Indie Book Review (11)

This week, allonymbooks novelist Evie Woolmore reviews The Written by Ben Galley, founder of Libiro.

I’ll say up front that I don’t read a lot of fantasy, but I loved the idea of what is written being such an important part of this story, and that was what attracted me to it – that, and the stunning cover design. So I’m delighted to say that this is a well-crafted, imaginatively constructed story that is very readable, regardless of whether you read a lot of fantasy or this is your first foray into the genre. It’s also the first in a series, which seems almost essential when writing fantasy, but will also please readers who have been quickly swept off their feet by this story.

A valuable item has been stolen, and its theft has brought a realm to the brink of war. Old enmities are being revived, and trust must be rebuilt between enemies if a far greater threat is to be overcome. But will time run out, and will the power of our hero be enough? This might seem like the plot to many a fantasy novel at the most general level, but Ben Galley has done a nice job of finessing the story with some lovely, well-imagined details. Farden, our hero (though not an enormously likeable one, perhaps) is a complicated fellow, driven yet a little lost, isolated and feared, yet inspiring fondness in his closest confidantes and strangers alike. He is also torn on the inside by a weakness that could literally render him powerless. His well-drawn vampyre adviser Durnus is very strongly characterised, as are the wonderful dragons Farden meets with their Siren riders, who are also beautifully described. I have the faint sense that Galley likes some of his characters more than others – I was less convinced by the drawing of a couple of them who I won’t name because I don’t want to hint at a spoiler – but the world of Emaneska, the towns, the huge buildings in which the most important action happens are all inspiringly drawn and will not disappoint any reader.

There’s a lot of action in this book – the fighting at which Farden is so proficient, and the use of magick (though less than I was expecting actually) – and also a lot of politics too, for this is at some levels a very political novel. It is about allegiances and loyalty, corruption and manipulation, weakness and strength. The first key revelation about two thirds of the way through was perhaps not as surprising as it could have been though, and I felt for a moment as if I was watching an episode of a US crime drama, because I was running out of possible candidates for the villain. However, this is a series, not an episode, and it is always a challenge to keep the momentum going well enough not only through this book but through those that follow. I agree with other reviewers who have pointed out Galley’s potential as a novelist, and what I think is admirable (perhaps because I don’t read a lot of fantasy) is that he has not created an over-complicated world, littered by its own creative profusion. There are not so many characters, races, languages, mythologies and so on that one cannot keep them all to mind if you put the book down for a day or two, and I don’t intend it as a weakness when I say that at its heart this is quite a straightforward tale.

If I have one particular criticism it is that the narrative writing can be very dense at times. Having a solitary hero, and seeing so much of the world through his eyes, means that narrative writing outweighs the quantity of dialogue by quite a bit and it can make the novel feel rather one-paced in places. To some extent this is a feature of the genre, but for this reader, a bit more variety of pacing and more dialogue in general would have elevated this novel beyond being what is already a very good book.

Indie Book Reviews (10)

This week allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore reviews a curious journey.

My Problem with Doors by Scott Southard (Amazon UK and US)

Jacob has a problem with doors. From time to time, when he walks through one, his life changes in a flash, transporting him across time and space, interrupting the flow of a normal life with the juxtaposition of extraordinary characters and challenging experiences. Just as he gets used to one life, one period in history, just as he builds relationships that are meaningful to him, so is he snatched away by some mysterious hand of… Well, of what? Of fate? Of God?

It’s a really interesting premise for a novel, that of a wanderer through time whose destiny and purpose is uncertain. He encounters somebodies and nobodies, revealing the truth behind some of the most notorious characters in history, and the smaller but no less significant stories of every day individuals. Indeed, in some senses this is a novel of two halves. While it begins as a narrative romp through history, told by Jacob himself who is scratching out his memoirs a candle at a time, it becomes increasingly a reflective existential analysis. What is the point of all this diversity of experience if I can’t change anything about my own life, let alone anyone else’s?

