Sunday, December 30, 2007

The 2007 PODBRAM Awards

I am not an award sort of person. I never watch award shows on television. I have never entered any of my books or other writings into contests. I particularly abhor the many contests with entry fees that equal the royalties from about twenty-five book sales touted monthly by iUniverse. If you want to spend your marketing dollars that way, that's your business. I have certainly found many of my own ways in which to squander money trying to promote my books.

Anyway, everybody else seems to like awards, so here they are. Since iUBR began in July 2006, with only a handful of books reviewed that year, the books reviewed in the second half of 2006 will be included with 2007. There is officially no such thing as a 1964 Mustang, a 1983 Corvette, or a 2006 iUBR Award Winner. Here come The First (and Maybe the Last) Annual PODBRAM Book Awards for 2007!

Cover Design: The Pict by Jack Dixon

The map of the Scottish Highlands delicately etched into the foggy grey sky over the title pushed it over the top. You can just imagine The Picts living in this quiet, remote terrain. The design elements of this cover all blended well together and correctly led me to the material contained inside.

Proofreading: Mr. Touchdown by Lyda Phillips

Lyda's second book, as well as books with much higher page counts by several other authors, approached the low error quotient of Lyda's first novel, but by the sheer error count of zero, or nearly zero, as I was not keeping notes back then to accurately remember from more than a year ago, Mr. Touchdown centered the goal posts!

Daring Subject: Romance, Riches, and Restrooms by Tim Phelan

Tim Phelan's true story of love, money, and the trots gave me the opportunity to write what I think is the most fun to read review on this blog.

Original Storyline: The Milkman by Ian Healy

This little book is an explosion of originality in both its plotline and the selection of its characters. I would call its genre Science Fiction Humor. It's a jolly good time with a quick read.

Topicality: The Valley of Death by Gwynne Huntington Wales

Americans have always needed a really good red-white-and-blue counterpart to James Bond, and Mr. Wales has given us one with a character called Aardvark. I call a top-secret, nerve-gas operation in Iraq in November 2002 topical.

General Nonfiction: The iPINIONS Journal by Anthony Livingston Hall

Although several others vied for honor in this category, I have to give the nod to Mr. Hall for the sheer depth of his professionalism, from the elegant cover to the carefully composed and topical subject matter within.

Character Development: Dream Dancing by J. J. Lair

J. J. Lair has composed an ordinary little slice of everyday, American, blue-collar lifestyle. Where the author excels is the way he makes the reader care about a few sleazebuckets who may or may not be somewhat unscrupulous, and there lies the tail, revolving around a pole in a strip joint.

Dialogue: The Traitor's Wife by Susan Higginbotham

The category selected here may be somewhat misleading. Susan excels at telling a complex story through the words and actions of numerous characters, and the reader is always shown, not told.

Plotting: The Thief Maker by David H. Schleicher

Mr. Schleicher's twisted plot development is simply unparalleled. If you love plot twists and turns among seemingly unrelated characters, you'll love The Thief Maker!

Pleasurable Read: Distant Cousin by Al Past

Whatever it is that Spielberg has at the movies, Al Past has in his Distant Cousin series. Show me the magic!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Pirate Spirit

Pirate Spirit:
The Adventures of Anne Bonney
by Jeffery S. Williams
(iUniverse / 978-1-58348-467-8 / July 2007 / 240 pages / $14.95)

Jeffery Williams' Pirate Spirit is certainly one of the better books reviewed here at iUBR, particularly in the area of compositional style. Ex-journalist and current high school English teacher Williams shows off his experience with the consistent quality of his first novel. Based on the true story of Anne Bonney, a teenage girl who decides to disguise herself as a boy and join a pirate crew in the early 1700's, Pirate Spirit smoothly rolls over the warm, Caribbean waves with taut editing and articulate dialogue. The only rat on this elegant ship is the one who's been paid under the table to provide The Proofreading Police with vermin to exterminate. The two cats employed on Captain Rackham's schooner are a little overworked.

The error count, which in truth is not that bad, and mostly of a minor nature, would be a little more excusable if this was the first edition of this book, but it is not. Pirate Spirit was first released in 2006 as Anne Bonney: My Pirate Story. Like Susan Higginbotham's The Traitor's Wife and others, this is one of those iU books that sold enough copies at Amazon to qualify for a repackaging by iUniverse. The new title and cover, in my opinion, are a definite improvement, and the new version is now sold at Amazon at a discount price. My only negative comment is that both iU and the author still allowed too many typos to slip through the cracks of the pirate ship deck! This is one of the same old issues that continue to give POD books a bad reputation, and Pirate Spirit deserves better.

Let's get on with the raping, pillaging, murder and larceny on the high seas! If only more iU authors could write smooth, fluid prose like Jeffery S. Williams, my job here at iUBR would be a lot more pleasant. Mr. Williams the schoolteacher may not completely approve of what I am about to say, but I have to mention it. From the earliest pages of Pirate Spirit, which has been written in first-person-singular, present tense, I was reminded of the naughty legend, Fanny Hill, but without all the heavy breathing, of course. With appropriate input from his wife, Katherine, Jeffery has captured the very essence of a teenage girl in this historical fiction novel. Like the infamous Fanny Hill, this is a novel written by an adult man in the voice of a young girl, and the author has done an exceptional job. Credibility and realism lead the reader through every page. Quite likely all the buyers and readers of Pirate Spirit are fans of Johnny Depp, but when I was in high school, we all read Fanny Hill. Of course it was no more an officially required experience then than Pirates of the Caribbean is now, but it was certainly a lot of fun! So is Pirate Spirit.

