Month: July 2015

The Elusive Review

Book reviews help both readers and writers. Readers are more likely to buy a book with many reviews, even when they’re not 100% favourable. Writers consequently are always trying to encourage their readers to post reviews online. Many bloggers write reviews, and thus are courted by review-seeking writers.

Read a book, write a review. If nothing else, it’s a way of sharing your thoughts about the books you read, helping other readers find good books.

But…

People who have no problems articulating their experiences with a lawnmower or a pair of pants become constricted when it comes to writing a Book Review. The very fact that this term exists makes it seem like a big deal. After all, no one talks about Pants Reviews. But the thought of writing a book review may bring back memories of the dreaded Book Report from school days.

So what is a book review, exactly?

One thing it isn’t is a critique. Readers who are also writers may confuse the two, because they belong to writers’ critique groups or serve as beta readers. In such situations one reads a manuscript and compiles suggestions as to how the author may improve the work — remove a character, change a scene or rewrite the whole thing in first person. I sometimes see “reviews” of this sort, most likely produced by writers or would-be writers.

A review should convey a reader’s experience of the book as written, the thoughts and impressions that arose while they were reading and after they finished. It’s not advice to the writer (too late for that), but a response from one who has partaken of the written offering.

Reviews may be formal or informal. Most of the reviews posted to the internet are short and informal, but those written for magazines, newspapers or book review blogs are longer and include certain elements: a brief (really brief) plot summary or description, followed by the reader’s impressions of the characters, the writing style and story arc. Formal reviews may provide comparisons with the author’s other works or with similar works by different authors. It’s common as well to see the reviewer’s idea as to what kinds of readers might appreciate the book — mystery lovers, aficionados of literary tomes, or people who like thrillers with nonstop action.

Informal reviews, purists would say, are not “reviews” at all, merely impressions or comments. In many cases that’s true, but brief comments are certainly better than none at all. The best time for a reader to post their impressions of a book is right after they finish reading it. Writers may take advantage of this by inserting suggestions to this effect right after “The End.” In ebooks, a link to the book’s page on Amazon, Goodreads or similar sites would be especially helpful.

Readers intimidated by the idea of Writing A Book Review may be encouraged by the idea that all they have to do is say whether they liked the book or not, and why. No plot summary is needed (in fact, reviews that consist largely of clunky rehashes of the plot are pretty much useless).

Here is a really short “review” I posted on Goodreads recently, of Smile Now, Cry Later by Paul MacDonald: “A bit of a different twist on the private-eye-by-accident theme, spiced up with lots of cynical humour about corporate culture. Definitely kept me reading to the end.” Most authors would be happy with a bunch of these.

Finally, a word about the negative review. Some readers refuse to write them, which is the safe course of (in)action. A thoughtful negative review is perfectly responsible, in my opinion. The crucial point is to say why you didn’t like the book. Silly plot? Flat characters? Too many flashbacks? “This book is a piece of crap,” is not a review, by any standard.

Thing is, reviews are 100% voluntary. Authors cannot compel their readers to write them. Sincere reviews — even negative ones — are freely given expressions of appreciation, and should be valued accordingly.

Bamfield: Boats, Birds and Music

If Bamfield, British Columbia ever decides to choose an official Town Bird, I would suggest the Swainson’s Thrush. In summer, the place resounds with their melodious song. Here is another video, from Squamish, B.C.

Swainson's Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush

Bamfield is a community of a couple hundred permanent residents on the far west coast of Vancouver Island. It occupies both sides of Bamfield Inlet, which divides the town into East and West Bamfield. The coastal rainforest comes down nearly to the water, providing a good habitat for the Swainson’s thrushes, who prefer closed-canopy forests. It’s all the human inhabitants can do to beat back the lush vegetation.

Part of the shore at East Bamfield, with forest close behind.

Part of the shore at East Bamfield, with forest close behind.

More of East Bamfield

More of East Bamfield

 

Plants take hold on just about anything

Plants take hold on just about anything

Anything at all...

Anything at all…

A row of charming old houses and shops lines the boardwalk along the shore of West Bamfield.

Souvenir shop along the boardwalk

Souvenir shop along the boardwalk

Many of the houses have attractive gardens.

Hydrangeas and roses along the boardwalk

Hydrangeas and roses along the boardwalk

Even the weeds are beautiful in their wild lushness.

Plants growing wild!

Plants growing wild!

Captivating sights are found around every corner.

West Bamfield boardwalk

One of the quirky features is the Cat Haven, a set of shelters for feral felines that were live-trapped, neutered or spayed, and then returned to live out their days in these charming cat houses. The population control process must have been very effective; we saw not one cat anywhere during our stay.

Part of the Cat Haven

Part of the Cat Haven

Self-explanatory!

The best reason for a trip to Bamfield in July is Music By The Sea, a unique music festival in a special place. The repertoire is classical and jazz, the musicians come from all over North America, and the venue is perfect — a small auditorium that’s part of the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre.

Music By The Sea concerts are held in the building with the scalloped roof.

Music By The Sea concerts are held in the building with the scalloped roof.

