Welcome to free fiction review
Can free fiction by self-published authors possibly be any good? Or are we all just a bunch of talentless narcissists? This is my pick of the best free ebooks I have come across from self-published authors. Obviously my choices are influenced by my own tastes. But since all this stuff is free, what have you got to lose by giving it a try?
Please note: the works listed here were all free at the time of my review - but that can change. For all my book reviews (both free and paid-for books), click HERE.
Day Gazing by Carla Herrera
Although subtitled “Weird Shorts”, all the stories in this collection are written in a very accessible way – so don’t assume that “weird” equates to “obscure” or “kind of hard going.” For example, I found that I could readily identify with - or at least empathise with - most of the protagonists; the weirdness is more about the situations that they find themselves in. These range from a couple who respond to an ad offering the chance to spend several weeks in a nuclear fallout shelter to a man who wakes up in a room that is entirely white. A number of the other stories mine a similarly dark seam of people battling with their own personal hell or some form of wider, apocalyptic event. A great collection of shorts that definitely repays more than one reading. READ FULL REVIEW. Click on the cover image to go to a download page.
The Fourth Lectern by Andy Cooke
A free novella about what might have happened if the anti-EU UK Independence Party had been included in the 2010 pre-election TV debates. And if you are thinking, well it probably wouldn't have made much difference, just recall the impact that Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg made in those debates - at one point, I believe, he was more popular than Winston Churchill ! (Ah, how times change...). Anyway, this is an interesting and well-executed counterfactual. That said, it does assume you are quite into politics - so if names like Steve Hilton and Stuart Wheeler mean nothing to you, you may struggle a bit. I also found that the election night coverage dragged a bit (too many constituency names...). However, on the strength of this I went onto read the novel-length sequel, "The Fifth Lectern," which I also enjoyed and have reviewed in more detail HERE (although that book is not free). Click on the cover image to go to a download page.
The Inelegant Universe by Charles Hibbard
A thought-provoking, varied and beautifully written collection of short stories. I particularly liked combination of fairly everyday incidents (e.g. dinner parties, two friends on a hike, visiting an elderly parent in a nursing home etc) with larger, more abstract ideas – ranging from string theory through to evolution and the conflict between order and chaos. The marrying up of these ideas with the subject matter is elegantly done and never feels artificial. And there was always enough in the way of plot/character to draw the reader in and no shortage of humour. READ FULL REVIEW. Click on the cover image to go to a download page.
Pedalling Backwards by Julia Russell
Lizzie, her husband and her parents have rented a holiday cottage on a bleak, muddy island in the Blackwater Estuary. What could possibly go wrong? Well, for starters, Lizzie has recently lost a baby. Her husband thought it would be a good idea for them both to get away from things for a bit, but didn’t seem to fancy the idea of being on his own with Lizzie the entire time. So he invited her parents. The trouble is, Lizzie’s relationship with them (especially her mother) is not an easy one. Added to which, Lizzie herself can be pretty infuriating at times. So the atmosphere as we join them in the cottage is, well, a little tense. All the ingredients, I’m sure you will agree, of a really super-duper, relaxing holiday. A very well written literary novel which reminded me in some respects of “The Third Person” (also reviewed here - see below). READ FULL REVIEW. Click on the cover image to go to a download page.
Abraham the Anchor Baby Terrorist by Sean Boling
This novel is about an attempt by Islamic terrorists to insert a “sleeper” agent into the US by smuggling a pregnant Algerian woman into the country; her son, Abraham, is to be raised as a terrorist. The author skilfully keeps you guessing as to whether Abraham will turn out as intended by his terrorist mentors and after a slightly slow start, I found it hard to put down. It has interesting things to say about terrorism, immigration and racism – but it can be read on a number of different levels (for example, you could see it as being about free will versus fate or nature versus nurture). Although a gripping story, it’s not really a thriller; instead, try to imagine the writers of “The Wire” doing with terrorism what they did with drug crime (but minus the law enforcement angle). Then re-imagine that as a literary novel with shades of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” READ FULL REVIEW. Click on the cover image to go to a download page.
