Vanity Presses: Don’t.

I recently finished a book that took all my willpower to get through. I won’t name the author or book, because this isn’t about shaming him and his work.

This is about shaming vanity publishers, and in this case specifically FriesenPress. What’s a vanity publisher? They’re publishers you pay to bring out your books. They don’t really care if you sell any books, because they make their money off the authors. You pay them for services… and I’m not talking about a small amount of money. From people I’ve talked to,  it’s $5000 and up. Way up.

I met an author at Saskatchewan Entertainment Expo last year, and when he talked about his books, they sounded really cool. Lots of action and adventure, in a future-Earth setting. Aliens. War. Listening to him pitch his book over and over again to potential readers never got old, and I wound up trading my first book for his.

First I had to finish getting through A Song of Ice and Fire’s fifth book, but after that, I dove into this one, ready for adventure.

He had told me that he’d gone with a vanity press, and I’ve heard plenty of bad things about those, but I wondered how bad could it really be?

The answer is bad. Very bad.

I wasn’t far into the book before I started stumbling over errors. And I don’t mean, “I would’ve done this differently.” I mean mistakes that any real editor would’ve caught. I got so distracted in the prologue that I would stop reading to make specific notes about the kinds of errors I was finding, and I would guess that EVERY kind of error that could be made was.

Here’s a list of just some of the errors I found… but honestly, I don’t think I got through a single page without finding something wrong, and I’m not an editor.

“Reports of the local Air Force base had secured the site but held the perimeter only seemed to solidify those suspicions as they boarded the V-22 Osprey that was readied for their transport.”

Oof. So awkward. Is it saying the reports had secured the site? This whole sentence needs to be chopped up.

“massive crater.” 

This is something I learned from my editor who caught my own misuse of the word ‘massive’ – something massive needs mass. It can’t be used to describe a cave, or crater. Also, this author LOVED the word massive. I mean, I found it (mis)used 3 times on one page. It was littered through the book carelessly, and an editor should have caught that and encouraged diverse word use. Mine did.

“Taylor noted he could feel the heat from the ground through his boots; this was something he had never experience before. The guards posted here looked nervous and unusually tense; he wondered what carnage lay beyond the crater wall that had shaken them so.” 

I had already noticed more semicolons than I’m used to seeing in a book, but the one-two punch of back-to-back semicolons really struck me. It feels really clunky when overused. 

“At last, he reached the third level door and opened it, emerging into the concrete maze that housed various vehicles housed throughout the day.” 

ANY editor should catch the same word showing up twice in one sentence. This next sentence drove me nuts:

“He was indeed struggling to resist the cold, saddening comfort of sadness and loosing himself in the exploration of the ancient Lyarran ark would help loosen its grip on his soul.”

There are also sections of the story where the POV shifts suddenly. One of the worst offenders went from following a General’s thoughts, to a Major’s, and then to “the troops” in a general sort of way, telling the reader what they all thought of the current situation. That kind of thing really breaks the rhythm of the story. 

A more minor detail is that when an apostrophe starts a word, you need to make sure it’s curling the right way (if you’re using a font that gives it a curl). A larger problem with the punctuation was the random explanation points all over the place. 

“It was (as) if he was actually there with them.” 

Missing words were confusing…

“Aaron moved his extended his arms out to his side and put his hands around the pegs.”

There were also plenty of extra words, like the example above, which made me have to reread a lot.

“…as the gurney was stopped by a large machine.”

Passive voice was not uncommon.

“This was new; they never had done this while he was awake.” or “screwing the best of plans up”

Misplaced modifiers were EVERYWHERE and frustrated me a lot. Should read “they had never done this…” and “screwing up the best of plans.”

“She weekly lifted her arm up for a  salute as her eyes began to close by themselves.”

Technically,  there are a few problems with this sentence,  but I’ve covered the others earlier. The new one is what my editor friend Karen Conlin likes to call “Spellcheck Cannot Save You.” This happened regularly throughout the story as well, with wrong words used all over the place. “Then” instead of “Than,” “Moral” used instead of “Morale,” and on and on. Weekly instead of weakly is pretty glaring. The same adjective is used again in the next paragraph,  and it makes the writing feel weak. 

