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Things They Buried
Amanda K. King & Michael R. Swanson
King and Swanson pack their absorbing debut horror fantasy with brisk action, acute tension, and detailed worldbuilding in a land full of various humanoids. Aliara Rift and her mate, Duke Sylandair Imythedralin, both members of the gray-skinned chivori species, spent their childhoods enslaved by the abusive karju Kluuta Orono. After two decades, they escaped, and Orono was thought to have died in an explosion in the island metropolis of Dockhaven, willing the mansion in which their enslavement took place to Syl. Twenty years later, rumors of missing children near the site of the explosion lead Aliara and Syl to wonder whether Orono actually survived. When their reconnaissance (aided by their skittish, greedy sidekick, Schmalch, a small, hairless puka) turns up inconclusive but disturbing evidence, they decide to claim the mansion and explore it for more clues. This unearths understandably painful, unresolved memories for Syl and Aliara, who call in a hired hand to expel and study the hideous monsters lurking in the building. The revelation that they are nightmarish genetically modified creatures sets the stage for a gruesome, violent endgame.

Readers who appreciate dense worldbuilding will be gratified by the complexity of King and Swanson’s work. This novel boasts a dizzying number of species, a unique calendar system, guns that rely on magnets, and unusual slang (cool things are “gloss”; a drunk man is “high-seas”). The authors deploy these details naturally and leave readers wanting to know more.

King and Swanson have a real skill for describing and deploying psychology. The horrors Syl and Aliara endured are slowly revealed and the contrast between the polished, heartless personas they project and their lingering internal trauma feels genuine. The point of view shifts between chapters increase tension by delaying the revelation of threats, especially during fight scenes in which characters in different rooms of a building react to the same creature. The sections narrated by minor characters occasionally distract. The plot sometimes flags as characters struggle to understand what is happening, but these slower passages add real emotion and stakes, and the conclusion nicely sets up a sequel without feeling unfinished. Horror elements and surprise twists will propel readers through this smooth, diverting fantasy.

Takeaway: The creepy threats and fierce fights in this densely imagined novel will gratify fans of dark fantasy, especially those who want real depth in between thrills.

Great for fans of Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains, C.S. Friedman, Joe Abercrombie.

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

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Goodnight Firehouse
Jennifer Drez
Drez (Goodnight Dallas) pays tribute to firefighters in this charming picture book while explaining to young readers the equipment and materials needed to fight different kinds of fires. In action-packed scenes, friendly-looking firefighters, introduced before their features are hidden behind their gear, are shown racing along a roadway as vehicles make way. They then carry out responses ranging from caring for an elderly woman to fighting a raging wildfire. Illustrations of the elements that lead to a fire (heat, oxygen, and air) as well as different kinds of materials used to fight fires (foam, sand, and water) add extra detail to a familiar topic. The large assortment of firefighting vehicles, however, is the highlight.

The book is far more informative than the typical picture book on the topic, and easy-to-understand fire prevention and other safety information provide adults the opportunity to discuss fire safety with children. However, the order of information is a bit haphazard, and the text and the illustrations do not always match up well: for example, “Firefighters stay on duty at the firehouse” shows the crew at a supermarket. This may confuse young readers, though fire truck aficionados are unlikely to object.

Clay’s obvious knowledge of firefighters and their equipment shines through in his colorful illustrations. The accurate information and an unusually wide array of fire equipment will please young fans of emergency responders. Despite some stumbles in the text, Drez’s soothing prose ensures that this picture book will be a bedtime reading hit, using a familiar format—wishing firefighters goodnight—to assure children they are safe at night.

Takeaway: This instructive and detailed book introduces young readers to firefighters, firefighting equipment, and the basics of fire safety.

Great for fans of Chris L. Demarest’s Firefighters A to Z, Leslie McGuire and Joe Mathieu’s Big Frank’s Fire Truck.

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

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This Will Never Stop
Joan Spilman
Spilman’s multigenerational tale of four women in a rural West Virginia family (“stuck in the middle of no place with nothing”) is rich with secrets and sorrows. In four sections, each woman narrates her own story. Lorraine is an embittered wife and mother who has never forgiven her mother, Carmen, for abandoning her when she was a child. Decades after that traumatic event, Carmen writes a letter to Lorraine explaining why she left and never came back. Lorraine’s adolescent daughter, Jenna, struggles to deal with the letter’s fallout. The fourth voice belongs to matriarch Lizzie, Carmen’s mother, whose choices cast long shadows over her descendants. Each narrative is a page-turner, and Lizzie’s astonishes from beginning to end.

