nun who raised them, Sister Helen—but none were aware of the others’ personal journeys along the way. When beasts of Hell murder Sister Helen in present-day New York City, and Sophia barely escapes the same fate, the three friends are reunited, along with six archangels, and on the hunt for important artifacts before Satan, Lucifer, or the Nephilim can stop them.

A refreshingly unique take on the eternal conflict between Heaven and Hell, The Revelation of Three imbues a carefully crafted treasure hunt with the excitement of being hunted. Each angel has a key that the heroes must travel the world to find, all while keeping a dangerous sphere in their possession and not falling into the hands of their infernal adversaries. Meanwhile, each of the three friends must also put together clues to find out who they really are, who their unknown parents were, and what they’re destined to be. Schaller’s combination of these elements (and many more) results in an adventure as thrilling as it is fast paced.

Schaller develops her cast with great care, ensuring that nobody’s predictable, even the names familiar from religion and literature. Still harboring an angelic side left over from before his fall from Heaven, Satan isn’t a straightforward evil villain; he faces conflicted feelings of compassion and love while trying to maintain his menacing image. Each archangel is singular, with whatever skill they specialize in— such as healing—influencing what they do and forming their unique personalities. Every character’s individual journey, and the memorable relationships created, will seamlessly pull readers into their deliciously hellish world.

Takeaway: This fast-paced adventure set against a battle between Heaven and Hell will keep young adult readers’ hearts racing.

Great for fans of: Cameo Renae Hidden Wings, Mary Ting’s From Gods.

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

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American Schism: How the Two Enlightenments Hold the Secret to Healing Our Nation
Seth David Radwell
Inspired by the partisan rancor that reached fever pitch during the Trump administration, business executive Radwell’s epic debut examines the historical influences that have led to what he sees as the “collapse” of politics in the United States. Favoring historical analysis over polemics, Radwell makes the case that the current chasm between the American right and left can be traced back to the 18th century’s Age of Enlightenment and the development of the basic tenets of liberty, equality, and reason. It’s Radwell’s contention that the philosophical divide between Europe’s moderate and radical Enlightenment thinkers reached colonial shores and baked itself into the foundation of the fledgling republic, with lasting ramifications still felt today.

With extensive research and clear reasoning, Radwell demonstrates how these distinct groups can be viewed as forerunners of the “two Americas” we see today, linked by their understanding of government as a social contract but differing sharply on fundamentals such as who the contract applies to, what it should offer, and who should have the power to administer and enforce it. He introduces the third major element in the “crucible of the American landscape”—Counter-Enlightenment populist movements—persuasively connecting the currents of history to insightful discussions of the Trump phenomenon.

Radwell fervently believes that Americans must again embrace the Enlightenment’s legacies of rational thought, empirical facts, and reasoned debate to counter our social and political dysfunction and preserve our democracy, Still, he’s sensitive to alternative viewpoints, addressing postmodern and Marxist critiques of the Enlightenment’s significance and acknowledging its historical limitations around race, class, and gender. Radwell’s exhaustive thoroughness may overwhelm casual readers, but his clear organization and smooth, engaging prose make the complex and nuanced arguments approachable. Readers seeking a better understanding of the headwaters of U.S. politics will be fascinated and inspired by Radwell’s commitment to Enlightenment principles.

Takeaway: An impassioned analysis of the foundational forces that shaped American democracy and a call for protecting its future.

Great for fans of: Henry F. May’s The Enlightenment in American, Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy.

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

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Uprooted: Family Trauma, Unknown Origins, and the Secretive History of Artificial Insemination
Peter J. Boni
Drawing on his own intimate quest to discover the truth of his conception, entrepreneur Boni (author of the 2015 crisis-management book All Hands on Deck) surveys what he calls the “the long, secretive, and sometimes scandalous history” of artificial insemination. He opens with his own wrenching story. In 1995, over thirty years after his father’s death from suicide—years of fearing that his father’s depression might be an inheritable trait—the adult Boni learned that his father had in fact been sterile and that Boni was the product of artificial insemination in the years just after the second world war. That revelation kicks off Boni’s search for his true biological roots, a search that also reveals the surprisingly long and checkered history of artificial insemination itself.

