Much too good to sell this damn bad

This book review blog is devoted to finding and promoting obscure but wonderful sci-fi and fantasy. I focus on recent, self-published ebooks that have sunk to the lowest depths of Amazon's worst-seller list. If it's in Amazon's top 100,000 and has ten reviews, it's too posh for this humble reviewer.

Why? Because bestsellers already have buttloads of reviews, and I'm discovering so many nifty books this way. I think the biggest problem for self-publishers as a whole is that readers have no way of discriminating between the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Note: You'll almost never see me pan a book here. The books I'm looking at are so obscure that you don't need to be warned away from them. Exceptions may be made for books that are so unbelievably awful that readers can take perverse delight in them.

Nolander: A Novel of the Emanations, by Becca Mills

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Rating: +5 plot, +4 character development, +2 shopping montage

Available at: http://www.amazon.com/Nolander-Emanations-ebook/dp/B007R6...

Summary

Beth, a young woman living in small-town Wisconsin, accidentally photographs an invisible monster, bringing her to the attention of the powerful forces of a mysterious other world, the "Second Emanation." She is conscripted into a force whose purpose is to keep the existence of this other world a secret from humankind. She soon discovers that this organization does not have either her or humanity's best interests at heart.

Review

Disclaimer: Becca Mills' blog, The Active Voice, has cross-posted a couple of my book reviews to her site.

Nolander is an enormously entertaining book, with a well-paced and exciting story built atop a very clever magic system that blurs the line between sci-fi and fantasy. It has a lot of very memorable, gosh-that-was-cool moments, and some exceptionally interesting characters. Speaking of which, I have to give "Best in Show" to Ghosteater, the lovably misanthropic wolf monster with little patience for the complex rules of the humans. Runner up goes to the scene-stealing tree-octopus water mage.

The main character spends most of the book in a very tense predicament, as the unwilling servant of an organization that wants to wield her powers, while at the same time needing their help to understand her powers. It's a dynamic that keeps the pages turning.

Perhaps Mills' prose is a bit more straightforward than I might prefer. I migrate toward prose with a more aggressive vocabulary and more complex sentence structures, which doesn't make for easy reading. Nolander is an easy read, more suited for the bustle of a public transit commute than a quiet evening spent by a roaring fire, wearing a crushed velvet smoking jacket and drinking fifty year old scotch from a snifter, silently attended by my manservant Frederick. But I suppose the hoi polloi must have their bread and circuses.

That's a bit of a backhanded way of saying I thought the book was very accessible. I'm not even sure it's a minus for me, and I know it will be a big plus for a lot of readers.

Frederick! My evening pork rind allotment, if you will.

There were a couple of points in the book where the story slowed to a crawl for me. As a male, I now invoke my inalienable right to find even a brief "girls go shopping" montage painfully tedious.

I've never cared for first-person narration. Usually it's one of those things that slips into the background by the end of the first chapter. Toward the end of the book, there was this literarily awkward moment where the narration continued on in the first person, despite the putative narrator not being present. I don't see why this happens, since the author already has a second POV character in Ghosteater. In fact, I think he was in most of those scenes. So I didn't understand the thinking behind that decision.

I would deduct a star for this, but Ghosteater would just steal it back. He's not a polite doggy.

Note: it's Book I in a series. As of this writing, Book II (Solatium) is still "forthcoming." I hate it when that happens. :)

The Cricket, by Simon Habegger

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Rating: +3 Plot, +5 The Smell of the Ocean on a Chilly Day

Available at: http://www.amazon.com/The-Cricket-ebook/dp/B005784DG2/

Summary

Genre: Modern-day fantasy, but of a literary sort

Length: 88K words

Words per penny: 294

Plot: Hanna, a young woman who has fled Iraq and then her own family, finds a mysterious not-quite-corpse washed up on the beaches of Delaware. She drags him back to the abandoned warehouse she's squatting in, nurses him back to health, and begins to learn just how strange a being the sea has thrown upon her shores.

They spend a long and peaceful summer by the ocean, but Hanna's desire to understand the nature of her new companion (Corus) leads her to seek out her father, a Middle Eastern scholar who has been living on the streets. After great struggle and sacrifice, they find him, and Corus inadvertently uses his limited powers to show them something [no spoiler] that leads Hanna and Corvus to infiltrate a shadowy nation-within-a-nation called The Heart.

Review

I want to hug this book. Is that weird? Yes. Yes it is.

The Cricket is a small, quiet gem of a book that starts out beautiful and touching and maintains a tone of sweet innocence throughout. It manages to hang onto that tone even through the second quarter of the book, where they're living on the streets as they try and find Hanna's father. Without ever losing hope, the author does a pretty authentic job of showing just how difficult being homeless can be. From the way he describes both the mechanics of the day-to-day struggle and the sense of alienation that is part and parcel of a homeless life, I got the sense that he's either worked closely with the homeless or been homeless himself.

Hanna and Corus are two lonely people (though Corus is both more and less than a person) who find strength and comfort in each other. Their relationship drifts so slowly and seamlessly from friendship to romance that it's hard to pinpoint exactly when they fall in love -- a task made more difficult by the way they use "her fiancee" and "her husband" as a cover story.

