One of my goals this year was to read more indie/self-published novels. Part of my motivation was to study them to help me learn how to better write a book. My own novel is progressing, and I do read about the craft and some classic works of fiction. But sometimes it is good to look at the not so good to better understand what does and does not work. So far I’ve read seven novels and novellas. That is not a huge sample size, but it is big enough that I wanted to provide some summary thoughts. And these books are not randomly selected from Amazon. Let me explain….
The books I picked were already in a narrowly defined group. First, they are books that were being touted by their authors at a Goodreads Group Review Initiative, that I’ve written about before. So — at the risk of doing some speculating here — these are authors that are generally more conscientious and self-critical of their work and that are probably better writers than most indies.
Second, like any consumer, I checked the reviews before I bought and read any of these books. I looked at a lot more than just these seven. If the average review “score” was less than 3.5 “stars” or if I saw what looked like purchased reviews, I would not buy it.
These criteria don’t mean the books were best in class, but it does mean they were better than the average indie book. That said, a few observations:
For the most part, they are discernible stories with distinct beginnings, middles, and ends. And I found them all engaging in one way or another.
The downside was that on average (there were a couple exceptions) the editing was spotty. I’m not just talking about grammar issues (there were some of those) and typos (a few books had some), but more subtle things such as overuse of certain phrases (“Obviously,…”), repeated sentence structure, paragraphs that started with the same word, etc. These were not story killers, but they became distracting in a few of the stories.
My only other complaint about the group as a whole was that they lacked a rich, interwoven feel that smart use of foreshadowing, metaphors, and other traditional literary devices can give a text. The stories tended to be very linear and to the point, so to speak; they felt very contemporary and lacking the extra dimension you feel when you read a great book.
Overall, though, they were engaging and generally enjoyable. Below I’ve posted all the reviews (with their typos 🙁 ) so you don’t have to dig them up on Amazon and see what I said about each. I gave “star” grades of between 3 and 5 stars, with an average of 3.9 “stars”.
Below I’ve posted all the reviews so you don’t have to dig them up on Amazon and see what I said about each.
4.0 our of 5 stars. A Fun Adventure
Michael Gardner’s “Iron William” is a fun, swashbuckling romp.
Occasionally I step out of my usual genres to see what else is out there. More often than not, I won’t finish the book. This one was an exception. Though short, it was an enjoyable and very fresh story which I read while on a plane. It seems a cross between the Indian Jones and the Three Musketeers movies.
Other reviewers have largely summarized the story, so I won’t do that again, and I won’t share any spoilers other than to say that it is more complex and clever than you’d likely expect in a volume this slim.
The editing was strong (far better than you see in most indie books, and good by any measure), but I was most impressed by the writing. It was creative without becoming overly complex or purple. Just one example: “They trailed the musketeers along the Marne River, where poplars carved the afternoon sunlight into amber beams.” Simple, descriptive, fresh.
My only quibble – and it is one for which I’m admittedly a stickler – was that on several occasions the events were so improbable that things happened the way they did to continue the story. Given that this is a frolicking adventure, this is not a major issue, but it did give me pause on several occasions.
Recommended for an hour of fun reading. A solid 4 ‘stars’ and confidence that you’ll enjoy it if you are into such tales.
3.0 out of 5 stars
Creative and nicely drawn — and very dangerous — environments, 11 May 2016
I’ve long enjoyed HP Lovecraft and related writers of horror fiction, especially when slanted toward or overtly science fiction, so I looked forward to reading Fearsome Creatures by David B. Ross. There was much to like here: The writing was quite good, and the environments and “creatures” were all thoughtfully and creatively presented.
As others have noted, this short book is divided into four stories, of which the first is by far the longest. Though I won’t provide any spoilers, I will say that the though the first story’s characters were carefully and thoughtfully drawn as unique (almost too much time was spent on the various background of each), the other three stories were noticeably lacking in characterization.
One consistent aspect of all was that the “creatures” are not driven by malicious intent. Ross is arguably realistic in how he creates and then presents how creatures from different environments could be lethal – gruesomely so – to humans. Though I applaud this somewhat naturalistic approach, it also limits the emotional drama.
Overall, though I think it well written and immensely creative at times, I can’t give it more than 3 stars because I never found it particularly engaging, which the frequent POV shifts contributed to.
Leaving Traces: Between Time and the Stars (Serial Time Travel Romance)
4.0 out of 5 stars
Innovative and finely crafted tale of time travel, 25 April 2016
Moreland’s “Leaving Traces: Between Time and the Stars” is an innovate and carefully crafted work of imagination. It seems to be a relatively fresh take on “time” travel, though the experiences of the subject cover much more than time. As I read it, I was reminded more than a few times of the work of HP Lovecraft, so I was not surprised to see a reference to Edgar Allen Poe in the text given that Lovecraft studied Poe and considered him one of the great writers. As I read, I was also reminded of another, much more obscure text: the story told on the cover of the 1974 Genesis double-album, “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.” Much like the works of Poe and Lovecraft, the story on the album cover is a fantastic (and at times horrific) voyage into the timeless and impossible.
And this leads to my one quibble with the story. As with Poe and Lovecraft (though that is great company to keep), whenever a writer attempts to present the unimaginable, the prose can become abstract and vague. At times, I was unable to comprehend the essence of some scenes when the descriptions became too fantastic. There were some, of course, that were clear (and bizarre), but too often I struggled.
The story does have a definitive beginning, middle, and end, and there is more danger than it first seems. The short length made it difficult to get too deeply engaged with the main character, but as her sense of peril increased through the story, it kept me engaged.
Certainly an innovative and engaging read as a new twist on an old idea.
