Friday, September 25, 2020

Die Empty by Kirk Jones

book cover for Die EmptyLance is a middle-aged man stuck in a loveless marriage and a life with no meaning. His sedentary existence has packed on the weight, both physical and mental, and he envies his successful and fit neighbor who may be banging his alcoholic wife on the sly. The Grim Reaper shows up to recruit Lance into brainstorming new ways for people to die.

Kirk Jones tells the story in second person, thus forcing you to take on the role of Lance. In chapter one, Jones dumps you into Lance's life. Jones systematically tears down Lance's pitiful attempts to find meaning in a world of soulless consumerism. Lance knows that his life is pathetic, but he lacks the self-esteem—or even friends—to find a way out of it, so he trudges on, looking for something, anything, to jolt some life back into him.

Fortunately for the reader, the Grim Reaper shows up in chapter two to give Lance a way to escape what author Danger Slater perfectly describes as "suburban ennui." Seeing this as an opportunity to escape his misery, Lance accepts.

The pace picked up, and it seemed like the story was headed in a direction I was hoping it would go, but then it veered off into a different direction. While Jones does a fine job with second person storytelling, I could never connect with Lance. Jones would write that you (Lance) would do something and my reaction was always, "I wouldn't do that." All I could do was shake my head and hope that Jones would have the Grim Reaper show up because those were the best parts.

3 stars

Die Empty was published by Atlatl Press.
Just to be clear. This book was not submitted to us. I went out and bought it on my own. Now, back to hibernation!

\_/
DED

Friday, June 12, 2020

The Liminal Zone by Richard Abbott

book cover for the Liminal ZoneNina Buraca, investigator of possible signs of alien life, has heard tales of mysterious events on Pluto's moon Charon, where a science outpost studies extrasolar planets. Facing opposition from her colleagues, she nevertheless travels from Earth to uncover the truth. Once there, she finds herself working with a team of people who have many secrets. To make progress, she has to take sides in an old dispute that she knows nothing about. Can she determine who – or what – is really behind the name "selkies" that the station's staff have given to this uncanny phenomenon?

The Liminal Zone is the third book in Abbott's Far From the Spaceports series, and like the others, it's a standalone. While the first two books (Far From the Spaceports and Timing) featured the same characters, this one introduces us to a whole new cast with a completely unrelated plot. It isn't necessary to read those first two to read this one, but if you like The Liminal Zone, you should check out the others.

For those unfamiliar with this series, humanity has colonized the solar system, and artificial intelligence (AI) has come to fruition. Space travel has improved, it still takes weeks, sometimes months, to travel from one celestial body to another. As such, there's a bit of self-governance each place enjoys, and adults are very much in charge. No dystopia here.

AI entities work alongside humans and have personalities that are barely distinguishable from them. Just as the gods of Mount Olympus suffered from the same emotional shortcomings as humans, so too do Abbott's AIs. As such, people and "personas" work together, live together, and form friendships. They're each other's besties. When Nina announces to her persona, Aquilegia, that she's headed to Charon to investigate the Selkie mystery, the latter balks at going. A fight ensues, and the two of them break-up. As theirs had been a six-year relationship, Nina is devastated and feels very much alone.

All the while that Nina investigates the mystery, her encounters with other people and personas and exploration of the Charon settlement and surface, she can't help but reflect on her feelings. She's the outsider trying to fit in among a group of people. Some are paired up; some work alone. Some are friendly; some stymie her every move to make progress on either the mystery or fitting in. The story is very much an introspective journey as well as an investigative one.

Having a character journey over 30 AUs to find herself may seem unusual, but is it really any different than someone traveling halfway round the world? You go where the path leads you. I confess that I was more interested in the secrets Nina strove to uncover than her personal journey, but I chalk that up to being in a healthy relationship for 26 years. One last thing I'd like to point out is that I haven't read this much about characters drinking tea since Ancillary Justice. I kid. All of this makes for a charming read. Having taken us to the asteroid belt, Mars's moons, and now distant Charon, I'm wondering where Abbott will travel to next.

4 stars
Just to be clear. This book was not submitted to us. I went out and bought it on my own. Now, back to hibernation!

