Monday, June 1, 2015

Self-Pub Summer: Fade to Black, by Tim McBain and L.T. Vargus

So uh, yeah, I kind of forgot to keep up with the rest of the 12-Day Writing Challenge. Oops. Maybe I'll turn that into a weekly project for the summer instead. What can I say, I've been busy. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

Thankfully, though, I can now say that I've adjusted to my busy schedule well enough that I finally have my first book done for Self-Pub Summer! I think I'm going to be switching up my usually more free-form review style for these books to make them a bit more comprehensive; if you could give me some feedback on how this review format works for you, that would be greatly appreciated.

Fade to Black- Tim McBain and L.T. Vargus

Synopsis: "Live. Die. Repeat. 

Dying violent deaths over and over again totally blows. Loner Jeff Grobnagger has learned this the hard way. Every time he has a seizure, he dreams that a hooded man strangles and kills him. He runs. He fights. He hides. No matter what he does, his efforts end in a pretty bad case of death.

But when someone tries to kill him in real life, he realizes that what happens with the hooded man isn't just a dream. 

"Dude, please stop trying to kill me." 

Who is the hooded man? And who tried to kill Grobnagger in real life? His quest for answers leads to a missing girl, cults obsessed with astral projection, an arcane puzzle sphere, an evil book, a private detective named Louise and a mustached man named Glenn that makes 'the best martini you've ever tasted.' 

Yep. If it weren't for all of the horrific deaths, Jeff Grobnagger would be having the time of his life."

The Cover: First off, let's talk about the cover, since even though we as readers judge books by their covers all the time, self-published covers are under the most scrutiny. Overall I like it; it's simple and tonally it fits the story pretty well. It looks professionally done, but still just shy of the typical quality of a traditionally published novel. It's clean and visually appealing, but I can't help but feel like it still needs a certain extra something. But hey, it drew me in enough to read the book, right?

Review: Guys, I hope you're sitting down, because what I'm about to tell you might be pretty shocking. Are you ready? Ok... I liked this book. I mean, I really enjoyed this book. It's a good book, and although I hesitate to call it such, it's pretty damn close to being something great. This is hard for me to say, but... for once I don't think I can rant about this one.

Of course, it's not a perfect novel, but I don't think I can adequately describe the absolute joy I feel right now after finally reading a book that I actually thought was good for the first time since starting this blog. Isn't that just depressing?  So yes, reading a book that I could fully enjoy was quite refreshing, but the story itself and the way it was told was refreshing as well. The story is one that could easily become a jumbled mess of cliched, Dan Brown-style writing: an occult mystery/thriller in which a loner character has to evade cult members who are trying to kill him while also following clues to solve a mystery. But Fade to Black is essentially the antithesis of Dan Brown; nothing bloated or grand or ludicrously over the top, just a small-scale story of  two ordinary schlubs who get caught up in an occult mystery plot. Well, for the most part, anyway. It's not too complex and it gets by extremely well without relying on cliches. And what cliches it does have usually end up being subversions rather than being played straight.

Like I said, the story isn't overly complicated, but it manages to keep you guessing at the same time. The way relationships develop between several of the characters subverted a few of my expectations, each one of Jeff's seizure dreams played out differently and somewhat unpredictably, and the very end had not one, but two significant plot twists. In fact, you might even say that the final twist was a twist within a twist, because for me, at least, it ended up going in a different direction that where I thought it would when I had first thought I had caught on to what the twist would turn out to be. 

Unfortunately, though, how both of these twists will effect the overall plot remains to be seen until the sequel, and this has a lot to do with one of the major flaws of the novel. The story is simply too short in a way that makes it feel incomplete. Not only could some parts do with a lot more fleshing out, but the ending felt both too rushed and too open-ended. Too many things were left unexplained, unfinished, and with a few too many loose threads dangling. I understand that this is the first part of a series, and it's perfectly OK for the first book to have an open ending as a lead in to the sequel, but I'm a firm believer that first books should end with some form of closure. Ok, so maybe at the end Jeff is finally on his way to healing emotionally and he also had somewhat of a breakthrough in his dream, but that wasn't really the kind of closure I was looking for. I did like this book enough that I'm certain I'll read the sequel, but it still bugs me that the story arc of this one feels incomplete. 

