An American Editor

May 23, 2012

On Books: Are Indie Authors Doing the Best They Can?

I know the question seems odd. Of course, indie authors are writing the best books they can. This seems an obvious answer, so why ask the question? Perhaps because the answer defines the problem: writing the best book they can is not enough in this age of self-publishing.

In the 1990s, I ran a small publishing company. I had to find the authors to publish, arrange for editing, hire the designer, and take care of all the production details — including arranging for a print run and warehousing of the printed books. This was before the age of ebooks. My biggest challenge was distribution: If the book didn’t appear on bookstore bookshelves, it was more than a guaranteed money loser — it was a sure disaster.

In the days before ebooks, it was a delicate balancing act to determine the correct print run and the retail price of a book. Too small of a print run and too low of a price guaranteed a loss even if every book was sold at 100% retail. Too large of a print run and/or too high a retail price also was problematic.

The age of ebooks has changed the dynamics. I wish I were running that small publishing company today because ebooks and the Internet have solved or reduced many of the problems of print publishing, especially those of finding books worthy of being published and distribution. But the eBook Age has changed an even more important dynamic because it has made self-publishing by indie authors viable.

Yet I wonder if these indie authors are really doing the best that they can.

All of the jobs that the traditional publisher performed in the 1970s and 1980s now need to be done by the indie author. Some do the jobs very well; others seem to miss the boat.

One of the first lessons that every indie author needs to learn is that they must always be selling their writing. You can’t just write and hope someone else will pick up the sales ball. I know that seems obvious, but it is the scope of what constitutes selling that I think gets missed. Even such simple things as how the ebook is designed is selling. Choosing the right typeface and font size is selling. Providing metadata for running heads for those devices that will display a running head is selling. Participation in forums of readers and constantly mentioning your writing is selling. A well-done cover design is selling.

For many people, selling themselves is the hardest thing to do in the world. It is why in law firms the “rainmakers” are considered more valuable than any other attorney in the firm; it is the rainmakers who bring in the business by selling themselves and the firm. The indie author has to be his or her own rainmaker.

The point I am trying to make, and probably not well, is that it is not enough to write a fabulous story; the indie author must constantly sell it to get people to read it and talk about it, and the selling can’t be just at their own website. In addition, indie authors need to learn the lesson that everything they do should be geared toward selling their writing.

The other day I complained about authors who write series but provide no synopsis of what happened in previous books in the series. This is a failure of not thinking through who one’s beta readers are. If you use as beta readers only people already familiar with your work, you lose the perspective of new readers who stumble on your books and choose the newest release rather than the oldest release to read. Authors should not assume that even devoted fans will remember plot details that are essential to understanding the current book in a series but which occurred in prior books. A good publisher (even a good editor) would/should identify this weakness; consequently, the indie author needs to be able to step back and identify it as well.

Here’s something else: I am a fan of several indie authors and I look forward to reading the next book they write. But my failing is that I do not keep a list of these authors and do a search at B&N or Smashwords to see if they have released a new book. Their failing as an indie author is not finding a way to get my e-mail address and not only telling me that they have released a new ebook and here are the B&N/Smashwords link(s), but not sending me an e-mail every three to four months to tell me that they are still working on their next book and hope to have it available by x date.

If I had to recommend one particularly good source that every indie author should emulate, it is Baen Publishing. Not its website, but its monthly mailing. Every month I receive an e-mail telling me the progress its authors are making on forthcoming books. I am told when a book is quarter done, half done, in review copy, and published, among other steps. By the time a book is published, I have received at least a half-dozen e-mails that mention the book, thus keeping the author and the book in front of me — that is, selling the author and the book to me.

I have read a good number of indie-authored ebooks that should be selling significantly more copies than are being sold. Certainly, I think that every indie author whose ebooks I have reviewed and rated 5 or 5+ stars should be selling thousands more copies than they are. That they are not indicates to me that they are exceptional writers who feel uncomfortable creating a business plan for selling their ebooks. Thus, the answer to my question is, “No, indie authors are not doing the best they can!”

May 18, 2012

Worth Noting: Daisy’s War by Shayne Parkinson

I, my wife, and most people who have read the Promises to Keep quartet of ebooks are big fans of indie author Shayne Parkinson. For those of you unfamiliar with the quartet, I reviewed the books 2 years ago in On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet and again in On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept, and have been waiting for the next book in the series to arrive. My wife and I are still recommending these books to anyone who asks for an excellent read.