Imagine, if you will, wide windows overlooking ocean and islands, fronted by musicians plying their trade, playing chamber works by composers from J.S. Bach to Alexander von Zemlinsky, or improvising on tunes by Billy Strayhorn, Nat Adderley or Jay Livingston. Imagine mezzo-soprano Nan Hughes singing Debussy’s Ariettes oubliees, or pianist John Stetch reinterpreting “Never Let Me Go.” Then intermission on the balcony as the summer light slowly fades, and the Swainson’s thrushes call back and forth across Bamfield Inlet.

You can get to Bamfield by logging road from Port Alberni (a distance of fewer than 100 km or 60 miles, but it can seem a lot longer if you don’t have the right sort of vehicle and aren’t used to potholes, dust and huge logging trucks barreling along). Or you can take the Frances Barkley, a ship that carries passengers and freight, operated by Lady Rose Marine Services out of Port Alberni.

The Frances Barkley in Port Alberni

The Frances Barkley in Port Alberni

Side note: because the Frances Barkley departs at 8 in the morning, we spent the previous night at the Swept Away Inn, a conveniently located and unusual B&B that used to be a working tugboat, moored at the Port Alberni waterfront. Snug but comfortable quarters and an excellent breakfast.

The Swept Away Inn B&B

The Swept Away Inn B&B

A pleasant four hour cruise takes you down Alberni Inlet, where you will see fishing boats, log booms, forests, mountains, eagles and (if you’re lucky; we weren’t) whales.

Rain clouds shredding apart near the rainiest spot in North America (Henderson Lake)

Rain clouds shredding apart near the rainiest spot in North America (Henderson Lake)

If the boat makes a stop in the community of Kildonan, you will get to see Canada’s only floating post office…

Floating post office at Kildonan (and dog)

Floating post office at Kildonan (and dog)

…and a garden of plants growing out of old pilings.

Piling "garden"

Piling “garden”

On arrival in Bamfield, you get to watch cargo being unloaded using the ship’s crane, a fascinating operation. Then (if you’re doing the day trip), you get an hour and a half to explore the boardwalk, check out the general store and coffee shop, buy some ice cream, take some pictures. If you’re staying for a couple of days, you can take a water taxi to East Bamfield, or walk along a couple of kilometers of gravel road to Brady’s Beach, a typical lovely beach of the area, complete with sea stacks, grottoes and (almost) white sand.

Brady's Beach

Brady's Beach

Brady's Beach

All this and music too! Definitely a worthwhile trip.

 

 

 

 

Oh Those Eyes!

I’m reading a novel in which a character’s eyes flash — a lot.

Human eyes in fiction do other amazing things, such as sparkle, glow, smoulder and dance.

Only they can’t. Think about it. “Flash” is a verb meaning to emit short bursts of light. Eyes can’t emit light, only reflect it. The eyes of some animals contain reflective tissue called tapetum lucidum, which is why they appear to shine in the dark — but only in the presence of light sources such as headlights, flashlights or firelight. They don’t shine in pitch darkness. Short bursts of reflected light may be described as flashes, but human eyes can’t do that either.

It’s also impossible for eyes to sparkle or glow, phenomena in which light is created by the thing doing the sparkling or glowing. Eyes do not have internal combustion, even when a character is enraged or ecstatic.

As for dancing, the only eyes that can literally do that are ones on stalks. “Dancing eyes” is a phrase used to describe a situation where someone is smiling or laughing — actions which flex the facial muscles — and moving their eyes around as well, looking from one person to another in a state of happy animation.

Eyes are such important features, both for experiencing the world and expressing emotion, it’s inevitable that writers pay attention to them. And of course the phrases I’ve mentioned, such as eyes that dance or smoulder, are really metaphors. If writers never used metaphors or similes and always stuck to the literal, writing would lose much of its life and colour.

But as with so many other areas of writing, it’s a matter of degree. One incidence of flashing eyes may be fine, but when characters are flashing at each other like a couple of lighthouses, I’m diverted from the narrative. I start counting incidences of flashing eyes. I start reading the prose, not the story.

Many of these eye-related words and phrases are also cliches, and while cliches can be useful shortcuts, using too many of them is a sign of lazy writing.

Going back to the flashing eyes as an example — what is it that I’m trying to show when I use this phrase? Obviously not bursts of light coming from someone’s eyes (unless the character is a robot or someone with supernatural light-emitting powers). If I stop and visualize what my character is doing, I see them sending a quick glance toward another person, often with a facial expression that conveys anger or annoyance. How else can I express this? How about: “A glance like a thrown knife,” or “He darted me a narrow-eyed glance,” or “A look that made me wish for a catcher’s mask and mitt.”

Whatever I choose — simile, metaphor or simple description — I aim for a frictionless reading experience. Word combinations that are too clever are just as distracting as overused cliches. I have to remind myself I’m not trying to score points for originality or cleverness, just keep the reader engaged with the story I’m telling. If I get it right, the reader will subconsciously register my colourful prose without losing the narrative thread. After they finish the book, they’ll say, “That was a great read!” without realizing precisely why. And that will make my eyes light up and dance.