Carrots is a 2011 mystery novel written by Colleen Helme and published through the Amazon CreateSpace platform, which allows original work to be published in a print-on-demand format. This is the first novel to feature the character of Shelby Nichols, who has since become a sort of avatar for Helme’s work. There are currently eight books in the Shelby Nichols adventure series, with a ninth available for pre-order now.
This book is part Janet Evanovich (of the Stephanie Plum novels) and part Brian Michael Bendis (of Ultimate Spider-Man and Avengers fame).
I loved every moment of this instant classic by Helme. The book takes the “Mommy Mystery” (hate that term) format and spins it on its head by adding a touch of the super-powered and supernatural when the series’ titular hero, Shelby Nichols, is struck on the head and gains psychic powers: all because she stopped on the way home to get some carrots.
On the subject of the adding of the ‘supernatural’ element to an otherwise ‘normal’ mystery novel, there’s always a temptation on the part of an author to take the “easy” way out and just offer the same formula as the mother genre (in this case a paperback mystery) with small element of the new genre for flavor. You’ll usually be able to recognize this sort of ploy by the sort of pitch-meeting dialog that happens in its presentation: “It’s Miami Vice… with a twist!” or “It’s a superhero story… with a twist!” Books that make this sort of change can too often fall victim to formulae and not take enough time to develop characters and tension, relying on the ‘twists’ that the imported element lend to the familiar genre’s subject matter to carry the book: and it rarely works. To put it another way: it’s like putting Dijon mustard on a Big Mac and then trying to sell it as a different burger. It won’t go over well.
Carrots doesn’t do that in the slightest. The psychic / supernatural elements are not just added in artificially for flavor, they are the meat of the characterization of the story. As Shelby learns to develop her new-found powers she’s able to see into the passing thoughts of her husband, his attractive female co-worker, and everyone around her. The book takes great pains to explore the reality that people cannot control their thoughts and that what they think is not what defines them, but rather what they do. However… knowing that your husband and his co-worker have mutual attraction to each other, it’s hard not to act on that information. It tows a delicate line of right and wrong as Shelby balances making her choices based on what she should know and what she does know.
We learn about our lead character and those around her via Shelby’s powers, which is an ingenious way of getting around clunky, expository dialog (people think in ways they don’t traditionally speak in). With the characterization handled by the powered portion of the novel, the plot is handled by the mystery portion that Shelby gets entangled in, which I will not spoil here. It involves a crime-syndicate and is handled masterfully by Helme.
These two elements dovetail in a masterstroke of artistry and compliment each other in a way that elevates both: the crime-plot increases the tension of the psychic plot, and the psychic plot ratchets up the stakes and tension of the crime-syndicate elements. I’ve preached this sort of unity and narrative cohesiveness in writing workshops for a decade now: having separate elements that meet at the end is the way to do plot-driven fiction. Bonus points if one of those elements is character-driven, for lit-wits like me.
I love taking the Freudian method of dream analysis and applying it to literature. Quick/Dirty rundown: you take the part of the book that bothered you the most, then spin the analysis so that that is what the book is about. At least, what it’s about for you.
The thing that ‘bothered’ me about Carrots was the dichotomy between what people said and what they really thought, once you could see into their minds. It plays on that fear and anxiety of not knowing if we’re loved, cared for, and respected. I could make a strong case that that is what Carrots is ‘about,’ the anxieties of finding out what people really think of you, in a sense destroying your own privately-held version of yourself. You can no longer tell yourself you were “the boss” at that last meeting, because you can read everyone’s mind and know they’re bored to tears. There’s also a strong sense of destruction of self being a prominent theme when viewed along these lines… if “you think therefore you are,” if other people’s thoughts intrude into yours, are they then affecting who you are? Can you be the same person you were without the thoughts, even if the thoughts stop?
These are big, complex themes, and Helme wisely doesn’t dwell on them too much lest they derail the plot of the novel… but they’re still there, pointed at a much more thought provoking and intellectually stimulating debate happening just between the lines of this supernatural thriller.
Part satire, part mystery, and part supernatural thriller, this book is one of my top-reads so far in 2016 and a must read for anyone who thinks that independent authors don’t have anything to offer. One of the best and rarest gems of the indie book market.
Carrots is available in print, eBook, and audiobook (jealous) formats. Check it out, a must-read for people interested in supporting good independent fiction and those who like my work.
‘Other Indie’ is a recurring series of articles on Engen Books in which authors highlight the best in independent publishing, in the hopes of helping readers break through the cluster of books they may not be sure about in an age when anyone can publish via digital formats. Engen Books is an independent small-press publishing company based in St. John’s Newfoundland and is proud to highlight the talent of independent authors not our own. Carrots is © 2011 Colleen Helme. This review is © 2016 Matthew LeDrew. ‘Other Indie’ banner photo credit: Steve Lake.