The Best Book to Movie Adaptations to Watch in Quarantine (Plus a Bonus!)

Since a lot of us continue to be largely stuck in our homes due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and if you’re anything like me, the printed page and the computer/TV screen are turning out to be the main source of entertainment on a daily basis. As some of you may know, along with my developing writing skills I consider myself a bit of a film buff. Because this is a writing blog, though, I decided I’d challenge myself when making recommendations–which actually didn’t end up being that much of a challenge. There’s just so many great movies that have been made from books!

I know the “popular” opinion is that movies are always worse than the books they came from for various subjective reasons, but I personally don’t find that to be true. In many cases, films (and I took a whole grad school class recently that drives this point home) actually offer opportunities to expand on elements of the books they come from, or summarize and contract less important details the audience may not need to sit through. Here are just a few of my quarantine recommendations, in no particular order, for your viewing pleasure!

#1: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption has been, and continues to be, my favorite movie of all time: maybe not the best adaptation ever (though it is pretty darn good), but just a great, great film. If you’re not in the know, you might be shocked to learn this relatively uplifting movie about a man unjustly imprisoned and seeking escape while trying to make the prison he’s incarcerated in a better place is source from a Stephen King short story, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” Yes, Stephen King writes things that aren’t horror! Of course not all of the story is good–there’s definitely some cringe-worthy parts detailing the dark, awful realities of life in a corrupt prison system–but overall the moral of the story is that hope conquers fear, and that’s a feel-good lesson we all could use right now.

Plus, Morgan Freeman’s crack about his nickname Red being “maybe because I’m Irish” has to be the greatest book to movie inside joke ever (the character Red in King’s short story is a white Irishman, and Morgan Freeman is, well, not).

#2: The Shining (1980)

Okay, NOW it’s time for a classic King horror story. Historically, Stephen King’s horror books haven’t made great movies (I refer you to the lackluster It and the downright awful Pet Sematary, among many others), but Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining, one of King’s best novels, is the exception to the rule–probably because of the liberties it takes with its source material. King is famously critical of Kubrick’s movie version for a number of reasons, the biggest of which is that the film alters the character of Jack Torrance from a deeply flawed but relatable man driven insane by forces beyond his control to a psychopathic, willing participant in the mayhem (and when he’s played by Jack Nicholson, come on, what did you expect?).

However, regardless of how you feel about the novel or the differences between the versions, the movie is, like many Kubrick projects, a work of art. It might be the best horror movie ever made. It’s got just the right balance of the gruesome and the psychological scares and every bit of the filmmaking goes toward the singular goal of making you jump when you least expect it, and that’s the hallmark of great creative work. In this case you kind of have to divorce the different stories in your mind, but it’s well worth it.

#3: Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)

If you like high fantasy (and you’ve got, like, a LOT of time on your hands), it doesn’t get any better than this. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is probably the greatest example of book-to-film adaptations that has been or will ever be. Led by a fantastic all-star cast, spanning incredible vitas and epic battle scenes as well as heartfelt character moments, and cutting all the unneeded jargon of Tolkien’s works (great as they are) for pure, unadulterated spectacle, Lord of the Rings is well worth you time if you want to make an investment in this time of quarantine.

#4: Arrival (2016)

In this movie, an extremely high-concept sci-fi story is brought a bit down to earth and turned from a meditation on a bunch of cool ideas without a whole lot of narrative tension into a gripping and compelling story of alien visitation/invasion (I’m not going to tell you which one it is!). Arrival is based on Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life,” which examines a bunch of scientists attempting to communicate with aliens who don’t perceive time the same way we do and really gets at that universal barrier: language. How would we actually even begin to communicate with another race that is unlike us in pretty much every way possible? And then, add on the movie’s dilemma of what the military will do when they decide those aliens are a threat to our way of life.

Much as I like the original story, Chiang’s short lacks any real dramatic hook to pull me in, and if you’re not a mathematician like him a lot of the concepts might go over your head. Arrival brings it all together in a nice, neat, easily-digestible and meaningful package that still is a welcome relief from the usual “let’s go fight some aliens” sci-fi movie.

#5: The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Speaking of grounded, this is about as real as it gets: a rogue Russian submarine captain barreling toward the United States with a cargo hold full of nuclear missiles. The Hunt for Red October, based on the Tom Clancy novel of the same name, is the first appearance of Clancy’s hero Jack Ryan (played here by Alec Baldwin) on the big screen, and it doesn’t disappoint. For those who find Clancy’s novels a bit dry and overstuffed with military-speak, the movie version distills it all down to pure, uncut drama and action, with suspense, gunfights, submarine combat, and political intrigue all adding up to an awesomely entertaining movie.

Not to mention the legendary Sean Connery plays Captain Marco Ramius, who may or may not be trying to defect from his home country–his Russian accent is pretty bad, but I promise the rest of the movie more than makes up for it.

