Monday, April 25, 2016

The Northern Star: The End by Mike Gullickson

Book cover for The Northern Star: The EndReviewed by Erin Eymard.

The final novel wraps up the journey of John Raimey, who, thirty-five years before, became the first bionic soldier ever deployed in the field. He is a giant, a Tank Major, fourteen feet tall and with enough power in his fists to level buildings. He is a legend of war, cursed with a fate where everyone he touches - even in love - dies.

Evan Lindo, the father of bionics, now rules the world through his most ingenious creation, The Northern Star. But a war in the Middle East has triggered events that lead to Raimey. And a secret has been unveiled that sets Raimey on one last mission before he finds his place in Hell.

Mike Gullickson's The Northern Star: The End is the perfect ending to his The Northern Star trilogy. It brings the series and your favorite characters to satisfying conclusions. I read the book in three days but kept putting writing a review aside because nothing I wrote seemed to do justice to Gullickson's story.

One of the things that I always loved about Gullickson's writing is that he makes you care about his characters. You become invested in them and find yourself rooting for them (even the ones on the 'wrong' side). His storytelling is witty, real, and heart wrenching at the same time. You truly come to care about characters in this series, whether they are with you from page one of The Beginning or if you just met them in this book. Their journeys engage you. Their triumphs excite you. Their failures move you.

The characters in this trilogy are, with three exceptions, various shades of gray when it comes to morality. And while the majority of this book follows John Raimey and Mike Glass, both men who have done bad things by following orders but are nonetheless sympathetic characters. They are just vehicles bringing the reader to the true heart of the struggle between the characters of Vanessa, Evan, and Justin.

Vanessa represents the maiden, mother, and crone character. We first see her as a child losing her parents; then we see her as a mother, of sorts, to the world; and finally we see her as the aged goddess who wishes to save the world. Evan's evolution takes him from brilliant scientist to power hungry genius and then monster. His story is one of how absolute power corrupts absolutely. And finally there is Justin, the Sleeper King, whose story proves that sometimes you just can't escape your destiny.

The whole series is a science fiction masterpiece that will make the reader evaluate our current paths in regards to technology and the internet. Great read! Will read again!

For more information on The Northern Star series, please visit the author's website.

Monday, April 11, 2016

God of Ruin by Michael John Grist

Original cover for God of RuinIn the battle to defeat King Ruin and protect the Bridge between souls, ex-Arctic marine Ritry Goligh tore his own soul into pieces. Now those pieces, embodied as six rugged marines spread across the tsunami-blasted world, are adrift without Ritry to guide them.

Their captain, Me, is addicted to dying in raids against the remnants of King Ruin's army. Ray longs for the love he lost. Far seeks the mythical heart of the Bridge, So is lost to her calculations, while twins Ti and La have split as far apart as possible. They trudge from bunker to bunker blinded by loss, mopping up holdouts from the war.

But the war isn't over. It's only just begun. From the ashes of King Ruin's defeat a godlike power rises, one that understands the Bridge better than Ritry ever did, and means to bring a flood so vast it will erase every soul from history. Me's only hope is to ascend to godhood himself, before everyone he loves is washed away forever.

If you haven't read the first two books in the series, then this review will contain spoilers for those books.

New cover for God of RuinIn the promos for the new season of Fear the Walking Dead, someone off-camera is heard to say, "To defeat the monster, you become the monster." In effect, that sums up what happens here. King Ruin's successor, the Pawn King, has built upon King Ruin's knowledge and gleaned how to transcend the Aetheric Bridge from Ritry's technique. With the knowledge gained from both, he becomes even stronger than King Ruin and Ritry's chord. Knowing what he's capable of, the chord wrestle with the moral dilemma: Does one adopt the tactics of the evil Pawn King in order to defeat him? Does the end justify the means? Many within the chord's army don't think so, and the debate threatens to tear them apart.

