When Publishers Weekly launched BookLife, a website dedicated to indie authors and self-publishing, it was with the goal of finding and promoting great books by independent authors. We wanted to find professional-quality novels and memoirs, children’s books, and general nonfiction—titles that would likely and unjustly be overlooked because they were self-published.
As this list of books—and the six titles reaching the finals of the BookLife Prize in Fiction—illustrates, we have done just that. Below are the 20 self-published works of fiction and nonfiction to which Publishers Weekly awarded starred reviews in 2016.
Carly Phillips and Erika Wilde. CP Publishing, $3.99 e-book (268p) ASIN B016YIRT9Q
Bestselling authors Phillips (Dare to Take) and Wilde (Playing with Seduction) pack plenty of sizzle into the first in their contemporary Dirty Sexy series. Socialite Samantha Jamieson refuses to marry a man she doesn’t love—and in reaction her incensed father cuts her off from his financial support and the only home she’s ever known. Samantha ends up in Clay “Saint” Kincaid’s bar. Clay’s gotten his nickname from his habit of rescuing those who need it, and boy does Samantha need it. After one too many shots, Clay takes Samantha home to ensure her safety—but it’s his heart that is in danger. When someone from Clay’s rough past reappears, things abruptly change. Can Clay and Samantha hold on to their love, or will they lose it forever? The bad man/good woman trope is used endlessly in romance, but Phillips and Wilde manage to make it fresh, hot, and endlessly appealing. The erotic scenes live up to the “dirty” in the title and the heroine is sympathetic and real. Readers will be salivating for the next book in the series.
Tammy Falkner. Night Shift, $3.99 e-book (320p) ISBN 978-1-5190-0642-4
The freedom of adolescent summer love is constricted by the complexities of adult life in this heartfelt contemporary loosely linked to Falkner’s Reed Brothers series. Suspended New York policeman Jake Jacobson is unexpectedly reunited with Katie Higgins, his summer love from 18 years before, when he goes home to North Carolina to visit his father, who’s had a stroke. Katie, who’s very pregnant and has three kids in tow, is hiding out at the beach house her family rented from Jake’s father all those years ago, hoping her abusive ex won’t be able to find her there. This time around, Jake and Katie’s romance won’t be simple. Falkner’s protagonists and secondary characters, such as Jake’s cantankerous but intuitive father (“He was never very nice, but he was interesting”), are fully realized, and their voices are natural and appealing. The struggle between Jake and Katie’s reignited affections and the echoes of their adult lives is beautifully conveyed through the narrative’s changing perspectives: Jake and Katie’s grown and younger selves take turns providing their unique views, developing the sweetness of young love and summertime joy and heightening the present-day tensions and conflicts that arise as Jake and Katie must confront their emotions and their pasts. Ripe with contemplations on the complexities of love and relationships, this is a tender story that tugs at the heartstrings in any season.
Marshall Thornton. CreateSpace, $10.99 trade paper (228p) ISBN 978-1-5349-0696-9
Thornton’s opposites-attract contemporary romp perfectly threads the needle, addressing internalized homophobia and the heartbreak of self-denial without ever falling into cliché or forgetting to be fun. Lionel is barely scraping by as a waiter at a gay bar in Long Beach, Calif. After he enjoys a one-night stand with Dog, a “straight-acting” athlete who’s a regular customer at the bar, both men are confused to realize their mutual attraction goes beyond lust, though neither is the other’s usual type. Dog is a closet case; Lionel’s never been able to hide or lie about himself in that way. As they face the social pressure of the gay scene, needing to stay employed, and forced honesty with family members, each must navigate his disrupted world and minimize harm to his loved ones. Thornton (the Boystown Mysteries series) confronts the contradictions of modern homosexuality, addressing the pressure to conform to mainstream culture rather than embracing the more flamboyant aspects of gay identity. The instructive nature of the narrative is obvious, but the delightful characters and their struggles are engaging and realistic. The conclusion is satisfying without dismissing the painful aspects of the romantic journey, a delicate balancing act well executed by a talented writer who remains in control of the playful chaos he has created.
