self-published books

Book Review: Fascination by Kevin Brennan

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Get ready for a road trip! Fascination is an odyssey around the quasi-wild West, on a mission of “self-realization and vengeance.”

Gorgeous Sally Pavlou, widowed by her husband’s fake suicide, sets out with insouciant PI (and punster) Clive Bridle to track down her errant spouse. From an unnamed Midwestern burg, the two hit the road in Sally’s ’63 Dodge Dart (nicknamed “Dot”). Readers get to ride along — to Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix, L.A., San Francisco and various side trips to spots that may or may not appear on any map. Along the way, the pair encounters an astonishing variety of sages, sinners, eccentrics and downright lunatics who offer opportunities for enlightenment.

Sally is an aficionado of an old-fashioned arcade game called Fascination. Every now and then she just has to play, even if it means a considerable detour. Clive is fine with that; stretching out the trip means he gets to spend more time in Sally’s company. His cheerful exterior hides a wounded heart and a capacity for duplicity. Altogether, there are quite a few bumps in the road to self-realization and vengeance.

Kevin Brennan has created a finely-textured novel, with laughs (or at least smiles) on every page. Whether it’s groan-inducing puns or agile prose that creates vivid scenes in the reader’s personal mind-movie, the alert reader will find way more than the captivating plot to reward their decision to read Fascination.

Fascination may be obtained from only one source — the author.

Formatting: Frustration, Fits and… Fun!

Last year I published my first book (The Friendship of Mortals) in print, after more than four years of being available only as an ebook. Even though I used CreateSpace, I didn’t use the supplied Word template, but did my own formatting from scratch. (Truth to tell, I was hazily aware of the template, but ignored it and just charged ahead). After formatting four books for ebook publication through Smashwords, I thought I was a whiz at that stuff.

Ha. There’s a reason for this post’s alliterative title featuring the letter F.

Among other things, I definitely learned the main difference between designing an ebook and a print book. An ebook is supposed to flow, like an electronic scroll, without impediments such as page or section breaks, headers or footers.

A print book, on the other hand, is a physical object made up of pieces of paper. Pieces of paper with two actual sides, some of which are blank. Formatting an electronic document (specifically, a Microsoft Word document) so it will turn into a book with page numbers, headers, footers, recto and verso pages — well, that’s an entirely different matter than getting a document through Smashwords’ fabled “Meatgrinder.”

(A word to those indies who haven’t done the print publication thing yet: if you tore your hair out over getting your book through the Meatgrinder without Autovetter errors, maybe you should get help if you decide to format for print. Or at least use the supplied CreateSpace template).

So now I’ve just finished formatting the next two books in the Herbert West Series: Islands of the Gulf Volume 1, The Journey and Islands of the Gulf Volume Two, The Treasure.

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With all my hard-won experience on the first book, I thought it would be a snap. Or at least a near-snap.

I was almost right. While not 100% smooth, it was easier, and I now have a procedure that works. What follows isn’t meant to be a set of how-to-do-it instructions, just a bunch of observations as I emerge, rumpled but triumphant, from the formatting jungle.

The trickiest part by far is getting Section Breaks, Headers, Footers and Page Numbering to work together and look right. Fellow indie author and blogger Michelle Proulx recently wrote a good post about adding Headers, complete with screen shots of the current version of Word.

It helps a lot to start with a clean Word document. I used the ones I had created for ebook publication, reasoning that it’s easier to add breaks, headers and footers to a document that lacks them, than to wrestle with the quirks of existing ones.

It also helps to have an actual, properly-designed printed book to refer to as you go along, so you can see which pages need page numbers, headers, etc. That makes a huge difference when it comes to the professional look.

The first thing I did was make sure my documents were in tip-top shape. That meant fixing a bunch of small errors I had noted in a recent re-reading of the whole series. The “handwriting” feature in my ebook reader is great for noting these mistakes. I went through the notes it generated and made the corrections — mostly deleting the word “that.” Bonus: I can upload the corrected ebook versions, thus improving the ebooks and ensuring identical texts in ebook and print.

