Indie Review: Sarvet’s Wanderyar by J. M. Ney-Grimm

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf the last book I read sated my taste for sword and sandal fantasy, Sarvet’s Wanderyar fits the bill for another craving: epic fantasy. J. M. Ney Grimm is a master at this genre, and I’ve been a fan of her work since the first paragraph I read; this book has been on my to-read list for quite a while, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Sarvet is a young woman who suffers from a sort of palsy in one leg. Because of this, she’s held back; she’s relegated to menial chores, coddled by an overbearing mother, and–she believes–prevented from achieving her dreams. Sarvet’s need to prove herself drives her to request a Wanderyar–a year of exploring the world on one’s own–which is reserved only for young men. She’s tenacious and determined from the start, so her coming of age isn’t something that happens to her so much as something she forges for herself. This gives her a certain strength of character that’s lacking in a lot of literature. It’s easy to cheer her on and revel in her journey.

Sarvet’s disability is introduced very nicely. Subtle hints before coming out and saying it makes for a reveal that’s not surprising, but not really expected either. A good set up for what will be an important plot point; she doesn’t beat you over the head with it, a sin that is far too easy to commit in writing. This also puts the focus more on her character and less on the disability, making for a nicely rounded heroine that’s easy to sympathize with. That, in turn, makes this much more than a run of the mill coming of age novel–it’s an entrancing story with a character you care about, and desperately want to succeed.

Sarvet, for all her determination and will, is also a tad naive. This serves the story well; it sets her up as a young woman who, despite her disability, doesn’t realize just how difficult life can sometimes be. Failure is a very real consequence for her, and it’s all the more tangible because of her adolescent exuberance. You get the feeling that if she falls, she’s going to fall hard–but even if she recovers there’s an “I told you so” in the wings. The lesson is not so much in learning to succeed on her own as that sometimes, a little control is necessary.
This leads into the mother, Paiam. She’s fiercely protective of Sarvet, and while this overbearance serves as her call to action, Ney-Grimm does a good job of tempering and justifying it. Paiam  isn’t just a controlling mother; Sarvet’s resistance is making that control seem more pronounced than it is. At first I saw Paiam as the clear antagonist, but I came to sympathize with her. This makes for a complex interaction between the two characters that rages almost completely in the subtext–very clever on Ney-Grimm’s part, and very effective. In fact, I sense that there’s a whole other story for Paiam, and I’d love to see her developed in another book.

Once the action gets moving, the reader is thrown into a wild set of circumstances that move further and further away from Sarvet’s familiar, tame world. It’s an escalation that nicely reflects the issues one faces in growing up; problems seem insurmountable until they’re not–and completely trivial in retrospect. There’s a certain shift in tone here as Sarvet goes from climbing  a mountain to living among pegasi, and it serves well to show the stark differences between youth and adulthood. The metaphor may not be subtle, but it fits.

(On a side note, one of my favourite things about Ney-Grimm’s work is her treatment of fantastical creatures. She definitely doesn’t disappoint here–the pegasi seem ethereal but remarkably wise and strong; gentle but fearsome; creatures of light and gauze that are somehow the most real things in the world.)

As usual, the worldbuilding in this book is quite well done. Ney-Grimm has built a cohesive “universe” in which most of her stories take place, and each book explores similar but unique facets. I was a bit confused by some of the terms early in the book–holidays referred to as “Other-joy” and “Lodge day”–but the meaning became apparent as I progressed through the story. After I finished the book, I read a post on Ney-Grimm’s blog that explains that this lack of background is intentional. I can see her point, and agree with it–the worst thing you can do in worldbuilding is to bog the reader down with details that are, to a point, window dressing.
Otherwise, the worldbuilding is handled very well. It’s subtle in the first few pages. There’s a lot of information presented in a laid back, almost conversational way. While it left some questions for me, there weren’t enough gaps that it hampered my understanding, and what questions I had were answered before I got halfway through. Readers less familiar with Ney-Grimm’s “world” may have more of a challenge, but it’s nothing that would impede.

The moral of the story–beyond the coming of age themes–seems almost Taoist: resistance can sometimes cause more problems than it solves. It’s okay to stand up for one’s principles, but it’s the stiff branch that breaks in the wind. On the other hand, flying with the wind allows you to master it. It’s a powerful lesson used to great effect.

In the end, I have nothing but good things to say about this book, and wonder why it took me so long to get to reading it. I’ve always enjoyed Ney-Grimm’s work, but I particularly like this book–it’s one I can imagine one day reading to my children at bed-time, a fantastical adventure with a strong moral lesson. Absolutely worth a read!

J.M. Ney Grimm writes fantasy with a Norse twist. You can find Sarvet’s Wanderyar and other books of hers on Amazon, Kobo. iTunes, and B&N. She’s also on Twitter, and keeps a blog on writing (and often cooking!).

