I've read a lot of crap self-published books... or more accurately, I've started to read a lot of crap self-published books, and given up. A few years ago I'd doggedly stick out even the worst book, but given the amount of good stuff out there to be read, I've given up on that approach now. The books below are ones I've started and finished. This, my friends, is the good shit:
These Darkened Streets - Aaron Polson
This is a really strong collection of short stories; the kind of 'horror' stories that are about ambiguity and strangeness rather than shock and gore. In many, how much of what has happened is supernatural and how much is just in the narrator's mind is in doubt (particularly as so many of the protagonists are kids). Polson does a great job of collecting together stories with a similar tone and themes, without being repetitious.
Favourite stories in this book for me were: "The World in Rubber, Soft and Malleable" (great, odd, and unique); "The Thing about a Haunting" (nice piece of flash fiction with a killer last line) and "When Megan Could Fly" (with which its surrealism and quiet teenage heartbreak seems influenced by the likes of Haruki Murakami rather than a horror author).
There was the odd weaker story in my opinion, and the occasional place where the prose seemed to drift into cliche; but these are minor quibbles and certainly shouldn't detract anyone who is interested from checking this one out.
Elephant - Jim Breslin
Jim has done a guest blog for me on short stories so I was interested to read what his own were like. Most of the stories in Elephant deal with the everyday life and experiences of 'normal' people, and work towards some quiet epiphany. The influence of Raymond Carver seemed strong, although most of Breslin's characters seem slightly more middle-class and contented. But despite this there are fault-lines in their lives, and these stories expose them with great skill. The writing style is strong and varied, moving between realistic dialogue and poetic imagery easily. It's always a sign of a good writer when you find yourself rereading individual lines of proses because they're so good, and I did that frequently here.
For me, the only slight flaw in the collection as a whole is that maybe the stories are too similar in theme and tone - some of the best stories, like 'Elephant' itself are those where Breslin seemed to expand his technique slightly, adding an nice edge of surrealism to the realism.
Breaths In Winter - Donna Burgess
It would be pretty patronising for a writer in my lowly position to describe another writer's work as "promising". But that's exactly the word that sprang to mind a lot when I read this mini-collection of three short stories. To be honest I picked it up because it was free and I liked the cover art. What I mean by "promising" is that there's some great things here, but some weaker things to. For example the setting of the first story - a deserted town near Chernobyl is a fantastic setting for a horror author, and vividly realised by Burgess. But then she had to introduce an irradiated two headed wolf into the mix, which seemed to lessen the realism.
That said, the good outweighs the bad here, so certainly don't let me put you off.