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.

Reader Ratings and Reviews on Book Sites

I was checking through the Goodreads Authors Group the other day and came upon a discussion thread started by a fellow Goodreads author who ranted about the readers who rated his book without adding a written review to the rating. To him, the review justified the rating and provided valuable feedback to authors, so he felt that Goodreads should require its members to add a written review whenever they rated a book, in much the same way that Amazon requires its customers to do when they willingly rate a product. As a fellow self-published author, I could sympathize with his frustration as ratings and reviews are an important guide in convincing readers to buy and read a book, especially with so many works being published in the digital age. However, I recognize that social sites like Goodreads were created for its members to connect with friends, to make new friends and to exchange discoveries and disappointments within a group that share common pleasures. On a site like Goodreads, authors are a small part of the whole. The focus is on the society of readers and the vast library of books available from the history of mankind. Although Goodreads gives current authors ways to promote their books (some for a price), its main mission is to cater to the social community of readers, which means it cannot nor should it attempt to force its broad reader membership to follow tight rules like adding reviews to all books on each member’s shelves in order to cater to the small community of Goodreads authors. It would actually drive readers away from signing up and using a site like Goodreads, which would undercut the very value that current authors get from the Goodreads readers.

For most readers and consumers in general, seeing or hearing what a friend or trusted source feels is a better buy becomes very helpful in making decisions on where and how to spend one’s money. We depend upon others’ tales of happy adventures or woeful experiences to map out our next experiences. However, most of us are not all that eager to broadly record our own experiences with the products and entertainment we purchase. It is as if most of us are too insecure to believe that others truly would respect our opinions about the quality of the entertainment we experience. We would rather follow than lead. But stating your preferences or impressions is not leading the way. It is merely contributing to the group discussion. Any one opinion will not be the one thought to make or break the success of a book, movie or television program. Rather it is the general consensus that will determine the ultimate value of a piece. Opinions that go against the grain tend to fade in the background and are not usually held against the reviewer by the general public. However, until a general public develops around a work of creativity, a current writer must depend upon the first group of readers willing to contribute to the initial discussion in order to determine if the work will be accepted by the larger public.

As can be seen, there is no perfect answer to convince readers to rate and review, nor is there a perfect way to truly evaluate the ratings and reviews that are presented. After reading the discussion thread, I did a quick search in Goodreads for a more renowned literary work and came up with the following member information on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” 1,108,499 members took the time to rate the classic work for an average of 3.72 stars, but only 9,514 members decided to add a review to explain their rating. Looking through the reviews, I found the following one star-rated review: “I’m not sure what annoys me more – the play that elevated a story about two teenagers meeting at a ball and instantly ‘falling in love’ then deciding to get married after knowing each other for one night into the most well-known love story of all time, or the middle schools that feed this to kids of the same age group as the main characters to support their angst-filled heads with the idea that yes, they really are in love with that guy/girl they met five minutes ago, and no one can stop them.” If I have to hazard a guess, I would say this review came from a parent of a teen girl, and it only goes to show that there will always be someone that will have an issue with any literary work one chooses. As a self-published author, it shows me that I should be open to the comments I receive in the reviews I get, but not to be too overly discouraged with the occasional bad rating. Even the best get panned.

The Power of Editing

When I wrote my first draft of Legacy Discovered, I decided that if it was going to be taken seriously, then it would need to be read with as few unnecessary grammatical errors as possible, so as not to distract the reader from the story and its characters. As I wrote my first chapters, I reached out to my Facebook friends and asked for volunteers to read, edit and comment on the book as I wrote it. Using the collaborative cloud service, Box.com, I was able to upload the chapters where my volunteers were able to read and comment from whatever location they may be. Once I had a first draft and signed up with Createspace to publish the novel, I chose a package that included a round of professional editing. Even after this round of publishing and another review by my volunteer friends, I re-read the book twice at a steady pace. My goal was to have my book look professional to any reader. Since it has been published, I have discovered a handful of small overlooked errors which will be corrected in an upcoming re-release; however, I feel it compares very favorably to books released through many of the professional publishing houses. Yet, as I have read some works from fellow indie authors in the past year, it has surprised me just how much the art of editing has suffered during the self-publishing revolution, an issue that may be dragging on the creative power of books to today’s audiences.

