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The Ghosts of Hawthorn, Missouri
James Peet
In Peet’s staggering debut novel, a series of portraits bursts from the page,showcasing bigotry, cult mentality, and cycles of misery in small-town America. The story begins in the early 20th century in the rundown section of Hawthorn, Mo., that’s crudely known as Jackass Flats. Nine-year-old Terrance Haight, the only black boy in Hawthorn, learns to harden himself to the white townspeople’s cruelty. In adulthood, his hopes of becoming a music teacher are dashed when a white teen claims she’s been having an affair with him. Meanwhile, local Baptist pastor Harold Redmond positions himself as one of the most powerful men in the region, though he doesn’t practice what he preaches. As Hawthorn lurches into the 21st century, the narrative turns to follow two very different young men: Daniel, whose troubled family force him to become “a fully-grown soul trapped inside a small boy’s frame,” and Father Redmond’s erratic and dangerous son, Eric.

Peet displays a breathtaking gift for weaving stories together, hopping effortlessly from one perspective to another without ever confusing the reader. Side characters spring to life, including Daniel’s mother, Shelly, desperate to make something of herself and doomed to fail, and Mrs. Redmond, who wants to celebrate her husband’s death with a parade. Peet poetically binds the ensemble together through effortless shifts in time (“He turned 25. He turned around twice, his father died, and then he was 26. He blinked. 27”) and distinctive prose that gives the reader a sense of looking at the town through a magnifying glass.

Everyone in Hawthorn has a distorted sense of reality; hallucinations are as common as drunkenness, and Peet sometimes leaves the reader guessing where the line is between truth and nightmare—or whether there’s a line at all. This startlingly brilliant modern gothic pulls no punches in its devastating takedown of life in the rural Midwest.

Takeaway: Fans of unsettling drama and deeply emotional histories will be bowled over by this gritty and brilliant Midwestern gothic novel.

Great for fans of Toni Morrison, John Steinbeck.

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

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House of the Shrieking Woman: A Sarah Greene Supernatural Mystery (Sarah Greene Mysteries Book 2)
Steven Ramirez
Ramirez’s second Sarah Greene Mystery builds on The Girl in the Mirror by expanding the world of his spunky sleuth. Sarah, a divorced realtor and psychic living in Dos Santos, Calif., is recovering from a supernatural near-death experience that’s left her shaken and grateful to be alive. She tries to take it easy, if taking it easy means going to therapy, sorting out her complicated relationship with her ex-husband, and trying yoga. When she learns of odd things happening at the women’s shelter, she investigates. Along with her friend Carter, a fellow psychic; Lou, the town’s chief of police; and a few new partners, Sarah learns more about her community, her history, and the darkness surrounding Dos Santos.

Ramirez’s characters are relatable and flawed, and his approach to small Dos Santos makes readers feel like they live there too. Sarah and several other characters are devoutly Catholic, and faith plays an important role in the story, but there’s also casual sex, regular drinking, and an open attitude toward Judaism and other forms of spirituality. The interpersonal relationships are dramatic enough to keep a reader interested, but not so deep as to take away from the plot. At times, mundanity brushes up against horror in uncomfortable ways, as when a dinnertime discussion of domestic violence alternates with gushing over a perfect pizza crust. When a lesbian romance ends in tragedy, it’s more clichéd than poignant. But for the most part, there’s a warmth to the writing that will keep readers invested.

A newcomer could enjoy this installment without reading the first, but Ramirez leaves the story (frustratingly) open-ended, so picking up the next volume is a must. This mystery strikes a great balance between quirky and thrilling and between modern and timeless, and it’s easy to read, enjoyable, and thought-provoking.

Takeaway: This California-set supernatural investigation is perfect for readers who like their mysteries modern, suspenseful, and warm-hearted.

Great for fans of Victoria Laurie, Juliet Blackwell.

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

The Eye of Ra
Ben Gartner
Gartner’s middle grade time-travel adventure is a rollicking ride through the sands of ancient Egypt. In the present day, siblings Sarah, 12, and John, 10, are bracing for the Tidewell family’s upcoming move from Colorado to Maryland. John, a worrier, is sad about leaving his old friends behind, but Sarah, bold and sometimes reckless, is looking forward to new experiences. Together with their parents, they take one last sunset hike in the Colorado mountains. When Sarah and John run off exploring, they come across a cave inscribed with a strange symbol. Sarah traces it with a finger, and then they leave the cave—and find themselves in ancient Egypt. John and Sarah are taken in by young Zachariah, the son of architect Imhotep, the designer of the Pyramid of Djoser. Together, John and Sarah must adapt to this new-to-them place, making friends and learning about the past while trying to find a way back home.

