Best Books of 2023: the TFF To-Read Guide kicks off an inaugural tradition of Winter Solstice book review wonderment and reading highlights to recap some of the incredibly fun works of fiction we have reviewed this year, and also to mention many bright authors we found this year, in 2023, whose light has further emblazoned fiction, even if we have not yet written a review of their books.
Who does not love a ‘Best Of’ list, especially for books?
TFF To-Read Guide Winter Solstice 2023! All Hail the Holly King!
The following will lean on The Forgotten Fiction’s many deserved book reviews from the past year, and are entirely subjective, being put forward by TFF’s managing editor, namely me.
This will be as unconventional and engaging a series of lists as can be arranged.
At TFF we review newly released books and also books that have been released in years prior to 2023, so our ‘best of list’ contains what we found and loved this year, not necessarily what was published this year.
To be honored by the fiction gods in any year is a reason to rejoice!
So place your heads on the Green Knight’s proverbial chopping block, if you will, and prepare to sacrifice a drop of blood – Ow* that hurt! – to his neck-nicking axe in celebration of fictitious truth, as Sir Gaiwan did.
First, I want no feelings hurt if your books do not make a list here: if you write or read fiction, you are awesome and are to be commended, thank you, beautiful people, because your promotion of the art helps makes the world a bit brighter.
Without further ado, here are the year’s best-of lists from TFF:
Author Ray Bradbury and his wife Maggie at their home in Cheviot Hills, Los Angeles
The Ray Bradbury Award Winner For Best Speculative Fiction Likely To Blow The Doors Off Your Mind Palace goes to…Alix E. Harrow for the novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January.
This book is extraordinary in every sense of the word.
The prose is vivid, the story poignant and oh so moving, and the characters invoke tears of joy and loss that leaves you reeling.
Coincidentally, The Ten Thousand Doors of January also wins the 1984: You Made Me Cry…Twice Award, and that does not often happen to me (Orwell always gets me though, which is why I do not reread 1984 every year).
The Red Death Award For A Work Most Likely To Keep You Too Terrified To Sleep Award goes to…Philip Fracassi for his novel Boys In The Valley.
The blast of the winter storm in this book will chill your bones!
But do not fret, because the amount of blood spilled in the turn-of-the-century Catholic orphanage is more than enough to warm your hands.
The writing is top-notch, the story is one for the ages, and the events that unfold within the tale bring up just enough flashbacks to The Exorcist that you will hide under your covers shaking.
The Michael Crichton You Better Check Your Technology At The Door Sci-fi Award goes to…Blake Crouch for Upgrade.
This is phenomenal science fiction, and the evolution of DNA manipulation and self-imposed bio-hacking makes for new frontiers in this one.
The pace is furiously fast, thrilling, and thrash-metal-like in its loud challenges to many aspects of society and civilization in a fun new way that builds on Huxley’s Brave New World.
The Da Vinci Ornithopter Award For Best Small Press Publication goes to…Earthling Publications for their incredible signed limited edition of INSPECTION by Josh Malerman.
This is a book that is so awe-inspiring you fear to open it, because it may melt off your face a la the Ark of the Covenant.
There is no title on the cover, no author name, no letters of any kind.
The sleek, stark red leather sets a mood and the eye is drawn in to where a line of children stand, black silhouettes stamped into the cover, awaiting their inspections.
This coming-of-age genre bender from Malerman is a powerful and moving work that examines humanity at its core.
And as Inspection is a work of art, so too is this jaw-dropping edition from Paul Miller of Earthling, and I am deeply grateful to have gotten my dragon-hoarding claws on one.
The Kurt Vonnegut Satiric Stylin’ Society Needs Kilgore Trout To Give It An Enema Award goes to…Chuck Palahniuk for his novel Not Forever, But For Now.
The joeys that survive this tale will not ever want to come out of their kangaroo mums’ pouches again.
This brilliant work of fiction pushes boundaries well beyond their breaking points.
The ability to make readers despise a main character, abhor them, and then become not only invested, but rooting for that protagonist-antagonist (who the hell knows which it is), despite the epic fallout they may bring about is truly remarkable.
This also takes home the Award For Best Use Of A Hearing Aid In A Work Invoking An Outstanding British Dialect and the Harpo Marx Laugh Until You Snot Comedy In Prose Award.
Last, but not least is the Inklings Award For Best Fantasy In Fiction …goes to Kat Howard for the novel A Sleight Of Shadows.
Kat Howard’s writing is pure magic.
A Sleight Of Shadows is the second book in Kat Howard’s The Unseen World duology, following up the Edgar-award winning An Unkindness of Magicians.
