Saturday, January 29, 2011

Indie Book Review: Whom God Would Destroy

Welcome to another book I'm having a hard time reviewing.  Whom God Would Destroy does not fit easily into the traditional good/bad categories.

Let me start here, I really enjoyed reading Whom God Would Destroy.  But, here's a little secret, I read for characters, not action.  And Commander Pants is really good with characters.  This book is filled with interesting, entertaining characters.  People who feel real.  Given how strange some of these characters are, it would be very easy to go off the rails and end up with farcically drawn comic book characters.  But, even at their most insane, Pants' characters still feel real. 

Of course, a book is not just a collection of characters.  There also needs to be a plot.  And this is where the problem is.   Whom God Would Destroy doesn't so much have a plot as a collection of themes.  The Vagaries Of Mental Health: it's in there.  The Nature of God To Man: yep, got that, too.  The Dissatisfaction That Comes From Looking For a Perfect Experience: in spades, my friends.  Reality Is a Collection Of Layers, One More Complex Than the Next, and In The Whole Scheme Of Things Humans Understand Just As Much About The Universe As Bacteria Understand Quantum Physics: of course.  One Man's Crazy Is Another Man's Truth: do I even need to mention it? 

Instead of a plot, let us say there are two main themes.  The Nature of God to Man, and One Man's Crazy is Another Man's Truth.   Interestingly enough both involve aliens.  Theme A is illustrated by the story of Jeremy, an alien playing God for kicks and giggles.  (He gave the Jews the Shema, He did the Christ routine, and this time around He's apparently been reading some Heinlein, 'cause He sounds an awful lot like Valentine Michael Smith, you grok?)  He's messing with humanity again because He enjoys it.  He finds Oliver, an outreach counselor for a local mental health facility, and decides Oliver would be a perfect disciple.  A modern day Paul if you will.  So, in line A we watch as Jeremy manipulates Oliver into Discipleship.  For Theme B we follow Doc, one of Oliver's clients, and learn about how Doc is being used by an alien race in search of the PERFECT experience.  (The Ultimate Orgasm, they term it so mere humans can understand the idea.)  They find said experience in Big Macs (why not?) and Doc is part of the team of humans being used to make sure they get their Big Mac fix.

As themes these two lines have similar focuses and illustrate different aspects of the same concepts (the levels of reality, for example).  But as a story, they just don't have a whole lot to do with each other.  What the book is missing is an overarching plot to tie these themes together.   

Let me be clear here, Whom God Would Destroy is worth reading.  It's five or so hours well spent.  But if you want to examine it critically, there's a huge hole in the middle of it, and that's the plot.  Whom God Would Destroy meanders from one character to the next, spending time in their interesting worlds, getting to know them, but it's lacking in direction.  

Take Greg for example.  He's my favorite character in the book.  His purpose in the book is to illustrate how psychology isn't all that precise and with great ego comes the ability for a great fall.  I really like his story line and think it's quite clever.  But if you cut every scene with him as the main character out, it would have absolutely no bearing on the story.  He's not vital or even tangentially related to either of the main themes.  On his own and developed more fully he'd be a wicked cool novel or novella.  As a part of this story, he's just there.  Greg is a microcosm for what's right and wrong with Whom God Would Destroy.  He's well written, he's fascinating, as a reader you want to get to know him better, and he's totally divorced from any plot the book may have. 

So, how does a reviewer rank a book that was enjoyable, with well drawn characters and no real plot?  Pants knows how to use words.  His writing is clear and, if not poetic, well crafted for the purpose of the book.  His themes and the way he treats them is not precisely new (see Heinlein comment above) but well done.  His characters really are excellent.  But plot is a major issue, and it's a writing 101 level skill.  The whole purpose of a novel is to have something happen that ties all the elements of the story (characters, setting, writing style) together.  And that's just not in this story. 

I'll call Whom God Would Destroy a well recommended 3 stars.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Self Pulbishing with Options As Far As the Eye Can See

Do you want maximum options for how your book will look?  Do you want marketing tools out the wazoo?  Is endless possible customization your idea of a very good thing?  Then may be the perfect self publisher for you.

If you are looking to do something beyond a standard novel, Lulu is probably the best option as well.  They have templates set up and ready to go for picture books (like a photo album, but the photos are printed directly on the pages), cook books, yearbooks, and calenders.