Gartner’s well-researched novel is suffused with atmospheric detail. John and Sarah’s exciting experinces include escaping crocodiles, facing off with cobras, and helping to build the pyramid. These scenes alternate with moments of ancient Egyptian domesticity, including cooking tilapia stew and playing board games. Gartner has a relaxed, playful sense of humour that comes through in the interactions between Zachariah’s family and the Tidewell siblings, and he weaves an intricate tapestry of the past.

John and Sarah’s assimilation into ancient Egyptian society feels too easy. Sarah’s blasé attitude of “Even if we are stuck here, no sense worrying about it, right?” is unrealistic even for an adrenaline-junkie tween, and she waves off John’s concerns and homesickness in a way that feels heartless at times. However, younger readers who mostly want a glimpse of life in another time and place will find plenty to enjoy in this glittering picture of a distant era.

Takeaway: Grade schoolers eager to learn about daily life in ancient Egypt will find this adventure novel hits the sweet spot.

Great for fans of Lloyd Alexander’s Time Cat, Eloise Jarvis McGraw.

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

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Three Degrees and Gone
J. Stewart Willis
In the global warming–ravaged America of 2086, jobs are scarce, tracking implants are mandatory, and desperate migrants are smuggled into Canada—now an isolationist, right-wing nation with a Trumpian border wall. Three families meet while traveling north for better lives. Bored Texas housewife Dana Wilkins is saddled with her abusive, philandering husband, Frank; they hope to give their daughter, Embrey, a chance at college. Georgia hurricane survivor Harry Sykes and his son, Georgia Tech student Jamie, are escaping Atlanta, which has been overwhelmed with refugees from Florida. Chicago socialite Cynthia Sherwood and her 12-year-old daughter, Adeliza, are fleeing Cynthia’s husband, Desmond. They band together against thieves, Desmond’s quest to bring Cynthia and Adeliza home, and Frank’s destructive selfishness. When their border crossing goes bad, the refugees must decide whether to make another attempt or turn back.

Readers seeking nuanced characterization may struggle with characters who habitually explain the world more than they live in it—most notably Embrey and Adeliza, who talk like small adults. Well-meant but clumsy ideas about race and women’s self-image, social roles, and aspirations are often put in the mouths of black and female characters. Desmond is black and Cynthia is white; the scene where he explains to her that he only finds black women sexually exciting is particularly awkward.

These flaws aside, this idea-packed futuristic road trip will appeal strongly to fans of classic science fiction. There are detailed descriptions of climate change and future engineering projects. Willis’s Canada is a clear, direct allegory for the modern U.S., and it’s not an appealing place; the deep sympathy for modern migrants (“You think the Mexicans felt this vulnerable seventy years ago?” Embrey wonders) will touch readers’ hearts. The book’s pragmatic, sincere pacifism holds significant appeal for those looking for hard science fiction without militarism or a right-wing slant.

Takeaway: Future technology and climate migration combine in this empathetic refugee novel.

Great for fans of Kim Stanley Robinson, Madeline Ashby, Robert Charles Wilson.

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

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Vocabulary for Champions:
Joe Oswald
Longtime high school history teacher Oswald assembles a genuinely useful and enjoyable vocabulary-building guide. Most vocabulary guides are meant to be used by students preparing for standardized tests, but Oswald aims his at working adults looking to bolster their interviews and presentations, suggesting that a bigger vocabulary can lead to a higher income. The guide is organized in a practical and intuitive way: He starts with the basics, discussing tone and listing common prefixes and suffixes that can help students guess the meanings of words. This is followed by sets of relatively common words that readers can use in multiple everyday situations. To avoid overwhelming the reader with heaps of words, Oswald builds in short quizzes at regular intervals, ensuring that the lessons are absorbed and the reader can recognize words in context.

The topic sections include science, grammar and literature, math, economics and finance, and history. The finance section is especially useful, as Oswald digs into terms relating to mortgages, assets, and savings plans, educating readers on basic financial literacy as well as vocabulary. Learners of English as a second language will get a lot out of the section on commonly confused and misused words such as elicit and illicit.

