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.
Nola Fran Evie is a story about four women, each trying to make a difference in the world. The three title characters are all players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, organized in the 1940s. The three starred for the Racine Belles, until the league folded when taken over by businessman Harvey Shaw.
The three women go their separate ways from there, until they meet again at a Cubs game–Nola bringing her baseball-loving son, Fran photographing the action, and Evie as the unhappy wife of the same Harvey Shaw.
From there, their lives intertwine in strange ways, as each tries to cope with life after baseball in her own way, amidst the conventions and prejudices of the 1950s. Nola juggles single motherhood with work, Fran wrestles to control her own fiery emotions, and Evie struggles with her loveless marriage.
All three women’s stories are told through flashbacks, prompted by items found in an old handbag by the fourth woman, Jacks, another baseball lover who discovers them as she is in the process of boxing up her belongings for a trans-Atlantic move.
The different threads blend together well, and each of the main characters is clearly and distinctly drawn, each with a vivid personality that makes them enjoyable and memorable. I especially enjoyed the interactions between Nola and her son.
In the end, all three characters’ stories tie together in a logical and satisfying way. And Jacks, too, finds herself fitting into their tale as well.
This book is more driven by characters than by plot, but the crisp prose and witty dialogue make it all flow smoothly; the story never drags, and the jumps between different time periods are handled well.
I was expecting the book would feature more baseball than it actually does, but after roughly the opening quarter of the novel, the sport becomes secondary–though still important as a way of bringing people together, and as a metaphor. (To be honest, this was kind of a relief to me–I’m not a big fan of the game. But even I could appreciate how well-written the baseball portions were.)
There are memorable lines throughout Nola Fran Evie, and I was consistently impressed by Skrabanek’s skill at memorable descriptions. Even details like clothes and household objects–which I sometimes find myself skimming past in books by big-name authors–are described with wit and care.
This is a charming, well-crafted book with lots of period atmosphere and vivid characters. Nola, Fran and Evie feel like real people, so much so that I suspect different readers will react differently to each one. Fran’s personality really stood out to me–she reminded me of someone I once knew, and Skrabanek explores her psychology so well that I felt as if I understood my old acquaintance better for having read the book. That is a testament to the quality of the writing.
Lovers of feminist literary and historical fiction, take note: Nola Fran Evie deserves your attention.
The first thing to know about The Unpublishables is that when you open it in the Kindle reader, you need to make sure and scroll back to see the epigraph. At least for me, Kindle wants to launch right into Chapter 1 without showing this important front matter. But you don’t want to miss this epigraph; it really sets the tone.
The Unpublishables is narrated by a man named Daniel, who is the only person in America immune to a virus sweeping the country. This virus attacks the mind, and causes its victims to become obsessed with writing novels.
Everywhere Daniel goes, people ask him, “What’s your novel about?” He gradually learns that the best way of deflecting this question is to ask them about theirs—which of course they’re only too happy to tell him about.
But one day, Daniel meets a young woman named Abigail at lunch, and the two of them instantly connect over their shared love of books—reading them, rather than writing them. In a desperate effort to impress Abigail—and if nothing else, have a reason to talk to her again despite her pretentious, arrogant boyfriend, Chadwick—Daniel realizes he must write a novel. On the spur of the moment, he chooseslife among the homeless of San Francisco as his subject
The best way to write about the homeless, Daniel soon decides, is to become one of them. And so he becomes a vagrant, living with nothing but the clothes on his back and begging for food and money. And in doing so, he encounters a wide variety of strange characters, from a woman who resembles a witch to a sinister figure known simply as “The Knifeman,” who has a penchant for telling gruesome historical stories with a curious sci-fi twist.
The Unpublishables is, of course, a comic novel, and as in his previous efforts, Goats shows first-rate skill at writing lines that make you laugh out loud. Early dialogues are Wodehousian, in more ways than one. The descriptions are vivid and memorable. And the books–oh, the books! The way he writes about books is beautiful. I’ll talk more about this later, but if you’re in a hurry and have to make a purchase decision by the end of this paragraph, know that you can buy The Unpublishables for the descriptions of books alone and you’ll be a happy customer.
