Welcome to BookLife and Publishers Weekly’s second Starred Reviews Annual, in which we celebrate the best of the best: all the self-published books that received starred reviews in 2015.
Mary Fan. Red Adept, $5.99 e-book (376p) ISBN 978-1-940215-03-7
In this thrilling science fiction–adventure series launch, Fan (Tell Me My Name) introduces a society where interstellar travel is an everyday reality, computers infiltrate every aspect of human life, and the forbidden technology of artificial intelligence may be closer than most people suspect. When Jane Colt accidentally witnesses the kidnapping of her best friend, Adam, she calls on her big brother, Devin, hoping he’ll believe her even when all the records say that there’s no way she saw what she claims. Soon the two of them are on the run, targeted by what seems to be a vast and powerful conspiracy that is determined to see them silenced. From the outer colonies known as the Fringe to the depths of the Internet, these siblings face danger at every turn, recruit allies among the underworld, and strive to save themselves, Adam, and civilization. Jane and Devin go to desperate lengths to help each other, and the fast-paced action is balanced by thoughtful meditations on what it means to be human. Readers will zip through this exciting story and immediately hunt down the sequels.
D.L. Orton. Rocky Mountain, $30.99 hardcover (384p) ISBN 978-1-941368-02-2
Launching the Between Two Evils series, Orton constructs a delightfully fun time-travel adventure that spans years and universes. Isabel is facing the consequences of her self-destructive behavior: she’s freshly divorced and on the edge of losing her life’s work. Things look up when she’s reunited with her long-ago love Diego, but their renewed relationship begins with and is punctuated by disasters. Physics professor Matt is conscripted to unravel the mystery of an impossible object that is causing the perils threatening the lovers. Matt and his team use technology sent from the future to determine that the key to saving the world is personal rather than global: it depends, somehow, on the enduring love between Diego and Isabel. Orton has carefully balanced existential peril on the micro and macro scales, slowly raising the stakes until a fever pitch is achieved. What at first seems silly or pointless becomes vital as the nature of causality is revealed. Engaging, funny, romantic, and harrowing, this promising series opener will leave readers satisfied by its unexpected yet earned conclusion, and curious about what comes next.
Terry Irving. Ronin Robot, $2.99 e-book (345p) ASIN B00UZUAL9U
Fans of Robert Anton Wilson’s fast and loose approach to political conspiracy and Douglas Adams’s bumbling unwilling heroes will eat up Irving’s first batch of giddy, clumsy world-saving adventures, which launches the Last American Wizard series. A “mystical terrorist group” sacrifices an airplane full of innocents to a dragon and uses the deaths to power an event that wreaks magical havoc on Washington, D.C. All the wizards in the U.S. government’s employ abruptly lose access to magic, and the world’s computers and gadgets become sentient. Second-string journalist Steven Rowan embodies the tarot’s Fool and is forced to figure out the card’s magic on the fly. Bombshell soldier Ace Morningstar, who used her magic to disguise herself as a man so she could become a SEAL, drafts Steve and his cell phone, which contains the ghost of a Chinese factory worker who now communicates through screen animations and bad autotranslations, to help fix the mess. Gathering allies, including NSA supercomputer Barnaby and Ace’s BMW, Hans, the team fights off newly transformed demons, dog monsters, and ogres while trying to find out who is controlling the Illuminati before the villains embark on the next step of their world-domination strategy. Irving’s smart parody of Beltway life and his high-energy storytelling carry through to the end and promise to maintain momentum well into the next installment.
Barbara Valentin. Gemma Halliday, $11.99 trade paper (216p) ISBN 978-1-5027-6693-9
Valentin launches the Assignment: Romance series with this quick-moving and thoroughly delightful contemporary. Mattie Ross, an advice columnist at the Chicago Gazette, is getting her life back on track after being left at the altar by unscrupulous Eddie DeRosa. She decides it’s time to talk to the newspaper’s publisher, Lester Crenshaw, about a raise. Meanwhile, Lester is meeting with high school athletic coach Nick DeRosa, Eddie’s twin. Eddie almost ruined Nick by stealing his identity and framing him for embezzling. Lester makes Nick a deal: if he trains an unfit adult to run in the Chicago Marathon, Lester will cut Nick a check to get him back on his feet again. When Spandex-clad Maggie walks into Crenshaw’s office to ask for that raise and unwittingly presents herself as the perfect unlikely marathoner-to-be, the story is off and running. Maggie is an appealing protagonist, flawed and struggling with emotional vulnerabilities but determined to press on with her life. Valentin deftly keeps the reader engaged by allowing details of Nick and Mattie’s pasts to gradually come to light; their mutual attraction constantly increases, but consummation is continually thwarted by misunderstandings and plot twists. This is a lighthearted and endearing blend of comedy, drama, and romance.
