2016 – A Year of Reviewing Indie Books

Here it is 2017 and I am going over the books from fellow indie authors that I read in 2016. It was my first full year in Colorado to which I am still adjusting. Perhaps this is why I read about the same number of indie books that I read in 2015, 31 books total. I do notice that 2 of these books are actually short novellas, each tied to another book on the list, so maybe I should just count them as one book, making my reading list total as 30. One positive is this year proved to be an especially good year in the quality on the list with 8 books I rated at 5 stars. 2 of these 5 star books were the novellas to which I just referred, and the 2 books with which these novellas were associated also received 5 stars. I wonder if I should just count each book with its associated novella as one book, but I think I will just keep the total as is.

Now to reiterate my review standards as I posted over the past two years, I had to be open to all genres and not let a genre type affect the rating and review of a work. My focus was on whether the story was told well, the characters were relatable, the plot functional and understandable, and the pieces fit together. If I could follow an enjoyable tale while pushing aside the typos, grammatical errors, and historical or cultural anomalies, the book landed within the 3 star zone. If I could feel more emotional attachments to the characters and find myself drawn into the plot action with less distractions from errors, then the book was landing into the 4 star zone. When character and plot all came together nearly perfectly within the genre I was reading, and editing was well-done, it was a 5 star effort.

Of the 8 books which I rated 5 stars, 4 of them were additional works from fellow authors I had read earlier in previous years. Of these 4, two of them are one of the novel and novella combos to which I had referred at the start of this post. This combo, Crystal Conquest and Crystal Horizon, were written by Doug J. Cooper, the only author to receive a 5 star rating from me last year. Crystal Conquest was the second in his Crystal series, which has the artificial intelligence crystal and his handlers fighting off a new attack from the villainous alien race. Crystal Horizon was just an introductory novella that deftly introduced how our hero handlers initially met before the alien battles. The novella is offered free on the author’s website to introduce readers to his characters and sci-fi adventure flair in his writing. As to the other two additional works, one was another women-lit romance from Deanna Lynn Sletten, Walking Sam, about a widower and a divorcee that meet and connect through the widower’s dog. Two years earlier, I had rated one of her other novels as a 5 star work, and it says a lot that the work I read this year matched that level. The other work was Hangtown Creek by John Rose Putnam, a historical adventure fiction tale set during the California Gold Rush era. Last year, I had given his novel about Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto’s conflicts with native American tribes a 4 star rating. His rough adventure of the Gold Rush Era drew me in more.

The other four 5 star novels were written by new authors to me. Steve LeBel’s The Universe Builders: Bernie and the Putty was a very imaginative concept that equated universe creation as products of a high-pressure god engineering firm, where one nerdy god is harassed by a bully god while trying to build the ultimate universe. It is no wonder that this book has received a couple of indiebook awards. The next 5 star novel was an exciting spy thriller set in the mid-70s by Paul Hollis entitled The Hollow Man, in which an unnamed NSA hero uncovers a plot against the European economy while on a personal mission against a terrorist assassin. Finally, the last two books I read in 2016 was the other novel and novella combination referred to at the start of this post, Theo and the Forbidden Language and The Queen and the Dagger by Melanie Ansley. The main story is the opening tale of an epic fantasy series about a rabbit with the knowledge of language who is enlisted to be part of a group of apprentices to lead the animal communities against a villainous human empire intent on enslaving them with a pacification potion. The associated novella is an introductory back story of one of the other apprentices, a princess warrior rabbit, in this very well written fantasy saga.

Just like the previous year, I had three 2 star rated books. In the first one, the author was too focused on creating and intricately describing an erotic romantic relationship between the two main characters in the thriller, causing the villain characters to be barely formed and hyped up actions to seem like weak plot devices. The next disappointment was actually a second novel in a romance series, and its plot was mainly unbalanced between the lovers’ well-described physical love moments and the somewhat bland interactive moments with family and friends. The author attempts to create conflict with a minor villain, but this character’s actions just appear to be a forced plot device. However, the final 2 star turned out to be an extreme adult erotica tale based on sadomasochistic games, which challenged my commitment to being open to all genres. Yet, even though I admit I do avoid novels whose themes are basically based on adult erotica pleasure, my main issues with this tale was that none of the characters, including the main narrator, had any true empathetic features to draw the reader in and that the promotional blurbs for the novel really understated the true nature of the level of adult erotica, which is not cool to readers who would be sensitive to this type of genre.

