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  • Friday Indie Review: Zirkua Fantastic by Voss Foster


    I have oft spoken at cons about the importance of clean language.

    The written word is simply a medium.  For the most part, you want the words to leave the page and enter the brain with as little resistance as possible; the actual act of looking at the sentence and putting together the meaning should be a nigh-invisible act for your reader.

    Voss Foster is a writer who has mastered this art.  He has perhaps the cleanest language of any book I have reviewed on this site, and it’s a skill I deeply envy.  This is going to be a book I point other people at to demonstrate what really good, clean language looks like.  Reading Foster’s writing is an osmotic process, and I blew through the 164 pages of this book in little to no time.

    So, that said, let’s talk about plot.  Zirkua Fantastic is about art, the sacrifices we make for our art, and the power it has.  The circus itself is a mystical entity of dedicated performers, each of whom willingly sacrifice a portion of their life for their art.  This seems sinister at first, but what Foster pulls off is a way of making that sacrifice seem creepy and sinister while simultaneously heroic.  Underneath all of this, of course, is a ritual that binds a chaotic god, and the art of the performers is the thing that holds him in check.  That said, it also means the performers themselves are bound, mandated to continue to perform.

    There’s a kind of beautiful metaphor here.  It is the art of the circus that holds back the god of chaos – a god whose freedom will mean war, strife, and terror for all humanity.  I’m a fan of art-as-power metaphors, and Foster gives us a strong one.  Humanity has the choice between a travelling circus and war; Foster is not-so-subtly suggesting that maybe the world should choose more circuses.  It’s a hell of a statement.

    Underneath all of this we have the romance.  It’s a good story – the magically bound performer is in love with one of the vendors who follow the Zirkua about.  There’s nothing terribly outstanding about this romance (I do not count the fact that it is homosexual to be abnormal in the least).

    Which brings us to the part where I talk a little about the bad stuff.  I mentioned above that Foster is the master of osmotic writing.  His words are hard to notice, and that’s a truly great thing.  That said, there are times in a book where you want to slow the reader down and let them breathe.

    I’ll use the opening moment as an example.  In this, our protagonist Tobias is juggling some hoops.  Foster conveys this information with his usual deftness; it takes three lines or so  to describe.  Then, he moves on to the next piece of information.  In a book that’s really about the power and necessity of art and sacrifice, that opening basically lets us know that Tobias juggles some hoops.  He slips, isn’t too good at it, but recovers.

    I want more from this scene.  Starting mid-performance is fine, but not with the flourish.  Let us feel Tobias’s breath rise and fall as the hoops move through the air, let us rejoice with him in the pure exultation of his art, let us feel with him when he slips, and let us cheer for him when he gets it right.  Don’t just tell us what happens; really let us feel the pace of the performace.  After all, the book is about the power of this performance.  It’s central, vital to the plot.  The reader should feel that power right from the start.

    The overall story is conveyed skillfully, but there are simply moments (like that) where a scene that I know should be vivid and intense simply moves by like so much more text.

    All that said, Foster is growing as an artist, and Zirkua Fantastic proves it.  This book isn’t perfect, but it’s worth killing a summer afternoon with.


  • Friday Indie Review: Unbound by Adriane Ceallaigh


    Up for review this week, we have Unbound, which is the debut work from author Adriane Ceallaigh.  It is an older release, so she also has some other novels out as well.

    I’m going to start this review by stating up front that I enjoyed this read, and it kept me entertained all the way through.  Adriane has set up a very complex and treacherous world for her characters to navigate.

    Unbound is set in a dark and gritty contemporary fantasy landscape where the supernatural is always present and accepted.  In this world the “things that go bump in the night” are all real, and generations of mages have been captured for their magic.  The mages we meet in the opening scene of the book have been bound as slaves for a very long time.   The description in the book reminded me of controllable zombies with powers.  Even after finishing the book, I am honestly not sure if the controlled mages are actually undead (at least sometimes) and kept moving by their magic, or just extremely filthy and unkempt.

    There are two  jobs the slaves, often called mage-hunters, appear to be commonly used for. One is to hunt down unbound mages to add to their master’s power base;  the other is to act as the hitman/brute squad for their master.

    The main character, Kayla Blackstone, is a supernatural bounty hunter and runner.  This is different from a mage-hunter, because Kayla relies on a magical sword and potions/items to capture her prey, and only takes on new contracts or work when she wants to.  She tries to avoid the mage-hunters and their masters all together, operating on the fringes of the supernatural world.