Mike Duran. Blue Crescent, $12.99 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-0-9909077-1-8
Magnificent mayhem ensues when hard-boiled PI and tabloid reporter Reagan Moon meets things he really cannot explain away in Duran’s (Subterranea) delicious urban fantasy novel. The paranormal is Moon’s stock in trade, though usually he’s fairly cynical about the fantastical stories he peddles to the denizens of modern-day Los Angeles. Once he’s offered the opportunity to find out what really happened to his deceased girlfriend, however, his skepticism is challenged in ways that he couldn’t have imagined. Shadowy conspiracies jostle the wondrous world of the weird in an effort to get his attention—or kill him trying. A myriad of mythological detail is wrapped in Moon’s occasionally self-deprecating humor, and he embodies the sort of charm that lets adorable 10-year-olds get away with mayhem. Moon’s transformation, from hard-edged cynic to a man with morals and a mission, transcends schlock to tug the reader’s heartstrings. This madcap tale flashes through highs and lows en route to a shamelessly and lovably over-the-top conclusion.
Damian A. Wassel and Nathan C. Gooden. Creative Mind Energy, $19.95 paper (174p) ISBN 978-1-939424-12-9
A lone wolf faces off against man (hunters) and nature (hunger) in this nearly wordless graphic novel told from the animal’s point of view without anthropomorphizing its protagonist. Remarkably naturalistic in its design, Gooden’s art avoids cartoon clichés, with animals true-to-life in design and behavior. Mostly black-and-white, the art uses black and gray dynamic shapes to visually drive the narrative forward, skillfully merging with Wassel’s story, requiring virtually no dialogue. Bold black sound effects and the sparse dialogue of the hunters (expressed simply in the phonetic sounds the wolf hears) narrate the story. The starkness of Gooden’s palette is powerfully punctuated with a sparse use of brilliant color that leads to a an epiphany for the wounded, dying wolf. Morally enigmatic and deserving of repeat readings, this primal fable of power and evolution is a dexterous balance of action-adventure and thought-piece.
Elizabeth Buhmann. Red Adept, $13.57 trade paper (314p) ISBN 978-1-940215-00-6
The bill for lies told decades earlier comes due for Kate Cranbrook, the complex narrator of Buhmann’s superior debut. In 1986, while Kate was a college student at Sweet Briar in western Virginia, she was raped and witnessed a murder. Kate’s eyewitness testimony convicts a man who’s released more than 20 years later based on DNA evidence. The development isn’t a complete surprise to Kate, who has lived with the knowledge that she perjured herself. Her life since the trial has been a disappointment, and her social life is limited by her possessive and creepy father, Pop, who keeps her on a tight leash. That constraint becomes even more difficult to bear when Kate, who works as a landscaper, falls for a gardener, Tony, and hopes she has found the love of her life. Things don’t go smoothly, and more blood is shed along the way to a jaw-dropping, but logical, climax that will make veteran mystery readers eager for more of Buhmann’s work.
Edited by Joshua O’Neill. Locust Moon, $150 hardcover (144p) ISBN 978-0-9899076-9-9
Big enough for a small child to fall into, this gorgeous, impressively oversized (16” x 21”) gift book collects over one hundred full-page color comic strips paying homage to Winsor McCay’s classic comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland. O’Neill—who funded the collection on Kickstarter—has gathered contributions from some of the biggest names in contemporary art comics, among them J.G. Jones, Roger Langridge, Paul Pope, P. Craig Russell, Bill Sienkiewicz, Jill Thompson, Charles Vess, and Fabio Moon and Gabriel Bá. Each piece celebrates McCay’s dizzying architecture, playful panel-to-panel continuity, and the improbable characters of Slumberland with homages, parodies, and loving continuations of comics’ infamous little dreamer. The most dazzling contributions reinterpret the visual splendor of McCay’s masterpiece without slavishly copying it, such as Jason Lex’s spiraling journey through a dinosaur, Maëlle Doliveux’s cut-out paper puppets vanishing into a crumpled ball, Alexis Ziritt’s Mexican-styled Day of the Dead pastiche, R. Sikoryak’s Little Nemo/Sigmund Freud team-up. More than just a book, this is a treasure—the stuff that dreams are made of.
