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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Five books, four authors

Norfolk Island offers lots of opportunities

There is that gorgeous scenery to admire.

And the locals are interesting.  Most of them are descendants of the mutineers of the Bounty, with names like Quintal, McCoy, Young, and Christian.

There is a terrific lot of fascinating history (more about that later).

And it offers total relaxation, away from the hustle of the modern world. There is no casino, stadium, or theme park, and the shopping, while great, takes up just an hour or so. Internet is slow and patchy, and there is no cellphone coverage unless you have global roaming (hugely expensive) or a local plan. So there's that unrivaled opportunity to catch up on reading.

As the subject line indicates, while on the island I read five books, by four authors. They were all digital editions, being easily carried on my iPad. By sheer coincidence, only one was traditionally published.  All the rest were Indies, though one could be called a sort-of-hybrid, being from a cooperative, Old Salt Press.

The duo were Fin Gall and Dubh-linn, by James L. Nelson, which he has very successfully published under his own imprint, Fore Topsail Press. Mea culpa that I had not read the first, Fin Gall, before, but I suspect that it added to the fun that I read the two in tandem.  These rousing stories of Vikings rampaging about Ireland about the 800's are as much fun as a punch-up at a rugby football game, and with quite a lot in common, being focused on brawn and fury. What retrieves them from ordinary slug-fest fiction is, first, the sharp sense of historic accuracy, and second, the larger than life, truly memorable characters. What could have been a chaotic series of battles was webbed together by the machinations of two devious and ambitious women. Thorgrim the Night Wolf is the main protagonist, and, originally and intriguingly, a shape-shifter. A stand-out character is the attractive maniac who features in the second book, Starri Deathless. I look forward to meeting them all again.  Hugely entertaining.

And then there was another sequel, Britannia's Reach, which is Antoine Vanner's second Dawlish novel. A stand-alone book if ever there was one, it would be very easily read by someone unfamiliar with Nicholas Dawlish, as no knowledge of the previous adventure is needed.  There is a totally different setting, for a start.  Where Dawlish battled the Balkan winter as well as Russian enemies in the first, he is now on a steamy South American river, fighting in the cause of a truly contemptible commercial consortium.  This makes it a very much darker story, with an even stronger message than the first.  While it seems a pity to see an honorable man like Dawlish so humiliated, the reasons for him accepting this commission are easily understood.  And one really does have to admire Vanner's grasp of the setting, both physical and political, and his ability to communicate this with his readers. Where will he stage the next adventure? One can only wait and see.

Catching up with reading meant yet another sequel, in this case V.E. Ulett's second in the Captain Blackwell adventure series, Blackwell's Paradise.

When I read the first, Captain Blackwell's Prize, I was enchanted by her heroine, Mercedes, who had everything going for her - looks, guts, and a marvelous adaptability that meant she never strayed out of the role expected of a woman in the Georgian Era. In this second book, set in the wild Pacific during the early 1800s, she meets and conquers even greater hurdles.

A twist in the plot meant the the author set herself a huge challenge, as it involved a vast change in the personality and psychology of her protagonist, Blackwell. It was one that she met with the same courage as her heroine.

Again, this is a sequel that could be read on its own.

The sole traditionally published book was Sleight of Hand, by Kate Wilhelm.  I have been a fan of Wilhelm for as long as I can remember -- first for her science fiction (The Clewiston Test being particularly outstanding), and then for her Barbara Holloway series. This started with the excellent Death Qualified, A Mystery of Chaos, which was a gripping mixture of science fiction and murder mystery. Then, in the following books, the character of Holloway, a low-key lawyer who operates out of a bistro-cafe, is more deeply explored, and the genre is traditional courtroom drama.

Sleight of Hand is the eighth in the series, and is as smoothly told and compulsively readable as the rest. A convicted pickpocket, who has turned his life around to become a respected entertainer is accused of first, the robbery of a golden boat, and second, the murder of the owner of the boat.  Then the body of the murderee's wife turns up, and Holloway's job is not just to defend the pickpocket, but to prove that the dead man was a killer.

What struck me after reading these five was that how evenly matched they were.  The Indie storytellers were just as good as the experienced traditionally published writer  -- the settings were as evocative, the characters as recognizable, and the writing as expert.  The authors had put just as much thought and effort into their work as the professional -- perhaps even more.  Their jackets were certainly better than the uninspired open window in the traditionally published book.

In a recent interview with James L. Nelson, he commented that there is a lot of rubbish being published independently. But, though he is undoubtedly right, the four Indie books I read on Norfolk Island give good grounds for feeling optimistic about a bright future for independent publishing.

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