The Hole in the Wall by Clare Fisher
This is another mid-length piece which (in terms of subject matter) reminded me a little of Ian McEwan’s “The Cement Garden” and also Stephanie Newell’s “The Third Person” (see below). Caroline and Michael are middle class academics with a young son, Oscar. They live in a house with a hole in the wall – the mysterious contents of which are at the centre of this story. Oscar meets a girl called Treasure, of whom both his parents are rather wary, since she appears to come from a much more deprived background. Those concerns appear to be justified when Oscar starts having nightmares and goes missing from school. But the real mystery has to do with Treasure’s past and the reason she has been hanging around Caroline and Michael’s house. Cleverly told from 5 different perspectives, this is a very good short read. READ FULL REVIEW. Click on the cover image to go to a download page.
The Free Indie Reader No.1
First, a declaration of self-interest - one of my own stories (The King of Infinite Space) appears in this anthology. But the main point about this collection of shorts is that it contains pieces by 7 other self-published authors - including several whose work I have reviewed below. So if you want to sample some of the material that's out there, this may be a good place to start. You can view a short - and ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek - trailer for it here.
The other authors whose work I have reviewed on this site are: Judy B, Michael Graeme, Carla Herrera and Tom Lichtenberg (who compiled this anthology - click here for more on that). For reviews of the other authors whose work is featured, see Tom Lichtenberg's blog. Click on the cover image to go to a download page.
The Future Manifestations of St Christina the Astonishing
This short book (by anonymous authors) uses the medieval Saint Christina the Astonishing as the common denominator for 8 quirky, speculative fictions about the near and distant future. These include a virtual role-playing game, the development of a “quantumputer”, a possible explanation of “reincarnation” and technology that allows you to see up to 6 minutes into the future. It is somewhat reminiscent of “Sum” by the neuroscientist David Eagleman, which is a collection of similarly short pieces depicting possible different versions of the afterlife; both books contain a series of variations around a central, unifying theme and the “big ideas” are deftly handled, in a way which conveys their emotional as well as intellectual content. READ FULL REVIEW. Click on the cover image to go to a download page.
3 by Moxie Mezcal
3 is a collection of three gripping short stories – which almost feel like mini-novellas. The first story, “Home Movie,” is about a porn store DVD which has been replaced with what appears to be a snuff movie – is it just make-believe or could it be real? The second story, “1999,” recounts a night of partying on the eve of the new millennium – and starts with the line “[n]othing in this story really happened”. The final story, “Fake”, takes its cue from several notorious (real life) cases of journalists having made up plausible-sounding but fake stories in order to further their careers. The emphasis on the real and the fictional might make this sound like tricksy, ultra-ironic, post-modernist fare – but although there are nods in that direction, the focus is on telling a gripping story, something Moxie Mezcal does with great skill and verve. READ FULL REVIEW. Click on the cover image to go to a download page.
The Prodigals by Frank Burton
“The Prodigals” is an ambitious contemporary novel following the lives of four mal-adjusted young men in Manchester – Travis, Brian, Howard and Declan. Its main focus is on exploring why all four characters seem to find it so difficult to come to terms with who they are (which in turns leads to various forms of anti-social behaviour). It’s a difficult book to categorise, combining gritty social realism with existentialist musings on why we’re here and what the point of it all is. This might make it sound quite heavy going, but in fact, it has a lot to offer in the way of lively incident and wry humour. Its style and structure are also somewhat unconventional in a way that may not work for everyone – although personally, I quite like being made to work a bit harder to join up the dots sometimes. READ FULL REVIEW. Click on the cover image to go to a download page.