In the past week or so, we were wondering if Shayne Parkinson had finally released the next volume in the series. We hadn’t heard anything and it hadn’t crossed my mind to check Smashwords, when, ‘lo and behold, I received an e-mail from Shayne advising me that Daisy’s War, the latest book in the series has been published and is now available at Smashwords.

I immediately went to Smashwords and downloaded the fifth book in the series. I began reading it within hours. I expected Daisy’s War to be of the same exceedingly high quality as the first four books in the series (all 5 or 5+ stars) and am not disappointed. I couldn’t put the book down and so finished it within a couple of days.

Daisy’s War picks up where the series left off, the early decades of the 20th century. Here is the description from Smashwords:

In 1914, Daisy lives in the quiet New Zealand valley where her family has farmed for generations. Her world seems a warm and safe one. But the Great War is casting its long shadow over New Zealand. Daisy watches in growing fear as more and more of the men leave to fight in Europe, and the War strikes ever closer to the heart of her family.

The brief description doesn’t do justice to the book. The book is a reflection on World War I and its impact on New Zealand, a far-flung outpost of the British Empire, as seen through the eyes of a child who almost understands the whats and whys of war but can’t quite grasp them. Daisy’s dreams take a back seat to the impact of World War I on her extended family and how the need for soldiers ultimately leads to conscription, beginning with single young men but rapidly moving to include married men with children, including Daisy’s father.

The story seems incomplete. We tangentially are given glimpses into the war’s effect on the adults. Because of how the prior books were written, I think Daisy’s War should have run with both major and minor story lines, the major being the tale we are given and the minor a more in-depth look at the effect on the adults. For example, Daisy’s Uncle Alf returns from the battlefields a changed man. We are briefly given a glimpse into why and we know that the children want to avoid him, but we are not given more insight into the change in family dynamics. Perhaps this broader look at intra- and interfamily dynamics is a tale that will be picked up in the next book.

Regardless, this is the outstanding book that I had been waiting for. The only thing missing from the book is an explanation of the character relationships at the beginning, before the Prologue, that a reader can either review to refresh one’s memory or ignore. It has been 2 years since I last read this series and at first it was difficult to figure out who the characters are and their relationships to each other. The first book in the series begins with Amy’s story and the child she had out of wedlock that she had to give up for adoption. In Daisy’s War, we read, for example, of “Aunt Sarah” and “Granny,” and it took me some time to recall that these are the out-of-wedlock daughter and Amy, respectively. Other relationships also took some time but did come back. For example, who was Grandma (as opposed to Granny)?

This is a gripe I have with many authors who write continuing series. It is not so bad when in every book in a series the characters remain the same, just the circumstances change. But in a series like this where there is a constant generational change and an expansion of the families and a long time between books, it should not be assumed that readers will remember what happened in a book that was released more than 2 years ago or recall who married whom and begat whom who themselves went on to marry and beget. In that interim, I have read thousands of manuscript pages for work and hundreds of books for pleasure; some refreshing is necessary.

In this case, the lack of the information poses another problem: The book doesn’t work well as a standalone book. You need to have read the previous books in the series to understand the importance of what is happening. Although that is good from a series sense, it is bad from the reader sense. A reader who picks up this book first, not having read the previous entries in the series, will not walk away singing the high praises the books deserve. Instead, they will be disappointed because much of the impact of book relies on knowing the relationships.

Regardless, as with the first four books in the series, Daisy’s War is exceptionally well-written. If you have read and enjoyed the first books in the series, then this is a must read for you. The book is reasonably priced at $2.99 and is clearly a 5-star read.

If you haven’t read Shayne Parkinson’s books, begin with Sentence of Marriage, the first in the series, which is free at Smashwords. If you  like historical fiction and/or family sagas, you are likely to find this a captivating series.

May 14, 2012

On Books: Rebecca Forster — Legal Thrillers

As I have mentioned in other posts, I began my serious adult work career as a lawyer (between college and law school, I tried a lot of different jobs, none satisfying). I was a trial attorney in the U.S. Midwest for a number of years before moving back to the East Coast and becoming an editor. My experience as a trial attorney, especially my experience defending persons accused of committing a crime, has always interfered with any enjoyment I might otherwise have gotten by reading lawyer-centric legal thrillers.

For example, it stretches my credulity beyond the limits to read about a first-year associate at a major law firm discovering a plot by the firm’s senior partners against America and then single-handedly saving the day, fighting off experienced, special forces-trained security personnel. Especially when dragging along another person who is even less-well prepared for the rigors of the fight than the associate. The point is, my experience prevents me from wrapping my head around the prose of the standard legal thriller, so I just don’t read them.