The Queen and the Dagger: A Book of Theo novella
4.0 out of 5 stars
A well-written and nicely paced story of palace intrigue, 18 Feb. 2016
Melainie Anseley’s “The Queen and The Dagger” is an engaging novella of a young woman’s coming of age in trying times and in a palace thick with familial intrigue (no surprise, given the title), albeit a family of rabbits. It is an engaging cast of characters, each with unique aspects and motivations. Together they provide variety and surprises as the main character, Indigo, struggles to navigate the hand she is dealt as she hopes to ascend to the throne.
I found the text nicely formatted and the story well-written and nicely paced. The writing was concise and fresh: “The next day Indigo rose with the sun, knowing sleep was impossible. A strengthening wind had already scraped the sky to a clean, hardened blue.”
The story is set in a rich and detailed universe. Clearly the author has carefully developed and imagined the setting. And the loyalties and betrayals make sense as the story progresses. Indigo matures and learns as her perceptions of herself and her role evolve through the story.
Though the story could have been a simple coming of age/wronged princess finds her way, it is more complex than that as Indigo struggles with conflicting desires. I won’t spoil the ending, but what she thinks she wants when she starts and where she winds up are not exactly the same thing.
The volume of characters and their unique names put me off a bit, and several times I suspected that I would have enjoyed the story more if it were told with people rather than animals (though it would have been much less unique). But those are minor complaints about a well-written and fun story that will keep you engaged and guessing about the ending.
The Panchatantra Retold: Part 3 – Kakolukiyam
5.0 out of 5 stars
A well written and engaging collection of interwoven folk stories from India, 2 Feb. 2016
I found this short book delightful and well prepared.
The book – nicely illustrated by the author – is a retelling of some of ancient India’s oral folklore. As the author explains: “In the Sanskrit language…the Panchatantra is a collection of witty and entertaining folk-tales from Ancient India, involving both humans and anthropomorphic animals that are meant to represent certain types of humans.” She explains the story by noting that “Each section begins with a main tale or frame story, in which one character begins narrating a new tale to another character to prove his/her point, and the listener then takes his/her turn to begin yet another tale to make his/her point. The stories thus develop from one another and are interwoven together. This was a common practice of story-telling in Ancient India.”
I am a writer and well-read, and I’ve lived in Asia and traveled in India, but I make no pretense of understanding the social or literary impact or importance of these folk stories. From a purely entertainment perspective – as a reader – I can say these are well told, well presented and very engaging. The book is not long; it only took me about an hour or so to read. And the drawing, though simplistic, nicely illustrate the main characters and dramatic situations.
It is certainly not your typical American fare, but it is well written and an engaging departure. …the owls and crows have a score to settle!
Under A Blood Moon (The Alex Hayden Chronicles Book 1)
3.0 out of 5 stars
An urban vampire romp, 25 Jan. 2016
Occasionally I like to read outside my normal genres, so when given the opportunity to read and share an honest review of Under A Blood Moon (The Alex Hayden Chronicles Book 1), by Michael Andrews, I looked forward to the chance to do so.
This is what I would call a paranormal, urban, vampire, action-adventure story. The main character is a century-old vampire in a 14-year old’s body. And without giving away any spoilers, the story progresses through an almost police detective mystery to a climactic final confrontation.
The story seems to heavily leverage readers’ expectations for such stories, which is fine, and most genre fiction does. But there is also a lot of vampire lore and “world building” to explain many aspects of why things are the way they are, and which vampire has done which other vampire wrong, etc. I found it a bit tedious.
Though I thought the main character mildly engaging and unique, for the most part, the plot seemed predictable. Several of the secondary characters were also interesting, but the bad guys were mostly bad and wanted to take over the world. And several times the plot was propelled forward by highly improbable events and coincidences…of course it is a book about vampires, so I guess that is okay. I did struggle with the poor editing. I’m a writer, too, so maybe I hold other writers to higher standards. In any event, there are too many gaffs to give the book more than 3 stars.
In sum, if you are into such things, it is probably an enjoyable romp. For readers who are not already primed for such stories, I suspect you will struggle to finish this one.
Hospital Hill: A Novel
4.0 out of 5 stars
Rich prose, a complex main character, and strong sense of atmosphere, 14 Jan. 2016
When I came across Anderson’s Hospital Hill, I could not resist. My parents were both clinical psychologists who worked with institutionalized patients. And as a child, I grew up across the street from an abandoned hospital that we used to sneak into and wander on stormy nights. Seemed like perfect prerequisites for enjoying this novel.
The writing was exquisite. Anderson’s ability to cast rich prose was impressive. There were many sentences that were fresh while remaining clear and simple.
A second strength was the presentation and development of her main character. This was a complex, multi-faceted figure with internal and external motivations that logically drove the story forward.
Additionally, between the thoughtful writing and the author’s clear understanding of the physical aspects of the primary setting, the novel has a very strong sense of atmosphere, very much like you are there in the story.
The two strikes against the novel, and why I won’t give it 5 stars, is what I consider a highly improbable sequence of events over the last fourth of the novel, and a surprising number of typos and other gaffs. In the first instance, though, I won’t spoil the story, it felt like a story that had flowed very logically and coherently suddenly veered to the improbable and fantastic enabled by the most improbable coincidences and unlikely accomplishments.
On the second count, there were a distracting number of simple typos that repeatedly tripped me up and knocked me out of the story. A few hours in the hands of a rigorous copy editor could really polish the writing into a gem.
In sum, four stars on the strength of the writing. Rich and engaging. I’m sure as Anderson continues to write, her storytelling will only get stronger.