Then I made copies of the ebook documents and proceed to turn them into a print-ready ones. There are several steps to this process:

 

  1. Make sure the Style in your document is appropriate for your print book. The Style I used for my books is: “Font Bookman Old Style, 10 pt, English (Canada), Indent: 1st 1 cm. Justified, Line spacing exactly 12 pt, Widow/orphan control.” Uncheck the “Automatically update” box in the Modify Style window, or bad things will happen.
  2. Set the margins in Page Setup. Select Mirror Margins in the Margins tab. In the Paper Size tab, you need to enter the exact dimensions for the trim size you’re going to use, the margins and the gutter. For my 6 x 9 books, I went with page size 22.86 x 15.24 cm, margins 2 cm except the outer one, which is 1.5 cm, gutter is 0.4 cm. Headers and footers are 1.27 cm. from the edge. In the Layout tab, check “Different Odd and Even.” This results in a display of 2 pages per screen, sort of like a real book. (If you use the CreateSpace template, I’m sure all this stuff will be set up already).
  3. Add front matter — half-title page, title page, dedication page, etc. Keep in mind that all these pages have versos, i.e. backsides, that can be used for things like lists of your other books, copyright information, etc. Refer to your model book for these details.
  4. Once you have created all the front matter pages, insert an Odd Page Break at the end of the last page of front matter. Note: most of your page breaks will be Odd Page ones, because new stuff usually starts on an odd-numbered page. If something different happens to a header or footer on an even-numbered page, you insert an Even Page Break. Go through your document and insert all Section Breaks as needed. There must be a Section Break every time the presence/absence of a page number or header/footer changes.
  5. Switch to Headers and Footers view and go through the document again, filling in header information and page numbers for each section. It works best to do this last.  Something to remember: if you want your header info (your name on the even-numbered pages and the book’s title on the odd-numbered ones) to be on the outer corners of the pages, do this: enter them right-justified on odd-numbered pages and left-justified on the even-numbered ones. Same with page numbers. Trust me. (I have seen books where these items are on the inner sides of the pages, near the gutter, and to me that just looks wrong). A note on page numbers: I didn’t even consider putting them in the headers, which I thought would complicate things no end. I left them in solitary splendor in the footers.

An absolutely crucial detail with headers and footers is understanding “Same as previous” (in older versions of Word; in the current version it’s “Link to previous”). Every time you enter Header or Footer information for a specific Section, you have to figure out if it should be the same as in the preceding Section. Once you get this right, victory is near. See Michelle’s post (link above) for a clear explanation.

Something that drove me crazy was inexplicable inconsistencies between documents I thought were set up identically, and (even worse) things that didn’t work the same way in the same situation within a document. Word gremlins at work, obviously. Short words starting with F and S were uttered frequently until these issues were resolved, usually by studious comparison with other documents, trying different settings, or desperate searches of the Internet (which often yield helpful results).

Remember, if things look really hopeless, you can just scrap that document and start again with a new copy.

And where is the fun in all this, you ask? Well, once you figure out all that tedious stuff about section breaks, headers and page numbers, and get it all working, it is fun, or at least satisfying, to see real book-like features appearing as a result of your handiwork. Selecting fonts, adding little glyphs and other decorative elements (sparingly, I would advise) — can be fun. Then you upload your document to CreateSpace and use the interior checker, which shows you exactly what it will look like in print. Once you’re happy with that, and have assembled the package (cover, interior, metadata), you can order a proof copy for a final check. It’s a thrill finally to flip through real pages and see the results of your efforts — first writing the thing, then embodying it in an ink-on-paper artifact.

 

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Local Author Book Review #4: The New Fire by Ada Robinson

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The New Fire by Ada Robinson is a historical novel about a history that never happened set in a place that does not exist. But it reads as though rooted in a real place and time.

This is from the back cover:

Imagine a land blending the geography of California, the technology of medieval Spain and the theology of pagan Rome. Isolated by distance and slave-hunters, the community of Iktalan has diverged from its Hispani roots.