Oswald keeps the guide fresh with fun techniques such as crossword puzzles and word searches. By the time the reader reaches the general vocabulary section, the rhythm created by Oswald’s method makes it simple to approach new words without a guiding theme. Though the book is short and doesn’t include advanced vocabulary words, it packs a lot into 276 pages. Some odd formatting choices are a bit distracting, and the book cries out for occasional graphics, but the core content is valuable and presented well. This breezy, fast-moving guide can help anyone looking to build their word power.

Takeaway: Teens and adults at all stages of life can benefit from this well-constructed workbook for learning mid-level English vocabulary.

Great for fans of Chris Lele’s The Vocabulary Builder Workbook.

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

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Confessions of a Helmet-Free Childhood
Cinnia Finfer
Finfer’s quick, humorous debut recounting the high and low points of her formative years in the 1960s and ’70s, when bad fashion was the rule and not the exception, will bring smiles of remembrance to many. References to (and photos of) Schwinn Stingray bikes, Crissy dolls with “growing” hair, and cooking with fondue pots evoke a time when kids were expected to go outside and play unsupervised until dinnertime. Finfer tells wry, often riveting stories of facing a school bus bully, inadvertently destroying her sister’s banana-seat bike, and becoming entangled in scrapes not always of her own making. Teen readers will recognize many similarities to their own lives even as they marvel at the idea of going through adolescence without mobile phones or social media.

The brief tales in this slender book are enjoyable and occasionally provide laugh-aloud moments: for example, the list of lessons learned from an autonomous childhood include “Even if something happens by accident, it’s still on your watch” and, perhaps related, “Read the label before igniting anything.” However, readers may wish for a tighter framework to give context to the stories, and struggle to make sense of who the major players are and how they relate to one another. Finfer only briefly introduces her parents and siblings, and it’s not clear why they endured the many house moves that form the backdrop for some of the anecdotes.

Finfer’s writing is reminiscent of the late humorist Erma Bombeck’s essays about a suburbia that no longer exists. Readers may wonder how Finfer survived being allowed to play with no grown-ups hovering nearby, and she did run into difficulties that probably warranted an adult’s attention, but this is primarily a fond look back at a very different time. Finfer’s Wayback Machine of a memoir may leave readers wanting to wear terrible plaid and reacquire their long-lost childhood toys.

Takeaway: These charming tales of childhood before smartphones will evoke nostalgia in older readers and wonder in younger ones.

Great for fans of Great for fans of Tom Purcell’s Misadventures of a 1970s Childhood, Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.

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

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Leave the Lights On When You Go
Janis Ahlenberg
The pseudonymous Ahlenberg’s uneven memoir boasts fluid prose and a strong narrative flow that’s sometimes disrupted by navel-gazing. She was born in the 1940s and raised in New England with her brother, Steve. She was 12 when their mother, pregnant with triplets, announced she would no longer give Ahlenberg care beyond room and board. Ahlenberg never recovered from that betrayal and left home at age 18. The triplets, denied nothing, descended into mental illness. After Ahlenberg’s 30-year marriage ends in divorce, she tries to reconnect with her family, but Steve’s libertarianism manifests as selfishness, and her aging parents and the triplets are locked in a self-perpetuating cycle of despair.

The author deserves kudos for crafting nonfiction that reads like a novel, but her all-too-human faults sometimes make her a challenging protagonist. Though she’s a therapist who understands toxic family dynamics, she’s often blindsided by those she loves. Still, she describes them vividly, particularly the sadness of her parents’ final years and the triplets’ struggles. Her attempts to confront her parents are understandable, but her bad timing makes for cringe-worthy moments. Her account of grieving her ex-husband’s death is an evocative portrait of being emotionally stuck, but the overabundance of self-analysis is difficult to read.

Ahlenberg makes the curious authorial decision to only briefly summarize the eventual upward trajectory of her personal story. She writes that she has not “taken the room here to tell” about her joy, but after so much emphasis on her sadness, readers will wish for balance. Regardless, the underlying resilience of her spirit comes through. Readers looking for stories of coping with difficult relatives and childhood sorrows will find this memoir satisfying and inspiring.

