June 6, 2008

Book review: "Prisoners in Paradise," by Akmal Shebl

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Prisoners in Paradise
By Akmal Shebl
Self-published / www.akmalshebl.com

Regular readers will know that when I was a creative writer myself, I was mostly a self-publisher; and they will also know that this was one of the first big decisions I made when opening CCLaP, that I would review any book sent to me, even self-published ones with a total print run of a dozen copies. And that, I've learned in the year CCLaP has now been open, has led directly to one of the biggest and most regular ethical quandaries I face here; because just how should a responsible critic treat a self-published book? On the one hand, it's completely unfair to directly compare it against a mainstream book published by a major or even minor press; unlike self-publishers, such mainstream authors will usually have at their disposal at least a minimum of an editor, proofreader, fact-checker and marketing specialist, all of whom are helping to fix and shape and guide that manuscript to a place of true professionalism. (And if that author happens to be a professor as well, as so many authors on major presses are, they will also have dozens of students and peers and assistants to help with this process as well, not to mention an environment full of people who eat, sleep and crap the nuances of language 24 hours a day.) But then again, it's not exactly fair to add a Roger-Marin-style asterisk to the reviews of self-published books, either, or to go easy on the very basic literary mistakes found in so many of them; that's an insult to that hard-working author, after all, the critical equivalent of sitting them at the kiddie table during holiday dinner, and defeats the entire purpose of me reviewing self-published books in the first place, i.e. precisely to compare them directly to mainstream publications.

Prisoners in Paradise, by Akmal Shebl

And thus do we come to the supernatural thriller Prisoners in Paradise, by an author named Akmal Shebl who splits his time between Chicago and Cairo, self-published through Amazon's Booksurge "print on demand" program, where all of these issues I just mentioned come up yet again; because the simple fact is that the book just isn't very good, full of the kinds of basic plot and character problems that hound any beginning writer, containing hundreds of typos, spelling mistakes and the other typical problems of self-publishing that make so many groan and roll their eyes when even hearing the term. But if these things were to be fixed, though, if Shebl could afford an editorial team like an author on a major or minor press can, it wouldn't be any worse than The DaVinci Code or The Historian, and in fact I suspect it would actually be better; so what should we ultimately say about it, and how should we ultimately think of it? Do we dismiss such a manuscript outright because of its basic problems, or do we cut self-publishing writers a break, overlook some of these things because of the circumstances and try to focus on the core of the story itself?

Because let's be clear -- the problems with this book are many, and they start right on the very first page, because of a literary issue that science-fiction writers call "internal logic." See, Prisoners in Paradise is set in 2007 Cairo, but a Cairo with a twist; a thoroughly modern and Western Cairo with a thriving middle class, a Cairo that for some unexplained reason hasn't experienced natural death in seven years now, a fact that took six years to accidentally discover because of such a lack of decent medical facilities in that third-world city. But see, just the very set-up described presents a big problem, in that Shebl is trying to have his cake and eat it too -- he is trying to present us on one hand a city full of such contemporary amenities as soaring glass skyscrapers and celebrity tabloids, yet a city that apparently doesn't contain a single modern hospital or morgue. It's fine to present either of these things in a story, fantastical authors will tell you, but not both at once; you contradict yourself when you do that, create a "cheat" that your readers will immediately pick up on and resent you for. (And besides, I question even the premise of Cairo's 2007 citizenship being so overwhelmingly comfortable in the first place with all the secular Western details seen here; for example, near the beginning of the book when one of the main characters wins the title of "Cairo's Sexiest Woman Alive," I couldn't help but to picture thousands of conservative Islamics rioting in the streets following the announcement.)

The book is full of such basic logic problems, which is a real shame, because there's actually a decent supernatural tale going on underneath it all; a tale of two modern architects, childhood friends who had an ideological split after school, and of the ways they're being manipulated by a mystical secret society through a notorious public contest into building a series of oddly precise edifices in oddly precise locations throughout the city. That's why I don't want to dismiss Prisoners in Paradise out of hand, because there's actually a lot of interesting and cool things going on within its pages; for example, it has one of the most arresting opening scenes I've ever read in a self-published novel, and its plot's various twists and turns makes it an imminently page-turning book. It's difficult, though, to reconcile this with the hundreds upon hundreds of typos, spelling errors and other basic grammatical problems found throughout; and it certainly doesn't help that English is Shebl's second language (or so I believe), leading not only to a ton of odd phrases that will make most Americans squint their eyes in confusion ("sceneries" instead of "scenery;" a woman who likes sex being described as "dildo-addictive"), but also a plethora of typos that will never get caught in any automated spellcheck, such as referring to the biblical character Cain as "Kane."

Yes, these are piddling issues at best, I hear Shebl's defenders saying, and I agree with you; but it's also a fact that comprehension and flow is at the heart of the very act of reading itself, and that such an overwhelming amount of basic language problems have the effect of completely shutting down this flow and comprehension. But see, this is where it gets difficult for me as a reviewer and supporter of self-published literature; because the fact is that a mere professional editing of this manuscript would fix all the problems just mentioned, but it's also a fact that most self-publishers can't afford the several thousand extra dollars needed to hire such an editing team (which like I said, needs a minimum of an editor, proofreader and marketing specialist in order to be proficient). On the one hand I want to dismiss all these problems as trifles, and recommend the book to you anyway, simply because I think it's important to support such self-publishers at such a crucial stage in their careers; but if I were to do so, I would completely destroy whatever trust you've now built up concerning whether my good reviews really do reflect good books, and thus you would be tempted to dismiss any future pollyannish reviews I write of self-published novels.

So I'll say this, then; that when all is said and done, I'm glad that Prisoners in Paradise exists, and I sincerely hope that Shebl has a lot of success with it, but I cannot in good conscience actually recommend it, not in the state it's in now. It's got some great diamonds in the rough to be sure, and is just one professional edit away from being a decent supernatural thriller; here's hoping that today's review will help contribute to such things happening, and that we see an improved version of this book come out soon.

Out of 10: 4.9

Read even more about Prisoners in Paradise: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:13 PM, June 6, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |