John Vassar: Cosmic Intrigue

Another review in my indie author series. I’m dropping the opening blurb henceforth. You’ve read it enough!


Once ravaged by famine, civilization has been rebuilt, partly on a decimated Earth but largely in massive orbiting colonies. United under a single Supreme Council and guided by the recommendations of a collection of machines known as SenANNs (sentient artificial neural networks), the human race at long last isn’t too bad off. But trouble is brewing beneath the surface. The security agency known as Delere Secos appears to have been breached. Two agents have perished under inexplicable circumstances, and now ex-agent Lee Mitchell, forced into retirement years earlier when he appeared to be showing signs of telepathic power, is brought back by the DS director to investigate under a cloak of utmost secrecy. In spite of skills grown rusty with disuse, Mitchell sets out to trace the tenuous leads and begins to unravel the enigma. Dogged by a more skilled agent who doesn’t trust him and connected directly to the SenANNs via an implant, Mitchell is drawn inexorably into a chilling plot concocted by the richest, most brilliant, and most reclusive man alive only to discover that even he is just a player in an intrigue crossing space and time.

Provider Prime: Alien Legacy is an intense, hard-hitting SF novel filled with twists and turns that don’t stop until the very last page. The pacing is about perfect, with the stakes constantly rising. Just when you it think it can’t possibly get any worse, it does, right through the denouement–if it can be called that. The characters are well-drawn and complex, too. The ending put me in mind of another SF novel I read a long, long time ago: Colossus by D. F. Jones.

The writing is solid throughout, although I did find the opening a bit confusing because of the unfamiliar and unexplained terminology being thrown around. If you can get through that, though, the explanations will fall naturally out of the story, and you’ll grow comfortable with it before long. Vassar’s handling of the action is better than his handling of emotional scenes, but there are no significant stumbling blocks. He gets the job done.

A word of warning is in order: some of the material is brutal, involving both physical and psychological torture. It’s not excessively graphic, but Vassar doesn’t pull his punches. Some readers may find certain scenes very disturbing. Nevertheless, the story rates 5 stars and the writing falls on the high side of 4, so I’ll be generous and give this one a 5 overall.

 I recently asked John Vassar about the novel and his writing. Here’s what he said:

The world of Provider Prime and the background for the story are complex. How long did it take you to build this world, and how did you go about it?

First of all, thanks so much for the interview invitation and for taking the time and trouble to review – both very much appreciated. As for creating the world behind Provider Prime, what a good question! I have a vivid imagination and a strong aesthetic sense (my mother and father were both art teachers) which is sometimes at odds with my scientific and engineering-centred education. I decided from the outset that although I wanted Earth in 2203 in my mind’s eye to be visually stunning, it also had to be scientifically feasible. How long did that take? As long as it took to write the book is the truthful answer, because I was still tinkering with the backdrop until the very last word. Even then it carried on throughout the editing process. For instance, I remember making precise calculations based around the global population figures after the Great Famine and working out if the Orbtown Programme (orbital cities) was actually a viable proposition. Luckily for me, it was!

Your choice of the word “complex” is appropriate. In some ways, the technology of 2203 is almost too advanced, the Orbtowns being a good example. Yet, in other areas Earth is still quite “backward.” Still no faster-than- light starships for instance, a common trope in 23rd-century science fiction. The conclusion of the story goes some way, I hope, to explaining those contradictions. As for the alien elements in Provider Prime, I make no excuse for including those. I have no doubt that we are not alone in the universe. To my mind the statistics make it a virtual certainty. What I did try to avoid is the “cardboard cut-out bad guy” approach and to give some depth to the characters on both sides of the confrontation. Maybe that’s my background in acting coming to the fore – looking for genuine motivation. I tried to make each character’s actions truthful.

In terms of how we see Future Earth in the novel, I simply let that unravel during the narrative. It’s mainly from the protagonist Lee Mitchell’s point of view, and I avoided “information dumps” where possible. The disadvantage of that approach is that the terminology, acronyms and jargon are left unexplained for the most part. I’m working on adding the “X-Ray” facility to the Kindle version to help with this! Overall, though, I’m fairly happy with my vision of 2203. It’s neither Dystopian or Utopian. It functions well on most levels and crime is at an all-time low, but as with any society throughout history there are hidden undercurrents.