Spilman (Sansablatt Head), winner of a PEN Award and author of four young adult novels, shows full command of her characters and ability to spin a yarn. Fans of Southern fiction and women’s fiction will gobble this one up, but some hunger may remain because Carmen’s letter and Jenna’s actions all pave the way to a momentous event that never happens. The author uses dark humor to effectively draw out the next step, but without the expected payoff. There are other small niggles: for instance, Lizzie’s story has a shocking final twist, but a revelation that’s intended to be dramatic falls victim to excessive foreshadowing. Nonetheless, there’s plenty here to enthrall the reader.

The novel as a whole describes rural life in 20th-century West Virginia in an almost gothic manner. The horrors are not ghosts or spirits but poverty, alcohol, neglect, religious excess, and men’s casual mistreatment of women. Hallmark themes of Appalachian fiction play out in a riveting fashion, illustrating moral ambiguity and the shades of gray found in human nature. Vivid descriptions and emotional intelligence create a lasting impression.

Takeaway: This powerful work of Southern women’s fiction brings to life the struggles of four generations of women in a 20th-century West Virginia family.

Great for fans of Fannie Flagg, Pat Conroy, Sue Monk Kidd.

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

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Prayers of My Mother
Carolyn L. Austin
Austin’s reassuring debut guides Christian readers through life’s trials and tribulations with inspiring Bible verses, uplifting prayers, and relatable life stories. In the touching preface, in which she credits her mother for her strong faith in God and devotion to prayer, Austin explains that she realized her own calling as a “prayer warrior” only after she began to send daily prayers to several friends to help them through difficult emotional experiences and life events. Austin continues her mother’s work by sharing her faith, hoping to facilitate readers’ relationships with God and provide guidance and hope to anyone encountering obstacles in life.

Austin divides this affirmative book into five sections. The first, “Blessed Trinity,” is primarily about finding a spiritual calling and interacting with God. The second, “Identifiable Characteristics,” discusses fate and free will. The rest cover loosely defined themes such as “life’s relationships” and “spiritual challenges” and are subdivided into chapters that address concerns such as poor self-esteem, financial struggles, boundaries, heartbreak, and illness. Within each chapter, there is a primary Bible verse that serves as a springboard for stories culled from the author’s life, quotations from other sources, and advice that highlights Austin’s faith and positive attitude.

The variable formatting and margins, inconsistent fonts, and substantial use of bold type can be distracting and weigh down the narrative. However, Austin’s message is powerful and inspiring. Her tone is casual and warm, and most readers will find something to relate to in her experiences concerning work, parenthood, divorce, and emotional dilemmas. Although devout Christians will be most comfortable with the numerous references to Jesus, Bible passages, and quotes from Christian spiritual books, the genuineness of Austin’s heartfelt and uplifting words may appeal to other readers looking for support during difficult times.

Takeaway: Devout Christians facing life’s challenges will find enrichment and encouragement in Austin’s edifying prayers.

Great for fans of Joyce Meyer’s Trusting God, Day by Day; Joel Osteen’s Daily Readings from Your Best Life Now; Maria Shriver’s I’ve Been Thinking.

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

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HEART to BEAT
Brian Lima
Heart transplant surgeon Lima, the child of Cuban immigrants to the U.S., turns his talents to self-help with his slightly corny but sincere first book, an encouraging work intended to inspire readers to overcome mediocrity and live their best lives. “Lackadaisical effort leads to lackluster results and lukewarm reception, a vicious cycle set on auto loop,” he counsels. “This self-fulfilling prophecy comes to define our life.” Instead, Lima counsels his readers to try the “HEART” way—his acronym for the slightly disjointed set of “hard work,” “eager,” “aligned,” “resolute,” and “thoughtfulness.”

After six memoir-style chapters recounting his journey from working-class New Jersey to the halls of Cornell and Duke Universities, Lima buckles down with valuable life advice gleaned from his own experiences. He notes that fear can paralyze even the most capable of people, and he doesn’t believe getting over it is easy. He also advises throwing the idea of being “well-rounded” out the window, saying that laser-focusing on one key ambition is the key to success. “Visualize. Actualize. Repeat. Never give up!” His fondness for memory devices is sometimes excessive, as when he advises that people facing their failures should be careful not to accuse, blame, criticize, or defer (ABCD); the advice is sensible but the mnemonic is forgettable.

