Three awesome indie novels you should be reading right now

I’ve got two and a half releases this fall, so I’ve been busy, and neither posting much nor reading as much as I’d like. But I’ve been slowly creeping my way through my TBR pile, and I wanted to give a shout-out to three exceptional indie novels I’ve read over the past few months. They’re very different, so there’s something here for a wide range of tastes. Check them out!

51REmDft85L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Wrecked & Yours, by CeeCee James
Family saga/romance about three homeless teens, the things that drove them apart, and what brings them back together.

Already known for her gripping memoirs, this is CeeCee James’s first novel, and at $2.99, it’s a steal. James’s writing is lovely, and I defy you not to shed a tear for these well-drawn characters. But don’t worry, those teary moments are deftly balanced with terrific dialogue and moments of humor. This story has the depth to deal with weighty issues, yet never feels heavy to read.

 


 

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Insylum, by Z. Rider
Horror tale of two buddies taking one last thrill ride before one ships off to Afghanistan, into the Hotel California of haunted attractions.

For those who like their touching stories about the power of friendship to be a little, you know, bloodier. And sometimes maggotier. I became a Z. Rider fan when I read Suckers, so my expectations were high, and Insylum did not let me down. I’ll warn you though, this book is graphic and not for the faint of heart. Z. Rider knows what scares you, and is not afraid to use it.

 


 

51NMivVa83L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Sisters of Sorrow, by Axel Blackwell
YA dark fantasy full of suspense and mystery, about teens abandoned in a world of sinister secrets, monsters, witches, and evil nuns.

Don’t let the YA tag fool you, this story is gripping at any age. From edge-of-your seat action to beautifully rendered description to engaging, likable, but appropriately flawed characters (Anna is not your average YA Mary Sue), it has it all and then some. The only downside is you might feel a little guilty for how much fun you have being drawn into such a creepy world. Make sure you don’t start it until you have time to finish it.
 


 

Guardians of the Galaxy and the clever application of tropes

Guardians of the Galaxy is hilarious, and silly, and fun, and thoroughly entertaining. So like many silly and fun things, there will be some who dismiss it in terms of “real” value, or laugh at the idea that there’s anything to be learned from it. But you shouldn’t, and here’s why: Guardians of the Galaxy does some skillful, even admirable, storytelling.

Because it’s an origin story, but not your typical superhero origin story; it’s the origin story of a team of five. Consider what this movie is tasked with:

  1. Establish five individual characters so they feel like real characters. (From scratch, mind. This isn’t The Avengers, where most of them have had individual movies ahead of time.)
  2. Establish their dynamics as a team and their relationships with one another.
  3. Acclimate the audience to the universe. Be sure they understand its rules.
  4. Be sure the audience is clear on the main conflict and the stakes of failure.
  5. Establish not only the villain and stakes of the current story, but the overarching villain and stakes in this universe, a conflict that will not be resolved in this installment but must still feel like a present danger.
  6. Leave the audience with enough unanswered questions to make sure they buy the next one, but not so many that they feel frustrated or that the story feels incomplete.

But that’s the job of the first installment of any series, right? Sure. Except:

  1. Do it all in two hours, but without ever slowing the pace, so the audience is constantly engaged in a steady stream of action and never feels the exposition at all.

Did you see it? Did you feel the exposition? I didn’t, except when they wanted me to, and never in a bad way. There are few storytellers who can accomplish that list both well and with economy.

They do it largely by using tropes, which may sound lazy and the exact opposite of what any storyteller should do. But while tropes are easy, doing them right is hard. Here they use them skillfully and playfully, as shorthand to acclimate you, without crossing over into boring you because you’ve seen this story before. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Guardians a spoof. (I’ve seen it compared to Spaceballs, but I think it’s more of a story in its own right, that could exist apart from the stories that inspired it.) But it’s certainly tongue-in-cheek enough to embrace its clichés.

Case in point: within five minutes of the introduction of the adult Peter Quill, we’re given very clear visual connections to both Indiana Jones and Han Solo. And I’m just talking about the shots here, not the dialogue or the action. The audience for a sci-fi superhero movie almost certainly already speaks that language. Which means we’re now more than halfway to understanding this character without them having to do anything else to get us there.

As another example, for pretty much the entire first act, very little is explained. We are not explicitly told how the universe works, or what anybody is talking about, or what Quill has, or what it does, or why, or who is chasing him for it, or who belongs to any of the names we’re hearing and why we should care. There is absolutely no as-you-know-Bobbing. Because we don’t need that. We’ve seen enough Artifacts of Doom to know this orb is a Bad and Dangerous thing, and that’s really all we need to know for a long time. So they can afford to wait to explain the specifics of infinity stones until they can do it without much pause to the action, in a scene where it feels natural.