And therein lies the novel’s strength and, for me, its weakness. There is a richness of imagination in Southard’s telling of Jacob’s tale, of the places he sees, the events he witnesses, the characters he meets and falls in love and in hate with, is helped and hindered by. He witnesses some extraordinary periods in history and it would be a remarkable novel if that were what it chose to focus on as story-telling and imaginative odyssey, contrasting the values, people, places, morals, the continuity of human emotion and experience and the differences. And there is some fine, well-constructed story-telling, particularly the sections featuring the Shelleys and Byron, though less so those with Jack the Ripper. There are though some contrivances around Jacob’s increasing desire to explain why he is enduring this journey, including his desire to change the course of one particular event in recent American history which feels a little unnatural in the course of the novel. There are so many events in the history of the nation, and given that we are never really sure of Jacob’s nationality for he is not explicitly, patriotically American but rather a citizen of time and space, why does he choose to focus on that event rather than the Holocaust, for example, as a means of finding out whether his ability to move in time could change the course of history?

There is a love story too at the centre of this, and perhaps it is the most compelling theme in the novel, for it is this aspect of his life which transforms Jacob and changes him from a travelling storyteller into a journeyman of a different kind. Yet perhaps, like Jacob, we too end up with more questions than answers. I found myself wondering why Southard had chosen the events he had for Jacob’s story, why those famous historical people, why I felt dragged in and out of the story, sometimes utterly absorbed and sometimes jerkily aware of the story’s construction in equal measure. This is such an original idea for a novel which is at times really well executed but which at other times left me frustrated and wishing for more fulfilled potential.

Interview with Ben Galley, author and founder of Libiro

This week, British indie author Ben Galley talks to allonymbooks novelist Evie Woolmore about his writing and his brand new e-book distribution website, Libiro.IMG_1824s

Ben, you’ve had a busy year, releasing two books and launching an e-book store among your galaxy of other activities. We’ll talk about Libiro in a minute, but I’m interested in how and why you settled your first published novels in epic fantasy, a very strong genre in indie publishing.

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. Fantasy in general is seeing a huge surge in popularity, and publishers are responding in kind. Both indies and traditionals are churning out great fantasy books like there’s no tomorrow, and the readers are inhaling them at an equal rate. It’s an exciting time, especially now that we can all chat to each other and share great reads so easily via Twitter and Facebook.

Another reason I chose to write and publish fantasy is that I’ve always loved it as a genre. Ever since I was a kid I’ve always had my nose buried in a book, drinking in mythology and the wildest dreams of Tolkien, CS Lewis, Gaiman, or of Robin Hobb. It is fantasy’s limitless nature, that I admire – how each author can spill their imagination onto a page, and experiment without worrying whether they’re thinking too far outside the box. That’s why I like it, and why I like writing it too. It’s gives you a wonderful sense of satisfaction, when you realise you can get away with writing about minotaurs, and goblins, or shadows and magic. The stuff we all pretend is real when we’re young.

Promo 2013 BannerSo what do you think indie publishing offers fantasy writers that perhaps traditional publishing doesn’t? As an author of magical realism myself, I like indie publishing because I don’t have an editor or a marketing team saying ‘I can’t pigeonhole that, it’s too original to be sellable.’ To what extent does that argument apply for fantasy genres?

I think pigeon-holing happens across all genres, and all publishers are somewhat guilty of it. It’s a natural thing to do, after all, when you’re funding a debut book with your own money – you want to make sure it sits nicely inside a genre, so that it sells, and sells well. If it’s a little too out there, and has even the slimmest chance of taking a commercial nosedive, then there’s a risk you might lose the money you’ve put it into it. But indies don’t have this problem! Our publishing costs are much, much lower than that of a publishing house. Also, thanks to the big reading boom, there are a lot more readers exploring the niches of popular fiction. Fantasy fans are doing this en masse. There’s just something about fantasy and sci-fi fans. They put the fan in fanatical. All this is great news for us indies – we can publish books that push the boundaries, and actually sell them too.

What have been the best and worst bits for you about indie publishing your own work?

 That’s a good question! There are so many good bits. Taking the reins with both hands gives you an enormous sense of accomplishment when progress is made. After all, it’s all down to you, and so you deserve to be pleased and proud when a great review comes in, or when a bit of fan mail pops into your inbox, or when you glimpse the last months’ sales figures.

One of my proudest moments will always be walking into a Waterstones, and spying my book sandwiched between the likes of Neil Gaiman and David Gemmell. And I didn’t even put it there! The store had taken a chance, based on its cover, and I later learnt they were selling very well. It’s at those moments that you can’t help but grin like a halfwit. You suddenly realise it’s all been worth the hard work.