Anthea Lawson. Fiddlehead, $12.99 trade paper (268p) ISBN 978-1-68013-061-4
The entertaining and satisfying second entry in Lawson’s Music of the Heart historical series (after Sonata for a Scoundrel) introduces Jessamyn Lovell, newly famous in Victorian London as the “Gypsy Violinist,” and Morgan Trevethwick, the uptight Earl of Silverton. Morgan’s undercover work for Scotland Yard has him trailing Jessa’s guardian, Mr. Burke, a suspected blackmailer. Lawson creates a strong, sympathetic heroine in Jessa, who allows her unscrupulous uncle to profit from her performances in exchange for keeping her beloved, simpleminded sister safe from a lunatic asylum or a sinister marriage. Morgan has compensated for his wild youth by adopting a rigid propriety, but his search for a suitable wife is derailed by his attraction to Jessa. When she appeals for his protection from her uncle’s devilish plans, he struggles between accepting her offer to be his mistress and giving in to his growing realization that she is the one woman he wishes to marry. This well-paced, humorous love story will delight fans of daring Victorian cross-class romances.
Richard Van Anderson. White Light, $11.99 trade paper (306p) ISBN 978-0-9907597-1-3
Robin Cook fans will relish this taut and powerful medical thriller set in Manhattan, the first in a trilogy. Dr. David McBride’s career is in ruins after he delayed reporting that a superior was taking bribes to move patients in need of transplanted organs up the waiting list. Instead of using his superior surgical skills to save lives, David is relegated to working on rats in a research lab. Fortune seems to smile upon him when he’s offered a chance to redeem himself with a probationary period in another residency program. But before he can start that new chapter, David’s corralled by a shady figure who calls himself Mr. White and displays a disturbingly detailed knowledge of every aspect of David’s life. Unless David agrees to perform illegal kidney harvesting and transplants, White will arrange for him to be charged with drug theft. Van Anderson makes good use of his own medical training in the service of a superior page-turner.
Thomas Claburn. Lot 49 Labs, $2.99 e-book (264p) ISBN 978-0-986-10160-1
This intense murder mystery is set in a mid-21st-century world so saturated with commercialism that everything is licensed, silence costs money, and private detectives are now “information speculators.” San Francisco “spec” Sam Crane, still mourning the accidental death of his wife and the unending coma of his 5-year-old daughter, Fiona, is called in to investigate the murder of a prominent scientist, Dr. Xian Mako. The only clue is a pair of antique galvanized glasses on Dr. Mako’s body, and they soon vanish. When Sam refuses to drop the case, he becomes tangled in a vastly bigger plot involving terrorists, a blindness-causing biological attack, and the corporate mogul who puts Fiona into an experimental coma-busting drug trial—all to the tune of a ceaseless media barrage that makes life cheap and expensive all at once. Claburn’s novel is all the more tense and frightening for feeling only one step away from today, a feeling relieved by Sam’s old-fashioned cynicism mixed with his willingness to do anything for his daughter. His deep emotions make him the most real and absorbing feature of this vivid story about a virtual world overloaded with real danger.
Matt McHugh. Mattmchugh.com, $1 e-book (37p) ASIN B0063914DE
McHugh’s debut novella is an inventive exploration of the crossroads between near-future gadgetry and the male midlife crisis. Stephen, a hapless office drone, is introduced to a strange device, a brain radio, which allows the user to experience different preset emotions. He soon becomes obsessed (a recurring theme), neglecting to help his wife sort out their teen son’s troubles at school. While Stephen explores the intensity of an unchartered emotional landscape, his son spirals down into a teenage wasteland. McHugh writes with clarity, and the story itself is emotionally charged; there is depth to the tale, gradually made apparent through the experiences Stephen has with the brain radio and the misery of his nuclear family crumbling around him. Despite occasional bouts of excessive exposition, the story is buoyed by sharp characterization and an interesting look at the possibilities of brains connecting with machines. McHugh’s intriguing work breaths fresh air into the popular SF themes of thought privacy and the capabilities of new technologies.