    This staying-under-the-radar plan goes sideways for Kayla when one of the local kingpin creeps, Keaton, notices her efficiency.  He decides to offer her a job of the not-so-optional variety.   She turns him down anyway, which results in her house being burnt down by his mage-hunters with her daughter and husband inside.  Keaton uses her grief at this loss as an opportunity to give her a mind-wiping magical potion, and convinces her she has been working for him all along.  This book becomes a tale about her trying to get out from under his influence and find herself again.  It’s also about the people she meets during that journey.

    Which bring us to my one issue about this story.  Basically everything I’ve told you so far happens by the end of the first chapter.   The pacing in the book is incredibly fast, and rarely slows down to give the characters, or the reader, time to truly digest and react to what just happened.

    For me, the breakneck pace in this book resulted in both a positive and a negative.

    On the positive side:

    Opening the book to finishing it only took me two hours at most.

    The world and story concept definitely drove me forward and kept me turning the pages without thinking of putting the book down, because I wanted to find out what happened next.

    But on the negative side:

    Because there’s no down time between events (or very rarely), the characters’ reactions sometimes felt rushed or even a little manic. There’s also a few occasions where one character will state a new plot point while another character ignores what was said, since there’s been no time to set up whatever is happening anywhere else.  I still enjoyed the read, but that did make suspension of disbelief a little bumpy at times.

    I do have to give Adriane props here, that even when I felt the pacing was the most hurried, I still wanted to know what happened next.

    Lastly, I’m actually leaving the book with more questions about the world than I had when I started.  This may be a result of the sprint-like pacing, or it may be intentional on the author’s part, given that this is book one in a series.  Either way, I’m left with the feeling that there’s so much more about this world and these characters that needs to be explored.

    Let me be clear: There are already some really cool concepts in this story and it is definitely worth the read; I just feel like the story idea would have popped even more if the book had given the reader a little more to chew on and the time to do that.

    This is a debut work, and I felt it shows so much promise along with the things that show there’s some room for growth. I’m looking forward to when the next Kayla Blackstone book comes out, because I really want to see how the author handles the questions she’s left unanswered.

    Hopefully we’ll also see a lot more growth from these characters in book 2.  All in all, it’s still a good read, and I’m very happy I picked it up.


  • Friday Indie Review: Brightly by Kaye Thornbrugh

    Welcome back – the move is over, the website hack is taken care of (though we’re still rebuilding our backlog of posts).  Time to get back to the business of indie books.

    What better way to re-launch than with the sequel to the book that started our reviews here?

    I’ve met Kaye Thornbrugh at a couple of good cons by now, and I’ve always enjoyed hanging out with her.  I liked Flicker, her first book, but there were some rocky points that needed shoring up, and I pointed that out.  It was a good book.

    She’s learned a lot about the art of writing a novel since then.  Brightly isn’t a good book – it’s a great one.

    Flicker set up the world in which these characters live; the magic shop, the odd jobs.  It let us see how Kaye’s magic system works, and filled us in on the backstory to her characters.  For some authors, that’s all there is; an origin story.  For Thornbrugh, it feels like the origin work was something she needed to tell in order to start telling us cool stories in that world.  Brightly has more character growth, more interpersonal dynamics, and frankly more fun now that the reins are off.  Her writing has all the glee of a dog that’s managed to escape from the backyard and really get out into the world.

    Let’s start with the main character, Lee.  Lee’s still something of an apprentice; she knows enough to know she’s outmatched and outgunned, but she’s working on that.  Lee’s internal dialogue is given to us, and we really feel what it is to be a teenage girl.  She’s emotional, sure, and that’s to be expected.  There’s a trap that many authors fall into here – that this blushing awkwardness should immediately spring, fully-formed, into an epic and/or tragic romance.  Thornbrugh isn’t excluding the possibility of that, but the way she handles Lee’s emotional state at any given time makes you feel like you’re looking at an actual person instead of a character from a romance novel.  Lee’s emotional experimentation and fumbling is endearing in a way that makes her character that much more sympathetic.