There are down-sides, of course, as there are to most things. Self-publishing can be difficult at times, primarily because there are days when it feels like you’re not going anywhere, but trying everything. It can be hard when you’re faced with doing everything yourself, and in those times, all you have to do is remember what you’ve achieved already, and the pros of the self-publishing path. Keeping those at the forefront of your mind will always help.

Logo_f_LargeSo, given that you have had success in bookshops with printed versions of your books, what led you to set up Libiro? What are you offering the indie writer – and the reader – that other e-book distributors don’t?

What led me to set up Libiro was my own experience in the digital world. I’ve had success in both the print world and the eBook world, but each has their downsides for us indie authors. For instance, in the print world it can be difficult to get major bookstore chains to take your book. With eBooks, however, getting your book into a store isn’t difficult but standing out amongst the crowd can be, especially at vast stores like Amazon and Kobo. They’re great providers and very author-centric, but it can still be tricky. Another thing we indies face is the self-publishing stigma – the belief that just because a book is self-published it is automatically of a lower quality than a traditionally published book. These are the issues my co-founder Teague Fullick and I wanted to tackle.

By making Libiro exclusive to indies, we can help fellow authors stand out, as well as showcase their talents to the world. We also offer a great 80% royalty to all authors, regardless of price, genre, or book! For readers, Libiro offers an exciting store where you can find the newest and most exciting indie fiction. If readers have never tried an indie book before, then Libiro gives you the chance to do so!
Ben, thanks so much for taking a few minutes to talk to me. I wish you the very best with Libiroallonymbooks author Flora Chase has already put her YA historical novel The Strattons on the site and it will be fun to see how it goes.
You can find out more about Ben Galley at his website.

Indie Book Reviews (9)

This week allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore reviews a YA contemporary fantasy.

Her Unwelcome Inheritance by J. Aleksandr Wootton (Amazon UK, Amazon US)

YA fantasy is such a rapidly expanding genre, that it can be difficult to create a story that stands out amid the usual themes of growing up, emotions, relationships and new responsibilities, even though fantasy gives an author enormous potential to create a really original context for exploring these ideas. For Her Unwelcome Inheritance, the first volume in the Fayborn series, Wootton has borrowed some very old, well-known foundations for his fantasy world in the characters many of us know from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and re-imagined them for us, immortal and brought bang up to date.

Petra Goodfellow is a descendant of a former advisor to Oberon, the Fairy King, but she is now at the heart of a power struggle as Oberon seeks to restore power to his kingdom. Petra’s mother has done her best to protect her daughter from the impact of her bloodline, but the past is catching up with Petra now, as James Oberon seeks to track her down by any means possible. But Petra wants to get on with her life, she doesn’t want to take on the responsibilities of her past and her ancestors. She just wants to enjoy her first year at college and make new friends, and no matter often she sees glimpses of the fairy world, she is determined that they just don’t exist. As a YA character, she is going to be unruly and refuse to make the journey the genre demands of her.

Wootton has spared no expense imaginatively in constructing and peopling his fairy world, and both the environment and the characters are richly and engagingly drawn. Petra herself is a strong and sparky character, a typical teenager with an un-self-conscious voice which Wootton writes well. Sometimes a third person narrator can seem too knowing for a YA character, but Petra’s internal thoughts are believable and unforced. That narrator is kept busy too, leaping about between the different factions of the fairies in exile: Oberon and his loyal supporters and family, including the utterly devious Wormsworth, the fast fading Fairy Queen and her devoted Cat, Petra, her godfather Tod, and also an unusual character, a Professor Jack Wootton, an expert in all matters fairy. Like the fourth wall in cinema, it takes a certain amount of authorial nerve to blur the boundaries the writer establishes between fact and fiction, narrator and characters, reader and writer, and – without giving anything away – Professor Wootton’s part in the story is not a Hitchockian cliché or a moment of vanity.