In the story, the SenANNs undergo a sort of character growth of their own. Do you see them as actually evolving through the story, or are they merely becoming more adept at communicating with humans?

They are very different beings at the end of the story. Their collective intelligence as such has not suddenly increased, but their understanding of the biological mind and its sometimes irrational thought processes has grown immensely. The SenANNs (Sentient Artificial Neural Networks) have always understood that they needed some sort of symbiosis to reach the next level of their evolution. Actually, that transition was not easy to write because as you point out, throughout the book they are learning the nuances of language that we take for granted. I did use that aspect of the SenANNs’ development to introduce a little wry humour here and there.

Had you written anything before Provider Prime?

Yes, but luckily for everyone it will remain unpublished! I wrote a full length SF novel way back in the nineties. I used an Amstrad PCW8256 and floppy discs by the dozen. It did serve one useful purpose though – even though it was so dated in terms of technology it was almost laughable, I did not want to lose it altogether. As I re-typed it into Word from the manuscript I had printed off before Lord Sugar’s masterpiece finally gave up the ghost, I was inspired to write another novel. Provider Prime: Alien Legacy was the result!

What are you currently working on?

At the moment I’m laying out the straw man for the sequel to Provider Prime, which I’m hoping will hit the bookshelves later this year. This will be the second volume in the Alien Legacy trilogy. I’m also working on a series of short stories, the first of which (The Blue Page) is currently being submitted to the online SF magazines. The aim here is to eventually have enough for a stand-alone collection.

What advice to you have for readers or writers?

For readers, I think it’s healthy to step outside the box once in a while and take a chance on something that isn’t in your usual genre. Whenever I’ve done this it has given me new perspectives on my own writing and only occasionally have my preconceptions been accurate.

For writers – where do you start? With the eBook and online publishing revolution there are more opportunities now for new authors but exponentially more competition and a million ways to get ripped off. In the year since I first put Provider Prime on Amazon I’ve realized that there is a whole sub-industry out there geared to making money from indie authors – so please do your research before parting with any hard-earned cash. I think in the end success will depend on your levels of persistence and belief. Don’t give up.

Where can readers find you?

On my websiteFacebookTwitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. Provider Prime: Alien Legacy is available exclusively on Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and Amazon.uk (including Kindle Unlimited).

Do Writers Deserve to Eat?

The job title “writer” covers a lot of ground. Writers can be, among other things, journalists, web content writers, technical writers, script writers, legal writers, fiction writers, or song writers. They can be staff writers or freelancers.  Their work can appear in print, electronically, on stage or screen.  Some lucky writers earn a great deal from their work. And then there’s the rest of us.

According to a 2017 survey conducted by freelancewriting.com,  65% of freelancers in the U.S. earn less than $10,000 per year from their writing, while for over half of freelancers, writing is their only job. The “top tier” freelance writers work full time and earn $40,000 or more per year, not enough to get rich but enough to pay the rent and eat.

The writers involved in this survey do a broad range of work. Most of them aren’t writing books, but web content, technical material, advertising copy, articles, and so forth.  They’ve sought out work, sold themselves, and negotiated a rate (or accepted what they were offered). Somebody is paying them to do a specific job. Those of us who write books to share knowledge or tell a story have to find a publisher, or failing that, self-publish. We make our money off of sales of our work to the reading public. You are our clients. And you pay us not according to a contractual rate, but by buying copies of our work.

So the big question is, how much are you willing to pay? That’s been a burning question for independent book authors for quite a few years now. Scan the ranks of books by indie authors, and you’ll see ebooks selling for anywhere from nothing to a few dollars. Our print books typically cost more, but generally less than $15.00 and frequently less than $10.00. That’s great for the reader, but horrible for the writer. Why? Because at $0.00 per copy, the author makes nothing no matter how popular her work may become, and even at $2.99, the profits don’t exactly mount up.

Consider what goes into making a book. While we all write at our own speed, it’s not uncommon to spend six months to a year writing a book. Let’s go with the lower end of that range. Now, after that book is written and revised to the author’s satisfaction, it goes out to an editor. If a writer is very lucky–as I am–an “in house” editor like my wife Kathleen may be available for free. But most often, the writer has to pay for editorial services. That can run anywhere from several hundred dollars to over a thousand, depending on the skill of the editor and the length and complexity of the work.