\_/
DED

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Cover Story - David Drazul

I started a discussion on the topic of book covers on this blog eight years ago. I was disappointed that many indie authors were put in the position to sell their stories with sub-par book covers. Budgets tend to be tight unless the author's household income makes covering living expenses a breeze. Finding an affordable cover of decent quality can be tough. I asked several indie authors what route they took to get their covers and presented their stories here. I dug up affordable book cover designers and shared them with readers of this blog.

Today, I'm sharing my story. I'll try to keep it short.

When I finally gave up on traditional publishing as an avenue for my first novel, I searched for affordable graphic designers but couldn't find any. I was looking at $2,000—a non-starter. The pre-made covers available at the time didn't convey anything relatable to the story. I posted to an RPG messageboard I was active on at the time and found a guy who was eager to jumpstart his illustrator career. I got what I wanted for one-tenth the price.

original book cover for Armistice Day
I loved it when it was made, but I'll admit that, a decade later, it looks dated. Image design and editing software has improved so much. Textures and lighting are more realistic. You name it: It's improved.

As I've struggled to finish writing the sequel, I hoped that redoing the cover for Armistice Day might light a fire under my ass. Spoiler alert: It hasn't. Even beyond the pandemic, the rioting, and toxic politics, I've had my share of personal tragedy which has weighed heavily upon me. I decided to find a new cover anyway.

I've seen a ton of wonderful art on Pinterest and DeviantArt. I didn't want to commission a new piece, but rather wanted to pay someone for their existing art. Again, working with a somewhat limited budget. I approached one artist but was ignored. I looked through Shutterstock to see if I could find some images to purchase for a graphic designer to synthesize into something greater than the sum of its parts. No dice there. But one day while perusing through the pre-designed images over at goonwrite.com, I found it.

new book cover for Armistice Day
The original artwork is by Tithi Luadthong and was posted to Shutterstock. And the full image has been utilized as a wraparound design on the print version. It was great working with James again (He did the cover for my short story collection). I've got that old feeling of cover love again! I mean, what's not to love about a fully licensed piece of fabulous original artwork as the cover for my book?

\_/
DED

Friday, April 3, 2020

Book Cover Sale

Goonwrite.com logoThe sale is over, but I'm leaving the post up to: 1) remind indie authors that there are good/great and affordable book covers out there and 2) that this blog has a little more life to it than a Norwegian Blue Parrot. ;)

Hi all! I hope everyone is safe and sound during this pandemic. The folks over at goonwrite.com were hit with varying degrees of Covid-19, but fortunately they all seem to have recovered. One of them, David, runs a t-shirt business that had to close down as various sectors of the economy worldwide have taken a hit. To raise some quick cash, they're having a 50% off sale on his pre-designed book covers. If you're an indie author who thinks that she might be buying a cover this year (or next), have a stroll through the listings (all genres represented on the page) and see if any work for you. You can buy now and have the final work done at a later date. I have no idea how long the sale will last, so have a look this weekend!

For the record, no one here on the podlerstaff gets any sort of commission for sales nor are we compensated for posting this sale info here. I (David Drazul) just like the work they do. I've bought two covers from them: one several years ago and one just this week.

\_/
DED

Monday, July 8, 2019

Advice From a Prolific Author

Hi all. Yeah, I know that it's been two years. Can't say that I've been reading any indie, hence no new reviews here. From time to time though, I grow curious about some of the authors that I've reviewed here and wonder what they're up to. Most get waylaid by life and their writing endeavors are stuck in the proverbial muck. I can't recall why, but I was curious about Scott Rhine today.

Scott was one of our most prolific submitters—I think he's up to two dozen books. While I didn't review anywhere near the number of submissions we got from him, I did read and review four of them. I wanted to know if he ever finished the series that I'd been reading here, so I took a spin over to his blog to find out. It took a while to find, but sure enough, he did.

I snooped around some more and stumbled across a post from two years ago entitled "5 Years in the Writing Business—Revised Advice." It really is a must read for all indie authors. Scott shares his experiences with book sales, ads, tags, series vs. standalone books, giveaways, and much more. No matter what you write, it's worth checking out just to see if he's already tried out your marketing ideas. See what's worked for him and what hasn't, then see where it fits into your plans.