Three Great Apps for Writers

20130911-161151.jpgNot too long ago, by beloved Blackberry went bust. I was a die-hard BB fanboy for years, but had been getting disillusioned; the OS always felt sluggish, the included browser was painfully slow, and the app store was vacant because developers preferred the much more lucrative Android and iPhone markets. So when my phone died, I didn’t go back–I joined the pack and got an iPhone.

And I discovered something: I was using my Blackberry for very particular purposes, but I was missing out on a lot of innovative apps that would help my writing and my work. Now, I don’t intend to stay with the iPhone–I love my Android based Kobo Arc, so it makes sense to go with an Android phone–but these apps run on both systems. And I’ve found them indespensible:

I’m a fan of checklists, and every time I upgrade a device, I search for a good list app. I’ve found the ultimate in Any.Do. It’s intuitive, robust, and it syncronises across my phone, Kobo and even an extension in my Chrome browser.
It couldn’t be simpler. When you launch the app you’ll see a list of your to-do items. You can add an item by pressing the + symbol, and the iPhone and Android devices accept voice input. You can then organise by due date (even pushing items to “someday”) or create folders. I have folders for Work, Personal and based on different projects with related tasks. When you complete a task, you can swipe to strike it off the list and–the fun part–shaking your phone will clear finished items.
Any.Do has also introduced a “Plan Your Day” feature, which will walk you through items that don’t have a due date so you can set priorities. Ask Any.Do to remind you in an hour, set it for tomorrow, or push it to next week. This is an excellent app, and I have it up on my work computer constantly through the day. If you want to keep track of progress and tend to forget the little details, get this now.

Any.Do has also built a Calendar app. I’m just getting used to it, but I like it a lot better than the native Iphone calendar. It’s clean, fresh, and simple–plus it lists your to-dos from Any.Do, and you can set it up to cycle through different images in the background. They’re also working on mail and notes apps, which I’m eager to try. Check them out!


Which leads me to Springpad. A note taking app is essential for me, as I tend to have ideas in the most inconvenient places. If I don’t write it down right away, I’ll forget it–so having a note app on my phone is great. I don’t much like the native apps because they’re not that helpful, beyond writing stuff down. So I’m always on the look for a better one.20130911-161251.jpg
I settled on an app called Catch, which was simple to use, organised things into folders, and had a web plugin. Unfortunately, they’re gone now and no longer support the app.
Instead, I’m trying Springpad, and so far I really like it. You can organize notes into books as well, and it’s very easy to navigate between notebooks. The best part is the web plugin–set the shortcut on your toolbar and all of your notes are accessible from the browser. This is a godsend for writers; you get an idea on the bus, jot it down on your phone, and by the time you’re home you can launch Chrome and the notes are there, ready for you to put into your word processor.
Springpad also has a really nice interface. It’s not unlike Pinterest, and captures your notes in a series of tiles you can share. Springpad also has a Search feature, which lets you find other people’s notes, share ideas, and collaborate on projects. You could set up an account at work, and give each employee access–everyone adds their ideas and it’s all put down in one place. My wife and I use it for shopping: you can create a checklist, which we use for groceries, and both of us can access it at any time to add items we need.
This is note-taking meets social media, and it’s a really nice combo. After using it for only a couple weeks, I’m a convert.

I should also mention the note taking heavyweight, Evernote. Many people swear by it, and it’s got its good points. Personally though, I never liked it; I’ve found the interface dull and counterintuitive, and it just never seemed helpful to me. To each their own.


This is the one app I’m really excited about these days. I never really got into RSS readers, as they seemed to be pretty redundant; why download an article to read offline when the device you’re using is constantly online? The one application I can see is turing off your wifi or being in a location that doesn’t have access; not wanting to use your airtime is a good reason to use this app, but when wifi is so ubiquitous nowadays, it seems pointless. So I never bothered.

Until Pocket. I’ve been playing with this app for only a few days, but I’m hooked. I’m seeing the appeal of reading a headline or wanting to look something up, but not having the time to delve into it–Pocket lets you save that webpage or article and puts it in a queue for later reading. Again, simple as pie, but powerful if you use it right.
This app has solved a problem I didn’t realize I had. Although I don’t tweet much myself, I read twitter very often, and love getting interesting articles or hearing about releases from fellow Indies. When I come across a link I like, I tend to forward it to my email so I can check it out on a PC–many webpages just don’t display well on a phone browser.

Pocket allows me to get around that with no fuss. Just send it to the app, and it’s there when I’m ready. The best part is that Pocket has a web extension–I’m a fan of that integration, you can tell! If I come across a website I want to look at when I have more time, I can send that to pocket too. I’ve already got a nice list of things to catch up on.
Pocket also has some nice integration with other apps. I have yet to play with all the features, but you can send links to Pocket through Twitter, email, Digg, GReader, and more–over 300 apps and counting.