Boni details these events and his discoveries in clear, crisp prose that refreshingly balances shoe-leather reporting, scientific history (from Henry IV to the 19th century “father of modern gynecology” to the “human-ape hybrid experiment of Red Frankenstein”!), and the emotions of his search and its impact on him and his family. He worries, understandably, “Was my parents’ fertility doctor a eugenics practitioner, or worse, a Klansman?” His mother reports that the doctor who handled the insemination demanded the family keep the procedure secret “for life”; Boni’s research, meanwhile, reveals that tens of thousands of children were conceived this way in the mid twentieth century, in an unregulated system in which doctors often ran no tests on sperm donors—and offered the children no avenue to discover their biological relatives in later life.

This is gripping, upsetting material, told with clarity and wit. Boni’s breakthroughs come in the 2000s, with DNA testing and the internet, and readers interested in issues of genealogy will tear through the pages. What he eventually discovers is truly jolting, compelling evidence for the necessity of a “Donor-Conceived Bill of Rights” for abolishing parental anonymity and limiting the number of offspring per donor.

Takeaway: An eye-opening and dramatic account of the history of artificial insemination and one man’s quest to discover his biological origins.

Great for fans of: Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance, Elizabeth Katkin’s Conceivability: What I Learned Exploring the Frontiers of Fertility.

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

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The Zodiac Revisited, Volume 1: The Facts of the Case
Michael F. Cole
The first installment in Cole’s three-part The Zodiac Revisited series sets the stage for a definitive exploration of one of the most infamous of true-crime obsessions. Amidst the bustling San Francisco Bay Area of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the so-called Zodiac Killer haunted parks and woodlands, preying upon couples and lone individuals, sending shock waves through the city, the nation, and the decades to come. Cole’s account follows the killings, the clues––including the riddling letters sent by the killer to area newspapers––and the crime scenes and the investigation team that found itself playing cat-and-mouse with an individual who, whether through cleverness or sheer luck, evaded justice for almost 50 years.

Cole examines the individual cases that have long been linked to the Zodiac Killer as well as the time that lapsed between killings and between the killer’s intermittent communication with the press and police. A chapter posits that previous unsolved murders and disappearances may have been the Zodiac’s work as well, suggesting that the Zodiac may have been active longer than is widely known. Also covered are controversies, dead-ends, accusations of forgery of the letters, and the fizzling of the official investigation as the 1970s ended and the killer faded from the public eye. Cole closes this first volume on a note of despair, arguing that “many had reached the point where they would be happy with the story of the Zodiac simply going away.” Future volumes will cover later developments and attempt to tie this sprawling case together.

Cole’s examination of the case is expansive in its references, with extensive footnotes offering the inquisitive reader more avenues to explore should their questions remain unsatisfied. Despite the frustrations of a cold case, high emotions power each chapter, and what might at first appear to be a textbook-like reference guide proves itself a legitimate page-turner sure to seize the attention of experts, amateurs, and true-crime readers.

Takeaway: True crime enthusiasts will devour the first installment of this examination of the unsolved case of the Zodiac killer.

Great for fans of: Robert Graysmith, Gary L. Stewart and Susan Mustafa’s The Most Dangerous Animal of All.