Corpus Callosum by Erika D Price
This is an excellent literary novel with a sci-fi element. Joey and Jeannette are twin sisters. When Joey is fatally injured in a fire, Jeannette can’t face the thought of life without her – so she pays the good folk at LifeMedia to have Joey’s mind uploaded into a “BrightBox” (this is the main sci-fi element – but in most other respects, the world of the story is very similar to our own and the focus is very much on the characters rather than the science). At first it seems to have worked – but as time goes on, Joey starts to wonder if she now has more in common with other BrightBox “uploadees” than with “breathers” like her sister. On top of which, it seems that the technology may not be entirely bug-free. An intriguing and very thought-provoking novel. READ FULL REVIEW. Click on the cover image to go to a download page.
Shen by Heather Douglass
"Shen" is an engagingly offbeat science fiction novel which the author describes (slightly tongue-in-cheek) as “space opera for the unprepared”. I particularly enjoyed Part 1 which manages to combine elements of popular realist literary fiction (e.g. the main character is having an extra-marital affair etc) with an intriguing sci-fi premise (the main character keeps finding himself on an alien spaceship, but it’s not clear why – and the other people/beings on board don’t seem too clear about it either). Part 2 sees the action move to a different planet and the focus of the novel shifts to more conventional sci-fi/fantasy territory. However, it is still quite ambitious in its attempt to depict the interplay between different racial/cultural/religious groups (Part 2 reminded me of the late Iain Banks’ “Culture” novels and Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series). READ FULL REVIEW. Click on the cover image to go to a download page.
Trade by Lochlan Bloom
“Trade” is narrated from a point in the not too distant future when an internet platform (a sort of cross between Facebook and Ebay) has radically changed the way that people approach sex. Sometimes you have a feeling from the first page that something is going to be worth reading - and for me, “Trade” delivered on that initial promise. The premise was sufficiently intriguing and enough happened in terms of plot to justify the label “novelette,” with its implication that the story will deliver some of the things you would normally expect from a longer work. A gripping and thought-provoking read. READ FULL REVIEW. Click on the cover image to go to a download page.
The Third Person by Stephanie Newell
Lizzie is 14. Her father has left home and her mother doesn’t seem to be coping too well in his absence. Lizzie spends an unhealthy amount of time in her bedroom making elaborate plans. These generally involve eloping with Mr Phillips, the shopkeeper, or exacting revenge upon people who have displeased her. But things don’t turn out quite as she hopes. Lizzie’s narration is utterly compelling – despite the fact that she is highly manipulative and at times vindictive. Overall, the novel reminded me of a cross between Zoe Heller’s “Notes on a Scandal” and Iain Banks’ “The Wasp Factory” - see FULL REVIEW for an explanation of this slightly bizarre comparison. An impressive and unsettling literary novel. Click on the cover image to go to a download page.
Unpredictable by Bryan R Dennis
“Unpredictable” is a collection of 3 short stories. Why should you read it? Well, if I had to pick just one reason, it would be the last story, “Illinois Corn”, about a sort of agricultural fight-club – it is compelling, unsettling and extremely effective. I was initially less sure about the first story, “Unpredictable”, because the narrator seemed so infuriatingly perverse - but by the end he’d succeeded in gaining my sympathy (to an extent, at any rate). Finally, “Jake’s Mom” is a well-observed story about a mother’s relationship with her teenage son. In all 3 cases, I found myself speculating about what would happen to the characters over the longer term or imagining other details about their lives – which I always think is a good sign. READ FULL REVIEW. Click on the cover image to go to a download page.
The Ant Farm by Neil Hetzner
“The Ant Farm” is a quirky, engaging and very well-observed tragi-comic novel about statistics in the poultry industry and knitting. Hmmm, I sense that I may not be doing the book any favours with the second half of that sentence. OK, let’s try again: 62 year old Gene Almsson loves his job as a travelling rep working in the poultry industry. But when he is forced into early retirement, he struggles to adapt. And how will he cope with childcare when one of his grown-up daughters boomerangs back home with her toddler? Reminded me in some respects of the George Clooney film “Up in the Air” (it has a similar line in wry, humorous observation) - but ends up exploring much darker territory. READ FULL REVIEW. Click on the image opposite to go to a download page.