Lima scorns being pigeonholed by other people (“Never mind staying in your lane”), second-guessing decisions (“The should’ve, would’ve, could’ve’s will drive you insane if you let them”), and hesitating (“If you don’t believe in yourself or feel certain that you’re a sure bet... how the hell could anyone else?!”). He believes nearly anything is possible with hard work, confidence, and determination, and his enthusiasm is contagious. Some readers will find the descriptions of heart surgeries a bit too graphic, but this is otherwise a cheering and encouraging work.

Takeaway: Heart transplant surgeon Lima’s practical advice will inspire readers looking for direction and a confidence boost.

Great for fans of Sean Whalen’s How to Make Sh*t Happen, Mark Goulston and Philip Goldberg’s Get Out of Your Own Way.

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

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Safety-First Retirement Planning: An Integrated Approach for a Worry-Free Retirement
Wade Pfau
Pfau, a professor of retirement income at the American College of Financial Services and a principal and director for McLean Asset Management, switches topics from the riskier investment approach of his first book (How Much Can I Spend in Retirement? A Guide to Investment-Based Retirement Strategies) to more fiscally conservative strategies in this information-rich, jargon-heavy guide. For retirees who are worried about making their assets last for decades and hold up during times of economic uncertainty, probability-based strategies can become excessively stressful, the author counsels. An alternative is a “safety-first” approach that integrates investments with insurance. Pfau provides a compelling reason for taking this option: the risk pooling of insurance requires retirees to put in less money up front, as they no longer need to plan in anticipation of the worst-case scenario.

Pfau exhaustively and expertly explores all investment possibilities, including fixed-income assets; stocks and diversified investment portfolios; income, variable, and fixed income annuities; and life insurance. He discusses fitting income annuities into a financial plan and planning to leave a financial legacy for loved ones. He also warns of the dangers of loss aversion (fearing a loss more than wanting to make gains), overconfidence, and hindsight bias.

Readers with finance-phobia may be intimidated by Pfau’s dry, academic prose (“Low-volatility assets are generally viewed as less risky, but this may not be the case when the objective is to sustain spending over a long time horizon”) and deep dives into complicated investment options. However, his advice is both comprehensive and logical, and the liberal use of well-designed charts and real-world situations aid in comprehension. This sensible nuts-and-bolts retirement planning guide will satisfy readers interested in exploring their long-term financial options.

Takeaway: Readers looking for peace of mind during their golden years will find Pfau’s retirement planning guidance valuable.

Great for fans of Dave Ramsey, Jane Bryant Quinn.

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

A Circle of Firelight
Curtis Edmonds
Two sisters struggle to connect across the borders of a dreamworld in this homage to fantasy coming-of-age stories. Ashlyn Revere is driving from her home in New Jersey to a job interview in Manhattan when she discovers her teenage sister, Penny, hiding in the backseat. Ashlyn isn’t thrilled with Penny’s demand to tag along, as Penny’s cystic fibrosis makes any venture out of the house a challenge, but a car crash cuts short their argument. Ashlyn awakens in Summervale, where her thoughts and emotions manifest in alarming ways. (“That’s what happens when you lose it and get really angry, you know. Dragons. Sea monsters. Big scary scaly things coming at you.”) Meanwhile, Penny wakes in the hospital to the news that Ashlyn has suffered a traumatic brain injury and her survival is anything but certain. Ashlyn must confront a Dark Lord made of her “anger and fear and hate” while fearing that her physical life hangs in the balance.

Edmonds (Snowflake’s Chance) positions this tale somewhere between a paean to fantasy novels and a pastiche of them, studding it with dozens of pop-culture and literary references. Ashlyn’s journey feels paint-by-numbers at times, and her quest leaves a few unanswered questions. Summervale feels underdeveloped, a blank canvas for a collage of allusions. The real-world aspects of the novel—Penny’s fear for her sister’s survival, the Reveres’ struggles with Penny’s fragile health—are much clearer and more fraught.

