BOOK REVIEW: “Birdie Down” by Jim Graham (2012)

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I liked this book.

If that doesn’t sound glowing, in fact it is. It’s a fawning review, actually. Let me explain. I apologize in advance for the lengthy digression, but I feel it‘s important to set the stage:

Here at Republibot, we’re very deeply invested in amateur fiction, and there is no bigger thrill than finding some new talent and giving them exposure to our (surprisingly large) audience. Since we went online in 2008, we’ve run forty five original short stories, and one full-length original novel, none of which would have seen publication anywhere if we hadn’t sought ‘em out. It’s one of our primary functions, and the one that I, personally, am most proud of.

As such, in my capacity as head writer and editor here at Republibot, a *lot* of amateur books cross my desk. I’m talking books here - not short stories - actual full-length books. I read them because I self-publish myself, and I know how important getting a bit of exposure is. A good review on a fairly visible site can be the difference between making $20 a month or so, and getting completely ignored. (My first book has sold 14 copies in its first year. I’ve made a whopping $10.44 on it) Likewise, a bad review can kill you, and there are just soooooo many people out there who like nothing more than to give bad reviews.

Just submitting a book you’ve labored over for years to some total stranger takes a lot of nerve, knowing full well they may savage it. And given my own ‘you’re soaking in it’ understanding of the situation, I feel it’s my duty to help out. “Freely hast thou received, freely shalt thou also give,” you know? I’m not just a reviewer, I’m out there in the trenches myself.

The problem, though, is that most amateur authors can’t write for sour apples.

I don’t say that to be mean, it just is. It’s Sturgeon’s law: “90% of everything is crap.” And in the case of amateur fiction, 90% of the good stuff is crap, too. There’s no editing, there’s distracting grammatical errors, there’s no flow, no organization, there’s frequently little or no story, the books are generally padded out, everyone seems to be laboring under the impression that they’re writing the Great American Novel, and they’re going to get rich off of it (Never an option, even for successful SF writers), nobody seems to recognize the difference between ‘a neat idea’ and ‘a good story,’ and honestly, has anyone ever read an amateur genre book off of Kindle or Smashwords that has a well-written action sequence in it?

(Well, actually, I have in the book I’m reviewing here, but we’ll get to that in a moment)

The overwhelming majority of originally published science fiction is just awful, awful, awful. Understand, dear readers, that I’m not talking about *you* personally. Your book may be great, and I just haven’t read it yet. But of the books I *have* read (A lot), they’re just ponderous, onerous, frequently incoherent drek, and after four years of this, it was really starting to get me down. Not just depressed, but I mean actually, physically worn down. When I guy has a clever concept, but no plot to back it up, and spends an entire chapter discussing interior decorating, then just *ends* the book with no resolution; when you have five of these kinds of things piled up on your desk, and you know they’re all be pretty much the same, it’s hard not to just say ‘screw it’ and be done with the whole irritating thing. I have seriously thought about instituting a ‘no amateur novels’ policy, but I’ve held off because (A) I find it my duty to do this and (B) I have an irrational hope of finding a diamond in the rough. Or at least a ruby. Which, in fact, I just did. But again: we’ll get to that in a moment.

Now, as an amateur author myself, I recognize the personal investment that goes into these things. It took me a quarter century to learn how to write, most of that in private, and nobody has ever seen most of my early stuff. Nor will they. Writing is a very tough secret handshake to learn, and a lack of talent in 1987 plus a passion for writing plus the lack of easy online publishing gave me the time to hone my skills a bit without embarrassing myself. I’m fully aware that many of the people who submit crappy books to me might well be great in the future, they just need to get a few million more words under their belts before the crack the code, and they sort of jumped the gun by putting their early stuff up for sale. It is soooo easy to get discouraged, so easy to just give up, so easy to get depressed. Writing - even bad writing - is deeply personal, and a lot of us have a lot of our souls tied up in the concept of becoming authors. Even if that’s an unrealistic desire - which it almost always is - the thing that keeps you going while you’re lonely in high school, or failing out of college, or working an anonymous carbon blob job in some cubicle farm, is the notion that you’re *not* like the people around you. You, my friend, are an artist. You create.

I’ve been in situations in my own life where it’s all I had to keep me going, and it would be wrong to take that away from people. At the same time, I can not in good conscience give a good review to a bad book.

