Saturday, December 31, 2011

Indie Book Review: Beside the Still Waters

I love a good family saga. I love historical fiction. I loved the gilded age, and the turn of the twentieth century. I'm a massive WWI wonk.

So, when Beside the Still Waters, a family saga set in 1904 to 1938 landed in my review pile, I was a happy little reader. Probably a little too happy, I was so excited to see it, I put it in the to review pile even after thinking the beginning was a little choppy and rough.

Let's take a minute and talk about what a historical family saga entails. There should be a huge, sweeping collection of deeply rounded characters, in a vibrantly alive piece of time. John Jakes and Herman Wouk wrote my two favorite sagas, and those tales are massive, fully alive and breathing pieces of interactive history.  Basically, if the author is doing her job, you get to join a family and live with them through some fascinating bit of history.

There should be a main story arc, this is usually the sweep of the chunk of history the book is set in. On this plot line the characters or more or less acting like tour guides, giving us an intimate view of life during whenever the story is set. This is the plot line that ties everything together, and should be a meta image of the smaller individual conflicts going on in the secondary and tertiary plot lines.

The secondary plot line will be some level of specific conflict involving different members of the family.  This is usually the motive plot for the 'story' and will usually involve breaking different bits of the family off into different camps. The historical aspect of the story is often the fault line that divides different bits of the family into different camps.

Tirtiary (and on and on, a real saga can have at least one main plot line per main character, and often side ones for the side characters and so and so forth. After all, it's a SAGA; no one's worried about it coming out too long.) plots involve romances, coming of age stories, individual conflicts for individual characters.

And, if it's not clear from the above, or the fact they're called sagas, a family saga should be long.

So, basically, when I read a historical family saga, I want a huge, complex, well-researched book, brimming with fascinating characters, in depth locales, plot twists and turns, that all wrap into some sweep of history and a satisfying conclusion for all surviving family members.

Besides the Still Waters is well researched.  In fact, I would have very happily read a straight up history of the Quabbin Reservoir by Lynch.

It fell well short on all of my other criteria for a good family saga.

"A rift between two brothers, Eli and John Vaughn, at the turn of the 20th Century continues through to the next generation as John tries to use Jenny, Eli’s daughter, in a plot to regain the family farm from Alonzo, who now runs it, who is Jenny's love. John is broke and eager to sell the farm to the state, which is buying up area property for the coming reservoir. Both Alonzo and Eli refuse to sell their properties, and protest removal by eminent domain. Torn between loyalty to her family and heritage, and the allure of a future beyond the valley, Jenny refuses to remain powerless like the men she loves, but looks for a way to take control. A disastrous decision may prove fatal in a race against time."

That's the back of the book blurb.  It's a little choppy, but promising, right?  I thought so.  Here's the problem: at fifty percent through, the plot, as stated in the blurb, is just, barely beginning to get rolling. To use a historical example that most people are familiar with: if the main plot of this book had been wrapped around the American Civil War, the story would have started with the writing of the Declaration of Independence to get us familiar with the fight over slavery.  Jenny (who is identified as the main character earlier in the blurb) isn't even born for the first third of the story.

The antagonist, John, shows up for less than three pages of on screen time, and then vanishes for a third of the book. Once again, a family saga should be long and complex enough to follow the antagonist as he runs away, blows his fortune, and then take him back to the main swing of things, so that by the time we get to the conflict, we're deeply attached to both sides of the argument. A family saga needs the depth to follow multiple characters through their lives while still pushing the main plot line forward.

The writing style is choppy. I'd be reading away, getting a little plot and character development, then into straight history, and back to plot, and back to history. From what I can tell this is intentional, but instead of highlighting how the meta history compliments the individual lives of the characters it's jarring and breaks the flow.

The writing style is non-fiction. As I said, I'd happily read a straight history by Lynch, but I don't want to read fiction by her. In non-fiction it's perfectly acceptable to tell your reader what happened, showing them is nice, but usually not the goal. In fiction the idea is to show your readers what is going on. But, if you pick 3rd person omniscient as your point of view, (the narrator voice) it's very easy to slip into telling your reader what is going on. And tell she does. So much telling that it's actually pretty rare to run into a scene that really is showing something, but when one does occur, a chunk of straight history will show up in a page or so and stop it dead.

And, just to make me grit my teeth, the formatting is wonky.  I just wrapped the beta version of my latest novel, and my hubby wanted a version for his Kindle. (He doesn't like reading on his computer, so no Word doc for him.) Anyway, I put the beta version through the Smashwords' Meatgrinder with no prep at all, and got precisely the same sort of wonky formatting Beside The Still Waters has.  Basically, it looks fine, and then for no real reason it suddenly changes font, and changes back, and forth again, all through the book. 

As I said in the email I sent off to my beta readers, the kindle version looks like it was formatted by drunk weasels, drunk weasels that like Courier.  It's not illegible, but it is annoying. Deeply annoying. And maybe part of the reason it annoys me so much is that I know how much work it takes to fix this (about an hour-hour and a half), and how ridiculously lazy it is to just leave it that way.

So, all in all, I'm not impressed by Beside the Still Waters. I wish it had been a straight history of the Quabbin Reservoir. I think I would have enjoyed that quite a bit.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Indie Book Review: Snap

Like every reader, I've got pet peeves. And due to my current run of sloppy books, I've developed some new ones regarding formatting and editing over the last few weeks. This is unfortunate for Mario Molinari, the author of Snap, because he decided to send me a book rife with my newest peeves.

To make matters worse, I know Mario can write. The reason I know this is because  the first chapter of Snap absolutely rocks in the Mission Impossible, James Bond, glorious action galore tradition. I was really, really looking forward to this. The cover is beautiful. The first chapter is great. And then it falls to pieces. And on a scale of one to ten, my disappointment after that first chapter was at about sixteen.

Either Snap desperately needed a whole bunch of extra section breaks, or it desperately needed someone to explain that random POV/scene hopping is not appropriate. It often needed dialog tags. These are all the sorts of errors that having one or two other sets of eyes on the book would have taken care of. This book could have rocked. It should have rocked. But no, it's sitting firmly in the sad sack section because Molinari didn't bother to actually polish the damn thing!

The punctuation is rough, the sort of thing I expect from first draft by an okay writer. Not what I want to see in a published book.  Word flow is okay, with occasional wonky word choices or missing words, the sort of thing a proof reader would have seen and fixed. (I write these reviews over the course of several days, and on one re-read I was wondering if I was being too harsh. So I opened Snap back up, and the first sentence I read had no period.) This is a published work that is available for SALE. I got my copy for free because I'm a reviewer, but Molinari expects everyone else to give him money for this, almost five dollars, and it's not good enough.

If you'll allow me to fully get into rant mode here, I am a self-published writer. Now, is my book free of errors and perfect in every way? No. Do I expect anyone else's book to be perfect. No. I don't expect perfect. I don't expect near perfect. But I do expect the book to have been edited, proof read, and gone over by the author, thoroughly, to make sure it's as good as can be. And I expect absolutely glaring errors to be taken care of before the book hits print.

I went to Amazon to see what other reviewers were thinking of Snap, and gosh, it's got twenty five star reviews, and though they are all fairly similar, none of them mention the formatting.  So I begin to think that I've got a wonky ARC. That happens; a perfect polished version isn't always part of the review process.  So I download a new copy for Kindle, and head over to Smashwords to see what's up there. The Smashwords HTML version looked okay. The line breaks were there, at least. Though the rest of the sloppiness is still visible. I start to calm down some.

Then I checked on the new Kindle version, and it's a mess. That's where I started to see red.

Here's an example: the plot is happily skipping along, tension is rising, and then we'd be, with no warning, in a new POV in a different scene, and then back to the first, and back to the second, and back to the first, and there's no scene breaks, and sometimes no dialog tags so you don't even know who's talking.  ARGH!  DID NO ONE ELSE EVER READ THIS? Since it's right in the Smashwords version, I know Molinari knows that there need to be section breaks, and that pisses me off even more.  This is an author wasting my time and the money of anyone buying this by being so ridiculously lazy that he didn't bother to check his .mobi format before clicking on the publish button.

And maybe I could have gotten past this, except Snap hit another of my pet peeves. I do not enjoy watching non-psychopathic characters get other people killed like it's no big deal.