The remainder of the books I read in 2016 were split down the middle between 4 and 3 star ratings. Even though the 4 star books spread over a broad range of genres and themes, half of them did land in the paranormal range from a psychic involved in murder mysteries, a secret religious society hunter seeking and battling monsters, and a secret intelligence unit fighting a dark mythological order to a mystical Celtic location and a saga of a vampire feud. The other 4 star reads dealt with a mafia tale of romance and power competition, a spy thriller uncovering a devious plot, a family and crime drama stemming from the 9/11 events, a complex character drama about friends whose lives are affected over the years by underlying acts of abuse and manipulation, and a coming-of-age drama about a decade of summers with two best friends during the 70s. It was an impressive range of creativity.

So it was another good year of reading, and I hope that next year I will be able to match or better my reading time from my previous years. At the same time, I hope that more readers will find my novel, Legacy Discovered, and let me know if they liked it and why through Amazon, Goodreads, and other book sharing sites. Good honest reviews are the writer’s best friend.

My reviews can be found on my Goodreads Author page at https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6491046.Kerry_Reis.

2015 – A Year of Reviewing Indie Books

At the start of 2015, I posted about the independent and self-published books that I had read and reviewed on Amazon and book social media sites in 2014. At the time, 2014 was a very good year in reading with 40 books read and reviewed. However, I was not as productive in my reading in 2015. Unfortunately, my relocation to Colorado took up more of my time. Yet I did wind up finishing 30 books from my fellow indie authors, which I feel is still a decent number in the midst of my moving activities. When I started the year, the books I had read in 2014 gave me a lot of hope for the books I would read in 2015. I wish I could say that my expectations were met.

First, I would like to re-iterate my review standards that I posted last year. I had to be open to all genres and not let a genre type affect the rating and review of a work. My focus was on whether the story was told well, the characters were relatable, the plot functional and understandable, and the pieces fit together. If I could follow an enjoyable tale while pushing aside the typos, grammatical errors, and historical or cultural anomalies, the book landed within the 3 star zone. If I could feel more emotional attachments to the characters and find myself drawn into the plot action with less distractions from errors, then the book was landing into the 4 star zone. When character and plot all came together nearly perfectly within the genre I was reading, and editing was well-done, it was a 5 star effort. In 2015, I only rated one book with 5 stars.

The one 5 star book for 2015 was Crystal Deception by Doug J. Cooper, a science fiction romp with the future of the human race at stake as a highly developed artificial intelligence crystal and its handlers work to protect earth from a devious alien race. The book is actually the first in a trilogy series and evokes the same science fiction adventure flair that can be found in classic series like Star Trek with a touch of James Bond action thrown in. The adventures in this book do come to resolution with the reader being informed in the final chapter that our protagonists will be expecting further adventures in the future, encouraging the reader to obtain the next book in the series.

For 2015, even with fewer books read, I still came up with more 2 star disappointments than in 2014, three out of the thirty read. In one, the author attempted to power through a forty year uplifting tale that barely gave the reader any real chance to connect with the characters, who seemed to face more challenges with their own insecure mental strawmen than actual interactive conflicts. The rushed time frame of the tale actually led to some openly anachronistic moments. The second disappointment was a fantasy suspense tale that sought to explore the roles of gender conflict in determining sexual superiority and retribution. However, the reader is never given enough feeling or understanding of the main characters to develop empathy to care about the conflicts and challenges these characters face. In both of these books, despite the vastly different thematic storylines, the inability of the reader to bond positively or negatively with the characters causes the reader to lose interest and not care about the direction of the story. However, the third 2 star effort was more a breakdown in plot, as the story’s very interesting main character faces a very not-so-mysterious mystery and survives a dangerous situation by overcoming a survival challenge after the lackadaisical carelessness of the antagonists. These plot weaknesses opens the reader to see the author behind the curtain, making the story an unrealistic puppet show. All three tales, by their flaws, reveal the importance of properly balancing plot and character for the reader.