Takeaway: Fans of beautiful prose and sad stories with a glimmer of hope will be satisfied by thismemoir of a family’s fragmentation.

Great for fans of Great for fans of Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle; Annabelle Gurwitch’s Wherever You Go, There They Are.

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

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Three Proofs That God Exists
Walt Runkis
Runkis (The Golden Cord of Arram) mixes up a potent blend of memoir and philosophical New Age self-help guide in an effort to prove the existence of a divine entity. As a young man in the 1960s, Runkis had no use for organized religion, instead placing his faith in science. But after a vivid vision of the Divine Mother-Father followed by a near-death experience, Runkis “burned for God-Realization.” After undergoing a vision quest in rural California, he developed a unique spiritual philosophy incorporating elements of several Eastern and Western religions.

Runkis divides his work into “the microcosm,” an account of experiences that he believes are proof of a “non-mechanical universe” where miracles happen, and “the macrocosm,” an accumulation of philosophical knowledge and spiritual insights. In persuasive prose illustrated by his own digital artwork, Runkis exhorts open-minded readers to believe that reality extends beyond what can be sensed. “This book offers a way of recognizing miracles in events that often pass for ordinary experience,” he explains, giving the example of someone appearing to help him and his wife while they were stranded on a mountain and their car wouldn’t start. He also posits that encounters with evil are necessary for spiritual evolution.

Runkis is extremely open-minded when it comes to methods of enlightenment. He advises readers to explore spiritual books of all kinds and discusses the use of psychotropic substances such as LSD (though he prefers meditation and breathing exercises as sources of altered states). Some may be put off by his belief in alien UFOs visiting Earth and his insistence that reincarnation is a fact, not fiction. Others may interpret his visions as mere hallucinations brought on by drugs or physical privation. But there are some intriguing spiritual concepts here for seekers willing to comb through and find them.

Takeaway: Readers open to DIY religion will find wisdom in this thought-provoking memoir of spiritual seeking.

Great for fans of Raymond Moody, John Edward.

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

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Zip Monkey
Eric Randolph Rasmussen
Political intrigue and sexual hijinks abound in this quirky novel from Rasmussen (American Banjo). Former porn star Angel Bimini has set herself up as a private investigator in Secaucus, N.J., desperate to get away from her past. She’s approached by an unscrupulous accountant who claims he’s being stalked by his mistress and wants Angel to investigate. The university he works for has come under scrutiny for its animal experimentation. As Angel begins work on the case, she uncovers mysteries, secrets, and half-truths that envelop the local scientific community—and when someone shoots up her office, an eyewitness claims the shooter was a chimpanzee wielding a machine gun.

Rasmussen crafts an atmosphere of palpable intrigue; there are many twists and turns, and the underhanded moments and double-crosses keep the plot moving. The book is replete with scenes of sexual misadventure. Lust is quite a preoccupation for several characters, and though some lines are funny (“The idea of this statuesque goy dish with an assault rifle made him turn inside out at the groin”), readers will eventually weary of the descriptions of each character’s libidinous thoughts. At times these scenes are uncomfortably puerile, and the humorous treatment of a primate sexually assaulting Angel is disturbing.

Where Rasmussen succeeds is in the character of Angel Bimini herself. She is a strong lead, instantly likeable, with a familiar but not unwelcome story of personal redemption, and she gives the story colour and life. Rasmussen is at his best when he delves into her personal background and her quest to reinvent herself. Like any noir PI, she’s sharp and cynical, but her moments of soul-searching and reinvention keep her well-rounded. Character-motivated readers will be glad to follow her through this madcap story.

Takeaway: Fans of humorous, tongue-in-cheek detective fiction will enjoy the misadventures of Angel Bimini, a porn star turned PI.

Great for fans of Melissa Olson, Justin Robinson.

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

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The Forgotten Duke (Diamonds In The Rough Book 5)
Sophie Barnes
Falling in love interferes with a man’s quest for vengeance in Barnes’s dramatic fifth Diamonds in the Rough Regency (after The Infamous Duchess). Regina Berkly, the 18-year-old daughter of the Earl of Hedgewick, is shocked when her father gives one day’s notice that she is to wed the 14-year-old Marquess of Stokes, who is afflicted with a wasting disease. Stokes urges her to find some way out of the marriage. She runs away and straight into the arms of Carlton Guthrie, the Scoundrel of St. Giles, who lets her stay at his London tavern until she can figure out how to undo the betrothal. Carlton’s kindness is not altruistic, as he plans to use her as a lure so that he can confront the earl, who killed his father. As Regina and Carlton draw emotionally and physically closer, he struggles to harden his heart against her, while she pursues her suspicion that he’s nobly born.