But as I have also noted numerous times, I like to explore indie-authored ebooks and am willing to give a free legal thriller a try, even though I have low expectations.

Imagine my surprise when I read Rebecca Forster’s Hostile Witness, which is free at Smashwords and Barnes & Noble. This book rates 5+ stars on my rating scale (see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I) for information on how I rate ebooks). It is not that this book doesn’t have some of the flights of fancy that simply do not occur in legal practice; rather, it is that this book more closely tracks how a trial occurs, how a case unfolds, and what a good lawyer really does.

Our heroine is Josie Baxter-Bates, a lawyer with personal issues, but one who is quite good at her job. In Hostile Witness, she is hired to defend a teenager who is accused of murdering her stepgrandfather. The evidence is clear — or is it? The storyline is not that of a lawyer who suddenly becomes a superinvestigator and can perform miracles that the finest police officers and detectives — short, perhaps, of Sherlock Holmes — cannot do. Instead, it is the story of a highly competent lawyer and the courtroom scenes (at least most of them) reflect what really can occur, not just what is needed to occur to move the story along.

The characters are well-formed and believable. The lawyers are reflections of real lawyers. The sequence is much like a real legal case (there is some exaggeration and skipping over fine points, but then this is a novel and should be expected). The writing is crisp, with only a few errors scattered throughout the book.

I found myself thoroughly enjoying a legal thriller for the first time since I read John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, published in 1993 — a very long time ago when it comes to reading. (This was the only Grisham legal thriller that I thought reflected the real practice of law and the only one of his books I thought worth reading, although I did try a couple of others.) I found that I couldn’t put Hostile Witness down; I wanted to read it in one sitting.

I was so impressed with Hostile Witness, and so enamored with how well the characters were created, that as soon as I finished it, I went searching for more ebooks by Rebecca Forster. Turns out that Hostile Witness is the first book of a quartet of books starring Josie Baxter-Bates. I purchased, for $3.99 each, books 2, 3, and 4 in the series: Silent Witness, Privileged Witness, and Expert Witness. Each is also available at Smashwords and at Barnes & Noble.

I have read Silent Witness, and although it is well-written, this book is a 5-star book rather than a 5+-star book. Again the courtroom scenes are spot on, but I always have trouble with stories about lawyers defending their lovers, which is what this one is about. The focus shifts from the less emotional to the more emotional because of the relationship, yet I must also admit that I had difficulty setting this book aside for such daily tasks as work, eating, and sleeping.

Immediately following Silent Witness, I read Privileged Witness. Like the preceding two books, this one is well-written, but is beginning to join the formulaic. In this story, the villains are a politician — and a former lover of our heroine — and the politician’s sister. There is a subplot involving a battered wife and her homicidal husband, which I think would have made a better story. Unfortunately, in Privileged Witness, Josie Baxter-Bates begins to look like a typical action hero rather than a competent lawyer. I found the story less compelling, but still a very good read. I’d give this book just under 5 stars because it is moving closer to the Scott Turow-John Grisham type of legal thriller that I do not like.

I am now in the midst of reading the last of the quartet, Expert Witness. This book starts out with our heroine having been kidnapped. I am about a third of the way through the story. Like its predecessors, it is well-written and a hard-to-put-down read, but the story, so far, centers on the efforts of Bates’ lover and ward (she is legal guardian of a teenager) to find her. Based on what I have read so far, this will also be a slightly less than 5-star rating, with the lowered rating solely because of the plot, not the execution. However, a final rating awaits my finishing the book.

If you like legal thrillers, or even just a well-constructed, well-written story with believable characters — characters that could have been taken from your neighborhood — then this quartet of books by Rebecca Forster is meant for you. These books belong in the pantheon of indie books worth reading.

April 2, 2012

On Books: Eden by Keary Taylor

Filed under: Book Review,Books & eBooks,Indies Worth Reading — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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It has been a long time since I last recommended an indie book. It is not that I haven’t been reading them these past 5 months, rather, it is that none have been particularly exceptional. All that I have read have been 3- to 4-star books — until today.

I recently completed reading Eden by Keary Taylor. Eden is a postapocalyptic America novel whose story centers around a young woman named Eve. I grant that the lead character and the book title are a bit trite, but setting that aside, the book is very well written (a few grammar errors) and interesting.

