An American Editor

April 2, 2012

On Books: Eden by Keary Taylor

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).

December 12, 2011

On Books: Saladin

History and biography captivate me. Although they seem intertwined, and they usually are, I find that I can read with great pleasure a biography of someone whose importance in history is perhaps marginal or of importance only in a narrow set of circumstances. Biographies of Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, and Paul Cézanne come to mind as examples. Although interesting, I suspect if their biographies were never read or written it would not matter much to history.

In contrast, there are people whose biographies are so intertwined with history that one does not get a full picture of the historical events with which they are associated in the absence of reading their biography and the biographies of those both close to them and in opposition to them. Some examples that come to mind are Abraham Lincoln, Julius Caesar, Adolph Hitler, and John Brown.

I would add to this list of indispensable biography that of Saladin. I have long searched for a good, comprehensive biography of Saladin and finally found one. Published in the United States just last month (a translation from the original 2008 French edition) Anne-Marie Eddé’s Saladin, translated by Jane Marie Todd, is an exceptional look at one of the great figures of history.

Over the years, I have read, or attempted to read, several “comprehensive” biographies of Saladin. Not only were none comprehensive, but most were very cursory. Eddé’s Saladin, on the other hand, is rich with detail and clearly the fruit of original research. (Kudos also have to be extended to Jane Marie Todd. Her translation is outstanding. Much too often I find translations to be accurate but lacking in flow and tone, especially the tone of the original. I admit that I do not read French and so have not read Saladin in the original, but I feel confident in stating Todd captured the nuances and tone of the original. This translation was easy to read; I would have thought that English was Eddé’s native tongue.)

Even today, the Muslim world celebrates the achievements of Saladin. Interestingly, although the Arabs claim him as one of their own, Saladin was a Kurd, not an Arab. More important, however, to both ancient and modern history is that Saladin was a Muslim who fought for the Muslim cause against the Christian crusaders.

Saladin was a living hero and remains a hero today. He united Egypt and Syria under a single ruler, he fought Richard the Lion-heart in the Third Crusade to a draw, cementing a relationship in history between two giants. (For an excellent dual biography of Saladin and Richard that is focused on their complex and intertwined relationship during the Third Crusade, I recommend James Reston’s Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade [2001]. Unlike Eddé’s Saladin, the focus of Reston’s book is narrow.) And he recaptured Jerusalem, perhaps the most fought-over city in history. (Sitting on my to-be-read shelf is the newly published Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore. This is at the top of my TBR list, although I also have several other books that are vying for the next-to-be-read position.)

During his lifetime and over the course of subsequent generations, the myth of Saladin grew, to the point that it is sometimes difficult to separate fact from fiction. In this sense, Eddé has a difficult road to walk but she does so admirably. A reader comes away with a better sense of the real Saladin, which is not a denigration of his greatness — Saladin was great for his time.

Eddé’s biography does one other thing, and I think does it well: it provides the Western reader with a view of the Muslim world and of the Crusades from a Muslim perspective, rather than solely from a Western perspective. In addition, we get to see Saladin as more than just a warrior; after all, he was responsible for governing as well as military affairs.

During his lifetime, Saladin gained a reputation for chivalry, trustworthiness, and magnanimity. This reputation was extant among both his followers and his enemies. Saladin’s magnanimity, however, did not preclude his enslaving thousands of prisoners or beheading those who refused his offer of a reprieve if they converted to Islam. He was a semi-enlightened ruler for his era, not a revolutionary ruler who changed the dynamics of the time. Eddé’s biography of Saladin gives us the opportunity to learn more about Saladin as a man of his time, rather than as a mythical warrior-hero.

If you are interested in the history of the Crusades, Medieval history, or great biography, I highly recommend Saladin by Anne-Marie Eddé. It will change your perspective about an important moment in human history. If the book has a failing, it is, perhaps, that it is too richly detailed. Regardless, this is a 5-star book that deserves space in one’s permanent book collection.

October 19, 2011

Thinking About Presidents: The Election of 1948

One of the discussions that takes place in my household with some frequency revolves around the questions “who were our greatest presidents and why?” Over the years, Harry Truman has ranked among my top presidents. (I also admit that I love that classic photograph of Truman holiding the Chicago Daily Tribune newspaper with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.”)

The issue is not do I agree or disagree with what a president did, but rather the impact of the president on the United States. I cannot imagine making the decision to drop the second atomic bomb after having witnessed the destruction of the first.

Truman was a leader in many ways. Barack Obama’s national health care plan got its first breath of life under Harry Truman. Just as today’s Republicans oppose Obama’s plan, the Republicans opposed Truman’s plan in the late 1940s.