If you've read the first two books in the series, you'll be familiar with Grist's style of alternating chapters between the real world and the metaphorical landscape of the mind. But whereas the first two books featured Ritry in the real world and his chord handling inner space, this book throws that convention out the window. As the blurb above explains, Ritry's chord went from metaphorical to physical at the end of King Ruin. With the Ritry gestalt no more, the real world narrative is handled by "Me", the leader of the chord. But he handles the narrative in the inner space journey as well, so if you don't pay attention to the chapter titles, there's a chance for you to get confused as to what's going on.

Both versions of Me embark upon solitary quests to battle their respective foes in the physical and metaphysical worlds until they blend together to become one surrealistic landscape. The science fiction and dystopic elements of Mr. Ruins are gone, replaced by fantastic elements where the laws of time and space are irrelevant. Both protagonist and antagonist strive to achieve godhood to reshape the world as they think it should be.

But this isn't merely a battle of good versus evil. Grist is too smart an author to reduce the story to these simplistic elements, though he leads us to believe this at first. Eventually, we learn how the Pawn King came into existence, a child in one of King Ruin's brutal courts. We see what horrors he endured just to survive and what his goals ultimately are. Grist's resolution of the conflict between Pawn King and Me is unexpected, but it makes sense.

God of Ruin brings the Ruins trilogy to a satisfying conclusion. The war waged in the desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland is but a prelude to the battle to control existence itself. It reinforces the message from King Ruin: Our pain defines us. But God of Ruin also asks us what we would sacrifice to erase that pain. Would we sacrifice those we love? Would we turn that pain on others? Would we sacrifice our very souls? But if pain defines us, should it be erased at all? Grist explores these questions in the surreal landscape of the mind and the ruins of a tsunami and war ravaged world.

For more information about God of Ruin and the Ruins trilogy, please visit the author's website. You can also read my reviews for Mr. Ruins and King Ruin.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Supergiant by Scott Rhine

Book cover for SupergiantFind an exploit; hack the universe.

Chief Engineer Roz Mendez pilots a ship with a revolutionary star drive that could travel ten times as fast as current technology. The job has given her a chance to find riches, romance, and earn a reputation that will counter the discrimination she’s felt her entire life. All the ship needs to make history is a few repairs and a renowned physicist who can adjust the jump equations. The trick is finding the professor without tipping off the Bankers, the species with a monopoly on faster-than-light communications. Just making a profit at each port without getting arrested is hard enough.

This is the second book in the Gigaparsec series and thus this review may contain spoilers for those who haven't read the first book.

In Void Contract, we were introduced to Max, a war weary ex-special forces operative looking to make a life for himself in the civilian world, errr, galaxy. While on a job, he encountered Echo, a Magi (the mysterious race that gave humans the initial push that eventually led to their interstellar leap) who helps him with his PTSD, and discovered a stowaway alien unrecognized for its primitive sentience. Along the way he recruited a wide variety of misfit specialists from various alien races whose goals in life were compatible with his. They all have good hearts, but they're willing to bend the rules and break a few laws to achieve their goals. A bit like Firefly in that regard, but with aliens and without the signature dialogue.

The book is mostly a series of "jobs" that the group must undertake to achieve their overarching goal of finding said physicist. While there is no single villain to play the antagonist—unless you count the Bankers, who remain in the background the whole time—there are several minor villains along the way, but they're merely minor hurdles to surmount. The complexity in the story isn't so much in the plot as it is in operating a commercial starship, which is very much a business. The group spends a good deal of time figuring out what goods they need to purchase from one world to sell on another to acquire the starship parts or writs to undertake certain actions they need to get to that physicist.