BONUS: The Expanse (2015-present)

I was on purpose trying to avoid including things that aren’t movies in this list, though there are many TV shows out there based on books that are pretty great (see Hulu’s Catch-22 and Little Fires Everywhere adaptations for reference on this), I had to mention at least one if you’re looking for a longer series to really sink your teeth into: the sci-fi epic The Expanse. Yes, it’s based on a long-running book series that’s like Game of Thrones in space, and honestly I can’t tell whether the show or the books are better most of the time. The series takes place in a retro-tech future where humanity is spread out across the solar system and political intrigue has the powers of Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt in a state of cold war. All it takes is one spark–a police investigation that stumbles onto a conspiracy of universal proportions–to light the fire of a war that will change the lives of all the characters involved.

I’m telling you, check this show out, like, right now. Even if you’re not that into sci-fi, if you like hard-core character drama and bizarre space fight scenes, this is the series for you.

My Journey with Self-Publishing

If you’ve paid attention to my social media presence or read almost any of this blog, you probably know by now that I’m a huge fan of self-publishing and indie authors in general. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: since I became actively involved in the online writing community via Twitter and other social media about three years ago, I’ve read indie authors’ works that were better than most of the currently available trade paperbacks out there, and they don’t get nearly as much exposure. There are definite advantages and limitations to self-publishing, it’s true (and maybe I’ll go more in-depth into what those are in another post), but I’ve found it’s a great potential outlet for your work if you’ve been frustrated by traditional publishing or just aren’t ready to take that step. However, if there’s one thing I can impress upon other potential self-publishers, it’s that you shouldn’t go into it without a plan. That’s been something I’ve had to learn the hard way over time–though I’m hoping to have more success in the future.

I wrote my first novel, The Showstopper, during my high school and college years, and when I graduated in 2014 I was chomping at the bit to publish it. I’d always wanted to have my name in print as an author, and in the cursory research I did on self-publishing options, Amazon’s CreateSpace (now KDP) was mentioned as a common and low-budget place for indie authors to get started. I had contemplated trying to get my book traditionally published, but back then I hadn’t gone to grad school for publishing and writing yet and had no idea how the process worked. Self-publishing seemed like the far easier road, with the added benefit of maybe spending less money and having more control over my novel. So The Showstopper was published in September 2014, relying on edits by myself and a few other trusted friends and cover art I whipped up myself with Amazon’s free cover creation software (a passable, if not inspiring, altered template cover). I made it available in both e-book and paperback format, knowing e-books would probably sell more but wanting more than anything to hold a copy of my book in my hands. I also gave very little thought to the formatting of the book at the time: while the template Amazon provided frustrated me with inconsistencies in formatting, I reasoned that it wouldn’t really matter than much to people reading the book and just plowed on ahead. I did a couple of readings at a local bookstore and got them to carry the book, selling a few copies here and there, but overall got very little interest in it. It was something nice to talk about at parties, but no more.

Of course, my attention was distracted from the lackluster reception because at that point I was deep into planning my second novel, Camp Ferguson: the first in a planned YA fantasy series I was working on featuring the hijinks of adolescent wizards at a government training camp. Never mind that I still didn’t really know what I was doing with this one and not well-versed as a writer in the ins and outs of YA either, but it was a stark contrast from my dark and gritty first novel and something I just wanted to have fun with. Again, with some editing help and beta reading from some friends and family, I put Camp Ferguson out on Amazon in late 2017, temporarily satisfied by my self-promotion via Twitter, which I had just started to become involved in, and the small events and attention I once again received locally. I spent very little money, but made very little in return, and for Camp Ferguson even hand-drew and digitally designed my own cover art for the book–a corny design that I nonetheless enjoyed.

Two things, however, ended up changing my views: firstly, my growing involvement in the online writing community, and secondly, grad school. In 2018, I had quit my first job and my life was in turmoil: I was directionless and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. The last place I had really been happy was as a student in school, and I regretted having passed up a chance to study writing to go into the more “practical” field of journalism. So I finally decided that, no matter what the cost, I wanted to go back to school. The graduate publishing and creative writing programs I became part of opened my eyes to so many things about being a writer, from the research and work involved to the ways of the publishing business and the professional standards writers have to meet in order to be taken seriously–especially in self-publishing. Furthermore, my growing interactions with other writers online just solidified this understanding for me. While everyone I met was lovely and some even supported my work by buying and reviewing it, the more examples of actually successful indie authors I saw and the more I learned about the craft and business of writing in grad school made me rethink many of my previous assumptions. I’ll admit, I was more than a little embarrassed as it became clear to me how much of a rank amateur I was and that I really hadn’t taken the time and effort to put my best work out into the world. It was a humbling, and at the same time, invaluable experience.

