A trip to any indistinguishable chain bookstore will tell you what you need to know about the current crisis in publishing — glossy-covered bestsellers by the usual suspects, characters from classics transformed into “vampyres” and zombie-killers, second-rate celebrities eager to tell all. But where are the fresh new writers? Where are the strong stories and original voices?

Sadly, the big publishing houses are taking fewer chances and more emerging authors are self-publishing. It’s easy to create your own micro-imprint, and on-line nobody knows you’re a POD (print-on-demand). While getting onto store shelves is difficult, the web has made it simple for authors to market themselves, and e-books offer a great way to break in. For a writer, uploading a book on Kindle is as easy as sending an e-mail, and companies like Smashwords offer free e-publishing in ALL digital formats.

While this creates opportunities for writers, it creates confusion for readers. With so many books, what’s to read? Without the traditional gatekeepers — agents and publishers — how do you find books that are high quality, original and well-written?

Fortunately, e-books can usually be “sampled” before purchase, and most online booksellers allow you to “browse” print versions electronically. If you are an e-book aficionado or ready to take the plunge into print-on-demand, here are five great picks.

1) Dorkismo — The Macho of the Dork , by Maria Bustillos (2009) — available in paperback and on Kindle.

In a series of brilliant, accessible and funny essays, LA-based cultural critique, Maria Bustillos posits that the dorks are saving civilization. Her revolutionary manifesto celebrates true self-expression. In a world where hipness has become a commodity signified by the proper attire and technology, a world of branding, where children refuse to go to school without designer clothing, Dorkismo is the antidote. All the important creative thinkers and innovators are dorks, she tells us. They/we/us are the true iconoclasts. This is more than simple cultural critique. It’s self-help that’s nothing short of inspirational.

Bustillos, by offering her examples of authentic coolness, urges readers to be proud of who they are and their intellectual pursuits and obsessions — even if they involve fluency in one or more fictional languages. Her motto, “to thine own self be cool,” redefines hip making it clear that creativity, art and even happiness come from following your own path, enjoying yourself, and learning to embrace your dork-nature.

2) Babylon, Daisy Anne Gree (2009) — available in paperback and as a FREE e-book in all digital formats.

Gree published this novel in association with Year Zero a writers’ collective dedicated to “restoring the direct conversation between reader and writer.” Babylon, barely more than novella length, is a stunning debut.

Fired from a restaurant job in San Francisco, schizophrenic Daniel attempts suicide and winds up back in his parent’s old house in his small Texas hometown of Babylon. Voice is everything in fiction and Gree has it. Daniel’s head is not a comfortable or pleasant place to be, but Gree brings us there in a way that’s true and sharp. She teaches us more about the mind of a schizophrenic than anyone is likely to get from a medical or psychiatric textbook. Gree goes beyond the writing workshop adage, “Show don’t tell.” Her descriptions are simple yet visceral, and they hit like a shot of mescaline straight to the heart.

Chapter one begins in the restaurant where Daniel is working:

“I counted my breath in and out, rough and ragged. A fractious rhythm among the others, the slamming oven doors and the clanking plates, that surrounded me. The air inside was so thick and heavy that breathing felt like drowning. As the seconds wore on, one noise began to swell and smother the rest: the slow and steady buzzing of the fluorescent bulb above my head. It was feverish and nauseating, as jarring as a jackhammer on asphalt.”

By the time Daniel comes home and slashes his wrist, we’ve seen the shadows jumping from the walls and heard the voices calling his name. We understand the desperation that drives his actions.

While this all sounds bleak, and it is, there’s also a deadpan humor that shows itself in snatches of dialogue and imagery that is achingly beautiful throughout.

3) Harbour, by Paul House (2009) — available in hardcover, paperback and coming to Kindle.

Harbour, a historical novel set against the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, was initially published by the author through Lulu as a POD. It was recently picked up by Dragon International Arts, a small publisher in the UK.

At over 400 pages and with several story-lines, Harbour, is better suited to print than digital. Its characters include an elderly drug-lord, his beautiful young wife, a mixed-race girl, a British doctor, a Japanese barber with a secret, an embittered invalid and assorted others. None are especially heroic which is both the novel’s strength and probably the reason it wasn’t picked up by a major publisher. If you’re a fan of formulaic historical fiction — the Michener model, this isn’t for you. It’s character-driven even as history unfolds. Which is not to say, that there isn’t plenty of attention to historical detail.