Spoiler territory here: Wade (the hero) is trying to rescue Sarah (female lead 1) and Brad (her soon to be ex-husband) from a hired psychopath. He's supposed to meet the psycho, alone, and trade himself for Sarah and Brad. So, instead of showing up alone, he hires 20 actors to look like they just happen to be having a party at the exact same time and location as the swap, dons body armor, and mingles with the actors. Purposely using them as human shields. (The idea being psychopathic killer will decide he can't take the shot and go to the hostages. I guess. This is where the plot was starting to get loose. The plan was really fuzzy, and Wade is packed into as much body armor, including a helmet, as he can get. Obviously he expects bullets to fly. And no, none of the actors know they're risking their lives for fifty bucks and all the alcohol they can drink.) Amazingly enough, one of the actors is killed, because psycho-guy is not even remotely bothered by trying to take a shot through someone else. And then Wade just leaves like it's no big deal.

I gave up. I don't need my good guys sparkly clean, but I don't want them thinking innocent human shields are appropriate either. And I'm really not willing to trudge through bad formatting and clunky mechanical issues for a character I don't love. With that scene there, any chance I was going to love Wade died, just like the unnamed red-shirt in the above scene.

12/25/11  After reading the review Mario Molinari has pulled the .mobi version of Snap for re-editing and re-formatting. He tells me the hard copy (from which most of his reviews come) looks great. I wish him much luck in getting this story into the shape it wants to be in.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Indie Book Review: Catalyst The Passage of Hellsfire

There are, maybe, seven basic fantasy plots. The readers know this. They know that just about every fantasy they open will be a variation on one or another beloved theme. This is not a shock to them. So, when a fantasy reader says a plot is predictable, they don't mean: I've seen a variation on this before (because we all have) they mean the author didn't do a good job making an old plot interesting, setting it in a well crafted world, or giving us fantastic characters to adventure along with.

Catalyst: The Passage of Hellsfire, was predictable. It's not bad, but it's also not really engaging.  Hellsfire, yes, that's the name of the main character, reads like a hybrid of Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter. He's a boy with a destiny and a special power. He's also bit flat. Not obnoxious, but not fully rounded in any meaningful way either.

In fact, the whole book reads like a hybrid of Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings.  The Hero is young, stupid, and The One Whose Coming Was Foretold. The Wizard is old and wise, and takes him under his wing for training. The Princess is beautiful, spunky, handy with a sword, but still in need of rescuing. The Good King is being taken advantage of by his Evil Adviser. The Evil Adviser has plans to find the magical plot device artifact and use it to take over the world. You've read this story before. I've read this story before, and both of us turned each page with bated breath when it was populated with fantastic characters in an expertly built world.

And, alas, this is not an expertly built world, either. Quick example: The Wizard is explaining how magic works in their world, how each person has six sorts of mana (Okay, how many of you immediately flashed into gamer mode there? It gets worse.) and each mana has a different color: white for life magic, black for death magic, red for fire, blue for air, blue-green for water, green for earth. Sigh. I played that game, I don't need to read it.

On top of that, Catalyst sorely needed a proof-reader. The punctuation is rough. Missing/wrong words pop up at least once or twice a chapter. It was often enough, and bad enough, to toss me out of the story on several occasions. Wonky descriptions showed up just as often. Another example: We finally get to a combat scene, and it's going well, I'm liking it, but then one of the fighters uses his "sword like a snake." Now, I get that not every sentence in a book should be read literally, but even on a figurative level this doesn't make much sense. Snakes don't use swords. And if you were holding a snake by the tail, and attacking with it, you'd be using it like a whip, not a sword. I think, from context, he meant something along the lines of: his sword flicked quickly, like the tongue of a snake... but he didn't write that, and using the sword like a snake really tossed me out of the story to figure out what was going on. (My immediate mental image of the character holding the sword in his mouth, arms and legs pressed to his sides, as he wriggled on the ground, made absolutely no sense.)

It also needed a beta reader. In the above scene, Hellsfire, who's been warned to use his magic sparingly and not tell people he's a wizard, uses his magic to burn his way out of a net, uses his magic to blow the head off an ogre, hands a stabilizing potion to a wounded man, and then thinks that he shouldn't mention he's a magic user. He wouldn't want to tip his new companions off. Apparently his companions are massively stupid and didn't notice the fire flashing about, or even though he's describing everything in glowing red flames, the magic is somehow, unbeknownst to us, invisible. Between that and the snake sword, I had a really hard time with that scene. And it's not the only one.

So, as I said, Hellsfire isn't terrible. It's rough. It's very familiar. By halfway through I was skimming along, hoping to find something to get my attention. At three quarters of the way through, I still hadn't found anything that kept my attention for more than five minutes at a time. My guess is, if you've read very little fantasy, or are quite young (The Catalyst is technically a YA book, but I'd be more interested in aiming it at the six-to-eight-year-old market. You'd have to read it to them, but I think they'd like it.) this book might be a lot of fun. But it wasn't doing it for me. I gave up without finishing it.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Indie Book Review: The Death of Torberta Torchin

I don't usually review YA books.  About one in seven of the submissions I get are YA, and usually, before I even get to the sample, the general plot line has turned me off.  See, I didn't enjoy being a kid. I got done with it as soon as I could. So, getting to spend more time in high school or junior high isn't my idea of fun. Add in two of the main YA tropes, angst for the sake of angst, and brainless first love, and well, it's just really not my genre.

So, The Death of Torberta Turchin just about got tossed out of the to be read list without getting much of a hearing. But...  Well, the cover is pretty cool, and very much not the usual YA cover art. So I read the back. No angst for the sake of angst. No mention of romance. Hmmm... I began reading the sample.

The Death of Torberta Turchin opens with a fourteen-year-old girl, Torberta, who lives in a boarding school for psychologically disturbed kids, discussing the balancing act the students go through with the doctor. St. Christopher's is a pretty sweet gig, and if you want to stay there you've got to walk a tightrope. Look like you're making too much progress, ie: get better, and you get sent home. Not sufficiently crazy, ie: faking it, and you get sent home. Act too crazy, and they put you on drugs and send you to a higher security place. So, if you want to stay at St. Christopher's you've got to be just disturbed enough to make your family want you away, but not so crazy you're a danger to the world around you.

Reading those first few pages was like reading the first bit of Ender's Game. I knew this book involved a character I'd sympathize with and want to spend time with.

Torberta is in St. Christopher's because she hears voices. The voices say they're ghosts. And, while she can hear them without anyone else hearing them, she has to respond out loud. Talking to voices no one else can hear is embarrassing and troubling to a family that loves you dearly, but Torberta is an orphan raised by people who barely tolerate her. They packed her off as soon as they could.

I love the fact that is book is paranormal, but there is some genuine doubt as to what Torberta is hearing. One of the things that often puts me off paranormal stories is that they're supposed to be set in the real world, but everyone acts like the paranormal aspects are just no big deal. So, even though Torberta is pretty sure what she's hearing really are ghosts, she does have moments of doubt, and to me that's a very realistic, very welcome touch.

I love a good romance, that's not a secret. But in many YA novels a good romance is nowhere to be seen. Sad, abusive, obsessive, unhealthy romances are scattered about like glitter at a drag convention. Romances that make no sense (The world is about to end, monsters are eating my family, but all I can think about is how much I lurve the hot boy who may or may not be the cause of the monsters...) at all are even more common. The sorts of relationships you think might actually go somewhere are usually pretty scarce. My sense is we see so many of these 'relationships' because they add easy drama, and because many writers have a hard time writing girls without defining them by how they relate to boys.

There's no romance in Torberta, and I was thrilled to see it. It's deeply satisfying to see a story where the focus of a fourteen-year-old girl's life isn't some boy. Even more welcome to see a story where romance isn't some sort of magical elixir that makes all the problems go away.

The angst level is minimal, and what angst Torberta has, she certainly deserves. Her parents are dead, the family that's taking care of her considers her a massive embarrassment, and everyone, even her friends at St. Christopher's, think she's insane because she hears voices. This is a girl who deserves a little self-pity. And while she does get a little angsty, she never gets whiny. (Have I mentioned that I love this character? I do, I really do!)

My only quibble with this story was at the end. Let me make it clear, this is just a personal preference, Mawhiny set up the ending properly. She laid all the groundwork, so the ending is a surprise, but not from out in left field. But it's a tad rushed and a little too much coincidence all in one place. Torberta talking to ghosts was a lot easier for me to believe than the timing of the actual incident that killed her.

Still, on the whole I really liked this book and loved Torberta. I'd say it's appropriate reading for anyone over the age of ten. (Maybe eight if you've got a good reader able to handle ideas on mental issues.) The main character is a girl, but there's nothing particularly girly about the book, so it shouldn't put boys off. Like Harry Potter and Ender, Torberta will appeal to both sexes.

