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Books To Look For
As I was scrolling through lists of new releases recently, complete with their thumbnail covers and descriptions, I was struck with a real sense of déjà vu. Within each genre and subgenre, the covers were very similar to each other, as were the plot descriptions. The sense that I'd been here before was because I had, though that was in the middle of the last century and instead of e-books, it was mass-market paperbacks, more commonly known at the time as pocket books because—you guessed it—they could be slipped into a pocket.
The two mediums exist for the same reason: They're cheap to produce and satisfy the voracious appetites of avid readers, especially genre readers.
Genre readers are sometimes loyal to an author or character, but most of the time it's to their preferred genres. Some of them can read a book or more a day, which is costly these days, even if one uses libraries and secondhand bookstores. As paperback prices climbed from fifty cents to over ten dollars a book through the years, the time was ripe for the indie digital book revolution.
Suddenly readers could afford all the books they wanted to read with titles ranging in price from free to one or two dollars. The Big Five publishers decried these indie books (keeping their own prices at well over ten dollars), citing how since they weren't vetted by their own editorial gatekeepers, the quality of these independently produced books was suspect.
In some cases, the Big Five were quite correct. We saw a lot of sloppy writing in some of those early books, which were also riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. (And unfortunately, we can still see that today.)
But the more savvy indie authors understood that quality was important. Like the paperback authors before them, they focused on character and story, but these new entrepreneurs were also highly aware of the need for good editing, eye-catching covers, and solid proofreading.
Romance writers led the way—or maybe I should say Romance readers, since many of them were early adopters of e-books and e-readers because they read a lot and they quickly realized that even at a price of $3.99 for early e-readers they could still save money and bookshelf space by buying digital.
Indie Romance writers used newsletters and social media to connect with their readers and to bypass the need for traditional publicity. They provided quality productions, but most importantly, stories and characters their readers loved.
It would have been more surprising if they hadn't succeeded.
The writers of other genres soon followed suit—fantasy, sf, mystery, thrillers—and while you can still buy these kinds of books from the Big Five, you can't buy as many and they won't be as affordable.
So that brings us to now with me browsing digital marketplaces and seeing a confusing array of books that all look kind of the same in their genre—just as when I stood at the pocket book shelves in bookstores way back when and browsed the titles that were there. The only real difference is how many subgenres are presented today. One can only imagine what fans of sword & sorcery or space opera would make of subgenres like supernatural prison/academy or reverse harem.
Regardless of the claims made by the Big Five, much of what I see published independently is of the same quality, sometimes of better quality, than what they produce. Yes, there are duds, books that don't engage us or even make us want to throw them across the room (don't do that with your e-reader!), but that's always been the case.
It's never been so affordable for readers to read as much as they'd like. You don't even need an e-reader since there are lots of free apps for your phone, tablet, or computer on which you can read books produced by indies, the Big Five, or even digitally borrow from your local library.
Tooth and Nail, by Domino Finn, Blood & Treasure, 2020, $9.99, tpb
The trick to working within a genre is to play to the genre's strengths (and your readers' expectations) while still finding a way to carve out your lane. Domino Finn obviously loves urban fantasy, but rather than writing about the usual vampires and werewolves, he focuses on demons and a gargoyle in Tooth and Nail, creatures that still have a little freshness to them since they haven't been used as often.
Shyla Crowe is a demon summoner and a thief, working for a demon named Bedrock who is holding her father for ransom. Shyla has to pay an ever-increasing amount to Bedrock every month or her father gets sent down to the lower rings of Hell where a human could never survive.
Luckily she has a few aces up her sleeve. There's her father's secret grimoire that allows her to call up demons. She has a gargoyle familiar named Bernard, who serves as a protector, and a computer expert named Trap who can dig up the info she needs to plan her heists. And then there's Aaron, her usual go-between to Bedrock, who often sets up the jobs she does for the demon and takes her payments to him. Bedrock has Aaron's wife hostage, and after nine years of working together, he and Shyla are a little closer than their employer would like them to be, but only as friends and colleagues.
The story opens with Shyla being approached to steal an ancient artifact called the Crown of Aevum. It's a complicated heist, but she needs the money to make sure she can continue her payments to Bedrock. Unfortunately things pretty much fall apart from the get-go, and Shyla quickly goes from trying to steal the crown to just trying to survive.
I like the writing, the character Shyla, and her first person POV narration. She's kind of a classic antihero—only steals from those who deserve it and no killing on her watch. There's also a certain pathos to her situation. She's never had the chance to live a normal life. It started out with her father training her and using her on jobs, which has now put her in the position of having to pay for something her father did—something bad enough to have him captured and dragged down to Hell, even though he's still alive. And Shyla's all too aware of the fact that the only thing keeping him alive is if she keeps making her payments.
But with all of that, she's a likable young woman, and I enjoyed her asides and observations as she tries to make the best of an ever-worsening situation. The author has quite a few books under his belt, and on the strength of Tooth and Nail, I'm going to make a point of tracking some of them down when I get the time.
