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.

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Quick Update

Just want to write a quick note saying that I’ve decided to take the plunge: The Ancestor and Other Stories is now available only through Amazon as part of their KDP Select program!

I’ve been toying with this idea for a while now, and although there are pros and cons on both sides of the board, I’ve decided that the potential for exposure will greatly outweigh the lack of other stores to buy it in. After all, I’ve been making sales on Amazon, but nothing has gone through on Kobo yet.

The biggest challenge I’m facing as a first time self published author is getting my name out there. Sure, I could tweet my books and beg people to buy it all I want–but that’s not going to get me anything but blacklisted. I need honest readers to pick it up, leave reviews, or tell their friends. And KDP Select can help with that.

The most appealing thing, I think, is the five promotional days. Ryan Casey just had a fabulous success over the weekend with his promotion, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me think twice about trying it myself. Of course, he’s already out there; I’m still testing the waters, so it may not be as effective for me.

But it’s better than just staring at all the folks in the swimming pool, waiting for someone to invite me in. 🙂

Indie Review: Something in the Cellar by Ryan Casey

We’re going to try something different today.

Something in the Cellar

Something in the Cellar by Ryan Casey

As a burgeoning indie writer, one of the first things I learned is that the community is awesome. There are a lot of people in the same position as me–or those who’ve been there before–and they’re willing to help out. So I’m going to start a new segment on this blog to do my part: reviewing works by indie writers. This will be ongoing, but I can’t promise a regular weekly column (I don’t have that much time to read!). I’ll try to do at least one review every couple weeks.

For our first review, we have Ryan Casey’s Something in the Cellar, which you can find on Amazon here. This is a collection of two horror/suspense stories and an except from What We Saw, Casey’s upcoming novel.

Something in the Cellar opens the book, and it’s got a great premise: a woman has killed her husband and locked the body in the cellar. She spends the story wracked with guilt, rationalizing her actions–all while trying to keep her dog and young son from discovering the crime.

This story could have gone a lot of different ways. After I read the first paragraphs, I expected the protagonist to be a hands-rubbing-together villain, and the story to centre on her vile crime. Thankfully, that’s not the case; Sandra ends up being a layered figure, and nothing is as it seems. The reader quickly gets on her side, not because of her motives (which are revealed gradually) but out of empathy. She’s a genuinely likeable character, despite what she’s done.

Likewise, I expected something different from the tension and its resolution. I don’t want to spoil the story, so suffice it to say that what you think is causing the tension is resolved, only to reveal a new source in the last pages. The end of the story comes at the reader very quickly, and Casey’s use of short sentences and tense language creates a creepy atmosphere. This is one of those stories where, after reading the last sentence, you set it down just to catch your breath. I honestly didn’t see it coming, and wanted to read more–but the “hang” is perfectly effective as it is, and resolving it would have lessened the work.

Next is The Runaway. It opens at breakneck speed, and the reader is left feeling like they’re chasing the protagonist. All the while, questions are being asked; the protagonist doesn’t know who or where she is, or even why she’s running. But she knows she must keep going.

This story is tense for a different reason than the first. It’s not frightening, really, but there’s an underlying ‘creepiness’ to it. Because the reader knows just as little as the protagonist, they are left in the dark, grasping every clue in an attempt to figure it out. Casey is good at giving those clues bit by bit, just slowly enough to keep you interested without being vague. This means a loss of power for the reader; when we read a story, we want to be in control, to be able to figure things out at our own pace and revel in the deduction. Casey takes that away from the reader, and the result is unsettling, in a good way.

However, I felt that the resolution for this story wasn’t as satisfying as Something in the Cellar. I was a bit confused by the end; although I got the gist of what Casey was saying, certain details were lacking. Instead of creating subtle questions for the reader that they could answer on their own–which I think was the writer’s intent–it left me wondering about the motives of the characters. I still think it’s a great story, but it could have used some clarification in the final pages.
All in all, this is a great collection, and it’s a steal at $0.99. In my short time as an indie writer, I’ve read a good amount of other indie fiction, and Casey definitely stands apart from the crowd. He has a talent for creating tension, and seems to understand that true horror writing isn’t about scaring your readers–it’s about leaving them unsettled enough that they scare themselves.

Ryan Casey has another short story–Silhouette–which is also available at Amazon here. His first full length novel, What We Saw–is set for release in January 2013. You can find Ryan online at ryancaseybooks.com.