This is a solid four star book, and I highly recommend it to anyone who loved Ender or girl characters with their heads on straight.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Indie Book Review: For the Sake of the Future

And, after a rather long delay, the Indie Book Review is back! (I know all three of you were waiting with baited breath for the next installment.) Today we're going to look at For the Sake of the Future.

One of the online communities of writers I hang out at has been bouncing around the idea of whether or not you should hold onto an idea if you don't think you're a good enough writer to tackle it yet. Now, I'm a big fan of not waiting. I think you'll lose a lot of what you want with the idea if you just set it on the shelf. At the same time, I don't think you should publish that work until you are a good enough writer to do it proper justice.

Why is this relevant? For the Sake of the Future is a great idea. I wish I had come up with the plot for this story, it's so good. Val Panesar unfortunately is not a good enough writer to do it justice, yet.

The plot: The Big Bad wants to change the world. He's gotten a hold of eight people right after they died, The Undying, and offered them the chance to go back in time and rewrite the world, to make human existence 'meaningful' by going to war and making sure the 'right' people die. Apparently his main characters are a little stupid, and a little shook up from just having died, so they all agree. They start changing the past. From there we get twists, turns, crosses, double crosses, paradoxes, and the fun that time travel allows.

I really wish I had thought of this plot. And that I was or knew a really good graphic artist. For the Sake of the Future would have made an incredible graphic novel. There's action galore, and the main character, Neelam Lochan, is a huge manga fan. Starting this plot off in a fairly realistic drawing style and slowly morphing it into a manga style would have worked really well.

I liked the characters. Neelam is engaging and pleasant. Greg, Sean, and Marid, back up characters, are all interesting. As I mentioned above, the characters are a little dull, but unlike a lot of writers who indicate their characters are the smartest thing ever, and then they start doing stupid things, Panesar never tries to sell us on the idea that his characters are brilliant. They're regular guys (sort of, this would be one of the twists mentioned above) dropped into an extraordinary circumstance, and it takes them a while to realize this is not a good plan.

So, that's the good points.

The bad part is that this book desperately needed both an editor and a proofreader.

An editor was necessary to reign in the point of view hopping, chronology hopping, and chop about a quarter of the story out. Now, I don't hate head hopping in a book, as long as it's not done mid-scene. One point of view per scene takes care of the job nicely.  And I understand that parts of this book are supposed to be confusing, but randomly hopping about in the chronology, swapping POVs only makes the confusion worse. The idea is to write the story so that the confusion of the characters shines through, not to write the story so that the reader is scratching her head going, "What just happened there?" On top of that this is a long (and trust me, I write long books, I know long.) book, and it doesn't need to be quite that long.

A proofreader needed to go through and fix up the grammar, typos, and formatting issues. Now, I'm not going to be winning any awards for Grammarian of the Year. On top of that, I don't much care about grammar mistakes that don't jump off the page. But there were enough issues with For the Sake of the Future that I was irked by them.

Basically it's a rough draft.  It's a rough draft of something that could become a good book. On Goodreads two stars means the book was okay, one star means I didn't like it. Neither of those options really work. This book isn't okay; it's not well enough written to get an okay. But I did like it. I'd really like to see what it might look like after Panesar takes a few years to really study how a story hangs together and gets a good editor. So, no stars for For the Sake of the Future, just a review.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Fantasy Sage Speaks: The Contract

So, last week I started talking about the bits and pieces I've picked up on how to keep readers happy.  Since I'm not all that much closer to finishing the current book on the review list (For the Sake of the Future.  It's big. I'm liking it. Hopefully review next week!) I shall now lay down the wisdom on tip number two: The Contract.

You're writing a book.  You are the master of your own world. Inside the realm of your word processor you are a GOD! You are accountable to no one but your own whims and desires. You can make everything precisely the way you like it, take the tale anywhere, make your characters do anything! BWAHAHAHAHAHA!

Hmmm... Well, okay, this is true, sort of. Or I should say, if you strive to be a good (and by good I mean able to satisfy readers) writer, you stuff the part of your mind that's cackling like an evil scientist into the closet, lock it in there, and throw away the key.

See, there is an unspoken, unwritten contract between you and the reader.  You set the tone of this contract by how you begin your story. By the time you've introduced all the characters and laid out the major plot points your readers expect you to follow through on those plot points and keep those characters in character. This is not to say you can't introduce new plot points or that your characters can't change. You can do both, but you have to satisfy the contract with your readers, which means finishing up those original points and doing the work necessary to take the reader along with the character when they change, if you want to keep happy readers.

In the last Fantasy Sage column I wrote about plot, and how JK Rowling did a fantastic job with building her plot so that by the time the last book came out she had a ravening horde of readers ready to jump over the corpses of their friends just to lay hands on the book. (Or maybe that was just me...*whistles innocently*)

Anyway, what she didn't do was fulfill the contract she set with her readers.  By the end of Half Blood Prince, the readers were expecting a good versus evil showdown wrapped around a high quest fantasy and a final clash between Harry and Voldie.  She did give us the final clash: a muddy,convoluted, confusing, and anti-climactic final showdown, but it was indeed there.  The high quest fantasy, in the hands of even a marginally competent fantasy writer (which I think as of that point in time we all assumed she was) should have been an absolute blast. Instead she gave us moping and camping, filled with bad writing, and worse logic. As for the good versus evil showdown, it's just not there. In an effort to make sure there's no clear good or evil, she purposely makes sure that Harry's casting the only magic ever defined as Dark Arts by the middle of the book.

From my own take on the book, and from several critical reviews I agreed with, I'd have to say the issue was by the time Rowling got to Deathly Hallows she wanted to write one thing (a treatise on the acceptance of the inevitability of death) instead of what she told us she was going to write (a good versus evil battle to the end).  Her part of the contract was not fulfilled, and, though kids still love Harry Potter, she lost a lot of the grown-ups with that book.

Another great example of I-promised-to-write-you-something-and-decided-to-write-something-else-altogether is The His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman. The first two books were great, but by the time he got 'round to book three he forgot he'd set up an epic clash of faith versus science and decided that introducing a completely new plot point involving unicycling mutant elephants (at least that's how I pictured them) was in order.

Result: unhappy readers.

So my author friends, how do we work with this? How do we not make the same mistakes? Well, if you took the advice of the first column and figured out your plot before you started writing (or at the very least, before you published), you've probably got half the battle taken care of.

Keep that plot in line. If you go astray, and you certainly may decide to do so, give it a really, really careful look, especially if you've already published books in the series. And if you do go astray, wrap up the loose points, no matter what. And do them proper justice. Just because you've gotten bored with the your original set up does not mean your readers have. They want to see the action.  Single biggest complaint about The Amber Spyglass: the big battle everyone was waiting for happens off-screen.

Here's the other advantage of keeping your plot in line: if you do a good job plot wrangling, you're much less likely to find yourself in a situation where you have to dumb down your characters, make them start doing things they wouldn't ordinarily do, or mucking about with them in any other way.  Readers will often forgive a wonky plot. They rarely forgive having a favorite character lobotomized and turned into an idiot puppet by the author.  The most recent example I can think of for this is Dragons of the Hourglass Mage, where for reasons that I can only assume rhyme with honey, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman decided to resurrect Raistlin, yet again, took the story back twenty years, and tried to fill in a part of Dragons of Spring Dawning that had been kept silent.

And they bombed at it. If, when they wrote Spring Dawning, they had any idea of how Raistlin got to where he was, it was pretty obvious that by the time they wrote Hourglass Mage they had forgotten it. So they started from scratch, apparently deciding that the fans wanted a new, softer, less-sarcastic version of Rasitlin, and they killed his character.

Once again this resulted in unhappy fans.

So, be careful with your set up, be aware of the promises you are making your readers, and fulfill them.  If you're lucky enough to have fans who review your books and discuss them, pay attention to what your fans are expecting. Sure, you don't have to give them what they want, but if you know what they expect, what they think you've promised to tell them, you can do a much better job of keeping them happy.

If you find yourself in love with a totally cool idea, write it down, play with it, but if it doesn't fulfill your contract to your readers, put it in the drawer for the next series. There's always time to write new books with new adventures and new promises later on down the line. Once again, it's much easier to get a happy fan to go and buy that new book and new adventure than it is to woo one back later who you annoyed when you didn't tell him the story you said you would.

Other Fantasy Sage Posts: Magic, Plot, Power Balance

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Fantasy Sage Speaks: Plot

In addition to being a writer, I'm also a reader.  (Yes, I know you are all deeply shocked, what with the book reviews and all.)  However, I'm also a reader of book reviews.  I hang out on discussion boards where people talk about books. Over the years I feel like I've sucked up some points about what readers, fantasy readers especially, like, what makes them keep coming back, and what annoys them. Which, since I'm nowhere near finishing the next book for review, I, the newly christened Fantasy Sage, shall share with you.