\_/
DED

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Timing (Far from the Spaceports #2) by Richard Abbott

Hi all! Briefly coming out of hibernation to post a review of the sequel to Richard Abbott's Far from the Spaceports.
book cover for TimingWhen quick wits and loyalty are put to the test...

Mitnash and his AI companion Slate, coders and investigators of interplanetary fraud, are at work again in
Timing, the sequel to Far from the Spaceports.

This time their travels take them from Jupiter to Mars, chasing a small-scale scam which seems a waste of their time. Then the case escalates dramatically into threats and extortion. Robin's Rebels, a new player in the game, is determined to bring down the financial world, and Slate's fellow AIs are the targets. Will Slate be the next victim?

The clues lead them back to the asteroid belt, and to their friends on the Scilly Isles. The next attack will be here, and Mitnash and Slate must put themselves in the line of fire. To solve the case, they need to team up with an old adversary - the only person this far from Earth who has the necessary skills to help them. But can they trust somebody who keeps their own agenda so well hidden?


It was good to get back to Abbott's Far from the Spaceports series. In the first book, we're introduced to Mitnash and his AI companion, Slate. They work for the financial regulatory body ECRB (Economic Crime Review Board) and are periodically sent off-world to investigate financial shenanigans. I found Abbott's world-building solid and his take on AI refreshing (full review here).

This book adds more of the travelogue aspect of this series. Abbott sends his duo to Phobos and Mars before their return to the Scilly Isles, a cluster of settlements in the asteroid belt that was the setting for the first book. Abbott provides more detail on life on Phobos, demonstrating how the geology of the fragile moon has shaped the culture of the settlements there.

Abbott also delves more into the characters' relationships. Mitnash struggles with maintaining a long distance relationship (astronomical units!) while a local woman intrigues him. And it's not just Mitnash's relationships, but Slate's as well. I don't know how we'll imbue emotion into AIs, but in Abbott's universe, it happened and each AI has a unique personality. With their consciousness capable of living the human equivalent of decades in a fraction of the time, they seek out relationships with other AIs, hoping for a match. Mitnash is put into a situation where he has to consider that Slate's feelings are no less valid than his.

While the story remains non-violent, save for a couple of off-camera incidents, Abbott manages to build tension, primarily through the "old adversary" mentioned in the blurb. Mitnash is slowly learning that life (on multiple fronts) is seldom as simple and straightforward as it seems. There are complications during the investigation, and Mitnash finds himself in a predicament that isn't easily remedied and will hang over his head as his story continues.

4.2 out of 5 stars. I'm looking forward to the next book in the series.
Just to be clear. This book was not submitted to us. I went out and bought it on my own. Now, back to hibernation!

\_/
DED

Monday, January 9, 2017

Suspended Animation

Fry in cryofreezer.
Image courtesy of Futurama Wiki
Back in March of 2010, I submitted my novel Armistice Day to this blog in hopes of scoring a review. I was a newly minted indie author with a box full of copies that I bought from my printer (Lulu). The book was several years in the making. I'd attended the local adult ed writers workshop for several semesters, had the book professionally edited, sent out dozens of agent queries, and after realizing I had to publish it myself, commissioned a freelance artist to make the cover. It was now time for marketing.

I figured the easiest way to get my name out there was to submit my book for review to whichever blogs would take it. I don't believe in spamming people, so I carefully researched for the right sites. At the time, indie authors were treated like vermin. Scant few blogs would review indie authors, and only a portion of them reviewed sci-fi. This blog was one of the few. In fact, it was dedicated to self-published authors.

The blog's owner, Podler, agreed to do it, but he also invited me to join him in becoming a reviewer of the blog in order to review more indie authors who deserved to be recognized. The mission was to remove the stigma associated with indie authors, just as Girl-On-Demand had done with her PODdy Mouth blog (long since retired, but still linked to way down on the right-hand column). I was flattered to be invited and immediately accepted, for I was a true believer in the cause. I joined S.B. Jung and Libby Cone, other recent invitees who'd accepted. He told me that other authors who'd been invited just didn't have the time. I didn't realize at the time how true those words were (are).

In June, after I'd had my first review published for the blog—and my book reviewed—Podler disappeared. After transferring ownership of the blog to Libby and me, he deleted his blogger account and corresponding email address, taking many book cover images with him. He left no note. There were no warning signs. He was just gone. And since he'd used a pseudonym, we had no way to track him down. All of a sudden, we new recruits were put in charge.