While the first book was told from Max's perspective, this one is told from Roz's perspective. That's her on the cover. She was one of the last people recruited to join the crew in Void Contract, and there's a bit of chemistry between her and Max. Roz is a pilot and engineer, her technical background means that her role is mostly a non-combative one. Unfortunately, too much happens off camera that Roz (and the reader) is often told about things after they've happened. She's privy to things that matter in the overall plot—the ship's game changing improved FTL drive, secrets of the Magi—which others aren't. But for the most part, these metaplot revelations aren't as captivating as the off-screen action.

Characterization remains solid. All of them have depth and distinct personalities, drives, and ambitions. Their interactions with one another strike me as realistic. In particular, I found Roz's narration to be genuine. Her mindset and technical background brings a fresh perspective on the group dynamic. She's an everyday woman, the sort that you know from work or you've been friends with for years, with everyday concerns that you would expect, just set in a distant future.

As for the technicals, editing is solid. I only found 13 typos, which is on par with a traditionally published book.

Supergiant is a solid sequel to Void Contract. Rhine showcases his talent as an author by switching narrative POV without losing the essence of the overall series storyline. In fact, he broadens its depth by providing a fresh perspective on the interactions of the characters and makes them relatable. While the story is mostly about performing a series of minor jobs to advance the metaplot, it still makes for an entertaining read. It would not be difficult to turn this series into a TV show. Considering the current sci-fi friendly climate, Rhine should consider pitching a screenplay to the networks.

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

UPDATE 3/19/16: The list of typos was sent to the author, and he has informed us that he has made the corrections to the manuscript.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Results of the "Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off"

Last year, Mark Lawrence convinced ten blogs that normally only review traditionally published books to participate in his "Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off". 300 entries were sifted down to 10 finalists. The winner was announced this past weekend. We really haven't covered indie fantasy since 2014—those reviewers have resigned from this blog—so I recommend that you look through the list and follow the links offered to learn more.

Book cover for the 10 Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off finalists.

I applaud Mark Lawrence's initiative and effort. I also applaud those review blogs for being open-minded enough to take on the challenge. I hope that this experience changes their attitudes towards the multitude of authors who are either forced to self-publish or choose that path from the start. It seems suspiciously easy for people to forget that Hugh Howey, Martin Weir, Amanda Hocking, Anne Charnock, and Michael Sullivan (just to name a few) all got their start as indie authors. While I'm not saying that all self-published works are equal, they certainly deserve equal consideration at the 21st century equivalent of the book store.


Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Somniscient by Richard Levesque

When reformed dream hacker Nix Nighthawk's sleep chip malfunctions, he is forced to seek help from a world he is trying to avoid—his old friends in the pirate dream network. But that world has changed, and Nix soon finds himself at the center of a complex plot to overthrow the vast corporation that controls every aspect of society. Betrayed by his lover, his friends, and even the technology that defines him, he has to choose: go back to living his safe and controlled existence, or be the hero and join forces with the revolutionary known only as The Somniscient.

My first thought when I read the title was, "What the heck does 'somniscient' mean?" It's not listed in the dictionary, so I tried to break it down into its parts.

somni-: a combining form meaning “sleep”, used in the formation of compound words.

omniscient: having complete or unlimited knowledge, awareness, or understanding; perceiving all things.

When I put both parts together, I get someone that has complete knowledge of the sleeping world. It's the screen name of one of the characters, a dream hacker, in the story. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Levesque has created a world that uses sleep as currency. Everyone needs to sleep, so people earn "Zs" in order to sleep. You also use the Zs to buy things, pay for services, food, water, filtered air. The story takes place in the 22nd century. There's been some geological and economic upheaval that has brought civilization to the brink of collapse. One tech company, enLIGHTen, has pretty much all the power as it was their idea to use sleep as currency. Their device, the Loop, is surgically attached behind one's ear and connects people to the internet 24/7. Imagine seeing your Facebook feed updating all day and night. It also runs the sleep app which prohibits people from sleeping if they don't have enough Zs in their accounts.