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

Click here for more about The Zodiac Revisited, Volume 1
Out of the Grey
K.B. Sprague
The kickoff to an ambitious new series, this epic debut layers a touch of science fiction into its challenging fantasy narrative, ideal for lovers of both those genres, complex world building, and stories that defy the established tropes. In Theia, a land where new technologies have been outlawed by a treaty dating back to a time when humanity nearly destroyed itself, Lumen Hadamard, an experimenter in new (or perhaps lost) technologies, develops forbidden weaponry even as he’s charged with enforcing the ban on such tech. Meanwhile, the Grey Clerk dispatches diplomat Vey Lancer, Hadamard’s “favored protégé,” on a mission to confront the vice-regent of Fort Abandon for his own violations of the possibly outdated and unenforceable Treaty of Nature. Looming over the intrigue, journeys, and negotiations is Hadamard’s conviction that Theia is in something of a downlow arms race with its enemies, a race he’s determined to win.

Sprague’s story sprawls out from there, tense and dense, crafted with a shrewd awareness of what dedicated genre readers expect–and of the pleasures of upending those expectations. Vey’s mission, of course, quickly becomes more complicated, becoming more about raw survival after she catches the attention of the scheming shaman Akrylla, a creepy and compelling update on the witch archetype whose powers of manipulation are captured with some effectively unconventional quirks of prose. The care Sprague takes with bringing different perspectives to life, and in putting earthy, convincing dialogue into the mouths of characters, brings convincing life to the conflicts and milieu.

This world may be richly developed (relish the “leviathan-bone gates of Jakka”), at times overwhelming in the manner of Steven Erickson’s Malazan series, but it feels lived in by real characters, like courageous Vey. It also feels worth caring about and keeping up with, as its surprising tech and magic (assemblers, projectionists, Hadamard’s strikers and battle simulations) and an expansive roster of characters (a knightsmaiden, a demoness) and crises both enrich and complicate the whole—of which this volume, of course, is just the first part.

Takeaway: This accomplished, ambitious epic fantasy swells with fresh ideas, memorable characters, and dense world building.

Great for fans of: Steven Erickson, R. Scott Bakker.

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

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The Site
Carlos Valrand
In this ambitious, bifurcated science-fiction debut, a London school teacher endures a series of bizarre dreams in which she relives the experiences of two people she’s never met—people drawn into the depths of a subterranean alien society hiding on Earth. Cicely Denfeld has no idea who Charles Ryder or Vivian Venables are, nor why she’s privy to their thoughts and memories as they, separately and together, decipher a secret document and stumble across an alien compound deep under the American Southwest desert. As the story unfolds within her dreams, she suspects she may have her own part to play. Meanwhile, Charles and Vivian navigate a blossoming relationship while being pulled ever deeper into an age-old conspiracy that originates in the stars and reaches into the heart of America’s government.

While much of this thoughtful tale is written with skill, building upon its mysteries and secrets while developing a gradual sense of foreboding, the flashback sequences used as a framing device sometimes prove more distracting than effective, often tearing away from the more intriguing conspiracy narrative at inopportune moments. Cicely’s own thread doesn’t achieve a full urgency, and her impact on the story proves negligible. Meanwhile, the hook of a coalition of alien merchant cultures that has secretly settled on Earth is intriguing, but an excess of unusual terminology and names proves rather unwieldy.

Valrand clearly brings large scale ideas and world building to the table, attentive to culture and architecture, plus strong and atmospheric description: “Then the creature appeared. It had four clawed feet and was shaped somewhat like a large dog, but it had no ears, and its bare grayish skin glistened.” Those virtues are undermined by stiff dialogue and lackluster characterization. At the same time, Valrand’s focus on the mysterious nature of Cicely’s dreams amidst Charles and Vivian’s assimilation into their captors’ society leaves the book feeling disjointed, not quite doing these momentous events justice.

Takeaway: This science fiction conspiracy thriller will appeal to readers looking for a slowly unfolding mystery involving aliens, fantastic tech, and plenty of twists.

Great for fans of: A.G. Riddle’s The Atlantis Gene, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven.

