thekitchenbrigade_ecoverI admit to suffering from dystopia fatigue. I love the classics of the genre, like Nineteen Eighty-Four, but the last decade has seen so many bleak future/post-apocalyptic/totalitarian government-type stories that it takes a lot for me to pick one up. But after reading Lydia Schoch’s interview of Laurie Boris, I had to give The Kitchen Brigade a shot. And within pages, it won me over.

The Kitchen Brigade is set in 2049, in the remnants of a United States torn by civil war and occupied by Russian forces. Valerie, the daughter of the former U.S. Secretary of State, has been captured by the Russians and forced to work in a kitchen, serving a Russian general and his officers. 

All the women serving in the kitchen are assigned numbers instead of names. Valerie is Three. Gradually, she gets to know the other women, all of whom came there by different routes, and who have different perspectives on the situation; from the foul-mouthed but good-natured Four to the aggressively unpleasant Two, who resents Three and sees her as a threat to her relationship with the main chef, the tough-but-fair Svetlana.

As Valerie gains the respect of Svetlana and the brigade (with the exception of Two) she also begins to realize that the situation is far less stable than it appears, and soon discovers that there are multiple factions jockeying for power, among both the Americans and the Russians, and, as in any good thriller, almost everyone has a hidden agenda.

The prose is clean and the dialogue witty—especially Four, who I think deserves her own spin-off story. Her scenes were a real highlight.

I also loved how Boris gradually tells us the backstory of how the United States collapsed—it’s done in bits and pieces; scraps of information picked up here and there, but at a certain point, it becomes very clear not only what happened, but just how disturbingly plausible the seemingly-unthinkable scenario really is. It’s an all-too-believable vision of how a cyberwar could work.

A few minor gripes: there were a few times when it was hard for me to keep track of where all the characters were during the climactic sequence. It was effective, don’t get me wrong, but I still felt a little confused. It’s a not a big flaw, though; and it could just be that I haven’t read enough thrillers to get the hang of it.

Also–and I’ll be vague here rather than risk giving too much away–there’s one scene where people are oddly reluctant to kill a particularly vile character. Boris did a really good job making this character unlikable, and provided realistic motivation for why the character behaves the way that they do, so major props for that. But this person is so unrelentingly hostile, it’s hard to feel any sympathy, although some characters do anyway.

All in all, this was a very well-crafted dystopia. And Boris has a real knack for describing the elegant dishes the brigade prepares over the course of the book. I probably haven’t given the food preparation scenes their due in this review, because I’m not much of a gourmet myself, but even I could tell they were well-done. (No pun intended.)

Earlier this year, I reviewed the novella Number Seven and the Life Left Behind, by Mayumi Hirtzel. This is another tale of espionage, intrigue, nefarious Russian agents, and people with numbers instead of names. As a fan of old Cold War spy stories like Secret Agent, it’s pretty exciting to me that people are telling stories like this again. If you liked Number Seven, I predict you will also enjoy the Kitchen Brigade. And if, like I was, you’re reluctant to check out another dystopian story, just know that this doesn’t feel like a random tyrant has been inexplicably installed, as is so often the case in dystopian fiction, but is carefully thought-out and well-described. Give it a try.

I’m currently about halfway through The Kitchen Brigade by Laurie Boris. After that, I’ve got Volume Two of The Precipice Dominions by R.J. Llewellyn on tap and after that… really nothing in the way of indie books to read.

So I’m seeking your suggestions. What indie books do you recommend? While not essential, I have a strong preference for those I can get on Kindle. And yes, you can suggest your own book if you want to.

If you follow me on Twitter, you already saw this. I think most people who read the blog regularly have already read my books, but if you’d like to recommend any of them to your friends, now is a good time.