Rarely do so many characters come off the pages with such a presence.
The world is very much rooted in our own, but the magic of these magicians and the immersive imagining of New York City in the Unseen World they inhabit is so alive, so unexpected, and so much more then it lets on.
When the bone trees sprout up near Central Park’s solitary island moaning with the voices of dead magicians long gone, readers are brought over the threshold into something new and wonderful.
Here dear readers is the list of TFF Best Books of 2023:
The Ray Bradbury Award Winner For Best Speculative Fiction Likely To Blow The Doors Off Your Mind Palace
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch forges great sci-fi, as a 21st century high point of transformative art continues the tradition of science miracles having a very good and very bad fallout.
Dark Matter provides a visceral thrill ride empowered by science the way Michael Crichton’s work has for decades.
I do not throw around the name of Crichton often, because no one is quite like the late author, the scientist-teacher-turned novelist.
But Crouch in his own brilliant way reminds me of him.
The Following Book Review of Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is Spoiler-Free.
“Are you happy with your life?”
Those are the last words Jason hears before the masked abductor knocks him unconscious, and he wakes in another world, another reality, exactly like his own except for where he made a fundamentally different life choice that drastically altered his life and those of his loved ones.
Would the science he had given up come to change the course of time?
These are not spoilers.
This is just how you get thrown into a story that is every bit as much an intimate lovers’ voyage, as it is a spine-rattling suspense thriller.
Genres are, like rules, made to be smashed, chopped up and baked into a wholesome and delicious culinary innovation.
And so too does the vision of Crouch cook up the best parts of sci-fi, thriller, fantasy, a sprinkling of horror, and a love story into a unique and infamous warning of what tampering with alternate timelines might be like for those equipped with dark matter in the near (or far) future.
I love this book.
It evokes many of the best traits from what I consider to be the pinnacle of time travel fiction, Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity.
Most if not all of the time travel medium, in films, video games, comic books, and novels lift ideas and tropes from Asimov, but Dark Matter takes it all a lot further and also gets very specific with the fringe science theories and experiments with time and matter.
At the heart is a man who loves his wife, Daniela, has his reality and their life together taken from him, and must work with a future science he never invented to try and right the wrongs.
“Last night, I set out to answer a simple question: Where is Daniela . . . This is not my world. Even as those five words cross my mind, I’m not exactly certain what they mean, or how to begin to consider their full weight.” [DARK MATTER, pg. 118, B. Crouch]
Dark Matter continues to blow my mind after each read.
To give this extraordinary book the treatment it deserves, Suntup Editions strove to encompass this classic with a gorgeous signed-numbered limited edition.
The spine is goatskin and feels so soft and smooth.
And since the story deals with alternate realities, what better way to show that than to have three different bradel-bound numbered versions, purple, green, and blue, and then randomly send them to the 350 owners upon release.
They are all great to hold, with a brilliant sheen to the thick cloth covers and the minimalism evokes less is more.
I wanted and was thrilled to get the purple cover.
Unique to the edition is an introduction by another favorite author and one of the most innovative voices of 21st century sci-fi Andy Weir, and he, crouch, and artist Clarcq each signed the book.
All of these Suntup editions are so well made and fit Dark Matter’s story so well!
Suntup made a limited artist edition and a lettered edition as well, and the art that Hilary Clarcq brought makes this tale come alive in an exciting way.
INSPECTION by Josh Malerman is an unremitting classic, as is the signed limited edition of the novel by Earthling Publications.
The thing about INSPECTION that is so unnerving is that it is entirely plausible.
The main character J is one of twenty-six twenty-four Alphabet Boys growing up in a school where their adopted father, D.A.D., and his Inspectors and staff have withheld the very existence of the female gender from the boys their entire lives so that they are “undistracted” in pursuit of academic and artistic greatness.
This book is a new favorite of mine! INSPECTION is visceral, poignant, moving, and frightening, and, man oh man, that ending packs a wallop!
The world-building, the characters, the prose could not be woven together better, like a song, or be more impactful.
“Oh, J knew the inspections were for his own good.” [INSPECTION, Josh Malerman, p.86]
That very line sends a shiver up my spine.
If a boy fails a daily inspection to the point where they are dubbed “rotten”, then they will be sent to The Corner, an infamous, hidden place from which two of their brothers have gone but never returned.
That threat is nearly as ingrained as some of the specifics it is wrapped in by D.A.D. – the diseases that disobeying can bring – and therein, the need for Inspections, for every day of their twelve-year-old lives.