Barnes’ excellent character development is highlighted as she reveals the hidden depths of Carlton’s past, his defense of the defenseless, and the pain he suffered after witnessing his father’s murder. She cleverly exposes the layers of Regina’s personality as the daughter of a peer who matures quickly when forced to confront disturbing truths about her father’s violence and reconcile them with the man she thought she knew.

Stokes is a charming and thoughtful young man whose company Regina enjoys, so readers may quibble with the idea that marriage to him would mean “ruining her life” with “no hope of happiness” solely because he’s disabled. In addition, Regina is implausibly quick to forgive Carlton for using her as a pawn in his revenge scheme. These drawbacks are the only flaws in this otherwise magnetic romance, which is enhanced by a fast-paced plot, sensuous attraction, and the mystery surrounding Carlton’s identity.

Takeaway: Regency romance fans will be enamored with this well-plotted tale of love, intrigue, and revenge.

Great for fans of Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series, Eloisa James’s Say No to the Duke.

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

The Sandpiper's Spell
Tom Pearson
Pearson’s debut collection of intimate poetry offers a meditative selection of free-form vignettes across intertwining themes, all with a transformative tone. The title poem is split into six parts that capture the writer as a beach-comber describing the beauty of the shore (“bleached now by daylight/ under the assault/ of wind/ and flight/ and trumpets”). These are interspersed with shorter poems that fleetingly transport the reader elsewhere before returning to the coast. “Death of a...” envisions the sad end of a sad life, balanced by the captivating rural sunsets of Georgia in “Vanishing Point” (“the calico corona of/ autumn forgetfulness”).

Above all, Pearson demonstrates a mastery of imagery. Whether he’s describing a trip to the carnival or a Greek creation myth, the poems’ language and mood ebb and flow like the “retracting water” of the ocean. The tone is set organically through Pearson’s use of free-form verse and a sentimentality for childhood that feels like a personal diary, helping to develop a more intimate relationship between reader and poem. Other than adjusting to the rapid shift in subjects, the reader is required to do little in the way of mental gymnastics, leaving more time to enjoy the introspection that the poems invoke.

Bringing out the beauty in the everyday, the collection holds its own as a relaxing but powerful reminder to appreciate the little things in nature and in life. Sometimes the peaceful verse slips into melancholy, but even solitude brings “the gift/ of concentration/ allotted/ only/ to the lonely.” The images are quiet rather than breathtaking, encouraging attention to small creatures and subtle seasonal shifts. Even readers who would normally shy away from poetry will find comfort and calm in Pearson’s humble recollections.

Takeaway: Longtime poetry fans and new readers alike will appreciate the vibrant, lyrical imagery of Pearson’s nature-influenced verses.

Great for fans of Marge Piercy, Conrad Aiken.

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

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Goldilocks Private Eye
Greg Trine
Trine (Melvin Beederman, Superhero) introduces readers to lovable and quick-witted detective Goldilocks in this amusing mix of fairy tale and mystery. After inheriting her father’s investigative business, Goldilocks is desperate to pay the rent owed on the business that was also their home. She also fears being caught by Tom the Kid-Snatcher, who takes children to the horrible orphanage. When her first customer, Frank Sims, asks her to help find his missing grandparents and figure out why bears are living in their home, Goldilocks leaps to take the case—even though the home she must investigate is in the nightmarish Black Forest. Fortunately she has her sidekick cat, Charlotte, and her new friend, orphanage escapee Patty Wagon Patty, to help her.

The characters, both good and evil, are perfectly written for tween readers. Charlotte is the ideal companion and gives Goldilocks someone to narrate her plans to. The new friends she makes, such as wise Patty, are fun and endearing. The questions of whether Goldilocks will prevail against the tough landlady and dodge the Kid-Snatcher add suspense that will keep young readers hooked but not scared. This isn’t a comedy, but the frequent dashes of dark humor keep the story from getting too intense. Unfortunately, Baykovska’s chapter-head sketches are bland, but the writing is vibrant enough to stand alone.