So let’s say after six months hard work and maybe $500 editing expense, you have a book. You’re not done yet. You likely purchase an ISBN for each book format you intend to publish (about $25 if you buy them individually, although considerably less if you can buy them in bulk), possibly a bar code for the print book (another $25), and of course cover art. You might do the cover work yourself, but if not you’ll spend a few hundred to a thousand or more for that. And let’s not forget the copyright registration fee, another $35 to $55, depending several factors. So the writer has invested six months labor and probably anywhere between $100 and $1,000 in expenses to produce one book.

Now it’s time to make back that investment. The book goes on sale.

Many indie authors are lucky to sell 100 or so copies of a book. Even at the “high” price of $2.99,  that can fall well short of what they’ve spent in bringing you the book.  If they keep costs low, they might actually make a small profit, but let’s face it, how many other laborers would settle for a payout of $300, or even $1000, for six months’ work?

At the $2.99 price point, an indie author would, assuming a lot of do-it-yourself, need to sell well over 13,000 copies of their book in one year to hit that “top tier” income level of $40,000. That doesn’t happen too often.  Achieving “bestseller” status can require selling about 1,000 copies within a few days of release. That’s five to ten times what many indie books sell over a year or two. To make serious money as an indie author requires writing bestseller after bestseller.

If you’re a writer, this may seem discouraging, but don’t be disheartened. Consider this a call to keep writing good books while learning the art of promotion. A series of good books well-promoted can, given time and effort, earn you enough to enable you to eat.

If you’re a reader, consider this is a call for understanding and help. Please don’t expect to get something for nothing. We work hard to bring you stories and intellectual excursions you will enjoy. Be willing to pay at least as much for a good book as you pay for a good cup of coffee. You only get to drink the cup of coffee once. The book will stay with you through re-readings and conversations and happy memories. It’s also lower in caffeine. And if you do enjoy our product, please let others know about it by leaving reviews and telling friends and family. Praise from satisfied customers goes father than almost anything we can do ourselves.

Joni Dee: Unfathomable Treachery

Recently I’ve been reading novels by newer, largely unknown indie writers. By way of helping them along, I’ll be introducing some of them here. These authors are up-and-coming, at varying stages in their development as writers. They may not all have the polish of traditionally published authors, but I think they all have potential and deserve encouragement.


Espionage, political corruption, and international terrorism are a potent and frightening mix. Joni Dee dares stir in with them news still fresh in many people’s memories to deliver a seat-of-the-pants thriller centered in London but stretching around the world. It begins when Yochanan (John) Daniel, an Israeli computer programmer living in London, is flattened by a man desperately trying to escape pursuit. The man whispers a cryptic message to Daniel before picking himself up and continuing his flight, only to be killed by a subway train a few minutes later. Turns out the dead man was an informant of now-retired British handler Adam Grey. Grey and Daniel link up and embark on a journey that uncovers a chilling connection between a former KGB agent, Islamic terrorists, and Britain’s top security officials.

The premise has a ton of potential, and it does keep you reading. Alas, And the Wolf Shall Dwell suffers from a few shortcomings common to first-time novels by indie writers. I found the plot rather confusing owing to the number of important characters involved and the way the action jumped around. I expected John Daniels and Adam Gray to be the main characters, but by the end I wasn’t sure they had contributed all that significantly to events. Some of this may be the circumstances under which I read the novel: my wife had been hospitalized for eleven days. Nevertheless, the level of detail on the political background and the convoluted nature of the interactions between the characters made it hard for me to follow.

The writing needs a fair bit of tightening, and the text contains too many grammatical errors. According to Dee, the novel underwent two “translations” due to changes in publisher: first from British English to American English, then back to British English. I’ll grant that some of the editorial problems may have arisen from this convoluted history, but they get in the way.

This story has the potential to be 5 stars and could be a real nail-biter. But the execution falls short of that, even allowing for my distracted state at the time of reading. I’ll give it a 3.5. The writing, allowing for it being a debut indie novel with a troubled editorial history, gets a 3. Overall, then, call it a 3. That’s not bad for the first time out.

I recently asked Joni Dee about the novel and his writing. Here’s what he said:

Like the real world, Adam Grey’s is a complex place: a tangle of government agencies and personalities, both at home and abroad. How much of it is real and how much of it is your imagination?

Hi Dale, thanks for hosting me.