Though the premise is a bit clunky, the execution is for the most part charming and clever, with lively dialogue, easy pacing, and fleshed-out protagonists. Although secondary characters can seem sketchy by comparison, Edmonds deftly captures the friction and love between two sisters who are constantly at odds but have each others’ backs. This culminates in a touching scene between Ashlyn and Penny, with their usual roles of caretaker and patient reversed. Edmonds’s novel evokes the magic of portal fantasies while grounding it with emotionally resonant relationships.

Takeaway: Fans of YA portal fantasies will enjoy this story of two sisters supporting each other through a challenging quest.

Great for fans of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle.

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

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Yoga at the Zoo
Teresa Power
Power (The ABC’s of Yoga for Kids) charms with the adventures of the unlikely best friend duo of Little Mouse and Mr. Opus the cat, as they visit the zoo and learn yoga poses from the animals. Little Mouse and Mr. Opus spend afternoons after school together, sometimes watching Tammy, the little girl Mr. Opus lives with, doing yoga with her mom. When Tammy’s school goes on a field trip to the zoo, Little Mouse and Mr. Opus go too. Little Mouse has never seen other animals and is excited to meet them. As Little Mouse meets each animal, he sees that they do yoga-like poses too. Little Mouse is on a serious quest for knowledge, while Mr. Opus provides some comic relief (such as falling asleep during his favorite yoga pose).

Young readers will enjoy Allen’s expressive and fun illustrations of Little Mouse and Mr. Opus’s antics. The illustrations have just the right amount of detail to draw in the reader, adding to the story without distracting from the text. It will likely not be clear to young readers whether the book is meant to teach yoga poses or just show fun things that animals do. However, the description of Little Mouse’s experiences with yoga fit the target age group well, as the poses are simple and presented as a regular, calming part of daily life.

As Little Mouse copies poses from other animals and sees how yoga relaxes them, young readers can imitate Little Mouse in turn. Power has a fine sense of which poses are suitable for children, and adults who aren’t deeply familiar with yoga can comfortably lead kids through the various poses. The emphasis on yoga as a daily practice will resonate with busy families looking for easy ways to relax and be in touch with their physical selves.

Takeaway: This simple, fun approach to yoga as a source of calm in everyday life will appeal to young readers and their parents.

Great for fans of Susan Verde’s I Am Yoga, Mariam Gates’s Good Night Yoga series.

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

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Sprinkles
Katherine S Stempel
Stempel’s sweet debut picture book blends cupcakes and bonsai trees with kindness and community. Sky, a girl who looks about 10, makes a batch of mini cupcakes, hoping to sell them to raise money for her suburban neighborhood’s animal shelter. As Sky and her mother set off with the cupcakes, they encounter their crotchety neighbor, Mr. Conway, who brusquely turns down the sweet treats before continuing with his evening walk. At the local nursery, Sky strikes a sweet deal, trading some cupcakes for an adorable little bonsai tree. Mr. Conway arrives as they’re leaving and also winds up with a bonsai tree—but in order to take care of it, he has to let Sky teach him about listening and love.

Children will instantly warm to Stempel’s pint-size protagonist (and her luscious cupcake flavor combinations, such as double chocolate with marshmallow frosting, graham cracker sprinkles, and a caramel drizzle). Spunky Sky doesn’t take rejection personally, and, through her generosity and kindness, she cares for and supports her community. Sky’s open and caring nature shines through in every conversation, and Stempel’s sensitive narrative shows how the briefest of interactions can hurt and the smallest of selfless gestures can change someone’s life for the better.

Stempel, a volunteer with a program that delivers food to the homebound elderly, underscores the importance of companionship with older neighborhood residents, shown in Sky’s burgeoning relationship with widowed, gray-haired Mr. Conway. Hershey’s dynamic digital illustrations evoke Sky’s bouncy energy, Mr. Conway’s gloom, and the contrast between Sky’s happy, well-loved tree and Mr. Conway’s sad, wilting one. Occasional words pop and swoop out of the text to convey changes in mood, adding emphasis and whimsy.

Takeaway: This sweet and touching illustrated story conveys important lessons about intergenerational connections and will be meaningful to both children and adults.

Great for fans of Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Jane Dyer’s Cookies: Bite-Size Life Lessons, Diane Alber’s A Little Spot of Anger: A Story About Managing Big Emotions.

