Wow. It's not often two novels (well one novella and one novel) can change somebodies opinion on an entire section of the publishing world, but that's just what “Jumping at Shadows” by Helen Howell and “WhitePickups” by Larry Kollar did for me with regards to the self-publishing world.
Self-published books had gotten such a bad reputation with me primarily because I had given them a try a while back. I looked for those that had gotten good reviews, perhaps had a decent sample page, heard about them via word of mouth, or were even self-published works from a best selling author who's series I had fallen in love with (but his self-pubbed stuff was crap). Very few of them were even halfway decent and I didn't bother finishing most they were so awful. The characters were 2D, the plot stupid, and the quality of the writing was horrendous. It was as if very few of the authors bothered to put them past an editor or at the very least beta readers.
So I was weary going into these two books by Helen and Larry. I really wanted them to be good and I wanted to be able to write an honest and positive review for them. And despite having read a lot of their flash fiction and knowing they were good writers, I did not have a lot of hope based on my previous track record. But oh was I wrong.
The first book I read was “Jumping at Shadows” by Helen Howell. It's a cute fantasy novella about a young girl named Belle and her friend Rosy who discover that an heirloom passed down in Belle's family has the power to allow them to teleport. But when they teleport to the strange world her ancestors are from, they find themselves in the middle of a power struggle of the highest order over the heirloom.
While this book is aimed at the YA or even MG market, and has the perfect voice for it, it came across as a solid and entertaining story for me, a guy who normally reads epic SF or literary fiction. And what it was that made it so was that it had a very unique and warm voice that made the story feel as though it was being told by a grandmother to her own granddaughters fifty years after the fact around a warm fire in a cabin by the lake. And there I was, sitting cross legged on the floor with my hands folded in my lap, silent, as the story progressed.
And even though many of the plot elements fit right in with YA and MG works, they also had a real sense of maturity much like many of the Disney movies nowadays are on the surface made for the kids, but with themes and complexities that give the adults watching their own personal level of enjoyment.
Yet what is even more amazing about it is how much detail and well scripted dialogue is peppered throughout the book, which is able to create a vivid picture of the story while not becoming overwhelming for a younger reader. Even now, three weeks after I finished reading the book, I can still picture many of the settings and characters which is in my opinion quite the accomplishment.
The only thing I think this book lacked however, was consistency with the point of view. There were some instances of head-hopping, but nothing too severe except for in two cases I remember where I was temporarily pulled out of the story. But that is getting nit-picky, especially considering this is something I see in many works supposedly looked over by professional editors. (Oh, and no typos that I caught either, which is a testament to the work in editing Helen has put in.)
Overall, I give “Jumping at Shadows” 4.5/5 stars. I highly recommend it, especially if you have a short two hour plane ride somewhere and want to read a good story cover to cover, or just to have something to read at night or really where ever.
The second book I read was “White Pickups” by Larry Kollar. In this post-apocalyptic drama, white pickup trucks start showing up around Atlanta one summer day, calling out telepathicly to people, inviting them to go for a drive, but they never come back. Within a couple days, only a small handful of humans have managed to resist the call of the trucks and find themselves in a world nearly devoid of human life. They struggle to survive, rebuild a community, and resist the urge to go for a ride themselves, as there is always a white pickup nearby, calling out to them.
This book is a prime example of how a good writer can take a silly, ridiculous idea, (hundreds of millions of mysterious white pickup trucks showing up one day to steal the souls of any human who enters them) into a fascinating read. This book has a superb cast of round characters with a wide variety of traits, both good and bad, that allowed me to latch onto them and empathize with all of their plight. It also showed a great understanding of traditional story structure, and how disrupting the flow of that traditional structure just a little in the hands of a true craftsman can create a plot that is both satisfying and genuinely surprising at the same time.
But aside from the mastery of characters and plot, what really made this book take off were the many small details about living in a post-apocalyptic world that gave the narrator an authentic and authoritative voice that I as a reader completely trusted. From the characters realizing they needed to put preservative in the gas to the stench a fridge left without power for weeks, these little things really worked. And the most amazing thing was that just about every thing that I ended up thinking would be a smart move for the community to do, they addressed shortly thereafter. I never had a moment where I yelled at them, telling them to do something completely obvious, which is something I almost always end up doing.
With the characters, Mr. Kollar also seems to have a keen understanding of human psychology, as there are many occasions when the survivors take a break as we all need to do at some point, no matter how dire our situation is, and relax. It really humanizes the characters this way, showing that they have their desires for things like entertainment, going so far as to allocate some of their generator power/gas to allow them to play video games once in a while or feeling so isolated when ones family has disappeared that sexual intimacy is one of the first things somebody will turn to in order to cope.
In summary, this book feels like it was the child of a bet the author made that he could turn any writing prompt into a brilliant story, and a bet he won. By the time I was finished, I was sold on the white pickup idea as it had become my world and I didn't bother questioning it. Everything else was so genuine, how could these phantom trucks not be real as well. I give this book a full 5/5 stars and feel this book should be heralded as the poster child for how self-publishing should be done.