The Author's Website
Review of Who's to Blame? by Jeffery S. Williams

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Pict

The Pict by Jack Dixon
(iUniverse / 0-595-44243-9 / August 2007 / 190 pages / $13.95 Kindle $4.80)

Jack Dixon's first novel is a straightforward tale of heroism in an ancient, barbaric culture. The Pict follows the life of Calach, a young warrior from one of many Pictish tribes in the Scottish highlands, who is selected to organize and lead the tribes into battle against a massive, invading, Roman army. Mr. Dixon has obviously done his homework. The book opens with a Pronunciation Guide to Pictish Names, as well as a map of the area depicted in the story. The author closes the book with an explanation of some of the details of his research concerning the nonfictional elements of his historical fiction novel. The storyline follows Calach as a boy learning the proper emotions for a warrior to the end of the first major wave of battles against the Romans.

The Pict has only one weakness: it is far too short. This should have been a novel of epic proportions. The 183 pages of actual text is printed in an oversized font that may be easy for youngsters and old coots to read, but the lack of detail in the story leaves much to be desired. The author cares about his subject matter. The composition, editing, and proofreading are competent at the least. The cover design is elegant, stylish, and appropriate to the subject matter. Please, Mr. Dixon, expand your horizons! Write another book, a sequel perhaps, and expound upon your subject matter with more detail. Your dedication to your subject matter flows from the pages. We just need more of them.

The Pict has a storyline that should appeal to a lot of readers. There is just enough familiarity in the subject to make it interesting. I had heard of The Picts, but I knew very little about them, and I bet that describes many potential readers. Jack Dixon has made a fine first effort. Let's hope he continues, and expands upon, his writing.

See Also: Tabitha's B&N Review
Tabitha's Authors Den Review
Jack Dixon's Website

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Podge of Hodge

If things seem a little as if they have been mired in Mrs. Butterworth's lately here at iUBR, you can blame the holidays if you are so inclined. That pretty much sums up the slowing of posts on this blog that began about a month ago, and I do not expect a jolt of speed to appear before the first of the year. We shall continue slogging along here at iUBR, getting your reviews out as quickly as we can under the circumstances.

The review of Jack Dixon's The Pict will appear in the next few days. I have begun reading Jeffery Williams' Pirate Spirit, and that book will be followed by Anya Laurence's Love Divine. Amy Lane's Bound will wrap up the final wave of backlog. At this point in time, I am not sure if or when the submissions will be reopened. The authors on The Waiting List will be notified while I am in the middle of Amy's 480-page epic. If all the books on The Waiting List arrive as scheduled, I'll most likely be preparing a boat for launch before the last book has been reviewed!

The POD review world seems to be in a state of flux. As POD People has just annoucned, The Podler has once again retired, maybe for good this time. Readers who have checked the POD Review Ring Chart recently may have noticed that The Slippery Book Review Blog was added to the chart last month. I considered the mention of this fact in a separate post, but decided against it, since this particular blog accepts only a small number of POD submissions. The main hostess of the site resides in Brussels, but ya'll are encouraged to at least check it out if you are looking for a review. Some of you may be aware of Mrs. Giggles. She will review your POD book, but there are no fluff pieces stuck to Mrs. Giggles!

Yesterday I forgot to mention the internet radio interview I did with Janet Elaine Smith on December 6, 2007. This time Janet was the host and I was the interviewee. Wheeee! Anyone who is interested in hearing the real voice of Tabitha (Floyd M. Orr) can click the link and hear something other than meow. The interview lasts nearly half an hour and it is listed as December 6, Janet Elaine Smith on the page. It was a feature of Janet's regular What's Happening show on the Internet Voices Radio network. Thank you, Janet!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Interview with the Author

Susan Higginbotham

Susan Higginbotham is the most successful iUniverse author reviewed on this site so far. The Traitor’s Wife has already sold a ton of copies and been re-released by iU with a new cover and a discounted price at Amazon. Hugh and Bess has just been released by Lulu. Susan lives with her husband, four cats and a dog. She has also released Edward II: His Friends, His Enemies, and His Death (Lulu / September 2005 / 131 pages). This interview will focus a little more than usual on the sales success of iUniverse books. You know you have arrived when you and your book are mentioned in Wikipedia!

Tabitha: Let’s get the serious stuff out of the way first. Who exactly is this Boswell Baxter that appears in your e-mail address?
Susan: Boswell is my cairn terrier and my chief writing buddy. I got him when I started my at-home day job for a legal publishing company, and he usually sits near my computer while I’m working. Baxter was my (now deceased) black and white cat.

Tabitha: What inspired you to write The Traitor’s Wife?
Susan: A few years ago, I came across an online version of Marlowe’s Edward II. I’d read it before in graduate school, but on this re-reading, I became fascinated by the historical background to the story, especially by Edward II’s relationship with Hugh le Despenser, who in the Marlowe play is little more than a stand-in for Piers Gaveston, Edward II’s first male favorite. Along the way, I learned that Despenser had a wife, Eleanor de Clare, and when I learned the details of her life—or at least, the few that are known to history—I knew I wanted to tell her story.

Tabitha: Are there particular, actual persons who inspired your lead characters?
Susan: All of the major characters, and all but a handful of the minor ones, are based on historical figures, although in many cases we know nothing about their private lives. We don’t know, for instance, how Eleanor felt about her brother-in-law, the notorious Piers Gaveston, or what sort of relationship she had with her many children.