We scrambled to right the ship. We created a new email address for submissions, tracked down the broken book cover image links, and found the email addresses for the authors left adrift in the slush pile. I think we did a fine job.

As time wore on, real life caught up to S.B. and Libby, and I assumed administrative control of the blog (slush pile, rejection notices, etc). We invited people to join us. Reviewers came and went. We reviewed a lot of great books (and a few that fell short). We expanded the blog: links to other blogs designed to help indie authors, a list of editors, and a list of affordable cover designers. We hosted cover reveals, sample chapters, kickstarters, and author news. One author even credited us with helping her land a book deal with a publisher because of the review we gave her book. While I don't know if that's even remotely true, it was a wonderful thing for her to say, and it made me feel like we were accomplishing something. Just seeing the public's attitude about indie books change overall was great. Successful indie novels have been scooped up by major publishers and even made into movies! These days, a well produced indie novel is indistinguishable from the traditionally published.

As I came upon my sixth year on the blog and considered adding a paid review format (whereupon those that paid would get a one week turnaround while everyone else had to wait the typical amount of time), it dawned on me that it had been six years since I published my novel and the sequel was only 20% done. Yeah, I published my short stories in an anthology, but the grand series that I'd envisioned was going nowhere. Fellow indie authors that I'm friends with had each published several books in that time, and I was still working on my second book. I'd spent the last six years promoting the work of other authors instead of writing and promoting my work. This wasn't what I signed up for. I'd meant to be a reviewer on the side while I wrote, not the other way around.

As you know, there are only so many hours in a day. There's also a finite number of days in this life. Please excuse me for sounding maudlin, but 50 isn't that far off for me. I've always been haunted by that line from "Time" by Pink Floyd.
And then one day you find
Ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run
You missed the starting gun
Something has to give. I'm sorry, but I can't run this blog anymore. I have to focus on my writing now.

So what does all this rambling mean after the walk down memory lane? It means this blog is going on an indefinite hiatus. There's no one available to take over as administrator, so we're closing up shop. It might not really be the end though. Richard has expressed a desire to have an outlet to publish reviews for indie books that he comes across. That seemed reasonable to me (I might do the same) so I agreed. But it definitely means that we're not accepting anymore submissions for the foreseeable future. Like poor Fry, the blog is going to be cryogenically frozen in a way. But unlike Fry, we might be unfrozen from time to time for a review. Then again, maybe it'll be frozen for a thousand years, at least until Google's server farm bites the dust.

I'd like to thank everyone who's worked on this blog with me over the years. While part of me resents Podler for abandoning us, the opportunity has enabled me to make many new friends that I never would have otherwise. And for that, I am blessed.

See you around,
\_/
David "DED" Drazul

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Best of 2016

Each year, the reviewers here at the New Podler Review of Books pick the book (or books) which we feel are the very best independently published (or small press) works. The only other requirement we have is that the book was reviewed here on the blog during the calendar year.

Book cover for Madam TulipHere are the winners for 2016:

Bertha Thacule: "I chose Madam Tulip. Its eccentric characters and witty observations make this an immensely enjoyable contemporary mystery/thriller set among denizens of Dublin's theater, art, and entertainment worlds. Fans of the first novel will be pleased to hear that a second installment in the series, Madam Tulip and the Knave of Hearts, is now available."

Book cover for The ColonyRichard Abbott: "The Colony, by RM Gilmour, gets my vote for 2016. It is primarily a story about travel between parallel universes, but with enough plot twists and variations that you're not always sure which way events will turn. I found the central characters compelling, and also the basic premise of why The Colony was there in the first place. The closing words suggest that there will be a follow-up novel at some point—I certainly hope so as I'm keen to find out what happens after the events at the close of this book."

Book cover forDED: It took me a while to decide which book to pick for best of 2016. There were a few contenders, so I had to go back and revisit them all. After weighing the strengths and flaws of each, I finally reached a conclusion. My pick for best of 2016 is The Silver Mask by Christian Ellingsen. Yes, I was critical of the cover (I hope that Mr. Ellingsen invests in a better one), but the story was great. Ellingsen made use of a well developed cast of characters and excellent world-building to blend murder mystery, political thriller, and flintlock fantasy together to create a superb tale.