The boys are even fed books crafted to them to teach specific lessons and to be devoid of any female terminology.
In a world where so many struggle and generations of youth have to learn history in schools where books are banned and/or censored into incoherence, the brilliant and twisted premise of Malerman’s INSPECTION borders on prescience.
And you will not be able to put this book down.
Earthling Publications’ signed limited edition of INSPECTION by Josh Malerman is an innovative marvel that captures the soul of the book, art reflecting art.
I imagine Josh Malerman must have felt a thrill jolt through him as he first held the Earthling S/L in his hands.
There is no dust jacket. No word on the book’s cover. And it is all the more stunning because of that.
The Earthling INSPECTION has every minute facet of the tale highlighted perfectly.
The cover is a “D.A.D. red leather jacket” Skyvertex covering, and there from front to spine to back are the black silhouettes of the Alphabet Boys waiting in line for their inspection.
It such a dramatic display.
The endpapers are the actual notebook pages that Warren Bratt printed with his hand-written story where “the woman” enters.
I mean, wow!
This is powerful, as are the brilliant illustrations of Patrick Arrasmith, the fantastic foreword by Jonathan Maberry, and both of them sign alongside Josh Malerman in this numbered edition of 235 (there was a lettered edition of 15).
The paper is bright, smells delicious, and boldly displays the text on 80# Finch interior papers that are held in a Smyth sewn binding.
Earthling is top-notch, even raising the bar they have set for themselves with INSPECTION.
Gothic by Philip Fracassi – beware of the madness within these pages, because it may unravel your soul.
There are few books that come along – and I usually read many books at once – that demand all of my attention, and I cannot put them down, and Gothic by Philip Fracassi was one of these.
The thrilling tale of Gothic’s Tyson Parks and his world, packs a hell of a bite.
The characters are so real you can hear their voices and recall their mannerisms. The writing is fantastically tight and visual, the impacts of violent scenes visceral.
For fans of horror and thrillers that hold back no punches, Gothic is a rare treat.
Spoiler Alert for Gothic by Philip Fracassi.
The world-building is extremely well done, as Fracassi paints the posh and the dimmer corners of New York City alongside a publishing world that is genuine, down to the minute details, like the contractual obligation to deliver on a novel’s pitch.
And this is entirely necessary to go along with what is almost certainly a haunted desk that hints at being so much more.
Fracassi presents Gothic in such a way that I might have walked past the same swanky antique store on my way home and seen the corner of a mammoth antique desk there and felt its allure before a chill went down my spine and sent me on my way.
The best-selling author, Tyson Parks, who is out of money and time and inspiration is gifted an antique black oak desk, like no other, that immediately becomes a miraculous muse.
As the tragedy of Tyson, who begins to write rampantly and display violent behavior wholly unlike himself, progresses, with more success meeting more hints at madness, Gothic‘s story unfolds bloodily and brilliantly.
There is a steady build-up that grows faster and faster, until the plot’s rollercoaster car flies down from the track’s summit at blistering speed with many exhilarating and scary twists and turns that form an epic conclusion.
The desk is hungry!
The very first writing marathon that Tyson takes at his new desk causes cracks in his fingertips that bleed. And whenever blood touches the desk and its centerpiece, a massive stone surface, it is absorbed and a sacrificial contract of sorts gets underway.
As the time goes on, more and more blood is fed to the desk, and the carved ivy branches lift from the desk’s surface and slip into the author’s veins.
Though Tyson does not remember what he wrote, exactly, his next book becomes a bigger best-seller than he has ever had.
Despite that, his agency begs him to dial down the rampant violence in his next project, The Horror, and to take out the unsavory elements that fly in the face of many 21st century readers’ morals.
Tyson, enthralled by the desk, and incessantly listening to the old blind wizard that speaks to him from it, goes off on his agency and threatens to walk if his written word is ever questioned again.
He is a multimillionaire and god-like among his world.
But as he discovers at the book launch party for his newest book, the text has inspired madness, suicides, violence, and cult-like reverence that he never intended. He does not even remember the parts of the book that are referenced as causing harm.
Even after losing his family to the desk’s murderous influence, losing his own mind, life, and seemingly his own soul, he – or the spirit of the desk, maybe – writes one final manuscript.
Because he is completely in the hold of the desk, and he cannot stop himself from going to it.
That final work of Tyson’s arrives completed at his agent, Harry’s, office, and Harry who has already succumb to alcoholism and drug addiction as a means to cope with Tyson’s work, starts to read the book, titled Gothic; will it fully unravel his mind?