Tabitha: The characters in The Traitor’s Wife seem to come to life as I hold the book in my hands, reading their conversations. Have you envisioned what a movie version would look like?
Susan: Well, I would hate to be the one who tried to condense it into three hours! But I’d love to see it on the big screen, or even as a mini-series.

Tabitha: Do you have certain actors in mind that you would like to see cast in the lead parts of the movie?
Susan: I confess that I got a vision of Keeley Hawes as Eleanor into my head early on, and I could live with Ioan Gruffudd as Hugh le Despenser the younger. But since I don’t get out to the movies much or watch much television, I don’t know enough big blond male actors to have a good Edward II in mind. Scarlett Johansson might make a nice Isabella.

Tabitha: We have always been advised as authors to show, not tell, the characters and storyline to the reader, and you have apparently taken this concept to heart. Did you simply begin composing in this manner, or was it a concerted, learned effort?
Susan: Probably a learned one. I have three novels—not historical ones—in cardboard boxes, and that’s where they deserve to stay, except perhaps the first one. It was a young adult novel about censorship of a high school newspaper, and an editor took the trouble to write a detailed rejection letter suggesting revisions. By the time I revised it, however, the editor had changed houses and edgier YA fiction, with more emphasis on sex and lifestyle issues than on social issues, had come into fashion. I’ve been tempted to redo it, with some updating of course, but now I can’t find the damn thing.

Tabitha: The Traitor’s Wife has received the Editor’s Choice and Reader’s Choice awards from iUniverse. Do you feel as if any of these has aided your book’s success?
Susan: I was awarded Editor's Choice before the book came out, back in July 2005. I think it became a Reader's Choice about a year after, and it was reissued as a Star Book in May 2007. The July 2005 version ("old brown" as I call it) pops up used on Amazon from time to time and can be found in a few libraries, but I don't think it can be bought as a new POD anymore.

Tabitha: The Traitor’s Wife won a silver medal in the historical fiction category in the 2005 Book of the Year Awards sponsored by ForeWord Magazine. Do you think this award has helped your book sales, and how do you feel in general about awards for POD books?
Susan: I think it definitely has helped sales—it gives a stamp of third-party approval that self-published books usually lack. It helped that with this award, I was up against not only other self-published books, but small press books and university press books, so it gave the award credibility. I think that an award from a reputable party, such as ForeWord or the Independent Publisher Awards, can help a self-published book a great deal. Some awards, though, seem to exist just to milk writers for money. I doubt they help much.

Tabitha: Did you attend writer’s classes or workshops before releasing the book? Did you hire a professional editor or proofreader?
Susan: Outside of a semester of creative writing in high school, I’ve never taken a writing class, except for a college creative writing class that I dropped out of after the second or third meeting. I did work on my college newspaper, though, and take some journalism classes, and I think that’s some of the best training a writer can get. It teaches you to organize your thoughts and to cut to the chase, and since you’re focused on giving your readers information instead of showing off, it tends to cut down on the self-indulgent prose that creative writing classes sometimes foster.
I didn’t have an editor or a proofreader for the 2005 edition of The Traitor’s Wife. For the 2007 edition, iUniverse provided a proofreader, but to be honest, there were mistakes that I picked up that the proofreader missed, and changes the proofreader tried to make that made no sense. I have worked as a freelance proofreader and copy editor, so I’m fairly good at picking up errors on my own. But proofreading one’s own work is notoriously hard to do, so there were a few things that slipped by me.

Tabitha: Who designed the two covers for The Traitor’s Wife? How much of the cover designs were your own ideas? Did iUniverse create them strictly from your ideas, or did you supply the artwork or other elements? Are you satisfied with the covers?
Susan: iUniverse designed both covers from stock photos. I asked for a castle for the first cover (actually, the cover shows a ruined monastery, but I didn’t know that at the time). For the second cover, I asked for a “headless woman”—one of those pictures showing a woman whose face is obscured, which are very popular on historical fiction these days. But headless women don’t come cheap, I suppose, so I got another castle.

Tabitha: Which cover do you like better and why? Would you like to shed some light on the details of your experience with iU concerning the two separate cover designs?
Susan: I prefer the second one; it’s prettier, though someone on Amazon who didn’t like the book said that the first cover was a better representation because it was dark and gloomy, like the book. (You gotta love Amazon customer reviews.) The only problem I had was with the first cover—the original design had a castle, but when you looked closely you could see modern communications equipment on a turret and a man in blue jeans sitting on a window ledge. Needless to say, I rejected that one!

Tabitha: Did you consider other publishers before you selected iUniverse?
Susan: I thought of Lulu, which is right down the road from me in North Carolina. But it was a bit too do-it-yourself for me at the time, so I went for iUniverse after reading about it in The New York Times.

Tabitha: How satisfying has your experience with iUniverse been?
Susan: I’ve been pleased. I knew from the outset that I was going to have to do my own promotion and marketing, and iUniverse is upfront about telling new authors that. I think it’s a well-run outfit.

Tabitha: What is the most significant thing you have learned as a POD author? Do you have any advice to offer to new or prospective POD authors?
Susan: Probably the most significant thing I’ve learned is that marketing is an ongoing process—you have to keep at it. My advice would be to get a strong web presence and to maintain it. Once in a while I’ll be Googling and I’ll see a self-published title I’m interested in because of the subject matter, and I’ll look for an author website or an excerpt and find absolutely nothing. It’s almost as if the author doesn’t want anyone to read the book—which makes me wonder why he spent the money to have it published in the first place.

Tabitha: Have you expended much effort seeking out an agent, and have you had much success in that regard?
Susan: I haven’t really tried. For my novel in progress, I’m inclined to try to find one once it’s finished, because it’s set during the Wars of the Roses, which is a fairly popular period with readers of historical novels.

