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.