    And then there’s Filo.  I love Filo.  Here’s a kid that’s in roughly the same position as Lee, except that he’s got a lot more ability to get things done.  Filo’s problem is the Spiderman dilemma – with great power comes great responsibility.  He’s constantly trying to pass himself off as not-a-teenager, because to do otherwise would mean he couldn’t get his job done.  There’s a scene towards the very beginning of the book when Filo and Lee deal with some atrocity in a neighborhood basement.  The lady who owns the house is very grateful to both of them – so grateful she offers to call CPS and get them help.  Filo can’t take it, of course – that would get in the way of him doing his job, but the fact that this lady sees the vulnerability under Filo’s facade of easy competence makes the reader become attached to Filo as well.

    Nasser, Lee’s master in the arts of magic, is a more distant character.  This is pretty intentional; we’re looking at Lee’s POV, and as a result our perceptions of Nasser are filtered through Lee’s hormonal responses to him.  It’s hard to feel a direct connection to this third part of our protagonist triumvirate, because what the reader feels instead is a greater connection to Lee in the presence of Nasser.  He’s a good character, but the real magic comes from Lee dealing (badly) with her attraction to him.

    The world’s getting larger, too.  Flicker really set up the dynamics of the shop; Brightly almost immediately takes us away from that locale and into more fabulous settings.  As the titles imply, it’s flashier, hipper, and just a heck of a lot of fun.  The world we’re exposed to becomes something of a cross between Harry Potter and The Magicians, a place of wonder and magic, but one where the danger is a little more real-feeling.

    Flicker and Brightly are well named.  Flicker gave us the beginning glimmers of what Thornbrugh could do; Brightly has managed to pull it off with aplomb.

    Friday-Indie-Logo Three point 5

  • The Friday Indie Review: Black Magic Academy by Emily Martha Sorenson




    This story was a fun, light-hearted, young adult romp that had its tongue placed firmly in cheek for much of the book.

    The main character Mildred, thinks she’s probably been born into the wrong family. She’s been raised by her four aunts, Opalisa, Lilith, Anklistine and Hurda, who are all black witches of well established ill-repute in the witching community. Her mother Drakin, was apparently the Valedictorian of Black Magic Academy, and died taking out her Death-Enemy (and Black Magic Academy Salutatorian) Welsa.

    Mildred doesn’t care about Death-Enemies, or curses, or luring hapless “Normals” into her garden to steal bewitched cabbages. She’d much rather read about heros and princesses, but the one time her aunts caught her reading “that trash” they’d threatened to burn it. Not that Mildred’s actually seen much of the world except for her aunts. Aunt Opalisa is the oldest and most powerful of her four aunts, and she rules the family with an iron fist. She definitely doesn’t allow male witches or “Normals” anywhere near the family stronghold of Ebony Drake.

    That all changes when Aunt Opalisa decides it’s time for Mildred to take her place at the the Black Magic Academy, like her mother and most of her aunts did before her. Suddenly, Mildred is plunged into a whole school of witches trying to be meaner, uglier, and more evil than anyone who’s come before them. Even worse, Death-Enemy Welsa’s daughter is in her dorm, and immediately declares Mildred as her own Death-Enemy. Mildred just wants to get through her classes without being cursed or running afoul of the teachers.

    That turns out to be pretty difficult– Mildred is the only person in the whole place that thinks “being nice” isn’t a character flaw. Plus, due to some jibing from her new Death-Enemy, Mildred finds out her father was a Normal. Could her father be the reason why she just can’t seem get the hang of this whole wicked witch thing?

    One thing’s for sure; she’s going have to be awfully careful if she wants to get through Black Magic Academy without getting expelled or worse.

    I had a lot of fun reading this one, and while can’t say it truly shocked me at any point, the constant “fractured faerie tale” references and the paradigm reversal away from traditional faerie tales kept me entertained all the way until the end.


    Friday-Indie-Logo Three

  • Friday Indie Review: The Dragon’s Kiss by Pat MacEwen


    I have yet to meet a Pat MacEwen book that I haven’t immediately loved.   While wildly different in both setting and feel from her last story we reviewed, The Dragon’s Kiss is no exception to that rule.  I’m glad to report that this book also appears to be the first in a series, and I’m already waiting for the next one to come out.


    The story centers around Michael, a crippled boy who comes from a long line of dragon riders.  The dragons and their riders protect his small village from the Qing empire, a much a larger force that used to enslave the people from his village to mine gold and other precious minerals out of the nearby volcanic hills.  Michael dreams of flying a dragon himself, but since he’s wheelchair bound, has seizures, and can’t even communicate with the people around him unless he uses sign language, that dream seems unlikely to happen.  He can’t truly measure up to the other cadets in physical activities, so he has to bear with the ridicule of his cousin and the other boys, and the cold disdain of his dragon-rider father.