Pigs and Other Living Things by Sean Boling
This is a varied and well-crafted collection of 5 short stories. I particularly liked “Focus”, about a photographer’s encounter with a heron (made me wince) and “The Monitor,” about what you imagine when you inadvertently tune into someone else’s baby alarm (yes, been there). All the stories are based based around a single dramatic event – like a shooting at a store, an unexpected incident at a football game or an encounter with a wild pig – which helps to provide a focal point. I felt the title had a slightly ‘throwaway’ tone which didn’t entirely do justice to the seriousness of the author’s intent. But that's a very minor criticism, so don’t let it put you off giving this well written and intriguing collection a try. READ FULL REVIEW. Click on the cover image to go to a download page.
The Judas Tree by Patricia le Roy
If you enjoyed the non-fiction book “Stasiland” and/or the film “The Lives of Others”, you should definitely give this excellent free novel a try. Its starting point is the death of a French woman, Anne, who was (seemingly) happily married to Matthias, an East German (a marriage that took place some years before the collapse of the DDR). But Anne seems to have taken a number of secrets to her grave. Several years later, Matthias finally decides to visit her family in Provence, looking for answers. Neither he nor Anne’s family fully understand why she made the choices that she did - and it is only when they put the different pieces of the jigsaw together that the truth emerges. A superb literary/psychological novel. READ FULL REVIEW. Click on the cover image to go to a download page.
In Durleston Wood by Michael Graeme
Following the break-up of his marriage, Richard Hunter finds work as a primary school teacher in the village of Durleston, but his heart doesn’t really seem to be in it – the main thing that seems to keep him going is his infatuation with the school’s headmistress. Shunning social contact, he goes for long walks in Durleston Wood, where he comes across a woman who appears to be kept a prisoner in a remote cottage. Should he help her escape? An impressive and intriguing psychological novel, whose undercurrent of violence/threat and sexual tension reminded me of some of Ian McEwan’s work. Click on the cover image to go to a download page. READ FULL REVIEW.
Ledman Pickup by Tom Lichtenberg
In a world of personal devices, how personal is too personal? Zoey Bridges makes her living testing gadgets – but on this occasion, the gadget she’s been sent doesn’t seem to do anything. She sends it back, only to discover (to her horror) that it’s got lost in transit. She and the gizmo’s obsessively secretive designers then try to track it down - but it seems to have developed a mind of its own. Aside from the gadget (and one or two other details), the world of the story is recognisably our own – and there is some enjoyable satire of high-powered corporate types and their more lowly minions. A well written, entertaining and thought-provoking story – well worth a read even if sci-fi is not usually your thing. READ FULL REVIEW. Click on the cover image to go to a download page.
Falling by Bernard Fancher
A short story about the murder of a child, but instead of the conventional “who dunnit”, the focus is on the emotions of the detective who dealt with the case. The facts of the murder and the subsequent investigation are conveyed briefly, leaving most of the detail to your imagination – but the emotional impact is clear from the effect it has on the central character. The result (for this reader at least) is that you end up reconstructing aspects of the more conventional “who dunnit?” narrative in your head - so that by the time you’ve finished, the overall impact is closer to what you’d get from reading a much longer piece of work. Click on the cover image to go to a download page. I also enjoyed “The End of the Circus” by the same author. Although very different in subject matter, it too focusses on the transient nature of existence as a source of both intense pleasure “in the moment” and sorrow or regret once that moment has gone.