With that, I decided it was time to make a change. If there’s anything I’ve concluded from everything I’ve learned over the past two or three years, it’s that in many cases, indie authors have an even harder job ahead of them trying to prepare their books for release because the standards for them are so much higher than for traditionally-published work. It’s so easy for readers to dismiss an indie novel out of hand for the smallest of reasons, so we have to work doubly hard to make sure we don’t give them those reasons. And because we’re doing everything ourselves, we often have to recognize that we don’t have the requisite skills to make our works a success–this involves checking your ego at the door. While I loved my handmade Camp Ferguson cover art, for example, I realized something much more polished and professional was needed to catch readers’ eyes and not turn them away. Since I wasn’t capable of doing this, I’d have to look elsewhere, and that would cost money.

Yes, I’m sorry to say that being an indie author is not cheap. Finding affordable prices for editing, cover creation, formatting, and a plethora of other services can be extremely difficult, especially if you’re on a tighter budget. That said, the beauty of the online writing community is that you can make connections that enable you to find people who will offer you better deals and whose interests and vision align with yours much more closely than any publishing house. I took my first steps into this new reality by pulling both my books from Amazon. Don’t worry, they’ll be back! Just in a much more polished form than before. I’m currently working through edits for The Showstopper before submitting them to an actual editor (even though I think I’m a great editor, I’ve learned that we writers often aren’t the best critics of our own work) for final proofreading perfection, and I recently got a new cover for Camp Ferguson from a talented grad school friend that brings my characters to life and is better than anything I could have hoped for (watch my social media over the next few weeks to see the reveal!). I haven’t put a hard date on the latter, but right now I’m shooting to relaunch The Showstopper later this year (also with a new cover that’s TBD at the moment).

My point is that, if you want to be a successful indie author, you may have to recognize that it’s not going to be as easy as you think, and you’ll need help if you want your work to be the best it can be. You don’t want to be one of the reasons self-publishing gets a bad name. But with persistence, devotion, and perseverance, you can still have the book release of your dreams while maintaining a much higher degree of freedom and control over your work. It’s a worthwhile path that many new writers may want to explore.

A Little Get-to-Know-Me Break!

With the current pandemic keeping many of us cooped up in our homes for the foreseeable future, this week I figured I’d take a little break from talking about writing to do the next best thing: talk about myself!

I kid, of course. I’ve never really been one to toot my own horn, which is part of why I have such trouble marketing my work effectively. But especially right now, I think it’s important to get any kind of human contact we can and put a softer face on my usually professional and somewhat more reserved writer self to give you a closer look at who exactly you’re reading about every week. Specifically, I wanted to talk about what some of my other interests are and what you can find me doing when I’m not writing!

So what kinds of things occupy my time, outside my fictional endeavors? Well, I work, of course. Right now I’m a content and social media manager at The American College of Financial Services in the Philadelphia area, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., doing all kinds of marketing-related work in pushing out new content for financial advisors and corporate communications. It’s not something I thought I’d be doing, especially since I graduated with a journalism degree and never loved dealing with numbers, but it’s a great job and I love working there!

Outside of work, I’m also an ongoing graduate student at Rosemont College, studying for a dual master’s degree in creative writing and publishing. I’ve always liked being in a classroom setting with people with similar interests and discussing writing with fellow creative people, and going back to school to pursue my passion two years ago was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life. I probably have another year or two as part of the program, but I’m in no rush. It’s been hugely beneficial to my growth as a writer and a person overall.

Speaking of personal growth, the most important thing in my life outside of school and work is my training in the martial arts. Specifically, I study Tang Soo Do, a Korean martial art, but mostly I just shorthand it to “karate” so people know what I’m talking about. I started Tang Soo Do at my local YMCA when I was maybe 15 or 16 years old because I wanted to learn how to defend myself, get in shape, and gain self-confidence. It took my parents by surprise because I was never a very physical kid, but they supported me as I joined and here I am, 12 years later, still doing it! I took classes all the way through college and moving away to a different state for a few years, and just recently earned my second-degree black belt. I currently help with teaching younger students in several classes (even digitally through Zoom!) in addition to my normal training routine. I honestly can’t overstate what a wonderful influence karate has been on my life and how much it’s helped me become the person I am today. My instructors and fellow students are like a second family to me, and the discipline, self-control, and confidence karate has given me is something I think is invaluable in this day and age.

On the subject of physical activity, I also love (when the weather cooperates, of course) to get out and hike! Long walks either solo or with others through some remote wilderness area are one of my favorite pastimes, and traveling to new places to do it is even better! A few years back, I actually went backpacking alone across the Irish countryside for two weeks, walking 8-10 hours a day and staying in B&Bs overnight. It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done and I’m dying to go back and do it again. I’ve been to over a dozen countries, mostly in Europe, and most recently to Morocco for a grad school writing retreat. Experiencing new places and cultures is something I’ve been doing with my parents since I was little, and I think it’s given me a much broader perspective than a lot of people have: something I’m immensely grateful for.