Ada Robinson has taken pains to craft her fictional world and its inhabitants, rendering vividly its geography, economy and cultures. The Iktalai and a related people, the Zalatai, are the native peoples of the region. The Iktalai have had more contact with the Hispani, who come from Nueva Hispania on the other side of the mountains; indeed, they have intermarried at some point. Then there are the fearsome Bakai, enemies of all three peoples, who raid coastal settlements to take prisoners and slaves, using repugnant means to subdue them.

The story plays out over a period of months, during which a treaty is negotiated between the Iktalai and the Hispani, guaranteeing protection of Iktalan from the Bakai by the Hispani army in exchange for tribute.

Woven into this tapestry is the story of Sakela, a young Iktalai woman who represents her community in the treaty negotiations and serves as a herbalist and healer. She encounters dangers and challenges, not least among them the need to overcome a personal tragedy. In the course of these adventures she meets the new Governor of Tierra Ermosa, Don Francisco Montoya, and a warrior of the Zalatai who is also her cousin.

Robinson’s prose is clear and direct, outlining with equal clarity religious ceremonies, community feasts, military operations and issues around land claims and taxation. The human stories are nearly obscured by the volume and detail of this information, especially in the opening chapters. Some readers may be discouraged by this, but persistence is rewarded by several tense situations and their resolution, only to be followed by additional complications.

The technique of creating a fictional world that engages readers by its similarity to the real one, while allowing the writer freedom to plot, has been used in several well-known novels by Guy Gavriel Kay. Robinson has accomplished something similar in this novel, with less drama and intensity, perhaps, but with admirable sincerity and thoroughness.

My rating: 8 stars out of 10.

The New Fire is available as an ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and at the iBookstore, as well as in print from Amazon. It is also part of the Greater Victoria Public Library’s Emerging Local Authors Collection.

Local Author Book Review #3: PsyBot by Nowick Gray

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The Plot: Computer programmer Joe Norton juggles a series of awkward relationships with women while working for a tech company that’s facing a merger. As if this isn’t bad enough, he experiences strange and disturbing hallucinations and nightmares, in some of which he is offered a rifle for an unknown purpose. Maybe they’re psychotic episodes. Or worse — maybe he’s somehow caught a virus from one of the computer programs he works with. Accident, conspiracy or karma? Joe struggles to make sense of it all, growing ever more flummoxed and distressed. He seeks answers from coworkers, girlfriends and a psychiatrist, embarking on a search for his “home brain.”

The Characters: Joe is a middle-aged guy with a pretty drab life. His reality doesn’t quite measure up to his rather modest expectations. He goes to work, eats TV dinners in front of the “UltraScreen,” changes girlfriends frequently and anxiously. To be honest, it’s pretty hard to care much about him. The other characters, seen through Joe’s eyes (since he’s the narrator) range from quirky to repellent. The most sympathetic ones are Harry, a coworker, and Giselda, the boss’s assistant, but even they are somewhat peculiar.

The Setting: Philadelphia in the fall — as described by Joe, a pretty bleak place. Gritty streets of drab brick buildings. Joe’s girlfriends’ apartments, the office where he works, the eateries he frequents. And a variety of “virtual” situations — airplanes (or airships?), transit stations in space, windowless rooms, festering jungles.

On the plus side, Gray produces good prose. He assembles well-chosen words into coherent sentences, often creating vivid images or displaying a sly humour:

Distracted from the flimsy newsprint, I rode forward carried along on a wave — no, a rising tide — of compulsion toward a greater reality, a more expansive dimension than I had known. At the same time neither joy not freedom beat in my heart. Too much instead of that dark dread, the taste of black ooze in my mouth. And I don’t mean the coffee.

Even though the plot revolves around computer programs and virtual reality, the occasional occurrences of technical language are not incomprehensible. Readers who can relate to metaprograms, branching logic and metamovers that window to lot-caches may derive more from the story than those who do not, but the latter can skim over those sections without losing the thread.