So, here it is, in all it's glory, the first tip:  If you want the sort of fans that are begging for your next book to come out, make sure you've got a set plot arc. 

What do I mean by this?  Fans like knowing there is a set beginning, middle, and end to the story.  Harry Potter and the..., Twilight, Harry Dresden, and Game of Thrones: the thing these books all have in common, besides legions of adoring fans, is the author set up an overarching plot, then wrote each installment in a way that furthered that plot, but also opened up more questions about what would come next.  None of these stories are/were written with the I'll-just-wing-it-and-see-where-the-characters-take-me method.

I know a lot of authors like to sort of just go with it, write whatever comes to mind, and keep the story going forever. But, if you read reviews of The Wheel of Time, Anita Blake Vampire Hunter, or The Southern Vampire Mysteries, you'll notice that many of the bad ones center on a theme of the author has lost the plot, that the later books don't have the same heart, magic, feel, ect... of the first few.

If you'll allow me a bit of comparison... Fans were lining up in droves, spending hours debating what would happen and how for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. By the time we got to that last book all the main players were in place, the epic battle ready to start, and a new quest set to begin. Many of the old threads had been wrapped up or almost wrapped up. The high quest for the Horcruxes and the final Harry V. Voldie fight was the promised end of the series. No matter what you thought of how J.K. Rowling handled Deathly Hallows, the set up for it had fans salivating over copies of the last book.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was the highest selling opening of a book, ever.

Now, we're two books away from the end of the Sookie Sackhouse (Southern Vampire Mysteries/True Blood) books.  If I understand how the series worked, originally it was a three book deal, then a ten book deal, and now a twelve book deal.  And it shows.  The first three were very solid. They were mysteries, with a decent twist on a pretty basic arc. Then it was a ten book deal, and Harris got lost. 'Round about book seven it became pretty clear that Harris didn't have a larger story she was trying to tell, and worse, she had forgotten she was a mystery writer using fantasy tropes, not a fantasy writer using mysteries to build tension. She lost control of her plot.  By book ten, where everything should have come to a fairly natural end, she was resurrecting dead plot points in an effort to keep it going for two more books.  Unless she's a vastly better writer than we've seen in the last few books, the likelihood is the only question left by the time we get to book twelve is who Sookie ends up with.  I know, having read the first ten, I've got no real interest in what happens in eleven, and I'm fairly sure I can skip it without too much damage in my ability to understand twelve.  And if you read the negative reviews of the Southern Vampire Mysteries, you'll see I'm not the only one who feels this way.

So, how can we as fantasy writers take advantage of this? Plan your story arc!  Or more precisely, know when and where your story ends, and then end it!  We aren't serial mystery writers. (They play by a different set of rules.) Our readers want complete, or at least completable, story lines.  They want to anticipate what comes next.  They want clues, foreshadowing, the ability to look back and feel clever because they caught the clues and had figured out what was coming next.

If you know where your story is going, you can use foreshadowing, parallels, and symbolism to the fullest.  You can build the necessary foundation so you're not whipping out McGuffins or Balognium (Thanks, Red Hen) when you've written yourself into a corner. (If you've got your plot properly wrangled, you aren't writing yourself into corners in the first place.) You can write each novel so that you reveal necessary information and leave some questions dangling to get your reader to come back for the next story.  And that's what readers want.  That's how writing careers are made.   It is vastly easier to get someone to read your next book than it is to get someone to find you in the first place, so make sure that first book hooks them on your story.

Now, this isn't to say you can't use the I'll-wing-it-and-let-the-characters-lead-wherever technique while you are writing, but, if that's what you're going to do, don't publish until you've finished the whole tale. The thing to bear in mind is there's a huge difference between writing a story and publishing a story. When you are writing, you're doing it just for you. When you publish, you are making a promise to tell your reader a certain sort of story (more on this in the next post: The Contract). So, write however you like, but don't publish until you can give your readers the set story arc they desire.

So sayeth the Fantasy Sage.  Now, go write! ;)

Other Fantasy Sage Posts: Magic, Contract, Power Balance

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Guest Review: Nevermore

Today on To Publish or Not To, we've got a guest reviewer.  Cambria Herbert, author of the upcoming Before.  She's treating us to a review of Nevermore.

Title: Nevermore

Author: Kelly Creagh

Publisher: Atheneum, August 31, 2010

Genre: Young Adult paranormal/fantasy

Format: Paperback, hardback, Ebook

ISBN: 1442402008

Isobel is a cheerleader, perky and blond, who is paired with a dark haired “goth” guy for an English assignment. At first she is horrified that she has to work with him. Even more horrified when she tries to talk to him and he is cold and aloof. Then he writes his phone number on her hand in purple ink.

That one act seemed to have sealed their fate.

Even long after Isobel washed away the purple, she still felt the mark. And the more she gets to know Varen, the more drawn into his world she becomes. Unfortunately for Varen that puts a target on his back. Isobel’s possessive (and big fat jerk) boyfriend decided to make Varen’s life hell.

It doesn’t get any better when Isobel breaks up with the jerk. But Varen and Isobel are drawn to one another, despite the worlds they come from. One day, Isobel peaks inside the journal Varen carries with him and finds herself staring into a dream world that he has created.

When strange things begin to happen and things appear that only Isobel can see her world begins to unravel…

And she begins to realize that the power of a dream and written word are far more than she could ever have known. As Varen is slowly consumed by nightmares of his making Isobel must find a way to save him…or lose him forever.

I had heard some good things about this book before I picked it up. The cover art is stunning and I loved the purple writing (which I loved even more after I put the book down). I didn’t know what this book was about when I began reading, I figured I would read and be surprised as I went. I will admit, I really was expecting a vampire book.

I was wrong. There are no vamps in this book. (Yes, a relief to many of you who are sick of the vampire craze). It was a plot like no other I have read. It is an original idea that I could tell the author put a lot of thought and time into.

I really enjoyed this book for that reason. It took me into a whole new world to explore, with characters that were new. Okay, mainly Varen was new to me. The whole cheerleader and football player thing has been done before, but that’s okay, they were still good characters. Anyway, I liked Varen because I thought it was cool that a not so “OMG, that guy is soo hot” guy caught the eye of a “She is so hot” cheerleader”. A lot of the YA books that I read are outcast girl gets hot guy not the other way around. So props to the author for that.

I will say Varen didn’t have me swooning over him, but I did like him. He was a likable character, once given the chance to get to know him. I liked the juxtaposition of him being a goth and also working at a ice cream shop and spooning up flavors like pineapple. He doesn’t seem like a pineapple kind of guy to me. He also drove a cool car.

Nevermore is a long book (over 500 pages), which I like, because it really gave me time to enjoy the book and get into the story. Although, about half way through I started getting antsy to know what the story was, what the book was all about. Up to that point it had mostly been about how Isobel and Varen grew closer and how her ex, Brad, bullied Varen.

The one thing that seemed to bother me was that I felt like I didn’t really know what the book was about. It seemed that Varen held all the answers and he never gave Isobel any. It bothered me. I was reading and reading waiting for his explanations that never came. Now, another character in the book explained a lot of things, and some things Isobel was left to figure out on her own…which I can see how that might be good, because as a reader I really felt like Isobel, identified with her, because I was trying to figure it out alongside her. On the other hand, as a reader, I want to know! I want to discover things, things that maybe even the heroine doesn’t know that way I can gasp then await for his/her reaction upon discovering what was really going on.

In the end I knew what the book was about, I knew what Varen’s “ability” was (for lack of a better term) but I never got to hear his side of the story. If I had been Isobel I would really be angry. Here she is in love with a guy who has one hell of a hobby that she got drug into. A little explanation please??

And to be honest, some things still feel left unexplained, left unsaid.

Yes, there is another book to come out in 2012. Yes, by the end of Nevermore you have a clear picture of what the next book will be about, but still I wanted to know more.

Will I read the next book? Yes. For sure. It is a good story line, unique and I want to know what happens. I am hoping those answers that I look for will be given in book two.

I recommend this book to anyone who likes YA paranormal or fantasy and maybe wants something different, something without vampires and werewolves (why anyone wouldn’t want a werewolf- I will never know).

So there you have it. My opinion.