For this reviewer, the book’s authentic and beautifully researched world is perhaps the source of its weakness: there are so many characters, so much fairy lore, that it can be hard for the casual reader or one who reads in short bursts to keep up with what is going on. A glossary and a family tree would not go amiss in the appendix, just to help the easily confused, though for those who like a complex genealogy and lore, the book will be a comfortable and enjoyable place to lose a few hours. It also suffers slightly from ‘first in the series’ syndrome: there is a huge amount of exposition, and there are lots of storylines and narrative threads to be set in motion, and so in action terms the book is pretty slow to get going and results in quite a cliffhanger, which some readers may find frustrating. Fortunately for them, Wootton is just about to release the second in the series, The Eighth Square.

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To find out more about Evie Woolmore and her novels, visit her page. Evie is a reviewer for Awesome Indies, and  you can find out more about her reviewing activities and read her other reviews of indie published books.

Indie Book Reviews (6)

This week, allonymbooks novelist Evie Woolmore reviews three novels that show how broad the definition ‘magical realism’ can be.

Dark Night of the Soul by E. M. Havens (Amazon UK and Amazon US)

This is one of the most accomplished novels I have read in a long while and it is well worth a read, whether you are YA or adult. Don’t let the synopsis put you off: it is a novel about death, about suicide in particular. But it is also a creative, imaginative, thought-provoking but thoroughly readable novel in an incredibly well-imagined world. It draws very cleverly on our own environment, reflecting familiar aspects that bring lightness to what otherwise might seem dark subject matter (the Wal-Mart section is particularly good in that respect), but it also does what the very best magical realism should do, which is to make you feel that this other world is just around the corner, if only you could learn how to see it. Continue reading

Magical Realism for Men? No swords or flowing beards here…

allonymbooks author Cadell Blackstock chips in with a few words of his own about magical realism.

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Reading fellow allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore‘s blog for the Magical Realism Blog Hop this week, and surveying the other intelligent and fruitful discussion on the subject, I was struck by two things. One, that the majority of participants in this blog hop are female authors. And two, that when I talk about magical realism to other men they tend to think – rightly or wrongly – of fantasy and magic, more than the realism. Even the guy who cuts my hair – a 30 year old new dad with a serious devotion to beer – has abandoned his customary delight in sharing his favourite zombie movies to tell me about his latest enthusiasm: Game of Thrones. ‘I’ve never read the book – I don’t read books, me,’ he informed me with great pride, ‘but the telly series is magic.’

Crash Cole in 'The Rake Spared' coverWhen I wrote Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’, I didn’t want just to write about a failing TV star, ensnared quite literally in the trappings of his own celebrity. I wanted to blast down the walls of privacy that tenuously protect us as individuals. I wanted to push the idea of loving fans to a new level. I wanted to take an actual situation that was covered very prominently in the media (British TV personality Richard Hammond’s high speed dragster crash in 2006) and explore it from a different point of view – the subject, not the observers. In my novel Crash Cole, a motorcycling TV actor (no resemblance to Mr Hammond is intended whatsoever (nor even believable), let me be Absolutely Clear), has a serious accident and wakes up to find that all his fans have literally loved him back from the brink of death. But there’s a price. He can hear every one of their voices in his head.

But there’s no magic wand here. I don’t think it’s a huge leap in imagination to appreciate the pressure that a figure in the public eye must feel at times. Even this very morning, with the birth of the Prince of Cambridge, third in line to the British throne, questions are already being asked about what it will be like for him to grow up in a world of unprecedented public interest. All I did in Crash Cole was to manifest that interest as real, to make the pressure physical, identifiable, tangible.

Some of the bloggers on the blog hop have talked about alternative realism, rather than magical realism. That seems like a good label for what I’ve written. Crash Cole is a contemporary satire on celebrity, sex and scandal. I’ve said elsewhere it has a supernatural twist. Which I suppose it does, if hearing voices counts as supernatural. But for men who would be put off by flowing beards and long swords, I think alternative realism is a good way of describing a funky twist on the world we know.

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To find out more about Cadell Blackstock and Crash Cole, visit Cadell’s page.

Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’ is available on all Amazon sites, including UK and US.

To read the other excellent blogs in the Magical Realism Blog Hop, visit these links:

Zoe Brooks (and Zoe’s second post and this one) – Kirsty Fox – Karen Wyld (and this one)

Leigh Podgorski – Tad Crawford Lynne Cantwell – Murielle Cyr (and this one )- Joel Seath

Edie Ramer – Laura at Curated Bookshelves Christine Locke – Susan Bishop Crispell

Jordan Rosenfeld – Eilis Phillips – and Evie Woolmore’s first blog hop blog

Author as genre?