In this new world, which was created by mad scientists who thought they could create nano machines that would cure all disease but which, instead, turned humans into machines (the “Fallen”), the few humans who have survived are on the run. Eden is the story of a small group of humans trying to avoid contact with the Fallen because a simple touch by a Fallen can turn a human into a machine.

It may seem that I’m giving away the story in the previous paragraph, but I’m not. Although I have described the background, the story really centers around months in the life of a teenage Eve, a young woman who doesn’t understand who she is or many of the emotions she is beginning to experience. She is different from the others in her band, yet she is considered a leader and an integral part of the community.

I found that instead of working, I wanted to simply continue reading Eden until I finished. I wanted to know more about Eve; I wanted to see her conflicts resolved.

I know that many people avoid science fiction, especially postapocalyptic fiction, but you should not be dissuaded from reading this novel by either. This is more of a coming of age book that happens to be set in a postapocalyptic future than it is a postapocalyptic book. You are not inundated with battles between humans and machines; rather, the struggle between the two simply provides the mechanism for spurring Eve’s growth and the events that force her to make decisions and take growing-up actions.

Above all else, Eden is a love story. It is Eve’s discovery of love that propels the novel as she must decide between two men. But before she can decide, she has to learn what love is, what it means. Eve is a woman with tight control of her emotions, a woman who doesn’t feel, but whose emotions are starting to awaken. Eve simply doesn’t understand these awakening emotions and it is this personal struggle that captivates the reader.

This is an indie book worth buying, although the price is high for an unknown author ($4.83). However, a sample is available. Eden has been optioned by Black Forest Film Group (Mark Morgan ["Twilight Saga"], Kami Garcia ["Beautiful Creatures"], Brett Hudson ["Cloud 9"], and Eric T. Thompson ["Rites of Spring"]) for a major motion picture.  If well-cast, this could be an excellent movie.

I give Eden 5 stars based on my rating system (see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I) for an explanation of my system).

October 12, 2011

The Book of Adam: Stimulating Thought Via a Novel

As I have mentioned numerous times, I have a huge to-be-read pile of books — both ebooks and pbooks (at last count, I have more than 600 ebooks waiting patiently in my TBR pile). I have decided that I need to tackle this ever-growing pile and so I determined to sort my ebooks by date acquired and simply start reading beginning from the oldest.

As a consequence of that decision, over the past weekend, I read The Book of Adam: Autobiography of the First Human Clone by Robert Hopper. What I found particularly unique about this ebook is that it, unlike nearly all other fiction I read, actually stimulated my thinking about our world, our future, and the moral, ethical, and philosophical implications that remain to be resolved as we get closer to the ability to clone humans.

My general experience with fiction is that it is either entertaining or not entertaining. I don’t reach that point unless the book is well-written; a badly written book is simply not worth reading because any entertainment value it might have is lost and buried by the poor writing. But the bottom line remains that a well-written fiction book is largely just entertainment that may be worth commenting on but is not a provoker of deep thought; provocation of deep thinking usually falls within the realm of nonfiction.

The Book of Adam is different. First, it is particularly well-written; Adam is a 5-star book. It captured me within a few pages. Second, The Book of Adam is about a topic that is not often discussed in the United States: human cloning. Years ago we had a national discussion regarding cloning and it was resolved that human cloning should be and was prohibited. The Book of Adam ignores that early discussion.

As written, The Book of Adam touches some hot buttons that religion still has to face, not least of which is what would the effect of human cloning be on the religious stories currently being told? By granting a form of immortality, does it destroy the belief in resurrection?

The Book of Adam raises issues that need a philosophical reckoning. Consider this: If human cloning permits a person to essentially be immortal through constant rebirths, does the concept of murder as an immoral and illegal act disappear? What effect would human cloning have on a fundamental pillar of civilization and socialization: Thou shalt not kill/murder?

Human cloning, as described in The Book of Adam, supports the idea of planned suicide, which is another challenge to our current mores. The author assumes that a rebirth essentially causes a remake of the previous life. This is a highly challengeable assumption, although one that is needed for the story. Yet no one knows whether a rebirth would be an opportunity to do differently or to simply relive the same life again.

The Book of Adam doesn’t discuss these conundrums except superficially. But The Book of Adam does cause a reader to pause and think about the implications, which is where, in my fiction reading experience, this ebook differs from most fiction.

The story takes place in the not-too-distant future, and spans the years to the twenty-second century. The ebook also subtly raises questions regarding the differences between cloning and cryogenics, as well as the issue of artificial wombs for nurturing a fetus.