In my down time, I’m an avid gamer of all kinds: board games, card games, video games, you name it! I can be more than a little competitive, I’ll admit, but anything that involves testing my wits and skills against other people is something I can’t live without. For whatever reason, I can’t play games solo though. I know lots of people who can spend hours and hours in some kind of enormous open-world video game, but for me, that kind of thing gets old after an hour or so. I can’t really explain why, but video gaming especially is a social thing for me and I can’t get into it unless other people are actually in the room playing with me.

Finally, as many of you may know from following me on social media, I’m super into music as influence for my writing: most of my works have soundtracks I’ve created for them, and I just like good music in general. Back in middle and high school I used to be heavily involved with both music and theater in my spare time, and while theater eventually phased out of my life, I stuck with music, including piano and guitar playing and vocal performance, well into my college years before I realized, well, I wasn’t actually that great at it. That said, I still belt out my favorite songs loudly in the car where no one can hear me, and I’m getting more comfortable with singing and playing along on the guitar. Stay tuned (no pun intended) for some fun videos where you’ll get to see me “let my hair down,” as it were.

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little get-to-know-me session, and I’d love to get to know you as well! If you’d like to talk writing, music, travel, or really anything else, the most reliable place to find me for some conversation is on Twitter @krobnovelist.

Till next time, stay safe out there!

New Month, New WIP…Hooray?

Wow, April seemed to go by fast, didn’t it? At least it did to me. Finishing up my grad school semester, along with keeping up with my work-from-home job, virtual karate lessons and instructing, and everything going on at home really kept me pretty occupied. But now that my semester of school is over, I made up my mind to focus on my current WIP: revising the very first book I ever wrote, The Showstopper. Little did I know fate had other plans for me…in the form of a brand-new WIP that’s been on my mind for the last week. Guess I’m not going to get anything productive done after all, although I suppose that depends on what you call “productive.” I’m certainly writing regularly again, which is an accomplishment in itself, so I guess that’s a victory!

What’s this new WIP, you may ask? Well, I can’t say too much about it right now because honestly I’m still largely working this one out. What I can tell you is that I’d classify it as “high fantasy” or somewhere between that and sci-fi. Maybe a combination of the two genres. Think Lord of the Rings crossed with The Terminator. That’s basically the short version.

You want a little longer description? Okay!

As some of you may know, one of my favorite pastimes is playing Magic: The Gathering (yes, the trading card game. Everyone’s got to have a hobby), and I also enjoy following the game’s storyline, involving different planes of existence, wizards that travel between them, and magic (obviously) of all kinds of inventive varieties. Recently I had an idea I thought could be a decent new storyline and world for the game, but the more I thought about it, the more ideas I got, and I slowly realized, “You know, if I could kind of disassociate this from an established product, it would actually make a pretty cool story!” So that’s what I’ve resolved to do, and I’m about eight pages in so far!

The story takes place in a fantasy world (not sure of a name yet) populated by humans along with other magical beings, like elves, dwarves, goblins, etc. The world was a paradise for many years, but eventually this society committed its greatest mistake: using its technological skills to create artificial intelligence which then rose up against them. The war between machines and “organics” has lasted hundreds of years by the time the actual beginning of the book rolls around, and has devastated much of the world. The handful of survivors hide away in underground bunkers plotting guerrilla attacks against the machines that rule most of the land. Whole races have been made extinct, oceans have been bled dry, and the land rendered uninhabitable by the machines’ weapons, but the remaining organics keep holding on, hoping something will come along that helps them defeat the machines once and for all.

I see this as a multi-POV story, similar to something like The Expanse or Game of Thrones, with different chapters written observing different characters. The main ones I see so far are: a female lead, who’s one of the human survivors and a warrior against the machines, but not super skilled with magic or artifice; her sister, the leader of the survivors who she constantly feels the need to compete with; the MC’s elf boyfriend, a cocky and suave master spy; maybe a dwarf engineer and goblin warrior character; one of the machines, an independent program who runs their military forces; a renegade mage from another world who sees potential in the MC and decides to bring it out by whatever means necessary; and a big bad guy lurking in the shadows, manipulating everyone in his grand design.