Though Corus is not human and has limited powers, it wasn't until the existence of The Heart is revealed that you realize how different this book's world is from our own. The Heart is kind of a mishmash of liberal conspiracy theories: a shadow nation embedded in the heart of our own, a prison camp where suspected terrorists are tortured and experimented upon, and a fundamentalist Christian utopia all in one. The whole effect is a little surreal and hard to believe, even for someone as politically cynical as I am.

At this point in the book, I got the sense that the book was about to go off the rails. Not wanting to see the wreck, I put it down for a few days. But when I came back to it, all was mended. They infiltrate The Heart, and it is appropriately menacing and horrifying. The effect is blunted by the fact that we see it through the eyes of Corus, who doesn't truly understand the world or the horrors of it, and who can treat even the leftover skeletons of a war crime as though they were living things in their own right, worthy of friendly respect. The effect is indeed strange, but I appreciated it.

This book is fascinating to me. The language is warm and engaging. The dialogue is occasionally too formal, but seems to fit perfectly when Hanna and Corvus are spending time in solitude. The plot is simple, patterned after an epic quest. While there is a noticeable lack of tension to many parts of the book, the overall effect is not tedium, but a sort of quiet peace where the ordinary moments of life are elevated to something meaningful.

I strongly encourage you to read the sample on Amazon. If you like it that far, I'm sure you'll like the whole thing. This is exactly the sort of book I set out to find.

Lost at the Con, by Bryan Young

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Rating: +5 ConFreaks, ??? general public

Available at: http://www.amazon.com/Lost-at-Con-Bryan-Young/dp/0615489494

Summary

A political journalist gets an out-of-left-field assignment: cover a sci-fi convention for his employer, a trashy web tabloid. Under protest, he packs his bags for "GriffinCon" (DragonCon minus the potential for trademark infringement). The main character is a drunk, a raging jerk, and mostly unfamiliar with geek culture. He's got some preconceptions about his fellow attendees: male, overweight, hygiene-challenged, and an axe to grind. As he goes about the convention, judging, belittling, and getting into altercations, the con and its denizens challenge his preconceptions.

He runs into a couple of young women who find his belligerent confusion charming and invite him to a room party. He ends up fall-down drunk and high on E, being stalked by a steampunk Abraham Lincoln. Maybe it's the euphoria of the drugs, but he finds himself actually liking the convention, and the story goes into redemption arc mode.

Review

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. If you're a fan of cons, and don't mind that the narrator/main character starts out thoroughly dislikable, you'll most likely enjoy this book. If you're unfamiliar with geek culture or con culture and looking to understand it better, this might be a good introduction.

In the beginning, I love to hate the main character, and enjoy watching him suffer. I was going to say that, as he begins to grasp con culture, he's revealed to be a more complex character, but honestly he starts out pretty complex. Professionally, he's torn between idealism and cynicism, and angry at how useless and uninspirational his work feels. He's got ideas for other projects he'd like to try his hand at, including writing a novel. He's in love with a woman who seems to be falling out of love with him. His brain is imaginative, and perhaps even prone to hallucinations. You learn early on that he's got some social phobias.

But he still starts out thoroughly dislikable, destructively alcoholic, and is constantly being punished for his own poor choices. As he starts to "get" the con, and more of his character is revealed, his partial redemption makes sense. There's a somewhat contrived bit at the end, with him stumbling into just the panel he needed to be at. Others have criticized the ending, saying it was unfinished or that it seemed too much of a sequel-opening cliffhanger. I didn't take it that way. Sure, one plot point seems unresolved, but you know that it's about to be resolved in one direction or the other, and whichever way it swerves, he's going to be okay.

I docked it one star because I don't think the prose is where it needs to be, but that didn't detract from my enjoyment.

Glacial Eyes, by J.K. Walker

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Rating: +4 Supernatural Adventure

Available at: http://www.amazon.com/Glacial-Eyes-Salt-After-ebook/dp/B0...

Summary

I met the author when we were selling our respective books at CONduit in Salt Lake. J.K. is a heckuva nice guy. But I suppose you're not looking for a review of him. On to the book!

Glacial Eyes is an urban fantasy tale about Jasmine, a young woman/snow leopard who attends the University of Utah. Okay, Salt Lake only loosely qualifies as "urban," and a lot of the action takes place in Ivins, Utah. Stop being so picky. The supernaturals hide themselves well enough that Jasmine -- who is herself a wereleopard -- is unaware of their existence until shortly after her own powers manifest, and she accidentally kills a fellow student who slipped her a roofie and tried to assault her. The other supernaturals (vampires, werewolves, were-leopards, kitsune, and witches) put her on trial, but let her off with a very strict warning: learn to control your powers, or we have to kill you. Nothing personal, mind you.

