End of the year means time for lists. I’ve seen lots of book lists over the past few weeks, but they’ve hewed to conservative choices like the new Stephen King time-travel novel or Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. I’ll be honest: I tried both before I got distracted (Kindle’s make it easy to get distracted by another book. Just a few pages that don’t grab and suddenly button-click I’m back to my home library with all those other books I wanted to read . . .).
I’ve also seen lots of discussion about the top-selling indie (or “self-published”) books of 2011. Notable: two of the top ten bestselling books at Amazon this past year were independent novels (and fine books to boot).
But I haven’t seen any lists of terrific independent novels–and by independent, I mean what people with corporations would call “self-published.” And I thought, hey, I’ve read some great independent novels this year. Why not talk about them? Of course, I probably should be less declarative and more accommodating and title this something more generic like “My Favorite Indie Reads of 2011,” but none of the other lists I’ve seen have done so, so I figure why not?
I don’t really think in lists, so I’m not going to make one, but here are some independent books I thought highly of. A caveat: through social networking, I’ve “met” a lot of the authors on this list, as we run in the same circles, but they’re not here just because I follow them on Twitter. I follow them on Twitter because they’re here.
First: Martin Lastrapes’ Inside the Outside. If I did write a list, this would be the first entry, number one with a bullet (or, in the case of this literary novel about cannibals, a giant meat cleaver). It’s not just the best indie novel I read in 2011; it’s the finest novel I read overall, and that distinction might carry back a couple of years besides. It’s devastating and funny, poignant and honest, sincere without over-sentimentality, and most importantly, Lastrapes can write. This is one of those rare novels one can sense the craft in at all levels, from word to sentence to paragraph to chapter to act to plot. Any writer who can play cannibalism as not-that-big-a-deal–thereby increasing its squick factor exponentially without actually resorting to gore–knows what he’s doing. There are a few gory scenes I wasn’t grossed out by, but then, I’m usually not, and the interesting, detached voice Lastrapes used to write those scenes effectively reduced their gore factor–at least for me.
Startling, unexpected, and beautiful, Inside the Outside is everything I hope for from a good book.
Chuck Wendig maintains Terrible Minds. I think he calls what he’s doing hybrid publishing–he doesn’t seem to care whether he goes independent or with a corporation, choosing distribution based on business decisions that will serve his stories. So far, he seems to know what he’s doing, certainly: he’s got a novel, Blackbirds, that looks interesting and is coming out next year from Angry Robot.
In the meantime, he’s published a bunch of other stuff, including Shotgun Gravy, a genre-bending story that involves bullying and retribution thereagainst, as well as several books on writing advice (searching “Penmonkey” on Amazon should bring them right up). He also wrote Double Dead, a work-for-hire vampire-zombie (or zombie-vampire) novel about a vampire who wakes up after a zombiepocalypse, which is as refreshing a take on the zombie thing as I’ve seen.
For my money, though, this is where I talk about Irregular Creatures, his collection of short stories. Short stories are tricky beasts, but done well, they’re still terrific reading. Stephen King’s Needful Things might have made me realize I’m a writer, but I think Night Shift and Different Seasons are the finest things the man ever wrote. Irregular Creatures opens with a story about a man who finds a winged cat, and there’s a light touch with which Wendig writes that carries tones throughout each piece, which vary in tone and subject–marketing & branding and beating up a zombie, for two–but never in terms of quality. It’s a strong collection, and it’s the most major reason I’m interested in Blackbirds.
Joanna Penn might be best known for her Creative Penn website, where she discusses writing and marketing and publishing and social networking and tons of other useful topics for writers 2.0, but that may be about to change, as her new novel, Prophecy, debuts. Given that it’s just coming out, I can’t write of that one, but her novel Pentecost easily makes this list.
Thrillers, I think, are tough to write. It’s difficult to balance a fast pace and intense, action-driven story with well-developed characters readers will genuinely care about. Penn balances with aplomb. Pentecost is a religious thriller I’ve seen people mention in the same breath as Dan Brown’s books or the Tomb Raider videogame series, but I found the novel better developed and more intriguing. I can see the comparisons, of course: you’ve got shadow organizations and a religious quest and those sorts of overtones, but I thought Penn made them her own.
I first met Chris Meeks at USC, where he was on faculty–and I believe still is–though he was never my instructor. He was a guest in one of my classes, around the time back in 2008 or so when “self-publishing” was first popping onto the radar and his The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea was featured in Entertainment Weekly.