So far, I’ve been writing random chapters from the machine perspective because that’s the part of the story I see most clearly right now, and also because I just like a challenge. Writing as a machine is interesting because I have to be careful how I communicate their thought processes: while some of them may be independent, I don’t want them to have emotions or to resemble my non-mechanical characters too much. Even so, it’s fun to play around with their machine society group dynamics and find out how to “push their buttons,” as it were. The machine character in question may be a military commander of sorts, but he’s also the low man on the totem pole in machine society because the other factions present see him only as a tool to be used and don’t include him in planning. To make a long story short, he (I think of the program as a he, but he’s really an it) is first introduced dissenting from a new plan among the machines to wipe out organics, as it puts too much risk on them (in his opinion). Through the following storyline, he comes to suspect there is a conspiracy within the machine society and digs at the inconsistencies he finds until he discovers he and the organics he is programming to kill may be actually victims of the same enemy.

Interested? Would you like to read more of this story? Let me know! I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep my inspiration train going with this, but I plan on writing until I run out and have to stop and actually maybe outline this thing in a logical way. Either way, I’m dying to know what people think!

The revisions can wait, I suppose. Good ideas don’t come along every day. Onwards and upwards!

#IndieApril Reads: Getting Real

Welcome back to my last post of the month for #IndieApril! It’s been great to be able to talk about just a handful of the amazing indie authors present in the writing community whom I’ve gotten to know, and whose work is so good it’s honestly a lot better than many of the trade paperbacks I pick up at the bookstore all the time. I’ve talked about romances and fantasies so far, so this week I’m going to get a little more real.

Not that these works don’t still have elements of those things in them: far from it. But the reason I call this post “Getting Real” is because the issues addressed in these books, from morality to identity and even addictions and abuse, are the real crux of the storytelling and the characters and they do so well what almost every story tries to do: address real-world issues in the form of fiction. And they do it in ways that will both surprise and excite you, as well as tug rather painfully on your heartstrings. So without further ado, let’s meet the authors!

 

Brooklynn Dean: The Word of the Rock God

Likely inspired by Supernatural and other dark fantasy hits, The Word of the Rock God is a biblically-themed, grunge-tastic look at the nature of fame, the importance of having a moral code and being your authentic self, and the responsibilities that recognition brings. Young rock band frontman Max lives by a strict, religiously-motivated moral code: he doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and doesn’t chase women as he tries to use his music to reach out to people and show them the love he wants to feel for himself. But even though Max is a pretty good guy, temptation can strike anyone and find the cracks in anyone’s armor.

Max is much more than just some wannabe rock star: he’s a prophet, and that means the forces of heaven and hell are each out to recruit him and his influence to their side. But often the path of righteousness can be difficult to walk, while the one of sin is much easier and more appealing. Soon, Max finds himself caught up in a bizarre relationship with a girl he knows deep down is trouble, but he can’t pull himself out of his shame and self-pity to do anything about it. The fate of his soul and maybe the world rests in the balance.

I honestly found this book so fascinating not only because of the strength of the characters, who from heaven to hell and everything in between are multi-dimensional and well-constructed, but because of the super-cool spin on traditional religious belief that comes into this world of rock and roll. It’s a great reworking of the classic temptation tale in a way that young readers these days would, I think, find very appealing and meaningful. Sure, there’s a good deal of sex, drugs, and…you know…but the core message of the story–how important it is to know who you are–is one I think we can all get behind, and it’ll keep you guessing right up until the end. If you think you know how this story’s going to end, you’re wrong.

 

L. Costevelos: Wanderlust

Speaking of not knowing how things are going to end, look no further for a twisting, turning, strange land and funhouse-type thrill ride than Wanderlust, but L. Costevelos. A fresh new take on the always-fertile ground laid by Alice in Wonderland, this book finds the young female protagonist, Raine Black, under investigation for the gruesome murder of her abusive husband. But did Raine really kill him, or is there something else going on?

Nothing is as it seems. Through Raine’s eyes, we see how an encounter with a monster leads her literally through the looking-glass into an alternate universe called Wanderlust, populated by bizarre creatures, rife with dangerous and deadly magic, and ruled by a lonely king who Raine finds herself drawn to more and more. But as her fantasy world and the real one increasingly collide, Raine is torn between them, two relationships, and whether or not she can ever find where she is truly happy.

Part crime thriller, part psychedelic head trip, and all fantastical adventure, Wanderlust is one heck of a thrill ride. Imagine Alice combined with a police procedural and that’s what we’ve got here: and I promise you, it’s pretty awesome. The incredibly emotional depiction of Raine’s failing marriage and her conflicted feelings about Nicholas, the king of Wanderlust, is so vivid and real I almost teared up a couple of times–and that’s saying something. I don’t think I’ve read many books that were as impactful as this one, and if you’re looking for a totally engrossing page-turner, I’d highly recommend this one.

 

Chelsea Lauren: Underneath the Whiskey

I promised one of thees would be totally real-life and normal, didn’t I? Well even if I didn’t, Underneath the Whiskey is definitely the most grounded of the books I’ve talked about, and possibly the most emotionally raw and revealing.