And here’s the really great news: Kobo recently announced that Pocket will be integrated in all its readers. You’ll be able to open your Reading Life to access all your Pocket pages. This brings e-reading to a new level; effectively it’s an electronic newspaper curates to your exact specifications. The feature is set to launch on September 13–I can’t wait to use it!

That’s it for today, but keep an eye on the blog for an upcoming interview with David A Hayden, and a review of Sarvet’s Wanderyar, by J. M. Ney Grimm!



Indie Review: Wrath of the White Tigress by David Alastair Hayden

One of my favourite genres to read is fantasy, and I’m partial to a certain sub-genre: sword and sandal. I love the Conan stories, and so I’ve been looking forward to a book that has a similar flavour: Wrath of the White Tigress by Davaid Alastair Hayden. Hayden has a unique flair for fantasy that’s pulpy in all the right ways. These are tales of sword and sorcery you would have found in Weird Tales or other magazines from the days of yore.

I don’t usually pull quotes from a book in a review, but I’ll do so here because it reflect the story so succinctly. It’s a conversation between the main character, Jaska, and his saviour.

“I’m thoroughly corrupt. I don’t deserve life.”
“You did evil, that’s true, but you weren’t in control of your actions, weren’t you?”
He shook his head. “I should have been.”

Jaska is a Palymphar, a sort of knightly order that ostensibly stands for right and honour–but which has become decadent, violent, and corrupt. Jaska is the worst of them, and his…indulgences…are legendary. As the book opens he’s sent by his master, Salahn, to capture the temple of the White Tigress, a powerful goddess which Salahn wishes to imprison. Jaska is waylaid by the high priestess of the temple, Zyrella. After an altercation with the White Tigress herself, Jaska is converted to the cause of rescuing her.

What follows is an adventurous romp involving a sea battle, spoiled cities, wolven creatures, oracles and prophecies, and lots of bloody battles. This book is just fun–but it’s also pretty hardcore. Hayden writes a series of young adult novels that take place in the same world, but White Tigress is certainly rated M for mature. There’s sex, blood and gore galore, and the book makes no apologies for it. But at the same time, I wouldn’t say it’s gratuitous–it fits in with the tropes of the genre (without the flagrant sexism of the Conan stories).

One thing that really stuck me about this book–and Hayden’s writing in general–is the amount of research that’s been put into it. It’s obvious that he has an affinity for Eastern culture, and things such as weaponry and meditation techniques feel authentic to the book, while serving as a respectful nod to the cultures that inspired them. Quite a lot went into the world building, (something I’ll touch on in an upcoming interview), and it comes through as a well thought out and vibrant setting. It lends a unique aura to the book; it’s not Persian or Indian or Chinese, but a cohesive combination of them all.

Also impressive is the way magic is presented. As I’ve mentioned before, Hayden uses an intriguing system of magic: spirits of  a long dead race have been captures in stones called Qarvra, which allow the wielder to command powerful spells. Some are more adept than others, and this gives a nice range of powers that can be tapped into. It’s an elegant system; all too often magic is used as a deus ex machina, but not here. It adds a crucial element to the book without becoming center stage.
Alongside the use of Qarvra is another system: Star magic. This is shown only once or twice, and it’s enticing–I certainly want to see more. Nalsyrra (who also appears in Hayden’s Chains of a Dark Goddess,) is Ojaka’ari, a mysterious creature who is granted extreme power by the Star Spirits. She’s in the service of Salahn, but her fealty is to the Star Spirits, who grant her the gift of prophecy. She’s a compelling character, and I wish she had been explored more fully, but what we have of her is tantalizing. But, to go into her story any further would have taken away from the book’s plot, and we couldn’t have that!

The characters are, by and large, great. Jaska is well written and the anguish over the choices he’s made in the past is a clear call to action; Zyrella is a sensual and strong woman who serves as a great foil for him; Ohzikar, a templar devoted to Zyerella, has a wonderful arc in his dealings with Jaska. Even characters with small roles like the oarsman who befriends Jaska or Nalsyrra’s lover are well developed and interesting.
There are some flaws, however. Salahn, despite being a great villain, is rather flat. He’s totally evil, and besides on small passage that shows a bit of redemption for him, he’s single minded. He’s easy to hate (good in a bad guy), but he’s not complicated. This is especially apparent because Jaska is such a wonderfully drawn and complex character.
There are also quite a lot of characters in the book. That’s to be expected for a story of this scale, but by the end of the book I found myself wanting to know more about interesting figures for which there’s little time for development.

The only other real issue I had was that at some points, the Point of View changed rather regularly within a chapter. This didn’t happen too often through the book, but when it did it was jarring; sometimes I wasn’t sure who was “leading” the story, and found myself going back a page or two. It doesn’t really disrupt the narrative, though, and if such passages were separated by some sort of divider it would have been crystal clear.