They make all these formula elements work for them rather than against them in a few ways. First, they’re funny about it, and they don’t try to hide it. It’s okay that it’s heavy-handed because it’s a joke we’re all in together.

Second, while they pull at least half their characters off the stock shelf, they don’t just throw them into the movie as-is. They give them their own quirks and strengths and vulnerabilities. And every performance in this movie is good. As a character, Peter Quill is probably the most cardboard one we have here, but Chris Pratt’s performance is such that you not only see a distinct character, you can’t imagine anyone else in the role. He owns Peter Quill, and Peter Quill is not interchangeable in this story with any of the others of his kind.

It’s not just the acting that makes it all work. The team responsible for Rocket Raccoon should be provided with a big stack of money and complimentary pastries every single day. Talking animals rarely work on the screen, but Rocket is expressive in ways many live actors will only ever aspire to be. His face is brilliant.

The same applies, to a lesser degree, to Groot. They took a tree who says three words, and still managed to give him a personality.

Finally, and arguably most importantly, they’ve got something to back the tropes up with. They use them for shortcuts, but the shortcuts actually lead somewhere. This is a Marvel story, and as such, it has a full, longstanding, legitimately created mythology and universe to tap into.

So what’s my point? Maybe it’s that tropes can be great tools when properly applied. Maybe it’s that it is indeed possible to make exposition painless. Or maybe it’s just that you should see Guardians of the Galaxy, because seriously, you should. It’s a riot.

ZeniMax, please inspire me to give you my money

Well, now that ZeniMax has lifted the NDA for The Elder Scrolls Online, I’m free to tell the world how I feel about the beta. If only I knew how I feel about the beta.

I was deeply excited for TESO, because Skyrim! Plus MMO! My two favorite gaming experiences, mashed together. It’s got to be like chocolate and peanut butter, right?

Well, sort of. Except not really.

The graphics are beautiful. I love active combat systems. The lack of traditional class boundaries, and the resulting freedom with which you can build your character, is refreshing and intriguing. Overall, this is a good MMO. But it’s also a bit… bland. Lacking in personality.

By necessity, it lacks the immersion of Skyrim because it lacks the interactivity. The NPC’s never accuse me of being a milk drinker or discuss their histories with arrows to the knee. I can read books, but I can’t take them with me. If I see a cool vase, I can’t pick it up and bring it home. In a massively multiplayer environment, this is all understandable. My issue isn’t that these things are missing, it’s that they haven’t been replaced with anything.

Skyrim always made my character feel alive. Here, my character isn’t really a character in the true sense of the word. There are no ways that I’ve encountered yet to develop her as more than just a means of killing things. I want cool, fun things to work on. A house I can customize and use to display my books and trophies of battle would be best. Lacking that, pets. Unusual mounts. Cool rewards for achievements. Titles. Personality.

Because without those things, I’m not invested. I’m not attached. And it also leaves a decided lack of things to do. So far the game promises questing, PVP, crafting, and then if you want, more questing. I’m sorry to say, I’m not finding this to be enough. I’m sure they’ll tack on something raidy, but even then. We’ve seen all this before. Maybe if I say it a third time, I can conjure it up Beetlejuice style: where’s the personality?

Maybe – almost certainly – my expectations were too high. But there’s a reason for that: they’ve invited my expectations to be high by placing themselves in direct, mutually exclusive competition with mature, feature-rich MMO’s. People always defend launch titles by reminding us that such-and-such game didn’t have a lot of features at launch either. Which would be a valid point, if it was 2004. But they’re not competing with the launch versions of other games; they’re competing with them now.

The subscription model has a lot going for it, and it’s not bad in and of itself. But in this market, I think it’s a poor business decision. At least, unless you’re going to offer a one-year subscription at an extremely deep discount to anyone who pre-orders, say, or some other means of making it negligible until you’ve had time to ramp up the game. Because there are a lot of people out there right now who’ve been playing MMO’s a long time, with a core group of friends and/or family, and the fact of playing with those people is more important than the game itself. So either the whole group will play something, or none of them will.

As an example, in my house gaming is a family activity, and there are four of us who play. Which means when you offer a game for the industry standard fifteen dollars a month, you’re not actually talking about fifteen dollars a month, you’re talking about sixty. The upshot of this is, we’re not budgeting for more than one sub game.

Currently we’re playing WoW. (Yeah yeah, I can hear your game snobbery from here.) I’ve been a WoW player on and off for eight years, and right now my subscription is active for one simple reason: there’s just a lot to do. Without even getting into the standard endgame PVE and PVP, I’ve got pet battles (you have no idea), collecting mounts, collecting achievements, my little farm, various activities around the Timeless Isle, leveling alts. My experience is varied and fun and doesn’t get boring. And soon, with the addition of garrisons in the next expansion, there will be even more to do.