Ben Jacobson does pretty well: he’s the owner of a local coffee chain, married to a loving wife, and has great kids who he’s totally devoted to. But that’s not all he is, and it’s driving him crazy. For years, Ben has hidden his real self from his family, and a secret that could tear everything in his life apart: the fact that he’s actually gay. But after years of repression, painful conversion therapy, and enduring society’s hostility toward him, he’s all but given up on truly being happy. Everything get’s upended, though, when Caden, a new bartender at his shop, walks into his life and makes Ben feel things he hasn’t let himself feel in a long, long time. Driven to drink by his overwhelming misery and intractable situation, Ben drives those he loves away as he sinks deeper into depression, and soon he faces a choice: can he climb out of the bottle and do what he needs to do to finally be honest with himself and others, or will he continue on a path of self-destruction?

I know it’s become a touchy subject these days who can write what person’s story, but if there was any doubt in your mind that a female writer could expertly depict the mindset and character of a closeted gay man in a believable way, leave them at the door now. This book was so powerfully authentic that it left me totally overwhelmed, from the delightful interplay and heated drama between the characters to the very real issues it deals with, and especially how it addresses people in similar situations and what they can do to get help when they need it. This is one of those stories that I think everyone should read, and I don’t say that kind of thing lightly. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is always an educational experience, and this book is no exception. Be prepared to be heartbroken, but also to be enlightened.

 

Well, that about does it! Happy #IndieApril everyone, and please help our self-published authors out by following them and buying their books!

#IndieApril Reads: The Fantastics

Welcome back to my #IndieApril blog series! For those of you who haven’t yet had a chance to read the first post, I’m using this month to support my fellow indie authors and mention a few of their books every week. Last time I addressed some novels with heavy romance themes and talked about how even though I’m not necessarily a romance fan, these books have been helping to change my mind. This time, I’m going out of this world with some fantasy and sci-fi entries. Let’s dive right in!

Dawn Christine Jonckowski: The Weight of Stars and Suns

This is the indie book I finished most recently, but it’s been one that I’ve been waiting for a while as I’ve seen it grow and develop on Twitter, and it didn’t disappoint. Part Star Trek, part Titanic, part John Carter, and part InterstellarThe Weight of Stars and Suns is an otherworldly adventure with a fascinating world and another large helping of romance: this time of the interspecies variety. The story takes place on the planet Tav, a world with some 30-odd suns surrounding it and a native population of purple-skinned humanoids. A hundred years before, an exploratory ship from Earth crashed on the planet and to survive, the humans agreed to become servants to the Tavarians. In the book’s present, humans are slaves and second-class citizens on Tav, but crisis is brewing with both rebel revolts and the inexplicable dimming of Tav’s many suns, threatening all life on the planet. What’s more, Princess Dameia, heir to the throne of Tav, has fallen in love with Hyam, leader of the rebels. Their doomed romance forms the backbone of the story, which also deals with palace intrigue, social justice, and a new mission from Earth to find out what happened to the people left behind on Tav.

While I of course love any story that takes place on an alien world and features space travel and space opera-like tropes, this book was especially fun to read because of the strong relationship and interplay between Hyam and Dameia. Both are rebels in some form or other, not doing what their societies expect of them, and the Romeo and Juliet-type secret love affair always keeps you on the edge of your seat. That’s not even mentioning the political undercurrents of the story, which brilliantly put humans on the bottom of the social ladder and positions them as the victims in a reverse District 9-type setup. It’s a very unique spin on the sci-fi genre and makes us contemplate difficult issues of prejudice and hatred that are disappointingly present in the real world today.

This was a really fun read, and all the characters are extremely likeable and easy to identify with (except the bad guys, of course). I’d highly recommend it to anyone who wants a little forbidden romance on a forbidden planet.

K.C. Hamby: The Wrath of the Chosen (The Chosen Series, Book 1)

I’ll admit two things before diving into this one: one, I’m not usually a huge fan of the vampire/werewolf/insert fantasy creature here YA craze that everyone seems to be all about these days. Two, I’m a sucker for a good anti-heroic main character. While The Wrath of the Chosen may be very much (spoiler alert, not really) the former, it is also very much the latter, and it’s really the strength of the characters that makes this one such a standout, although the plot is pretty great, too!

The main character of this story, Falen, is a member of a secret society of werewolves who live among humans as assassins doing bad for the greater good. She’s a rough, abrasive young woman with a mean streak and a definite chip on her shoulder who thinks deep down nobody is capable of caring about her. That is, until she meets Nina, a normal human girl, and through a heartrending back and forth relationship, ends up falling in love. However, their relationship is quickly put to the test by the intervention of not only Fal’s werewolf brethren (who aren’t so keen on a relationship between a human and a wolf), but also a dangerous tribe of werewolf slayers who’ve been stalking Fal for a long time. Now that she has someone she cares about in her life, Fal finds herself and Nina are walking targets and vulnerable for the first time in her life. How will their romance survive?

