Friday, November 15, 2013

Long Shadows

It’s not easy being a new author. The barriers to traditional publishing loom large, from acquiring an agent to attracting a readership. Yet deciding to go it alone, or even with a group, leaves the struggling author swimming desperately upstream amid hungry fish in a school becoming larger by the day, even the hour. And since most authors have no experience with marketing, distinguishing oneself from the crowd easily becomes an exercise in frustration.

Yet the biggest problem with self-publishing is not the sheer number of books out there but the sad truth that so many of those books are poorly written, unedited, and abominably produced. Combine that with the aggressive spamming and shady tactics used by a few desperate authors, and you get a situation where many readers defend themselves by limiting their purchases to traditionally published books. 

One can’t blame the readers—to an extent I do the same thing myself—but their caution does make life even harder for those of us who have put in the time and resources to learn to write, to edit our work, and to produce books that are as appealing as we can make them. I know this from personal experience. So while this blog of mine is by no means focused on book reviews, I do like, once in a while, to give a shout out on behalf of other self- or coop- or small-press-published authors who have done their part and created books that can give the bestsellers a run for their money—not in numbers, perhaps, but in quality. Authors like Gillian Hamer, whose historical/contemporary mystery The Charter I finished last night and thoroughly enjoyed.

The Charter traces the long shadows cast by a shipwreck off the coast of Anglesey, Wales, in October 1859. It begins with the crash of the Royal Charter, a ship traveling from Australia to Liverpool filled with gold miners returning home with their riches. When the boat runs aground on a reef, the miners, convinced that their wives and children will be rescued first,  load them down with gold. But the boat sinks before the crew can lower the lifeboats, and the women and children, weighted down with treasure, go straight to the bottom. The treasure is never found—or is it? No one is talking, but here and there local farmers seem to have, all of a sudden, lots of money to spend. As a result, families squabble. When, 150 years later, Sarah Morton is called back to the region for her father’s funeral, the repercussions of this tragedy are still felt in the region as bursts of hostility that from time to time explode in murder. Within a few chapters, Sarah becomes convinced that her father is one victim in this ongoing series of crimes.

Hamer can write—and how. Her scenes dump the reader right into the moment. See, for example, the end of her preface, which sets up the tragedy of 1859:

The Royal Charter—the steamship that has carried my family from Hobson’s Bay, Australia to a “better life” in England—is still being pounded by the storm. With every massive wave that crashes over her, I expect the ship to disappear, but after each surge of the tide she reappears, as if trapped by the jagged rocks and unable to find release.

Bodies pulled and tossed by the furious tide, pushed inland one minute and dragged back into the white foam the next. Men I’d seen issuing orders; women I’d spoken to; children I’d spent many hours with over the past weeks. I close my ears to the screams and cries that circle my head like squawking gulls.

I stand there for seconds, minutes, hours, days … I know not.

The spray of the ocean is on my face. I hear the roar in my ears. I taste the salt on my lips.

But I know it cannot be. I know this cannot be real. The truth hits me. Bile fills my mouth; I double over and retch.

When I straighten, I stand in silence and calmness. The storm still rages all around me, but I am protected. As if in the eye of the hurricane, my own space is quiet and still.

The answer is suddenly clear.

My name is Angelina Stewart.

I am eleven years old.

And I am dead.

This is good stuff, and despite the occasional glitch that a professional editor would have caught (or not, since editing even at big publishers is not what it used to be)—such as a character who appears to arrive on an island despite having no boat—the book kept me wholly focused on Sarah and her drive to keep herself and her unborn baby alive long enough to solve the mystery of what happened to the Royal Charter’s gold. Hamer produces enough twists in the plot to keep me guessing and to take me by surprise at the end—in the good way, where the solution makes sense even though I didn’t see it coming—and most of all, she doesn’t forget her characters. Each one is distinct and well-rounded; the right ones are likable (or unlikable); and Sarah grows in a thoroughly believable way. The sense of immersion in the Welsh coast and its changing seasons is intense. So check out The Charter. It’s not expensive, and it’s well worth your time.

Hamer has two other novels, Closure and Complicit, which I can’t wait to read. She is also a member of Triskele Books, a writers’ cooperative in the UK that I have mentioned before. Five Directions Press uses a similar business model to Triskele, but otherwise we are linked only by a sense of comradeship. Triskele has just published an account of its journey to publication, The Triskele Trail, which I may explore in more depth in a future post. You can find out more about them and about Gillian Hamer, including links to purchase her books, at their website. She sent me a free e-book copy of The Charter in return for my honest review.

1 comment:

  1. Great review, C.P.! It's not often someone can convince me to read a modern novel. I'm adding it to my to-read list!


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