Being someone who prizes sleep more than money, I thought that this was a horrific idea, and I would think many others would too. But if you want to be part of society and enjoy the comforts of civilization, you have to get one. I would be one of the "unLooped", the people who live on the margins of society. They can sleep all they want, but don't have jobs, homes, food, or anything else. Nix gets caught up in the rat race. He's burned out trying to earn enough Zs so he can sleep, but paying for rent, utilities, and other bills comes first. He can never seem to get ahead. He's trapped, working for the very company that makes the Loop. He literally becomes an indentured servant.

When people do get to sleep, they can buy dreams that they run on their sleep app. But just as people buy apps that their phone makers don't want them to today, people in this future L.A. buy unsanctioned dreams. Unsanctioned dreams can have malware hidden in them that can screw up one's Loop or steal their Zs.

Most of this is explained in the backstory that Levesque pours on the reader at the beginning of the book. It takes a while for the story get moving as we're introduced to Nix and the world he lives in. While it's a fascinating concept to have sleep as currency, I couldn't help but think that these people were idiots for agreeing to this system, so it took me a while to become sympathetic to their plight. But it isn't Nix's fault; he was born into this world. As we come to feel sorry for his lot in life, something happens to him, and the story's pace picks up. Nix is now on the run, and we're rooting for him to succeed.

But one-third of the way into the book, just when we get hooked, Nix disappears from the narrative. The story resumes several years later with another character in charge of the narrative. I was completely thrown by this abrupt change. I felt as if I was starting over. It took me quite a while to start feeling sympathetic for this new character—she's a trophy wife—after getting invested in Nix, and the pace of the story slowed to a crawl while she reflected on her predicament in life. The story eventually returns to Nix—and the pace picks back up—but it isn't until the second half of the book.

Another interesting avenue Levesque explores is gender identity. Because the Loop digitizes thought, one can, in essence, upload one's personality to a host computer and then implant it into another Loop. Through this process, a man and a woman are forced to share a body. Each takes turns controlling the body. The visiting personality gets to experience life as a different gender, complete with different sensations that they're not used to. The host personality gets to experience the visiting person's feelings and actions after ceding control of their body, even when they run counter to their own.

As for the technicals, I only found a few typos. As far as I'm concerned, that's professional quality editing.

In The Somniscient, Richard Levesque has created a unique world where sleep is currency and certainly not free. While it is an intriguing concept and Levesque provides the framework and world building for such a society to exist, the introductory backstory weighs the story down. The characters that provide the narrative are so self-absorbed with their respective plights that they slow down the story, and the sudden switch from one to the other nearly derails it. Still, The Somniscient makes for an entertaining read as Levesque uniquely explores gender identity, the "have versus have not" divide, and the extent our digitally obsessed culture will go to get its internet fix.

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

Monday, January 25, 2016

King Ruin by Michael John Grist

Standing in the ashes of his final battle with Mr. Ruins, at the edge of the floating slums, ex-Arctic marine Ritry Goligh thinks his long nightmare is finally over. His family are safe, his soul is his own, and at last he can go home.

Then comes an explosion that makes no sound, but blows all his thoughts to shreds. In an instant Ritry is prey again, hunted by a power so vast he can’t even comprehend it. This is King Ruin, and before him all Rit can do is run, so far and so fast he starts to forget who and what he is.

Soon half his mind is gone, the King is closing in, and the souls of billions are at stake. Because King Ruin wants the Bridge, a direct path into the minds of every living thing, and only the lost and broken Ritry Goligh stands in his way.

King Ruin picks up right where Mr. Ruins left off. Ritry doesn't get to savor his victory or even go home to see his family. He's right back in thick of it with a foe that is far stronger than Mr. Ruins.
Previous cover
Previous cover for King Ruin
Before I get into the review, I'd like to comment on the covers. Mr. Grist decided last year to redo his covers as sales for the Ruins War series had dropped off. It got him to thinking that maybe the covers weren't conveying enough of the mystery of the books. I disagree, but that's just one man's opinion. Anyway, this isn't the first time he's revamped his covers.