Another example: Her excitement was “palatable.” The word is palpable. I don’t think he was going to eat his daughter because she was excited. 

It wasn’t until page 109 that I had a total “WTF?” moment. There was an ambush where a hybrid alien attacked and threatened a group of soldiers,  and at no point did the hybrid speak of his human family,  yet when the report came in, the General lost his mind and ordered surveillance on the hybrid’s family because he “obviously has full cognitive memory of his former life and may try to reach out to them.” This was so jarring that I had to go back to reread the entire interaction… at no point did the hybrid say anything that would have warranted this response.  

At this point,  1/4 of the way in,  I was questioning my resolve to get through the whole book.

The conflicts between the hybrid and the soldiers was drawn out unnecessarily. The hybrid would get into a battle, kill a couple soldiers, then leave. I expected some sort of reason for it, or a battle of wits or exposition between the General and the hybrid at the end, but it just fell flat. The whole battle felt anticlimactic.

And this speaks to a trope I’m totally over… the protagonist who can do everything, exactly when he needs to. I got tired of this with Richard Rahl in the Sword of Truth series. He walks into an insane problem, but conveniently discovers the power to deal with it, even if he didn’t know he could beforehand. At no point is there any tension at all regarding the main character. He’s going to make it, and will succeed at everything he does. You just know it.

The grammar errors never used to bother me, but I find them often (even in traditionally published books) since I started working with a good editor. 

By page 250, I knew this book was going to get tossed in my recycling bin as soon as I finished it, and I never do that with books. My wife was shocked when I told her I threw it out, but I said I just couldn’t donate that book and subject other people to it.

As a ship travels to Earth,  the computer calculates that there’s 150 days left. They’ll have to pause to calculate navigation routes through the solar system when they arrive,  which will take a couple of hours.  The captain thinks the Earth might need those couple of hours,  so commands the computer to analyze data about the solar system to compute a route in advance… which it does in a couple of minutes.  A task that was supposed to require a couple of hours of downtime? What? Why? And how long will the trip take now, with the saving of a couple of hours? 80 days! Somehow shaving off a couple hours instead shaved off more than a couple of MONTHS! Ridiculous. Absolutely ludicrous. I’d put up with a lot of errors and inconsistencies up to this point… a lot of minor and major irritations… but this is a colossal error. At this point,  with less than 200 pages to go,  I decided to finish it just to leave a review to tear apart FriesenPress. It is absolutely unconscionable to take someone’s money, because they have a dream of being an author, and not giving them the services they paid for.

Also,  that new timeline would’ve had reinforcements arriving to Earth long before the alien threat got there. But later,  they’re still on their way,  after the invasion begins. It’s sloppy, and a developmental editor – or even beta readers – would’ve caught it.

There are other timeline inconsistencies. At one point (2 hours after arrival) the AI tells the protagonist that the aliens will touch down in 40 minutes. The next scene (4 hours after arrival) is elsewhere,  then the next scene (10 hours after arrival) finally shows the invasion… 7 hours late! Why the discrepancy? It’s never addressed. 

I found another part of the story hard to believe… the “love interest.” It’s more than love at first sight. It’s absolute crippling infatuation at first sight. The protagonist and alien lock eyes across a holographic display involving untold countless aliens in a council chamber, and they literally can’t stop thinking about it, and it’s the sole focus of both points of view for scenes and scenes, with the protagonist unable to function because “she’s so beautiful.” I wish I was kidding. It was painful to read, over and over and over again. They literally don’t know anything about each other, and they’re certain they’re destined to be together, willing to sacrifice their lives for each other. It feels insanely forced, and the plot could’ve gone on without it. Also, the leader of the aliens is constantly described as oozing raw sexuality, every time she appears, and it’s exhausting reading about it.

And the repeated mentioning of how beautiful the alien is wasn’t the only repetitive aspect of the story. There were chapters where the same event was described from 4+ points of view, and almost nothing was added by including them. It felt like the book was being padded.