Graves' Anatomy, by Jace Anderson & Adam Gierasch, Nobody Loves an Albatross, 2020, $12.99, tpb
I like the tagline for this book: "Luna Graves doesn't believe in monsters. Too bad they believe in her."
Luna is a struggling tattoo artist, designing tattoos—for herself and her customers—that are dark and foreboding, born from her imagination. Strange creatures and monsters that could never exist in the real world.
Long estranged from her father, who's been absent for most of her life, she's a little surprised when on his death he leaves her his business and the building that houses it. She's not even sure what the business actually is until she's coerced into visiting it by Minx and Vigo, her father's co-workers. They explain to her that her father was a doctor to monsters and that the way it works in the shadowland is that she must take his place. It's a destiny that has lain hidden in her bloodline, and it doesn't matter that she's unprepared and untrained and wants nothing to do with it. She must take it on with only her father's notebooks to help her.
Like any sensible person, she turns her back on these crazy people—until she realizes that they aren't crazy. There is a whole hidden world out there, peopled by the creatures from her dreams that she's been inking on her skin. The tipping point for her comes when she and her new companions discover that someone has unleashed the bubonic plague on the shadowkind of Los Angeles—an unstoppable disease that begins to spread to humans and from them will infect the rest of the world unless Luna can find a cure in the hundreds of notebooks her father kept. It doesn't help that the being responsible will do anything to stop her.
Luna makes a terrific reluctant hero. I really felt for her being torn from the life she was building for herself and thrust into a world of monsters, simply because she's the daughter of a man she's loathed all of her life.
I also really liked that our main protagonist has to use medicine and old cures to solve the problems with which she's presented rather than a sword or a gun. The menagerie of creatures who make up the shadowkind are fascinating as well—grotesque and alien and not always willing to subject themselves to her ministrations.
In a field with so many of-a-kind protagonists that they can all blend into one another after a while, Graves' Anatomy's Luna presents a welcome respite and proves that there's always a fresh take to be found in the most familiar material. The author just has to work a little harder, which the team of Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch have done here to great effect.
Fugitive Telemetry, by Martha Wells, Tordotcom, 2021, $19.99, $11.99, hb and e-book
The only thing wrong with this latest Murderbot novella is that it's too short. Especially after having been treated with a full novel in the previous book.
Oh, who am I kidding? Any new Murderbot story is a cause for celebration.
This one's a murder mystery centering around a body found on the Preservation space station, and if you like sf and mysteries and have yet to read a Murderbot story, Fugitive Telemetry would be an excellent place to be introduced to one of the best characters in sf. The book's sf credentials are secure, with lots of thought having gone into the setting, background, and intergalactic society, and the mystery presented is a genuine one with that great payoff you should have seen coming but never did.
But the main attraction to any Murderbot story is Murderbot itself, a character that's both relatable and alien, and a hilarious narrator. Its observations into human behavior do justice to the great wisecracking gumshoes of the mystery genre, updated to fit the complexities of what society will look like in the far future.
Notoriously self-contained, Murderbot finds itself assisting station security to, as the cover copy puts it in Murderbot's voice, "determine who the body is (was), how they were killed (that should be relatively straightforward, at least), and why (because apparently that matters to a lot of people—who knew?)."
The ensuing investigation requires Murderbot to interact with Senior Indah, the head of station security who covers up how the SecUnit intimidates her with annoyance and stonewalling. So Murderbot simply works around the humans, whose brains process information far too slowly for it anyway.
As I mentioned above, the mystery plays out well, but good as the plotting is, the main enjoyment of this and every Murderbot story is Murderbot's personality and its POV voice.
I've no idea how long Wells will be writing Murderbot stories, but for as long as she is, I'll be reading them.
The Prince and the Troll, by Rainbow Rowell, Amazon Original Stories, 2020, $1.99, digital.
After reading The Prince and the Troll, I realize that I prefer Rainbow Rowell's stories that are first anchored in reality and then incorporate genre tropes. It's not a bad story, this retelling of the old folk/faerie tale of the troll under the bridge, but because it's told like a fable or a faerie tale, I never got the immediacy of the characters that I love so much in her other work.
It's a clever conceit, this timeless but slightly futuristic story of a man who gets fixated on a troll that lives under the bridge that he has to cross every day on his way to work. They meet when the man drops his phone into the river and the troll retrieves it. The man becomes fascinated with this large, muddy creature and starts to bring her coffees and engages in an ongoing conversation with her.
And Rowell certainly writes with her usual engaging prose.
But for this outing, the characters seem a little distant (the way they will in faery tale), so that rather being as invested as I like to be, I was merely curious as to how the story would play out.
The Prince and the Troll is part of a series of Amazon shorts that retell faerie tales, taking the "happily-ever-after in daring new directions," as the blurb would have it. There are five stories available as I write this, but I haven't tried any of the others. I do like the shorter length, just as I enjoy the novellas published by Tordotcom, because sometimes one doesn't want a five hundred page book but would rather snack on something that can be read in a sitting or two.