This review is written by Cambria Hebert, author of the upcoming novella Before.  If' you'd like to learn more about Cambria and her other writings, head over to

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Indie Book Review: A Heart In Sun and Shadow

I'd like to make a confession. Previous to reading this book I had never had a genuine WTF?!? moment. Oh, I've run into things that made absolutely no sense to me.  I'd had experiences where, when talking about them later, I described them as a WTF moment.  But, previous to reading this book, I had never, ever run into something where upon reading it, I actually said, out loud, What the fuck?

Then I read A Heart In Sun and Shadow.

Imagine if you will: I'm sitting in a very crowded Panera, enjoying a lunch of French Onion soup and a baguette.  It's so busy I'm sharing my table with a very sweet old lady.  We've had a bit of nice conversation about my netbook, and how I read books on it to review.  I'm happily reading along, not a single clue that this bomb is coming at me, and then I get to the part where the book turns upside down. Then: What the fuck? And, I say it, out loud.  I didn't realize I had done it until the very sweet old lady begs my pardon.  I blush, swallow my tongue, apologize, and then explain what I just read.  I get the sense she didn't disagree with my assessment, even if she wasn't a fan of my language.

Before I hit the WTF moment, the review I had been writing in my head looked something like this: A Heart in Sun and Shadow is a sweet, gentle romance set in an ancient Wales that never was.  It's the tale of Aine, a wisewoman who falls in love with cursed twin brothers and sets off to free them.  Her adventures deepen her love of them and tests her resolve.  I was planning on writing about how I wasn't entirely sure if this was a YA book or not.  How the writing was a easy and a bit shallow, but the love story is unconventional enough that it's not an easy YA fit.  I was planning on discussing fantasy romance and the tradition of the lovers quest.

That's what I had been planning on writing. 

The sweet and gentle nature of this story is part of why the WTF moment was so shocking.  The fact that it's not even remotely foreshadowed is another reason.

Now, I'm going to tread into major spoiler territory here.  Aine is a wisewoman.  Think of her as a traveling witch/healer.  Her entire code of ethics is help when and where you can and do no harm.  She hunts down the Fairy that cursed her lovers.  Upon finding her, Seren, the Fairy, sends Aine on a series of increasingly difficult tasks in order to collect the tidbits necessary to break the enchantment.  On her travels Aine gets an iron blade that can kill Fey folk, and she learns that she can break a curse by killing the person who cast it.  She also learns that Seren is bound to her grove, and cannot leave it for long periods of time.

She returns to Seren, blade among her things, and allows Seren sends her on one last task.  She has to collect the tears of a tree.  The only way to make the tree cry is to kill it's children.  No, not baby trees.  Child sprites dancing about in the forest.  Child sprites that heal her wounds.  Child sprites that invite her to dance with her.  Imagine three perfect magical symbols of innocence.

So, here's the moment of truth.  Murder the kiddies, collect the tears, give them to the Lady that cursed her lovers, and hope that she really does free them.  (And hope it is, because none of us are certain if Seren is on the up and up.)  Kill the Lady, free her lovers, but if she does that she cannot leave the Fey realm for any extended length of time.  Or go home, tell her loves she tried, but couldn't do it, and live with them.

So, I'm expecting her to kill the Lady, tell her boys what happened, and the three of them live happily ever after in the realm of the Fey.  I'm expecting this because it's in character.  I'm expecting this because the moral framework Aine embraces would lead her in this direction.  Which is why, when she murders the sleeping child sprites, I said, "What the fuck?" out loud.

Sloppy moral thinking is my number one pet peeve in a book.  Breaking character is a close runner up.  This one nailed both.  It's not like there was a gradual, creeping acceptance of moral compromise here.  It's not like she's slowly inching toward this decision.  It's not like she's in an absolute frothing rage when she does it.  She didn't just suddenly find out the children killed her mother or something like that.  She's dancing with them. They get tired and go to sleep. While they slumber, she decides dead fairy kids are worth her getting to go back to her boys for a bit of happily ever after, so she slits their throats.

She bought her happiness with three child corpses.

And at that point I lost any sympathy or interest in Aine.  I finished the book.  There was only 20% of it left, but I was deeply tempted to just put it down.  The hope that there would be some sort of justice or comeuppance or something kept me reading.  It's not there.

Aine and one of the twins turn out to be utterly despicable.  This is not a cute and sweet little romance.  These are deeply greedy people, willing to destroy anyone around them to secure their own happiness.  And they get to ride off into the sunset of happily ever after.  Yeah, maybe in real life you can step over the corpses of the innocent to a life of joy, but part of why people read fiction is because they want some sort of justice.  This was an infuriating and deeply unsatisfying read, all the more so because the first 80% of it is just fine.  A little light maybe, but the story works, is interesting, and fun to read.  Then it suddenly goes way off the rails and I was left wanting to smack Aine upside the head with a two by four.

On Goodreads one star means did not like it.  I'll leave it there.  Though I hated what the characters did and became, most of the book is soundly written, so I can't say I hated the book.  But I really didn't like it.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Indie Book Review: Blood of Requiem

I really, really wanted to like Blood of Requiem.  Really.  I respect Daniel Arenson and sort of know him through different online indie writer communities.  His books have gorgeous cover art, and from his comments, I know he's a consummate professional.

Burt, beyond that, Blood of Requiem has weredragons.  Seriously, how cool is that?

So, I was looking forward to this one.  Unfortunately, it really wasn't my cup of tea. I prefer character driven novels with a certain realism to them.  That wasn't Blood of Requiem.

There's a lot of action in Blood of Requiem.  I got about sixty percent of the way through it, and I'm going to guess seventy percent of that is a battle, a chase, or the lead bad guy remembering raping/torturing or actually raping/torturing someone.  Character and plot development are rather thin on the ground.

The lead bad guy, Dies Irae, is EVIL!  And in case we didn't get the idea when we found out he's personally responsible for the almost eradication of an entire species, he's also a serial raping sadist. And we get to spend some time in his head, enjoying the rape and torture of innocents.  They are distinctly uncomfortable scenes.  Very well written scenes, evocative of pure evil, but not exactly comfortable reading.  Not to say that they are especially graphic, this isn't The Human Centipede, but it's still a lot more rape than I want to deal with in my fiction.

I like my bad guys at least vaguely realistic.  In the case of evil overlords, that means the evil overlord has to provide some level of value to his people, or else he doesn't get to be the evil overlord for very long.  Absolute psychopaths can only rule by fear alone for so long (history seems to indicate this is about three years) before someone kills them. Dies Irae has been ruling for ten years, and it doesn't look like he's going anywhere anytime soon. 

Put more plainly: if you want to maintain control, you've got to keep the nobles happy.  Keeping them so afraid that they won't look you in the eye for fear of being eaten alive by baby griffins (No, that's not hyperbole; that scene is in the book.) is unlikely to produce happy nobles.  What it's likely to produce is poison in your cup, a troop of 'loyal' soldiers who put blades in your back, and if that doesn't work, outright insurrection.

Irae came to power through a civil war, which begs another question: how bad were things before?  The 'good guys' were the previous rulers.  They, for obvious reasons, have a very romantic view of their past life, but still, part of running a successful coup involves making sure that your nobles are better off now than they were before.  With constant rape, indiscriminate torture, and years of bloody war, unless things were really bad before, I'm not seeing the nobles going along with this.

I also like it when the characters don't heal up like Wile E. Coyote.  With all the action in this book, obviously people get hurt: often and badly.  But, within a matter of minutes (occasionally hours) they're back up and fighting.  And while I can understand that once or twice in extreme circumstances, this happens over and over.  Maybe, at some point in the book after I stopped reading, we learn that there's a horde of clerics casting healing spells, but as of the point where I stopped, I had to assume that everyone involved had Wolverine-level healing powers, but no one mentions it as out of the ordinary.  The main characters are all Vir Requis (weredragons) so maybe the super healing speed is part of that, but since all but these six Vir Requis were slaughtered in combat, apparently super speedy healing is not a race trait.

So, Blood of Requiem didn't do it for me.  It's well written in a visual sense.  If you want to know what everything looks like, this is a great book.  If you love action-packed books with absolutely despicable villains, this one might be for you.  But by half-way in, I had to give up.  I didn't want to spend anymore time in Dies Irae's head.  It's too dark, too painful a place. I didn't want to go on another chase. I'd already been on more than I could count.  I didn't want to watch another rape.  One would have been more than enough, and I was way past one by sixty percent in.  I skimmed ahead to the end, reading bits and pieces, and saw that the book wasn't going to change.  It wasn't suddenly going to become character driven or realistic. So, I put it aside.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Trad Book Review: A Dirty Job

I'd like to link to one of The Oatmeal comics to start this review of A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore.  Warning, it contains adult language.  (So does A Dirty Job. In fact, if you find the comic too offensive, just cross A Dirty Job off of your reading list.)  Just scroll down to the part where it says How British Accents Sound to Americans.