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

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Isaac the Little Blue Dragon and the Stickiest Buns
Christopher A Sanders
A blue-scaled, happy-go-lucky dragon takes center stage in this confectionery delight. Isaac, a cheery dragon who lives with his mom in the teeming medieval town of Tudor (a note to readers points out it’s pronounced “Too+door”), thrives on sweets from his favorite bakery, the Soul’s Creamery. But his mood is dashed one sunny day when he rushes to purchase newly baked sticky buns–only to discover that the bakery has run out. Convinced that only sticky buns can “change his gloom,” Isaac dejectedly turns to leave–when he is stopped in his tracks by the owner, who promptly saves the day by producing two delectable sticky buns from her “magic pouch.”

Lucci’s charming art seems to burst off the pages, bringing vibrant life to Isaac’s seaside village and the mouthwatering lollipops, cakes, and doughnuts that are sure to capture readers’ hearts and appetites. Townsfolk are lively, illustrated in otherworldly forms with elfin ears and cyclops eyes, and Gary, the singing baker who takes Isaac on a detailed hunt for the missing sticky buns, proves charming in his attempts to save the day. Young readers will be spellbound by the town's marketplace—“truly a place no other could equal”—where kaleidoscopic scenery, magic tricks,and animal entertainers steal the show.

Parents, meanwhile, will appreciate how the story’s educational opportunities, like the measuring chart on Isaac’s wall, can spark learning discussions for younger audiences. Some readers will pause at some forced or repeated rhymes (store/Tudor appears two spreads in a row) and may wonder what the bigger message is behind Isaac’s quest for tasty delicacies, but the tale’s sheer gaiety wins out in the end. The author’s attention to emotions, namely Isaac’s crusade to preserve his tranquil mood, is a welcome and resonant theme. For those who crave frivolity and carefree indulgence, this upbeat story will hit the spot.

Takeaway: A delightful morsel of merrymaking, baking, and fantasy exploration.

Great for fans of: Anika Denise’s Baking Day at Grandma’s. Dee Leone’s Dough Knights and Dragons.

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

The Infinite Tree & The Rivers of Time: Time, Experience, & The Foundations of Reality
Marc Garner
“There is … no such thing as the flow of time,” Garner writes in a preface to this searching contemplation of our relationship to time in the wake of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which demonstrated that the linear experience of time—which Garner describes as “beating heart of existence”— that humanity perceives is far from the reality. Time is instead a matter of perspective, as Garner demonstrates through clear and inviting summations of the science, from time dilation to space-time to the brain-bending discoveries of quantum mechanics and, at last, to the question of how it all came to be.

“Somewhere in Spacetime, I am ‘right now’ living out the moment of my first kiss,” he notes. That playful spirit freshens Garner’s tour of science’s current understanding of existence. A lively guide suitable for an engaged lay reader but more resonant and philosophical than most science texts, The Infinite Tree & The Rivers of Time is duty bound, of course, to bring readers up to speed on conundrums like, as Garner wryly puts it, “things that had been thought of as fundamentally ‘wavey’ behaving like particles, and things that had been considered fundamentally solid behaving like waves.” The material can be heady, but helpful illustrations abound, easing readers through the explanations of superposition and the holographic principle.

But it’s in his consideration of the possibilities, though, that Garner’s work stands apart. His discussion of parallel worlds and timelines, for example, bloom into explorations of free will and ethics. Likewise, an exploration of the complexities of entanglement builds to a rousing proclamation of our humanity, even in an existence where multiple versions of each of us might co-exist: What links these “sequential states” of an individual named Bob together, Garner argues, is “the experience of being Bob.” Put another way, each of us is “the product of the differentials between the states of those things. We are the product of change. We are change.”

Takeaway: A head-spinning dive into relativity, quantum entanglement, the illusion of time, and how our humanity connects to it all.

Great for fans of:Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, Rainer Dick’s Special and General Relativity.

