In Which Self-Publishing Comes Of Age
It’s past September 14th, hooray! That means I can post my review of “The Atheist’s Daughter” – the book I’ve fallen madly in love with in the last couple of weeks, and which I got a sneak preview of so I could review it, and which has just – just – been published.
In the small, insular town of Ashfork, Kristin Faraday lives an isolated and penniless life with her single mother Becky – an adorable but feckless artist, who Kristin seems to end up parenting quite a lot of the time. Her adolescence has been difficult and lonely. Apart from two close friends, she feels disconnected from the rest of her peer-group, and longs to escape. Then, a group of oddly-assorted people arranged into a loose approximation of family move into town, and Kristin realises there is something sinister about them…
If you’re thinking these ingredients sound familiar, well, you’re probably not wrong. This is described by its authors (Renee Harrell being the nom du plume of a well-established writing partnership) as being “a supernatural thriller, posing as a Young Adult paranormal novel, written for a crossover audience”. The YA crossover genre is probably best known for the love-it-hate-it-please-God-make-it-stop trainwreck that was the Twilight saga, and every element I’ve mentioned above appears in Meyer’s books. Here’s why “The Atheist’s Daughter” is orders of magnitude better.
See, I have a theory. (I promise it doesn’t involve the relative width of brontosauruses at various points along their length.) With genre fiction, it’s not just about the basic ingredients; these are pretty much determined from the start. The magic, or lack of it, comes from what you do with them. With “Twilight”, Meyer took the basic YA / Supernatural elements of disconnected teens, small-town weirdness, one-sided romance, unexpected Speshul skills and vampy bad guys, and made this huge, syrupy, sugary, over-decorated…thing. And suddenly everywhere you looked, there it was, sickly and enormous and heavily promoted. And we were all seduced by its promises of oozing sweetness, and we ate it and ate it and ate it, even though it made us sick, forcing ourselves to go on to the end even though we’d had more than enough after the first five mouthfuls, because after all, we’d paid for it now, right? And then after we finished we all thought, “Shit. Really shouldn’t have done that” and had to go and lie down for a couple of hours and then exist on a Spartan diet of something very sour and indigestible, like James Joyce or something, for at least two weeks afterwards.
And then, sometimes, it goes the other way. Sometimes, you’re just wandering round town one day, and you spot a lovely little patisserie you’ve never even heard of before. So you go in, and you know what? They have something that looks sort of like that obscenity-in-carbs you got at Meyer’s Sickening Cakes the other week. Only this one, “The Atheist’s Daughter”, looks…different. It looks better. In fact, it looks downright gorgeous. The person who made this cake made it with love, and skill, and attention. It’s beautifully crafted, resting in its little paper case like a work of art. When your teeth sink into it, it’s got texture and bite. Its flavours are complex and tantalising. You eat it slowly, so you can savour it. When you’ve finished it, you lick your fingers clean, and then find you want another one. And you have this huge urge to go out and tell everyone you know about this fantastic, gorgeous little place you have just personally discovered.
Okay, so maybe my English teacher was right when he took to writing “Blimey” in the margins of my essays whenever I came up with a particularly purple metaphor.
I’ll try again. Let’s stop talking about cake (although I do like cake. If you feel like talking more about cake, click here or here, or maybe even here) and talk about the things that make “The Atheist’s Daughter” such a brilliant read.
I’m going to start with the heroine, Kristin. Like Bella, or Buffy, or Katniss, or Aislinn, or any other of the recent generation of YA heroines, Kristin has a gift. Hers is that she can see when people are lying. When someone tells a lie, she experiences an especially frightening vision where their mouths appear to disappear behind an overgrowth of skin.
Speshulness is, of course, a required trope of the genre. What makes this interpretation of Speshul so great is what happens to Kristin as a result. Instead of having every boy who lays eyes on her fall in love with her (or, indeed, leading a bloody revolution or enjoying a disturbingly intimate relationship with her teacher) Kristin’s talent lands her in a mental institution. She loses an entire year of her life – only finally being released when she learns how to muffle her screams when she sees someone’s mouth disappear from view. When she gets out, she’s the official Town Madwoman, and even fewer people want to be her friend than they did before, and her life is even lonelier than before she was admitted. Now, this is exactly what you’d expect to happen to a real-life girl with psychotic hallucinations. But it’s not what you’d expect to happen to a supernatural heroine. The clever trick here is that it fits perfectly into the plot, and is also convincing.
Next, there’s the bad guys. They’re not exactly vampires, but they’re definitely on the spectrum…Vampesque, possibly? Vamp-ish? I don’t know. Point is, most authors who do the not-exactly-Vampires trick like to pick the nice bits; the insane good looks, the effortless charm, the super-strength and super-speed and super-fuckableness and the epic, turbo-charged moping. Mrs Norton and her crew, by contrast, have all the horrible bits. The absence of compassion. The utter, utter selfishness (their alliance, like anything built entirely on self-interest, is clearly an uneasy one). The tendency to regard humans as prey. The consuming and relentless hunger. It’s hard for a YA novel to have scenes which are genuinely chilling to an adult reader while remaining age-appropriate, but this book pulls it off. Like all truly great horror writing, the writing takes us right up to the edge of the terror and then tantalisingly pulls away again, leaving just enough detail for the reader to fill in the blanks with awful stuff.
So, that’s the heroine and the bad guys taken care of. Time to talk about the other characters, and I’m going to start with the mother. Again, the YA genre dictates that the heroine’s parents must be either hopelessly ditsy (so the heroine can sneak out every night and fight bad guys without her parents caring or indeed noticing), or tragically dead (so the heroine can sneak out every night and fight bad guys without her parents caring or indeed noticing). Kristin has one of each, which is perfectly fair. But, for the first time ever, Kristin’s mother has a character.