Rose Lerner, Joanna Bourne, Jeannie Lin, Isabel Cooper, and Molly O’Keefe. Amazon Digital Services, $2.99 e-book (600p) sISBN 978-0-9937132-2-4
The five captivating historical romances in this anthology are thematically linked by the idea of social and personal justice, as well as the stated conceit of gambling. Lerner explores bisexuality and anti-Semitism in Regency England in “All or Nothing.” Bourne’s Spymaster series gets a prequel story, “Gideon and the Den of Thieves,” that explores the code of the London criminal underworld during the French Revolution. American history is well represented by Cooper’s “Raising the Stakes,” featuring a Dust Bowl con artist who aims to bring down a greedy preacher, and O’Keefe’s “Redeemed,” which uses drug addiction and the lingering tensions of the Civil War as background to the redemption of a Union doctor and a captive former spy in 1868 Denver. Finally, Lin continues her Lotus Palace series with the exceptional “The Liar’s Dice,” creating a fascinating mystery around murder and corruption in Tang Dynasty China’s civil service examinations. The tie-in works are very accessible for new readers and will leave them eager to hunt down the authors’ backlists. The complex characters, intricate relationships, and sparkling plots showcase each author’s strengths, making this collection a must-have for any historical romance fan.
L. Penelope. Heartspell, $14.95 trade paper (258p) ISBN 978-0-9909228-0-3
Penelope delivers an engrossing story with delightful characters in this fantastic opening to a promising series. Jasminda ul-Sarifor inherited many things from her father, including her magical powers as an Earthsinger and the features that mark her as a woman of Lagrimaran descent. Unfortunately, she lives in xenophobic Elsira. She’s reviled by her neighbors and has every reason to hate Jack, an Elsiran spy fleeing pursuit from vicious Lagrimaran soldiers; instead, she takes pity on him. He bears the news that the magical barrier that separates Elsira and Lagrimara is about to fail, and he must return to his superiors to warn of an impending war that could destroy Elsira and plunge the world into the despot control of the cruel True-Father. As Jasminda and Jack work together to protect their home, attraction turns their pragmatic alliance into a romantic union that won’t be denied, despite the obligations of Jack’s social and political position and the persistent prejudice against Jasminda’s mixed heritage. The tale is infused with optimism but never cloying, and it culminates in a well-earned and satisfying ending, leaving readers impatient for the next installment of the series.
Kealan Patrick Burke. Elderlemon, $2.99 e-book (66p) ASIN B017QCGW24
Horror author Burke (Kin) delivers an excellent terror-filled novella. Philip Pendleton is an unexceptional man, living a carefree life with his young son, Adam. No one who observes them has any idea that Philip has only known Adam for a short time, and this carefree life is really a living hell: after the two randomly meet at a store, Adam decides to make Philip his newest “parent,” using his terrible powers to completely rewrite Philip’s life so that everyone else thinks he’s always been there. Only Philip remembers the life he used to have, and those memories are no comfort as he becomes a prisoner in his own home, a slave to a demonic child. Bringing the evil-child trope to its devastating apex, Burke creates a horrific vision of what might happen if children utterly controlled their parents. Burke’s writing is visceral; Philip’s descent into madness is rendered in unnerving terms. Adding in a Lovecraftian pantheon of monsters, Burke creates a stomach-twisting ride through the depths of horror, breathing new life into an often-stagnant part of the genre.
Morgan Smith. Traveling Light, $3.99 e-book (279p) ISBN 978-1-5309-7995-0
This digital reissue of an excellent 1999 fantasy in Smith’s Averraine Cycle stars Keridwen of Orliegh, youngest child of a minor house in the kingdom of Keraine. While seeking her fortune, Keri enters into military service with Lord Uln, who then turns traitor to his prince, Tirais. After the rebellion’s defeat and Uln’s flight, Keri is spared and sent to Penvarron, a posting for the kingdom’s misfit soldiers, where she earns the respect of her comrades. Together with the rest of the garrison, she interrupts a ritual by evil Camrhyssi priests who have infiltrated Penvarron’s ancient tower, where mystical forces still linger. Keridwen then finds herself in the company of powerful figures, including the very prince who pardoned her, trying to discover where foul magic may strike next. Though the mythologies differ, this feels much like Lois Bujold’s novels set in the World of the Five Gods. Keridwen is a wonderful protagonist to follow: a skilled soldier with something of a stubborn streak and a keen eye but no great powers. Smith’s terrific storytelling and worldbuilding will thrill fantasy fans.
Daniel Younger. Mutant Panda, $13.99 trade paper (325p) ISBN 978-1-5334-8836-7
If Terry Pratchett had written a Vegas heist novel, it might have looked something like this impressive comic fantasy, which finds the pathos at the heart of humor. Packed with bizarre moments, deadpan reactions, and hilarious non sequiturs, the novel follows Josh Harlan and the band of thieves and cons he assembles as they attempt to rob the newest casino going up on the Strip. It’s impossible to plan for the interference of the imprisoned goddess who works for their mark, but the team comes together like a dysfunctional family to pull the job off, more or less. Younger (Zen and the Art of Cannibalism) is an experienced comedy writer who understands the art of the heist novel, providing just enough information to keep readers intrigued without giving the game away too early. The characters are entertaining with distinct voices, carrying a plot that, for all its lightheartedness, has a substantial amount of meat on the bone.
