Arts » Lit

Small Presses, Big Stories

First-time regional novelists deliver entertaining reads

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As a working writer, the idea of penning the next great American novel shoots through my subconscious, not unlike, I imagine, a quarterback thinks about winning the Heismann trophy or a house band imagines taking home a Grammy.

However, greatness does not happen in a vacuum. As an editor as well as writer, I understand not only the importance of being able to say, "This stinks. Rewrite it or cut it," but also the importance of being able to hear it. Whether a book is published by a vanity press or "author mill" or finds its way to store shelves by way of McGraw-Hill or Simon and Schuster, an attentive hard-nosed editor can help make a good book great.

The last two non-fiction novels I've read come by way of this new self-publishing model that doesn't require an author to send out a manuscript to a large publishing house (or buy a special scrapbook for all the rejection letters): Salmon Run by S.W. Capps was put out by Inkwater Press, and The South Castor Project by Benjamin Sheppard comes via Publish America.

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Salmon Run is the story of Woodrow Salmon (I do love the pun in the title), an executive who narrowly misses an assassination attempt and, through a series of mishaps, finds himself on the run from the law and the thwarted killer (who was hired by Salmon's wife).

As a big fan of mysteries and cop novels (I've read everything by Ridley Pearson and Jonathan Kellerman), I looked forward to—and, for the most part, enjoyed—Salmon Run. The title character is sympathetic, and Capps offers enough about Salmon for a reader to be concerned for his life and safety.

The problem with following Salmon is that some of the situations he gets into are preposterous enough to leave a reader's suspension of disbelief hanging. See if you follow me here: Salmon gets mixed up with a hotel-robbing hitchhiker, involved with a sadistic sex-starved female employer, rides the rails with some seasoned train hoppers and endures a run as the oldest player on a rookie league baseball team based in Pinegate, Idaho, called the Pinegate Pronghorns, who gain some notoriety from his playing (to the chagrin of Salmon who's trying to keep a low profile).

Not all of the scenarios are far-fetched, but there are too many of them—both outrageous and believable—and some could have been avoided. I kept thinking, "When is Woodrow going to learn?"

All in all, Salmon Run is a good read and offers readers a sense of the Pacific Northwest's wide open, wild spaces where Capps lives. He just needs to find that perfect point between interesting and incredulous.

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The next novel on my reading list was The South Castor Project by Wisconsin-to-Boise transplant Benjamin Sheppard, with his story of two friends—one a writer, the other his researcher—told from their alternating points of view. There's a convoluted conclusion to this story that revolves around two friends, copious amounts of coffee, a deadly virus and the Roosters, an age-old murderous cult.

The main characters are developed enough to get readers invested in the outcome. Sheppard turns a phrase and offers up descriptions that might be expected from the pen of a more experienced author.

Sheppard grew up in Wisconsin, where the story takes place, and said that though the town of South Castor is a fictional one, the character and place development in the book come from real life.

The back-and-forth narrative by the two main characters is an interesting practice and one that works although at times makes for a bit of confusion because sometimes the scene at hand is relayed through one point of view, and then retold by the other and it's difficult to discern what is actually happening.

Sheppard is also tripped up by a hurdle a first-time author is likely going to face: continuity. One character suffers a near-deadly car crash, causing him to have his jaw wired shut. While Sheppard initially does a good job maintaining the behavior of a character who can't eat, is on pain medication and may or may not be suffering from a deadly disease that targets brain function, he seems to forget he's put the character in that precarious position and has him attempting feats an unharmed, undrugged person wouldn't even consider.

At a scant 163 pages, Sheppard's debut novel may have benefited from a curmudgeonly editor telling him not to cut back but to give the reader more.

Ultimately, both Salmon Run and The South Castor Project were well-worth reading and I am looking forward to both authors' next releases.

Salmon Run and The South Castor Project can be found at Amazon.com.

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