The series of covers I saw all featured scenes from their respective books—the skyscraper picture above is rather chilling in retrospect. The new covers are more focused on characters. Mr. Ruins himself is featured on the new version of his titular cover (new cover added to bottom of review). However, I don't recognize the person on this new King Ruins cover. The two red suns are pertinent though. I could make a guess on the character, but the appearance doesn't match up with the description in the book.*

On with the review
Current cover
Current cover for King Ruin
As I mentioned above, the book picks up right where the previous one left off. Ritry fights for his life only to find himself captured by Don Zachary, an organized crime boss of the skulks from the first book. Ten percent of the book has gone by before Grist lets Ritry and the reader take a breath. But it isn't long before Ritry is on the run again.

The marines return and are just as important to saving Ritry's life as they were in the first book. I won't spoil their connection to him if you haven't read the first book. But for those who have, their mission here is just as surreal and mysterious as before. Me and Far are missing, which is puzzling to the rest of the chord. But by doing so, Grist permits the reader to get to know the other members of the chord—Me and Far were the focus of the first book. Grist keeps their absence a secret until the story nears its climax, when all is revealed.

Mr. Ruins, Ritry's foe in the first book, was a bit of a mystery. While he offered an explanation for his obsession with Ritry, I felt like there was something more. He seemed to be hiding something, but with the conclusion of that book, I didn't hold out much hope of finding out. Fortunately for the sake of the story, Mr. Ruins makes a return, and we get to the truth behind Mr. Ruins' sadistic treatment of Ritry and others.

Whereas Mr. Ruins was a sadist, King Ruin is a ghoul. If we take it that power corrupts, then as power grows so too does the level of corruption. King Ruin does things to people that would make Josef Mengele proud, if not envious. Grist forces the reader to bear witness to some of these horrors and to the suffering that King Ruin's crippled victims struggle to recover from. It serves a purpose; this isn't torture porn. King Ruin is a being that feeds upon pain. He would starve to death without it. If you're one who is easily upset by disturbing imagery, then heed the "horror" tag I applied to this review.

Just as Grist revealed the origins of Mr. Ruins, so too does he reveal the ghastly origin of King Ruin. It makes sense. It might seem like this is just Ritry's battle against a bigger and badder foe, but King Ruin's reach knows no bounds. He strips everything from Ritry. Everything. Ritry must sacrifice his connections to everyone he loves, lest King Ruin find them and make them suffer too.

Unfortunately, my experience was marred by typos and punctuation problems. If he had hired a proofreader, I believe that the manuscript would've been much cleaner. Maybe the story has been edited since I received my copy. Anyway, if typos aren't the sort of thing that catches your eye, then don't sweat it. Just enjoy the story.

King Ruin is a journey through desolate post-apocalyptic wastelands, both physical and mental, full of madness and pain. At times surreal, it is also visceral. The overarching message I get from this story is that our pain defines us. The memories of that pain form strong bonds that entwine our souls. It twists us. If it doesn't break us, it shapes us into something different, possibly evil. In turn, we inflict that pain upon others, whether we wish to or not. Only love and forgiveness can break the cycle. And if we can find redemption for the pain we've caused, we can rest in peace.

For more information about King Ruin or Grist's other works, please visit his website.

* I spoke with Mr. Grist about her. She is whom I thought she was, just a different interpretation than the one I had.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Best of 2015

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.

First off, I'd like to give an honorable mention to Rob Steiner for Citizen Magus and Muses of the Republic and M. Terry Green for her Chronicles of White World series. I thoroughly enjoyed their books, but as I was proofreader for them, I was disqualified from reviewing them here. Definite bias there.

There were five books I reviewed here on the blog that were in the running for best of 2015. I could take the easy way out and nominate all five, but that would be a cop out. Unfortunately none of them stood far enough apart from the pack to make this an easy decision. So I had to decide if what I considered a flaw would be just a petty gripe to other readers. In the end, I decided that the book I chose would be one that I could unequivocally stand behind.