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Tweets #2 and #3

 

Kevin Brennan’s novel Fascination is on sale for 99 cents, along with his other books. I encourage you to check out his work if you haven’t already. I read Fascination earlier this year and enjoyed it very much. And if my word isn’t enough, take Audrey Driscoll’s and Pat Prescott’s. Once you read it, come back and tell me who you’d cast in a film adaptation. It’s a book that begs to be adapted for the screen.

On Kevin’s blog post announcing the sale, there are a lot of comments about the difficulties authors face in promoting their work on social media, and the fact that many indie authors are read only by other indie authors. Why don’t casual readers pick up an indie book now and then?

Personally, I like having an audience of writers. It means you get good feedback. I’d rather hear the opinions of ten people who understand the creative process than a hundred people who don’t.

Yes, yes; I know the financial compensation for having hundreds or thousands of readers would be nice. But I don’t think the majority of indie authors are really in this for the money.  We’re in it because we have a story we want to tell. And when you tell a story, you want to have an audience that appreciates it.

One reason I often refer to Noah Goats’ novel The Unpublishables is that it speaks to the fact that so many people are writing books nowadays, thanks to indie publishing. And to write books, you have to read books, or you won’t get far. Goats makes this point with humor throughout The Unpublishables.

The more you read, the more you want to write. Mark Paxson put it best in his introduction to The Marfa Lights when he wrote, “Doesn’t every reader secretly believe he or she can write a better story?”

If I were handpicking readers, I’d want people who made that leap–the people who read enough to know they want to write. I suspect the most rewarding feeling for a writer is not having a lot of readers, but having discerning readers.

This may sound arrogant, but my position is, don’t worry if your audience is nothing but other writers. The majority of writers are readers who decided they wanted better stories. If they’re reading your work, it means you’re doing something right.

patchwork warriorsI don’t read a lot of epic fantasy. But when Audrey Driscoll recommends a book, I pay attention, regardless of genre.

Of Patchwork Warriors begins with a glossary of terms used in the world of the novel, which is called the Oakhostian Empire. These include amusing words like “kerfluffeg” and “blimping,” a mild obscenity, as well as terms like “Stommigheid,” which is a peculiar sort of ether—indeed, sometimes called “the Ethereal”—which is not entirely understood. It’s something like the Force in Star Wars, but it has a Lovecraftian element as well, in the sense that messing with it can summon unspeakable monsters from beyond the known world.

Naturally, a villain by the name of Lord Ragithyl is trying to do exactly this, and so creates a ripple effect across the empire, catching the attentions of Meradat, one of the Custodians, (a sort of religious order) the LifeGuard, (the army) as well as merchants, mercenaries, and an eccentric young woman named Karlyn, who has a nose for evil spirits related to Stommigheid—or, in her colorful dialect, “storm-higgle.”

Karlyn and Meradat travel together, and eventually meet a LifeGuard named Arketre Berritt, a medician. Karlyn and Berritt gradually become friends, as their adventures lead them to a port town under attack. In this attack, they meet a woman named Trelli, who has unwillingly gained mysterious magical Stommigheid powers which among other things, make her hands glow red and blue. The three women are gradually drawn into discovering and combating the wicked Lord Ragithyl’s plot, as well as political jockeying from various factions of the empire.

It’s a strange tale Llewellyn weaves, with lots of different threads to it, but the heart of the book—and for me, the best part—is the banter between the three main characters. Berritt (Or “Flaxi,” as Karlyn calls her) is very likable, Trelli’s down-to-earth, good-natured personality is relatable, and Karlyn… well, Karlyn is almost indescribable. From her obsession with fire, to her keen sense of smell, to her bizarre jargon, she’s a unique character. Sometimes she was annoying, but she was supposed to be, and like Trelli and Berritt, I grew to like her in spite of it all.

The book ends on a satisfying note, but still leaves a lot to be explored in the sequel. It’s actually supposed to be a four-part series, I believe.

The language in this book is very clever, and Karlyn is only the most obvious example. As Audrey mentioned in her review, some of the invented swear words are quite addictive. I applaud Llewellyn for that. 