Finally, the ending. No spoilers, I promise! I rather liked how everything was tied up by the end; there’s a certain amount of tradgedy I didn’t see coming, and it fits the world and tone of the book very well. Sometimes things don’t turn out the way you want them to, even if you are a hero. It’s a well placed surprise, and one that rounded out a very enjoyable story.

All in all, Wrath of the White Tigress is what I’ve come to expect of Hayden’s work–thoughtful, exciting, and filled with adventure. There are a lot of nice little bits of worldbuilding here and there that really put a stamp on his style and voice. And it’s just plain fun–the fight scenes are awesome. Check it out!


Wrath of the White Tigress is available on Kobo and Amazon, along with several other great tales from the same world. You can also find David A. Hayden on Twitter, or on his own blog

Another Indie in Paper!

20130830-191938.jpgA nice quick post this afternoon–just wanted to share the further success of one of my favourite Indie writers, J. M. Ney-Grimm.

Savvy readers will know Ney-Grimm from the several reviews I’ve done of her work. If you haven’t read any of her stories yet, go check them out–they’re set in a Nordic fantasy world, often based on fairy tales (or such tropes), and have a very characteristic “effervescent” style. Well written, fun stories.

One of those stories, Sarvet’s Wanderyar, has been on my plate for a while. I’ll be reviewing it coming up soon on the blog, but wanted to share her good news now: she’s published it in paperback! You can get the book on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and CreateSpace. You can read about her release here.

And while you’re at it, why don’t you check out her work on Amazon and Kobo? Trust me, they’re great books.

Of Books and Beer

My first home made beer

My first home made beer

We’re going to do something fun today. As I’ve maintained this blog over the past several months, I’ve thought about what it means to be Indie. Indie publishing; Indie music; Indie film…they all have to do with not moving beyond consumption of a product toward developing it yourself. Putting your own stamp on it, as it were, outside the regulations, cultural mores, or “supposed-to-haves” of the traditional model.

And as I thought about this, it occurred to me that I’m doing something similar with my newest hobby–making beer.

I’ve wanted to try home brewing for quite a while, and after pulling out my first batch this past weekend, I can say it was a really fun experience. I enjoy a good beer, but there’s nothing quite like sipping your own brew. A satisfaction not altogether unlike seeing your book in the Amazon store. In fact, home brewing isn’t that different from writing and publishing your own work, once you get past the malt and yeast.

So, for a bit of fun, here’s a few reasons why Home Brewing is like Indie Publishing:

The recipes vary, but you always start with the same ingredients
The great thing I’m learning about beer is that once you get past the Budweisers and Coors and Alexander Kieth’s (previously my favourite), there’s an enormous variety out there. Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown tastes like hazlenut and chocolate; Weihenstephaner makes a dunkel that’s like buttered and toasted rye; the Vermont Pub and Brewery makes their own sour beer that’s like a mix between cider and brandy. But when you get down to it, this incredible variety comes down to four ingredients: malt, yeast, hops and water.

Likewise, there’s as many different types of fiction as there are writers. Our trade defines variety by way of our creativity. And yet, any good story has essential ingredients like plot, character, conflict, a call to action, and so on. As with great beer, the variety comes with how those ingredients play off each other, and how well you use them.

You have to know the rules before you break them
In beer making, sanitising is paramount. It’s so easy for your beer to become infected from the tools you use, not washing your hands, even yeast that’s gone off. The result is a lot of bad flavours in the beer–or worse, a bacterial infection. But there’s an exception to every rule: sour beer is, quite literally, beer that’s become infected and been allowed to develop “off flavours.” It’s an aquired taste, but much sought after in the craft brew world. The thing is, you can’t just infect your beer and hope it will turn out–you have to know what you’re doing, and where it’s appropriate to introduce an infection that might otherwise kill your brew.

The best writers know when to follow the rules, and when to break them. They can tell instead of showing and get away with it. They can add pages of flat exposition with such flair that the reader doesn’t care. Star Wars has some of the most tired and overused tropes in storytelling–but it works, because Lucas knew how to make those cliches work for him. Anyone can break all the rules and try to be revolutionary–only an artist can pull it off.

It’s not impossible, but it’s not simple
The first thing that surprised me when learning how to make beer was how easy it looked. The second thing was how difficult is really was. Beer making really comes down to balancing your ingredients properly, adding things at the right times, and making sure everything is clean. You can pick up a brew kit as a complete novice and brew a decent batch in six weeks with no experience or hand holding. But if you want to be good at it, you have to hone your craft. I’ve talked to people who’ve gone deep enough to grow their own malt, hops, and yeast. It’s one of those things where you’re going to get out of it what you put into it.
Writing’s much the same. Anyone can put a plot on the page, but that’s not really writing. It seems easy, and on the surface, it is–many writers plonk down their first draft without breaking a sweat. But it’s the crafting of that story that’s hard, and I’d venture to say that few people become absolute masters. The really good writers are the ones who make it look easy, knowing full well just how difficult it really is. But on the other hand, it’s not an unapproachable craft–just pick up a pen, put it to the page, and see where it takes you. Like beer making, you can go as deep as you want.