And although it’s mainly comic, The Unpublishables has some emotionally powerful moments that are not played for laughs. Some of the passages about the homeless are truly moving. In particular, one section where Daniel ponders why so many homeless people talk to themselves. It’s a moment of genuine compassion and empathy, as well as being a really surprising idea that I had never considered before. But you’ll have to read the book to see what I mean.
The descriptions of life on the street are properly gritty. Goats is never afraid to go into detail to describe every facet of what it means to live without money, food, or shelter; no matter how unpleasant it may be. It’s raw and tough to read at times, but the grit balances the wit, and it makes the whole thing feel real, instead of just a simple comedic puppet show.
Does Daniel succeed in his quest to write a novel and win Abigail away from her obnoxious partner? Well, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling that! This book is hot off the presses (figuratively speaking; it’s on Kindle) and hardly anyone has had a chance to write about it yet. I know I typically spoil things, with appropriate warnings, but in this case I’m just not going to talk about the ending. It’s one thing to spoil a Hollywood film or a novel by a famous author—when I do that, I know that there are probably dozens if not hundreds of spoiler-free reviews out there that people could read instead. But as of this writing, if you want to read about The Unpublishables, you pretty much have to read this review.In fact… well, never mind, I’ll come back to that.
The book is, by the author’s own admission, a bit weird. If you’ve read this blog before, you probably know that “weird” is not considered a bad thing here. In fact, as often as not, it’s a compliment. So yes, the book is decidedly weird; but in all the right ways.
Also, there are a handful of typos—but way fewer than in many indie books. And their existence is even lampshaded by the narrator, who asks us to “pretend” they are stylistic choices, and not simply the result of him being a sloppy writer. This is one of the things I love about the Daniel character; he’s a bit of an unreliable narrator, but he tells you so up front.This sums him up pretty well. Oh, and one other technical note: there’s a formatting issue in the form of a completely blank page between two chapters. (This might be a result of reading in landscape mode, which seems to do odd things to the ereader.)
All right, now let’s get to the heart of things.I promised on Twitter that I was going to break one of my own rules of writing reviews. What did I mean by that?
Once in a while, when you read about fiction, you’ll see something referred to as “significant” or “important.”For instance, Wikipedia informs us that James Joyce’s Ulysses is one of the “most important works of modernist literature.”
Anytime I see words like “important” or “significant” used in regards to fiction, it sends up a major red flag. Why, I ask, are people describing this thing as “important” when the word “good” is shorter to write and easier to say? If somebody wants me to read a book, they had better tell me “It’s good,” and if instead they come and tell me, “Read this book, it’s important,” it seems to me like they are hiding something. They may be trying to induce me to read a book that is not good for some nefarious reason. Thus, I try never to say something is “important” when “good” will do just as well.
But that isn’t to say that a book can’t be both “important” and “good.” In my opinion, To Kill a Mockingbird is both important, due to its relationship to the Civil Rights movement in the United States, and also just generally good as a story that is enjoyable to read. (In my opinion, if it had been bad, it would never have been widely-read enough to become important.)
So, first and foremost I want, to make it very clear that The Unpublishables is a good book. It’s a fun story, with memorable characters and witty descriptions. That’s really all a book needs to be to be good, in my opinion.
But I also feel that it is an important book as well—and not because of its depiction of homelessness, even though that is another very strong element of the novel.
As I said above, throughout his travels, Daniel meets all kinds of odd characters, all of whom have written or are writing a book. Each of them is an example of some aspect of indie publishing. The Unpublishables is a fine title, but the book might as easily have been called The People You Meet in Indie Publishing;because so many different quirks of the world of independent writers are covered, from ham-fisted author-insertion to blatant plagiarism. At one point, Daniel comments that more people are writing books than have read one.
Daniel finds fragments of manuscripts of historical fiction, hears summaries of wild science fiction and fantasy adventures, and meets shameless self-promoters.Some of the aspiring writers he meets are ground into despair after all the rejections, while others are still brimming with optimism. One of them even hides his own novel in the shelves at a used bookstore, in the hopes someone will find it and read it.