Not since Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness does a character, like Gothic’s Tyson Parks, tragically reach such megalomaniacal heights that the overthrown mind crumbles and the realization of their lost humanity comes only at the moment of their bitter demise.
As Conrad’s Kurtz sees the darkness about him and within him, he can only mutter, The horror. The horror, as he dies. For Fracassi’s Tyson, the irreparable inward degradation is only made fully apparent to him as the literal cause of his fate in the ancient relic – now a desk – kills him, and at that moment a door opens in it to an alternate plane of existence where a leviathan’s jaws emerge to utterly consume his soul.
Want to question your own grip on sanity? On reality? There is a book for you called Gothic by Philip Fracassi.
For those looking to keep themselves up at night, afraid that some artifact in their home, a desk, a table, maybe, might be haunted and hungry and so much worse, Gothic will oblige.
On Gothic’s Limited Edition
In 2022, Earthling Publications released the first printing of Gothic by Philip Fracassi in a gorgeous signed limited edition.
Earthling has long held some of the best small press releases in the industry, and this is no exception.
With the art, from the gorgeous desk on the cover, by Glenn Chadbourne, to the interior layouts and the lavender textured endpapers, to the quality paper and Smyth-sewn binding, this is a work of art encasing a work of art.
In 2023, Gothic – with another badass cover – was released en masse and is available by Cemetery Dance for purchase now. Philip Fracassi’s next major release Boys in the Valley will hit shelves in Summer 2023!
The Case of Death and Honey by Neil Gaiman A+ Areté Editions deliver the seminal follow-up to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s last Sherlock Holmes tale, “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” and both the Neil Gaiman novella and the letterpress treatment of the stories by Areté are pure gold!
The Case of Death and Honey: The Numbered Edition by Areté may be the finest, most awe-inspiring book I own.
As a huge fan of Gaiman and a Sherlock Holmes fanatic, I sensed the special editions of both the story that Doyle wrote to inspire Death and Honey, as well as the The Case of Death and Honey book itself would be truly special.
The tale woven by Neil Gaiman is one of emotion and legend, and it is written in the Victorian Holmes period and then the early 20th century, and though his style is his own, it greatly emulates the feeling that Doyle wrote this himself.
And having the world’s premier bookbinder Rich Tong, of Ludlow, the true pioneer and great artist in the field, produce the white goatskin binding full of gold to adorn the gilding bands and the intricate artwork of bees and magnifying glass and golden honey, of course, made this such an incredible, stand-out production.
But it is what is within the book that matters (more on the fine press treatment later), and The Case of Death and Honey is a mysterious treasure of Sherlock Holmes stories.
The following book review of The Case of Death and Honey will have mild Spoilers* starting now:
In a tragic, yet predictable – and realistic – future for Mycroft Holmes, the famous detective’s brother, who was essentially the backbone of the British government, calls Sherlock to him as the morbidly obese Mycroft lies on his deathbed in his early middle years.
He speaks to life, living it, and charges Sherlock with a final problem to outshine all the rest in his career: find the fabled and oft searched means to ward off death with not a metaphorical fountain of youth, but a real solution to the problem.
The very foundation of this comes from Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” that Gaiman takes us to with a direct letter to Watson instructing his friend to change his account to make the creeping man who had been onto some form of youth concoction able to literally scale walls as though he had taken on a monkey-like form.
By making the original story more far-fetched it would dissuade others from keying in on the aspect of eternal youth.
Sherlock Holmes endeavors to beekeeping for years and then searches until as an old man he finds a rare bee and an extraordinary beekeeper.
End of Spoiler* Warning.
The characters in the story are mainly Holmes and Old Gao and his angry bees of the misty hills.
They are all extraordinary in their own ways.
The writing of Sherlockian prose could not be better suited for this tale of intrigue.
Gaiman’s The Case of Death and Honey could be the best farewell the detective for hire will ever receive in fiction.
And so onto a review of both the Numbered Edition and the Fine Edition of The Case of Death and Honey crafted by Areté Editions.
First the more affordable fine editions, signed by the artist only, are a soft red cloth and adorned with gold on the cover in a great frontispiece of art by the illustrator of the books, Gary Gianni.
Gianni crafted more than 40 pieces of art for the book and they are done in the traditional black and white style, like Sidney Paget that Holmes’ tales were originally published with in The Strand, and these were made into plates to stamp the pages with the images. They look so so good!
The paper is thick and two-color letterpress – red and black – is used throughout (by Hand & Eye Editions).
And bees and leaves adorn the pages as letterpress accents randomly throughout the text making for one heck of a premier printing production.