This week allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore discusses the challenges of marketing across genres.

As I put the finishing touches to my new novel, The Salt Factory, and draw together the marketing plan to accompany its launch, I find myself facing once again that eternal dilemma: which categories to use on Amazon.

Fiction. Yes.

Now what?

In an interview with Diva magazine in 2011, author Sarah Winman was told by the interviewer that she was being described on the magazine’s cover as the new Sarah Waters. Winman’s reply? “Poor Sarah!…We’re very different. I don’t think I’ve earned the stripes to even be compared to her, quite frankly.” Winman’s modesty perhaps misses the point: when a generic label fails to be useful or available, an author name often stands in its stead. Yet which Waters was Winman to become? The “historical” novelist, the “gay” advocate, or the “supernatural thriller” writer, to name but three.

This is a tool that print publishers have used for years, describing an author as ‘the new’ somebody else. If you liked this, you’ll like that. It’s a testament to the old-water-in-new-bottles scenario that many feel print publishing has become over-reliant on, but it is also a mark of how little genuine development there has been that no one has yet come up with an innovative way for authors to market themselves differently.

I have blogged before about how rejections of my books by print publishers have generally concerned their perceived difficulty in finding a marketing pigeonhole for my type of novels. But if someone had actually asked me, I would have told them that if they liked Erin Morgenstern and Carlos Ruiz Zafón, then they would like my novels too. It’s a difficult thing to admit that one’s novel is bouncing off other people’s walls, when one of the things I know sets my books apart is the sheer originality of the ideas. But I can say with certainty that if you loved the imaginative possibilities of The Night Circus then you’ll love those same qualities in Equilibrium and The Salt Factory. If you think Zafón has captured the magical, mystical possibilities of Barcelona beautifully then you’ll find my evocations of the slip in time between contemporary and wartime Warsaw in Rising Up to be equally vivid and engaging.

I can say these things not because I copied what those writers did, because I didn’t. But  what I do have in common with them is a desire and an interest in using fiction to bend reality just a little bit to see what might be just beyond the boundaries of perception. I am nodding when I read them, out of admiration as a reader and out of understanding as a writer. You might no more describe Zafón or Morgenstern as science fiction or fantasy as you would an Evie Woolmore novel, but what are the alternatives? Indeed Amazon categorises The Night Circus as contemporary fantasy. But that category is so big that it also includes Ben Aaronovitch’s magic crime procedurals and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as well as various vampire and imagined worlds novels.

Zafón himself considered this issue in a Q&A about the creation of The Shadow of the Wind, where he says “it is a story that is made of many stories; it’s a story that combines humour, it combines mystery, it combines a love story, it combines historical fiction – it combines many different genres, to create a new one, a new genre, a hybrid that does all those things as well.”

Unfortunately he doesn’t give that genre a name.

Perhaps there is something in reversing the process and  ruling genres out, rather than in. In what seemed at first a daring idea, I began to consider whether putting my novels in the Historical Fiction category really was the best thing to do. Certainly they all have historical settings, but then I began to wonder what sets one historical novel apart from another. And what do they all have in common? Historical authenticity seems an essential quality in a historical novel, and the recent trend towards the novelisation of historical figures (such as Hilary Mantel’s trilogy) is one of many narrow trends within a genre that might otherwise be seen as relatively homogenous. Authenticity is certainly important to me, and I do a lot of research to make sure that settings are accurate, but am I contributing something new to the genre of historical fiction? No, probably not. Because what I am contributing is nothing to do with the historical aspect. And so, by way of an experiment, I am relocating my novels from historical fiction to historical fantasy, because I am, like Zafón and Morgenstern and Aaronovitch and Attwood, trying to say something new in fantasy.

I should like one day not to be the new Sarah Waters or the new Erin Morgenstern or even a other-gendered reincarnation of Zafón, but to be the only Evie Woolmore. My books are recognisably a genre in themselves, historical fiction infused with an otherworldly setting, worlds where the boundaries are blurred and things are not quite what they seem. But for now, my readers will be able to find my books under the big and welcoming umbrella of fantasy, where minds are open to distinctive voices saying interesting things.