The trial isn't all bad. She meets a few new people there who will eventually become her friends: David (a werewolf) and Rachel (a techno-geek witch). Logan (a gorgeous half vampire who drives a motorcycle and has a band, which quite honestly beats the "reader should think he's sexy" message half to death) gives her a ride home from the trial. They stop to forage at Denny's -- to be clear, they forage in the "order a Grand Slam" sense; waitresses are off the menu -- and they find themselves dating.

She begins taking lessons with the local werewolf pack, which leads to the gruesome death of a fluffy bunny. The supernatural government also assigns her jobs, the first of which takes her on a road trip to Southern Utah. Unbeknownst to her, a killer is targeting supernaturals in the area, and the killer follows her back to Salt Lake. As if studying for midterms wasn't enough to keep Jazz busy. She spends the rest of the book alternately hunting and being hunted by the killer.

Review

Jazz has been described as the anti-Bella, and I wholeheartedly agree. She's tough, she makes decisions and takes action, she often protects others and rarely needs protection herself. She drives the plot instead of letting circumstances control her. If anything, she's a bit too eager to take action, and often needs a friend to remind her to slow down and come up with a plan instead of going in guns blazing.

The writing is straightforward, with the occasional spark of humor but no lyrical flourishes. The book is written in the first person, leaving us stuck with whatever Jazz happens to be thinking about at the moment, interesting or not. For example, Jazz has a turbocharged metabolism, and spends a lot of time thinking about her empty stomach, where she will acquire food, how she'll afford all this food, etc. But I found it easy to forgive. Glacial Eyes isn't trying to be more than it is: a fast-paced romp through a supernatural world, following a tough-but-adorable protagonist and her good friends.

Nameless, by Dawn Napier

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Rating: +5 Awesome

Available at: http://www.amazon.com/Nameless-ebook/dp/B0086B9C40/

Summary

Genre: Modern day dark fantasy.

Length: 67K words.

Words per penny: 336

A young woman named Sharon finds a strange little girl on her doorstep, and takes her in. The stubbornly nameless child is one of the fairyfolk, and is being hunted by dark powers, both fairy and mortal. When the child is kidnapped, she must go to the fairy world and rescue her with the help of her brother, a sexy Catholic priest, and a magical granny with mad embroidering skillz.

Review

It would be difficult to recommend this book highly enough. Writing, characters, plot, and dialogue are all top-notch, better than most traditionally published fiction. The story kept me hooked from beginning to end.

The book is full of adventure, with a good love story, and enough theological musings to keep your brain occupied, without ever slowing down the main story. Napier's Underhill (the fairy world) is a strange place with a logic of its own, a place where everything is beautiful and anything can be deadly. The fairy kingdom is populated with beautiful, dangerous spirits who use magic and wiles to lure unsuspecting mortals to... well, everyone has their own deadly and/or sexy agendas.

It was with a heavy heart that I discovered that this is Dawn Napier's only published work.

Write faster, you! Also, use more bigger words. Be obfuscatory, dammit! (Sorry. Inside joke.)

caveats: The book deserves much better cover art. A few stick-in-the-muds... er, I mean gentle souls... might find some parts blasphemous or disrespectful towards Catholicism. Jesus is pro-gay marriage, and he swears.

QUEUEING AJAX REQUESTS

DESPLINING VECTOR IMAGES

A MOOSE BIT MY SISTER

BENCHMARKING CACHE LOADS

WARMING UP JIT COMPILER

COMMITTING CHANGES TO SOURCE

SENDING INVERTED TACHYON PULSE

VIOLATING COPYRIGHT LAWS

OPERATION MOLYBDENUM TORUS IS A GO

BUFFERING

INITIATING NUCLEAR LAUNCH SEQUENCE

RECALIBRATING REALITY

THERMAL SCANNING ACTIVE

SCANNING FOR ORGANIC LIFE

SCANNING FOR INORGANIC LIFE

CALCULATING GODEL PARADOX

ASSEMBLING TINY ROBOTS

ACCESSING LOCAL WI-FI

CUSTOMIZING HTML FOR FASTER XLIB PARSING

DEPLOYING HOLY HAND GRENADE

THIS SPACE FOR RENT

INTERNET EXPLORER DETECTED. SHUTTING DOWN

INSTALLING ROOTKIT

OPTIMIZING JAVASCRIPT LIBRARIES

RECOMPILING FORTRAN

ACHIEVING Y2K COMPLIANCE

SECURING MIND CONTROL LINK

ACTIVATING MIND CONTROL LINK

NEGOTIATING COMMUNICATION PROTOCOL

INSTALLING NEURAL ROOTKIT

UPLOADING ASSASSINATION TARGETS

DRINK FRUCTO-GULP

AUGMENTING REALITY

PADDING GOVERNMENT CONTRACT

FRETTING

DEPLOYING CRYPTOGRAPHIC INTERFACE

TRIANGULATING TARGET

RE-READING 'WEB DESIGN FOR THE PAINFULLY STUPID'

DEBUGGING WETWARE

INVOKING ADMIN PRIVILEGES

DELETING INCRIMINATING EVIDENCE

FALSIFYING LOGFILES

SACRIFICING GOAT.EXE

SACKING RESPONSIBLE PARTIES

STEALING CREDIT CARD DATA