The Book of Adam also asks, albeit with circumspection, what if our brain could be transferred to a synthetic body that never “dies”? What, then, are we?

Ultimately, the questions neither asked nor answered but that form the foundation for all else are these: What makes a human being a human being? At what juncture is “humanness” no longer a viable description of us?

As seems obvious to me, The Book of Adam triggers questions that philosophers have been struggling to answer for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Whether or not this was Hopper’s intent, because of the crisp clarity of his writing, these questions come to mind unbidden, and they remain within my thinking processes even after I have completed the ebook and moved on to the next ebook.

If you want a well-written, 5-star story, The Book of Adam provides that story. If you want your thinking to be challenged, The Book of Adam will challenge you. I highly recommend this ebook.

September 19, 2011

On Books: David Crookes — More Down Under

As I have mentioned innumerable times, I usually read indie ebooks that I am able to obtain for free. I find it difficult to consider spending money (or more than a nominal sum) on an author with whom I have no familiarity.

In the “olden” days, I never thought twice about buying a book from an unknown author. The reasons why are that I found the book either by seeing it in a local bookstore or through a trusted book review, and because publishers really took their gatekeeper responsibilities to heart – I didn’t have to take a shot in the dark, so to speak. The Internet has brought about all sorts of changes. Now I’m simply overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books available and I lack the patience to read a sample online.

The result of the failure of the gatekeeper system and the rise of the indie author is that I am disinclined to spend money on an unknown author. Consequently, most of the books in my to-be-read pile are freebies.

A couple of weeks ago, I opened a freebie I had downloaded a while ago, Blackbird, by David Crookes. This is historical fiction based on a true story out of Australia’s history. Blackbird was my introduction to David Crookes.

In the beginning, Australia relied on slavery. Slavers would roam the islands around Australia and capture blacks to work as slaves. The process was called “blackbirding,” thus the title of the book. Blackbird is the story of one slave and her relationship with Ben Luk, a half-breed of Chinese and white mixture.

After reading Blackbird, which I found to be outstanding, I found another ebook in my TBR pile by Crookes titled Redcoat. It is the story of a British soldier who causes a superior officer to become a paraplegic and the officer’s subsequent hunt for the soldier for revenge. Once again, I was reading a book that I couldn’t put down.

The result of reading these two ebooks was that I wanted to read more of Crookes’ work, so I purchased the other available titles: Borderline; Children of the Sun; Someday Soon; The Light Horseman’s Daughter; and Great Spirit Valley. Of these, I have read The Light Horseman’s Daughter, which occurs during the Depression and is the story of a woman’s efforts to save both herself and her family, and Someday Soon, which takes place during World War II and focuses on people thrown together as a result of Japanese bombing of Darwin, Australia.

(I’ve taken a temporary hiatus from Crookes’ books because the new David Weber book, How Firm a Foundation (Safehold Series #5), which I have long been waiting for, was released. After I finish it, I will return to Crookes’ books.)

After finishing Blackbird, I suggested to my wife that she read the book, thinking she would like it, just as we both liked Shayne Parkinson’s historical novels (see On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept and the articles cited in it). Yesterday, my wife complained that Blackbird kept her reading until 2 a.m. because she can’t put the book down.

So that’s all the good news about Crookes’ ebooks. The bad news is that his books are in need of a proofreader and/or a copyeditor. It becomes tiresome, for example, to read “your” when the author means “you are” or “you’re.” The errors in the books are relatively minor and what is meant is easily grasped, but they are annoying just the same and shouldn’t exist in books for which the author is charging $3.99.

Even with these tiresome errors, I find Crookes’ books very difficult to put aside. He is a natural storyteller; even my wife has remarked on that. His writing is definitely 5 star and worth the price. Crookes can join that pantheon of great indie Down Under writers (with Down Under being inclusive of both Australia and New Zealand), which for this blog includes Shayne Parkinson, Vicki Tyley (see On Books: Murder Down Under), and now David Crookes.

As of this writing, Redcoat is available free from Smashwords. Give it a try. Although I think it is a 5-star book, it isn’t quite as good as Blackbird, but it will give you a good introduction to David Crookes.

August 8, 2011

On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (II)

Filed under: Book Review,Indies Worth Reading,On Books — americaneditor @ 4:00 am

In On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I), I described my rating system. Please go to that article if you want to review my system.