    However due to the persistence and influence of his aunt, he is allowed to participate in some of the cadets’ lessons.  He is out at the training grounds when one of the younger dragons goes berserk for no apparent reason. Michael hears a scream, and someone yelling in pain.  The dragon breaks free of its handlers and charges right for where Michael is sitting in his wheelchair.   There’s no way Michael is going to be able to push himself out of the way in time to avoid being trampled.  In desperation, he pleads in his head with the dragon, asking it to please not step on him.


    To his surprise, the dragon actually swerves and barely manages to miss him.  He starts to realize, that maybe the screaming in his head is actually the dragon’s cries of pain.  He tries to get it to listen to him, because if they can’t get it under control any other way, the riders will put it down.  There’s too much potential damage to life and limb otherwise.  It’s in too much pain to pay Michael any attention.


    He yells in his head for help, and several of the adult dragons suddenly show up on the edge of the training grounds, crooning something to the younger dragon.   It does pay attention to them, and at least stop thrashing and charging around.   With their help, Micheal is able to find where a poorly tightened harness buckle has turned and cut a deep gash in the young dragon’s side.   Disaster is diverted for the day, but no one can understand what just happened, or how Michael knew the young dragon was hurt in the first place.   And with his clumsy tongue and rudimentary hand signs, Michael can’t explain it to them either, even if he knew what he was trying to explain.  He’s not really sure what happened either.


    Have the dragons heard him?  Is he speaking to them?  And if he is speaking to them, why do they only appear to understand him some of the time?


    This was a totally engrossing read, and my only complaint is that it ended too soon. I definitely want more of these characters. I am very much looking forward to the next one.


    Friday-Indie-Logo Four

  • Friday Indie Review: Vokhtah by A.C. Flory



    A.C. Flory has created a unique world for the Suns of Vohhtah series.  She really, really has spent some serious time figuring out every last detail of this bizarre, alien world.  Every season, every caste in her hierarchy, and every new, alien species has its own name.  There is a hell of a lot of work that went into making Vokhtah a complete, detailed world.  I really feel like I need to acknowledge that before I say what I’m about to.

    Here is the problem with this kind of rampant world-building:  the author is the only one who’s done it.  I wasn’t there when the seasons got their names, or when the weather patterns of the binary star system were sorted out.  They were, and it is so cool that they were, but I wasn’t there when this nomenclature was generated.

    The learning curve on Vokhtah is a real son of a bitch.  A.C. Flory knows it, too; part of the query e-mail I received warned me that

    “The story is fast paced, but as there are no humans to ‘explain’ the  culture, readers are thrown in at the deep end, and can find the beginning  a challenge.”

    Yeah…that’s an understatement.  The dense opening of this book will throw names, titles, castes, seasons, items, and everything else at you in rapid succession.  Ms. Flory has spent so much time building this world that she has forgotten that her reader simply does not understand what is going on, and she hasn’t gone back to try to explain it to us.  I’m fine with not inserting a human, but you have to do something to ease the reader into your totally alien world.

    It’s made worse by the fact that there are no personal names for the characters; it seems that everything is based on titles and position, and if you are the Blue then that’s what we’re going to call you.  This does create a very strange, alien feeling, so kudos to that.  But I can tell from the book blurb that I’m supposed to care about the Blue, and I just don’t.  It’s only referred to by title, and it’s only referred to using the gender-neutral “it,” so I tend to think of the Blue and every last character in here as being so totally detached from me emotionally that I frankly don’t care if their world ends.

    Vokhtah is a stunning lesson to those of you out there who are world-builders.  This is a really complete and totally alien world, and for the intricacy with which she built it I have nothing but praise for A.C. Flory.  But Vokhtah is a terrible read, because you simply can’t bring yourself to care about the characters.  The Blue is on its mission to cure the Six of this place, but the Six of that place will not be happy about that, and maybe the Yellow will try to interfere.  There’s just no attempt to give us any sort of insight into these characters.  A.C. Flory wanted to create something totally alien to us, and succeeded.  But by not giving any human characteristics to her sentient creatures, she’s also alienated them from us.

