I’ll name a famous book, and then recommend a lesser-known book you should read if you enjoyed it. Ready? Let us begin.
If you like A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole…
…then you should read Incomplete Works, by Noah Goats.
The influence of Toole’s legendary comic novel on this book is clear. While the plot isn’t as intricate and the cast not as large, the intelligent, snobbish protagonist of Goats’ novel is definitely a unique character, much like Ignatius J. Reilly.
If you like H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West–Reanimator series….
…then you should read The Friendship of Mortals by Audrey Driscoll.
All right, so this is kind of a layup since the latter is based on the former, but if you are familiar with Lovecraft’s interesting but thinly-sketched serial, you have to read Driscoll’s reimagining, in which she fleshes out Herbert West and his world.
If you like Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer…
…then you should read Ocean Echoes, by Sheila Hurst.
Now, you might think this is an odd comparison, especially if you only know Annihilation from the movie adaptation, which is much more sci-fi horror. The movie is very good, but also extremely different than the book. Ocean Echoes isn’t as dark as Annihilation, but both are about a biologist who ventures into the unknown while battling mental demons and scars of past relationships. And both are haunting and beautifully-written.
If you like The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair…
…then you should read Eating Bull, by Carrie Rubin.
Okay, confession time here: I don’t like The Jungle. I like Sinclair’s concept of a novel with a social commentary on the meat industry, but the book itself is boring, repetitive and preachy. It’s a neat idea, but it doesn’t work.
Eating Bull, on the other hand, totally does work because it’s a gripping page-turner of a killer thriller, and the social commentary is woven into the plot, so it feels natural and organic. So, I guess what I’m saying is, if you read only one novel driven by a social comment on Big Food, make it Eating Bull. Also, it’s a bit more timely, being published more than a century after The Jungle.
Now it’s your turn! Name me some famous books, and then some similar, lesser-known book that you think deserves more attention. And yes, it’s completely fair game if you want to list your own books. Go for it.
This is a collection of ten short stories, many of which are inspired by myths, fairy-tales, folk-lore and poetry. Sort of like Angela Carter’s retellings of well-known stories, Spicer cleverly re-invents these classic tales, telling them in a new way or from a new perspective. All the stories are enjoyable and interesting. My favorites were the poignant “Stranger at the Crossroads,” and the delightful “An Unlikely Friendship.”
Because these are short stories, I don’t want to discuss them in detail because it may give too much away. Lydia Schoch’s review discusses the two tales I have mentioned above, and she’s much better at reviewing without spoiling than I am. I encourage reading her review—it was what first brought this book to my attention, and I’m glad, because it’s a very enjoyable read, especially for the autumn and winter months. If you enjoy subtle horror, fantasy or paranormal stories, this book is for you.
After reading this collection, I was eager to read more of Spicer’s work. And I also started reading her blog, which is a real delight—check it out; she has written tons of excellent posts on a wide variety of topics, including various writerly matters and book reviews.
This is a dark book, about flawed psyches, crises of faith, and unhappy families. It tells the story of a nun, Mary Agnes Adelli, who teaches at a Catholic boarding school in Illinois. One of the students under her charge is a rebellious girl named Helene, who feels abandoned by her father, a doctor who is traveling in Europe.
Helene repeatedly and flagrantly violates the rules of the school, coming into conflict with other students and Mother Adelli herself. Mother Adelli is soft-hearted by nature, and so is ill-suited to manage the student’s behavior, and given little support from her superiors.
Problems escalate, ultimately to the level of tragedy, and this brings Mother Adelli to confront her beliefs, as well as unexamined pain from her own troubled childhood.
The prose is beautiful, with gorgeous descriptions of bleak Midwestern landscapes in what seems to be a world of eternal autumn and winter. The characters struggle with complicated emotions, and for the most part, their inner thoughts are complex and believable.
Technically, there is almost nothing to complain about with this book. One or two very minor typos (well below the average number for an indie book) and a few times, the POV shifted a bit suddenly, but besides that, it was about as beautifully-written a work of literary fiction as I can imagine.
Now, I know I mentioned it already, but I want to hammer the point home: this book is very gloomy. Not only in subject matter, but in tone, in style, in pretty much every way a book can be. It felt as if events were rigged by the cosmos themselves to maximize anguish for the characters.
I haven’t read a book like this for a long time, but The Calling of Mother Adelli reminded me of the time I read a bunch of Thomas Hardy novels, one after another. Mother Adelli is like a later Hardy novel—think Tess of the D’Urbervilles or especially Jude the Obscure. Beautiful descriptions of bleak landscapes, characters struggling with trauma, grief, and the expectations family, society, and religion have placed upon them—all the things that make a novel Hardy-esque are here.
And some of the same problems I had with Hardy are present as well: in such a grim atmosphere, it was hard for me to find any character to root for. Adelli is sympathetic, but in a way that made me pity her for the misfortune caused by her lapses in judgment, rather than truly wish for her to “succeed” at anything. Every other character was, to a greater or lesser extent, unlikable in some way.
To be clear, I wouldn’t say it should have been written differently. I think the point of the book is that all human beings have their flaws, and that sometimes these flaws interact with one another in a way that inevitably produces a violent disaster.(Reconciling this point with the existence of an omniscient, benevolent Creator is another matter, one which the characters also struggle with in the course of the book.)
This is probably not a book for everyone—it’s not a light read, it’s driven by characters rather than plot, and it touches on a number of controversial issues. I don’t want to give away too much, but let me say that while early on I began to expect the tragedy that ultimately occurs about halfway through, it was still quite disturbing to read.
But with all that said, it is certainly a worthwhile book. I made the comparison to Jude the Obscure for more than one reason, because like that novel, The Calling of Mother Adelli has many elements that make for a classic of literary fiction. The writing is gorgeous, and the author clearly took great pains to craft every scene vividly.
I 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 giveThe 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.
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.
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.
I 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.
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.
My 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.
How 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.