Tabitha: I am quite surprised to see that you have released your second novel, Hugh and Bess: A Love Story, with Lulu. Can you tell us your reasons for switching to Lulu for your second book?
Susan: In a word, money. With a kid’s tuition to pay and other obligations, I just couldn’t justify the expense of paying $800 or so to publish with iUniverse when I could publish with Lulu for $50. And Hugh and Bess is a much less typographically complicated book than The Traitor’s Wife—it’s short, without all of the front matter that was in The Traitor’s Wife, so it was easy to do my own formatting.

Tabitha: Pretend you are in school and compare and contrast for us your experiences with Lulu and iUniverse.
Susan: Lulu is a much more do-it-yourself process. I do regret not having the cover design service that iUniverse provides—I went for one of Lulu’s prefab covers, though I managed to find one that suited my book and that hadn’t been overused. Even in traditional publishing, though, you find the same images popping up again and again on book covers, especially in historical fiction. Lulu seems to be a little clunky on the distribution process. I’m still waiting to have my book approved for global distribution, which is frustrating.

Tabitha: What is your opinion of Amazon’s new CreateSpace?
Susan: I considered going with them, but the publishing process didn’t strike me as being very user-friendly—as I recall, you had to download your own cover, which meant of course that a cover designer would have to be used unless you had the technical skills and the software to do it yourself. I think it’s something that could take off if they made it easier. Speaking of Amazon, I’ve used their new Kindle platform for Hugh and Bess—again, it was such a short book, it was quite easy to download. I’d like to get The Traitor’s Wife on Kindle too—I’m waiting to hear back from iUniverse about the mechanics.

Tabitha: What percentage of your sales has been through Amazon? Does this issue indicate any predictions as to the future role of CreateSpace?
Susan: Probably 95 percent of my sales are through Amazon. I think CreateSpace has great potential, if Amazon can just make it more hospitable for the technologically less adept.

Tabitha: Which other online retailers have sold significant quantities of your books?
Susan: Barnes and Noble is really the only other one.

Tabitha: Have you ordered quantities of your books and sold them through direct means? How well has this worked for you? What outlets have provided you with the most sales success?
Susan: I’ve sold a few on consignment, but most of my efforts are focused on online sales.

Tabitha: How successful have you been at getting The Traitor’s Wife onto bookstore shelves? Which stores have been the most cooperative? Which ones have sold the most for you?
Susan: The most cooperative bookstore was a small bookstore in a small town that’s now defunct (the store, that is, not the town). The stores around here just aren’t prone to risk-taking, it seems. I may be selling it in one store that carries Renaissance-themed items; it’ll be interesting to see how that pans out.

Tabitha: Tell us about that magical, mystical relationship between Barnes & Noble and iUniverse? Have the two companies come through as promised for a successful iU book like The Traitor’s Wife? Is the book on many B&N shelves? How well has it sold in the face of the walking, browsing public?
Susan: Sadly, I don’t think it’s on any Barnes and Noble bookshelves. It does sell on the B&N website, but not as well as it does on Amazon. 

Tabitha: I understand you have also recently published a twenty-page short story entitled The Justiciar’s Wife for sale at Amazon. Do you think this has helped your sales of The Traitor’s Wife?
Susan: I think it’s probably been the other way around, actually. There’s still a lot of resistance to buying e-publications, at least as far as historical fiction seems to be concerned. I might try some more Amazon Shorts in the future, though—probably nonfiction. It’s a good way to keep a presence up there.

Tabitha: You have links to short stories and other novel projects on your website, as well as a couple of blogs. Pardon the pun, but you seem to have a novel approach to the marketing of your work. Would you like to elaborate on this concept for us?
Susan: Since most of my sales have come from the web, I’ve tried to maintain sites that draw in readers through search terms—I have a PDF file about Edward II, for instance, that leads a lot of people to my website. The blog is also a great way of connecting with readers—it’s brought people to my book who wouldn’t search for “Edward II,” for instance, but who read historical fiction and who are interested in learning about an era that’s less familiar to them.

Tabitha: What would you say has been your most successful marketing technique?
Susan: Probably the website. I think that having it on Search Inside the Book on Amazon helps a lot too—it gives people a chance to look through the book instead of buying it sight unseen, which most readers, including myself, are reluctant to do unless the book’s really cheap.

Tabitha: What has been your biggest and/or most disappointing failure in the marketing of your books?
Susan: Probably getting them into bookstores. I was never really expecting to make many sales on that front, but I did hope for more success in getting them in at least on a consignment basis. 

Tabitha: Here comes the sneaky, pointed question of this interview. You are probably unaware that I barely accepted The Traitor’s Wife for review last year because the subtitle and subject matter skirts the delicate area I refer to as cheating. The reason I think this is true is related to what I affectionately call The Diana Syndrome. There are millions of Americans, mostly women, who seem to be clearly obsessed with The British Royal Family, particularly when any sort of scandal is involved, and the story of Edward II was nothing if not scandalous. How much of your success do you think can be attributed to this phenomenon?
Susan: Quite a bit of it, I suppose, because most of my marketing has been directed at people who are disposed to read historical fiction to begin with, and American readers definitely prefer European-set historical fiction to that set in their own backyard. On the other hand, there’s an element out there, particularly among academics and pseudo-academics, who regard historical fiction in a very negative light. They assume it’s all shoddily researched fluff about pretty people in pretty costumes having lots of sex, and they’re not about to pick up a novel and risk having their belief contradicted. So it really works both ways.