The following ebooks are good reads, even though they are neither memorable nor worthy of a detailed written review. I recommend them just for enjoyment. These books fall into the ratings range of either 3 to 4 stars or 4 to 5 stars, but not quite reaching 5 stars. Needless to say, if you didn’t read any of the books in the 3- to 4-star category, you wouldn’t be missing much. However, the ones in the 4- to 5-star category are worth looking for.

4 to 5 stars

  • Book ‘Em: An Eamonn Shute Mystery by Tony McFadden
  • Fifth Avenue by Christopher Smith
  • The Miracle Inspector by Helen Smith
  • Mrs. Quigley’s Kidnapping by Jean Sheldon
  • Primal Wound by Ruth Francisco

3 to 4 stars

  • The Iron Admiral Conspiracy by Greta van der Rol
  • Once on a Cold and Grey September by B. Gerard O’Brien
  • The Lost Fleet series of 7 books by Jack Campbell
  • Londongrad by Reggie Nadelson
  • The Meteoric Rise of Simon Burchwood by Scott Semegran
  • Demon Lord by T.C. Southwell
  • Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh
  • The Coppersmith by Michael Scott
  • False Dawn by Paul Levine
  • Armlet by Ross Richdale
  • Fortress on the Sun by Paul Cook
  • Soul Identity by Dennis Batchelder
  • Amersterdam 2012 by Ruth Francisco
  • Bethel Merriday by Sinclair Lewis

June 27, 2011

On Books: In Her Name

I recently came across an ebook fantasy/scifi series by Michael R. Hicks titled In Her Name. The story is that of humans versus Kreelans, a blue-colored cat- and human-like race whose members are connected to each other through “blood song” and who do everything in the name of their empress.

Currently, there are five ebooks in the series, with a sixth book due in fall 2011. The books, in the author’s recommended reading order, are:

  • In Her Name: Empire
  • In Her Name: Confederation
  • In Her Name: Final Battle
  • In Her Name: First Contact
  • In Her Name: Legend of the Sword
  • In Her Name: Dead Soul (coming in fall 2011)

The first book in the series, Empire, is available free at Smashwords.

I admit I was perplexed by the author’s recommended reading order as the fourth book, First Contact, really is the beginning of the story. The explanation I received when I inquired was that the author had written the first three books — Empire, Confederation, and Final Battle — and was then asked by fans for more, which led to the Star Wars imitation ordering. Regardless, the books are certainly readable and enjoyable in the recommended sequence, and I am anxiously awaiting Dead Soul.

As readers of An American Editor know, book reviews are intermittent and then only of those books I consider to be the better indie books I have come across (although occasionally I do review some of the worst), that is, indie books that are 5-star or 5+-star rated. (For star definitions, see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I).) Overall, the In Her Name series is a 5-star series.

The books are well written and the characters are interesting. (One error that did stand out as a sore thumb, however, was the use of Forward for Foreword. The homonym gremlin strikes yet again!) I found myself becoming increasingly absorbed in the emotional and physical transformation of the lead character, Reza Gard (i.e., lead character of books 1, 2, and 3 of the recommended reading sequence), from human to Kreelan, which occurs in the trilogy.

Also of interest is the ever-evolving view of humans by Tesh-Dar, the high priestess of the Kreelans, and the Kreelans in general. First viewed as soulless animals because their blood doesn’t sing, humans earn the respect of teh Kreelans and rise, especially when Reza Gard’s blood begins to sing and the Kreelans can “hear” it. This evolution does carry on throughout all of the books.

The story revolves around a 100,000-year-old Kreelan prophecy that condemned male Kreelans to procreation followed immediately by an agonizing death, which had the effect of creating a female-dominant warrior society in which males have no role (because of the curse) outside propagation of the Kreelans. At the beginning of the First Empire, which is the empire in which the In Her Name series takes place, a series of events lead to the first empress cursing her people but offering a way to remove that curse. The story chronicles broadly the centuries-old search for the prophesied male whose actions will lift that curse, but focuses on “current” events in the search for that male.

To lift the curse, a male who is not born a Kreelan but whose blood “sings” like a Kreelan’s blood must be found. To find that person, the Kreelan Empire goes to war with sentient races that it comes in contact with, looking for both worthy opponents and the singing blood. The war is to the death and prior to the current century-old war with humans (i.e., by the time of In Her Name: Empire the war with humans is 100 years old), multiple sentient races have been annihilated because their blood didn’t sing. Now it is humans who face extinction unless they are found to have a “soul,” that is, their blood “sings.”

