Best-of-2021: 10 great small press books

A Twitter mutual suggested that someone should put together a year-end list of great books from independent, small and/or micro presses, and that strikes me as a great idea.

Sometimes it can feel like big bestsellers suck all the air out of the room, and while I understand that feeling, I maintain that it’s possible to be happy for other people’s success even while pursuing your own. Small presses naturally get less attention (and sales) than the big boys, but there are some great writers out there who are doing extraordinary work.

So without further ado, here’s the list, in no particular order:

  1. A Violent Gospel by Mark Westmoreland … Imagine the Dukes of Hazzard, but with a jagged edge that cuts unexpectedly. Mack and Marshall Dooley are a couple of good ol’ boys who have gotten themselves into a whole damn heap of trouble, and they may not get out of it alive. AVG is a novella published by Shotgun Honey, and it’s a propulsive, satisfying read that wears its influences right out there in front for everyone to see.
  2. Children of Chicago by Cyntha Pelayo … An absolute creeper of a novel that puts a very big-city twist on a Pied Piper tale. Published by Polis, the biggest and baddest of the indies, the book follows Lauren Medina, a Chicago cop with a dark past who’s investigating the murders of students in the Chicago area that have startling similarities to the murder of her own younger sister two decades prior.
  3. Burying the Newspaper Man by Curtis Ippolito … The story of a San Diego cop, Marcus Kemp, who discovers that the man who molested him years prior has now been murdered. Kemp searches to find the killer — not to bring him to justice but instead to protect him, because the killer accomplished what Kemp always wanted to do. Published by Red Dog Press.
  4. Undone Valley by William Soldan … Look, I’m not even going to give you a taste of the synopsis on this one. Just trust me when I tell you that Bill Soldan is the absolute best line-for-line writer working on the indies right now, and you should read anything and everything he writes. In this novel, the pacing can be a little slow in places, but once you settle in and realize what Soldan is doing, it is phenomenal. Published by Cowboy Jamboree.
  5. Under the Thumb, edited by S.A. Cosby … Am I pimping an anthology that I’m featured in? Yes I am. Here’s the thing: Under the Thumb collects some great stories about police oppression. In the light of current events in the United States, this is an incredibly important volume to remind people that cops aren’t always the good guys that people think they are. The fact that there ARE bad cops out there, and that they get second, third, and even more chances to act out, needs to be a bigger part of our national conversation. Every story in this anthology is no less than great. Published by Rock & a Hard Place Press.
  6. Prodigal by Blake Johnson … A bleak look into the soul of a man who longs for redemption, and what he’ll do (or won’t do) in order to get it. The novella is billed as ‘An American Parable’ but I think that the most interesting thing about this book is that it’s truly independent. The publisher, Trouble Department, doesn’t use Amazon. You’ll have to order directly from them. And trust me, it’s worth it. (Also, I want to address the similarities in Blake’s book and my own similarly-named book from 2011: Other than the name, there are none. Get them both and compare!)
  7. Brand New Dark by Beau Johnson (no relation to Blake Johnson) … If you’re a fan of what Beau refers to as “the dark stuff,” you’re going to want to catch up on this latest installment that follows Johnson’s protagonist Bishop Rider, who is a VERY bad man. The thing that makes Rider compelling is that the violence and retribution he dishes out is served to people who are even worse.
  8. Be Guid Tae Yer Mammy by Emma Grae … published by Unbound Digital. A family saga told entirely in Scots dialect, this one takes some effort to get into because of the perceived difficulty of the Scots language. But lately there has been a move toward badly done and inauthentic dialect from some indie presses or self-pubbed writers that it’s probably a good idea to point out a book where the author gets it right.
  9. Love & Bullets Megabomb Edition by Nick Kowalski … If you’re already familiar with Nick’s work, this is a tremendous continuation that encompasses previous releases as well as brand-new work. From the publisher: “Love & Bullets” is the story of a 21st century Bonnie & Clyde, a wisecracking duo who’ll blast their way from Brooklyn to Cuba and back in order to stay alive. It’s a wild ride.” From Nick, I’d expect nothing less.
  10. Neighborhood of Dead Ends by Stanton McCaffrey … An absolutely gut-wrenching noir novel that will pull at your heart before ripping it from your chest. McCaffrey’s novel is the first from Rock & A Hard Place Press, and it signals big things. If noir is a genre that is about the choices we make and then dealing with the consequences of those choices no matter what they are, this book is a success on all fronts.

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