And while I didn't love this particular story, I do love Rowell's work, and look forward to whatever she gives us next. As I often tell myself when I'm not as taken with one particular book by an author: I can always go back and read the ones that I loved.
The Annotated American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, edited by Leslie S. Klinger, William Morrow, 2019, $50. hc
Depending on the sort of reader you are, if you haven't read Neil Gaiman's American Gods yet, I wouldn't recommend starting with this edition. It's much better to let yourself get lost in the story without the distraction of annotations running along either side of the page. Unless, of course, you're a multitasking sort of a reader and can appreciate all the little sidebars of information and still remain absorbed in the world of the story and its characters.
If so, you're a better reader than I am.
What's the story about? Years ago I wrote in this column:
American Gods is a big, sprawling book that seems to take forever to get to its point, but what a wonderful journey it is to get there. We enter the hidden world of forgotten gods through the viewpoint of a character named Shadow whose life, after three years in prison, seems about to take an upturn. But that wouldn't make much of a story. So in short order, he's released a day or so early from prison because his wife has died, while cuckolding Shadow with his own best friend. The job he was supposed to have (as fitness trainer with said best friend) is now also gone.
Enter Wednesday, a rather enigmatic figure whose true nature we figure out before Shadow, and all too soon poor Shadow is drawn into a struggle between the forgotten gods (brought over to North America by their believers and then abandoned) and the new gods: the gods of technology, of cell phones and the Internet and every other modern contrivance. And along the way, Shadow needs to find some meaning and balance to his own life, one that for all its emotional ups and downs, it seems he's been living more by rote up to this point.
There are few authors who can manage to balance the light and dark aspects of a storyline as effectively as Gaiman does. There are charming, utterly whimsical moments here, and others filled with doom and dread. The mythic characters are earthy and accessible without losing their godlike stature. The plot, while rambling, never strays into uninteresting territories and, more to the point, most of the seeming asides and subplots prove, once we reach the conclusion, to have been necessary to the principal storyline after all.
Another pleasure of reading Gaiman is that he has such a light touch with his prose. One gets the impression that it simply flowed effortlessly from his mind to the book we hold in hand, though that, of course, is one of the hardest tricks to pull off in the business of writing.
So that's the book I read in 2001, and reread in 2011. There were apparently edits and the text was expanded in that tenth anniversary edition, but I honestly couldn't have told you what they were.
This new edition, however, tells you exactly what the differences are—as well as the differences between what you're reading here and the original manuscript before it had been edited for its 2001 publication.
And of course a wealth of other material.
Some of it's simply trivia, such as referencing the lyric of a song, a TV show, or some historical tidbit like when Oklahoma became a state. Plus it provides a handy refresher for the various figures from myth and folklore if your knowledge of the classics is a bit rusty. There are also a slew of illustrations depicting everything from ancient artifacts that have some import to the story in hand to stills from the ongoing television series.
If you've already read the novel, The Annotated American Gods is a terrific way to delve more deeply into the world of the story and also the creative inspirations of the author.
The Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien, by John Garth, Princeton University Press, 2020, $29.95, hc.
I didn't expect to like this book as much as I did. My low expectations had nothing to do with the look of the book (it's a very handsome volume) so much as the fact that I've seen and read so many books on Tolkien and the influences on his work over the years that yet another one seemed like overkill.
But I like maps, I like reading about landscapes, and I enjoy delving into the creative process—even when it's speculative, as it has to be in this case, since it's not Tolkien writing but John Garth. Garth previously authored Tolkien and the Great War, which won the Mythopoeic Award for Scholarship and is considered to be the best book that has been written about Tolkien, so he certainly has a well-informed opinion.
As you might guess from above, there are plenty of maps reproduced in these pages, a few by Tolkien, the rest topographical and historical, and they include details taken from the sort you'd find in a regular atlas. They depict Middle Earth and the places Garth feels informed Tolkien's creation of Middle Earth. There's also a wealth of art, archival photographs, and some stunning contemporary photographs.
If this makes you think The Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien is mostly a picture book, you'd only be half-right. The bulk of its pages are taken up with Garth's text as he takes us on a ramble though the West Midlands and Oxford, through other parts of Great Britain and finally overseas.
In some ways, the book is a topographical journey, twinning the real world locations with those they came to inspire in Middle Earth, but it's also a literary one, because one can't write about a professor so in love with language and literature without delving into how his wide reading and scholarship also informed the creation of his characters, their history, and their landscape.
Garth approaches his own writing with a scholarly tone, but it remains lively and fascinating and eminently readable throughout.
I probably learned more than I needed to know about Tolkien in these pages, and much that I hadn't known previously, but I was never bored. The Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien is obviously geared toward a specific audience, by which I mean no one's going to read it and then think, I really should go give this Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit a try. But if you're the sort that likes to delve a little deeper into the creation of one of your favorite books, you won't be disappointed.
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