Interestingly, although the Kreelans are significantly more techologically advanced than humans and could wipe out humans with ease, the Kreelans prefer to fight one-on-one and with a level playing field. Consequently, they determine where in the technological continuum humans are and “degrade” their own capabilities so that the humans have at best a slight advantage and at worst equality with the Kreelans. The fighting is for the honor of the empress, not merely to exterminate a sentient race.

Enough of the story. Suffice it to say that if you enjoy fantasy/scifi and well-constructed alien civilizations, then Michael Hicks’ In Her Name series is an excellent read. Even if you don’t normally read fantasy/scifi, you may find this series enjoyable. The author does delve, although perhaps not as deeply as he could have or should have, into what honor means and how it can play a role in the clash of civilizations. The first book, Empire, is free, and the other books in the series are reasonably priced at $2.99. Even before I finished reading Empire, I bought the other four available ebooks — I found that I wanted to continue reading the story without interruption. (My biggest disappointment is that I need to wait for the sixth book’s release! Hopefully I will remember to buy it when it is released. This is one of the problems with series that are published independently; one can’t preorder and if the wait is too long between books, there is a tendency to forget both the author and the series because the reader has moved on.)

Hicks has an excellent grasp of drama, along with excellent story-telling skills. His books are generally grammar and spelling error-free so the reader is not distracted while reading the story (the notable exception being the Forward/Foreword error noted earlier). Hicks has imbued the characters with believable traits; it is easy to believe that a sentient race like the Kreelans exist, just as it is easy to believe that the lead human characters are people we all know. His characterizations involve the reader, but don’t quite cross that emotional barrier that absorbs the reader in a character-driven work. These books are more predominantly plot-driven, which is why remembering to buy the forthcoming book may be problematic. (For a discussion of approaches, see On Books: Plot-Driven, Character-Driven, Hybrid? For a discussion of approaches and the difficulty of being remembered, see On Books: Plot, Character, Hybrid & the Long Tail.)

If you are looking for a well-written, engaging, “short” series to read, give In Her Name a try. You certainly have nothing to lose with the first book being free, and the first three books — the trilogy of Empire, Confederation, and Final Battle — stand on their own; the other three books, the prequels, do not need to be read to understand or appreciate the trilogy.

May 13, 2011

On Books: Ice Blue

Last night I finished reading Ice Blue by Emma Jameson and am sorry that I finished — because the next book in the series is not yet available and I want more! The book is well-edited, well-written, and well-formatted, indicating that the author cares about the reader’s experience, a sense that too many indie books fail to communicate.

Ice Blue is a 5-star British mystery that involves Scotland Yard and the tensions between social classes that pervade the English cultural and social milieu. Unlike too many indie ebooks, Jameson has crafted a fine suspense tale but an even finer story about a Lord and a commoner, a modern-day Cinderella tale, yet one with believable characters. (And no, there is no fairy tale ending in this ebook, which is supposed to be the first in a series that features these characters.)

I firmly believe that there are several characteristics that define the writing of an outstanding author. I do not mean to imply that to be outstanding an author must demonstrate all of these characteristics, but rather the author must have more than one to be outstanding and the more the author has, the more outstanding the writing.

Those who follow my blog know that two indie fiction authors I regularly put in the outstanding category are Shayne Parkinson (historical fiction) and Vicki Tyley (mystery). Emma Jameson (mystery) is now a third, a new addition to my pantheon of superstar indie authors and has joined my list of must-buy authors. In my rating system (see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I) for an explanation), she falls between Parkinson and Tyley. Her characterizations are better than Tyley’s but not as good as Parkinson’s. All three are 5-star writers.

Jameson’s lead character is Scotland Yard Detective Sergeant Kate Wakefield, a clearly lower-class denizen who puts her foot in her mouth more often than not. But Kate is a character you can touch, you can say is your next-door neighbor, is someone you want to see come out on top, is someone you can care for. Lord Hetheridge, her superior and chief superintendent, is the typical stiff, upperclass noble whose facade is cracked by Kate. Hetheridge’s character is written in such a way that a reader feels he or she can actually drink tea with this member of the nobility and feel comfortable doing so. The third major character is Detective Sergeant Paul Bhar, England-born but of Asian descent, who has a great sense of humor and such self-confidence that he steadies the investigative team and gives some “cheek” to the snobs of the upper crust of English society.

Altogether, the three primary characters are people you believe you can invite in for tea and biscuits (although they seem to prefer coffee) and not feel ill at ease.

The story itself is a typical British mystery, what one would expect from a Martha Grimes, Ruth Rendell, or P.D. James. And as is typical of British mysteries, everything is understated, by which I mean there are no blazing guns and mobsters that are typical of the American style — Ice Blue is more sedate and more involved in character development than in mystery development.