So I grit my teeth and read all the books submitted to me, and when I get to the end, and it’s terrible, I politely tell the author that we’re not going to be reviewing it on the site. I don’t do *bad* reviews for amateur fiction, I just don’t review the bad stuff. Then said authors get mad and call me names, and go away, and bad mouth us to their friends. Hooray! What a wonderful reward for going out of my way to read their incompetent seven-hundred page screed about libertarian time traveling beekeepers on another world, and *then* protecting them from bad press. Way to encourage! Yeah. As a result of this, in all the time we’ve been online, of all the amateur novels I’ve read, we’ve only reviewed *TWO* books. That’s all: TWO books, one of which was actually just an anthology of short stories. Two.

So, as I say: it just gets me down. I keep going in the hopes that someone will come along to convince me that there *is* some good stuff out there.

And you know what? There is!

Which brings me to the actual ‘review’ portion of this review: Ladies and gentlemen, I now proudly present to you the *THIRD* amateur novel we’ve ever reviewed for this site, and, yes, it *IS* a positive review.

“Birdie Down” is the second novel by Jim Graham, an English author living in Hong Kong.

The book is primarily an adventure yarn about a band of revolutionaries who are attempting to take down - or at lest destabilize - an evil corporation that more-or-less rules a number of colony worlds with an iron fist, squeezes them for labor and resources, and gives them no civil rights. You know, the usual. This is mostly inferred, and we don’t actually see much in the way of industrial level atrocities. In fact, we mostly only have the word of the protagonists to go on, but as any student of the East India Company or the 19th century Robber Barons can tell you: It’s plausible, and it makes for a good (if largely offscreen) giant for our Don Quixotes to go tilting against.

In the giddy opening section, our heroes zip about on a stolen space ship, launching lightning strikes on soft corporate targets among the colonies, and skipping away before anyone has time to react. This is complicated by their ship still having many of the crew they stole it from on board as prisoners, and a few other persons of interest as well. Complications arise, and we’re introduced to the heavy of the piece, the corporate hatchet man who’s tasked with anticipating their next attack and killing them. These scenes are brisk and exciting, and though we don’t get a *lot* of it, the scenes of the hero (“Scat”) and his arch nemesis attempting to outguess each other while random chance plays a part are genuinely engaging. There’s also one fairly brutal hand-to-hand combat scene which makes clear the stakes, and gets across the limitations of what lengths some of the characters are, and are not, willing to go to. It’s good stuff. Heck, after four years of the dross I’ve been reading, it’s great stuff!

From there, the book settles down a bit. The narrative divides, and we mostly follow a character named “Birdie” around after he crashes in the jungle on an alien world. He has a cripple and an wounded friend in tow. Here we have a fairly standard-yet-interesting survival story interstitially linked with a more interesting psychological drama in which the three men never quite trust each other, but never distrust each other quite so much that going it alone seems an option. The variations of this shifting power struggle could quickly get tedious, but the author strings it out just long enough to get across the personal dynamics, and then moves on to the more actioney stuff.

Meanwhile, we’re introduced to some cavalier new characters, and we see the search and rescue efforts of Scat and Birdie’s other friends, while the arch nemesis character attempts to track the downed rebels. Again: these scenes could actually be pretty tedious, but Mr. Graham plays them clever. I give very high marks to an author who shows me something I haven’t seen before (Not easy. I’ve been reading SF all my life), and a sequence in which computer records of footwear are used to narrow in on the prey had me grinning from ear to ear. It was clever, it was unique, and - best of all - it made sense.

The action sequences are good. Graham is ex-military, and it shows. His soldiers feel like soldiers, if not American ones. The characterization is, on the whole, good. Most of the characters play their cards close to the vest, so to speak, which makes them interesting. I can’t stress how important that is, as these kinds of straight-ahead actioners frequently have the worst kinds of ciphers as characters.