Back?  Great.  Does that seem like a random link?  Let me explain: Christopher Moore has a writing style I'd call Terry Pratchettesque:  third person omni POV, somewhat random bits of character and background information, genuinely funny situations, a complicated plot that gets all tied up in a nice bow in the end, with a slightly flat finish.  But here's the thing: Terry is British. Chris is an American.

So, A Dirty Job is a lot rougher than anything Pratchett writes.  If Pratchett writes PG work, Moore writes R. Adult language, casual racism and sexism, sexual themes: all of that's in A Dirty Job.

So, you're all warned; no matter how the cover looks, this is not a cute little book.
But it is funny and witty, at times deeply tender and respectful and at times frustratingly coarse.

Here's how reading it went for me: I'd be happily cruising along, deeply enjoying the story, and then the main character would suddenly lay down this out-of-the-blue bomb of racial insensitivity, that frankly felt way out of character.  

While I'm not a fan of racism as a character trait, if its been well written, if the writer has done his work properly and it fully integrated into the character, it doesn't bother me.  There's an Asian character in the book who isn't a huge fan of white people.  She's that way through the entire book.  Her calling the anglos 'white devils' and considering them all insane was in character.  Charlie, the main character, however acts like the average upper-middle class liberal white guy.  Until he suddenly develops what appears to be some sort of racial Tourettes syndrome and begins spouting cringe worthy things.

I fear I'm making this sound worse that it is.  It's not that the things he says are particularly hateful.  They're just horrendously socially awkward and inappropriate.  Maybe that's the point, Charlie isn't the smoothest of operators, but still, it sounded way off to me.

That aside, I really enjoyed the book.  If less than a page and a half of bits of dialog were edited out, this would have been a four star story for me.

The plot: a story of a 'beta male' who is suddenly widowed and left not only with a brand new baby daughter but a new destiny as a collector of souls, was tight, clever, and unique.  Charlie (once again, minus that page of dialog) is a genuinely likeable character.  Moore's treatment of death, dying, and especially hospice workers, is gentle and respectful.  His side plot of all the old Gods of death converging on San Fransisco as Capital D Death rises was well done. 

I just really wish he had restrained himself a bit on the racial commentary.

So, if you've got a thicker skin than I do, or if you want a snappy and fun look death and rebirth and don't mind some coarseness, then have at it.  You'll probably enjoy A Dirty Job.   Otherwise, give it a wide berth, and get some Terry Pratchett.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Indie Book Review: The Father's Child

I've wrapped up The Father's Child by Mark Adair, and even a few days later, I'm not sure what precisely I'm feeling about it.  There were parts that were very, very good.  There were parts where the writing got choppy and problematic.  It hit one of my personal pet peeves, and not in a good way.  It hit one of my best loves, in a very good way.

So, let's start at the very beginning.  What is it about?

A lot of things.  On one level it's a secret society thriller.  Go a little deeper and it's a treatises on power and the use thereof.  It's a study of love: romantic and platonic.  It's a story of friendship.

I don't usually try to describe the plot of a book in a review.  Usually, I try to avoid spoilers, but I'll have a hard time getting into what I really liked, and didn't, without going into the plot.  So if you wish to avoid spoilers, now's the time to skip to the next review.

In a nutshell John Eris Truman is a technological wunderkind.  He's got brains oozing out his ears.  He's also shy and not very good with people.  His best friend, Paul Eastman, is the yang to his yin.  He's outgoing, good with people, and not stupid, but not John's style of hyper-analytical either.  The story opens with their third buddy, George, being kidnapped by a group of exceptionally competent professionals at their bi-annual mid-term bash.  Fast forward two years, and the FBI still has no clue what happened to George.  Paul and John wrap up college and head west, starting anew amid the sunshine and beaches of California.

Then things start to get a bit weird.  John starts to remember details about what happened right before George was kidnapped.  Those details get them noticed by a mysterious organization.  John gets 'kidnapped' and then 'rescued' and spends a few months in the care of his new friend, Sam, his 'rescuer.'  They spend hours talking about the fate of the world.  We learn how John has always felt a deep need to make the world a better place, a deep responsibility to better humanity.  And throughout this he's having some sort of religious/psychic visions (daymares he calls them).

Meanwhile, Paul is looking for his friend.  He's aided in this endeavor by Julia; an ex-CIA member, hired by Susan's (more on her in a bit) father as head of his security, in charge with fighting the mysterious organization, called The New Dawn; and Susan, long time girlfriend/love of John.  Julia explains to them the New Dawn is a super-secret cabal with tentacles in every echelon of power.  They have a vision of the good that they will do whatever is necessary to achieve.  Susan's dad has been fighting them, and in retaliation, they kidnap kids dear to him, like George, and now that he's found out about it, John, and as soon as they can get their hands on him, Paul.

Eventually, of course, Paul finds John, and it turns out the New Dawn is behind all of it.  Julia's a member.  (It's hinted Susan's Dad is, too.) And once a mystical/technological ceremony; involving not just implanting a computer chip into John's brain, but a necromancer, three-hundred-year-old-blood, and a computer system that can rule the world; takes place, John will find himself a shadow king of Earth with Paul, Julia, and Susan as his highest counsel.

Over the course of this, we learn that The New Dawn is not all puppies and sunshine.  Once John takes over he really will have the power to make the world a better place.  But some absolutely horrific things had to happen to get him that power.  If you can, imagine a hybrid of the Bene Gesserit, The Illuminati (Wilson and Shea's version), and a smattering of Cthulu, you'll have something that sort of gives you an idea of The New Dawn.

So, with that set up, we run into my pet peeve: sloppy moral thinking.  Adair tells us that John really will have the power to make the world a better place.  We aren't talking Hope and Change here, where the words sound good, but very little actually happens.  We're talking about eradicating poverty and disease.  We're talking end of war.  Adair also tells us that John and The New Dawn will become one organism.  So, even if horrible things had to happen to get John the power to make the world a better place, they do not have to continue happening because John, by will alone, can wield this power, and there's no reason he has to continue in those plans. 

Basically, this is the Spiderman moment: with great power comes...  Nothing.  With an immensely powerful organization capable of changing the world, John, Paul and Susan decide to destroy it.  Sure, they could have saved the lives of billions of people, destroyed hunger, ended disease, stopped war, but The New Dawn was involved in some horrific things to get them that power, so they used John's access to kill it.

Basically Peter Parker, upon noticing the research facility that created the spider was also doing absolutely evil genetic research, decided to set fire to it, stay a college student, majoring in journalism, and eventually became an investigative reporter.  The web slinger never sees the light of day.

And this is where I, as a reader, start banging my head against the wall.  I get the point of where Adair was going.  I understand his play on turning away from the corrupting influence of almost infinite power.  The problem is, he didn't set up the New Dawn or John in such a way that the reader comes away impressed and relieved that John stepped back from the power.  Yes, the New Dawn is immensely creepy.  But John is an immensely good character. A character who, with almost limitless power and in an absolute frothing rage, gives the man who made him that angry a black eye, and then stalks off in a huff.  John is basically a Paladin. And he has complete and utter control over The New Dawn.  So instead of Darth Vader being seduced by the power of the dark side and turning away from it, all I was left with was a sense of the immense loss of opportunity.  Basically, John needed to be a whole lot darker for this plot to work convincingly.

Since we're already on the negative side, let me talk a little about the writing as well.  For the most part the story is well written.  Then we get to the climax of the book.

As an author there are two parts of the book you want to absolutely nail.  The beginning because that's where you attract your reader, and the climax because, well, it's the climax.  Adair did a fine job with the first 90ish percent of the story, then we get to the climax and the writing begins to feel rushed.  He starts bounding over details that would have been nice to see, though he does have John remember some of them later in a flashback. Which is remarkably unsatisfying.  He begins switching point of view rapidly, which isn't necessarily a deal breaker for me.  It's a good technique for building tension and giving us both story lines, but both of his POV characters are in first person.  Now, most of the time this isn't an issue.  Adair has done a good job of giving both characters very distinct voices, so figuring out who is who takes maybe a sentence or two tops.  But when you're flipping back and forth every few paragraphs, and it takes a line or two to figure out whose head you're in, it's more distracting than entrancing.

Then, right as the climax is drawing near, he tosses in a twist that I was expecting, but hoping he'd restrain himself from doing.  He didn't set it up properly to have the sort of punch it needed, so it fizzled.  Like with the decision to destroy New Dawn, I could see what he was trying to do, but it needed a few extra pages of background and tension building to really pull off.