Congratulations to the winners!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Silver Mask (The Vasini Chronicles #1) by Christian Ellingsen

book cover for The Silver MaskThe gods are dead, killed two hundred years ago. With their destruction the moon split apart, the sun dwindled and the land was devastated. Civilisation has re-emerged from the carnage, but twisted creatures still prowl the savage Wildlands between the city-states. In the skies above the city of Vasini, a falling star, a fragment of the dead moon goddess Serindra, heads to earth.

In the Palace district, Dame Vittoria Emerson, darling of the city, has been found dead. As Captain Marcus Fox of the Inspectorate hunts the killer, Dr. Elizabeth Reid searches for the remnants of Serindra determined to make sure the poisonous quicksilver it contains is not used. With Vittoria's death threatening to draw the city's political elite into a war of assassins, Fox and Reid must rush to expose the secrets that lie within Vasini before they tear the city-state apart.


The cover looks like a photograph of a museum piece. While accurate, I don't believe it's enough of a draw to pull in a reader. If this was non-fiction about said mask, maybe it would be sufficient. But even so, the lighting is too dim. The color chosen for the title font is muddled. It should stand out more, like the byline actually does. The typeface is fine. Still, there's so much going on in this novel that the cover should have been a scene from the book rather than the mask, which plays such a minor role in the book that I'm thinking the title should've been something else: City of the Dead Gods? Alchemy of Resurrection?

The chapters are broken into scenes which are occurring simultaneously, rather than devoting a single chapter to a character and his/her POV. It was a little confusing and took a little bit to get used to it and the characters sorted out. However, the opening chapter gave me the impression that a lot was happening on several fronts and thus drew me in. After a while I was able to discern the personalities of the major characters and what roles they played in the city of Vasini.

Ellingsen has invested a great deal of effort in developing the world wherein this story lies, but he doesn't drown you in backstory. It starts out with the familiarity of a mirror Earth and then the differences are sprinkled into the story. The culture of Vasini draws heavily upon the French—many French words frequent the manuscript—but there's a dead pantheon of gods that is complete fiction. There are sub-humans that live among the Vasinians as servants to the wealthy and strange monsters in the woods. And it rains all the time, which might be attributable to the heavily damaged moon in orbit.

To help the reader become more familiar with the city of Vasini, its inhabitants, and surroundings, Ellingsen has placed images of random documents highlighting Vasini's religious, philosophical, and cultural history between chapters. When I could read them, they were a nice touch. Unfortunately, I don't know how to enlarge images embedded in books on my Kindle Fire (just the text) so some of them were illegible.

Captain Fox and his assistant, Sergeant Locke, are the detectives charged with solving Emerson's murder. But as the investigation plays out, they discover that there is much more going on underneath the surface. Not only is Vasini a city that is divided between rich and poor, but the wealthy are bitterly divided into factions (Fishers and Scarlets) that manipulate the masses. Emerson's murder is the spark that sets off retaliatory assassinations on either side of the political divide. Reid and her friend, Catherine, are conducting their own investigation in parallel to Fox and Locke, for their own reasons. They're clearly in over their heads, and it isn't until Reid joins forces with Fox that they're able to see enough pieces of the puzzle to figure out how to solve it.

Christian Ellingsen has created a rich world within The Silver Mask, and despite 400+ pages of exploration, I feel like he's just scratched the surface. He carefully juggles a large cast of characters with ease, and it shows when we're afforded time to read from so many unique points of view (some extensive, some just a pivotal moment). While the mystery seems so Byzantine that Fox and Reid always seem to be three steps behind the antagonists, it only makes the resolution that much more satisfying.

For more information about The Silver Mask, please visit the author's website.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Too Wyrd by Sarah Buhrman

Sarah Buhrman’s Too Wyrd offers a welcome twist on the conventional fantasy protagonist who embarks on a quest.  As the story begins, Nicola Crandall is plucked from the comfort of home by a late-night summons for help, and she readily places her life on hold to combat a supernatural menace. But in this urban fantasy set in Indianapolis, the supernatural exists side by side with real-world problems that take the greatest toll on the most vulnerable.  So in addition to confronting otherworldly abominations, Nicola comes face to face with regular people scrabbling to survive on the fringes of society, and proves to be their staunchest defender. On the whole, her capacity for empathy and inclusiveness is what makes her a compelling hero, more so than her courage or resourcefulness when under threat.