    The fact that she prepped me for that in her e-mail tells me a great deal.  It tells me that I am not the first person to comment to her on this problem; she’s aware of it.  It tells me that she thinks her story would be watered down by the inclusion of some form of explanation, and it would be.  But here’s the thing; what she has right now is a frozen can of lemonade concentrate.  It’s too much flavor in too little space; watering down is exactly what it needs to taste delicious.  Stop fighting against the people who are telling you how to make your book better.

    And the names.  Dear God.  Everything has it’s own cool name, and I love and hate that at the same time.  Nothing is ever defined for the reader; it has to be pieced together from context clues, but those context clues are laden with other names.  The icing on this cake is the names of the sentient races that inhabit Vokhtah.  These are the Vokh, who are apparently the dominant race, though they may not be all that smart and they’re certainly homicidal.  Vokhicidal?  Now I’m doing it.  Anyways, except during mating the Vokh will always try to kill each other.  If a female Vokh gives birth, she will die doing so, so mating isn’t something that happens a lot.

    How the hell did this species evolve?  We’re skipping over that.

    Anyways, the needs of the Vokh are seen to by…wait for it…the iVokh.  Yes, that’s how it’s spelled.  iVokh.  I was not able to get through this book without seeing that name and immediately assuming that the protagonist was some form of Apple Product.  It’s a horrible name; I have no idea what possessed A.C. Flory to do that to her readers.

    Vokhtah should be split up and scattered amongst the pages of a base book for a sweet, alien RPG.  It would do very well in that, where the rules of the society are being laid out for the reader and the story is just flavor text.  But it should not be read for entertainment purposes; what you will get when you read it is a headache, not a happy.

    I encourage A.C. Flory to write some sort of a prequel to Vokhtah.  It doesn’t have to be a stranger-in-a-strange-land motif, but it has to ease us into the alien world she’s built.  It has to let us see the things the iVokh have in common with humanity, so that we can form some sort of connection to her characters.  I hate to see all the effort she put into building this world go to waste, but without a decently written story it will.

    Friday-Indie-Logo One point 5

    posted by Esther Jones on February, 02 ]]>

  • Friday Indie Review: Emerald City Dreamer by Luna Lindsey



    Emerald City Dreamer is an interesting book.  While borrowing heavily from traditional folk and fairytales, it is not by any means a traditional story.     The author has set up three factions at the beginning of the book.  The fae hunters, led by Jina and Sandy, believe all the fae are monsters who should be eradicated,  and the seelie fae, led by Jett, seem mostly benevolent but have no problem placing geases or implanting false memories in humans.  They also feed on the creative energy from special humans, known as “dreamers.” The third faction is a religious cult that attracts people who have been forgotten or abandoned by society, which a small street waif named Ezra belongs to.


    Not shockingly the three factions don’t get along, and the characters become trapped by their own decisions and the world view of their own factions.  Because the author has so much to set up in each of these world views, it does take a little bit for the book to get rolling, but once it does, the latter half of the book takes place at a break-neck pace.


    No one is blameless in this book, and there are definitely no clear “white hats”, although there are one or two unredeemable characters. The book takes a long look at the unending cycle of pain and hatred that springs up between feuding houses, and the danger of becoming trapped in your assumptions.  It even has a star-crossed relationship thrown in there for kicks.


    All that being said, I didn’t really like anyone in either of the main factions, and so I had a hard time being invested in the eventual grudging peace between the two sides by the end of the book.   I also felt some of the betrayals inflicted on each other by the lovers were actually down played a bit too much, so they could stay together.  Especially since, whether intentionally or not, those actions ended up in people being callously and almost casually killed.  I think that would be a very difficult thing to overcome in a relationship, and yet these two clear that hurdle in less than a week.     Which doesn’t make anyone any  less dead.


    This may be a little bitterness speaking on my part though, because my favorite viewpoint character in the story was one of the casualties in the middle of the book. (I won’t tell you who, though- spoilers.)


    Still, the story is very worth reading, and a bit on the dark side. Think Grimm’s fairytales with a modern twist, not the white-washed and sparkly princess fairytale version.


    Friday-Indie-Logo Three



    posted by Esther Jones
    on December, 24

  • The Friday Indie Review: Acheron Highway

    Let me start out this review by admitting what I have done here.  The fact of the matter is, the last couple of weeks both Esther and I have been confronted by books that we didn’t like.  They weren’t very good, and they made us sad.