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

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What's My Superpower: Discovery
Delanda Coleman
This inspiring picture book explores the process of following and honing natural interests and abilities to discover individual strengths, all with a superheroic twist. Young Deshaun Prime comes from a family of superheroes–his father is strong, his mother is fast, and his sister, Janet, can fly. Amidst all of these exceptional abilities, Deshaun feels left out: “What about Deshaun’s superpower? He hadn’t a clue. In a family of superheroes, he had nothing to do.” With his parents’ encouragement, Deshaun starts honing his own innate skills, such as mathematics and physics, and he ends up building a robot that can help his super family.

Deshaun’s story is told in pleasing, unforced rhyming verse, accompanied by clever and relatable illustrations appropriate to the superheroic milieu. Bowen Jiang’s drawings are sharp, colorful, and expressive, with the characters’ faces displaying clear emotions that enhance the impact of the text, particularly for children and young readers. When Deshaun is sulking in his room over his lack of superpowers, his mother gets down on his level and places her hand on his cheek while his father kneels behind her, his face concerned yet comforting. The skillful depiction of nuanced emotions, along with playful bursts of comic book-style action, make this appealing title stand out. There’s a lesson in it, of course, but young fans of superheroes will also find it fun.

The Colemans, a husband-and-wife writing team, have dedicated this book to their own daughter, and have crafted the story with the goal of inspiring children of color to explore concepts and careers in science, technology, engineering, art, and math. After reading, parents and children will want to discuss their own strengths–especially because just like Deshaun, their most important gift might not be what they first imagined. “I knew it all along,” Deshaun’s father tells him. “Your power is your mind” –and the ability to think deeply and create might be the most vital superpower of all.

Takeaway: This inspiring story of a superhero family’s son without (apparent) powers encourages heroes-to-be to hone their talents.

Great for fans of: Keith Negley’s Tough Guys Have Feelings Too, Aviaq Johnston’s What’s My Superpower?.

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

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Zither!: A Crazy Mars Candiotti Mystery
Jeffrey Hanlon
Hanlon’s off-the-wall detective caper finds Bay Area private investigator and not-so-successful mystery novelist Mars Candiotti is hired by a farmer, Pappy, in rural California to solve his next case: who stole 1,783.78 gazebos from Pappy’s farm? Mars sets out to crack the case, and if that doesn’t work out to finish his novel and finally achieve literary glory. His best friend and inept sidekick, Pete, and endless nuisance Celeste, pile in to Mars’s Yugo to join the detective’s absurd quest. Relying on shoe leather clue-gathering and the guidance from their wise (and proudly strange) IHOP waitress, the team find love, international intrigue, and discover just what in the world a gazebo is.

With a singularly playful narrative style, part hardboiled detective and part stand-up act (“What's the difference between a golf ball and a Yugo? You can drive the golf ball 200 yards”) Hanlon delves into the chimerical mind of “super-sleuth” Mars. Mars works tirelessly to become the hero worthy of a detective novel, but, at the same time, he’s often entirely deluded. Mars breaks the fourth wall of the narrative to speak directly to readers about the novel’s progress, his confusion, and his woes while also explaining these same things to his characters. Though the reader knows that Mars’s perception of reality is questionable, some interactions and thoughts still prove mind-bending--and occasionally tough to follow, with moments where it’s unclear what’s literally happening and what’s in his head.

The plot is truly whimsical: Hanlon himself makes a cameo from writer’s prison, Steven Seagal films are literal bombs, and John Travolta is a champion snorkeler and air guitarist. Some metafictional conceits, in this case an actual book-within-a-book, might throw off some readers, but with persistence, those open to a dada mystery will find Mars’s friends, imagination, and world utterly hilarious. Hanlon’s humor shines bright and will leave fans of such madness wanting more.

Takeaway: This mind-bending detective comedy delves into playful metafiction as a sleuth investigates the case of the missing gazebos.