The big flaw is the familiar trouble with most indie books: typos. I felt they were more numerous here than in the average indie, although that may be an illusion simply because this book, as befits an epic fantasy, is longer than average. And because of Llewellyn’s creativity with the language, it sometimes makes it difficult to follow some passages. The typos seemed heaviest in the middle of the book—the beginning and end were smoother.

Beyond that, there were times when it was confusing as to what was happening, and some of the concepts relating to the Stommigheid were so abstract, it was tough to visualize. One thing that I would have found helpful would be the inclusion of a map of the world at the beginning. I know the Oakhostian Empire is based on Europe, but that wasn’t enough for me to get situated. Certain groups were similar to European nations, but that still didn’t give me a good idea of where things were relative to one another.

But despite these flaws, Llewellyn obviously put a lot of time into building this world. More than any novel, it reminded me of the famous fantasy RPGs of yore: Planescape: Torment, Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Pillars of Eternity and so on. Even the lead trio fits into the mold of classic RPG archetypes: Berritt is a healer/soldier, Karlyn is a quintessential rogue, and Trelli is a mage. 

In fact, as I think about it, I really want to play an RPG set in this world. Chris Avellone or Josh Sawyer ought to see if Llewellyn will be willing to license a game adaptation.

I originally was going to end my review there, adding only that I’ve already started Volume 2, Our Skirmishers of Lace, Steel, and Fire, and then link to Llewellyn’s blog.

But, alas! The blog no longer exists. In fact, going to the post where Audrey originally re-blogged the news about the launch of Volume 2, which was how I discovered the series, I find all that’s there now is Audrey’s text—Llewellyn’s post is gone, along with the rest of his blog.

It bothers me when a blog vanishes. I don’t like to be nosy, and no blogger is obligated to keep their work around if they do not want to. But all the same, it makes me uneasy when years’ worth of writing just vanishes. It disturbs both the blogger and the historian in me. I only read a few posts of Llewellyn’s, but I enjoyed those that I did, and had been planning to read more about his process once I finished the first volume.

In retrospect, perhaps Llewellyn’s conception of the Stommigheid is not so abstract after all; for we blogger-folk are met upon an equally precarious and mysterious plane of existence.

But enough! If you like epic fantasy, consider giving Of Patchwork Warriors a try. After all, I don’t like epic fantasy, and even I thought it was fun, in spite of its flaws.

NondisclosureNondisclosure is a terrific, fast-paced thriller. When a student at Boston Technological Institute is assaulted, Dr. Brad Parker and investigator Karen Richmond are assigned to work together to find the perpetrator. But what they uncover is a confusing, sometimes seemingly contradictory set of facts. When the crimes escalate further, they find themselves struggling to unravel a web of corruption concealed by the political machinations of academia.

As is generally the case when I review thrillers, I’ll refrain from discussing too much of the plot, other than to say it is well-constructed and fast-moving. Fans of Cooper’s first novel The Prize will instantly recognize and enjoy the same engrossing writing style. The two lead characters are both very likable, and the story takes them on plenty of twists and turns along the way.

I highly recommend this book to fans of thrillers–not just medical ones, although there is plenty of interesting medical science interwoven with the plot. But even someone like me, with next to no knowledge of medicine, chemistry etc. will appreciate this gripping tale. 

And that’s not even the best part. What really stands out about the book is its theme. It shines a light on how corruption can happen even in institutions that we normally think of as forthright, honorable, and respectable. As the old adage says, “power corrupts,” and this is no less true of power wielded by people in science and education than anyone else. This is best illustrated by Richmond’s line to Dr. Parker: “You’ve got a lot to learn about how big institutions work. Why do you think universities have their own police forces?”