    So this week, I reached for the candy.  I just decided to get all kinds of shallow, and grab a book I knew from the start I’d love.  I’ve been waiting to read and review this book forever, but I’ve held off because I knew it would be just a bunch of gushing about an author I’ve already told you to go read.  Twice.  With the need for a palate cleanser, I turned to my favorite indie author out there.

    By now, it is no secret that I love Gary Jonas.  I am most likely his most public and utterly devoted fanboy.  So I had some pretty high expectations heading into Acheron Highway, Book 2 of the Jonathan Shade novels.

    Jonathan Shade gets a lot of comparison to Dresden, and with good reason.  It’s an urban fantasy told in the style of a noir-detective story, which is exactly how Storm Front begins.  Once you get there, though, the similarities end.  Shade is not a powerful wizard; he knows just enough to get himself killed.  Actually, that’s already happened; it just didn’t take.  Shade has 2 powers:  he can see and talk to spirits, and he is immune to direct magic.  That last one is a two-edged sword, as he is also immune to magical healing, but it still comes in handy from time to time.  Of course, there’s a difference between being immune to a spell and getting hit with the brick the spell threw at you, so it’s not like Shade is totally out of the woods when dealing with wizards.

    No, Shade must rely on his friends to help him, and that’s where his novels become some of the most honest-to-God feminist novels I’ve seen in an indie book.  The hands-down badass protector is Kelly, a magically engineered warrior chick who’s so terrifying the wizards who built her and her like tried to eliminate them all because of their power and free will.  She’s the one that got away.  Sure, Kelly is accompanied by her new boyfriend Brand, who is also a “Sekutar” warrior, but Brand’s a second-gen model, built with limitations, and not nearly as badass as Kelly.  The main villain(ess) of this piece is the ruler of the underworld, Persephone.  Not Hades; Persephone seized control a long time ago, and is now the undisputed head of the dead.  Charon has abandoned his post as the Ferryman of the dead, choosing instead to live as Sharon, a librarian woman.  In short, the more power a given character wields in the Shade novels, the more likely that character is to be female.

    But enough of the political talk, because that’s not where Jonas shines.  We care about Shade.  I’m not going to go through all the twists this novel takes.  In fact, I’m just going to say this:  the dead are rising, Shade is running from them, and he’s trying to solve a case for a gal whose coworker stole her heart.

    Literally stole her heart.  It may or may not be in a jar in his basement.

    Normally, at this point, I’d tell you to go read this book.  But don’t!  First, go read Modern Sorcery, the first book in the Jonathan Shade series.  You’ll like it, and then you’ll get to this book and realize that Jonas is constantly getting better.

    The ending to Acheron Highway exhibits the classic Gary Jonas totally-unleashed emotional roller-coaster of an ending.  I’m actually going to do something strange here, and directly quote the author’s own comments on his blog about the ending to Acheron Highway:

    At the risk of having people looking for some kind of twist ending, I will say that the ending of ACHERON HIGHWAY will knock your soul right out of your body.  Normally, when I write something, I see only the flaws, so I keep thinking I should have done better.  With the ending of this book, I feel I nailed it both with the coolness factor and on the emotional front.  I find it’s tough to please myself with my own fiction, but this one did it for me.

    He is not overselling it.

    Friday-Indie-Logo Four

    posted by Esther Jones on January, 30 ]]>

  • A Cry of Innocence: A Modern-Day Witchhunt by Stan-Collins Ubaka


    Let me start by saying this:  the subject matter of this book is about as hardcore as it gets.  There are witchhunts being conducted in Nigeria, and they do end in killings.  I was really looking forward to reading a book that tackled the issue head-on, revealing the mass hallucination that is a witch hunt.  The subject matter of this book lends itself well to an intense, dramatic story.  Done right, this could have been the book of the year.

    Instead, this is a worthless abomination crapped out by someone looking to make a quick buck.  Under no circumstances should you purchase this book.

    Here’s the plot:  A young girl dies, and on her deathbed accuses another young girl of witchcraft.  The falsely accused protagonist protests her innocence, but her family turns from her, beats her, etc.  It turns out the protagonist is not a witch, because (spoiler alert) the actual witch was a different girl with the same name.  The novel ends with all our characters making up and celebrating that the correct witch was punished.  

    I am agog.

    Let me first express my utter disappointment that this book never addresses the possibility that there is no such thing as witchcraft.  In the mythology of Ubaka’s world, of course there are witches.  Of course they deserve to be punished.  The tragedy, according to Ubaka, is not the existence of witchhunts but the accuracy of them.  According to Ubaka’s twisted morality, once you find a witch, you can light her up no problem.