As for the other books I read in 2015, they pretty closely split evenly between the 3 star and 4 star rating range. The 4 star tales spread widely over multiple genres from intense introspective and paranormal sci-fi, a hyper action spy thriller, a viral horror thriller, an intense romance family drama that evolves into a suspense thriller mystery, a fantasy adventure, a steampunk adventure, a redemptive family drama novella to a group of American historical fictions that range from Spanish explorer conflict to a good old fashion western tale, with one of the historical fictions taking on a tinge of the paranormal. It was quite a range of tales to take in, and the imagination of my fellow authors were quite impressive.

So it still was a good year of reading, and I hope that next year I will be able to match or better my reading time with my previous numbers in 2014. I also hope that more readers will find my novel, Legacy Discovered, and let me know if they liked it and why through Amazon, Goodreads, and other book sharing sites. Good honest reviews are the writer’s best friend.

My reviews can be found on my Goodreads Author page at http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6491046.Kerry_Reis.

2014 – A Year of Reviewing Indie Books

When I first self-published Legacy Discovered, I knew I needed to reach out to fellow independent authors to help promote my effort. I quickly realized that the most important promotional tool indie authors need are the reviews of readers on Amazon and book social media sites like Goodreads. For that reason, I knew that we authors as readers needed to step up and read each other’s works and honestly provide reviews that will either help us promote our works to the general reading public or improve our writing for readers down the road. I began to consider the books of authors with whom I had connected and chose promising works that seemed to need reviews. At first, even though I rated each book I read honestly, I held back on some critical observations and provided a short, somewhat encouraging review for the books I read after a friend berated me for even considering bringing up errors that would upset my fellow authors. However, after reading a couple of works that I felt really needed work, I realized how unfair I was to my fellow authors and brought the critical comments back in. My instincts proved to be right as I have received better responses from my fellow authors for my fuller reviews beginning around the holidays a year ago. So what were the highlights and lows of the indie books I read last year?

First, I must put in a small disclaimer that I had to be open to all genres and not let a genre type affect the rating and review of a work. My focus was on whether the story was told well, the characters were relatable, the plot functional and understandable, and the pieces fit together. If I could follow an enjoyable tale while pushing aside the typos, grammatical errors, and historical or cultural anomalies, the book landed within the 3 star zone. If I could feel more emotional attachments to the characters and find myself drawn into the plot action with less distractions from errors, then the book was landing into the 4 star zone. When character and plot all came together nearly perfectly within the genre I was reading, and editing was well-done, it was a 5 star effort. In the 40 indie books I read last year, I only rated 4 books with 5 stars.

My first 5 star book of 2014 was Verliege by Micheal Rivers. Micheal has been a paranormal investigator for over 30 years, so I expected a good ghost story and I was not disappointed. His novel of a team of investigators taking residence inside a castle haunted by ghosts in conflict reminded me of the Richard Matheson classic Hell House. It was spooky, thrilling and well-done. Immediately after I finished Micheal’s book, I took up Summer of the Loon by Deanna Lynn Sletten. This was the exact opposite of Verliege, as it was a redemptive story of a newly-orphaned 16-year-old girl having to move from Southern California to upstate Minnesota to reconnect with a grandfather she has never known because he had turned his back on his own daughter who had become pregnant out of wedlock. This was a sweet women’s lit story that depended so much on character to drive the story over a course of a summer. Deanna has become very prolific in the past three years with 9 self-published books.

The other two 5 star books I read were part of a ten book stretch for the Book Review Co-op. By choosing ten books on the site’s list and reviewing them, Legacy Discovered is now added to the site’s list to get ten reviews from other indie authors who participate in the site’s program. Among the ten books I reviewed, I found Eddie & the Gun Girl by Mark Kram Jr. and Aliens in the Gift Shop by D.E. Morris. Eddie & the Gun Girl is actually a non-fiction short relating the incident of the shooting of Philadelphia Phillies’ first baseman Eddie Waitkus by a stalking fan in 1949, adeptly looking at the history of shooter and victim leading to the event and the long-term consequences, especially since Eddie was injured but not killed in the shooting. Aliens in the Gift Shop, on the other hand, was a comic sci-fi novel about a couple of space alien scientists who swoop little gift shop owner Marcy into the adventure of her life. It was very much in the tone of a good Doctor Whovian tale.