Tabitha: I feel proud to have reviewed such a deservedly successful iU book early in its justly honored history. Did you have any idea you would become such a notable success when you first sent in your manuscript?
Susan: Why, thank you! I went in with no clear-cut expectations, really. I thought it was a good book and I knew that it was well researched, and I just hoped for the best.

Tabitha: Who are some of your favorite authors and books? What genres do you like to read?
Susan: Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Anne Tyler, and P.D. James are my favorite writers, with Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend being tied for my favorites. These days, I read a lot of historical fiction and straight history and biography. Other than Anne Tyler and P.D. James, I really don’t read much fiction set in contemporary times. I’m just not the least bit interested in reading about alienated people in the suburbs, women in New York City trying to find the perfect man or the perfect apartment or the perfect purse, women trying to juggle work and family, or men having midlife crises.

Tabitha: What have you been reading lately?
Susan: Mostly Wars of the Roses nonfiction, for my novel in progress. 

Tabitha: What sort of educational experience do you have, and is it relevant to your writing or the subject matter you have chosen?
Susan: I have a B.A. in political science, a major I chose in a moment of temporary insanity and which has been of no use to me whatsoever. I have an M.A. in English Literature, which has helped a great deal in my writing because the coursework focuses on reading critically. And I have a law degree, which also helps in writing because you’re trained to look at all sides of an issue and to put forth cogent arguments. And the real property course first-year law students have to take was a great help to me, since things like life estates and entails that are the bane of a law student’s existence were of vast importance in medieval England.

Tabitha: What about your work career? Has your choice of profession influenced your writing?
Susan: I’ve worked as a secretary, an editor, and a lawyer, and I’m currently working as an editor for a legal publisher. They all helped—probably the secretarial work as much as anything for the computer skills! In my job at a legal publishing company, I have to abide by a strict character count when writing, which means that I’ve gotten into the habit of writing quite concisely and that I have to cut and revise my own work. That’s helpful when I’m revising my fiction.

Tabitha: Do you have any further books in the pipeline?
Susan: Not near publication stage.

Tabitha: What’s next for Susan Higginbotham, the writer?
Susan: I’m in the early stages of a novel set during the Wars of the Roses, featuring Katherine Woodville, sister to Edward IV’s queen and wife to the Duke of Buckingham, who helped bring Richard III to the throne and then, for reasons that are still unclear, rebelled against him. It should be a fun novel to write, since I get to put forth my own opinion about who killed the Princes in the Tower.

Tabitha: Do you have any final words of advice for aspiring authors?
Susan: Write constantly—if you’re a blocked novelist, try a blog or some nonfiction just to keep your writing active. Read widely in the area in which you want to be published, so you’ll get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. Above all, do what works for you. Some writers swear by critique groups, for instance; others find them a distraction or a source of back-biting. If someone tells you that you have to be in one to be successful, or that you shouldn’t be in one, run the other way. There’s no one right way to go about writing.

Tabitha: Do you have any final remarks to address to our audience?
Susan: Just thank you for reading this!

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Confession of Piers Gaveston

The Confession of Piers Gaveston
by Brandy Purdy

(iUniverse / 0-595-45523-2 / July 2007 / 190 pages / $13.95)

(Please pardon the delay of the completion of this review. The review was halfway completed when a computer glitch caused its sudden, unexpected demise, leaving me in a disgusted funk. The review should be completed as soon as I get my mojo back. Thank you for your patience. The iUBR management.)

Brandy Purdy’s The Confession of Piers Gaveston offers a new spin on an old story. The conceit employed in this historical fiction novel is that the story has been composed as if Piers Gaveston kept a diary of his life and affair with King Edward II. Ms. Purdy researched this particular piece of English history from the 1300’s and composed her tale in the first person as Gaveston is telling his own personal story of tragedy and scandal. Susan Higginbotham’s The Traitor’s Wife offers a broad view of the scandalous, gay affair, including many details involving a soap opera full of characters. I recommend that any potential reader of The Confession of Piers Gaveston read The Traitor’s Wife first to understand the complete background of Piers Gaveston’s story. In the good old days of The Seventies, when rock and roll was enjoying explosive growth, The Traitor’s Wife would be the unnamed band’s hit album and The Confession of Piers Gaveston would be a very good solo album by one of the group’s key members. Once you have come to understand the overall story, Brandy Purdy’s book breathes life into the heart of the scandal. 

Another book I want to mention in comparison to The Confession of Piers Gaveston is Anne Rice’s Cry to Heaven. As a big fan of Anne Rice’s witches and vampires, I read this 1982 book from another genre many years ago. I was distinctly impressed by the quality of the composition and storyline about a kid in eighteenth century Italy who is kidnapped, castrated, and sold to the opera. What does this have to do with Brandy Purdy’s book? I’m not crazy about the idea of reading a book about a homosexual love affair, either, but both books sincerely impressed me with their quality. Both historical fiction novels are better than you might expect from their subject matter.

The painting on the front cover does not impress me, although the overall cover design is quite professionally done. Ms. Purdy has a common comma allergy, too, but neither of these issues does much to lessen the impact of this quality novel of historical fiction. Brandy has already submitted her second novel to iU. The six wives of Henry VIII will be its star characters, and I have high hopes for that book’s quality and success. The Confession of Piers Gaveston is an honor to the iUniverse imprint and Brandy Purdy is one of the brand’s most professional authors.