Linda Rettstatt. 3rd Act, $3.99 e-book (230p) ASIN B013K8BWG4
Rettstatt’s short, smart contemporary keeps readers engaged with a candid look at what happens when simmering anger reaches a boil. Jane and Mitch Devereaux have a perfect marriage. He’s an advertising executive. She’s a successful romance novelist. They’ve spent 20-odd years raising two great kids and supporting each other’s careers. But lately sex has become a problem. It’s not that it’s gotten rote—quite the opposite. Jane has been pushing Mitch to be more and more sexually creative so she can turn their bedroom antics into scenes for her novels. Finally, he gets fed up with a love life that’s devolved into a series of literary research projects. Rather than hashing things out with Jane, Mitch stalks out the door, gets his own apartment, and then can’t quite figure out what comes next. Mitch’s wounded ego and Jane’s total bafflement at his actions are completely believable, thanks to Rettstatt’s skill at crafting characters that readers will care about and cheer for. There are no villains here, only two well-meaning spouses trying their very best to be true to themselves and keep their flame burning.
John Darrin and Michael Gresalfi. Biblioque, $16.95 trade paper (388p) ISBN 978-0-692-41890-1
Darrin, a career radiation-safety expert, and Gresalfi, an adviser to the White House on terrorism, deliver a gripping thriller reminiscent of Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s The Fifth Horseman. Islamic extremists team with violent Christian fundamentalists to plan a series of acts of nuclear terror throughout the U.S. A sophisticated scheme nets them a supply of cesium 137 from a private Tennessee facility, but the plot comes to the attention of the authorities when one of the vehicles transporting the lethal isotope is stopped by the police. Cal Bellotta, a consultant for the Department of Homeland Security on radiological WMD threats, labors frantically to thwart the terrorists, but the authors, plausibly, don’t turn him or his colleagues into miracle workers. The story line is one that genre readers will find familiar, but Darrin and Gresalfi give it new life and urgency through a combination of taut prose, punchy chapters, and convincing detail.
Ginnah Howard. Illume, $15 trade paper (426p) ISBN 978-1-5003-3894-7
Howard weaves together a collection of short stories (some previously published) to create this brutal, powerful novel, the final piece in a trilogy (after Night Navigation and Doing Time Outside) about two very different women and the children upon whom their accidental sins are visited. Though separated by age, education, and circumstance, Del Merrick and Carla Morletti lead parallel lives in a grim upstate New York hamlet, both struggling to gain a toehold in their worsening marriages while helplessly watching their children slip away. When the two become friends after a chance meeting, Del’s and Carla’s families are irrevocably linked, and as their entwined stories begin to unfold, both women make decisions that reverberate far into everyone’s future. Spanning from 1946 to 1993, the book lays bare Del’s and Carla’s lives with quiet compassion, wit, and an unhurried anticipation. Stunning in its simplicity, Howard’s lean prose belies the detail and richness of the characters she conveys.
Edited by Tor.com. Tor.com, free e-book (652p) ISBN 978-1-4668-8587-5
Datlow fills this sprawling fourth annual collection with 26 richly envisioned short and mid-length works of speculative fiction from innovative online magazine Tor.com, an independent offshoot of Tor Books. Postapocalyptic futures include alien invaders in Ken Liu’s “Reborn,” earthquakes in Charlie Jane Anders’s humorous “As Good as New,” and a traveling carnival in Seanan McGuire’s “Midway Relics and Dying Breeds.” Adam Christopher’s “Brisk Money” turns traditional noir crime fiction upside-down. Kelly Barnhill’s “Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch” and Max Gladstone’s “A Kiss with Teeth” are surprising love stories. Marie Brennan’s “Daughter of Necessity” tells the story of Odysseus’s wife holding down the fort at home, while Kathleen Ann Goonan’s “A Short History of the Twentieth Century, or When You Wish upon a Star” explores the life and times of a female astronaut. Tor.com welcomes longer works shunned by print magazines, a thrill for fans of speculative fiction novellas and novelettes. These uniformly excellent stories are all exactly as long as they need to be, and all the more powerful for it.
Harry Connolly. Radar Avenue, $15.99 trade paper (364p) ISBN 978-0-9898284-2-0
Connolly (the Twenty Palaces urban fantasy series) makes his first foray into crowdfunded self-publishing with this immersive, thrilling, and elf-free epic fantasy trilogy launch. Peradain is the capital of a loosely held feudal empire where the rulers hold a monopoly on magic and back it up with steel. On the day of a major festival, the city is invaded and overrun with monsters that rapidly spread across the country in a destructive wave. As the empire begins to falter, a small band of loyalists seeks a new spell that will defeat the beasts and restore the crown. The tightly written story alternately follows Tejohn Treygar, a senior warrior guarding the king, and Cazia Freewell, a 15-year-old student of magic. Connolly deftly moves the action across the countryside and explores the changing lives of soldiers, slaves, nobles, and nomads without being bogged down by politics. The high body count is unsurprising for the genre; less typical, and very welcome, are the egalitarian treatment of gender and the lack of sexual violence. This twisty, subversive novel will win Connolly a whole new set of fans.
