Monday, December 31, 2012

Book Review: Slain in the Spirit

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

Personal rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Over the holidays, I had the opportunity to read Slain in the Spirit, by Walt Rosenfeld. The book is a near-future sci-fi mystery and the themes are extremely familiar in today's world: environmentalism, the ethics of medical advances, and combat PTSD.

The story is mostly told from the viewpoint of Bill, an ex-soldier who is currently leading what might generously be called a "screwed up life." When you first meet Bill, there is a temptation not to like him. In fact, the character himself almost dares you not to like him. He's reclusive, mean, lazy, and a stoner. His greatest joys in life seem to be playing virtual poker and smoking marijuana. He's spiteful to his cousin, Marvin (who happens to be gay). But the spite doesn't seem to stem from a disapproval of Marvin's lifestyle, Bill is just being a jerk. To be honest, I felt bad for Marvin.

This is something that is particularly tricky for an author - the unlikable protagonist. If your protagonist is a stoner jerk-off, there needs to be a reason and that reason needs to spark the sympathy of the reader. Because nobody wants to read about an unlikable jerk-off.

Fortunately, Rosenfeld handles this well. Eventually you learn Bill's backstory and discover his, sometimes severe, PTSD - which has cost him a lot: a career, his wife, his ability to live. Bit by bit, Bill's journey, via his investigation into the death of Marvin's lover (which he initially takes on just for the money and to get Marvin out of his house), brings Bill out of the darkness and back into life. He even manages to love again, and find some of the joy he once had. Perhaps the best visual of the book is the final image of Bill on his "fuel-burning" motorcycle, reveling in the joy of being alive and free.

Against this, the investigation of the murder is a little bit of a secondary thought, but it's kind of okay - because that doesn't seem to really be what the plot is about. So if it lacks the "pizzazz" of a gripping, twisting, uber-complicated murder mystery, that's why. This is the story about a man's journey from darkness to light, set against the "who killed the mayor?" story line.

The story started out a bit uneven for me, as the first chapter is actually from the Mayor's view. I understood what Rosenfeld was trying to do, but that chapter lacked the smoothness of Bill's narrative. In fact, there are several chapters from other character's POV's and most of the jarring notes came from those chapters (except the one from Marvin's view, which was rather funny).

Fortunately, Bill's narrative had me hooked pretty quickly. Who did kill the mayor, who is trying to kill Bill, and will this guy ever stop being a dick? Since I became invested in Bill's growth early, I was able to move past the awkwardness of the alternate character POV chapters pretty easily.

It was easy to pick out current themes (environmental change, medical ethics, PTSD of combat veterans) pretty easily and they were all very relatable - the more things change and all that. I found the near-future technology inventions intriguing. I mean really, who hasn't dreamed of a car that drives you to your location? Julie's questions about the ethics of "playing God" with genetic manipulation are also pretty direct and relevant to current debate around genetically-modified food, etc.

This is a first novel effort, and displays some of the roughness to be expected of a first book. However, the author shows a lot of promise and should only get better with future books.

Slain in the Spirit is available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Guest Blogging

Yesterday, I was featured as a guest blogger by sci-fi author and freelance editor +Bryan Thomas Schmidt where I discussed world-building.

Check out the post here and please, leave a comment!

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Numbers Game

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

My friend Amy has often talked about numbers. See, she's an endurance athlete. And they kinda pay attention to things like pace, laps, intervals - all stuff that revolves around numbers. As in "how fast" and "how many."

But Amy has often written about the dangers of paying too much attention to those numbers. How you can really give the gremlins in your head - the ones who say, "see, you suck, why are you even trying?" - free rein. And all that does is stifle your growth, because you can only hear "you suck" so many times before you starting thinking, "hey, maybe I do suck." Indeed, some of her best workouts are the ones where she's left her watch and Garmin behind and just run (or biked, or whatever).

As a taekwondo student and former sports journalist, I "got" her point. Life is about more than how fast you ran, or how many round kicks you can do in a row, or the points on the scoreboard. I got it - and I agreed with it.

Oh, but that was before I released a book. And now, now, well, I REALLY get it.

Before your book-child goes out into the world, you're insulated from all the "stuff." You write for you, you can pour yourself into the work, tell the story in your heart. And it's wonderful. When I get into the groove, it's my equivalent of a runner's high. I'm unstoppable, man. Look out!

But any writer who says, "Well, I don't really care about sales, I'm only writing for me," is not being entirely honest. Because what's the point of writing if you don't share it? And the minute you share it, well, there are scads of opportunities for feeling like you suck. Maybe someone will leave an unkind review, or you'll get umpteen letters of rejection from editors or agents.

Thanks to Amazon, writers don't have to deal with those rejection letters (although negative reviews are out there). But also thanks to Amazon, authors have their own numbers games: sales rank and author rank.

And let me tell you, those games suck.

You log in to Author Central, and you watch the lines going crazy. You get excited because they go up. But then the go down - and they keep going down. How do you get them up? Can you get them up? Why aren't they going up? Why, why, WHY????

It's insanity. And I'm taking a page from Amy's book. I'm leaving my Garmin behind (that is, ignoring the Amazon ranks) and writing the next book.

See, Amazon's ranking algorithms are kind of, well, unknown. The line may go up on a particular day, but you have no idea how many sales that is, or even what caused the spike. For all you know, it could be solar flares!

And really, it isn't a judgment on you. YOU WROTE A BOOK dammit! Not only that, you sent it out into the world! You rock! How many people think about that, but are too scared/intimidated to just do it? That person isn't you any more, because you did it.

A year ago, that was me. And thanks to some awesome people, now I can go to Amazon, query "Power Play: Hero's Sword" and see this.

So, Amazon, thanks for the opportunity. But I'm taking a stand, right here, right now. I refuse to play your numbers games. They do not define me. I wrote a book and it is for sale, and it's got a few good reviews.

And that, my friends, is awesome.

Image courtesy of Pink Sherbet; used under creative commons