Carelessness can ruin the batch
Remember what I said about sterilization? I’d say at least 70% of the time it took to brew my first batch was taken up with cleaning. It took me fully an hour and a half to properly clean all the bottles before I was able to prime my beer–filling them took about twenty minutes. Fortunately, there are tools to help cut down that time, but it’s still crucially important. And it’s not just proper cleaning–if you add your hops at the wrong time, you’ll introduce an oily bitter taste; too much malt can make it overly sweet; not allowing it to ferment long enough can produce exploding bottles that sends glass through drywall. There’s an adage in the craft brew world that it’s really hard to completely ruin a batch, but by the same token, if you don’t watch what you’re doing, it’s not going to turn out as you like.
You can probably see where I’m going with this one. The Indie Publishing oeuvre is rife with badly edited or composed books. I’ve read some that had a decent story, but were nearly impossible to get through because of paper thin characters and ridiculous spelling mistakes. These are people who haven’t made full use of the resources available to them, or have simply sent out a book they wanted to publish in a hurry, long before it was ready. It might not take an English major to write a good novel, but a writer at least needs to take good care of their story. Otherwise, like bad beer, it’s just hard to swallow. Which leads to…

Patience, patience, patience!
This last one is probably the most important, and it’s easy to fall victim to it on both fronts. A hastily published book–without proper editing, cover art, formatting and so on–is pretty obvious. It turns readers off, and can damage your platform. And a lot of writing is about getting those fine details right–not just spelling and white space, but asking if your character arcs make sense, or if your continuity’s off. These are things that can’t be accomplished on your first draft–you need to be patient as you work them out.

Likewise, patience is the absolute key when brewing beer. One of the biggest reasons a batch can fail is because it was rushed–and in fact, many first time brewers dump a batch that would have been perfectly fine, given time to condition properly.
I’m experiencing this right now, actually. My first batch was scheduled to finish last Friday, so I put a couple bottles in the fridge. After more than six weeks of anxiously waiting to tip back the first bottle, I was chomping at the bit–but the first glass (pictured above) tasted watery and thin. The flavour was there, but something was missing.
I did some research, and found that this is pretty common–it just means it hasn’t had enough time to carbonate. Notice that it’s got a thick head but almost no bubbles in the beer? The carbonation is coming out of the beer too fast; it hasn’t had time to properly dissolve in the liquid. So I’m leaving it for now, and will try another bottle each week until it’s ready–be patient!

Okay, a bit longer than usual, but I had some fun writing this post. If you enjoy beer and haven’t thought about making it, pop over to Home Brew Talk to learn more. Or visit your local home brew store–usually they’ll sell wine kits too. There is an initial investment, but honestly it’s not hard to do–and what beer aficionado wouldn’t love to quaff his own hand made brew?

Indie Interview: Ryan Casey

As a follow up to my review of his book Killing Freedom last week, today we’re being visited by Ryan Casey! I was impressed on a few levels with his book, and so I invited him to come here for another interview. As usual, my questions are in bold, his answers in regular text. Enjoy!

1. One thing that impressed me about this book is the amount of research you must have put into it. Can you tell us about your research process?

I’m going to throw an immediate spanner in the works and admit that I’m probably the worst researcher on the planet. Researching tends to bog down my first drafting process, and sucks the life out of the details. However, you’re right — I did have to research Killing Freedom, mainly because of a lot of technicalities with regards to all sorts of upbeat things, such as the correct lifting of dead bodies, and such.

That said, all of this research tended to come later in the process. After I finish a first draft, I go through it and make notes on areas that I know I need to elaborate on. Something I did have to try and account for was how Jared had managed to evade the police for so many years, but I think with the gang/government overarching narrative, I did a pretty decent job on it.
So, yes. Research can be a pain, but I think it’s about finding what works for you as a writer, then sticking with that.

2. Jared is a great example of how a character shouldn’t rely on the plot–his occupation is a convention that could be changed without damaging the character. Which came first–the moral conundrum or the story?

It’s the old ‘chicken or the egg?’ question, reframed for a twenty-first century audience! But that’s interesting because with Killing Freedom, I knew I wanted to write a hitman novel of some form, but I wasn’t initially aware of the dilemma. It was only when I started digging into Jared’s backstory — asking questions, writing down stream-of-consciousness thoughts — that I understood his dilemma. I think any character with a strong enough dilemma is enough to create a good story. Jared’s dilemma is that he wants to be free, but he can’t be free because he’s a career hitman. The main source of transformation in the book, without spoiling too much, revolves around Jared reframing his relationship to that goal of freedom, which hopefully makes for an interesting read. I don’t always write my books like this, but it definitely worked in the case of Jared. He’s a fascinating character.