Putting a Nancy Drew twist on the tale of Goldilocks and the three bears, Trine adds adventure, mystery, friends, and villains, telling an intriguing story of why Goldilocks was at the bears’ house and what happened after she ran away. Though Goldilocks faces real-life fears and troubles such as potential homelessness, losing a parent, stranger danger, and tales of giant spiders in the dark forest, the tone stays light, drawing readers into the new layers of an old story.

Takeaway: Older children will want to investigate right alongside this tough, smart, noir-influenced version of Goldilocks and her clever friends.

Great for fans of Great for fans of Liesl Shurtliff’s Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood.

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

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The Shockoe Slip Gang
Patricia Cecil Hass
In this exciting middle grade mystery, writer and editor Hass follows two siblings and their friend as they solve a major crime. It’s a hot summer in Richmond, Va., where 12-year-old Sally Corbett and her 11-year-old brother, Andrew, are still mourning their father a year after his death. They manage their own lawn and pet care business to help support their mother, Cary, who has just been named head curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. When some antique toys are stolen from an exhibit Cary is putting together, she fears she could be fired by Mr. Calhoun, the museum’s grouchy executive director. Sally and Andrew decide to search for the missing toys. At the start of their investigation, they befriend fellow tween Henry Morrison, whose resourcefulness and determination help them crack the case.

Corson’s breezy, black-and-white sketches are pleasing, but they don’t always accurately reflect the text. Fortunately, they do an excellent job of showing Sally, Andrew, and Henry’s bravery, especially when they find an unconscious man and save his life. Readers will also admire the children’s maturity as they quickly and rationally split responsibilities, such as traveling to other neighborhoods and interviewing suspects. The kind, understanding relationship between Sally and Andrew is enjoyable to read.

Thanks to a riveting plot leading up to a thrilling climax, readers will find it difficult to put down this book. Anyone drawn to American history will enjoy the idea of Revolutionary spies hiding messages in children’s toys. Hass doesn’t explicitly touch on racial issues, but the white Corbetts’ easy friendship with Henry, who’s black, subtly contrasts Virginia’s more open-minded present with the era in which the toys originated. A diverse cast of likable characters and a swift plot will leave young readers eager for the next Shockoe Slip Gang adventure.

Takeaway: Middle grade readers will love this fast-paced adventure with a touch of American history.

Great for fans of Gertrude Chandler Warner’s Boxcar Children series, Avi’s Night Journeys.

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

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Anne Aletha
Camille N. Wright
Wright’s detail-rich novel, which lightly fictionalizes her family’s history, is a real heartstring-tugger. In 1918, Anne Aletha O’Quinn, an educated suffragist, travels from her home in Odum, Ga., to Ray’s Mill. Her late uncle has left her his house, and she plans to open a school. She meets her uncle’s executor, Neville Clements, and his black sharecropper tenants, Alex and Nellie Hamilton. She’s also attracted to Patten, Neville’s twin brother, a widower who runs the family lumber mill. While seeking students, she encounters opposition to her plan to educate both black and white children. To her dismay, she realizes that her stance against the increasingly popular Ku Klux Klan may mean that nearby families will not send students to her school, leading to its failure. She must find a path of action that’s both ethical and practical.

Wright cleverly intertwines fact with fiction as she outlines the horrific prejudices in early-20th-century Georgia and the difficult decisions facing those who wanted to promote equality. Anne Aletha is a magnetic and almost too-wonderful protagonist. She’s admirable in her determination to educate all children and truly human when succumbing to her desire for Patten or furiously grieving lynchings and influenza deaths. She practices what she preaches, forming a true friendship with the Hamiltons (who are fully realized characters) and pitching in with Nellie’s laundry business. She also helps children orphaned by influenza and corresponds with her brother Frank, who’s serving in the military in France.

Though the plot trails off at the end without a real sense of finality, the pace is otherwise even and immersive. The vernacular (“Learned him to hunt and fish, and look after hisself”) is appropriate to the characters and adds color without overwhelming the dialogue. This intriguing story is greatly enhanced by the close-up view of a tumultuous era.

Takeaway: Fans of American historical fiction and strong women will be delighted by this vivid story of love and activism in 1918 Georgia.

Great for fans of Great for fans of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, Jojo Moyes’s The Giver of Stars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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