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A Balm in Gilead

Marie Green McKeon. White Bird, $4.95 e-book (254p) ISBN 978-0-9904338-1-1

Vulnerability of heart, mind, and flesh resonates throughout this scathing, affecting thriller about a rape victim's struggle to salvage her identity as she endures social persecution and works to heal the emotional and physical scars of violation. McKeon doesn't blink at queasy themes of sexual victimization, degradation, and political corruption. After Quin Carlisle is raped on a Pennsylvania college campus by student Dennis Price, she faces unsympathetic police and college officials, a smothering family, and dangerously mounting self-disgust. Ten years later, Quin's hope for normalcy after meeting gentle Joe Armstrong in Chestertown, Md., is shattered by a murder reminiscent of her own attack. Local police ignore Quin's attempts to help, and, in her struggle, she crosses paths with Billy O'Brien, a man seeking justice for his murdered brother. Infusing outrage with sensitivity, McKeon injects moral ambiguity into a heartfelt (if structurally convoluted) plot, whose erratic interweaving of past and present occasionally dilutes suspense. Frailties of both victims and human monsters are laid bare, inviting immediate gut reactions ranging from sympathy to disgust. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Psyche Moon

Chrissie Buhr. Amazon, $0.99 e-book (175p) ISBN 978-1-311-23251-9

The sex is hot but the plot is thin in this erotic lesbian romance. Sadie and Billie meet in a Boise gay club and are instantly attracted. They quickly give in to an all-consuming passion that evolves into a strong relationship. Their newfound connection is tested when trouble strikes, revealing Billie’s werewolf nature and unleashing a long-dormant aspect of Sadie’s psychic powers. Now they may be separated by Billie’s pack, for Wolves don’t approve of people like Sadie, who tend to be bad news for them. Buhr’s debut focuses more on character interaction, romantic development, and sensual encounters than on plot or significant worldbuilding. While the leads have real chemistry together, whether they’re confronting homophobic restaurateurs or finding new ways to experience carnal delights, it doesn’t make up for the thin story line or sudden ending. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Encore

Julia Butler. Creative Vision, $15.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-0-9911509-0-8

With a 19th-century literary aesthetic that belies the nominally modern setting, Butler evokes a sweeping sense of souls entwined by fate. Red-haired Russian piano virtuoso Katherine Konova and stifled German writer Daniel Adler emerge from unsatisfying marriages and embark on a passionate connection after they meet at a California artists’ salon. The transformative power of music is a strong theme, and each chapter is named for a musical term. Though the foreshadowing is often clumsy, the feeling of inevitability is enhanced by histories of the lovers’ families, leading the reader to see Katherine and Daniel drawing together even before the complex family connections become clear. Minor characters are over-stylized in service to the plot’s complexity and drama, and sex scenes get caught awkwardly between a lyrical vagueness and the modern desire for erotic detail. Butler shows the potential to shake off her heavy-handedness and develop into an evocative storyteller. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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What Hides in the Darkness

K.L. Cottrell. Adagio, $16.99 trade paper (402p) ISBN 978-0-9960066-0-6

With a twist on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cottrell’s debut introduces readers to members of the Light, a group of humans who fight monsters. Marienne was traumatized by the car accident that claimed the lives of her parents. Since her near-death experience, she has been able to see that some people are actually evil creatures in disguise. When Mari sees warrior Gabe battling monsters, she steps in to help him. Gabe takes Mari under his wing, and with his associates, Beatrix and Wes, they begin training Mari to learn the survival skills necessary for Light members to combat the creatures they call Hellions. The romance between Mari and Gabe is subtle and often thwarted by the unwanted presence of Rafe, Mari’s cheating ex-boyfriend. The hint of romance is overshadowed by the focus on hunting and killing Hellions, which may hold greater appeal for fantasy fans than romance lovers, but Gabe and Mari’s efforts to keep the world safe propel the novel forward to the cliffhanger ending that sets up the rest of the trilogy. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Travelers

Keith Wayne McCoy. Champagne/Burst, $2.99 e-book (142p) ISBN 978-1-77155-061-1

Tragedy wrestles hope in this philosophically rich hybrid of genres. Time travel and alien visitation tropes are refreshed by empathetic characters fighting internal ghosts as well as confronting otherworldly visitors. Severely depressed filmmaker Guy encounters echoes of the mystical as he talks with recently separated spouses Jim and Jessica Bennett aboard the retired ship Queen Mary. Morse code sent from WWII—and a naked alien’s plea—sends Guy on an epic journey of grief, as Jessica and Jim confess to raising two extraterrestrial children whose deaths destroyed their marriage. Who will deliver the news to their other-dimensional mother? Love, both strong and faltering, resonates through this complex speculative tragedy of loss and redemption, which is strengthened by complex plotting and rich dialogue, though the rushed conclusion dilutes the emotional payoff. This mystical paean to parental love is sure to appeal to fans of both romance and science fiction. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Nobody’s Child