A word about the book’s subject matter: As many readers know, I don’t like reading stories that involve violence against women, and  so I was a little nervous going into this. But while Nondisclosure does indeed contain some very dark scenes of exactly that, Cooper avoids making it even remotely lurid or sensational, unlike many thrillers. It is not played for shock value, but simply as a horrible consequence of what can happen when people entrusted with moral authority choose to protect themselves and their own interests instead of doing their duty.

[Note: This review is based on an ARC of this book. Nondisclosure releases on July 15, 2019, but you can pre-order it now.]

I’m reading Gordon Corrigan’s history of the Hundred Years’ War, A Great and Glorious Adventure. I enjoyed his history of the battle of Waterloo and this book is more of the same–lots of historical details, plenty of witty footnotes, (this being the best) and a gleefully pro-English bias.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I want to talk about the book’s cover:

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From a design perspective, it’s perfectly fine. I might have gone for an older-looking font for the title and author’s name, but that’s not a big deal.

But let’s look closer at that painting on the cover:

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According to Wikipedia, this is a painting by Charles de Steuben, entitled Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732. (“The Battle of Poitiers in October 732.”) It depicts the victory of Charles Martel and the Franks over the Umayyad Caliphate.

This is a fascinating battle, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the Hundred Years’ War, which didn’t start until May of 1337. So what’s going on here?

Well, there was also a Battle of Poitiers during the Hundred Years’ War. In fact, this is the more famous Battle of Poitiers, and the Franks vs. Umayyads one is more commonly known as the Battle of Tours. I’ve written about this confusion before.

I’m thinking what happened here is that somebody searched for an image for “Battle of Poitiers,” found this, and was impressed by how sharp it looks. I can’t blame them; how were they to know there were two Battles of Poitiers?

fireMy Father’s Fire is a well-constructed and clever mystery novelette about a man uncovering dark secrets from his family’s past. If you’re already familiar with Phillip McCollum, all I need to say is that this is a classic example of his work: a fast-paced story which packs a lot of developed characters and plot into a fun and readable package. Despite the short length, there’s plenty of atmosphere, backstory, and conflict here.

If you’re new to McCollum’s work, this is the perfect introduction to his style. Check it out, and I’ll wager you’ll want to pick up his collection of 52 short stories as soon as you finish.

I was just thinking the other day about how much fun these kinds of “bite-sized” tales–what Mark Paxson calls “long short stories”–are, both for readers and writers. For readers, you can gobble them up in a single reading session. And for writers, you get the pleasure of telling a tale and seeing readers’ reactions without having to toil with little or no feedback for the length of time it takes to write a novel.

I like writing reviews. When I was a kid and my parents would take me to the movies, what I enjoyed most (besides the popcorn) was talking about the parts we liked and didn’t like afterwards.  What’s the point of watching a film, or reading a book, or any other sort of story, if not to think about it afterward?

Ever since I’ve been blogging, my reviews of thing are consistently what get the most views and generate the most discussion. I recently read an article that indicates my experience is atypical, which surprised me. (Upon reflection, I think the reason is that my other main topic was politics, and given the choice between a review and political post, most readers choose the former.)

Writing reviews is fun for me. Show me a work of fiction, and odds are I’ll review it, for no reason other than my own amusement.

That said, not every review makes an equal impact. Does J.J. Abrams lie awake at night thinking, “Berthold Gambrel didn’t like my film! How can I do better next time?” I kind of doubt it.

Gradually, (and I’m rather embarrassed at how long this took) I’ve come to realize that instead of reviewing things that millions of people already have opinions about, my time is better spent reviewing things few have even heard of.

When I review a blockbuster film, I struggle to say something that someone else hasn’t already said. Even if I succeed, it’s usually a point few people agree with or care about. But when I review an indie book, I’m one of the only ones talking about it, and so what I’m saying is instantly more interesting to readers, simply by virtue of being new.