Things that were made out to be near-impossible odds early in the book were, in actual fact, of little consequence. The future-ally aliens were all like, “Oh no! Those invading aliens are far too powerful! We’re not sending our ships to help!” so the rogue, love-struck alien goes it alone, and it’s fine. Because the other alien reinforcements show up days earlier than expected because … the plot needed them there? There were so many mentions of how this lone ship was going to need to fight for days before anyone else showed up, but they literally got there, a couple salvos were fired, and the others showed up. The timing throughout the story was absolute horse shit (pardon my language. If you know me, you know how I feel about swearing, but this feels necessary).

The ending was… lacking. The alien leader who is always ALWAYS described as stunningly beautiful shows that she’s an idiot,  saying that only one human has been forged and tempered by the events of the book.  That character did almost nothing worthy of the role given at the end,  and to say that a better qualified person wasn’t shaped by the events is ludicrous.  The leader also ignores safety protocol, putting her life at risk for no reason whatsoever. She just needs to attend an event in person because … she wants to. In all honesty, she doesn’t think or act like a being whose life is measured in millennia and is the head of a galactic civilization.

Some of this is issues with the writing/plot, for sure. I can see why a traditional publisher wouldn’t touch it, because it needs a LOT of work to make the interesting aspects of the story shine (and there are some good things in there). But the fact that there are these vanity publishers who prey on writers who are desperate to publish their work for the world to see… it’s absolutely despicable. If they actually offered any kind of real services, maybe they would have merit, but it’s the fact that they did maybe $400 worth of work to format the text and slap a generic cover on it, and charged $10,000 that’s heartbreaking.

In short, don’t pay someone else to publish your book. If you want to hire editors and artists, that’s one thing. That’s part of self-publishing. But these companies that offer to do all the work for you, and charge thousands … they just don’t care if your book sells. They make their money from the writers, packing their garages with hundreds of copies of books that will likely never sell.

Review: A Feast of Crows

A Feast for Crows, Book 4 in A Song of Ice and Fire, by George RR Marin

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 2 stars

This one was definitely my least favourite so far in the series. The explanation at the end made sense, that there were simply too many characters, and too much going on, to be able to fit it all in one book. But not seeing most of the characters that I actually liked in the series for a whole book was… aggravating. I missed Bran, Jon, Dany, The Onion Knight (although we did get to hear about him briefly – which really made me angry), Tyrion… and I really didn’t care about following the other Lannisters, or any of the Dorne stuff, which effectively had no impact on the story whatsoever.

And that’s how I felt about this book in general. I could have lived without knowing most of it. Cersei is extremely annoying. Even Jaime’s last scene, as good as his response was, did not make up for a whole book of following those two as the primary characters.

Arya and Sam had no agency in the story. I wasn’t sure why I was supposed to care about what they were doing. While the Iron Born started out as an interesting arc, they just sort of got dropped part way through the book, being relegated to everyone just saying how much trouble they’re causing.

And this is a problem I’ve been having with the series in general… when there’s interesting conflict afoot, it’s glossed over. The first time I had this feeling was back when we were with Catelyn’s POV and her son was off fighting Jaime’s forces, and she could hear it happening. I like a good fight scene, and they’re generally lacking/avoided in these books.

For the first time in the series, I’m starting to find Sansa’s character interesting. She’s finally grown beyond a starry-eyed, whiny princess. And Littlefinger is always interesting to see. I really don’t trust him at all, but the way he manipulates circumstances is intriguing.

Brienne… I think about her arc and just throw my hands up in the air. So much nothing. Wandering aimlessly. She killed a few bad guys, who I think I was supposed to remember, but there are so many characters that I don’t actually remember them or care that she’s killed them.

If I hadn’t bought all five books in one boxed set, I probably wouldn’t even bother reading the 5th one. But I have it, and I hope that seeing most of my favourites back again will rekindle my enjoyment of the series. If not, I’ll just forget the rest of the books and start watching the show. See if it makes for better TV than reading experience.

Review: A Storm of Swords, by GRRM

A Storm of Swords, Book 3 in A Song of Ice and Fire, by George RR Martin

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4 stars

Four weddings is too many weddings for one book. 