For most of the year, the books were mainly 3 or 4 stars in their reviews with the majority of them being 4 stars. With so many self-published offerings in today’s digital world, I find this to be impressive. However, within the last two months, I finally came upon a couple of books that failed and landed in the 2 star zone. In one, the author did her homework in creating her main characters, but failed to consider that the mainly unseen villains were as much a character that needed consistency and not a simple but erratic plot device to push the main characters’ buttons when needed. In the other, the author structured a relationship of deceit and tension between a group of characters, then brought in another character that promised to blow everything up in an exciting climax, only to lamely take the air out of the anticipated blow-up and allow the story to limp into the ending. In both cases, the stories started decently, but broke down when they veered into a path that was not truly there.

So, it was a good year of reading and I hope to find even more worthy tales to enjoy in the new year. I also hope that others find my tale and let me know if they enjoyed it and why. Good honest reviews are the writer’s best friend.

My reviews can be found on my Goodreads Author page at https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6491046.Kerry_Reis.

The Mastery of Agatha Christie

When I was in high school, I bought a sixty-cent paperback of Agatha Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders, perhaps intrigued after seeing the 1965 movie version, The Alphabet Murders, on TV. The movie did not take the story seriously and can be easily dismissed, but the original book was a revelation into the classic world of the murder mystery as presented by Dame Christie. I followed up by purchasing the sixty-cent paperbacks of Murder in the Calais Coach (more famously known as Murder on the Orient Express) and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I was amazed at how the revelation of the truth made perfect sense even though I had been fooled like millions of readers before me. I was hooked on the Christie style which presented the suspects and provided the clues fairly, but still misdirected me in trying to outsmart the detective in the story. I started adding to my paperback collection and now have all of Agatha Christie’s mystery novels in paperback in my library, all of them bought well over thirty years ago. There are a few of her short stories that did not appear in the collections I purchased, but I did add a collection of her plays which included The Mousetrap, a play that continues to be performed in London’s West End.

I cannot say that every one of her novels reaches the standard of a five star classic, but there is not a one that I did not wind up liking and the number of her novels that did reach the five star level far exceeded her contemporaries and the many that have since followed her. Her plots generally followed a set path, but this did not keep her from upending convention. The novel that made her famous, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, demonstrates this perfectly by subverting the Dr. Watson storytelling convention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (For those few who have not read this book, I will not go any further on this point.) In general, the reader is introduced to a set of characters within an environment where a murder takes place. These characters may have quirks but they are never one-dimensional which makes us care for them throughout the story. There is a balance between characters who feel the seriousness of the situation and characters who comically accept the situation as a puzzle to be solved. This is a delicate balance at which I find many modern mystery writers fail. In The Body in the Library, a young blonde woman is found dead in the library of Colonel and Mrs. Bantry’s estate. Instead of having a lot of anguish and dread about the dead woman in her home, Mrs. Bantry quickly gets her friend, Miss Marple, to come over before the detectives arrive to show her how “unreal” the body appears. Readers eventually come to learn about the young woman and how she unknowingly became the object of greed and jealousy, but they are not dragged down by heavy emotional introspection as Miss Marple helps the police solve the case.