But aside from the story and the freedom from cliches, one of the most refreshing aspects of the novel was its narrative style. The overall tone is a fantastic--although not quite perfect--blend of humor and drama, thanks in large part to the distinctive narrative voice of protagonist Jeff Grobnagger. Although his character evolves over the course of events, my first impression of him was that he was a loner asshole version of The Dude from The Big Lebowski. And The Big Lebowski is fucking awesome. 

The Grobnagger abides.
Too bad he had to be an asshole version of The Dude, though. In any case, can appreciate the fact that while Jeff is somewhat unlikable as a person--and his inner monologues of self-loathing  can get kind of annoying--he's still sympathetic as a protagonist. Maybe he's more asocial and depressive than the average person, but he manages to represent how the average person would react in bizarre circumstances in a sort of non-nonchalant, go-with-the-flow kind of way that is both believable and highly entertaining. Kind of like The Dude. Jeff observes the world around him with a unique combination of dry sarcasm and surprising insight that leads to a lot of quotable lines. He's the kind of snark king that I could only dream of becoming.

Unfortunately, though, there are a few times in which this distinctive voice takes me somewhat out of the story rather than immersing me deeper in it. As much as I appreciate Jeff's frequent cynical quips and colorful descriptions, they don't always seem appropriate in the more serious scenarios. I get that people react to things differently, but there are a few times when Jeff (or his friend Glenn), reacts to serious shit going down in a way that is too nonchalant to be entirely realistic. It's only a few times, though, and at least it's not widely inconsistent with his character. For the most part the plot plays out in a very realistic way despite the supernatural elements, which I like. 

There were two characters in particular that I felt could have been fleshed out a lot more, although this kind of goes hand in hand with my earlier point about the book being too short. When they were each first introduced, I was lead to believe that they would play significant roles in the story, only to later be disappointed. At least one of them we maybe could've done without entirely, she has that little effect on the plot. It's a shame, too, because she was set up early on to be this mysterious and important figure, so I felt like I was cheated out of something that would've added an interesting extra dimension to the novel. 

Although overall I really liked the story and my complaints are mostly minor, there is one big plot hole that I have to gripe about. I don't want to spoil anything, so without giving too much away I'll just say that one major plot points is the fact that multiple cults are aware that Jeff and several other people like him are having these symbolic dreams and that they are somehow important. They don't know what the dreams are about, but somehow they know he's having them and that they are important. But how they know is never explained. I can look past it for the sake of the story, but it is kind of frustrating when several main characters are very insistent that magic isn't real, yet there isn't any other explanation for this knowledge than the supernatural. I just feel that it would be more realistic if the skeptics weren't quite so skeptical in this case.

Would I recommend this book? I certainly would, and in fact I already have. Will I be reading the sequel? I most certainly will, although not immediately. It's definitely not without flaws, but most of these could have been fixed if only the book had been a little longer. But it was definitely highly entertaining and engaging, and it feels good to give a book a high rating for once.

My Rating: Four out of five stars

Some favorite quotes: "It sounds like the voice of a guy with a mustache that eats a lot of spaghetti, and it sounds like he’s close enough to smear marinara on my cheek with a simple flick of the tongue."

"I guess your perspective changes when people hover over you for a good strangle. They suddenly seem quite substantial."

"“I can explain it in vague terms,” I say, my tone conveying the faintest mocking lilt. “A carbon based life form may have told me about it, but this being remains mysterious.”"

"Hovering smack dab in that danger zone, about a pubic hair away from seeming like an evil clown."

"Corpses surround us, stretching off into every direction, but we are alive."

"...the frigidity presses itself against me like a pervert on the subway."


Hopefully it won't take me nearly as long to finish the next book on my list. My goal is to read and review one book per week this summer. Stay tuned next time for Blood Price by A.L. Wright! Until then, my lovelies: 

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