Great for fans of: John Swartzwelder, Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

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

Click here for more about Zither!: A Crazy Mars Candiotti Mystery
Trine Fallacy: The Kinderra Saga: Book 2
C.K. Donnelly
Donnelly’s immersive second volume in the Kinderra Saga follows 16-year-old Mirana Pinal’s journey to protect her world of Kinderra from destruction. Mirana is a Trine—“One who possess all three powers of the Aspects”—and must save her people by finding her ancestor’s watchtower, built to defend Kinderra before it falls into the Dark Trine’s hands, while also learning about her own powers from the legendary Light Trine, Tetric Garis. Meanwhile, 16-year-old Teague Beltran, Mirana’s childhood friend and love, seeks the Dark Trine to avenge his parents’ deaths, using his skills as an herbsman to fight against the Dark Trine’s followers, the Ken’nar. But all is not as it seems, and Mirana struggles to learn who she can trust in her battle for survival.

Young adult readers will be drawn to Mirana as she fights to find her place in “war, the endless cycle of hate” threatening her people. Her journey to understand and believe in the source of her own power is painful at times, yet often moving, and she rebels against trusting herself, as in her own words—“using the Power from Without isn’t a selfless giving of one’s life force from within the Aspects, it is taking.” Also compelling is Teague’s conviction that “my anger and grief are all I have left” as well as his desperation to be able to physically fight his enemies.

Donnelly includes a glossary of relevant terminology that, while helpful, can also overwhelm, as it charts suffixes and linguistic matters. However, that dedication to invented languages, and the maps and appendices, invite readers to delve as deeper into Kinderra as they care to; fantasy fans especially will be pleased with the convincing world that Donnelly has taken such pains to build. Naturally, this vivid voyage into a well-established realm and its ongoing battle between Light and Dark builds to cliffhanger— and exemplifies its genre.

Takeaway: Young adult and fantasy readers will relish this world of magic and war, with characters facing grief and self-doubt.

Great for fans of: Cinda Williams Chima’s The Warrior Heir, Megan Bannen’s Soulswift.

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

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Book Endings - A Call Numbers novel: Loss, Pain, and Revelations
Syntell Smith
Smith’s followup to Call Numbers again unveils “the not so quiet lives of librarians” in the 1990s as the staff of Manhattan’s 58th Street Branch Library, still reeling from the scandals and schisms and romances of the first book, now face the loss, pain, and revelations promised by the subtitle. Spralwing but hyper-localized, the approach is reminiscent of Adam Langer’s Chicago novel Crossing California or a Frederick Wiseman documentary, with Smith criss-crossing myriad subplots and characters into a vivid kaleidoscope of lives and longings, the whole of it studded with striking details of a long-gone New York City.

Book Endings picks up right where Call Numbers left off, and, despite building to a satisfying climax, leaves threads to be picked up in the next book. Smith includes a glossary of library terms, a detailed dramatis personae, and a “previously on. . .” summary, but new readers are advised to start with the first book, as the story begins in media res and then surges ahead, told in brisk, brief scenes from the perspectives of many of Smith’s diverse ensemble cast.

Smith’s sharply observed dialogue powers the story, though his characters often chattering for the reckless pleasure of it. Robin is nominally the protagonist, and his romance with Shinju, a woman he meets on the 6 train, is sweet and engaging, but Smith’s interest in all the people of his library set this series apart from other coming-of-age slices of life. Drama, passion, and wisecracks unite and divide the 58th’s staff, whose work and personal lives are captured in convincing particulars. Sometimes the novel’s riotous, as when a patron complains that her son checked out Madonna’s notorious Sex book, but even a scene like that considers the complexities of culture and the library’s mission. This series’ gush of stories and people be exhausting, but it bursts with life, capturing a workplace and a city with rare vigor.

Takeaway: This fleet, vivid novel finds winning drama in the lives of 1990s New York City library workers.

Great for fans of: Adam Langer’s Crossing California, William Ottens’s Librarian Tales.

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

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