But, if you are like most of the people reading this blog, you are publishing a novel.  And there's only one thing I'd recommend for in that case, your hardback copy.

Why?  Because there's almost nothing Lulu offers except a hard bound book that you can't get for less with

Here's the oranges to oranges comparison: with CreateSpace you decide on the Pro or Regular plan, the Pro plan costs $39.00 regular is free.  If you go pro your per page cost is .012 and regular is .02.  With you pick the kind of paper you want Publisher Grade (.015) or Standard (starting at .02 and going up from there).  Publisher grade gives you two size options, and you can't get an ISBN number.  Standard comes in pretty much any size you can imagine, and you can get an ISBN.  If you're actually planning on selling your book, you're already spending way more per book than you will with CreateSpace.

Why am I comparing Lulu to the Pro Plan prices instead of the Regular plan prices?  Because when you buy the Pro Plan with CreateSpace you also get the distribution tools you want if you actually intend to sell a physical book.  (I'm assuming this is where the term Pro Plan comes in.)  With Lulu, if you really want to sell a book you have to pick the paper option that costs more and then pay more for a distribution channel on top of it. 

So, for Sylvianna my CreateSpace author's copy costs $5.96.  My Lulu author's copy costs $14.00.  That was the moment I decided, unless I want a hardback copy of Sylvianna, Lulu was not going to get my publishing business.

Okay, so how do they do on ebooks? 

I'll admit I didn't get very far in this process.  I uploaded my file, and then they asked me what size I wanted my ebook to be.  I found myself thinking, "Pick a size for ebook?  Ummm what?"  See, here's the thing with ebooks, they come in whatever size the reader's screen happens to be.  So, my Kindle for PC screen is a lot bigger than my iPhone and my husband's Kindle is sort of in between.  So it doesn't make a lot of sense to pick a size for your ebook.  But, what do I know?  I'm new to this whole thing, so I open the list of sizes.  They're all standard book sizes.  I pick 5x8, and it resizes my document for 5x8 pages, and it looks bad.

Now maybe if I hadn't already used, and come out with a product that looks good on any sized screen, I wouldn't have been so picky about this.  But I did go through the Smashwords conversion process and got an electronic book that looks good everywhere.  So, seeing the 5x8 pages, and knowing I already had a distribution channel set up for basically any ebook format I could want, I gave up on Lulu's ebookery. 

Lulu offers marketing tools, they offer promotional stuff, they'll build your cover for you, they'll edit for you, they provide pretty much every service you could possibly want, the only thing is: it costs a lot of money.  CreateSpace offers almost all the same marketing, promotional, editing, and cover work, and they charge less.  Smashwords actually understands how to build an ebook so that anyone can read it.

So, unless you are looking for your hardbound masterpiece, it's time to go looking for a different publishing house.

Next up in the Self Publishing series: Outskirt Press.  I see their ads below my posts, so it's about time I go and see what they can offer!  Also in the not too distant future, a review of Whom God Would Destroy.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Indie Book Review: The Crown Conspiracy

I'd like to introduce you to The Crown Conspiracy (The Riyria Revelations) by Michael Sullivan.  This is a six book series revolving around a fantasy world and the goings on therein.  The Crown Conspiracy is book one in this series, and, having read it, I'm looking forward to books two through six.  

I may sound a little hard in the coming paragraphs of this review, and I want to explain something up front, the Crown Conspiracy is a wonderful bit of old-school sword and sorcery (though this particular book was a bit light on magic) fantasy.  If, like me, you grew up in the days DragonLance and Forgotten Realms, this story feels like an overdue homecoming.

Let me begin with the good: the writing is lovely, detailed enough to let you know what is going on, who is doing it, and why, without falling into the Anne Rice trap of describing everything in such painstaking detail you want to skip pages or fall asleep. 

The Crown Conspiracy is a very carefully written book.  One of the lessons I learned as a writer was 'if it's not vital to the plot, leave it out.'  Writers don't always do that.  Indie writers really don't always do that.  I had a few spots through the story where I was thinking, 'and we're reading this why?' but all but one of those threads eventually got wound back into the story.  No matter how obscure a bit of the story may feel when you are reading it, there's a reason for it, and I like that very much.  That also means you need to pay attention to everything that happens, what looks like a throwaway line will come back and be important later. 