Simon Daryl Wood. Marywood, $19.95 trade paper (580p) ISBN 978-0692582-43-5
Wood’s thought-provoking reexamination of the prototypical unsolved murder mystery lives up to its billing as the Jack the Ripper Conference’s 2015 book of the year. With painstaking attention to detail and warranted skepticism toward previous accounts, Wood goes a long way toward debunking dozens of theories of the case and expands on the work of others who have questioned whether a single person was responsible for the 1888 murders. Wood plausibly casts doubt on even some of the most basic “facts,” asking, for example, whether the five women widely regarded as Jack’s victims were actually prostitutes. Unfortunately, he never provides conclusive proof of his provocative thesis “that, rather than a linear mystery, the Whitechapel murders were a series of discrete events, with a quasi-supernatural Jack the Ripper employed as an umbrella device to explain things away whilst whipping up a diversionary scare” as part of “a high-level cover-up.” Here, Wood offers intriguing speculation, rather than evidence—for example, he hints at a political agenda behind the Whitechapel murders, possibly connected with a judicial inquiry into criminal allegations by the Times against Charles Stewart Parnell and the Irish Home Rule Party. Serious students of the crimes can only hope that Wood further develops his own theories in a future volume.
Melinda Worth Popham. iUniverse, $29.95 (254p) ISBN 978-1-4917-7602-5
In this impeccably written memoir, Popham (Skywater) recounts a spiritual journey launched by the dissolution of her unhappy marriage and her teenage daughter’s descent into an intractable depression. Set in the late 1990s, the story moves from Los Angeles to Yale Divinity School and back again as the author allows herself a grace period in which to rebuild her sense of self, “after having my interior taken down to the bare studs by the events of the past five years.” She describes at a leisurely pace, with meticulous detail, what she learns from “mundane miracles and minor accidents, those spiritual fender benders that are collisions with grace itself.” The struggles of a turtle to get through a fence and cross the road serve as a metaphor for her own struggles to reach God. She is humble and honest about her shortcomings, as when she erupts with anger and foul language at unsuspecting passers-by when she and her dog get lost, and about achievements as well. When she concludes that her vocation is ordination to “my plain old ordinary sacred self,” she proves herself a highbrow, refined, spiritual sister to Anne Lamott.
Adam Mosley. What I Never Knew, $13.99 trade paper (216p) ISBN 978-0-69245-305-6
Mosley, pastor of an international church in Nakuru, Kenya, skillfully and compassionately debunks myths about the missionary life. Raised in a traditional Evangelical church in a rural American community, he remembers the first visiting missionary he met, a red-haired woman who told of remote jungle adventures. It was the start of his “crush” on missions, he says. Over the years, he came to learn that missionaries are not “super-saints” but just regular believers trying to live out their calling in spite of loneliness, culture shock, and frequent emotional crises. Presenting the work as a confession of sorts, Mosley creates a consciously Rumsfeldian setup, classifying his musings under three headings: what he thought he knew, what he knew he didn’t know, and what he didn’t know he didn’t know. Anecdotes from acquaintances as well as from his own experience enliven his carefully nuanced opinions. He laments that churches generally fail to offer missionaries adequate support, either financial or moral. By revealing the “life lived on the ground, among the people,” this concise, well-structured book encourages Christians to rethink stereotypes and develop true compassion for international missionaries.
Michael W. Harkins. Story and Pictures, $14 trade paper (348p) ISBN 978-0-9965672-0-6
Harkins crafts a taut legal drama reminiscent of Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action in this story of a heroic lawyer’s quest for justice for the victim of a defective firearm. Brandon Max was seven years old and living in Northern California with his mother and stepfather when in 1994 a bullet struck and paralyzed him. The firearm that caused the life-altering injury was a Bryco Model 38, which had a design defect: the safety needed to be disengaged before its chamber could be checked to see whether it contained any ammunition. Brandon’s parents’ initial attempt to sue the manufacturer went nowhere, but they get a second chance in 1999 when Brandon’s stepfather, Clint Stansberry, seeks out solo law practitioner Richard Ruggieri. After learning about the family tragedy, Ruggieri launches a seemingly quixotic lawsuit against the manufacturers of the weapon, an effort that lasts well over a decade and is complicated by the manufacturers’ efforts to evade responsibility by filing for bankruptcy. Harkins’s understated recounting makes a powerful argument that the government should have the authority to recall defective firearms.