I rarely suggest to my wife that there is a book she must read; our reading tastes are generally too divergent. But occasionally I come across a book that is compelling. Again, the Tyley and Parkinson books fall into this category, as does Jameson’s Ice Blue. I will be interested to learn whether my wife agrees, especially as she is not a mystery lover.

For those of you looking for a new indie author to support, it is hard to go wrong with Ice Blue and Emma Jameson, especially at 99¢. I suggest giving her a try, particularly if you like the English-style mystery. I don’t think you will be disappointed.

April 6, 2011

On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I)

In the scheme of things, I haven’t got a lot of time — well, maybe I do have the time; perhaps it’s a lack of ambition and desire – to review all the books I read. (I usually read several books a week.) Consequently, I make the effort only for those books that I think are exceptional — either exceptionally well-written and interesting, or exceptionally poorly written. The in-between books are only mentioned, if at all, in my Today’s Bookshelf articles. (The problem is that I am constantly buying books. For example, in March, I purchased 116 ebooks and 8 hardcovers; I will name only a few of them when I next write a Today’s Bookshelf article.)

I have decided that such an attitude — that is, only writing about the exceptional books – is unfair to the many indie authors whose books I have read that are good reads and worth reading, but that fall at the 3- to 4-star mark. So I’ve decided to start naming names. Basically, in broad terms, this is how I rate books:

  • 5 and 5+ stars are exceptional books. They are interesting, well-written with few and very minor grammar and spelling errors, and if 5+, have characters with whom at least I, and usually also my wife and perhaps some friends, get involved emotionally; that is, we react emotionally to events that happen in a characters fictional world. These are the authors who inspire you to immediately buy whatever else they currently have available that you haven’t read and whose next book you eagerly look for even months after finishing the current read. These are the books that are worth buying almost regardless of price.
  • 3 to 4 stars are well-written books, too. They also are interesting but may have more serious grammar and spelling issues than the 5/5+ books. However, such issues are not so serious that one can’t read and enjoy the book. These books are not particularly memorable; they are memorable for a few days then forgotten. The characters don’t involve you greatly, although a 4-star book’s characters do involve the reader at least a little or occasionally. These are the “average” books – the ones you read once, perhaps mention to someone else that they might be worth reading, and then discard. Whether the author writes another book doesn’t matter all that much to you. These are books worth buying if the price is right.
  • 1 to 2 stars are the horrors of indie publishing. A 1-star book has nothing in its favor — the story/plot is bad, the writing makes a sixth-grade student look like a Pulitzer Prize for Literature winner, and the book is so riddled with grammar and spelling errors, you wonder if English is a language the author recognizes at all. Not even a professional editor could salvage the book; the book needs to be scrapped and begun from the beginning. The 2-star books are slightly better. With these books there is a glimmer of hope. These books need the touch of a professional editor, but they at least do have a good story/plot. Again the grammar and spelling is atrocious, but editorial help might fix the problem. A book with a 1- or 2-star rating should not be bought, or even downloaded for free.

So what follows are my first ebook recommendations for the 3- to 4-star ebooks. I don’t think the 1- to 2-star ebooks are worth listing, so they are excluded. I also exclude the 5+-star ebooks because those I generally review. Most of the ebooks are available at Smashwords and some at Baen Books.

5 stars

  • Sugar & Spice by Saffina Desforges
  • The Man with the Iron-on Badge by Lee Goldberg
  • The Honor Harrington books by David Weber
  • A Just Determination, Burden of Proof, Against All Enemies, and Rule of Evidence by John G. Henry
  • The Speaker by Sandra Leigh

3 to 4 stars

  • The Mudbug Trilogy (Trouble in Mudbug, Mischief in Mudbug, and Showdown in Mudbug) by Jana DeLeon
  • Pool of Lies by J.M. Zambrano
  • An Unfettered Mind by Annmarie Banks
  • Ain’t No Sunshine by Leslie DuBois
  • ExodusThe Ark by Paul Chafe
  • The Sex Club by L.J. Sellers
  • Heris Serrano, The Serrano Succession, and The Serano Connection by Elizabeth Moon
  • Carved in Bone by Jefferson Bass
  • Ameriqaeda by Markus Kane

I have read all of the above books. I can’t tell you how many 1- and 2-star ebooks I had to go through before I found these books, but there were a lot of them. I hope you will find a few to enjoy from this list.

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