The trouble begins when Nicola’s friend Joseph arrives at her door with worrisome news. Her half-sister Muriel, who has spent time living on the street, has been taken in by a cult that dabbles in magic. Nicola’s help is needed to extricate Muriel both because of Nicola’s skills as a magical practitioner and because one of the cult leaders is her ex, Keith, who is also the father of her child. Nicola and Joseph soon discover that Keith has become involved with very old magic connected to Norse mythology. Nicola and her allies must puzzle out Keith’s intentions and determine the source of his new powers and how they relate to the demons who keep materializing.

In keeping with Nicola’s compassionate nature is the type of magic that she practices. Rather than using magic for aggressive ends, she employs it to assess and affect others’ psychological states. In one scene, Nicola and Joseph use magic to calm an unruly crowd.
I quickly reached for the emotion I wanted: laying back with a cool drink in the shade of an umbrella, with a warm breeze, the soft roar of ocean waves, and the warm colors of a tropical sunset. It was calm, content, and sedate. I sent that feeling into our combined energies and projected it out in a broad arc over the crowd.

The result was subtle but quick, taking hold in a matter of minutes. People who were hyped up and bouncing on their toes, stepped back, rolled their shoulders and relaxed their stance. The crowd stopped its steady press forward and, after a momentary hesitation, began shuffling towards the doors. Instead of the aggressive shoving, people began to display more courtesies, letting people go before them, saying “thank you”.
But make no mistake, Nicola is no weakling. She pushes back hard against anyone who tries to prevent her from attaining her objective, whether it’s an old adversary out for revenge, a police detective trying to connect her with a crime she didn’t commit, or Keith confusing Muriel with glib obfuscations. In the latter instance, Nicola relentlessly interrogates Keith in hopes of getting at the truth.
“What about telling us who’s giving you this ‘truth’ that you’re calling destiny?” I said, pushing our advantage of having surprised him.

Keith frowned and took a step back. “I cannot reveal the name.”

“Because you don’t know?” Joseph asked, pressing forward at my side, “Or because no one would believe you?”

“Or because it’s just you making shit up?” I added. “Must be nice to have your life funded by the people you’ve conned with your line.”

I realized I’d made a mistake in my assumptions when Keith’s shoulders relaxed and he smiled. He shook his head and tsked.

“Nicola,” he drawled out my name. “You’ve grown so bitter and cynical…”

“I’m not bitter,” I continued. “Just because I don’t buy what you’re selling? That’s not bitter, that’s having half a brain.”
But in the end, Nicola is most admirable for the way she treats others.  While tracking down Muriel, she gets a tip that someone who frequents a local soup kitchen might have information. Nicola decides to combine her investigation with providing some much-needed volunteer help at the kitchen.
I talked Mercy into helping us convince some of the Bridge Kids to come with us to the city mission for supper. I knew most of them could use the meal, but the walk was too far for most of them to make the effort. Plus walking meant taking the risk of running into trouble with a capital fist to the gut…

At the mission, a flustered woman thanked us for our help and gave us our assignments… I was put at the end of the food line, helping people with walkers, wheelchairs and kids get all their silverware, food and drinks to their seats. I smiled and chatted up the guests, knowing that half the reason they came to the kitchen was for the small degree of human interaction they got.
Nicola ultimately manages to find the answers she’s looking for and faces down her enemies in a rip-roaring confrontation. However, her quest will continue. According to the author’s blog, she is writing a second installment in the Runespells series. The sequel would benefit greatly from more development of the secondary characters, many of whom are interesting, but lack sufficient depth and backstory. For example, two pivotal characters in Too Wyrd turn out to be not what they initially seemed. But their reversals are, for the most part, inexplicable and leave the reader longing for a greater understanding of their motivations.

At its core, Too Wyrd is an engaging adventure, propelled by a strong, eminently likable lead character. Sarah Buhrman has created an immersive fictional world that skillfully encompasses both the magically sublime and the poignant struggles of everyday people.

For more information, please visit the author's website.