I loved the main characters.  Loved how they played off of each other.  There is a sort of well done buddy film feel to this book.  Royce and Hadrian genuinely like each other, making it easier for the readers to like them. We got enough back story so we didn't feel lost, but enough tantalizing details were left just out of reach to whet your appetite for more tales of Royce and Hadirian.  That can be a hard balance to pull off, and Sullivan did a lovely job with it.  He also pulled off another trick of the master writer, secondary characters that feel real, but don't clog up the story with unimportant back story.

Now for the less good: I can't call it bad, because it's not, but because the rest of the story is so strong little bits like this stick out.

This book has one mystery, 'Who murdered the king?'  As the book begins, the only thing we know for sure is that Hadrian and Royce didn't do it.  Beyond that we're left in the dark.  And being in the dark works, it's good to go through the possible options and rule them in or out.  Then we go beyond 'in the dark' into intentionally misled by the author.  He dangles little bits of story in front of us to make us think one thing, and then whips them out from under us when he finally lets us know what's up.  There's an almost sucker punch sensation when we find out what is actually going on because of the way the story is set up.  Like the misdirection was written purely for the purpose of misdirection. 

Sullivan wrote a very complex climax to the Crown Conspiracy.  There are at least six lines of point of view he switches between as he keeps building the tension.  Some of this is very gratifying, very clever.  One of the points of view is a bit annoying.  When you're that close to finishing up you don't want to suddenly break away to a point of view of a character who was last mentioned three hundred pages earlier for a few paragraphs and then dies two pages later.  It would be like watching Return of the King, getting to the battle for Mordor, and then slipping away for two minutes to see what Arwen is up to.  She might be doing something really interesting, but unless you're a diehard fan, you're going to fast forward to get back to the action.  However, once the book gets back to the action... Oh yeah, it's so worth it.

Sullivan has given us a fantastic first course, balancing the elements of his composition almost flawlessly, putting just enough on the plate to leave you feeling satisfied but still wanting more.  Lucky for all of us hungering for the next course, Avempartha, book two, is already out.  

Monday, January 3, 2011

On Writing Reviews

Spending some time online, and in the search for my next book to review has brought an issue to mind.

How do you know you're getting an honest review?  More importantly how do reviewers deal with stinkers?

Well, I like to consider myself an honest reviewer.  But those of you who are reading closely have probably noticed I never give a bad review.  Why?  I don't publish my bad reviews on my blog. 

There are several reasons for that, first off, I don't want to finish reading a book I loathe.  When I go book hunting I find a collection of possible books, download their free samples, and usually something like seven out of ten of the free samples are bad enough I don't read past page three.  By page three I already know the grammar is bad, the formatting impossible to read, the writing inelegant and amateurish.  I don't need or want to read further.  And really, a review based on three pages isn't fair.  A book has to be exceptionally bad for me to write about it on just the sample.  Occasionally it happens, but I keep those reviews on the page of the book, so that the only people who see it are those considering buying the book.

Secondly, I hope to make some money doing this.  I want you to click on those Amazon links and buy the books I recommend.  Now, if I take the time to read a book I loathe and then write a bad review of it, I've cut into the return on investment in my reading time.  I, like everyone else, have finite time, and I want to maximize the potential dollars I can make off the time I spend reading for review.  Is that mercenary?  Sure.  Is it true?  Oh, yeah. 

Why not write a good review of a bad book?  Because if you ever do click on that link and buy the book, you'll rapidly see the book is bad.   I can't be the only person who found a well reviewed book, clicked on it, and rapidly decided all the reviewers had to be related to or friends of the writer, because no one else would give the thing a five star review.  Once again, I hope to make money on this, if you buy a book on my recommendation, notice it looks like it was written by a ten-year-old, and I didn't mention that in the review, you're very unlikely to take my word on it again.

Sometimes people send me books to read for review.   This usually makes my day because books people send me have so far been pretty good.  I've had one I couldn't write at least a three star review for.  I emailed the author and asked if he really want me to continue reading and write that review.  He didn't take me up on the offer. 

So, that's how I go about doing this. Other reviewers probably have other techniques.