And stay tuned for tomorrow’s post, where we’ll be talking to the man himself!

Formatting eBooks–for Newbs

Last time, we spoke about the very basics of doing a book cover–today, another integral piece of the puzzle, formatting!

Before I got into e-publishing, I thought I knew what publishers wanted when you submit your manuscript. There are certain protocols you’re supposed to follow–name in the upper left corner, word count in the upper right, etc. The purpose of this is for the agent or publisher to have a quick reference, and for the editor to be able to easily get around your work. In e-publishing, though, the writer is filling most of those roles, so the game is completely different.

So why not just write the book in MS Word the way you want it to look, upload it to Kobo or Amazon, and press publish?

If you do that, I’ll guarantee you one thing: the end product will look horrible.

The thing is, a lot of the formatting in MS Word–or other word processors for that matter–is done in the background, where you can’t see it. Here’s an experiment: go to the View tab,

Word Formatting Marks

Formatting Marks: note there are even dots to indicate the space between words.

and find the option that shows your formatting marks. (In Word, go to Options, Display, and Show All Formatting Marks.) Your manuscript will be riddled with symbols; this is coding Word inputs into your file as you’re writing to determine what the output will look like. What many people don’t realize is that Word is not a What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get program. Far from it!

Here’s another experiment. Copy a paragraph of your manuscript, open a blank file in Notepad, and paste it. The text should go, unbroken, on one line, and you’ll have to scroll to the right to see it all. This is because .txt files, unlike files from word processors, don’t have “Word Wrap,” meaning that the text will go on forever until a new paragraph is started. Looks hard to read, right? Surely we want our manuscripts to “wrap” when we format them for eBooks, right?

Actually, no. The thing is, there’s no standard for electronic books. Many–I’d even say most–go with the ePub format, while others–like the ubiquitous Amazon Kindle books–are .mobi files. There are several other formats; the point is, they’re all programmed differently. So when you upload a particular file to, say, Kobo, it might look vastly different when Amazon gets a hold of it. The difference comes in how those files interact with the formatting marks I mentioned earlier.

I haven’t experimented with every kind of file, so I can’t tell you yet which works best–what I can say is that, for the sake of your own sanity, the easiest thing to do is start with a raw file. I do a lot of my writing in MS Word through Google Docs–because it’s accessible anywhere, even on my phone–and copy and paste the text into Scrivener. Scrivener can output into several file types, including Real Text Format (rtf) or the MS Word .doc. Of, you can export it as a text file. This is the raw text–no formatting at all.

What I’ve been doing is exporting as a text file, then opening up a program called Sigil, a WYSIWYG editor (unlike Word!). Sigilis basically an HTML editor, meaning you’ll be coding in the same way you would a web page–or an eBook. It’s really simple to use, and you don’t need any experience with HTML. Just copy and paste your work, create headings (which will create a table of contents for you), and images if you have them, italicize and bold your text if need be. That’s it! There’s a handy tutorial here, and the whole process isn’t very long or arduous (though poetry is another story–it took a while to get Muzak for the Metro to look right).

It might even be simpler, though. I haven’t tried it yet, but I imagine you could output your Scrivener files as an eBook, which would open in Sigil. This way, you do most of your formatting as you work in Scrivener, and use Sigil for touch-ups.

Once that’s done, you use Calibre to tweak things like metadata and making sure everything is “just so.” But that’s a topic for another post.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to eBook formatting, but it’s a start, and it’s a lot easier than some might lead you to believe. If you want to check out a sample of just how this turns out, you can go to Amazon to find the eBook I created with this process (including a cover) this weekend, Muzak for the Metro. It’s only $0.99, and it includes a poem that wasn’t in the original collection–plus an excerpt from “Room With a Corpse,” a short story which will appear in my forthcoming collection The Astrologers and Other Stories. Check it out!

Muzak for the Metro

In my ever continuing effort to experiment with this self-publishing thing, I spent much of the day yesterday playing with two programs: Paint.net, learning to make covers; and Sigil, an open source ePub editor, learning to format ebooks from scratch with HTML. It was enlightening–the editing, formatting, and graphic design work in publishing is two or three times the work of actually writing–but interesting. I’ll be sharing my experiences with you in the coming weeks.