Without further ado, this year's winner is:

book cover for Tethered Worlds: Blue Star Setting

In my review of the first book in this series, Unwelcome Star, I complained about the length of the book, not relating to the protagonist, and a battle scene that went on for far too long. I decided that story length was my problem and not one with the books. I think that most readers consider 500+ page books to be a plus rather than a minus. And young adult characters are always in fashion, so ignore the middle aged grumpy guy.

My appreciation for the first novel grew after I read the second book in the series. The myriad new names and terms that Faccone dumped on us in the first book paved the way to enjoying Blue Star Setting. By then, I had a better appreciation of the effort that went into what I'd thought were tangential or out of place story fragments. Faccone had a long range plan for this series, and he needed to lay the groundwork from the outset. It's in this book that you can start to see it coming together.

One thing that I praised from the start was Faccone's world building. Each world and faction is fully rendered with a rich history. Technology has blossomed into a myriad of forms. There are several factions struggling against one another to achieve their objectives. And while there are many characters, both human and AI, each of them is a unique individual with quirks and personality. It can be a bit overwhelming at first getting up to speed with all of this, but it's worth it. For space opera fans, I'd say you owe it to yourself to check out both books and join in the adventure.

For more information on Unwelcome Star and other books in the Tethered Worlds universe, please visit the author's website.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Tethered Worlds: Blue Star Setting by Gregory Faccone

book cover for Tethered Worlds: Blue Star SettingJordahk Wilkrest no longer has the luxury of believing he isn't special. His family line can work mystic technology, something fewer and fewer can do. Not only that, but his grandfather was a user of tremendous ability called a “Sojourner.” Jordahk has used mystic himself to get out of jams, something happening all too frequently of late. But he's still fearful of the dangerous technology, and for good reason.

Then, without warning, Jordahk's grandfather shows up again. The trail of their previous adventure is being followed. Their old friend and the mysterious girl under his care are in the cross-hairs of the power-hungry Archivers. But two men and a crazy robot aren't exactly a crack rescue force. And as the clues come together, they realize a much greater threat is gathering. One that calls for a legendary ship and the power of a Sojourner.

Too bad the ship's buried behind enemy lines in a system oppressed for two centuries. Can Jordahk revive the spirits of those subjugated in a war lost generations before? And what of the girl who's increasingly showing near-impossible abilities? Somehow Jordahk has to lead her, get the ship, and warn the free worlds of impending doom. For who's more vulnerable than those who wrongly believe their armor is impenetrable?

This is very much a middle book in a trilogy or a series. That's not a slight, just a fact. While there are enough references to the first book Tethered Worlds: Unwelcome Star, it's obvious to the reader that there's another story out there (definitely worth reading, I must say). And the way this book ends, although the events in this book come to their own conclusion, the overall story arc has (at least) another book in it.

I didn't feel as overwhelmed by this book as I did the first. I'll chalk it up to being somewhat familiar with the characters from the first book—Jordahk and his family being the easiest to recognize. I had a better understanding of the pantheon of villains in this one too. Faccone does a better job of differentiating them. And they didn't all wear black hats. One was definitely gray, probably brought about by the events that transpired in Unwelcome Star. Some of the minor characters from the first book are gone, replaced by new ones. Faccone did a good job of fleshing them out.

Blue Star Setting clocks in at a whopping 548 pages, even longer than the first book. The length of the novel gave Faccone the space he needed to render those minor characters, but he's still providing us with scenes that go on for far too long. "Brevity" is not in this author's toolbox. I think he could've gotten away with a 15% shorter book by trimming or cutting action scenes.