Kirsten Milliken. Bookbaby, $5.99 trade paper (146p) ISBN 978-0-9970045-0-2
When psychologist Milliken realized that she had ADHD, she set out to improve her personal and professional life by observing how play affected her attention. She incorporated what she learned into her work with ADHD clients and now shares these discoveries in this entertaining guide. She examines studies that indicate symptoms of ADHD may result from low, premature, or inefficient dopamine transmission in the brain, resulting in lower engagement in unrewarding activities. While acknowledging that multiple approaches to alleviating ADHD’s symptoms exist, she favors increasing the space for play in one’s life, on the basis that it activates reward pathways in the brain, enabling people with ADHD to pay attention for longer periods of time. Milliken begins by comprehensively addressing what ADHD is, giving detailed explanations of its possible causes and known symptoms, before delving deep into the origins of play and why it is beneficial. She then breaks down the remaining chapters into stages of approaching play: cultivating a playful mindset, looking back at key “fun” memories from childhood and beyond, understanding what “play personality” type you are, and generating a prolific and sustainable “playlist” for all realms of life. This book is a must for those with ADHD and their loved ones.
Shannon Taylor Scarlett. CreateSpace, $21.49 (126p) ISBN 978-1-4841-5207-2
This thoughtful and thought-provoking little gem outlines 25 crucial design principles that the author believes have been jeopardized as domestic architecture has become dominated by developers. Scarlett, who runs an architecture firm in Wellesley, Mass., aims to “remind those in the building community that simple beauty and meaning... is still reproducible in new homes, and that many traditional building techniques are still applicable in today’s economy, and within current construction practices.” In this, she succeeds terrifically. Most of this attractively illustrated book consists of quotations taken from original sources published from the 16th to early 20th centuries. These sources are building manuals such as Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture (1570), which inspired many of America’s greatest public and private buildings, as well as lesser-known volumes such as T.F. Hamlin’s The Enjoyment of Architecture (1921). The rules are broken down by chapter and include “Genius of the Place,” ‘“Asymmetry,” and “Proportion.” Each includes quotations to explain the concept and several well-chosen illustrations to graphically demonstrate the idea. The annotated bibliography at the end is a bonus and provides direction for those who seek further elaboration. Anyone interested in architecture—professionals, students, home-improvers, renovators, home “flippers,” or anyone who regards suburbia with a critical eye—will enjoy this useful and well-written compilation. B&w illus.
Ashton Applewhite. Networked Books, $19.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-9969347-0-1
In this lively, entertaining book, Applewhite mixes her personal experiences and opinions about growing old with an exploration of society’s attitudes about age, debunking myths and exposing ageism. Author (Cutting Loose) and blogger (Yo, Is This Ageist?) Applewhite uses an enormous number of sources, including books, interviews with experts, and research studies, to examine aging in America. She uncovers quite a few problems—“I see ageism everywhere”—and tempers them with recommendations for changing the conversation and inciting social change, suggesting ways to “push back” against, for example, antiaging rhetoric. She covers topics of all kinds, such as isolation (a fertile environment for disease), sex and intimacy, and the role of work and how companies can better accommodate older workers. She works hard to discuss and correct common misperceptions about aging. Her humor, high-energy writing, and emphasis on positive ways to view and experience age contribute to making this a valuable resource, an agent for social change, and an enjoyable read.
Ben Batchelder. Earthdog, $15.99 trade paper (264p) ISBN 978-0-99133722-4
Batchelder (Borderlands USA), an American who lives for part of the year in Brazil, provides an insightful and poignant account of his “long, circuitous roadtrip” from his home in southern Brazil to Belem in the north, accompanied by his loyal Labrador retriever, Atlas. As the author notes, “travel is often an excuse to accomplish something else,” and his journey had multiple motives. In the wake of a failed marriage to a Brazilian native, “home continues to be the last place” where he feels welcome, and he is plagued by doubts as to whether he should continue to live in Brazil. Batchelder tells himself that such a journey, even on a route notorious for its dangers, could also provide him with a deeper understanding of the country’s paradoxes. As in the very best travelogues, the author seamlessly combines the personal, the political, and the cultural. He also adds the philosophical, via thought-provoking reflections on topics such as whether countries always get the governments they deserve, and the nature of his responsibility for the “haphazard” journey that is his own life.