But I wasn’t just fiddling around. I took my previous “test project,” Muzak for the Metro, and spruced it up a bit. I included a poem that wasn’t in there before–Adam’s Tree–and a snippet of a short story called Room With a Corpse–which will be included in full in my upcoming collection The Astrologers and Other Stories.

And now I’m happy to announce that it’s ready for sale on Amazon! You can purchase it here. If you do, please consider leaving a review!

The book has also been uploaded to the Kobo store for those of you up here in Canada, but it’s not live yet–stay tuned!

eBooks and You, Part 2.

One of the things I’d like to do with this blog is offer book reviews. I read a lot, and I love sharing books–and I hope this will be a way to show off some lesser known titles, as well as books by some indie authors who are several steps of where I am now. To get started, I’ll focus on some quick notes on some books I’ve recently read.

All of these are available through the Kobo store (which I’ve linked to), and other eBook retailers like Amazon, Barnes and Noble.

Ice Cracker 2 (And Other Stories) by Lindsay Buroker is an excellent introduction to her Emperor’s Edge series (the first book of which is offered for free at her website). Amaranthe is a cunning heroine on the run from the Empire, having been wrongly accused of crimes against the throne. With the help of master assassin Sicarius, she wants to clear their names.

To be honest, I’ve only read the title story of this collection so far, but am instantly invested in these characters. I especially like Amaranthe, a great leader who doesn’t yet realize the impact she has on people, or realize that she has the potential to change the world. I’m looking forward to diving into the entire series.

Countdown: A Newsflesh Novella  by Mira Grant. If you haven’t read the Newsflesh books–about zombies unleashed in a world where bloggers are the news, the entertainment, and the heroes–do yourself a favour and go get them now. Zombie stories are a dime a dozen, but Grant has managed to make them fresh and exciting–not to mention based in some brilliant and accurate science. This novella was released in 2011, but reading it before the trilogy will put everything into perspective–though there are also lots of throwbacks to the books one wouldn’t understand until having read the trilogy.

It’s a short but very finely woven story that focuses much less on the horror of a zombie apocalypse, and more on the almost casual coincidence that makes t come to bear. It’s also very heartfelt and moving–especially the scenes with the dog. Definately a must–and keep an eye out for Grant, she’s a definite up and comer.

The Science Fiction Megapack by various authors. There are actually a lot of “megapacks” out there–just go to your favourite eBook store and search for them. There’s one for vampires, horror stories, the Cthulhu Mythos (a personal favourite), westerns, detective stories…and more. Best of all, they’re all only $0.95!

I picked the Sci-Fi one here because I’m partial to classic science fiction stories. Across the four megapacks they offer, you’ll find stories by Issac Asimov, Ben Bova, Phillip K Dick, Murray Leinster, and dozens more. How can you pass that up for a buck?

Siddhartha: The Prince who Became Buddha by Hermann Hesse. This has been one of my favourite books for years. It’s not as short as the others in this list, but I wanted to include it because it’s just such a great book–and the Kobo store offers an epub for free!

This is the story, obviously, of the man who would become The Buddha. For those who don’t know about Buddhism, the Buddha wasn’t, and never has been, considered a deity. He was just a man who came to some startling revelations about the disparities in his life, and strove to become a better person. Struggling between hedonism and strict asceticism, he finds enlightenment in neither, but keeps pursuing it. It’s a breathtaking book.

Don’t Eat Cat: by Jess Walter. This short story is ostensibly about zombies (see a theme?) But really, like any good speculative fiction, the horror is only a convenient frame to hold a great human story. Owen has just received some bad news, and it’s gotten to him harder than he’d want to admit. Trying to come to terms with it, he seeks out his girlfriend–who left him years before after becoming addicted to a party drug that literally turned her into a zombie.

The first few pages read like a tongue-in-cheek parody of the very concept of a zombie thriller, but it quickly turns into one of the most touching short stories I’ve read in recent years (and like I said, I read a lot). Again, for only a dollar, you really can’t go wrong with this one.

And there you have it. Not the most in depth (or, admittedly, objective) reviews, but there you go. If you’ve been reading eBooks for years, you may have already seen some of these. If you’re new to this whole thing, these are great introductions…and cheap, too.

But, as LeVar himself would say…you don’t have to take my word for it!

And once again, stay tuned next week for five days of Writer’s Tools!