REVIEW: HOLLOW TOWNS
The apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic genre has really spiraled a bit out of control lately what with all the zombie movies and strange science fiction-y wasteland adventures that are out there for audiences' consumption. This sort of story doesn't feel quite as tired as other narrative types, but there's certainly enough of it out there for it to be arguably overdone. That said, the genre has so many possibilities to offer, that I often find things that I simply don't expect when I go looking for titles that strike this vein of interest. HOLLOW TOWNS by Ann Livi Andrews promised to be one of those titles, so I gave it a whirl.
HOW I CAME UPON IT
For full disclosure's sake, I'd spoken with Ann well before picking up this title. She runs one of the Goodreads groups that provides a venue for indie authors to meet up and discuss various topics of the trade. She's an extremely hard-working supporter of the community as a whole and does a TON of reviews for other authors while asking for nothing in return. She's a pretty remarkable person and I wanted to know if her writing was just as remarkable so I sent over a quick message asking if there was anything in particular that she might like some feedback on. As luck would have it, she was just beginning a Pubslush campaign for a new book (HOLLOW TOWNS). I linked to her page in my update post, but here it is again: HERE.
Currently, the book isn't officially released - the point of the Publush campaign is to raise funds in order to buy some professional assistance for the work, such as a formal editing job which can be quite expensive when on an indie budget. Technically, I think this work exists in segmented mini books, but this is the first time the narrative will be brought together and tied together in the full novel treatment. This effectively makes it what is called an ARC (Advanced Review Copy - or something like that I think). I've never really read an ARC before so I was pretty excited to have the opportunity to do so.
HOW I RATED IT
4/5 Obviously this is not yet a finished work, so both this rating and the review that follows may not be an exact match of what the final product will be like, but given the extent to which this was polished already, I'd say it is going to be pretty close. I liked the work a lot, but did have a couple of little gripes with how certain things were done. While things like minor editing issues were definitely overlooked due to this being an ARC, I rated the rest of the work just like I would any other piece of writing that I pick up. I'd also like to point out that my respect for Ann as a person was not taken into consideration when reviewing her writing - I kept myself very detached in this regard, and if anything, I held her to a higher standard than most.
The characters in this book are actually a bit of an acquired taste. In the beginning, it all seems a bit strange. I wasn't really sure if I was going to be able to connect with any of the characters in the story since there's something a little surreal about each and every one of them. That's not to say they are bad, in fact by the end, I realized they are quite good. What makes this hard to discern early on, is that this story is by and large an elaborate narrative puzzle to be solved. It feels odd and dreamy and that same sense of strangeness is certainly prevalent in the characters as well. Each persona that I was introduced to felt like a little mystery within the larger enigma. The personalities are definitely distinct, motivations are believable, and dialogue feels authentic, but this is not so much a cast that I found myself connecting with as much as one that I really wanted to learn the truth about. It's definitely a rather abnormal way of approaching characters, but it works here 100%.
The world of this story is our world - or WAS our world. We come in at the start of the apocalypse which is something that initially attracted me to wanting to read this. A lot of stories start off after a catastrophic event has occurred, but this story puts us into a world that is in the process of burning out. Nothing is really what it seems though and by the end of the novel I actually questioned if this was indeed our world at all. This may seem like a strange comment to make, but that is because the world we get in HOLLOW TOWNS is both the strongest and the weakest part of this novel.
A lot of why the plot works is because I was kept so in the dark about what was really happening. The wild twist and turns that Andrews treats readers to are a genuine delight, but they do come at a price. I can't really say anything without giving away some massive spoilers, but essentially a lot of the surprises are assisted by things simply not being described in full. This is a double-edged sword because on one hand, the picture feels incomplete in some spots, but on the other, I feel like I would have been able to guess some of the ending twists had I been given a bit more visual detail. It's a really tough situation to judge since I don't know that I can say whether or not the choices made were the right ones. The level of description doesn't feel too inconsistent, except in some areas that I will mention in the next section, but at the same time, there may be readers out there who will find this a frustrating trait since they don't yet understand how it works as a mechanic within the plot. The main reason this didn't really affect my personal enjoyment was because there were some scenes that were really wonderfully described so I knew that the author had it in her to render a moment in full detail and was simply choosing not to in certain areas. It's a very interesting tossup and one that I'd really love to chat with other people about because I am still a little conflicted about it.
Like the characters, the overarching tone is something that I had to develop a taste for. I've read eerie, paranormal fiction before, but it's been a while since I've read anything quite like this. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever read anything precisely like this. While it took a little while to get used to, I felt myself really getting into it once the story started to pick up. The plot seems really bizarre at the onset (and it does stay that way throughout), but when I started to learn more about what was going on, I realized how appropriate such a tone was as a companion to the plot. It's hard to say that much more on this subject without spoiling anything. There are several points in the novel where the perspective switches and as these switches are made, I suddenly found that everything I thought I knew got turned upside down and I started reading an entirely different story than the one I THOUGHT I was reading. It's a really clever trick the way that this all comes together and it's one of those books that one might want to read a second time through to look for things they might have missed the first time around.
Normally I would write a little on the plot and a little on the tone, but as you can probably tell from the paragraph above, these two elements are really one in the same. One does not exist without the other, nor does one really function without being supported by the complimentary component. One complaint I did have is that there were stretches that felt WAY too heavy on the dialogue and desperately needed some description. It didn't have to be anything too telling, but mixing in a bit of action would have broken up a couple of chapters that kind of read a bit more like a play because of how much back and forth they involve. Much of this story is very direct and to the point, but still, excessive dialogue can be cumbersome and since the rest of the novel is so well balanced in this regard, the areas where it is skewed feel that much more flawed.
HOLLOW TOWNS is a compelling and exciting read, though not for the same reasons that most other books are and I think that's a good thing. The only other piece of media I can liken it to at this time is the movie, INCEPTION. I know that's an over-referenced film and I'm sorry, but the analogy truly works. INCEPTION is neither a great action movie nor a fantastic suspense film.What makes it a great movie in my opinion is the cerebral intrigue that ties all of the pieces together. It takes thought and concentration in order to enjoy and by the end, most viewers will be a little breathless.
The same concept applies to HOLLOW TOWNS. Plot-wise it is nothing like INCEPTION, but it does share that mind-game quality that sets it apart from other stories. Neither Andrews' characters nor the world that serves as the backdrop are particularly exceptional on their own. What makes this such a breathtaking piece of fiction is all of the moving and shifting parts that weave together this brilliant set of puzzles to be solved. I felt that it was a rather daring and unconventional approach to take, but ultimately one that pays off. It's also a decently sized work, but I found it to be a relatively quick read at the same time and once I got near the back 100 pages, there was no putting this down for me.
It was really thrilling for me to meet Ann as a writer and I think I'm left with wanting more. Not more from her, but more of her. She's got a lot of works out in eBook format in various lengths and I believe that the Pubslush she's running is sort of the start of her efforts to bring all of that up to next level, though really, this work is already quite polished and I'd assume others are as well. There were a few more errors that what you might in a traditionally published piece, but there certainly were not enough to distract from this wonderful story. If you can support her through her campaign then definitely do so. Her work is fun and worthwhile and I'm thinking I will be reading more of it.
HOLLOW TOWNS is not yet available so HERE is the link to where it is on Pubslush once again and when the book does come out, I will try to update this post with an Amazon link. Judging by the campaign details, it seems like this is scheduled to come out in both eBook and Paperback editions.