Truman broke the ground on civil rights, too. When the Republican Congress refused to integrate the U.S. military, Truman did it by executive order.

Perhaps, most importantly, I think Truman saved the United States from a crisis that could have been as impacting as was our Civil War. General Douglas MacArthur was a World War II hero and commanded a lot of attention among GIs. In fact, MacArthur was put forth as a nominee for president in the 1948 election by those who were seeking anyone but Truman.

But MacArthur had an ego that was significantly larger than deserved or appropriate, with the result being that he instigated a constitutional crisis during the Korean War. At the time, MacArthur was much more popular than Truman, which helped lend credence to the crisis.

MacArthur was ordered not to cross the Yalu River. Truman was fearful that doing so would bring Russia into the war and potentially could lead to atomic war. Truman preferred to use a “containment strategy” that would limit the scope of the Korean War. Because MacArthur made it publicly clear that he disagreed with Truman’s strategy, Truman ordered MacArthur to clear his plans with Truman, an order he was entitled to give as commander-in-chief. MacArthur disobeyed  Truman’s order by privately communicating with Congress and disparaging Truman in those communications. Consequently, on April 11, 1951, Truman relieved MacArthur of his command.

This firing raised the issue of whether the military was subordinate to the president, something that was part of the American tradition of military-civil relations, but which was strained as a result of the firing. Truman’s firing and its subsequent confirmation by a congressional committee established to determine whether the firing by the president was lawful finally firmly established civilian and presidential superiority over the American military.

What brings all this to the table today? I just finished reading 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory by David Pietrusza. This is a well-written fascinating look at presidential politics of 1948.

Within months of winning the 1944 election, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died and Harry Truman became president. Although Truman successfully completed World War II, albeit not without controversy largely over his use of the atomic bomb, he rapidly became a rejected-by-his-party president. In 1947-1948, the Democrats tried to convince Dwight Eisenhower to run as their candidate. Polls showed that no matter who ran against Truman, Truman would lose the 1948 election.

In the end, as we know, Truman won. Why he won makes for a fascinating story, especially as his Republican opponent, Thomas E. Dewey, even on election day as ballots were being counted, was prognosticated to win the election handily. Surprisingly, it was Truman who won handily. The reasons were many, not least of which was that Americans liked Truman’s feistiness, which was in contrast to Dewey’s play-it-safe posture during the campaign.

Truman’s 1948 victory has lessons for Barack Obama. With the contempt that many prior supporters are showing for Obama, it is clear that Obama needs to do something if he wishes to resurrect himself and be reelected in 2012. He could do much worse than to read about Truman’s approach, especially as Truman faced greater opposition within his own party than Obama currently does.

Regardless, Pietrusza’s 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory is not only well-written, but it is one of the best edited books I have read in a long time (definitely 5-star) — at least the print version is; I did not buy the ebook version as I wanted this for my library. I have ordered The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election by Zacharay Karabell (2000) in hardcover and am planning on ordering Irwin Ross’s The Loneliest Campaign: The Truman Victory of 1948 (1968) so I can compare author insights into this fascinating election.

I highly recommend Pietrusza’s 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory for anyone interested in true life, come-from-behind, against-all-odds stories.

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.

September 14, 2011

Worth Noting: The Arranger by L.J. Sellers

Sometimes I hate picking up a new book — when I discover that I have to fight with myself to put the book down, the times when I find I can’t go back to work or can’t go to sleep because the book has grabbed me and simply won’t let me go. Such is the case with The Arranger, the new thriller from L.J. Sellers.

I reviewed Sellers’ writing earlier, calling her a 5-star indie author. (See On Books: Detective Jackson Grows and Grows for my earlier review.) The Arranger simply cements her 5-star status.

The Arranger stars Lara Evans, a homicide detective in the “Detective Jackson” series, now retired and working as a freelance paramedic. I don’t know how Sellers came up with the idea of a series of games as the framework for the story, but I found it reminiscent, in a very broad sense, of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

The Arranger is different in every way from the “Detective Jackson” series, but it is as satisfying as any book in the series. The characters are well-formed and interesting. The story is compelling and believable. The writing is gripping and refused to let me go. The ending had a twist, one that I never expected. Let me clarify, however, that this is a thriller and not a mystery. The difference is that in a mystery the author tries to keep you guessing who is the bad person; in the thriller, it doesn’t matter if you know or if you figure it out early in the book. What counts in a thriller are the relationships and the causes and effects.

In The Arranger, Sellers has written a top-notch thriller. If you like thrillers, The Arranger is a 5-star-sure-to-please-can’t-put-down read. As with all her books, it is available at the author’s website and at ebookstores.