There are also scenes in both books that don't factor into the main story at all. They seem to be included only because they take place in parallel to the events on the main stage. I'd be inclined to suggest cutting them, but it turns out that Faccone does this to set the stage for events that will happen much later down the road. For instance, one of the new characters is Khai. She was in stasis during Unwelcome Star, so I didn't get why Faccone bothered to include the events pertaining to her rescue. Turns out, she emerges in this book and plays a major role in how this story plays out. Another example is Rewe, a villain. I didn't really gather his purpose in the first book, but in this book, Faccone offers two key scenes showing the development of his character into a major antagonist for a future book. Faccone is definitely a man with a plan.

As I mentioned in my review for the first book, this is a meticulously detailed universe. Faccone's world-building is top notch. The setting is rich in history with amazing technology that lives up to its "mystic" moniker. And I get the sense that he has even more in store in the next book(s) in this series.

Ignore my curmudgeon talk. While I bemoan its length, particularly the battle scenes, the pacing of the story doesn't drag. Faccone certainly gives the reader her money's worth. Blue Star Setting is a welcome addition to Faccone's Tethered Worlds series. It's more big and bold space opera with a hero you can root for as he grows to fill some very big, yet well worn, shoes. Highly recommended for space opera fans.

For more information on Blue Star Setting and other books in the Tethered Worlds universe, please visit the author's website.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Should Book Reviewers be Paid for Promoting Your Book?

Image from Boyd LoganOver on the Tenka International blog, Michael Norton wrote a post entitled "Book Reviewers Don’t Charge Enough, And Why You Under-Appreciate Them". In it, he explains the importance of book reviews in promoting one's work. While on the surface that seems like a no-brainer, he emphasizes the importance of book review blogs and how they help to spread the message about your book.
Book reviewers are the people who take the time to set up a website and cultivate a dedicated audience. They are under-appreciated by most independent authors, because most writers have no idea how to effectively market their work, and thus fail to see book reviewers as what they are: hubs, trusted by pre-established audiences, that directly influence awareness and conventional opinion of a writer’s work.
Norton then attacks the idea that book reviewers should be giving it away for free.
Many reviewers read and write for free, under the insecure belief that admitting that they’re professional critics detracts from their credibility—but I think this is the wrong mentality. As written: time and energy are resources that reviewers deserve to be paid for, especially if that reviewer is going to be a critical factor in determining whether or not a writer’s work sinks or swims in the market.
He acknowledges that there will be charlatans, but we all know that they already exist. But he emphasizes that if a reviewer is completely honest and transparent, then there's no reason why one shouldn't proceed in this direction.

Paid reviews are still controversial. The members of the Podler Staff debated it via email a few years ago, ultimately deciding not to do it. And a few years before that, Podler wrestled with the idea of doing it. He later rescinded that decision, but the dissenters on his staff had already quit.

Besides the complications brought up by money versus integrity, there's the problem with indie author budgets. Indie authors typically don't have a lot of money to spend on their book—although some don't spend anything. The smart author will hire an editor to proofread her work and a designer to handle her cover. Even if she finds affordable options, she's likely to spend a few hundred dollars (typically more) on those two. Coming up with money for marketing, whether it be for banner ads or book reviews, may be asking too much. As most indie authors sell less than a hundred copies of their book, getting that return on their investment may be a tall order.

From a reviewer's perspective, I appreciate Norton's acknowledgement for what we do. In just a few years, I've seen many a "labor of love" run its course. The blogosphere is littered with dead book review blogs. People burn out. The demands of family and work and other real world matters take priority. Free books are wonderful, but you can't redeem them for diapers or use them to pay the electric bill. Of course, only a select few might be able to review enough books to make any sort of living from it. I'm not one of those people. Still, I wonder if some kind of hybrid system could be achieved.

I think that the Self-Publishing Review has a good system in place. They offer a variety of packages based on one's budget. From my perspective it looks like a lot of work, but it seems to be working for them.