I think this is so cool that I’m going to say it again; Kristin’s mother has a character. She might be a bit impractical with money and a lousy cook, but she also loves her daughter, fiercely and without limits. In fact, it’s not giving too much away to say that her daughter is only alive at all because of her mother’s wild-eyed, monomaniac, mama-bear love. Kristin’s mother, in fact…is a mother. A believable, functioning, flawed, human mother. I honestly can’t think of another YA story containing a woman like Becky Faraday.
Similarly, although Kristin’s father is the obligatory headstone in the local graveyard, his death isn’t just the typical convenient off-screen accident. In fact, the occasion [must not spoil] and the manner [no, really, must not spoil] of his death [trying so desperately hard not to spoil here] is, to be honest, [can’t – stop – the spoiling!] sort of integral [forgive me, Father, for I fear I may have spoiled] to the entire plot [okay, I’m stopping there].
Then, there are the BFFs. Kristin’s two sidekicks are the frankly rather scrumptious Gideon Hawkins (and damn, but I totally would) and Liz, a pleasingly self-aware airhead who turns up about halfway through. (One small criticism; Liz arrives rather too late in the story to feel as integral as she really ought to.) But that’s a detail. The key word here is pleasing. She’s fun to read about. I can see why Kristin likes her. Shucks, I like her myself. She brings a lovely, girly frivolity to proceedings. But she’s not just there to be someone more shallow / worse at fighting / less pretty than the heroine. She’s actually important to the plot. In “Twilight”, Meyer could have changed the names, appearance and defining personality traits of every single one of her sidekick characters on a chapter-by-chapter basis, and I honestly don’t think I would have noticed. By contrast, if you take Liz out of the story, the plot simply doesn’t work. Absolutely nothing in this book is extraneous.
And as for Gideon…well, can I say how much I love it that the obligatory one-way swooning is Kristin’s love for Gideon, rather than Gideon’s love for Kristin? Or that the elements that keep them apart are explained by stuff that happens in the story? Again, I can’t tell you too much about this; the fun of seeing the authors’ meticulous plot unfolding around you like a fantastically good piece of origami is just too good to ruin. But trust me, when you get to it, you’ll be smacking yourself on the forehead and going, “Oh, of course! Blimey! But – that’s so clever…!”
I’m going to close with a couple of zeitgeisty observations regarding the book-publishing industry. First off, “The Atheist’s Daughter” is self-published, and not because the authors couldn’t find a publisher. They successfully placed the manuscript; but they made a conscious choice to go it alone. I was so intrigued by this that I asked them why, and the answer was illuminating. Basically, they chose self-publishing because they wanted to retain creative control of their book.
Historically, the ability of the author to write whatever the hell they wanted to has been one of the risks of buying self-published fiction. When you bought self-published, you might have been getting access to a work that the publishing industry was just too dumb to appreciate. However, the more realistic possibility was that you were buying a book that no-one in their right mind but the author would publish. But these days, self-publishing is a decision that’s being made by, you know, good authors. Authors who could have a conventional publishing deal if they wanted one. People, in short, who can actually write.
Which brings me to my second zeitgeist observation. I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of this lovely, brilliant, well-crafted book solely because of its title. I happened across it via a Facebook shout-out, looking for bloggers who would be willing to review it. Apparently, established reviewers were turning it down because it contained, in its title, the word Atheist.
Atheist, atheist, atheist. Three syllables, an excess of vowels, and just for the record, I am one. Is this word, this concept, really so offensive? Well, apparently, in the US the answer is yes. This word is so charged, so politically sensitive, that conservative reviewers refused to review it in case it contains stuff about atheism, and liberal reviewers turned it down in case it contains stuff about God. Being British, I find this astounding. Commitment to a defined theological position – whether that position is “God is great” or “God is a myth” – is something I completely understand. But refusing to even read something because its title contains the ‘A’ word? Srsly?
Yah, well, they’re all missing out, those strangely blinkered idiots on both sides of the debate. No doubt a conventional publisher would have changed that title, and probably had a good old fiddle around with the rest of the book as well. Would it have been better for being packaged, renamed and edited by a third party? In this case, I’m struggling to see how.
I don’t think self-publishing is going to replace the conventional route to market any time soon. Most of us (like me) don’t know enough about how the book market works to even think about taking on the mind-boggling amount of work needed to effectively promote and distribute a book. Many more of us (me again) need the discipline of a damn good editing to stop us from waffling on and on and on and on and on and on and on, until our readers scream and throw the book at the wall and run away with their coats over their heads. But it’s definitely an industry that’s coming of age, and “The Atheist’s Daughter” is part of that. I admire the Renee Harrell team for publishing “The Atheist’s Daughter” themselves, with the title they chose, and with the words they chose, in the order they chose, and then taking on all the skilled and difficult work of promotion and distribution. I admire them for producing a book that’s so tightly-plotted, and written with such elegant economy, without the support given to most authors of a skilled editor. Most of all, I admire them for opening an intime little bistro rather than a soulless by-the-numbers franchise. And I’m thrilled that, for once in my late-majority, late-to-the-meme existence, I get to be one of the lucky people sharing the news.
“The Atheist’s Daughter” is available from Amazon.co.uk as a Kindle edition priced £1.71, and Amazon.com for $10.99 in paperback or $2.72 for your Kindle. To learn more about the fantastic team behind Renee Harrell, you can swing by their blog at marsneedswriters.com.