3. There were some moments in this book that seemed inevitable, but were still shocking–one character’s fate in particular. Are the twists and turns in your writing planned, or do they surprise even you? 

Thank you — that’s one of the biggest compliments I can receive. I always try to surprise readers, but I keep it within reason. I love creating suspense around the inevitable, if that make sense? As for that particular moment (slight spoiler alert) I was a little worried I’d make a villain out of Jared, but I think there’s something so sad and tragic about that scene too. Initially, it was a little bit lengthier, but I like ending the scene on that image of the indentation in the long grass on the horizon. It’s a really sparse, really lonely moment, and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written. I teared up writing it, I’m not gonna lie. It’s sinister, but it’s so, so sad, because that moment is Jared realising that everything he’s ever wanted is impossible. I’m pleased it worked for you, as a reader.

4. This book is violent, but never seems gratuitous when it easily could have been. Where do you draw the line between violence for the plot and violence for it’s own sake?

Thanks. I was worried Killing Freedom might go a little over the top in terms of violence because I was watching a lot of films like Drive and some Grindhouse stuff at the time. The reason I didn’t make the violence gratuitous is because I actually believe that it’s the smaller, more relatable pains that affect us more, as readers. If I wrote a scene where loads of people blew up in an explosion, then sure, that’s violent, but we can’t relate to that. However, our skin being cut by a sharp knife, or some rusty scissors? That’s real. It’s domestic items causing a lot of pain. The sequel (which I’m working on at the moment) also has some violent scenes, and again, I’m trying to find that line between necessary/unnecessary violence. I like to think that all violence should have a purpose — to advance the plot. I like to think that in Killing Freedom, it really does.

5. Everyone loves an anti-hero–what’s it like getting inside the head of a killer?

A lot of fun! Jared’s an interesting character because the sense is that deep down, he’s not all that bad a person. He’s sympathetic, despite all the terrible things he’s done in the name of somebody else. Killing Freedom really explores Jared’s relationship with killing for somebody else, and his realisation of whether he is truly comfortable with that. The sequel will explore another emotion, that I don’t want to go into too much yet, but it’s the natural and logical progression from book one.
And there we have it. If you haven’t had a chance, you can pick up Casey’s newest novel here. And of course, you can find him online at his blog, and on Twitter. Stay tuned for more reviews and interviews coming up!

Indie Review: Killing Freedom by Ryan Casey

There’s precisely one thing I don’t like about reading–plowing through a book so quickly you lose the chance to savour it. Now, if it’s a good book, I don’t mind too much, but it’s always a tad disappointing when you get to the end and realize you swallowed it whole. You can never go back and chew it slowly, wondering what the next mouthful will bring.

Although I’m a fast reader, it’s not often that I finish a book in one or two sittings. But with Ryan Casey, it’s becoming something of a habit. I devoured his newest novel, Killing Freedom, reading most of it while waiting for my plane at the airport; his trademark tension and the breakneck pace of the book was too much for my palate to resist–down the hatch!

In all seriousness, Killing Freedom is yet another success for Casey. I’m quite fond of him as a writer–there’s a youthful exuberance  behind his words that belies his passion for the art, but it’s tempered with a very mature voice. He feels like a seasoned author, despite releasing his first novel only last year. And while this newest offering is–in my opinion–not quite as well honed as What We Saw, it’s by no means the Curse of the Second Book. It’s an excellent offering, and well worth the $3.98 price tag.

Ostensibly, the book is about a hired killer who’s having a change of heart–but really, it’s the characterization of Jared that drives it. He’s in a tough spot: he kills people for a living but yearns to be free. As several characters in the book point out, it’s not the kind of job you just walk away from. But he feels he owes it to himself (and his sister) to at least try. This kind of character driven plot can be challenging to do well because you need to be sure your character is strong, well developed, and easy to sympathize with. This is doubly difficult if your character is an anti-hero like Jared.
But Casey pulls it off. He does a great job of making the reader care about Jared’s predicament, despite the evil things he does. There’s another hitman in the book, Frank, that acts as a nice character foil–he does the same job as Jared, but takes perverse pleasure in it. Best of all, Jared’s better at the job. The first scene they share is a great moment in the book because it demonstrates what Jared could have been, but for the grace of God, if you will. It’s that subtle difference that makes Jared believable, and makes the book work. 

As I read the book, I noticed a very quick change in Jared–no spoilers, but he’s sent to kill a family, and starts to doubt whether it’s the right choice. His early interactions with the family is the only thing that didn’t work well for me. Jared’s change of heart seems almost too quick–though looking back on his arc, I think that’s more because I was blowing through the book so quickly. Moreover, he seems a bit naive in his thinking that things can change, that this family will be the difference. He also seems to worry a lot about getting caught, making him seem unconfident in his own abilities. Of course, Jared needs this dilemma and second guessing to move his character along, and I don’t fault Casey for the way it’s written. It’s just that Jared seems to take a few things at face value which perhaps–as a seasoned killer and man or the world–he should be more cautious about.