August 8, 2011

On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (II)

Filed under: Book Review,Indies Worth Reading,On Books — Rich Adin @ 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

July 13, 2011

On Books: Detective Jackson Grows and Grows

One pleasure I get as an editor is the ability to work on subsequent editions of an author’s book and see the author grow book by book. By “grow,” I mean the author’s writing style — communication with the reader — improves. This pleasure is rather limited in my editorial business because of the types of books I edit.

However, that same pleasure occasionally occurs in the fiction I read. Some authors improve subtly, some more dramatically, some maintain an even keel at a high level. Good examples of the latter are Vicki Tyley and Shayne Parkinson; in both cases, the writing has kept an even keel. In Tyley’s case, it is harder to discern changes because her books are not a series that revolves around a continuing group of characters; each book is a fully standalone novel — different characters, different plot twists and turns, different venues. (For a review of Tyley’s books, see On Books: Murder Down Under; for a review of Parkinson’s books, see On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet.)

And now I can add L.J. Sellers to this “elite” group of indie authors who deliver a 5-star experience from the get-go, except that, in her books, one can see the improvement in writing style as one reads her Detective Jackson Series in order. The books in the series are, in order:

  • The Sex Club
  • Secrets to Die For
  • Thrilled to Death
  • Passions of the Dead
  • Dying for Justice

The first book introduces us to the Eugene, Oregon, violent crime detective squad, with Wade Jackson as the lead character. Jackson is the choice for lead detective when the case seems particularly difficult to solve. He has the solution knack! Jackson, along with the other members of the squad, are the vehicles through which we can watch Sellers’ writing improve with each book. As Jackson grows, so grows Sellers’ communication with her readers.

Sellers humanizes her characters by giving them the attributes of everyday, ordinary people. No superheros, no supercops, no powers of deduction and reasoning that evade otherwise mere mortals and separate mortal from demigod. Jackson, for example, is in the process of divorcing an alcoholic wife and suffering from an illness that he thinks is just too much acid from too many cups of coffee, while trying to protect his teenage daughter from her mother’s alcohol addiction as well as from the usual travails of being a teenager. Lara Evans is the only female on the squad and she is having trouble finding the right soul mate, but has her eye on Jackson. Sophie Speranza is a reporter whose personal life swings between ups and downs but who is tenacious in striving not only for the story but to help Jackson. Lammers is the head honcho, who has promotion ambitions and the presence of a bull, but yet moments of kindness and understanding, as well as insight that comes from experience in a leadership role. And so it goes with each of the core crew of the series.

Sellers tries to balance reader involvement and reader standoffishness, something I discussed in Characterization: How Important is Reader Emotional Involvement? and On Books: Plot-Driven, Character-Driven, Hybrid? (Sellers’ books fit the hybrid category.) Her success in finding that balance improves with each book in the series.

Let’s get something out of the way now: Even though each book is an improvement over the previous book in terms of writing and drawing the reader into the community, each book in the Detective Jackson Series is a 5-star book. (For more on my rating system, see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I).) Also worth noting is that the novels remind me of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct Series. If you like Ed McBain, you will like these books. Although you can read the books in any order, they really do build one on the other and so I suggest reading them in order.

The biggest complaint I have about L.J. Sellers’ Detective Jackson Series is that the author has not made the books available on Smashwords, only at the link provided and at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Finding good indie author books to read is difficult enough; finding ones that are 5-star reads is wearying. But when we find them, we need to support those authors by buying their books because 5-star indie authors are a rare treasure in the ebook age of self-publishing. Sellers’ Detective Jackson Series joins that exalted crowd — the mysteries are different, the plot twists are unusual, the characters are believable, the community semifictional in the sense that her Eugene, Oregon, could as easily be my or your hometown. Sellers has made it easy for the reader to become another partner in the violent-felony squad that Jackson leads. Jackson’s humanness is refreshing and his solving of a crime doesn’t rest on some obscure Holmesian fact — rather, how he solves the cases seems to be how real police solve real cases.

I think that Sellers intends to rise above the ordinary mystery by making her characters our next-door neighbors. Perhaps a bit more conservative than some of us, but not radical in any way; simply a part of our neighborhood. In this endeavor, she succeeds, increasingly so with each book in the series. The Detective Jackson Series joins my hall of fame for 2011; I eagerly await the next book in the series. Now, if she would only make her books more easily accessible to all readers. The lack of easy universal availability is an unnecessary drag on her books.

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.