Besserwisser by Steve Anderson
It’s easily done, isn’t it? One beer too many at the Munich Oktoberfest and somehow it becomes impossible to resist pretending that you’re a Fulbright scholar on the trail of sensational revelations about Hitler in the Munich archives. One thing leads to another and before you know it, you’ve also managed to attract (a) an enigmatic new girlfriend who seems, well, just a bit too good for you; and (b) the attention of some sinister but slightly inept neo-Nazi types. Well, this is what happens to our hero, Gordy, in this excellent comic novel from Steve Anderson. I particularly liked the deadpan humour but the author also manages to make Gordy sufficiently likeable (despite his many, many faults) that you care what happens to him – which is not always a given in fiction of this type. READ FULL REVIEW. Click on the cover image to link to a download page.
Stories for Airports by Judy b
The title of this excellent series of short stories recalls Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports”; the stories are all about finding something unusual or out of the ordinary in the “background muzak” of everyday life that we would normally ignore. Taken as a whole, the collection reminded me somewhat of “Short Cuts” (the Robert Altman film rather than the Raymond Carver stories on which it was based); I had a similar “privileged” sense of dipping in and out of the everyday lives of a whole series of unconnected characters across the same city. This gave the book an unusual sense of coherence (despite the impressive diversity of styles and subject matter on display in the individual stories). An undiscovered Smashwords gem. READ FULL REVIEW. Click on the cover image to link to a download page.
Coming Home by Chris Gallagher
“Coming Home”, which has already had several five star reviews on Smashwords, is a full-length novel about Aidan Pennock’s return to the Yorkshire village where he grew up, following many years in the army. It depicts the impact of his return on his three closest childhood friends, Brax, Jazz and Callie, who have all remained in the area. Although the novel is primarily character-driven (rather than plot-driven), the author never loses sight of the need to entertain – lively dialogue and an occasionally racy plot keep things ticking along nicely towards a striking – and surprising - final scene. READ FULL REVIEW. UPDATE 12.2012: this book is no longer free - it's only available via Amazon but you can sample the first chapter here.
Sonny's Guerrillas by Matthew Asprey
This novella about making an indie movie reminded me of a cross between “Hearts of Darkness” (a documentary about one or two, er, minor difficulties encountered by Francis Ford Coppola during the making of the film “Apocalypse Now”) and “The Beach” by Alex Garland (“Lord of the Flies” for the backpacker generation) - but with the action shifted from south-east Asia to Greece during the first throes of the financial crisis. It’s well written and sharply observed, with a very distinctive narrative voice. READ FULL REVIEW. Click on the cover image to link to a download page. UPDATE 11.2013: this book is no longer free, although you can sample the first 15% on Smashwords.
Want more recommendations?
Much as I might like to believe that I possess an absolute monopoly on good taste when it comes to free fiction, that seems unlikely to be the case. And there is a lot of stuff out there - far more than any one person can possibly review. So here are some more sites which contain recommendations for fiction by indie authors (at least some of which is free):
- Pigeon Weather Productions (Tom Lichtenberg)
- Bernard Fancher's Smashwords reviews (NB scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the reviews)
There are plenty of general book review sites which I could (potentially) add to this list, but I am trying to confine it to ones which have a high proportion of reviews of free fiction by indie authors. If you're aware of any sites or blogs which you think could usefully be added to the list (there must be some!), please let me know at email@example.com.
Another approach is to look at sites of non-profit publishers, many of which make material available for free - so if you find a publisher whose output you like, you can effectively use that site as a "filter" (which may give you a better "hit" rate than trawling through Smashwords or Feedbooks in search of hidden gems). Frank Burton, who is behind Philistine Press, has helpfully put up an extensive list of non-profit publishers here.
Web Fiction Guide
Web Fiction Guide is an interesting site with reviews (and links to) a wide range of free fiction by indie authors. However, it has chosen to focus on web-based books i.e. if the author is only making their work available as an ebook and/or in PDF (rather than a purely web-based format), they're not interested (which is a shame in my view, as I much prefer to read stuff on an e-reader - and I suspect I am not alone in that). That said, it may well be that some of the authors they've reviewed make their material available in a variety of formats, not just the ones that happen to tick WFG's boxes.