Of course, there’s another way to look at it too: Jared’s simply so desperate to get out that he can’t see the forest for the trees. When all you can see is that one glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, it’s easy to miss the dangers that lurk on the way there. This interpretation works better for the book, though in all honesty it’s only something that became apparent to me after I finished reading.

All of the “set up” for the character development takes place in the first third or so of the novel–then there’s an Incident, including the scene with Frank, and everything goes to…well, there’s trouble. This scene is very disturbing, but not because of the violence (which is there in spades). It’s due to that difference between Frank and Jared, and how they respond to violence against the innocent. It perfectly highlights why Jared needs to change–his call to action, as it were. It’s a riveting scene, all the more so because you get a sinking feeling that it won’t end well.

From here on, the book is a roller coaster of circumstance as Jared tries to keep ahead of his choices. I don’t think I’m spoiling it by saying there are more failures than successes, because that’s what makes Jared’s journey so believable–he just can’t catch a break. This in turn informs the pace of the book, which gets more and more intense as it builds to a climax I almost saw coming, but desperately didn’t want to read. I won’t even touch on that scene for fear of ruining it for the reader–but suffice it to say a choice is made that upset me enough I had to put down the book and take a bit of a walk. And yet, Casey made exactly the right move–it’s the defining moment of Jared’s character, and justifies the entire story.

On that note, I should mention the book’s violence. It’s not gratuitous, which is admirable because it easily could have been a very bloody book. And while there is a good deal of violence, it never feels out of place, serving to further the plot as well it should. It;s the characters reactions to violence that make the impact here; the blood is secondary.

I haven’t touched much on the plot specifically because, to my mind, it doesn’t really matter. Of course it’s the plot that makes the story, but in the case of Killing Freedom, it’s the character that makes the book.

I’m going to use an odd analogy here, so bear with me: Star Trek is such a great series because, despite it being science fiction, the science part of it doesn’t really matter. You could take a good Star Trek episode and wash it clean of all mention of science and technology and space utopia, and it would still be a good story. The science fiction part is just a convention, a consequence of the genre, and while it certainly helps put those stories into context, they don’t rely on it.
In much the same way, Jared has hard choices to make, and he’s in a difficult situation, but that situation could be something different from hitman and the character would work just as well. What Casey has done here is create an Everyman, a universal figure we can relate to, even though his occupation is something we’d never have direct experience with. It’s not common that you find such a character in a book, and while the way he’s written isn’t perfect, it’s really damn good.

You can pick up Killing Freedom on Amazon. Ryan Casey is online at his blog, and on Twitter. Visit the Amazon and Kobo stores for more of his library.

Mind Maps Done Right–Scapple for Windows is Here!

I didn’t intend to do a post today, but got an exciting announcement via Twitter this week–Scapple for Windows is in a free open beta!

Those of you who’ve followed this blog know I’m a fan of Literature and Latte’s word processing program Scrivener–most Indie writers use it, or have at least tried it. But, it’s a MAC OS program, and took a while to come to Windows. The ‘port is extremely useful, though it lacks a few of the features of the MAC version. If you haven’t already, you can check it out here.

Scapple is the much-touted companion program to Scrivener. It’s mind-mapping software–you can jot your ideas down on the virtual page, connect them, move them around, and generally brainstorm to your heart’s content. I’ve been using Microsoft OneNote for this, and it works fine…but it’s lacking. It doesn’t integrate with Scrivener, I’ve had issues synchronizing files across computers, and using it alongside Scrivener is counter-intuitive.
Scapple does integrate with Scrivener (well, sort of…keep reading), and being made by the same company, the two programs are designed to work in concert. But Windows users have had to wait patiently while MAC users reap the benefits of this robust program.

Until now. If you’re a Windows user, you can go here to download the open beta, and try it for yourself.

My first impression of this product is that it’s…impressive. There’s a unique simplicity to it–there’s zero pretense. It’s brainstorming software, and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Some people may not like that it doesn’t have a billion features, but I rather prefer it–it’s like an extension of Scrivener, and that’s all it needs to be.

Here’s what you do: double click anywhere in the program window, type your note. Double click elsewhere to type another note–then drag that to the first one to create a connection. (Press the Alt key as you do this to create an arrow). Do it again to remove the connection.

And apart from a few tricks, that’s it. But really, it’s all that’s needed. Very nice. Here’s a screenshot after I fiddled with it for a few minutes:



Now, keep in mind that this is a beta. I noticed that the spellcheck doesn’t work correctly (it would insert the correct spelling into the middle of a word, creating an extra-wrong spelling). More importantly, the Scrivener integration doesn’t seem to have been added yet.* You can export your Scapple file and insert it into Scrivener, but the Drag and Drop feature doesn’t work–probably because it requires you to use Scrivener’s “Free Form Corkboard” feature, which isn’t available in Windows.