Perhaps the most interesting theme within Agatha Christie’s mysteries is her sense of justice and its value to social order. Two of her most famous novels reveal how she believes in justice – Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None. In Murder on the Orient Express, a man is murdered in his cabin in the end railway coach of the Orient Express. Because the train was trapped by a snow drift, it becomes obvious to Hercule Poirot that the murderer was one of the twelve other passengers on the coach, but he also discovers that the victim was responsible for a child kidnapping and murder in America, yet avoided justice. When Poirot gives his dissertation about his investigation at the end of the book, he provides two solutions to the Orient Express manager and suspects – one true and one simplistically false. Since readers realize that the true motive for the murder is appropriate justice, they accept that the eventual authorities will be given the simple but false solution. In And Then There Were None, ten people are invited to an island for a weekend retreat and discover that one of them is out to kill the others one at a time. A recording that plays to them on the first night informs them that they have all committed murder which is why they have been sentenced to death over the course of the weekend. In the original novel, no one survives. A letter to the authorities later reveals who was responsible. (I find it interesting that Christie herself had to change the ending allowing survivors in order to adapt the story to the stage, which is the plotline seen in all of the movie versions.) The basic concept seems to be that murder in the role of justice was a valid concept to Agatha Christie, and considering some of the crimes with which her victims were accused in And Then There Were None, the level of culpability to be eligible for the death penalty was very low.

The Gathering – A Christmas Favorite

Every Christmas season, I make time for an annual viewing of movie holiday classics among the multitude of new offerings presented by Lifetime, ABC Family and Hallmark Channel. Many would recognize the classics in my DVD collection – It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol, The Apartment. However, I have one favorite standard in my collection that may not be as well-known, The Gathering. For years, I had to be content with watching it on the VHS recording I had made when it aired on PBS over twenty years ago. Last year, it was finally released on DVD and I was able to retire the VHS tape to the recycle bin.

The Gathering was a 1977 TV holiday movie that won the Emmy for Outstanding Special. Edward Asner stars as Adam Thornton, a gruff, stubborn business owner who is separated from his wife and estranged from his four grown-up children. As the movie opens, he has just been informed that he has only weeks to live. He realizes that he needs to rebuild the relationships with his children, so he goes to see his wife, Kate, portrayed by Maureen Stapleton, to get their addresses or some means of communicating with them. Despite his attempt to display normalcy, she instantly realizes that something is wrong and confronts him, forcing him to confess his medical condition. She declares that they together will invite the children back home for a Thornton family Christmas. Will they come and give their father a chance at redemption and reconciliation? Since this is a warm holiday movie, we already know the answer to this, but it goes to the power of the story that we become so emotionally invested in the process.

During my years with Disney ABC, I was fortunate to meet and interact with many well-known actors and television personalities while producing satellite interview tours and interview junkets. It was during one of these satellite tours that I had a chance to meet Ed Asner. I told him that The Gathering was one of my favorite Christmas movies and his first response was “Great script by James Poe.” His comment went to the essence of what makes this movie so great. This was a writer’s vehicle, a well-structured story with wonderful dialogue. It weaves the individual tales of each relationship into a redemptive drama about the rebuilding of a family.

Pride and Prejudice

In Legacy Discovered, I used references to classic literature that reflected themes within my novel. I had read many of the referenced works, but one classic I had not read was Pride and Prejudice. My use of Jane Austen’s classic as a high school English assignment for Sue was based upon my general knowledge of the book’s story and themes. However, after I published Legacy Discovered, I felt I should take the time to read Pride and Prejudice for myself, so I downloaded the free e-book. Last week, I had time to finally read this literary romance classic.

In order to read and understand Pride and Prejudice, the reader must consider the social and historical environment at the time it was written. In order to project refinement and social bearing within mid-nineteenth century English society, conversation and narration was less direct and presented very grammatically and more subtly with a polite surfeit of words to please modern English teachers. For the LOL generation, this is TMI for attention-challenged minds. However, for those willing to look under the puffery language, Pride and Prejudice is a light, yet thoughtful story about a woman, Elizabeth Bennet, who is the second oldest in a family of five daughters, whose mother is very intent on finding suitable – read higher social class – husbands for them. But Elizabeth is too proud and honest, brutally so, to play the game her mother expects her and her sisters to play. Elizabeth attracts the attention of a well-to-do reserved gentleman, Mr. Darcy, which she determines to be arrogant.  Stories about Darcy that she later hears from a suave regiment officer just reinforces her prejudices toward him. It is only when Darcy gains the courage to express his intentions and gets an earful on his perceived shortcomings, that he begins to show her just how wrong she was about him. The plot has become a standard in many romantic comedies since, which is why it deserves its reputation as a classic in English literature.