Okay, enough of the stuff I didn't like, let's talk about the good stuff. 

Character voice: Adair absolutely nailed it.  John and Paul have distinct voices, both of which flow naturally, use words convincingly, and make me like the characters.  I'd be happy to have both Paul and John as friends.  They are fully rounded, vibrant characters.

Humor: once again Adair does a great job with this element of the story.  The Father's Child could have been soul-suckingly grim, but it wasn't because of how well Paul is written.  He's funny, occasionally goofy, but not so much that you want to slap him.  He's a bit of a light-weight as a thinker, but it's an element this story badly needed.  If you've ever seen NCIS, he'll put you in mind of DiNozzo. 

The relationship between John and Paul.  This is something I love to see in a book: a well-written, convincing, deep male friendship.  Usually in thrillers men relate to each other in terms of killing one another or partnering up for the duration of the mission.  Sometimes there's a sidekick as well, whose main purpose is to provide comic relief.  Now, while it is true that Paul is there for comic relief, he's way past the 'sidekick' role.  He's a fully defined protagonist in his own right.  And between them is a relationship worth exploring.  A friendship that feels real, intimate, yet fully masculine as well. 

Lastly, Adair is handy with his visual imagery.  While in Paul's head he's funny and witty, in John's he's intensely visual, seeing and describing things in detailed shades of beautiful language.

All of which is why, five days after finishing the book, I'm still not sure if I liked it or disliked it.  I know I'm frustrated.  I know Adair can write.  I saw him do it.  I read it.  But then the climax hits and the prose goes all wonky, and the penultimate scene of the book doesn't happen until a flashback at the end.  Which made me a very unhappy reader.  But it's got a great friendship, and some wonderful characters, and I really liked the use of visual imagery.  Which made me a very happy reader. 

On, two stars equals it's okay.  And I think that's where I'm going to leave The Father's Child.  I have high hopes that Mark Adair's further adventures with the written word will be excellent.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Indie Book Review: The Society of Pirates

Let me start this review by getting something out in the open.  I know David Twiddy.  We're Facebook friends.  He graduated college the year before I got there, and we have several friends in common.  So, although I've never met David in person, I like him.  I have a feeling that, had I gotten to college a year sooner or had he stuck around a year later, we probably would have been friends.  I should probably also add that he did not ask me to review his book.

So, I may not be perfectly objective in this review.  But I will be honest.

And honestly, I really enjoyed The Society of Pirates.

The Society of Pirates is somewhere between a swashbuckling yarn and historical fiction.  It pays more attention to the realities of life among the pirates and the attitudes of the times than the traditional swashbuckling tale, and is a little lighter on the details of geography and culture than a traditional historical fiction.  The plot is a somewhat basic pirate story: head off in search of buried treasure and deal with the black-hatted (or in this case lipped) nemesis before he deals with you.  The details: a hull full of Jesuits, a safe haven with a natural philosopher and his trained monkeys, and Spanish-nobleman pirate hunters, are all new.

In relation to the plot the story is a bit loose.  In a tight story each aspect of the story moves the plot forward.  Bits of Society fill in character, give us depth of world, but don't necessarily move the storyline forward.  Though I don't think a sequel is in the offing, it does read quite a bit like the first story in a series.  Basically, there's a lot of good world and character building here, probably a bit more than was strictly necessary for the first book, but it's a good foundation for series of tales.

I'm often frustrated by the division between YA and adult fiction.  Usually the dividing line is the age of the main character; an adult main character means a book isn't YA fiction.  All of the characters in The Society of Pirates are adults.  Yet with a snappy storyline, fun characters, minimal adult language, minimal explicit violence, and no sex, I'd be more than comfortable giving this book to any ten-year-old who likes pirates and wants to stretch his reading skills.

The history hit a sweet spot for me.   Dave explored on the rift between the Catholics and Protestants, Spain and England, and the freebooting multi-culture of the pirate world.  One of the things modern Americans often forget is that once upon a time 'white' was meaningless in regards to race and Christian meant very little in terms of religious harmony.  I'm always happy to see a realistic treatment of race and religion, especially in stories where it's not vitally important to the plot.  It shows the author was paying attention and doing a good job of setting the scene.

Dialog.  I've said it before.  I'm sure I'll say it again.  I'm a sucker for a great dialog.  And not only is the dialog tight and witty, it's in dialect and well done.  Well done dialect is one of the most difficult skills for a writer to develop.  Most of us have a hard enough time just getting distinct voices for our characters, let alone trying to capture the phonetic spellings of the different speech patterns of our characters.  Dave didn't just write dialect.  He didn't just do it well.  He did four distinct dialects.  Pirate English, Scots, Spanish, and the traditional American English of the narrator.  My mind boggles at the work involved in pulling that off.  I know I couldn't do it, and I've seen very, very few other writers do it well. 

So, all in all, I'm very pleased with The Society of Pirates.  Go give it a read, or get a copy for the pirate-loving-ten-year-old in your life, and spend a little while in the company of pirates.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

DAZ for Cover Art

In my never-ending quest to write about interesting tools available to the self-published author, I'd like to spend a little time talking 3d rendering software.

Specifically, I'd like to talk about DAZ3D.  DAZ is 3D rendering software that gives people like me (who can barely draw competent stick figures) the ability to make art like this. 

Wood Elves by Maraich
Sort of.  See, here's the thing, Daz has what we shall nicely call "a steep learning curve."  Or maybe, I should say art in general has a steep learning curve.  Though both of these ideas go hand in hand.  Daz is equipped to allow you to make any little change you need to for successful art, so it's complicated software.

The premise is deeply seductive.  You see images like the one to the left, and they're beautiful.  You watch the intro video and see how Daz works. It's 3d rendering software with props.  It's like the ultimate dress up game.  You buy the dolls (characters) you like, and the clothing you want them in, and the props around them, and then arrange them however you like.  Almost everything is practically infinitely customizable.  You can take their base objects and make your characters, places, and scenes come to life.

It's brilliant.  If you're anything like me, you can barely produce legible handwriting, let alone draw anything.  But with Daz, all you need is the ability to move sliders left and right.  I can do that!  You can do that!  And if you're like me, upon seeing what was possible, and looking at your cover art, which isn't terrible, but you'd like to spiff it up, your credit card leapt out of your wallet and began entering the numbers all by itself.  (The basic software is free, the characters, props, clothing, etc, all costs money.)

So, I bought characters, I bought clothing, I messed around with sliders, and produced...

Graveyard 1 by Keryl Raist
Well, it's not precisely Revenge of the Sims, but it's not good either.  And I'm not alone in doing this.  So have a lot of other self published authors.  Complaints about atrocious CGI (computer generated image) cover art isn't precisely rare in our field. 

See, there are things you learn while you learn to draw that a lot of us who aren't artists don't know much about. Shadows for example. The software handles the shadows, but you fine tune them.  So for example, the shadows on the clothing look fine, but Sarah's (the girl character's name) hair looks off.  Likewise something weird is happening with the shadows on the ground.

If you can actually draw you probably know something about posture, poses, and facial expressions.  I've had problems with the shoulders.  Chris' (the guy character) shoulders are too stiff.  He's supposed to be relaxed and comforting.  Sarah's supposed to look like she's about to spring up and attack something that's scaring her.

As my husband said, it looks stiff and cartoonish.

But this is all fixable.  (Hence the steep learning curve comment.)    After many hours online reading more about how 3d renders work, and more hours spent adjusting sliders, I got to this.

Graveyard 2 by Keryl Raist
Better.  The ground still has some odd shadowing, but the background lighting now clearly says, "Sunset."  Chris looks a bit less stiff, but I've got the camera so you can't really see his face anymore.  His clothing looks better, but still isn't perfect.  Sarah looks like she's about to burst into tears, and that's just not right.  She's supposed to be scared, not sad.  Amazing what a 15% change in the curve of the lips will do.  Her hair no longer has those weird lines, but the reflection is a bit too sharp.

The big issue right now is posture.  Sarah's shoulders are doing a better job of conveying 'scared' but her arms are wrong, and in real life, the knife would fall to the ground if she was holding it that loosely.

Real artists use life studies.  There's a reason for this.  It wasn't until I actually held a knife that I realized how tight the fist needed to be or that the thumb was way off.  Meanwhile, if you're so scared you're about to attack, that sort of bent arm/fist just isn't happening.  On top of that (though you can't see it in the picture) I had the weight on her legs wrong, which adds to her looking 'off.'  I'm taking a picture of my husband holding a staff soon, because Chris' grip looks better from shot one to two, but I have a feeling the arm is off.