June 13, 2011

On Books: Wondering Why Stieg Larsson

Sometimes one has to go with the flow because there is some unknown force that pushes you along that path. I find that most frequently happens when I am “pushed” toward the local Dairy Queen for soft-serve ice cream — for our dog! Yes, our Lily, a 12-year-old cocker spaniel, loves ice cream and Dairy Queen’s in particular.

Unfortunately, that push also sometimes shoves me toward a particular book: Because millions are reading it, I sometimes get “pushed” toward the need to read this book of millions to discover why. Usually finding out why simply reinforces my belief that bestsellers too often fail the discerning reader test (i.e., no discerning reader would ever read this book!), which is why I rarely buy or read books on the bestseller lists.

Well this unknown force pushed me to read the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Thankfully, there will be no followup books to this trilogy.

I read the trilogy a couple of months ago and thought it deserved a rating of 2 stars maximum in my system (see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I)) except that my system’s 2-star rating doesn’t seem to cover a book that has nearly no spelling errors, few grammar errors, is published by a traditional publisher, but is atrociously bad reading. That’s because my rating system was designed for indie books, not traditional books. So, we’ll just have to temporarily adapt.

The Millennium Trilogy is a 1.5- to 2-star series on almost any 1 to 5 rating scale. Whatever compelled people to buy the books is elusive — except that the lead character, Lisbeth Salander, is an interesting, albeit unbelievable, character who tends to rope you into wondering what next will happen in her world (in a way these books demonstrate the value of character-driven books; see On Books: Plot-Driven, Character-Driven, Hybrid? and On Books: Plot, Character, Hybrid & the Long Tail). To me, these books are like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code — superficial quick reads that help pass time without taxing any cognitive processes whatsoever. Perhaps the books are better in their original language (Swedish) than in the translation; one can only hope.

Okay, you have the picture — I don’t think the books are worth buying let alone reading (50 million buyers worldwide say contrariwise) so why am I writing a “review”? I wouldn’t have in the normal course of events. My general policy is not even to mention, except in the On Today’s Bookshelf articles, books that I think so little of. What made me write this article (anybody remember comedian Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine and her line “The devil made me do it!”?) was a review of these books in The New York Review of Books (NYRB) a couple of weeks ago that I just got around to reading.

The Moralist by Tim Parks, is a NYRB review well worth reading by those who have bought the Trilogy but not yet read it; those who have bought the Trilogy and have read it; those who are thinking of plunking down hard-earned money to buy the Trilogy but haven’t yet done so; and those who have no intention of either buying or reading the Trilogy because the article is well worth reading in its own right. It is also a good article to read by anyone who is interested in getting a feel for the types of articles and reviews that NYRB publishes.

My commentary here is really less about Larsson’s Trilogy than about encouraging those who are interested in books and culture to read NYRB, and perhaps subscribe to it. Articles in NYRB are significantly different from reviews one reads in, for example, the New York Times Book Review (NYTBR). There was a time when I read the NYTBR faithfully every week. When I first discovered NYRB years ago, I faithfully read both the NYRB and the NYTBR but soon discovered that the NYTBR was not of the same quality caliber as NYRB, with the result that my faithfulness to the NYTBR began to wane and today I barely look at the NYTBR. Instead, I eagerly await the next issue of NYRB.

One of the problems with book buying today is that there are so many books published and so few trustworthy reviews of them. No magazine, no online site can put a true dent into the numbers — the number of reviews will always be an infinitesimal fraction of the number of books published, which problem is exacerbated by the easiness of self-publishing ebooks. But I seek some guidance from somewhere that is reliable and I have no faith whatsoever in the anonymous reviews at places like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Although I have high praise for NYRB, it does have its faults. For example, it has yet to introduce to the print version a “column” devoted to ebooks. It needs to do so and it needs to begin reviewing books that are available only as ebooks, as well as books that are available in both p and e versions. NYRB also fails to identify the formats that the books it does review are available in and whether there are problems with the production. But for content review, NYRB can’t be beat.

I hope some of you will take the time to read  The Moralist by Tim Parks and take a look at NYRB with an eye toward making it a regular stop for interesting commentary and reviews, and perhaps even becoming a subscriber. (For those of you who wonder about the ideological slant of NYRB, it is a liberal/left-leaning publication, but I have only found that evident in its commentaries, not in its book reviews.)

Disclosure: I am not now and never have been associated with NYRB in any fashion, manner, way other than being a long-term subscriber to the print edition. I receive no compensation from NYRB, not even a calendar or a T-shirt. FWIW, my current subscription, for which I duly paid the full subscription price, expires in 2015 and I will extend it as soon as NYRB permits. (They are unwilling to take more than one 3-year extension at a time or I would have extended my subscription into the 2020s already.)

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