The silky cloth helps make this book of the finest quality and it matches an edition of “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” that was made to accompany the story it inspired, and it is also beautifully illustrated.
For the Numbered books, the pages have gold on top of the page block, and gilded edges on the sides and the entire production just floors me.
In an oversized volume with a faux-wooden slipcase that has leather and a skeleton with dripping honey on the front, the raised bands on the spine, many of them, are all surrounded by real gold.
The leather goatskin binding is truly the nicest I have ever handled.
There is a tipped-in colored piece of art of Holmes and Mycroft discussing life by Gary Gianni that is remarkable and poignant and reading the story in such a manner is one of the most pleasurable experiences one can have.
They also produced an Artist Edition that I was not able to review but it looks awesome and included embedded original art in each cover.
WOW and A+ are too weak to describe the magnitude of the grandiose fine press treatment for this project.
Gwendy’s Final Task Soars! A Spoiler Free Book Review examines the latest in the Gwendy trilogy, Gwendy’s Final Task, coauthored by bestselling authors Stephen King and Richard Chizmar.
Spectacular and moving … there’s just no one like Gwendy.
This is a SPOILER-FREE** Preview Book Review of Gwendy’s Final Task by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar. We may re-examine this book at TFF in more detail, with SPOILERS, in a couple months’ time – it is that good of a read! But you may want to read the first two books in the Gwendy Series before tackling this book.
There are three major players in this book: Gwendy, those forces opposed to her, and the button box itself.
The button box is a keystone for power: good and evil can be performed by it, in large doses or small.
Gwendy is a good person, at heart, and so she understands this and has been one of its better caretakers, it seems, but that does not make the choice of using or not using the button box any easier.
Still the gravity of this escapes her, because the thought that extremely powerful entities will stop at nothing to claim the button box does not cross her mind until that is told to her flat out.
For fans of previous works of Stephen King and his many worlds, and also previous works of Richard Chizmar, Gwendy’s Final Task is a rare animal-shaped chocolate treat that you cannot resist.
The story passes through Castle Rock and another infamous town – and still horrifying – from Stephen King’s works, on and up to the space station.
When we last saw Gwendy, in Gwendy’s Magic Feather, she was 37, a Congresswoman, and had been sent the button box for the second time, as crises developed all around her.
She was only supposed to have the button box one time, at least that is what Farris said in Gwendy’s Button Box.
Now Senator Gwendy Peterson is older again and her third time with the button box will take her from Castle Rock and planet earth up into to outer space.
This is both remarkable in the achieving and very necessary for the plot.
The world building by King and Chizmar is paramount to this modern fairy tale enveloping the reader.
The very experience of anticipating the takeoff and having the tablets and instructions needed to manage one’s own controls from their seat draws the reader in.
The responses of the crew (and its computer), the dialogue and banter, from serious-to-jovial, and the setting all pave the way to a ratcheting thriller taking place in the near future and, at times, in zero gravity.
Gwendy is one of the “celebrity” guests on the way to the space station.
And as the story goes back and forth from Gwendy’s brilliant but troubled mind out in space to her memories and the happenings on earth, you cannot help but feel the anxiety that Gwendy feels, again and again.
She has a mission. And it only gets more difficult by the day, the hour, the minute.
The circumstances are dire, and Gwendy’s grip leaves dents in your heart.
The Richard Farris we have all come to know, he is on the cover, and I will confirm he is back, and I will say he has a significant part to play, as he did in the first two books in the Gwendy Series.
We learn a great deal more of Farris and of Gwendy too, and of what the button box can do. These three entities have all been revealed more and more throughout the trilogy when things are at their worst.
So the suspense meter is high, the horrors of earth and space run rampant, and the ending to Gwendy’s Final Task will leave you floored.
This ending moves the reader in a truly profound way.
The Dark Tower Ties To Gwendy’s Final Task
The Dark Tower Series – Stephen King’s magnum opus that begins with The Gunslinger – looms largely on all of the covers of every edition of Gwendy’s Final Task, so you assumed right: there is a connection.
And it is definitively one of the more closely tied books to the Dark Tower amongst the bevy of Stephen King’s works.
I will just say this to the authors: thank you.
A last word on Gwendy and collaborative character building:
I can think of only two characters, each born of two authors pairing up to create a character’s brains, courage, and soul that makes for some of the strongest and compelling people in the world of fiction.
Peter Straub and Stephen King’s Jack Sawyer is one of these, and Richard Chizmar and Stephen King’s creation of Gwendy Peterson is the other.