In many of the indie books that I read, I was quite impressed with the story-telling prowess of my fellow authors. I may have had an occasional plot or character quibble, but for the most part, my interest was held. Still, to come across the somewhat frequent extraneous ‘to‘ or ‘the‘ within a sentence would be like hitting a pothole on a comfortable ride. A missing key word in a sentence would feel like a red light on a freeway as I had to stop to try and understand the sentence before moving on. Misplaced quotation marks during character interactions would confuse me as I tried to determine whether a statement was stated aloud or was just a thought expressed as an aside in the dialogue. In one novel, I truly had to shake my head at the statement “She s.” for which I will never know what the author was hoping to express. Formatting errors were also prevalent, like an end of line or extra indent within a paragraph. What got me was just how prevalent these simple errors were and how easily most of them could have been corrected with a steady review of the work before publishing.

Actually, these errors in no way reflect upon the literacy or grammatical competency of the author. Our brains are notoriously capable of mentally correcting and becoming blind to these types of errors during reading, especially when the underlying meaning is truly clear to the reader. Since an author is the one who transcribed his or her thoughts to the paper (virtual or real), his or her brain very easily corrects these errors mentally as the work is reviewed. The rush to get the story out under deadline is the main reason why these errors have become almost the norm in online news postings or within current newspaper articles. However, the novel is not a place where the avid reader expects to find these errors, as the reader expects that time is available to edit the story being presented to him or her. Since readers do not create the works in front of them, they are more likely to stumble upon these errors when the meaning has been slightly compromised by these errors. Subconsciously, the errors begin to reflect upon the stature of the work, regardless of the entertainment or informational value of the work.

I have come to respect the power of having a trusted second or third pair of eyes review my work. I would hope that other indie authors would open themselves to having someone else review their work before publishing in today’s digital world, even if it is among trusted friends. A good editor does not take away from a writer’s voice; he or she only enhances it for a receptive reader.

Thoughts on The Social Novel

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books was held this weekend on the USC campus. I spent Saturday walking through the booths, checking out local bookstore offerings and featured authors. I also found a couple of indie author promotion and marketing booths and made contacts with them in regards to my current novel. It was a fun and interesting day for me. In addition, I attended a couple of “conversations,” moderated author panels focusing on fiction. One panel was appropriately labeled “Looking for Trouble,” considering the wild and erratic conversation that came from the four authors. However, the other panel turned out to be more intelligent and thought-provoking in its discussion of the “Social Novel.”

At first, the authors on the panel wondered at why they had been selected for a panel entitled the social novel. Rachel Kushner had a recently released novel, “The Flame Throwers,” which followed characters in rebellious New York City neighborhoods in the late 60s and equally rebellious neighborhoods in Rome during the early 70s. Marisa Silver’s recently released novel, “Mary Coin,” examined a fictional history of a photographer and her subject based on a famous photo of a migrant mother and her children from the 1930s. Jonathan Lethen was about to release a novel in the summer that appeared to be hard to explain in the session. There appeared to be no common theme in the narratives of these authors, except for the general concept that actions of their characters had to interact within the social network and individuals within a common social group. The conversation became a discussion about the concept of the individual within society and the contrast between the two. The panel defined two perceptions that was recognizable in literature – the American perception that favored individualism within societal relations and the European perception of a social commonality and responsibility among the individuals within the group. The general impression I received from the panel was that writers usually expressed themselves on one side or the other. What I wished there was time to consider was whether any of the authors felt a sense or possibility that modern literature might move toward a balance of the two perceptions, a sort of global perception that the individual has an innate responsibility toward the social community, while the social community depended upon its recognition of the individual contributions supporting it.

I can see the difficulty in trying to examine this delicate balance within a literary structure. Like all balances, it is dependent upon competing forces. While trying to understand this balanced competition, each of us tends to sympathize and side with one perception over the other. We feel that society must recognize each of us and it is up to us to present our own individuality to society as a whole – or we feel that society needs each of us to come together so we must submit our feelings and talents to the good of the whole. It becomes hard for us to see how both perceptions are just as valid and just as necessary in finding that balance. Also, even if we accept and explore the necessity of balancing both perceptions, we find it hard to not try and calculate an absolute formula in which to find and impose this balance. In nature and the universe, this balance is always fluid and constantly under recalibration. No wonder it is hard for any writer – past, present and future – to explore any story or set of characters working within a balance of the individual and society. Maybe something to discuss at next year’s Festival of Books.