<>See Also: Nan Hawthorne's Interview with Brandy Purdy
Susan Higginbotham's Interview with Brandy Purdy
Tabitha's B&N Review
Tabitha's Authors Den Review
Brandy Purdy's Website
The Boleyn Wife

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Real Authors

I was a reader long before I was an author. The first book I can actually remember reading was a hardback copy of Black Beauty that featured a few illustrations, just like my fancy, modern edition of The Da Vinci Code. A few Tarzan hardcovers and a bunch of Fran Striker's Lone Ranger books, also hardcovers, became my next favorites. Although The Hardy Boys didn't ring my bell like Tarzan and The Lone Ranger, I did join them on a few of their adventures, too. I certainly wish I still had those antique editions on my bookshelf!

Certainly most of us were avid readers long before we became authors. We wrote primitve, unpolished and unpublished versions of our later books, too, honing our craft sometimes over decades. That's actually what it took to see my first and third books in print: decades. I knew a long time ago that my work would most likely never see mainstream daylight. Like most of my favorite rock bands, my books are difficult to classify. As Clu Gallagher says in one of my favorite difficult to classify movies, Into the Night, my books would fall into the or what category. I have always admired heroes, icons, and entertainers who can think and operate outside the box. What the hell is Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, anyway? Who reads Michael Moore and Pat Buchanan and likes them both? Could it be each of them has valid points to make? Who wants to go back in time with Lestat? Who thinks Robert Rimmer had at least a few good ideas? The best books, and the best writers, have always broken the mold.

Let me get one bit of unpleasantness out of the way. We authors who are considered unreal by many who claim to know everything must, at the very least, offer our products in a manner that is indistinguishable from the products of real authors. Most of all that means we must edit and proofread our work. Unlike all those great, real authors, we must do the job ourselves, or at least pay someone else to do it. We must take grammar and punctuation seriously or they will never take us seriously. We cannot be enamored of ellipses as if they were love bites, and if we do love them to death, we must at least use and punctuate them in the correct manner. We must not be afraid to use commas wherever they are necessary to make the meanings of our sentences crystal clear to our readers. Ya'll ought to know by now that if I have to back up and re-read a sentence in order to perceive its correct meaning just because you thought it stylish to leave out that significant comma, then you can expect a demerit for the omission. If you really must ellipses your readers to death, then I insist that you add a period at the end of what surely must have been intended as a sentence. If one of your country-hick-sleazebucket characters is speaking incorrectly, that's one thing, but if you mix up your adjectives with your adverbs within text outside the dialog, that means a minus point for you. Clean up your acts, people. If you want respect, you have to earn it.

Books are sold because of the stated title, subtitle, and subject matter. Manuscripts are purchased by the big guys simply because the big guys think they can sell lots of copies. As I have stated many times before, that was then and this is now. Authors who attempted to begin writing careers even five years ago had it better. The beginners of ten years ago had it even better than that. Most of the great successful authors of today released their first book back in The Sixties, or maybe The Seventies. Before there was POD, there were many thousands less books on the market looking for readers. Before there was Amazon, B&N ruled the world. Before there was George Bush, many youngsters grew up wanting to be readers. You get the picture.

We are all squirrels looking for a nut. Or we are all nuts looking for squirrels. Sometimes I'm not so sure which we are. Have I expanded my horizons by reading the iU books I have reviewed? Absolutely. Are many of these books by real authors? Absolutely. Are some of them by not so real authors? I'm afraid so. Let's keep on trying to separate the nuts from the squirrels.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Cibolero by Kermit Lopez
(iUniverse / 0-595-43567-8 / August 2007 / 182 pages / $13.95)

Add Kermit Lopez to the list of competent professionals. His second book, and the first with iUniverse, is relatively indistinguishable from a traditionally published book. This is a quality that is always appreciated and awarded at iUBR. With its relatively low error count, well-designed cover, and competent storyline, Cibolero deserves whatever sales attention it gets. The mystery at this point is why has his first book not attained more recognition? The Prodigy (1st Books, 1999) is twice as long and in a different genre than Cibolero. Is that the reason? Visit the author's website and you will see that it has been unusually designed, too.
Kermit has researched his ancestors who lived in New Mexico in the tempestuous days just prior to statehood and produced a new spin on the old Western drama. The plot revolves around a poor farmer and ex-cibolero whose teenage daughter is kidnapped by a gang of thuggish Texas Rangers. In his younger days. Antonio Baca had been a buffalo hunter, a dangerous job fit only for a strong, young, single man. When his daughter Elena is taken after an attack on his family in his absence, Antonio retrieves his retired buffalo lance and begins the task of tracking The Rangers back into Texas territory, in hope of saving his daughter. The plot contains many flashbacks into Baca's earlier days, explaining the many ramifications of the tenuous relationships between the Spanish-speaking New Mexicans, native Indians, and the white settlers emerging from the east.
There is only one critical issue I have with Cibolero, and it is truly a small nitpick. Probably because of the short length of the book, the specific intent of the book, as well as the designation of its target readership, seems to leave me wanting just a little more in the way of descriptive depth. As you can read in my other reviews of Cibolero, I found it just a bit difficult to read the book and smoothly absorb its dialog and ruminations. I compared the book to the movie Soldier Blue because Mr. Lopez is attempting to show an accurate view of a dark period in U.S. history. Like that movie, Cibolero's same weakness seems to stem from the compromises it must make to reach its target audience, leaving many characters drawn in a two-dimensional manner. I think I would have preferred the story to be told more in the manner of the book and movie, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Cibolero is a story about Mexicans, not Indians, but I cannot help but feel that many of the same emotions over a twisted history have spawned both of these delicate Western tales.
Kermit Lopez is obviously a credit to the iUniverse field of authors. Cibolero is a well thought out and composed history lesson, and a story that has not been often told. It seems surprising that there is such a gap in genre and release date between The Prodigy and Cibolero. It really makes me wonder how good that first book might be.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Danielle Steele

Did any of you happen to see Danielle Steele interviewed by Larry King recently? Listen up! This is a special message to those of you who may think you're going to grind out your bestseller with a couple of months' work. Ms. Steele told Larry she spends one year on an 80-100-page outline; then a second year on the first draft; and finally, two years editing each book. If it requires Danielle Steele four years to produce a quality product, how long does it take you?