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

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Fourth Trait
Benjamin A. Bryan
Bryan’s debut is an intermittently absorbing but frequently confusing political science-fiction epic set in 2095. The hero is Raile Alton, a cynical scientist working for the UEA, the provisional government that took power after the global Great Catastrophe killed off most of the world’s population. Those who survive possess heightened mental powers but are plagued by ghosts called “unattached.” When an unattached actually murders a human being, it triggers a sprawling series of events as the UEA and their opponents in the resistance engage in byzantine schemes, double crosses, and power grabs. Quests for sex, revenge, eternal life, power, and simple human comforts underlie the more metaphysical aspects of the conflict.

The frequent betrayals amid detailed military operations become wearying after a while, as do the many undefined, distracting neologisms related to mental powers and the afterlife. Some of the characters are better developed than others: Alton proves to be complex and vulnerable underneath his world-weary veneer, and Delva Brownson, the daughter of a resistance leader, is another nuanced character whose doubts about her place in the world make her far more interesting than her mother, a rabid caricature. The pacing, dialogue, and plot twists form a fluid narrative, though the vague, cliffhanger ending is unexpected and unsatisfying.

Bryan has clearly put a lot of thought into building this world and its metaphysical underpinnings. The story is as much about the mysteries of the afterlife as it is about the schemes of its desperate characters. Bryan notes that the traitors to the resistance are desperate for a taste of easy living and that the UEA traitors are angry about the corruption inherent in the system. For some of these, the end justifies the means, but the narrative embraces a more humanistic approach beyond simple comfort and revenge. This near-future story of discontent in life and after death leaves readers with much to think about.

Takeaway: This metaphysical murder mystery will appeal to fans of more philosophical and conceptual science fiction and horror.

Great for fans of M. John Harrison’s Light, Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

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

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Jane Under Pressure: The Life of a Korean American Schoolgirl
Sun Min
Min’s debut picture book draws young readers into the childhood of Jane, a 10-year-old Korean-American student facing pressures imposed by her family. Her days are full of studying and extracurriculars, and her hobbies must be wedged in at the edges of her busy schedule. Despite her stress about being pressured to succeed, she is determined to make her family proud when she performs in an upcoming cello competition. As she prepares, she learns more about where her relatives’ expectations come from.

Jane is instantly relatable as a young girl with trouble balancing her long-term goals and her momentary joys. It is clear that her family is incredibly important to her, and Min carefully contextualizes their constant pushing for Jane to apply herself: it stems from a belief that, with practice and hard work, she can accomplish anything. When Jane connects with her aunt over essay writing and with her mother while practicing cello, the reader will feel their love and support.

Simple digital illustrations of Jane in various situations face pages of straightforward text. The story is best suited to a slightly younger audience who will enjoy sounding out the occasional Korean vocabulary, which is well explained. The slightly stilted English of Jane’s immigrant relatives sounds accurate rather than stereotypical and is easy to read aloud. Min provides glimpses of Korean culture as Jane and her family venerate ancestors, put on traditional clothes for the holiday of Chuseok, and cook seaweed soup. Readers of all backgrounds will find it easy to connect with Jane’s longing for time to herself, love for her family and her cat, enjoyment of karaoke, and powerful emotions during the competition.

Takeaway: Younger children of all backgrounds will enjoy following 10-year-old cellist Jane through the the pressures and joys of life in her Korean-American family.

Great for fans of Matt de la Peña’s Last Stop on Market Street, Jacqueline Woodson’s The Day You Begin.

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

The Long Journey to the Fair
Radka Yakimov
In an evocative series of vignettes, Yakimov explores conflict, intolerance, and what it means to be a refugee through the experiences of an ethnically diverse set of Eastern Bloc families forced to flee their homelands before, during, and after WWII. Most of the short and factual impressions are given voice by Ms. Konstantinov, a Toronto college professor and Bulgarian emigré who introduces herself by recounting a long-ago dream of going to a fair.