Granted, interesting things that completely changed the trajectory of the story happened at a couple of them, and important relationships were created that paid off later in the book at the last one, but I just found myself weary of it by the time the third wedding came along. I glossed over so many details, because I just didn’t care about 77 courses. The payoff at the end was amazing, but the lead up was as dry as you get, with lists of food for each course. 

Other than that, I loved the intrigue throughout. There were times I audibly gasped, laughed, and cheered throughout the story because I care about so many of the characters, even as I loathe others. There were some wonderful surprises at the end of the book, so even though this book at times felt long, it was worth the read. Because GRRM kills major characters along the way, the tension any time one of your favourite characters is in danger really gripped me. 

It’s no wonder there have been avid fans of this series, right from the start. As I crack open book 4, I am both excited to see where the story goes, but also frustrated with myself for starting this series before it’s finished, because I know I’ll soon be in good company with a host of fans who can’t wait to see what happens next. I suppose I’ll have to start watching the show at that point, to get some kind of closure (even though I hear many fans didn’t like the conclusion, but that’s life… we don’t always get what we want, and this series has been setting that up again and again!).

Review: Born a Crime

Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah

Genre: Non-fiction, Memoire

Rating: 5 stars

This might just be the best non-fiction book I’ve ever read. I’m about the same age as Trevor Noah, but never knew anything about apartheid, growing up in Canada. It ended before I became aware of politics, and it must have been too recent to learn about in history classes. I had heard of Nelson Mandela, of course, but didn’t know much beyond his name.

This book gave me a real understanding of life, on the ground. Trevor’s experiences are harrowing, and it’s amazing he’s a) still with us, and b) a comedian. Given the difficulties he faced, it’s amazing to me that he maintained his sense of humour through it all… it’s all too easy to see how others who lived through those times did not fare so well.

The book bounces around a bit through time. It will feel like you’ve moved on, and then the next chapter goes back to revisit something important. And each time, you’ve learned something from a previous chapter that helps you understand something in the later ones. It’s amazing the way the story unfolds.

Having seen Trevor Noah on TV for a while now, it’s easy to hear his voice in my mind while I’m reading through it. You can feel the incredulity in his voice as he describes some of the situations he lived through.

I encourage everyone to check out this book.

Review: Clash of Kings, by GRRM

Clash of Kings, by George RR Martin

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5 stars

After the events of the first book, I like how GRRM played with my expectations by shocking me when characters DIDN’T die. I was full of righteous fury when I heard about some deaths, and then to find out that events hadn’t gone the way everyone thought, I felt a great sense of relief.

And that’s how this book goes. There are so many battles, with the seven kingdoms being torn apart from within, and there are hints of serious outside threats coming along in the near future, too.

I think my only complaint (and the reason for 0.5 stars being knocked off) is that a lot of the battles, and even some that are vital to the story, are merely alluded to. We hear about them after the fact, as characters recount what happened, but I really wanted the chance to see what happened first hand. Sure, the book is already huge, and I can’t think of anything that could have been cut, but seeing the battle at the river beyond Tyrion’s PoV would have been great.

That said, I’m excited to see what happens next!

Review: Tow-Truck Pluck

Tow-Truck Pluck, by Annie Schmidt

Genre: Children’s

Rating: 5-stars

I don’t normally leave reviews on kids’ books, but I really, really like this one. We received it as a gift a few years ago when my daughter was little, and she loved it. I just read through it with my son, and he loved it, too!

It’s the story of a boy with a tow-truck who goes around solving people’s problems (and sometimes getting into some of his own!). There are many sections to the story, each a few pages long, sometimes with some cliffhangers that’ll have your kids begging for “just one more section!”

There’s a great mix of characters that Pluck interacts with, from Dolly the pigeon, to the Stampers, Zaza the cockroach to the Tootenlisp (a magical sort of shell). It’s great fun, and I look forward to reading it with my kids again and again!