I should also add this book, while it has some of the tropes typical of YA, is very much NOT for young teen readers. I’d classify this more in the 20-something new adult genre due to the precipitous use of language, blood and gore, and discussion of themes like sexual assault. That’s not a bad thing, though: I think books like this that speak to a slightly more mature young adult audience are sorely needed, especially one that portrays a relationship between two characters of the same sex. It’s so well-written, I won’t lie that it made me tear up a number of times. Also, if you like watching werewolf assassins kick some serious ass, this is probably the book for you. Even if you’re not usually a fantasy lover, I’d advice checking this one out!

Katelyn Uhrich: A Choice for Essence (The Essence Chronicles, Book 1)

Finally, we have a YA-type novel that definitely falls into the high fantasy genre: A Choice for Essence. This story takes place in the Land Above, a mythical realm inhabited by the gods who preside over all kinds of elements, from nature and weather to fire and water. The main character is Essence, or Essie for short, daughter of the gods of nature and fire, as she grows up and takes on a bigger role in the politics of her celestial home. But the more she learns, the less she likes it, especially when she learns about the plight of the spirits (souls that go back and forth from the mortal realm, living human lives and returning to the Land Above after death) and how they’re abused and mistreated by the gods, including her parents. As she begins to sympathize with the spirits more and more, Essie’s search for answers leads her down a darker path that shows her the ugly truths behind the things she loves, suffers betrayals and heartbreaks, and eventually commits her own act of rebellion by creating a new world of her very own. But how long can it, and she, survive against the wrath of the other gods?

Not only is the fantastical setting of this novel intriguing, including the many different and creative combinations of gods, goddesses, and their offspring (who usually end up being combinations of opposing forces and thus fascinating characters on their own), but it too features a big-picture moral dilemma and characters whose interplay and dramatic tension really make the story pop. Of course there’s a bit of romance in here too (no spoilers though, I mean it!) but this is a classic coming-of-age story set in a godlike paradise where nothing is as beautiful or perfect as it seems. It’s a great setup for a future series and something I’d highly recommend for those who like the YA fantasy genre as probably the most kid-friendly entry of this blog post. I could definitely see this being the next Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, and that’s saying something!

As always, help support our indie authors by going out there and buying some of their books! We all thank you for your support of this community.

#IndieApril Reads: The Romantics

Welcome to my first #IndieApril blog post! This month, I’ll be using my weekly writings here to recognize and celebrate some of the wonderful, talented indie authors I’ve come to know through Twitter and the larger social media writing community. Please note this isn’t intended to be a comprehensive list of all indie authors: there are so many more out there you should support! I just wanted to pick a few whose work I’ve especially loved following over the last few years.

My first three indie author mentions are below, and when I was trying to come up with a theme to connect the works I’ve read from them, the first thing that popped into my head was “romance.” Now I know what you’re thinking: reading a romance novel is just a bunch of sex scenes, unrealistic dialogue, and eye-rolling personal drama. That’s because that’s exactly what I thought before deciding to open my mind to some new possibilities–and I won’t lie, a little bit because reading about that stuff can be, well, fun sometimes. Enough said.

Not all of the writers I mention here bill themselves as romance writers, but each of the stories I’m bringing up here has a large element of romance to the plot, and each is done is an unconventional, interesting way that arrests the reader’s attention and really makes you feel for the characters involved, immersing you in the story in a way that in my experience is really rare. So, without further ado, here are my first three book recommendations for your #IndieApril pleasure (no pun intended, I swear).

I’m also including the Amazon links to all of these, so feel free to pick up a copy and support our indie authors if one tickles your fancy!

Skye McDonald: Not Suitable for Work (Anti-Belle Series, Book 1)

Of all the books I’m talking about today, this is the one that’s closest to the true “romance” novel, but there’s nothing conventional about it. The Anti-Belle series, as McDonald calls her books, are all about empowering her female characters and following them as they overcome obstacles both personal and professional and find a sense of self-love along with the admittedly steamy romantic relationships they pursue. It’s a refreshing thing to see in an age where people seem captivated by questionable and borderline-unhealthy depictions of romance we get from things like 50 Shades of Gray.

The first book in the series (which feature stories and characters that are interconnected, MCU-style, how cool is that?) features Celeste Greene, a driven and determined woman who’s moved back home to Nashville (the setting for all these books) from NYC after a disastrous failed relationship that’s made her question her self-worth and trust in other people. She’s competing for a new job with Ben Addison, a sometime musician who obviously finds her attractive and, well, things get rather heated. And complicated.