What if this blog offered "fast track" book reviews? I admit that we're slow; we're down to one book per month. It might go a little faster if I didn't take on 500+ page behemoths. But if I were to be paid to review books, then I'd have justification to spend my whole day reading. I do that now with proofreading and editing. The turnaround time would be vastly improved: 4-8 hours/day reading instead of 1. We'd churn out a lot more book reviews. For those not willing to pay, I'd leave the free option open, but they'd have to wait the usual month or so for their review.

But what about integrity? No one complains about The New York Times reviewers. Is it because they're paid by the newspaper and not by the publisher? Probably. In general, we don't like to give out bad reviews. We pre-screen books, hence the first three chapters request. Books that have major grammatical and structural issues automatically get rejected. That wouldn't change. We only read books in genres we like; I wouldn't start reading paranormal romance novels even if you paid me. We point out the flaws, and we'd have to still do that. Ultimately, you would have to decide if we retained our integrity.

We have no immediate plans to adopt a paid reviews program. This is just me thinking out loud. After 5+ years, I'm burning out on reviewing indie books (my traditionally published TBR pile is now too big and I've missed out on a lot of good books), and I know others here have as well (Note the shrinking "current contributor" list). We can't seem to attract new reviewers despite our flexible rules. Why join someone else's blog when you can start your own? We've had people do both, which I see as a value add. Maybe a cash incentive is in order. Or is it a slippery slope? I don't know. I do know that there's a good chance that we're going to go on long term hiatus, and based on other blogs that have done that...well, they tend to make that hiatus permanent.


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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Ethnic Albanians Need Not Apply by Nathan Shumate

Book cover for Ethnic Albanians Need Not ApplyPlumbing the depths of forgotten illustrations as grist for the mill, the cult webcomic is here presented in its first print collection. These first 300 cartoons introduce running gags and recurring characters—the Martian, the Egyptian embalmers, and of course the irrepressible Grievance Gorilla—in a daily dose of surreal, postmodern wit. And now, in semi-permanent dead tree format, accompanied by behind-the-scenes factoids and a smattering of bonus content!!1!, these moments of ephemeral non-sequitur humor can be gifted to luddite relatives, ensconced on the back of the toilet, or placed in studied casualness on a coffee table to impress attractive houseguests!

CheapCaffeine is a webcomic written by Nathan Shumate, a very busy man. Besides providing a new comic every weekday, he publishes Lousy Book (a showcase of how not to make book covers), hosts (crowdsourced constructive criticism for book covers), designs book covers through Thrifty Book Covers, and is the captain of small press, ColdFusionMedia, where he publishes his work and anthologies featuring other authors. With such a full plate, how does he find the time to draw a comic? Well, he doesn't. He's turned the artwork duties over to the public domain. CheapCaffeine is built upon old illustrations from newspapers and other sources which have been digitally scanned and thrown on the Web.

As XKCD and Tree Lobsters have shown, one does not need complex drawings or even original images to have a successful comic. It's all about content and context. Could Shumate have drawn the strip from scratch? Sure. But instead, he's hit upon a great idea: Use old images from yesteryear and juxtapose historical settings with modern problems to bring the funny. For example, an illustration of a Victorian era couple in the study becomes the visual basis for a wife complaining to her husband about his credit card charges to "".

I think it will appeal to those who appreciate Monty Python. A lot of the humor makes use of absurd situations and a knowledge of contemporary culture and government without being partisan or political. Some examples: Senator Bear makes the suggestion that the country should adopt the honey standard, a Martian rates Earth's best food (hint: Dr. Oz would not approve), and the Brotherhood of Mad Scientists gets harassed by a government inspector for health and safety violations.

I'm going to stop here. Writing about humor can be so unfunny that it can ruin what it seeks to praise. And that's the last thing I want to do, besides hang out with Grievance Gorilla. So, to learn more about Ethnic Albanians Need Not Apply, visit the publisher's book page or check out the comic online.

NOTE: The reviewer purchased this book.