    The above paragraph is the only quote I authorize for use in any promotional material for this book.

    OK, the moral of this book, indeed the entire theme of this book, is completely effed.  Let’s move beyond that, and focus on whether the story itself is interesting.

    It is not.

    Each character is a cardboard cutout; the father who is angry about his daughter being a witch, the protagonist who vainly protests her innocence, the priest who tries to save the soul of the daughter, etc.  There’s conflict, but it’s all vastly predictable and without any twist or interesting development.  Girl is falsely accused.  A whole bunch of people shun girl and make her feel bad.  Then at the end, it is announced that Girl was innocent, hallelujah, we’re sorry, and all is forgiven.  Everyone hugs.  The End.

    I’m not kidding about everyone hugging.

    I’ve seen more plot, more tension, more interest in a bloody Chick Tract.  In fact, this book reads more like your basic morality play, except that (I can’t get over it) the moral of the play is burn the right witch.

    A while ago, I ranted about the freedom of the indie market being used to make a quick buck by fraudsters who just strung enough words together to call a book, publishing it, and moving on to the next.  This kind of shallow, worthless publication is exactly the sort of thing I was talking about.  A Cry of Innocence could have dealt with a very difficult theme in an emotional, tragic way.  Instead, it just shallowly skips across the surface of a major problem, never dealing with the underlying social flaws that create the problem, and never giving our characters anything more than rote, stilted lines to say about it.

    If I could give this book a lower score, I would.  As things stand:

    Friday-Indie-Logo Zero

    posted by Esther Jones on January, 25 ]]>

  • Friday Indie Review: Remembering Love by Nadine Christian

    Remembering Love is the debut novel by author Nadine Christian.  It is set on Pitcairn Island, and features some lovely descriptions of that island.  Unfortunately, that’s the best thing that can be said about this book. The main characters in the story are little more than card-board cut-outs that the author awkwardly drags around that scenery.  The book suffers from so many common first-time author mistakes (which I automatically expect a good content editor to catch) that I looked the title up, expecting it to be from a self-published author.  It’s not.

    Which in all honesty, made me wonder more about the quality of the small press that published this book, rather than the writing flaws themselves. Those can be chalked up to simple inexperience.  All first-time books go to their publisher filled with weird inconsistencies that have to be hammered out.  The draft of Frog and I’s first novel was not an exception.  Had an editor worth their salt gotten their hands on this book, I’m willing to concede this story may have fallen into the “fun romp” category for me.

    Sadly, that content editor did not, apparently, exist.   In fact if a content editor did exist, they did such a poor job they were not doing themselves, the publisher or the author any favors by putting this book out for public consumption in its current condition.
    Onward to the problems with this book in its current incarnation:
    The character reactions and motivations are only briefly explained through obvious “tells”, leaving the characters lacking in personality.   Too many scenes are nothing but exposition with the character just sitting or standing, telling us how she feels while doing absolutely nothing in particular.

    Nothing drags down a book faster than the author outright instructing me how I should be feeling about a scene or event in the character’s life.  The very fact that it’s necessary means the author has failed in their number one objective to draw me inside these characters’ lives and minds.  Since this story is billed as a Romantic Suspense novel, it’s kind of important that the author be able to build up both the romance and the suspense without ineffectually swinging an exposition sledgehammer at my head.
    In another rookie mistake, the flat characterizations in this book are compounded by the author’s tendency to give us very simple actions out of order.  It hard to explain without showing an example, so I will pull the first paragraph from chapter two of the book:

         Jack opened the door with a flourish, and motioned her in.  Holly found the house easily with Jack’s directions. A short walk down the unpaved, dirt roads, past the banyan trees, and up a small turn off, led to a tidy clapboard house, not unlike her own. Lights shone warmly in the windows in the twilight of the evening.

    Obviously Jack can’t open the door and motion her in before she’s found his house. Chronological errors like this mean it’s also possible during the course of a scene for someone to crawl deeper into a hiding place before the reader knows the character is trying to hide, or what in the world the character might be hiding from.  The whole book is peppered with these time and place relationship problems, causing characters to randomly teleport or suddenly move forward or backward in time. Not surprisingly, errors in cause-effect relationships are another huge problem.  To wit, the characters’ feel the pain of being hit before the blow falls, or struggle to escape before being caught.