Yakimov, herself a Bulgarian emigré to Canada and onetime college professor, writes in a distinctive detached and matter-of-fact voice (one chapter heading is “And Here Comes a Guy Called Ludmil”; another introduces “The Melancholy Figure Standing on a Bridge, the Crazy Lady, and the Strange Attraction Felt by Men to Girls with Blond Hair”). The dispassionate narration, which reads a bit like listening to Greta Garbo as Ninotchka, allows the episodes to unfold succinctly, though at times the descriptions are curious (“a gust of warm air suddenly oozing by”). The author’s voice suits the impressionistic nature of the work, but it leads to challenging brevity. There are too many subjects; each individual portrait is focused up close but the fuller picture appears blurry and vague, like a pointillist painting in reverse. The epilogue attempts to wrap things up but then takes off on a new tangent, albeit one that extends one of the book’s themes. It barrels up out of nowhere and readers get only a glimpse before it fades out.

After mourning the separations caused by Balkanization and the Iron Curtain, Yakimov evokes hope by shows her characters intersecting in large and small ways. Readers who spot a connection or two will feel encouraged to seek more, and will also search for metaphorical and literal journeys to the fair.

Takeaway: Readers who want to explore the human side of the Cold War will appreciate this series of Eastern Bloc immigration narratives.

Great for fans of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land, Ismail Kadare.

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

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The Winter Sisters: A Novel
Tim Westover
Westover (Auraria) digs into early-19th-century medicine and superstition in rural Georgia. Dr. Aubrey Waycross is invited to tiny Lawrenceville, Ga., where rabid dogs and a panther are supposedly menacing the townspeople. Aubrey is disappointed to find no signs of the promised rabies epidemic, but the panther is real, and it prevents people from traveling to visit the three Winter sisters, who were Lawrenceville’s healers until they were chased out of town for suspected witchcraft. Though science-minded Aubrey is mystified by their healing powers, he comes to the conclusion that the sisters’ methods are “not without merit” and asks them to return to town with him and set up a shared practice. Rebecca, the oldest, is sweet on Aubrey and supports the plan, overriding the opposition of sour middle sister Sarah. Inevitably, youngest sister Effie’s magic unsettles the townspeople, leading to a spiral of disasters.

Readers will appreciate Aubrey’s transformation from self-righteousness to being humbled by the tenacity and healing skills of rural women. The writing is smart and witty: Aubrey thrills to patients who bring “coughs, sneezes, wheezes, rales—a cacophony of illness,” and Sarah bitterly snarls, “Every human being is a skin sack stuffed up to the neck with greed and flesh and stupidity. And what spills out of their face holes are delusions and mistakes.” The humorous moments help to balance the era’s pervasive fear and despair in the face of sorrow, poverty, and incurable diseases.

Westover’s attention to historical detail is evident in his portrayal of the medical treatments popular in the early 19th century. The members of the Lawrenceville community feel entirely real, especially in their contradictory fear of the Winters’ powers and desperate hope that the sisters will heal their ailments. Fans of historical fiction with a focus on American folklore will warm to the enigmatic characters of Lawrenceville.

Takeaway: Historical fiction fans will be riveted by this immersive portrait of medicine and superstition in 19th-century rural Georgia.

Great for fans of Adriana Trigiani, Jennifer Chiaverini.

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

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De Anima(l)
Joe Costanzo
Chaos ensues after a college mascot goes missing in this simmering and thought-provoking contemporary mystery by Costanzo (Restoration). When Gennesaret Christian College’s mascot, a live jackrabbit, disappears, the clue at the empty cage—a note that says “(L)”—points to mild-mannered 46-year-old professor Edward Stathakis, whose lecture on Aristotle’s De Anima treatise evolved into a discussion of animal rights when an “(L)” was added to the work’s title. However, what seems to be a college prank takes on a more sinister aspect when a fire is set in a billionaire game hunter’s lodge and an identical note is discovered. The professor becomes a target of suspicion and contempt among members of the college and local community.

Costanzo jumps right into the story, weaving philosophy and ethical questions into the well-developed and intriguing mystery plot. The sympathetic Stathakis is a worthy underdog protagonist. Passages from his perspective include an alluring element of crisp, hard-boiled description (“Even his tight dome of a beer belly was menacing, like the bronze shield of a Roman gladiator”) that convey his thoughtful bent. Despite his unassuming nature and unhappiness stemming from a devastating divorce, Stathakis is surprisingly tenacious and draws the attention of several women, including Alice, his bohemian girlfriend; Judith Scott, a powerful administrator; and the straight-shooting Det. Janet Ellison. Stathakis’s interactions with other characters, such as an amicable and outgoing neighbor who makes him realize just how little he knows his students, heartwarmingly reveal his changing self-perception and growth.