Review: Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones (Book 1 A Song of Ice and Fire), by GRRM

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 5 stars

People are often shocked to hear that I haven’t read these books or seen the show. “But you write fantasy!” they say, voices laden with judgement. After not enjoying Wheel of Time (I got to book 4 and stopped) and worrying about the slow pace that GRRM writes, I figured there was no rush. The idea of starting an epic series with an older author who’s in no rush to finish his saga just wasn’t appealing to me.

“So what made you change your mind?” you ask.

Well, a Boxing Day sale, if I’m honest. The e-book was available through Amazon for a steal, so I thought, “Eh, might as well give it a shot.”

I’m glad I did.

This is not a story for the faint of heart. Truly terrible things happen throughout the course of the novel, often unexpected and sudden. The dialogue is strong, and characters come alive on the pages, each with their own unique personalities. The cast is large, but they’re introduced in such a way that I didn’t have any problem keeping track of the major characters… even most of the minor ones. After quitting WoT when the cast ballooned beyond my ability to care about, I thought the same would happen here, but it didn’t. Maybe it’s because the story started out with a host of characters, so I grow to enjoy them all at the same time, instead of feeling like I’m not getting to see the characters that I had grown to enjoy over the first couple WoT books, only to see less and less of them as more “distractions” were thrown into the mix. I don’t know, but this series handled the large cast expertly.

But my favourite part of the story is the tension. You never know who’s going to make it or not, because important characters die. It ups the ante every time there’s a conflict, because you never know who’s going to make it out alive.

Now, I had one of the major deaths spoiled for me ages ago, but even still, the way it happened was alarming, and my hatred of Joffrey is without equal. That kid had better die a terrible, awful death at some point, because if any of the characters in this book deserve it, he does.

And I have hope that justice will be served in the end. After the crowning of the dragon, I have high expectations that the truly vile people in these books will meet the most terrible ends.

I think I’ll need to pick up book 2 very soon.

Review: As You Wish

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, by Cary Elwes

Genre: Non-fiction

Rating: 5 stars

Cary is immediately disarming with his charm and humbleness. The entire story of how he was headhunted for the part of Westley, right to the end and describing his love of his fans, was amazing. There are snippets from the other people involved in the film, too. It all came together to make a highly enjoyable read, and I can’t recommend it enough for fans of The Princess Bride.

The only thing I found curiously lacking was much on his time with Robin. I’d heard before (and in this book) how Cary had been smitten with Robin from the start, but if you’re hoping for juicy details, you won’t find them here. Too much the gentleman to kiss and tell. (Although the section on the most perfect kiss was pretty great!)

There were parts of the book that had me laughing out loud, and I really need to watch the film again, knowing so many tantalizing details about it to keep an eye out for.

Have fun storming the castle reading the book!

Review: The Roundabout

The Roundabout, by Andy Goldman

Genre: Science fantasy

Rating: 5-stars

The last book in The Only City Left trilogy is out, and I snatched up a digital copy straight away! I’ve been following this series since it started, and couldn’t wait to dig in.

Allin, Tyena, and Tumble are back to try to save the Earth from the epic cliffhanger of the second book. With a fleet of warships in orbit, they have been given a week to turn in fugitives who have been hiding on Earth.

The Only City Left started out with just Allin’s point of view (POV), and The Fifth House added Tyena’s. This final installment adds Tumble. You might think three 1st person POV’s sounds like a lot, but each chapter clearly labelled whose head you were in, so there was no confusion. I was glad to see events through Tumble’s eyes, and I think knowing what all three of them were up to was good, since leaving out any one of them would have left a gaping hole in the reader’s understanding of events.

The pacing was excellent, as usual, with tons of action and intrigue. Nearly every scene ended with a cliffhanger, and I couldn’t wait to pick up my ereader for the ride to and from work to see what happened next. Usually I’ll alternate between reading and playing games on my phone, but ever since I started reading this one, it was all reading, all the time.

The only problem I had was that it was a long time since I read the first two books, so although I clearly remembered the main characters and major events, there were side characters I had no memory of. Even by the end of the book, I couldn’t place where they’d joined the story, and I think this will be a series that I’ll re-read. That’s rare for me, as I’m not a fast reader, but these books are worth it.

Goldman is definitely on my “must buy” list after finishing this series. I hope he comes back to these characters at some point!