Graveyard 3 by Keryl Raist
And so the changes continue. Chris' shirt looks better, but the lighting makes it look a bit shiny.  Sarah's hair still isn't quite there.  Her facial expression is better, but not quite right yet either. The hand holding the knife is better, so is the arm with the fist, but the actual fisted hand still needs a little adjustment on the bend.  I'll probably end up messing with Chris' arm holding the staff a bit more, too.

Then I'll probably re-light the whole thing three or four more times to just see how different combinations work.

So, do I recommend DAZ?  Yes.  Doing this is a whole lot of fun.  But it's not easy.  And it's not quick.  When it comes down to it, we see so many thousands of tiny details that we never really notice, until we run into an image where they don't look right.  Then we still don't notice them, but we do realize the image isn't right.

I'm not ready to start publishing my images as cover art yet.  But I'm pretty sure one of these days I'll get it down.  I will learn to really see the details.  In the meantime, I look at the images others have created with Daz and feel hopeful that one of these days I too will produce something worth putting on the cover of my book.  One of these days, I'll get to the point where I can do things like this:

Spirit Quest DS Version by Maraich

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Indie Short Story Review: Celebrity Space

What to say about Alain Gomez' Celebrity Space?  It's short.  I liked it.  It's creepy.  I wanted more.

That about sums it up in as few words as possible, but you aren't reading this for the teeny-tiny book review.  So, lets see about adding some meat to those descriptions.

It is short.  At about 3000 words, it's lunch or coffee break reading, depending on how fast you read.

There is an issue the short story author has that a novelist doesn't, and that's the need to pack a lot of punch into very few words.  Celebrity Space is about as long as most novel authors spend on describing the base location and the first meeting of the main character.  And in that space it has to introduce six characters, set up a plot arc, and build a climax.

And it's okay at all of those things.  Though I think they could have been done significantly better with about twice as many words (and still would have been a very short story.)  Or done just as well with the same number of words if Gomez had spent less time on the extraneous characters.

Mostly I would have liked to have seen more focus on the creep factor, on the visceral reaction of the main character, Dan, to the first hint that something unsavory is going to happen, Dr. Fleischer, an experimental geneticist with a reputation for unethical work.

Also, on the short theme, there is this: Celebrity Space doesn't feel finished.  It ends at a logical point, and a bit of a cliffhanger at that.  Now, in a novel, you can do that and leave the reader feeling like they read a whole story, and now it's time to move onto a new story.  With as short as CS is, you don't get the feeling that you've read a whole story.  It feels like you've read the first chapter of a larger story.  Since CS is now out as part of a collection of short stories, my guess is that it really is just the first chapter in a longer story.

On the "I liked it" theme: it's a solid little set up for a larger story.  There's enough going on to get you interested.  It's not terribly deep or meaningful, but it's quick and entertaining, sort of the literary equivalent of a potato chip.  Tasty, but you want more than one.

As for creepy, the write up doesn't really do the story justice.  I'd say it's much closer to the thriller end of the sci-fi spectrum than the adventure side, and from the write up it's hard to tell that.  Even more foreshadowing would have been nice, but given the length, it's a solid effort.

There are three other stories in the series.  I haven't read them, yet.  (My to be reviewed list is longer than my arm, so I'm trying to get through more of it fast.)  So, it does look like Gomez has taken care of that issue.  Right now Celebrity Space is free on Amazon, so if you're interested in a crunchy little bit of story goodness, go give it a shot.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Indie Book Review: The Eternal Messiah: Jesus of K'Turia

I'd like to start this review with two related thoughts.  First off, it takes a lot of guts to write about Jesus.  Almost everyone, and all Christians, has an ideal of Jesus, a set of mindsets and actions, and any deviation by the author is likely to annoy some readers. 

Secondly, though I have a degree in Religious Studies with a focus in Christian History and Theology, I'm not actually a Christian. 

Which I guess is my way of saying, I'm well versed in the ideas this story deals with, but I have no dog in the fight.

So, what is this story about?  The title would seem to indicate a hybrid of the Gospels and Star Trek.  And I'll admit that was what I was expecting to read as I got into the book.  So, I was pleasantly surprised to find an elegant and gentle treatment of the transformative power of faith. 

The theology is clean and simple.  Anyone who possesses a faith and works mindset should be pleased.  Anyone who is a fan of Paul's criticisms of the Law will probably enjoy this as well.  If you too believe the Law is old and dead, and the heart of the Christian message is drop everything, love your fellows, and follow Jesus, then you'll probably like this book, and be sold on it's main premise: that that message can immediately change, heal a man.

But I'm not sold on that message, so I would have liked to seen a bit more emotional depth of transformation.  The main characters find Jesus, literally, and are changed.  They see Him in action, feel the healing balm of His presence, and in less than two days, are ready to completely change their lives.  Now, perhaps that's the point, interaction with the real Jesus is so powerful, it immediately changes you.  But it didn't feel real to me.

There is a phenomena with hard core Star Trek fans.  If you ask them what happened in any given episode, they can tell you not only what happened on the screen, but they also fill in extra bits of story that weren't really there.  Parts that are emotionally meaningful to them are amplified, more detail added, occasionally entire extra scenes or bits of dialog take place.  The result is a much rounder, more fulfilling story than the actual TV show on the screen.

I have a feeling actual Christians will have a similar response to The Eternal Messiah.  People who already believe the message, who already have felt the power of Jesus in their own lives will likely have no problem connecting the dots of this story and adding in the extra bits of depth necessary to make it great.  People like me, on the outside looking in, will likely find the transformation a bit shallow.

Which is not to say it's badly written.  It's a solid B effort.  But it's not the sort of change where you slide effortlessly into the characters and accept what is going on.  This isn't Michael Corleone joining the dark side. 

I would have liked to have seen a more defined climax to the story.  I know when the plot is character change that a major, well-defined climax is problematic, but this story ended almost tentatively.  Yes, it wraps at a logical point, but it feels like the first book in a series.  

All in all,  I liked The Eternal Messiah.  I enjoyed reading it, and wanted to know what came next.  There are shades of Dune as well as Star Trek in this story, and I appreciate a bit of sci-fi in my theology. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Indie Book Review: McCarty Griffin

In thinking about this review, I've got the music from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in my head.  Before anyone thinks I'm calling any of these books bad or ugly, let me say what I mean.

The Good:  The Tribe is a sweet story about a group of feral cats and the humans who move onto their farm. 

The Bad: Monster Story is a "Good Lord! By all that's good and holy, DON'T GO INTO THE WOODS!" sort of tale.

The Ugly: Half Inch is a story of a battered woman planning to and murdering her ex-husband.

So, it's on the level of choice of topics is where these terms fit.

The Tribe brings us into the minds of a collection of feral cats left to their own devices on a farm, and their adventures with the humans who decide to move there.  It's cute.  It's sweet.  It's begging to be made into a live action movie for the 5-10 year old crowd.

I think The Tribe is technically a book for adults, (none of the characters are children) but I'd highly suggest it for reading with your kids.  Especially if they're old enough to be begging for pets.  This would be a great start to conversations about what it means to take care of an animal, about how they aren't just furry toys, and how to respect the small, fuzzy lives around us. 

I'll have to admit that I didn't finish Monster Story, but not because it was low quality.  For personal reasons I've been in a place where horror just isn't settling well with me.   The set up was strong.  The creepy factor was ramping up.  Horribly dead people were being found, well, pieces of them, and I hit the point where Monster Story was just too much.

I'm not usually a wuss when it comes to horror, so I'll probably take a stab at it again later.  But for the third of it I read, I was impressed, so impressed I didn't want to know what happened next.

And then comes Half-Inch, which was one of the most wonderfully ugly stories I've read in a long time.

I've always felt the true horror of Silence of the Lambs comes from the fact that Hannibal Lecter seems so reasonable.  You read the books, hear him speak, and suddenly you're thinking murder as art doesn't sound like such a bad idea.

Pammy (Half-Inch's main character) might not have the same motivations as Lecter, but as you steep in the story the reasonableness of her actions grows and grows.  Toward the end you're sitting there, nodding along, more or less thinking, 'Yep, he had it coming.' and that's when you pull back and realize exactly how ugly this story is.

All in all, I'm quite impressed by the range McCarty Griffin was able to pull off.  Besides basic setting, these three stories have very little in common, yet they are all very believable.  She understands the mechanisms of thriller, horror, and non-genre fiction.  Stephen King is the only other author I can think of who's managed to pull off all three convincingly, and he's not bad company for an author to keep.