*Marta posted a workaround in the comments below. Simply create a Scapple file then add it as a Project Reference in Scrivener. Whenever you open Scrivener, you cal right click on the project reference and open in the default editor–bingo! It’s not exactly imported into Scrivener, but it’s as good as. I’ve tried it and it works like a charm. Thanks for the tip, Marta!

Still, it’s an excellent tool to complement an already excellent tool. Definitely recommended! I’m going to continue playing with it, and will probably post about it again soon–in the meantime, try it for yourself, and tell me what you think!

Scapple is available in open beta until September 15 2013. Once version 1.0 is ready, it will go on sale, probably for the same price as the MAC version at $14.99. Here’s a features page–but keep in mind it’s for the MAC version.

Still here, Still Reading!


It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I’ve had lapses before here, but never so long as a month–for that, I apologize. I can’t say anything specific took me away from writing here, but there we are–and I’m back.

can say that I did quite a lot of reading in the last month, including a few Indie books (reviews coming!) and falling back in love with a favourite author I’d forgotten–Stephen King. I haven’t read a King book in years, and it was a pleasure to get back to his stark, conversational, downright creepy style. In fact, with his experimenting with eBooks early on in the format, I think there’s potential for a blog post there…

In the meantime, I have several posts planned for the next couple weeks. I’ll be reviewing books from some of my favourite Indies–Ryan Casey and David A Hayden coming soon, and J. M. Ney-Grimm and Lindsay Buroker on the horizon–and we’ll have an interview or two. I’ll also talk about popular iPhone apps for writers, creating systems of magic, and why self-publishing is like making your own beer.

So stay tuned, and keep reading–we’ll be back to our regular programming shortly.


Site Update–And Why I Only Write Good Reviews

Just a quick, no nonsense post today–but an important one. I’ve made a long-awaited addition to the blog: look up, and you’ll see a link to a page where I’ve collected all the Indie Reviews I’ve written so far on Speaking to the Eyes. Since I decided to focus on Indie Reviews back in January, it’s proven a good direction for this blog–and this is the next logical step.

I’ll update it as I add new reviews to the site, and eventually I intend to fill out the page with links to Amazon or Kobo where you can buy the books I’ve reviewed. In the meantime, the list contains everything I’ve reviewed so far, listed in alphabetical order.

So…why are they all good reviews?

Fellow Indie and favourite on this site, J. M. Ney-Grimm, sent me a link to a blog quite a while back about writing only good reviews. She said it fit right in line with what I was doing, because I don’t review books I don’t like. I’ve unfortunately lost the link, but in a nutshell it said: don’t waste your time being negative.

Reviewing a book is a time consuming process. The scholar in me hopes I make it look easy–but really, it isn’t. Besides reading tons of books (something I’ve always been good at!), you have to read them with a critical eye. You need to take notes, pay attention to little details like plot holes, typos, the coherence of the World, and so on. At this point, reading ceases to be recreational–it’s a job.

Now, don’t get me wrong–I still love doing it, and I enjoy every word I read. There’s the old adage that if you love what you’re doing, you won’t work a day in your life, and that’s the case here. Some of my fondest memories of University were of holing myself up in the library for ten plus hours doing research for a paper. I get an honest thrill out of explicating literature, finding little connections and “ah-ha!” moments in a book, and learning why good fiction works.

But what it all boils down to is that reviewing a book takes a good amount of effort. And, quite frankly, it’s a lot less enjoyable when I’m reading a book that just isn’t that good. And I’ve come across many–I’d estimate that 1 in 5 Indie books that I’ve read are just tossed aside, unreviewed (though never unfinished). It’s not that they’re not worth reviewing–and in many cases, I can see great potential in what really amounts to a poorly edited or constructed work. I’d rather just enjoy the book for what it is (good or bad,) and not worry about working at it.

And there’s another–very important–aspect to this. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. One of the most valuable lessons I learned in University about critiquing literature is to avoid the “poison pen syndrome.” If you don’t like something, that’s fine–but don’t be a dick about it. There are hundreds of examples of poison pen reviews out there, and they serve absolutely no purpose other than raining on the author’s parade. If someone writes a bad book, they shouldn’t be bullied and mocked for it–they should be encouraged to try again.

I choose not to review poorly written books because it wouldn’t help anyone. It wouldn’t do the author any good to see that I didn’t like their work–if they even care what I think. It wouldn’t help my enthusiasm for writing this blog. And it certainly wouldn’t help push readers toward Indie work, or help sell books.

So there you have it. If you’ve ever read through my reviews and wondered why I tend to gush about how good a book is, that’s you’re answer. I enjoy each and every book I review on this site, and I’d recommend them all. But, to quote the master of reading advocacy, you don’t have to take my word for it…pick up an Indie book today and see for yourself!