Although there are dramatic twists, this character-driven story is not for those desiring a brisk whodunit; rather, it’s suited to those who wish to savor Costanzo’s expertise with language. He carefully unspools the story, doling out colorful character descriptions and thought-provoking considerations of the complexity of choices and consequences. This is an enjoyable work for fans of mystery and philosophical debates.

Takeaway: Philosophical connoisseurs of modern-day mysteries will enjoy the sleuthing of this unobtrusive philosophy professor.

Great for fans of Elizabeth Peters, Alexander McCall Smith.

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

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The Meditation Process
Lyle Olson
Olson packs plenty of fodder for the intermediate meditator into this detailed, expansive guide to the practical and esoteric aspects of sitting meditation, which draws somewhat haphazardly on both Buddhist Shamatha and Raja yoga traditions. He covers positioning the body, balancing the breath, approaching meditation seriously without trying too hard, and overcoming obstacles to progression. He also clarifies terminology and includes both his own experiences and the words of others to help the reader recognize what successful meditation feels like. The somewhat abrupt conclusion succinctly lays out the end goals of the practice, including mindfulness and the impartial witnessing of one’s experience.

The level of detail will be very useful to those readers already deeply engaged in a meditation practice. Olson successfully bridges the gap between too-basic suggestions for beginners and less grounded, more opaque advanced guidance. When he offers hands-on advice, he distills complex ideas to concrete steps well, as in his discussions of the benefits of a kneeling posture and the use of mantras, his sample breathing exercises, and his analysis of the metaphor of treating passing thoughts as birds flying into the room. He gently but firmly contradicts methods that he views as unhelpful or less ideal. And he shows refreshing humility when discussing advanced states of meditation that he has not yet attained.

The inclusion of unlabeled, seemingly random photos of East and South Asian people has an unfortunate Orientalist air. The quotes from teachers and experts aren’t well integrated into the text, and Olson rarely explains who these authorities are or why he’s chosen to quote them. The dense language (including a slew of foreign-language terms) and stream-of-thought structure could frustrate novices, but Olson’s work will resonate with seasoned practitioners and help advanced beginners take their next steps. This hefty, detailed guide is a useful, if sometimes dense, exploration of every step of building a meditation practice rooted in multiple traditions.

Takeaway: Experienced meditators struggling with plateaus or looking for a comprehensive, detailed consideration of process will savor this hefty guide to building a meditation practice.

Great for fans of Pema Chödrön, Chögyam Trungpa.

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

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Kings of the Earth
Christopher Stanton
Artist and graphic novelist Stanton’s debut literary paranormal thriller chronicles the intertwining lives of three very different people. In the reportedly cursed surfing town of Great Water, Mich., in the year 2000, Jenny Bloomquist, 25, and Eric Calhoun, 14, are linked by Jenny’s husband, Lance, who’s mentoring Eric in the mystical athletic art of soul surfing. Martin Van Lottom is 28, struggling with a menial job, poor health, and a disconnection from reality. Their paths cross when the blood moon, fog, and high tide coincide in a once-every-30-years event known as “the Baptism,” when people disappear from Great Water or claim to see ghosts, and all three begin searching for those they have lost, lest they become lost themselves. Lance vanishes, and Martin and Eric witness seemingly random acts of violence.

Tension develops in the juxtaposition of ordinary external events with the increasingly frantic internal monologues of the protagonists. There is a lingering sense the characters are just slightly out of step with reality. Everything happens very quickly, highlighting the sense of urgency but sometimes breaking the narrative flow. Additionally, the characters’ voices occasionally sound inauthentic; for example, Eric sometimes acts much older or much younger than his age. The best developed (and least sympathetic) character is Martin, and the chapters from his warped perspective will make the reader’s skin crawl.

Stanton builds chilling suspense with atmospheric details and the town’s legends. Elements of psychological horror (bullies, ghosts, child death, murder, molestation) are peppered liberally throughout, with depictions occasionally bordering on graphic but not gratuitous. Though billed as a supernatural thriller, this could just as easily be considered a horror novel, and is best read with the lights on.

Takeaway: Both horror fans and thriller readers will enjoy this dark, richly imagined exploration of fear and loss.

Great for fans of Jonathan Maberry, Kem Nunn.

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

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