If you’re looking for a new, complete series to read, I highly recommend this one.

Review: All These Shiny Worlds

All These Shiny Worlds anthology, edited by Jefferson Smith

Genre: Sci-fi and Fantasy

Rating: 4-stars

Anthologies are tricky to rate, because there are good stories and there are not so good stories.

This anthology proclaims to include the best of the best indie authors… first the authors have to survive the 40 minute Immerse or Die challenge, then they have to do well on a full read through, then authors are asked if they would like to submit a short story to the anthology, then the stories are judged by a panel of three judges. Also, authors who get invited are given the chance to invite one other author. The anthology is free, with the idea that after showcasing their work in the anthology, readers will find new readers to follow. I really like that, and overall this anthology was quite good. That said, I didn’t like every single story, and I had low hopes after reading the first one…

1 First Man in the World – 2 stars – People who like traditional sci-fi might enjoy this, but for me it lacked any sense of humanity or struggle. Just a vague how-to terraform a planet. Not my cup of tea.

2 Three Demon Gambit – 4 stars – I enjoyed the twists and turns in this story, even though I didn’t like the protagonist, a student in a school of magic. Dealing with demons and rival students was interesting.

3 Rolling the Bones – 4 stars – disturbing use of necromancy, found it difficult to parse the characters at first, but once I figured out the king and wizard were two different people, it flowed well and I enjoyed following the protagonist through his difficult choices surrounding the morality of using necromancy to preserve the peace.

4 All the Way – 4 stars – A future where dying people can upload themselves to robots and work in space. Quite a human story, however, and I felt quite bad for the robot’s ex-wife.

5 Scales Fall – 4 stars – I’m not even sure if I fully understood this story, with how it jumped around in time, but I enjoyed it a lot. It all felt so familiar, possibly because I read a lot of ancient Egyptian stuff as a kid.

6 The Ant Tower – 5 stars – Here was a story I didn’t want to end. The shifting in time with each scene took some getting used to, but the story was excellent. By far my favorite up to this point. With plenty of twists and turns, this trek through the desert didn’t end the way I thought it would. I want to read more from this author.

7 Heft – 3 stars – I found this spy story with a twist rough at first, and I’m not sure I fully got the ending. I think I did, but the uncertainty left me feeling unsure how to rate this one. I was left with the feeling that there was something clever that happened, but it wasn’t explained enough for me to understand in its entirety. Maybe if I read it a second time, but it wasn’t a story I enjoyed enough to do that with. The philosophy behind it was some next-level stuff that isn’t too hard to imagine actually happening, though.

8 The First Acolyte of the Upshan Berental – 5 stars – A story of being true to yourself, even in the face of disapproving authority. I enjoyed the theme, and also want to see all the worlds.

9 Bronwen’s Dowry – 5 stars – This story of a poor shearer and his wife going to a gathering of pipers was genuinely moving. I loved this one.

10 The Spider and the Darkness – 5 stars – This fantasy tale involving an abused girl seeking to escape her lot in life was fantastic.

11 The Dowager’s Largesse – 5 stars – I already bought the next story in this series because I loved it so much. Who doesn’t love the sound of a cursed bounty hunter with a belligerent llama companion?

12 Theriac – 4 stars – A woman who sees demons (maybe? The way others brush off her concerns makes me wonder…) is confronted with the not so difficult decision of what to do about some half-demon children. As written, it’s 3 stars, except that it had me thinking about it afterwards, wondering what the truth of the matter is, so it got an extra star.

13 The Red Flame of Death – 3 stars – This story about a holy man hunting a demon was okay. The pacing and writing were fine, but in the end I didn’t really care how it ended, because the characters were flat.

14 The Blue Breeze – 4 stars – While certainly the most imaginative of the bunch, creating a rich and dangerous world, the elements of the plot felt quite familiar. A forbidden love story, mingled with the thought, “There’s always a bigger fish.”

15 The Rakam – no rating – First person present tense? Ugh. I have other things I want to read, and after struggling through the first paragraph I said, “Forget it.” I won’t count this one toward the average rating, because I couldn’t give it a fair chance.