Funny that you should ask about Adam Grey, as for me John Daniel is really the main protagonist. However, a UK based blogger has made the same assumption, which kind of means that the person you relate with the most, if he has an equally prominent role, is your protagonist. This is something with which I’m happy to roll!

In any case, both Adam and John are fictional. Adam Grey’s entire very English personality is fictional and is not based on anyone in particular, but perhaps is a mix of a few people, if you may. His role as a former MI6 spy is also extremely fictional. I have no knowledge of how MI6, or “The Service,” do things except from popular fiction and from non-fiction reading/research, which included analysing the British Ministry of Defence’s financial reports.

Having said that, it is a well-known secret that I had a background in an intelligence service of a different Western country. The methodology and different branches, as well as their interactions, is pretty much taken from my experience, translated to “British”. Is it accurate? For sure it isn’t. Is it close to the truth? One assumes that the methodological work is similar between all Western intelligence communities. I’d like to think that without revealing too much of what I did and where I served, I managed to hit pretty close to base.

I don’t want to give too much away, but at the end of the novel I felt some key issues hadn’t been resolved. Certainly the principal “bad guys” had been put out of commission one way or another, yet a lot of questions seem to remain open, like gaping wounds. Did I miss something, or did you intend to end on a somewhat ambiguous note?

I intended to leave a few things open, indeed. While I think that the general plot and main scheme is done and dusted, I specifically left a few open issues such as (without giving away any spoilers): John’s future relations with MI6, John and Liz’s love-hate relationship, Katie Jones–who is one of my favourite characters in this novel–wasn’t given enough “screen time”, and of course the fate of one of the most prominent “villains”

Is this a one-shot deal, or might Adam Grey and John Daniel pop up in another thriller?

There’s a second book in the Daniel-Grey series which I’m currently working on. It has the working title Terror Within and it sends John and Grey head to head with what’s left of the Islamic State’s terrorist cell-activity in Europe. Surprisingly enough, they are driven by English and French right-wing extremists, politicians who are trying to use fear for their own agenda of nationalism.

Brexit is on. Grey is in coastal England. John is in a protest-stricken Paris. And the heat is on! Katie Jones will have a more prominent role, but both Liz and the villain which I mentioned before are absent. If there is ever a third book, they’ll return

Had you written anything before And the Wolf Shall Dwell, and what’s next for you?

And the Wolf Shall Dwell is my debut novel. I have attempted to write a few novels in the past and had always ended up throwing them into the bin. It took me nearly five years to finish, and I certainly hope it won’t take me as long to complete this one.

I’ll definitely find a platform to publish Book II. As for making this into a career … I wish! But realistically, I’m not sure I will ever get the big break I need to make a living as an author. One can only dream, though.

Meanwhile, I’m one of the founding fathers of BookGobbler.com, an initiative which sets out to get more reviews for indie authors or small publishers. I am a huge believer in this project. It already has a readership of 200+ with 1,000 unique visitors monthly, and that’s with zero advertising. In essence, it’s like NetGalley without the fees. I urge anyone who likes a free quality read and isn’t afraid to rate/review the book he or she reads to give it a try and register.

(One small disclaimer for my readers: I’m one of the volunteer staff reviewers for BookGobbler.)

What advice do you have for readers or writers?

Without getting into clichés such as “believe in yourself,” which is really a must in these sort of things, my best advice would be to keep an open mind, for both parties.

For readers I’d say, give an indie or unknown author a chance. Imagine you are in his shoes, trying to get your long-lost dream fulfilled. As readers nowadays, you have the power to help him or her make it so.

Writers, keep this same advice in mind: not everyone will like your book, not every review you get you’ll agree with, not every platform (whether a small publisher or a new service like BookGobbler) will look appealing. Keep an open mind, and keep the faith.

Where can readers find you?

So, my author website has all the updates about my projects, including how to be a character in my next book! You can also find me on Facebook. And the Wolf Shall Dwell is available from Amazon and from Blue Poppy, my publisher. They have other fantastic titles there.

Finally, I implore: I just hit 50 reviews on Amazon.com. Everyone knows how important reviews are, but not everybody knows that you need 100 on Amazon to get your book to appear in more searches. Please, if you’ve read, give me a rating and an honest, even short, review. Many thanks!

 

The offiical website of author Dale E. Lehman