Another aspect is that reviewing lesser-known works forces me to be a better reviewer. When I review a new indie book, I’m exploring uncharted territory. There’s no consensus for me to argue or agree with. This is quite exciting; because it forces me to operate without preconceived notions and evaluate the story as a story, without the baggage of hype and marketing and online buzz weighing me down. I think this is probably similar to the reason driving enthusiasts prefer manual transmission over automatic: there’s less getting between you and the exercise of your skill.

Given all this, it baffles me that more people don’t review indie books. I realize I’m courting disaster by saying this, because if more people did, it would remove some of the fun I get out of it. But I’m prepared to take that chance, in the interest of getting more people talking about my favorite books.

Devil and WolfHow to describe The Devil and the Wolf? I could tell you that it deals with questions like whether humans are innately good or evil, what it means to have a soul, and that it deconstructs and reimagines many classic aspects of mythology and religion.

But that makes it sound like pretty heavy stuff. Like Paradise Lost or something; one of those great works of classic literature that hardly anybody reads because it’s so intimidatingly hard to understand. The Devil and the Wolf isn’t like that. It’s a lighthearted romp—a divine comedy, one might say. Heaven and its angels and Hell and its demons have large roles to play in the story. Besides Mephistopheles, the title devil, Belial, Beelzebub, Lucifer, Lilith and other classic hellish figures appear in the story, as do angels like Gabriel, Raphael and so on. 

There are humans in the story as well, including a team of aspiring young paranormal researchers, and a truly unpleasant couple, one-half of which is the resentful employee of Mephistopheles, though despite her hatred for her boss, she doesn’t realize he’s actually an ancient prince of hell.

And then there is the other title character: JR Wolfe, a wolf transformed into a human by the powerful magic of the devil, as part of his plan to put an end to a millennia-old test devised by the forces of Heaven and Hell to evaluate human souls. This test is part of a larger cosmology that Pastore has constructed, and which I absolutely loved. It reminds me of the religions and spiritual hierarchies and planes of existence as imagined in RPGs—yes, even including the legendary Planescape: Torment.

How does Pastore manage to make a plot work with such a disparate blend of characters? Marvelously. I would never have imagined it could be done, and yet he has done it, in a manner that was incredibly organic and natural—so smooth in fact that I didn’t even see the gears of the plot moving towards the climax until it had almost arrived.

The characters are an absolute delight, from the hilarious banter between JR and Mephistopheles, to the political machinations of Hell’s denizens, to the stuffy formality of the angels. The dialogues are full of clever insults and comebacks, and JR’s unrelenting destructiveness is unfailingly hilarious.

But beyond that, there is some real meat to this story—questions of morality, humanity, and mortality are all in play here, but in a way that’s entertaining and fun to read. That’s why I wouldn’t describe it as a philosophical novel, even though it undoubtedly is. It would give you the wrong idea.

In telling someone about this book, I called it The Master and Margarita meets A Confederacy of Dunces. The parallels aren’t exact, but that’s the best I can do. If you’re not familiar with those titles, know that both are (a) extremely weird and (b) widely considered to be some of the greatest literary works of the 20th century.

It’s probably not a coincidence that great things are also a bit strange. We don’t normally think of “strange” or “weird” as compliments. But then again, it’s hard to imagine praising something by saying “It’s so normal,” either. 

The Devil and the Wolf is such a strange, outlandish comic fantasy, and yet every character feels so real. They all have discernible goals, motivations, and beliefs, which makes the whole world Pastore created seem immediate and alive. There might be an occasional line which falls flat, but as a whole, it all works together delightfully well. My only complaint, and it’s a minor one, is that I would have liked to learn a bit more about the young paranormal investigators. They are very promising characters.

The usual caveat about typos that comes with most indie books (including my own) applies here, although given its length, I was impressed by just how few there were.

How to describe The Devil and the Wolf? I still don’t know—this review doesn’t do it justice. All I know is, it’s weird, thought-provoking and a Hell (and Heaven) of a lot of fun.