As we read, patterns begin to emerge within the tapestry before us. We understand more of the connections between characters and the focus shifts to two couples — Tung Nien, the drug-lord’s wife and her lover Dr. Laughton — a married, British ex-pat, and Molly a mixed-race girl taken in by Tung Nien and Molly’s friend, Wu.

Laughton and Tung Nien are in an impossible situation. They’ve gone from having an affair to being truly, deeply, passionately in love with each other. Their story of longing and compromise becomes one with which any reader can identify. Molly, our young heroine, has ideals and innocence. She’s probably the most heroic of the bunch — the least cynical and sullied, while her beau, Wu on the precipice of manhood, may make the wrong choice. When the chaos of the invasion finally arrives, these are the four we hope will emerge not only alive but somehow, against the odds, with each other.

Without giving anything away, one can report that the ending was deeply satisfying.

4) Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, by Dan Holloway — available in paperwork and FREE in all e-book formats.

This is a book truly made for the digital age — hip, sensuous, smart and very up to date. Holloway is the founder of the Year 0 collective and believes that making books available for free digitally is one way to grow readership. Songs has become the number one most downloaded literary novel on the e-book publishing site, Smashwords.

Szandrine was born in Hungary shortly after the Berlin Wall fell. Abandoned by her British mother, she was raised by her father on a family-owned vineyard. Szandrine is part of the Budapest art scene and lives with her girlfriend, Yang — a sculptor.

Set in 2006-2007, besides it’s exotic setting, what sets this novel apart is the invention of a truly contemporary character. Szandrine, at seventeen, is post-Wall Europe, at ease with the non-issue of her sexuality, and more at home in certain corners of the Internet than anywhere else.

New Year’s Eve 2006, Szandi witnesses a tragedy during riots in Budapest. What she sees impels her to explore her past and brings her to an understanding of her future. The story unfolds in real time, flashbacks, letters and in chat-rooms.

It’s a complicated tale involving the recall of an online friendship with a dead man, a mysterious letter, and an unsatisfactory reunion between Szandrine and her mother. Holloway, never loses control and the strands are woven together with the connections becoming clear. As Szandrine explores her recent and more distant history, she comes into her own with knowledge and wisdom.

With flashbacks, and switches in time and location, this may not be the easiest narrative to follow, but it captures the rhythms and nuisance of how we live now in a way that has rarely been done better.

5) Glimpses of a Floating World, by Larry Harrison, (2009) — available in paperbook and FREE in all e-book formats.

Larry Harrison’s dark and dazzling first novel, Glimpses-of-a-Floating-World takes its title from the phrase used to describe the red-light district of 18th century Edo, now known as Tokyo. Edo’s floating world was a haven of pleasure and illusion, filled with kabuki actors, geishas and courtesans. Harrison’s work is set in London’s Soho, 1963, its denizens — anarchists, mods, rockers, beats, and others, among them our protagonist, seventeen year-old, heroin addict, Ronnie “Fizz” Jarvis who loves feeling that he is part of “the scene.”

Harrison skillfully allows the reader to identify with Ronnie despite the character’s being vain, selfish and occasionally cowardly. He is, after all, an adolescent trying to understand the world and his place in it. Ronnie reminds us of other young, unreliable characters reaching adulthood in an imperfect world. The reader is immediately aware that no matter what else happens, Ronnie will either grow and change, or he will not. We root for Ronnie’s potential, hoping he will live to tell the tale.

Glimpses is well-plotted, taut and suspenseful. Ronnie becomes a reluctant police informant and tensions rise as we head towards a likely bloody conclusion.

Harrison who has written nonfiction books on alcohol and drug issues, seamlessly weaves in the growing panic over narcotics. Britain — influenced by the US — was changing its policies, moving from treating addiction as a public health issue to criminalizing addicts. Ronnie is as much a victim of these changes as he is of his abusive father and his own romanticized self-destruction.

Glimpses of a Floating World is described on its back cover as “a lyrical and triumphant elegy to a seedy, vice-ridden London of the 1960’s. ” It is that, but also a tale of familial tragedy, a history lesson, a novel that offers much more than simple glimpses. It reads like a lost classic.

(This posting originally appeared as a guest blog at can also be found as a guest blog at LA Books Examiner.)

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3 Comments on Proud Independents — Five Books You Won’t Find in Chains

  1. Chaim says:

    I can’t believe nobody commented. I know the reputation of samizdat publishing, but I mean come on, look at the formulaic dreck that passes for writing now. These books rocked!

  2. Sandie Dent says:

    Excellent post, Marion – and some real quality books there.

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