Roz Siegel. CreateSpace, $9.98 trade paperback (264p) ISBN 978-1-507858-84-4
The nicely arch tone of Siegel’s worthy sequel to 2010’s Goodie One Shoes is established at the opening (“Does the Angel of Death exist? And if so, does He wear shoes?”). Emily, a former English teacher who runs a discount shoe store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, has acquired a stock of Italian black leather shoes made by Periggi & Sons from a suspect source. After a customer, Sophia Sarfatti, complains about the fit of a pair of these shoes, Emily finds diamonds hidden in one of the heels. That discovery casts her view of another customer’s desire to buy her full stock of Periggi shoes in a different light, and her suspicion that the customer knows about the gems is enhanced after she finds Sophia dead in the woman’s apartment. Emily doubts that the death was natural and persuades both her estranged husband, referred to as Larry the Loser, and her friend on the NYPD, Murphy the Cop, to help her investigate, as the violence escalates. Admirers of Kinky Friedman’s comic mayhem should be pleased.
Allison Moon. Lunatic Ink, $9.99 trade paper (132p) ISBN 978-0-9838309-7-9
Moon’s (Girl Sex 101) voice is clear, frank, and refreshingly without shame as she recounts her winding and often-confusing path toward discovering her sexual identity. While at first these descriptions of vaguely connected sexual adventures and awakenings seems profoundly personal and even self-indulgent, messages quickly begin to emerge, shining a sly light on issues like bi erasure, elitism within the lesbian community, and the challenges of living with shifting and fluid sexual identities. This series of vignettes illuminates the life and path of one “dyke,” and at the same time it offers a positive example for others who are still trying to find their own voices and their own way.
LeeAnn Brook. Brook Design Group, $39.95 hardcover (96p) ISBN 978-0-692-25772-2
This magnificent debut from Brook, a photographer, painter, and graphic artist, showcases 150 full-color photographs and paintings by the artist, accompanied by her thoughtful reflections on the inspiration she derives from observing nature. Brook reveals that there is a wonderful serendipity to her work when she happens upon a “rusted boat... a cobblestone street... light on a quaking aspen.” New material frequently builds upon previous work, leading to an intriguing harmony between photographs and paintings: repetitive lines, textures, and colors from a weathered boat captured in a photograph show up years later in a painting of water lilies, and an intricate Victorian gate foretells a future color palette. Lavishly descriptive wording—“primal elements,” “quiet details,” “tapestry,” and “spontaneity”—enriches the narrative as Brooks provides an intimate explanation of her creative process. The paintings are vivid and scenic: a silver-gray reflection of tree lines and curves is reimagined in glorious colors, contours from a tile in Italy’s Sistine Chapel take on movement in a windy garden, and a rock pattern reflection becomes an abstract form. Brook’s artistry inspires throughout.
Jessica Shortall. Otet Press, $15.99 paper (300p) ISBN 978-0-9909192-0-9
Debut author Shortall strikes the perfect note for an advice book on what some readers might see as a niche topic—pumping and storing milk while at work—skipping past the breastfeeding basics addressed elsewhere to dive straight into logistics. Shortall repeatedly assures her peers (high-powered career women) that “your worth as a mother is not measured in ounces” and takes a casual, keeping-it-real tone toward everything from “porn-star boobs” to pumping during conference calls. Topics include calculating the stash you need to keep your baby fed during the day, negotiating pumping time and space with your company, washing your pump in shared spaces with minimal embarrassment, traveling without your milk spoiling or being confiscated by the TSA, and, when it just isn’t working for you, weaning. It’s the kind of information an intimate, chatty friend who’s done it all could share in a few lunchtimes and a session on the couch—did you know you can sterilize coffee cups in the microwave and pump milk into them?—except that not every mom has those kinds of friends. Having such helpful tips and tricks in print will be a godsend to the back-to-work mom who doesn’t have time for everything to go any less than smoothly.