Theresa Nicassio. D&D Publishing, $35 ISBN 978-0-9939156-0-4
Refreshingly free of politics and polemics, Nicassio’s book strictly focuses on the food, offering thoughtful and practical recipes such as her Best No Meat-Meat, a combination of mushrooms, walnuts, onions, and herbs used to create shepherd’s pie, as well as spaghetti and veggie meatballs. Kid- and family-friendly food dominates the book, with vegan versions of mac and cheese, tacos, vanilla ice cream, and chocolate chip cookies, as well as inventive riffs. She employs baked polenta as a substitute crust for pizza and collard greens as a stand-in for tortillas in wraps—all of which are simple and ingenious. A highlight are her chia chips, a crunchy snack full of healthy ingredients that work well with all manner of dips. Even carnivores will find dishes like Rho’s Giardiniera Pickled Vegetables and garlic-infused polenta hard to resist. Most recipes are as straightforward, though some, such as lemon cupcakes, call for a painfully specific ingredient (in this case, a quarter teaspoon of psyllium husk powder), which may be off-putting to initiates. That said, once readers have sorted out their preferences and tastes (particularly regarding which sugar substitute they’ll be using), they’re good to go.
Lawrence McWilliams and Anand Vedawala, illus. by McWilliams. 540 Collab, $14.99 ISBN 978-0-692-51743-7
Inspired by Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology, this illustrated collection of first-person epitaphs follows 40 members of a fictional African-American family from 1915 to 2015. The epitaphs provide brief but powerful glimpses into the family members’ lives and personalities, social changes, and a web of secrets and traumas. Opposite the first-person epitaphs, McWilliams’s expressive sepia portraits freeze glimmers of hope, pain, uncertainty, and weariness on each face. Throughout, McWilliams and Vedawala achieve a haunting beauty through the voices of the dead: within the first few pages, readers witness the deaths of Sarah Williams (1878–1915) and her newborn son in childbirth (his epitaph is left blank) and husband Elijah’s grief over those losses, as well as that of son Arthur after tipsily stumbling in front of a car. Albert Williams (1911–1931) was killed by the Klan at age 20 (“Take my advice, don’t ever go to Portland,” he laments), and Alice, who is trans, is killed at almost the same age in 2008. Alternately melancholy, raw, and hopeful, it’s a striking account of a family’s perseverance in the face of recurring injustices, violence, and tragedy. Ages 12–up.
D.E. Vollrath. Wicked Pig, $11.99 paper (280p) ISBN 978-0-692-44433-7
Evoking a sense of wonder and joy, Vollrath’s debut, set in the fictional port city of Flosston Moor, follows Eleanor Wigton as she starts her second year at the prestigious Penwick Academy. Magic is banished—supposedly dead—after a fire ripped through part of the city. Eleanor is a quiet, studious 12-year-old—in fact, she’s first in her class. Despite her youth, and perhaps because of her sterling reputation, she and five older students are chosen to work on a secret project, with the blessing of the headmistress. What follows is an adventure like no other, leading Eleanor and friends into a world of mysterious liquid books, Netherdoors, and dark Dwarven territories. Page-turning action entwines with familiar struggles, written in a way that calls to mind similar fantasy novels (students at Penwick must choose between houses/specializations such as Numerancy, Navigation, and Barristers). Yet Vollrath’s story stands firmly on its own merits as it explores Eleanor’s internal and external journeys, friendships, the other (dwarves, namely), and the good and bad decisions made by young and old alike. Ages 10–up.
Lucy Bellwood. Toonhound Studios, $19.99 paper (132p) ISBN 978-0-9882202-9-4
Bellwood’s stints as a deckhand on the Lady Washington, a modern-day replica of an 18th-century brig, inform this funny and enlightening comics collection, which is part memoir, part breezy overview of nautical history and lore. In six longer comics and several interludes, she discusses her own introduction to confusing nautical terminology (“So I’m guessing you could easily find me the for’topms’tays’lhalyrd,” jokes a crewmate), scurvy, the dubious history of plank walking, and a notable voyage of the original Lady Washington to Japan, more than 60 years before Commodore Perry showed up. Bellwood is a gifted raconteur, skillfully blending historical anecdotes with irreverent contemporary humor (“So we’re gonna need like... all of these,” two admirals tell a Sicilian lemon farmer, aiming to curb scurvy). Her artwork, meanwhile, is in line with of-the-moment creators such as Kate Beaton and Lucy Knisley, and her chunky line work also nods to woodcut prints and tattoos, the latter getting their own chapter, too. The only downside to this collection is its brevity—here’s hoping Bellwood has more stories on the way, nautical or otherwise. Ages 9–12.