Libby Fischer Hellmann. Red Herrings (www.libbyhellmann.com), $16.99 trade paper (362p) ISBN 978-1-938733-46-8

Former cop–turned-PI Georgia Davis takes on what could be her most personal case yet in Hellmann’s thrilling fourth installment in her Chicago-based series (after 2011’s Toxicity). Georgia always thought she was an only child, until she receives a bloodstained note revealing that she has a half-sister, Savannah, who’s not only in trouble but is pregnant. With little to go on, Georgia soon discovers that Savannah, who’s almost 16 and goes by the name Vanna, is caught up in Chicago’s underground human trafficking ring, which provides whoever’s willing to pay with everything from organs to babies, not to mention girls for sex. Few people are willing to talk to Georgia about the details of the operation, but the wily PI soon learns that a former foe could be an asset in bringing her sister home safely. Hellmann ratchets up the tension with each chapter, and the reader is constantly kept wondering about the fate of both sisters. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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A Little Wicked

Janet R. Macreery. Outskirts (www.outskirtspress.com), $9.95 paper (188p) ISBN 978-1-4787-3346-1

“If my heart had not already been broken and scattered in the wind, I would have bawled like a newborn,” laments 12-year-old Dory MacDonald, whose Scottish clan is chased out of their peaceful glen by Redcoats, under orders from the King of England to kill the Highlanders. After Dory’s best friend and his family are murdered, her mother dies, and her father heads north, she is directed by the clan leader to travel to the New World to live with her aunt and uncle. Set in 1692, Macreery’s debut is roughly divided into three parts: Dory’s treacherous journey through Scotland to the ship, her rough ocean voyage to Massachusetts as a member of the ship’s crew (disguised as a boy), and her troubled new life in Salem during the witch trials. Dory’s mother’s cairngorm necklace and a faithful buzzard named Merlin are her only protectors. Macreery details Dory’s daily chores and abuse by many enemies, making for a grim account of historical hardships, but readers will learn a lot about resilience and Scottish identity. Ages 8–12. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Star Sisters and the Royal Wedding

Jennifer Blecher, illus. by Anne Zimanski. Westgate Publishing (www.star-sisters.com), $7.99 paper (112p) ISBN 978-0-615-99966-1

Introducing two girls who are whisked off to London to serve as flower girls at the “wedding of the century,” this first title in a chapter-book series has ready-made appeal to kids who like their fiction frilly. Blecher’s contrived references (the girls land at Luckingham Palace, the wedding is at Eastminster Abbey, and the engaged are Prince Wells and his commoner bride, Caroline) will either prompt eye rolls or giggles, depending on readers’ temperaments. It all begins when Coco and Lucy, both new to town and friendless, wander into a forest. There a tiny woman who has been trapped in a tree trunk identifies their identical star-shaped necklaces as ones that once transported long-ago sister princesses to mysterious locales to fulfill a mission of “spreading kindness.” Coco and Lucy now have inherited that responsibility, and they set out to mend the rift between Caroline and her maid-of-honor sister, Poppy. Zimanski’s sweet-natured half-tone illustrations help bolster the earnest goodwill of the protagonists. Two subsequent titles, Star Sisters and the Big Show and Star Sisters and the Great Skate, are also available. Ages 5–8. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Eight Candles and a Tree

Simone Bloom Nathan, illus. by Brian Barber. Beaver’s Pond (www.beaverspondpress.com), $19.95 (28p) ISBN 978-1-59298-935-5

Tommy friend and neighbor Sophie has a Jewish mother and Christian father, so they celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas: there are holiday lights on Sophie’s house and a Christmas tree in her living room, but there’s also Grandma’s latkes frying in the kitchen, blessings over the menorah, and dreidel spinning. Tommy declares Sophie “lucky” to get two holidays—his family’s Christmas celebration is “great, but it’s not eight days long.” The December dilemma is very real for many families, but Barber’s innocuous marker-style drawings and Nathan’s relentlessly cheery storytelling probably won’t make anyone feel any closer to interfaith rapprochement. The treatment of Christmas strikes a particularly sour note—it’s either not enough on its own or simply an exercise in nostalgia. Interfaith families seeking more equitable treatment of the two holidays will want to look elsewhere. Ages 4–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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