The writing is, on the whole, easy, brisk, and engaging, and there are a few scenes - such as the brutal fight sequence I mentioned early on, or a crisp and mesmerizing death scene later in the book - that really jumped out at me as very solidly above the level of the rest. There’s nothing showy or distractingly artsy, however, and when the especially good writing comes up, it’s to emphasize the needs of the scene, never to just show off. The book clocks in at about 60,000 words, making it slightly longer than your average Hardy Boys detective book. Since most amateur SF novelists tend to pad a barely-short-story concept out to three or four hundred more-or-less meaningless pages, the restraint Mr. Graham shows is greatly appreciated. As a result, his narrative focus, and the impetus of the story remain clear and driving. The ending is solid, but leaves the door open for more adventures in the future.

I also enjoyed some of the odd perspectives one only gets by reading things from another culture. One of the major characters in the book is Canadian, and at one point he shows some very genuine shock and remorse when he comes across some American casualties. Though it’s not spelled out, there’s a nice bittersweet quality to it: these people are so very far from home, yet they came from friendly bordering countries. Given the distance, that’s more than enough to make them friends, but, alas…

The worldbuilding is good, and everything feels fairly well thought out. We never get a detailed explanation of how this universe works, but the snatches we are given seem consistent, and it makes sense to the characters, without being overly expositional, and without limiting the author with too many self-imposed rules. The technology is never fully explained, but it, too, is consistent, and kinda’ flashy. I particularly liked how *fast* travel between worlds was, and I liked that the space ships had to spin to simulate gravity. Nothing was particularly imponderable.

I enjoyed it. I really did. It renewed my faith in the online self-publishing concept as a whole, and better still, within fifteen pages I *knew* that it would. It gave me something no other E-book has given me thus far: I had a good feeling about it by the end of the second scene! I’m so impressed by this that I’m going to pick up his first book, and review that ASAP. That’s something I’ve never done before.



As with all self-published books, there’s a number of unavoidable problems. The most obvious of these are misspellings, some odd sentence structure here and there, the occasional overuse of one particular word for a scene or two, and the random results of an overzealous spellchecker (For instance, in one passage someone obviously means to say ‘this does not ogre well’ when obviously the author intended ‘auger.’) These are frankly unavoidable without a professional editor. I know, since I’ve had this problem myself. I had four sets of eyes go over my own first book, and a bundle of these kinds of things still slipped through. To the author’s credit, there’s far fewer of these than I’ve seen elsewhere, and only one or two of them were significant enough for me not to instinctively know what he meant. This puts his average way higher than mine.

Since this book is a sequel to a book that I haven’t read, parts of the opening section seemed a little disjointed. There was nothing in this that detracted from the story as a whole, but it felt a little bit like I was coming in on part two of a cliffhanger. This may not actually be the case, the author may simply have wanted to start out in an action sequence with everything going all higgledy-piggeldy, and leave it to us to piece it together as we go along. Certainly, that’s the way it ultimately played out for me, and it definitely contributes to the engaging off-kilter energy of the first bit. Still and all, I felt I was missing something there, and it didn’t feel like the kind of thing that more exposition could have fixed without ruining that part of the story. So: I felt a little lost, but the story as a whole washed over me and more than made up for it.

Finally - and again this is not a criticism - I don’t want to give the impression that this is the best book I’ve ever read, or that it’s high art, or anything. It’s not. It is charmingly and refreshingly free of all pretension. It’s a straight-ahead Science Fiction Adventure Novel very much in the 1950s-1970s pulp mold, which is honestly a pretty good and rare thing these days. It is by no means the best thing I’ve ever read, and it is patently unfair to use the same standards for judging amateur work one uses for judging professional stuff. Even so, had this come out back in the day, I could easily see this as having been one half of an old Ace double. The old Ace books may have been the burger-and-fries of the SF world, but honestly who doesn’t like those now and again? Particularly when the only alternative I’ve had available for four years is stale bread and papier-mâché fruit. We’re not talking anything here that will change your life, but I can honestly say this book is head and shoulders above anything else I’ve read by an amateur.

I tell you this three times, I tell you this three times, I tell you this three times: this is the best amateur SF novel I’ve read, this is the best amateur SF novel I’ve read, this is the best amateur SF novel I’ve read.

Go get a copy now.

You can download a copy free for a limited time at Smashwords here


Yeah, I think so. No reason not to. This is a novel written by an ex-military Englishman presently living in China, so the American concept of “Left” and “Right” doesn’t really apply. The book is a struggle between freedom and slavery, and the good guys are on the side of freedom. What could be more conservative than that?