The premise of the novel is interesting and original. Unfortunately, its execution bogs down in excessive detail soon after the opening scenes. The first quarter of the book, in which the drabness of Joe’s life is contrasted with his bizarre visions, is excruciatingly slow. Finding little to charm or captivate me, I nearly bailed around page 40; only my resolve to finish the book in order to write this review kept me going. By page 100, I was intrigued. Joe was starting to engage with his problem and trying various strategies to solve it.

Sadly, this promising thread frayed out into a repetitious series of further bizarre incidents with little coherence. Reaching the end of the novel became my primary motivation again, rather than a desire to discover the reason for Joe’s weird experiences and curiosity about how things work out for him. I wasn’t willing to wallow in disembodied strangeness again and again. “Goodbye Joe, and good luck,” I thought, but since the end was in sight, I kept plugging away.

I’m happy to say that the final 20 pages brought a fairly satisfying resolution. Despite (or perhaps because of) its denseness, PsyBot is a book that gives a reader plenty to think about.

My rating: 6 out of 10 stars. In my 10-star rating system, 6 stars means “Good but unremarkable.” In the case of PsyBot, I would change this to “Potentially good but hard to engage with.”

PsyBot and other books by Nowick Gray may be obtained through his website:  http://nowickgray.com or through his author page at Smashwords:  http://smashwords.com/profile/view/nowick

And, of course, there is one copy of PsyBot available to users of the Greater Victoria Public Library as part of its Emerging Local Authors Collection.

 

Local Author Book Review #2: The White Limousine by John R. Paterson

Time travel. Second chances. A lost love and a new love. These are the compelling elements of The White Limousine, a science fiction romance by Victoria author John Paterson.

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The plot revolves around two couples: Lisa is part of a genius team that creates the world’s first working time machine, and Eddie is an adventurer who takes a job as a very special kind of chauffeur. They give Fred a chance to fix the worst mistakes of his life, the biggest of which is losing his true love, Kimberley. But things go wrong.

The white limo of the title, which reads like something designed by Elon Musk with help from James Bond’s “Q,” is the vehicle that whisks the characters from 2014 into the past. Complications arise when the limo returns empty except for bloodstains, and Lisa becomes part of her own experiment. From that point two stories unfold, one in 1950 and the other in 1985.

Science definitely takes a back seat to romance here. Paterson offers just enough scientific-sounding information to maintain plausibility, but keeps the focus on the characters’ emotions and their relationships with one another. Underlying the story line of The White Limousine is a sincere concern with values and ethics, which manifests in a lurid subplot involving a rather bizarre church. A car chase right out of the movies concludes this episode. Even though some details strain credibility, the story is engaging enough to ride smoothly over these bumps.

I noted a few problems with editing: inconsistency with the surname of one of the principal characters and frequent instances of missing or misplaced quotation marks that make it difficult to tell who is speaking when.

It’s tempting to compare this book to Stephen King’s 11/22/63, since they share the premise that time travel is possible, and both feature characters that fall in love while visiting the mid-2oth century. King, true to form, takes the shadowed side of the road, while Paterson mostly sticks to the sunshine and takes the reader on an entertaining excursion.

My rating: 7 out of 10 stars.

The White Limousine is available at the author’s website, and one copy is in the Emerging Local Authors collection at the Greater Victoria Public Library.

 

 

Local Author Book Review #1: Clamming Up by Lee-Anne Stack

Since the recent launch of the Emerging Local Authors collection at my local library, I have decided to read some of the 174 books and write reviews of them. I’m not sure how many I’ll be able to get through, but I’ve noted at least half a dozen that seem worth checking out (literally). Expect reviews here in the next few months. This is a personal commitment!

And since I frequently find the 5-star rating system inadequate, I’ll use a ten-star system, thus: 1 = abysmal, 2 = barely readable, 3 = mediocre, 4 = not bad, 5 = OK but not great, 6 = good but unremarkable, 7 = pretty good, 8 = really good, 9 = remarkable, 10 = superlative.

Enough preliminaries!