I’ll be honest: before this book, I had never read a straight-up romance novel, even one a bit outside the traditional romance box, and was therefore pretty dismissive of the genre in general. But Not Safe for Work single-handedly changed my mind. Is there sex? Yes, I won’t lie, there’s quite a bit of it, and it’s VERY good. But the thing that got me was how emotionally attached I got to both Celeste and Ben almost immediately. Despite their flaws, they’re both eminently reasonable, well-rounded, and likeable characters and people who are also surrounded by supporting characters just as real, impactful, and understanding as they are. Does this mean their relationship is easy? Oh no, not by a long shot. There’s plenty of screw-ups on both sides and rip-your-heart-out moments where you’re sure the happy ending you hoped for isn’t going to happen. But does it in the end? Like I’d tell you. I just want to be clear what an amazing emotional roller-coaster of a book this is, one that had me hooked all the way to the last page. If you’re not sure if romance is a genre you’d like, I challenge you to read one of McDonald’s books. They might just change your mind like they did mine.

Sara Flower Kjeldsen: Sally

Unlike the previous novel, which is rooted firmly in the present day, the next two are based in much different times, but are no less compelling for it. Sally, for example, by Sara Kjeldsen, is set more than a century ago in a small rural town, the kind where everyone knows everyone else’s business and small-minded, puritanical morals run the scene. The protagonist, a teenage girl named Sally, offers shelter to an older male neighbor one day when a storm blows up and a tornado wrecks the town. The consequences of her actions, however, are that she is forced to marry said man, farmer Jeremiah, when neither of them really wants it because of public perception. As if this weren’t enough, things get even darker and more complicated as Sally’s father plots to use his business and religious influence to gain control of the town, using Sally as one of his many puppets, and begins to murder anyone who stands in his way. Forced together into an unhappy union, Sally and Jeremiah have to form an unlikely alliance to stop him, but different lives, priorities, and stations bring everything to a final confrontation that won’t be anything like what you expect.

I don’t want to spoil anything about this book because there’s plenty of unexpected twists and turns, but I just want to say that it’s so refreshing to read about a protagonist who’s not so straightforward and simple. Sally, as a character, is deeply complicated and always real, struggling with her lowly station in life as both a farmer and a woman when all she wanted was to get an education and make something of herself. It’s completely understandable, but no less heartbreaking as she takes a darker and darker turn as the story progresses. Her relationship with Jeremiah is fascinating too as they seesaw from barely tolerating each other to almost loving each other as they slowly get to know themselves and each other better. With the violence, death, and intrigue surrounding them, this story is a thrill ride of an entirely different sort and covers all kinds of historical points of interest along the way, from arranged marriages to race relations and slavery to the plight of women in society. If at any point you think you really know how this book ends, I’m here to tell you you’re wrong–and that’s a huge part of what makes this thrill ride so great.

Nicole Scarano: Pomegranate

Now that we’ve explored colonial rural America, let’s go even further back: to ancient Greece, no less! Pomegranate, by Nicole Scarano, is an inventive and delightfully subversive retelling of Greek mythology, blending many stories from the descent of Hades to the underworld to Persephone, trials and monsters, and many others in between, along with a core romance between the two main characters–one that becomes a triangle with a jealous ex.

In this story, Hades is not only a woman, but a mortal uplifted by the gods into demigod-like status as the lover of Zeus: however, not everyone on Olympus is a fan of hers, and the other gods conspire to get Hades a sort-of promotion that will take her away from Zeus. She’s cast into the underworld, where she will be queen and a god in exchange for Zeus having nothing more to do with her–something Zeus agrees to. Heartbroken, Hades is resigned to rule alone when she one day happens upon a mortal man, Alkaios, and once again falls in love. Of course Zeus, as the horrible, abusive ex he is in the book, can’t let this go, and soon Hades is battling the gods themselves for her right to choose for herself who she loves. But this time, she has the advantage: the powers of the underworld at her disposal and a mortal world ripe for sowing some chaos. The gods are about to find that they’ve created their own worst enemy.

Pomegranate is the fantasy book of these three, and I have to say that even though I’m usually a sucker for a good myth reimagining, there’s no way I was prepared for how amazing Scarano’s adaptation is. So many elements of ancient Greek myths, from the hydra to the origin of Hades and the underworld’s power structure, is creatively respun into a new form that’s fascinating to read about and builds a lifelike, believable world in the process. Again, I won’t say too much for fear of spoiling the ending, but this is another story where the twist will hit you where you least expect it. Also, the romance between goddess and man (Hades and Alkaios) is a hit and a great demonstration of the desperation two characters feel and the lengths they’ll go to in order to stay together, despite the literal mountains placed in their way. It’s exciting, inventive, and an overall great read.

Happy reading, and stay tuned for next time when I dive into some more of my favorite indie authors!