Here are the coming attractions in November at iUBR:

Kermit Lopez' Cibolero review
Interview with Susan Higginbotham
Brandy Purdy's The Confessions of Piers Gaveston review

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Independent Authors Guild

I hope I am not premature in introducing the newly formed Independent Authors Guild to my little handful of readers, but I would hope that many of you would like to step onto the ground floor as soon as the concrete dries. The IAG is a brand-new organization that is currently being formed to further the progress of POD, self-published, and small-press authors. I have composed a brief history of the formation of IAG especially for my readership.
Back on July 8th, Dianne Salerni, the author of an iU book entitled High Spirits, introduced herself on the Amazon Historical Fiction board with a post for POD authors. This message (of course!) became the most frequently read message on that board, concluding with a total of 1878 posts. After a point, Dianne joined forces with the other six active members on that board to form IAG, although it took a number of months to develop into the IAG as we know it now. At first these were just some inexperienced authors with the same old idea of not exposing their POD company affiliations, but their ideas continued to mature. I long ago reviewed Susan Higginbotham's book, I just recently did Barry Yelton's, and at least one more of these IAG authors have books waiting in my queue. This is how I happened to be paying attention to the organization as it was formed.

One of these guys discovered the Yahoo Groups in late October, so the group moved from Amazon to Yahoo on October 23rd. This new Yahoo Group was active for only one week until Halloween, when Nan Hawthorne split the original Yahoo Group into two Yahoo Groups, a Members IAG Group for any author outside the realm of the major publishers, and a private, Board IAG Group for the seven founders to communicate with each other and govern the new organization.

My main interest in all this is that I know what I do is helpful to a very select few POD authors, but the numbers must remain tiny by design. Others we know, such as the paid review sites, have aided larger numbers of authors, but we know the nature of that aid leaves a lot to be desired. The sheer volume of books discussed on these sites makes their opinions seem suspect, at least if and when the reader realizes how little time and effort has been allowed for each review. Raise your hand if you think a review paid for by the author is as legitimate as an unpaid review. IAG is approaching the problem from a new angle, and I have to admire their spunk, if not their naivete. Will IAG be able to successfully limit their endorsement to only the best self published authors, and will that endorsement increase book sales? That is the question of the day.

What the IAG people don't realize is that many others have already set up similar operations to achieve the same goal, and all have failed in one way or another. Some groups have dissolved into a swamp of slap-fighting; some have dribbled into personal small-talk; and some have simply tired of the massive amount of work producing so little reward. The Yahoo Print-On-Demand Group has been around for years. Just ask Janet Elaine Smith: she's been there even longer than I have. I started my own POD Yahoo Group years ago, but I finally had to dissolve it in disgust. I wanted to trade useful marketing information, but all I got was drivel. You can still read lots of that here at WritersNet. Many other message boards for POD authors have come and gone since 1998, even one hosted by iUniverse.

I sincerely hope the new IAG is the one that breaks the mold and succeeds in the manner in which its founders naively expect. I refer to them as naive based on several facts. First of all, as far as I can ascertain, the seven founding board members have together published less POD books than I have. Secondly, their collective experience in the actual marketing of POD books is miniscule compared to my own, or even more so compared to a veteran such as Janet Elaine Smith. The final point I wish to make is probably the deadliest of all. Many of the most successful POD authors attained their individual pinnacles within small market niches before there were so many POD books flooding the market. When you realize how many of these new POD authors have attacked the limited marketing and retail resources available like a school of hammerheads, the true depth of the dilemma becomes clear. If this was simply the end of the story, the future of IAG might be a little more assured. Unfortunately, we all know there is a great big elephant standing in our jar of JiF. Massive numbers of these new POD authors have produced Hyundai products with BMW prices, and most of the reading public has been made aware of this fact by the slap-fighters.

Allow me to offer an analogy with which I hope to make my point crystal clear, although the solution is as muddy as a Mississippi lake bottom. I have been following our current housing bubble and bust for a number of years. Yes, I am one of those few who saw it coming from a mile away and adjusted my lifestyle plans accordingly. Most of the commenters on the many housing bubble blogs are exactly the same as the people I call the slap-fighters on the POD message boards. Those on the housing blogs want you to know that you are a fool for purchasing a home in California in 2005 with an ARM mortgage loan. Those on the writer blogs want you know you are a fool for publishing with a POD company because everybody knows that most POD books are trash. There can be no denial that most of these bloggers are right most of the time. The problem is that if everyone thought and acted as they do, our world would become nothing more than another Fox News celebrity slap-fight. Someone has to be a positive leader. Someone has to actually try to accomplish something, instead of just mouthing off at the person next to you. We all know that if we let the traditional publishing industry control all the books published, eventually there will be nothing left in the stores but ghost-written, celebrity bullcrap. Inch by painstaking inch, Barnes & Noble is becoming more and more like Fox News. Of course I don't mean to imply that B&N has any sort of right-wing bias like that of the fair and balanced news channel, but there is a celebrity bias. With each passing year, fewer and fewer books reach bookstore shelves because the author displays the imagination of Kurt Vonnegut or the storytelling acumen of John Grisham. More and more books occupy those shelves because the author's face is on television and millions of morons recognize it.

