The Brave Free Books -- April 2014

Yeah, it's been awhile since I did an installment of "The Brave Free Books", reviews of various books and e-books I've read for free (from promotions, giveaways, sweepstakes wins, and/or the Nook Free Fridays offerings).

In the self-published line, I'm very impressed by the work of a British chap named Luke Smitherd. His novel TheStone Man and novella The Man On Table Ten are both very compelling stories. They might be described as "Science-Fiction/Horror"; both use mysterious aliens manifesting in the normal world. The aliens don't explain themselves (with the strong implication that humans are too insignificant to bother giving explanations), they're close to omnipotent in what they can do, and we can't stop them. In those respects Smitherd's aliens are closer to Lovecraft's Elder Gods than traditional SF aliens. Smitherd draws you into the minds of his characters slowly, layering details and emotions, until you fully believe in them. Most "horror" stories, of whatever genre, slide off me; these stories actually made me anxious, both for the individual characters and for the suddenly-endangered worlds they lived in.  (Current Kindle prices: The Stone Man, 2.99; The Man At Table Ten, Free)

A less impressive self-published work was Strawman Made Steel, by Brett Adams. I picked this up during a free promotion by the author, because the opening scene was a compelling beat-the-clock scenario where the just-poisoned protagonist has to figure out which of two poisons he's been given, because taking the wrong antidote will kill him immediately. The rest of the book didn't live up to that scene, unfortunately. The protagonist can travel, via mirrors, between our normal world and a future where electricity vanished suddenly and the world has had to convert back to steam and kerosene and gas. An interesting premise, but I couldn't believe that the world, and the future New York City, would not only recover from such an overwhelming cataclysm in less than a century, but grow. The premise needed a lot more propping up and development. I also didn't see the need for the protagonist, a hard-boiled private detective, to be hopping back and forth between worlds. The central conceit of the world, the sudden disappearance of electricity, is never examined or solved. Pretty much a standard noir mystery, with gangsters and the spoiled rich and nightclubs, etc., with some fantastical trappings added on. Disappointing.  (Current Kindle Price: 2.99)

Death Blimps of Doom! by James Ivan Greco is a prequel short story to his "Reprobates of the Wasteland" novel Take The All-Mart!  The "Reprobates" series is about a couple of wasted wastrels in a satirical post-apocalypse setting.  (Chinese troops occupy a trashed California; the All-Mart has become self-expanding in runaway-nanotech style and now covers a large portion of North America; etc.)  Trip and Rudy may be the inheritors of all the bad genes from Charlie Sheen, Hunter Thompson, Cheech-and-Chong, and Leopold-and-Loeb; they make Harry Flashman look like a paragon of moral virtue and rectitude, leaving wreckage both literal and metaphorical in their wake.  It's funny, but in a kind of feel-dirty-afterwards way. As a short story, I think this sort of thing works, but I'm reluctant to engage in a full-length novel about these characters, and haven't gone on to read Greco's novel about Trip and Rudy's further adventures.  (Current Kindle price: Free)

Wool - Part One, a novellette in the Silo series, by Hugh Howey.  Oh, so this is what all the fuss has been about the last few years.  Howey was an early self-publisher, and has achieved spectacular success and income from the Silo series and other works.  "Wool" was the story that started it all.  Why did "Wool" succeed, where so many other self-publishers had only limited or negligible results?  Canny marketing and promotion was one reason, but I think the primary reason is that "Wool" is a pretty damn good story.  The post-climate-collapse, dystopian underground society is well thought out, the characters are fully fleshed, there's an underlying mystery to this future setting, all of which draw the reader through to this story's conclusion and make one want to read further works in Howey's world.  The lesson is: Write a good story first.  The rest -- marketing, promotion, etc., whether in traditional publishing or self-publishing -- are secondary.  A reader might be hooked once by marketing, promotion, a striking cover (although "Wool" succeeded despite a, umm, less-than-impressive cover), but being more than a one-shot writer requires being the very best writer you can be.  (Current Kindle price: Free)

Augur is a short story collection by Freya Robertson.  While I was reading the collection, I kept having a vague feeling of dissatisfaction, but wasn't sure why.  The stories were decently written, decently plotted, decently inventive.  But I kept scratching my head as to why I wasn't enjoying them as much as I would have expected.  Until I got to one of the last entries, "Bearcub", about a young boy competing to be chosen for a knight's training, and found myself significantly more "into" the story than I had with earlier entries in the collection.  I thought about this, and went back and reread some passages from the earlier stories.  I think what the mystery was is that Freya Robertson's use of language, overall, tends to a shorter vocabulary, simpler sentences, and uncomplicated character development.  That her natural writing voice seems to be better suited to a middle-school or YA audience; the stories that left me feeling most dissatisfied were those with adult protagonists.  "Bearcub", with its young protagonist, read much more naturally for me; the writing style seemed much more suited to that particular story and character.  (Robertson's novel Heartwood catches up with Bearcub in his early-adult life; the sample chapters included at the end of Augur read pretty well, and it's being promoted as a YA book.) (Current Kindle price: 3.99)

Unnatural History by Jonathan Green is the first novel in the Pax Brittania alternate-history series from Abaddon Books. The cover and blurbs for this made it sound like it would be a fun romp.  (Dinosaurs on the rampage in a Steampunk London!  What's not to love?) Ehh, not so much.  The hero of the series, one Ulysses Quicksilver, appears meant to be an amalgram of Alan Quatermain, Doc Savage, and other heroes from pulp and adventure fiction.  But there's no real depth or development to him, and he came across as very flat and uninvolving.  (As a lead character in a series, it may simply be that he's not permitted to change or grown from episode to episode.)  Another disappointment, and I don't feel any inclination to read more in the Pax Brittania setting.  (Current Kindle Price: Free)

The above were all e-books.  This next was a hardcover I won in a Goodreads giveaway.

I read Jo Baker's Longbourn, a retelling/expansion of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, focusing on the household servants as the primary characters. Much about the wide gulf between the working class and the privileged/wealthy, and the lives of unending drudgery and work most people lived. In some ways it was like reading a well-written science fiction novel, because the society of early 19th-Century Britain is almost like an alien planet. Some of the antiquated terms used were ones I was unfamiliar with, and sometimes context wasn't quite enough to fully grasp the meaning; first time in a long time that I kept a notebook handy to jot an occasional word down to look up later. Baker depicts a very grim society to live in, but I came to... "enjoy" is not the right word... appreciate her depiction of the lower classes struggling to find love and a hope for the future in their harsh lives.  (Hardcover/retail 25.95; Amazon HC 15.11, Kindle version 10.99)

And that's it for this installment of Brave Free Books.

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