    Once you look at all these problems together, it feels like this book was:
    1. plucked directly from the slush pile
    2. judged to be somewhat readable as-is
    3. scanned for simple grammatical errors
    4.  published without any of the usual polishing or refining that is a standard part of the editing process

    Ultimately voiding one of the biggest benefits an author gets from going through a small press.

    Now I haven’t read any other books by this publisher, but based on the condition this book is in, I was so sure that the above scenario happened that I actually googled the imprint and parent press–  Damnation Books and Eternal Press– just to see what kind of results would come up. It turns out there are multiple warnings and disgruntled authors posting about this press– all of which are easily found with a simple internet search for either Damnation Books or Eternal Press (its imprint).  These results included a “Beware” post on the Passive Voice Blog, which many folks will recognize as one of the go-to sources in the author community for news & commentary on the publishing industry from a legal perspective.  Like I said, I’ve read none of this publishers other works, and I have no idea if the contract disputes with some of their current authors are legitimate, but solely based on the condition book I just read, a bad reputation for this publisher is well justified.

    I guarantee none of this is what this author wanted to hear when she sent me her book for review. And yet here we are.

    Do I think that Nadine Christian is a bad author? No. While the book is very rough in its current form, that’s not what I’m saying at all.

    Do I think that she had the misfortune to find a bad publisher? All the evidence seems to point that way, yes.
    Which means that this review is now going to turn its focus to the all-important author self-survival technique known as: Vetting Your Publisher.  

    Remember that a publisher’s ultimate goal should always be to make an author and their books look as good as possible, so they can sell more books and readers will come back for the next one.  This publisher did none of that.

    As an author, you should really check out your publisher so you at least have an idea the type and quality of work they do before you put the effort into giving your first submission.  The very first step to vetting a potential publisher is doing exactly what I just did.  Put their name, and the name of the relevant imprints into a search engine and seeing what comes up.    Or what doesn’t come up.  Do they barely have a web presence at all? (Not good for e-books.) You’d be amazed at the kind of information you can find out just by hitting search.  Before you’ve tried it, it’s easy to scoff and assume that bad reviews or ”sour grapes” have to be out there about all publishers.  That’s usually not the case. Try it out. It’s a good starting place.

    It also pays to pick up one of that publisher’s previously published works and see what the quality is like.  If they have a habit of publishing poorly edited books, that’d be pretty easily apparent just by reading the excerpts available on Amazon or other bookseller’s websites.

    You should definitely research a publisher as thoroughly as you can before you sign on, and try to talk to a couple of their current authors if possible.  Does the press have any pending litigation?  How many other authors do they have? It’s much better to talk to someone who’s already been working with that company to get an idea if they’ve had a good experience or not.  Even if that author isn’t willing to go online and post about their contract with that company or talk in detail with a stranger, they’ll usually be willing to tell you whether it’s been a generally good or bad experience, and whether they’d sign another contract with that publisher.

    Finally,  you should always get your contract checked out by an attorney.  Not your agent (if you have one).  Not unless your Agent also happens to be licensed to practice law.  Agents are great, but they do not have the license saying they’re certified to give legal advice.  That should be a no-brainer, since a contract is a legal agreement.  A legal agreement that in all likelihood is going to tie you and your work to this publisher for years.

    There are tons of resources out there for authors looking for advice on how to research publisher, and rather than try to go into further detail here, I’ll just point you at a few places to go look:

    Preditors & Editors
    Writer Beware Small Press Page
    Finding the Right Publisher by December Quinn

    The last thing that threw me about this book is more of a quibble, or question of judgment, I suppose. But it was just one more thing I didn’t understand.  The author has given the main protagonist her own last name.  We are reading about Holly Christian as written by Nadine Christian.  That was just weird, and it gave me yet thing standing between me and actually getting into the story.  I wasn’t close enough to the characters to care about them, but at the same time, I felt uncomfortably close to the author.  Giving the main character her own last name seemed like saying, “The heroine in this story is really just a placeholder for the author.”

    Final analysis of this book?  I really can’t recommend picking it up.  It’s poorly put together, poorly edited.  The many rookie mistakes hamper everything about this story, resulting in the suspense and romance never leaving the starting block. As a first draft it might be ok, and I see glimmers of potential from the author, but is not up to the quality I expect when I pick up a finished novel. Especially one put out by a publisher.  Ultimately, pick up something else.
    Friday-Indie-Logo Zero point 5