So what is ESO offering me that can compete with all of that? Why should I spend my sixty dollars here instead? This is what I’m asking myself. If you’ve got the answer, by all means, enlighten me in the comments. I haven’t pre-ordered it yet. But I’m still rooting for it. I’m hoping the next beta event will knock my socks off.

Things writers can learn from Skyrim

Video games aren’t known for their high quality storytelling. They tend to be derivative and clichéd and trope-embracing. You want to give people something familiar to work with as they jump in to play, and while you’ve got to have both story and backstory, you don’t want any of it to be particularly hard to figure out. Nobody wants to spend more of their gaming time trying to work out who Jon Snow’s mother is than actually killing stuff. Or, in the case of me and Skyrim, decorating their house, because I really only kill stuff in support of my search for a really good vase to put between the shelves in my library. Stop judging me!

But plot and characters aside, setting is where video games like Skyrim shine. Forget that it’s a story about killing dragons by scolding them really loud. That world feels real. And yeah, because graphics. But also because a lot of effort has been put into making you feel like your story isn’t even most of what’s going on in that world, let alone all there is to it.

Very few of the NPC’s in that game are nameless. They have more specific and personal things to say than “Death to all who oppose us!” when you click them. (Not that I object to “Death to all who oppose us!” I always answer my door with either that or “The reckoning is at hand!”) They have histories and petty arguments with their neighbors and quests of their own to deal with.

Same goes for every town and city. They’re not just sets you’re passing through so you can sell all the junk you’ve picked up. (Or, you know, stolen. From corpses.) They’ve got politics and threats and complicated histories. Okay, and sometimes also vampires, which annoy me as a story element, but I’m not saying the game is perfect either.

The point is, Skyrim always feels like a place that was living before you came along, is continuing to live all around you as you go through your storyline, and will keep right on living after you leave. And I wish I saw this done more often, and better, in novels. I don’t mean high fantasy – people who write high fantasy pretty much know they’ve got to create a whole world – I mean everything. Horror. Romance. Thrillers. I wish the authors of stories about accountants drinking coffee set them in meticulously constructed worlds.

Not that it’s easy. It can be very hard to toe the line between providing enough detail to make the reader feel like they’re there, and boring the stuffing out of them by spending two paragraphs describing a chair. And every reader has a different threshold. But I love reading about what they ate at the Hogwarts Halloween feast and Joffrey’s wedding feast. I love all the bits of history Tolkien scatters around. I love Derry and Castle Rock and the way Stephen King takes the time to flesh out even the most minor character, and I love everything Jasper Fforde does, ever. I love Tom Bombadil. There, I said it.

The common thread there is that I don’t want to read your book, I want to fall in. And nothing kills immersion like shrinking your world down to the size of your story.

A serial killing

Spoiler content: possible minor for A Song of Ice and Fire in form of crackpot theory.

I’ve been reading Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic, The Thirteenth Rib, by David J. Schwartz. I have not yet finished it. Did I put it down because it isn’t good? On the contrary, it is good. But I can’t remember why anymore, and I’ve moved on to other books in the space between, so I’m just not motivated enough to pick it up again.

This is because I started reading Gooseberry Bluff as a Kindle serial. I thought the serial idea was fun. It made me feel all Dickensian or something. And this book looked like it would be fun too, and not terribly heavy or ponderous. I thought that made it a good candidate for giving the serial thing a whirl.

But I was mistaken, because worldbuilding. Schwartz has created a living, breathing world, with its own rules, history, and culture, different from our own. As fantasy authors do. And should. He does that part right.

Which is wrong – for this format. When I’m only getting a short installment of his story every two weeks, well, call me an old lady, but I can’t remember all that rich detail that makes a fantasy worth reading in the first place. It shows up every other Tuesday, I read it in one sitting, and then, what? I’m not going to read for two weeks? Of course I am. So I fill my head with other people’s stories, and by the time I get the next bit two weeks hence, I’ve forgotten too much. I spend as much time paging back through the old stuff to refresh my memory as I do reading the new stuff.

That’s kind of an odd complaint, I suppose, from someone who has known the names of all thirteen dwarves since the age of seven, can still recite the Dark Is Rising poem in its entirety without error, and continues to question whether Coldhands could be Benjen. I don’t have trouble holding onto my fantasy worlds. But only if I’ve gotten hold in the first place. Fantasy relies on immersion. Prevent that and you’re never going to get nerds debating the finer points of your world on internet forums. Which, as you know, equals the pinnacle of fantasy success.

I still think there’s hope for fantasy in the serial format. I think larger installments, more often, or both, would have made a big difference in my experience. But in the meanwhile, I’m going to wait a bit and then sit down fresh with Gooseberry Bluff, and read it from beginning to end. I think it’ll suit it much better.