Unless POD can somehow break out of its conundrum with books that sell because they are well written or the subject is adeptly handled, we are all doomed to see only Ann Coulter's latest piece of trash promoted at the local B&N. How can IAG separate the good books from the trash heap? That is the question for us all to ponder.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Beyond the Cayenne Wall

Beyond the Cayenne Wall
Collection of Short Stories
by Shaila Abdullah

(iUniverse / 0-595-37009-8 / October 2005 / 114 pages / $10.95)

Beyond the Cayenne Wall happens to be the first book I have reviewed by an author in my own hometown. Although I used to reside literally within a mile or two of Shaila Abdullah, it is obvious that we come from two different worlds. This leads to the best recommendation I can make for the book: the quality of the writing and the intimacy of the subject matter sucked me right into it. Like many traditional Americans, I had a vague notion of the issues presented in Cayenne Wall, but Shaila's fictionalizations of a harsh reality bring these gut-wrenching dilemmas to life. The author takes the reader on a journey through seven short stories back to her original hometown, Karachi, Pakistan.
The only bad news here is old news. This book has far too many proofreading errors to honestly earn a five-star review. I would have hoped that a book that has garnered numerous, glowing reviews of the all too familiar type from the all too familiar sources would have allowed the Proofreading Police a night off. That is sadly not the case, an issue that is additionally disturbing because Beyond the Cayenne Wall has garnered far more than its share of awards and attention from traditional media, at least when compared to that of many other well deserving POD books. Aside from the obvious celebrations of cultural diversity, you would have thought someone would have mentioned the typos. Alas, that seems to be my job alone.
If Beyond the Cayenne Wall had contained four times the page count and one-quarter the error count, I would be screaming its praises from the rooftops! This is one well-written book of POD short stories! The poignancy literally drips from the pages. Ms. Abdullah knows her subject matter. She knows how to do accurate research and she knows how to write. She even designed an excellent cover for her book, and Cayenne Wall includes a glossary, something you don't often see in an iU book. I read the glossary first to smooth out the comprehension of this foreign culture, and I recommend other readers do likewise, although I never felt really lost while reading the text. As you may have already guessed, the references to hot, spicy dishes native to Karachi are numerous, but never overcooked. As a bonus, I received a bookmark for the book, and even that was especially well designed and professionally printed. Welcome to the world of POD, where we have to do all our own tasks, even proofreading. If the mere mention of a book of short stories about a culture from the other side of the world makes you yawn, wake up! Beyond the Cayenne Wall is one of the better books reviewed on this site, and Shaila Abdullah is one of the better writers.

See Also: Tabitha's B&N Review
Tabitha's Authors Den Review
Shaila Abdullah's Website

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Scarecrow in Gray

A Civil War Novel
by Barry D. Yelton
(iUniverse / 0-595-40185-6 / September 2006 / 218 pages / $15.95)

This is the second historical fiction novel about the Civil War reviewed on this blog. Convergence of Valor, a book about the development and launch of the first submarine, happened to be the very first book reviewed here. Like that book, Scarecrow in Gray concerns a particular issue of the war, as told from the Confederate perspective, and both books successfully attempt to be as accurate as possible with respect to the parts of the plot that are known entities. Both authors developed a finished storyline around certain incomplete, but historically accurate facts. No one actually knows what happened to the submarine, the H. L. Hunley, and no one knows precisely what experiences Barry Yelton's great-grandfather actually had after he entered the war in 1864. Scarecrow in Gray is Francis Yelton's compassionate, gut-wrenching, up-close-and-personal viewpoint on the war. He begins by telling the reader how the starved, emaciated Rebel soldiers looked like scarecrows the first time he sees them.

I have compared Barry Yelton's work to that of the legendary Bruce Catton in my other reviews, and I stand by that statement. Barry presents the story of Francis in much the same way that Catton told the story from the Union side in This Hallowed Ground. Barry Yelton fills his story with emotion and the realism of the moment, which happened to be the darkest in America's history. I would liked to have lived during the Civil War about as much as I would enjoy life as a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Barry D. Yelton makes it crystal clear why that statement is so true. From the departure from his wife and two small daughters to the agonizing loss of soldiers close to him, Francis adequately describes the hell of existence in North Carolina and Virginia in that brief, depressing era. The author describes the whizzing musket balls, screams of agony, and blood everywhere it does not belong. He takes you to the center of the action, but he also lets you sit around the campfire with the soldiers as they discuss the quieter, more disturbing issues of The War Between the States. Scarecrow in Gray is not long or highly detailed, but the emotions and morality the book imparts are very compelling.

The comma omissions and other minor infractions kept the Proofreading Police busy writing tickets, but that is the only issue that keeps Scarecrow in Gray out of the solid five-star category. I was not overly impressed with some of the bland compositional style, either, but I make that statement very carefully. Much of what I call bland may be just the author's attempt to accurately replicate the attitude of a very depressed soldier and narrator. As with most of my reviews, I also allow extra credit for longer books with more detail than this one offers. For instance, there was one particular passage that bugged me in the audacity of its brevity. The author says that Francis carved a rather detailed inscription into a makeshift wooden headstone as if he completed a long, arduous task in ten minutes! I have no other complaints at all. This is a very professionally presented first effort. The cover is well designed and suited to the storyline. The plot is easy to follow, the characters are accurately developed, and the author's vision of his subject matter imparts the result of thorough research. If Scarecrow in Gray did not affectionately remind me of This Hallowed Ground, I would not have said it did. It does.