In Love at Absolute Zero, Meeks’ protagonist Gunnar Gunderson tries to apply the scientific method to romance. The humor is subtle and fun, and Meeks’ touch is light. It’s a fun, warm story about a 32-year-old physicist who’s just gotten tenure and knows how to cool strontium down to absolute zero, but who’s just clueless when it comes to love and romance and, especially, women.
This next one comes with the biggest caveat on the list: Nick Earls’ Monica Bloom, published with a bonus e-riginal novella, Grass Valley. I’m ridiculously proud that the digital publishing company I founded, Exciting Press, is bringing out Earls’ work, here in the States and elsewhere in the world. I’ve long held the argument that there’s no such thing as “self-publishing,” and Exciting Press is more about facilitation, which is why I’d still consider this indie.
Both Galleycat and Nick consider it indie, too, and that’s enough for me. Here’s Nick’s blog. The most-recent-at-the-time-of-this-writing post discusses ebooks and indie.
Monica Bloom was originally published in 2006 in Australia and marketed as a young-adult novel, but it’s no more a young-adult novel than, say, The Catcher in the Rye; it’s just a novel that happens to have a 16 year old narrator as its protagonist. It’s set in Brisbane in the 80s, and it follows Matt Shepard through his final year of school.
Grass Valley is a bonus e-riginal novella included with this new Monica Bloom publication, and it’s about another boy who goes on a roadtrip along the Pacific Coast Highway with his father, who stops along the way to visit an old flame from his college years.
Both, I think, highlight Nick’s writing ability. The man writes ordinary situations with extraordinary skill. So yes, the caveat is that I participated in the publishing of this one, but then again I wouldn’t have if I didn’t believe it deserved a spot on a list like this one.
I’ve known Miya Kressin for several years. We met on MySpace, but she’s since started up her own site. Last year, her The Changeling’s Champion came out, published by The Writer’s Coffee House. It was a terrific book, but it’s no longer available, though it appears a new edition is on the way.
What is available is What Once Was: The Island, which starts with a bang and doesn’t let up. It’s about Roseen and Cade, their tense alliance, and their struggle to find faith, courage, and hope while their people are on the brink of war.
It’s also brilliant. The tension in the opening pages alone is as tight as the drums the characters beat during their chanting, ominous ceremony.
It’s also the first book of a trilogy, and I’m looking forward to future installments.
Roz Morris’ My Memories of a Future Life is the story of a talented musician whose injuries mean she can no longer play–and that’s just the inciting part of a story that explores past and future incarnations and the idea of soul mates and love beyond lifetimes.
Its comparisons to The Time-Traveler’s Wife and personal fave The Gargoyle are apt, and Roz’s writing is both fluid and evocative.
Her site, Nail Your Novel, is here. Well worth a read.
I’ve been surprised not to read more about Rob Cornell and his books (here’s his site). Maybe I’m just not reading in the right places (I hope that’s not the case). Regardless, I’m glad I found his Darker Things, the first installment of his Lockman books, featuring Craig Lockman. Imagine if James Patterson wrote about vampires.
Yeah. It’s good. Dark and thrilling, brisk and brutal. Cornell nailed the tone, the pace, and the story–not an easy trifecta. Another first book in a series, though I got distracted enough by the other entries on this list I haven’t explored more yet. I’m looking very forward to.
Nick Cole’s The Old Man and the Wasteland utterly surprised me. I saw it on Amazon and, intrigued by the cover, followed to its page, where it drew it-would-turn-out-not-unfair comparisons to both Hemingway and The Road. I’m not really into either and almost dismissed it then and there, but then I saw it had a ton of reviews and an average of more than 4 stars, and I figured I’d try the sample.
I did. I was impressed.
It really is like Hemingway wrote The Road. Like I said, that’s not a ringing endorsement for me, but I thought the book was remarkable. Cole’s tone works, and the writing feels like the equivalent of walking a tight-rope; at any moment, it could go seriously awry, so the longer Cole maintains his fine balance, the tighter it feels. And maintain it he does. It’s a seriously good book with seriously brusque prose quite a lot like Hemingway surveying the apocalypse.
So there you have it. Ten books, ten authors, ten quality reads. I tried to keep the list solely to books published in 2011, which meant a few of my other favorites didn’t make it, sadly, but I aim to remedy this by writing about those books specifically down the line. I exempted my own books from the list, because let’s be honest that there couldn’t have been caveat enough there, but if you’re interested, I published several books, including a novel (The Prodigal Hour), during 2011; I’m proud of them all, and I think they’re worth checking out. If you’d like to, you can do so here.
Here’s to hoping 2012 is another great year for reading, books, and independence.
I’ll drink to that. But then, what wouldn’t I drink to?
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