First up is Clamming Up by Victoria author Lee-Anne Stack. Right from the get-go I’ll reveal that I was a beta-reader for this book months ago, but this review is based on my recent reading of the published book.

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Lee-Anne Stack really knows how to write a good time. Her characters, business partners Kate and Pearl, take their two-woman home reno business to Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, to do a job for a rather… memorable couple. (Here I’ll just digress for a moment to say that Tofino, along with Pacific Rim National Park and the neighbouring community of Ucuelet, are magical places. Getting there is a journey — through a mountain range, past pristine rivers and lakes and what remains of the magnificent coastal rainforest. Tofino is a quirky mix of locals and tourists, with endless beaches, surfing, resorts, restaurants, and even a hot spring in the vicinity. It’s one of my favourite places).

Kate Nia O’Malley is quite a character. She tells the story, and her narrative voice moves the plot along briskly, with considerable verve. The opening scene gets things off with a bang and they don’t slow down much until the final epilogue.

As Kate and Pearl work on the interior of a guest house — sawing, nailing, mudding, sanding and painting — romance and adventure swirl around them. Two personable guys make the scene — doctor Colin and boat owner Andrew — leading to fun times. Sitting on my couch, I vicariously went surfing, diving and clamming (of course!), and enjoyed superlative meals in a variety of situations. The book reads as fast as a screenplay; much of the narrative is carried by snappy dialogue. These women are as competent with one-liners as they are with power tools!

The mystery is fairly subtle until the last few chapters. The death of a fisherman before the book starts casts a shadow, especially over Andrew, since the dead man was his uncle. The presence of some shady (but colourful) characters adds a bit of menace. Sinister hints accumulate to the bursting point, precipitating a frantic search and the final denouement. To be quite frank, I found the resolution of the mystery a bit weak, but that didn’t matter because getting there was so much fun. The characters are distinct and memorable, and their interactions with one another are almost more important than the plot. This is a fun read, perfect for beach, bath or boat.

My rating: 8 out of 10 stars.

Clamming Up is available through Amazon in print and Kindle versions. Other ebook formats may be purchased at Smashwords and the ebook stores it distributes to. And folks who use the Greater Victoria Public Library may check out the copy there.

Local Writers Meet Local Readers at the Library

A few evenings ago I was milling around with dozens of other writers in a truly genuine celebration of the written word at my local library — the Greater Victoria Public Library. The entrance rotunda of the Central Branch was transformed by low lighting, electric candles and a jazz trio into something like a club for literati to meet and mingle. The centrepiece was a shelving unit full of books written, and in many cases, published, by us — the authors.

“Local” is a concept that has garnered considerable cachet in recent years. Eating local is now considered a Good Thing, as is patronizing local businesses. Supporting one’s local community is the thing. Taking up the theme, the Greater Victoria Public Library established a Local Music collection a couple of years ago, featuring CDs created by musicians residing in our area. The collection was launched with performances by some of the featured musicians. Local Authors was the logical next step.

The Emerging Local Authors Collection highlights self-published, independent, or small press print works (fiction, poetry, non-fiction) by local authors, for readers of all ages.

Authors residing in our region were required to donate one copy of books published between 2010 and 2014. The books were entered into the library catalogue (by me) and the collection is now featured on the GVPL website.

Having catalogued all 170 books, I was able to appreciate the variety and different types of creativity they represent. There are novels, short story collections, poetry, memoirs, travel writing, young adult novels, chapter and picture books for children, even a graphic novel. Production values range from basic to elaborate. The authors’ ages range from the teens to the eighties.

The prevailing mood of the launch event was one of delight and celebration.  We authors were truly chuffed to be honoured by our community in the presence of friends and family members. One of the most popular spots was a screen featuring a gallery of all the book covers (courtesy of Library Bound Inc). Authors waited, cameras at the ready, until their book came up so they could capture the image for posterity.

Cover image for The Friendship of Mortals at the Emerging Local Authors launch event

Cover image for The Friendship of Mortals at the Emerging Local Authors launch event