The book pokes a lot of fun at indie authors, and at times, Daniel makes some biting commentaries about the whole process of writing and publishing. I was quite amused by it, and at the same time, as Jack Point from The Yeomen of the Guard would say, “My laughter had an echo that was grim,” because, like the targets of Point’s jokes, I recognized a little of myself in the figure being roasted.
Now, you might say, “How could he make fun of indie authors?!? What a rotten thing to do; kicking a person when they’re down like that!” Well, that’s the thing: Goats isn’t laughing at us; he’s laughing at himself—obviously; because he’s an indie author, too. And it is so abundantly clear that all of the jokes in this book are born of affection, rather than malice, that it’s impossible to be offended by them.
Paul Graham once wrote that “To have a sense of humor is to be strong.”The humor of The Unpublishables is the humor of strength, the humor that comes from people who can laugh at themselves because, to be blunt, they know they’re doing something important. After all, Goats wrote a whole book that made fun of the process of writing books. One assumes he must have really believed in what he was doing to essentially be half-laughing at himself while doing it.
And that’s what I mean when I say The Unpublishables is an “important” book: it’s important to the indie author community.To us. I say “us” because I am an indie author, and I know that nearly everyone who reads this blog is as well.
The appreciation Daniel (and by extension, Goats) has for books is evident throughout The Unpublishables–both books in physical form and as a medium for telling stories, for capturing some part of a person’s life. Underlying all the friendly ribbing about the oddities of the indie author world is a deep love for the written word. Plenty of all-time great authors and books are referenced throughout, and indeed, one of them is used as the catalyst for bringing the hero and the heroine together at the beginning.
That’s what I ultimately got out of The Unpublishables: at its core, it’s about the power of books—reading them, discussing them, and writing them—to bring people together; to let people share a bit of themselves with someone else. A book is a hard thing to create, but when it is done out of love, something magical happens.
And this is where you come in. Again, I know most of you reading this are indie authors, and many of you have blogs of your own. I highly encourage you to read this book, and to write about it. Partially, I’m doing this for selfish reasons: there are things in here I want to talk about with other people—including some alternate interpretations of certain elements, as well as how different parts all tie into the theme. But it’s hard to talk about that when I don’t know anyone else who has read the book.
But apart from my own self-interested reasons, I think this book is important for indie authors. Because it’s by an indie author, and it’s about an indie author, and in some sense, it tells the story of all indie authors.
You ever flip through the TV channels and see infomercials for all sorts of bogus products? These can be pretty funny to watch until you realize there are people who fall for it.
Say Uncle is a comic novel about a young man named Toby who works at a company that churns out just such a product. His uncle Theo has amassed a fortune by pulling one scam after another. The latest is diet pills, which Theo ropes his nephew into advertising. Toby is forced to juggle the ethical dilemma this presents with the pressure of courting the company’s receptionist–whose affections Theo is also competing for–and the constant meddling of one of his uncle’s pompous employees.
It’s a fast-paced and amusing book. I read Goats’s earlier comic novel, Incomplete Works, and loved it. This book is shorter, but just as funny. As in Incomplete Works, there are some particularly hilarious burgling antics. This is a highly enjoyable leitmotif in Mr. Goats’s comic stories.
The characters are all good, but the standout is uncle Theo–a charming and utterly amoral businessman who is completely forthright about his total dishonesty. Almost every line of his is a comic gem. A close second for the prize of funniest character is the hilariously irritating Mr. Winston-Frobisher, who constantly interferes with Toby in vain attempts to secure his position at Theo’s fly-by-night company.
It’s a quick, well-plotted, and funny story. The only quibble I have with it is that I didn’t like how the romantic subplot ended–but I could make the same complaint about some stories of W.S. Gilbert’s, and that doesn’t stop him from being one of my favorite writers, and it won’t stop Goats from being another.
If you liked Incomplete Works, you’ll like this one. If you didn’t like Incomplete Works, it’s probably because you didn’t read it, and there’s an easy cure for that. Read both of them if you enjoy a good comic caper.