Reading

It’s the Reading Experience, Silly!

I can’t seem to shake off the subject of book reviews and ratings, maybe because I deal with it every time I finish reading a book. After my latest thoughts on what I called a “murky business,” I had a light bulb moment.

It’s not the book I’m rating, it’s my experience of reading the book.

That’s why a reader can give the same number of stars to Homer’s Iliad and a cozy mystery. That’s why one reader gives a literary award-winner five stars, while another honestly believes it deserves only one.

Every reader brings different preferences, moods, and expectations to their interactions with books. These of necessity influence their reading experiences — and their ratings.

The comments that go with the rating should explain it, perhaps citing typos and errors, pretentiousness, flat characters, or failure to engage. Or maybe a gripping plot, poetic prose, or characters so real they almost step off the page.

Those of you to whom all this is blindingly obvious may stop laughing now (but do leave a comment).

Images from Pixabay

Advertisements

Launch day for Eternity Began Tomorrow!

Here’s Kevin Brennan’s latest book — topical and timely!

WHAT THE HELL

Eternity Began Tomorrow is now live on Amazon.com and available as a Kindle book for $2.99.

I’ve already told you that this book is quite a departure for me. It’s a political thriller. Or at least that’s the closest category I could find for it, considering that it touches on all kinds of themes and has the sniff of literary fiction about it too.

Once again, I try my hand here at a first-person female protagonist, the indefatigable Mollie “Blazes” Bolan. Usually when I use a female pov, whether first person or third person, it’s because the character really speaks to me somehow, in a voice that can’t be mistaken for a man’s. Almost always they’re idiosyncratic or sui generis enough that people can’t say “he can’t write female characters worth poo!” I write individual characters, so my Blazes Bolan, my Sally Pavlou (Fascination), and my Sarah Phelan…

View original post 524 more words

Book Review: The Selected Poems of K. Morris

As the author’s preface states, the poems in this substantial collection are drawn from six books published between 2013 and 2019. They are grouped into four sections: Time and Mortality, Nature, Love and Sensuality, Progress and Human Nature.

The Time and Mortality section occupies half the book. Clearly, this subject preoccupies the poet as he moves through his days. Images of clocks abound, along with churchyards, repetitive sounds, and episodes of light and shadow. Many of these poems are quite similar to one another, differing only in details, as though their author is carefully examining the theme’s every facet. The tone is one of quiet acceptance that has moved beyond despair. “Death Is Dead” presents an oblique view, suggesting that if we lived forever, we would bore each other to… Oh, I get it! Writers especially may relate to several poems, for example, “Why Do I Write?” and its resolve to make “A light that glimmers / In the dark / Illumining the human heart.”

In Section 2, Nature, an awareness of mortality is also present, but the focus here is a sense of nature’s benign indifference, which is somehow comforting. “Standing Under this Rain Drenched Tree” begins with the poet listening to whispering leaves but ends humorously with a sneeze.

Section 3, Love and Sensuality, moves from fleeting glimpses of beauty in “Ethereal” and “Chiffon,” to the wry humour of “Unrequited” and “Girls In Unsuitable Shoes.” “Birds That Fly” is especially fine, subtle and poignant. Even with these differences in tone, the themes of passing time and the insignificance of individual lives are present. Love and lust, while crucial to individual humans, do not greatly affect the turning of the world.

The poems of Section 4, Progress and Human Nature, display a mixture of cynicism, acceptance, and even appreciation of humanity despite its faults. The final line of “Dark and Light” is interesting. “Mourn not, for there can be no dark without the light.” Some might expect these opposites to be reversed.

The poems are short, rarely more than a page and often only a handful of lines. Rhyme is present in all, deliberately structured and crafted. The rhythms are often choppy, perhaps echoing those ticking clocks.

In his preface, the author says he believes the poems in this collection are his best works. They show how a poet may abstract himself from the whirl of life and view it from a philosophical perspective, and then embody his observations in brief and eloquent verse to share with readers. The book is perfect for the reader who wants to dip in for a few pithy observations on life and death, or simply to admire the poet’s dexterity with words.

This review is based on a copy of the book provided by the author.

Book Reviewing: a Murky Business

Continuing the theme of reading I started a few weeks ago, I decided to revisit the topic of book reviews. They are so important to writers, both for book sales and validation. These thoughts were prompted by other bloggers’ opinions about and experiences with reviewing books. While readers’ comments on books may seem essentially genteel and harmless, book reviews can stir up some visceral emotions. For a couple of examples, just Google “the greek seaman” or “author stalks reviewer.”

Hoping that “if you give, you get” applies to book reviews, I resolved some time ago to write a sincere, thoughtful review of every indie book I read. I would post the reviews on Goodreads, and also on Amazon or Smashwords, depending on where I acquired the book.

I’ve found it’s easier to make this resolution than keep it. Reviews are best written right after finishing a book, but if I’m tired or distracted I don’t do it. Then I start reading something else; days go by, weeks go by and the review is unwritten. Even for books I really liked, that deserve a favourable review. Sometimes those reviews are never written.

Then there’s the DNF book, the one I give up on because it’s poorly written or just doesn’t interest me. My policy is not to review books I haven’t read from start to finish. It’s not always the book’s fault.

That brings us to the star ratings that accompany reviews. So far, I’ve written no one- or two-star reviews. Many think they are unnecessarily harsh and punitive and should be avoided. That leaves only 3, 4, or 5 stars, otherwise known as OK, Good, or Excellent. That’s a pretty narrow range.

I reserve five stars for books I love so much I think it’s likely I’ll read them again. If I want to buy myself a copy, especially a print one, after reading a book from the library or an ebook, that’s definitely a 5-star.

I give 4 stars to books that are reasonably well-written and interesting but fall just short of great because of what I call lumpy writing — awkward sentences and scene transitions or too many typos. Or, for some intangible reason, I just don’t think it’s a great book (subjectivity strikes again).

Three stars are for books I make myself finish only because I’ve committed myself to reading them, constantly checking the number of pages remaining. (Thinking back to comments on a recent post about reading, I might call these “life is too short” books and give up on them. Which means no review.) Three stars also go to books that aren’t bad but pretty much disappear from my conscious mind right after I read the last word. In other words, “Meh.”

And then there’s the question of whether it’s even possible to boil our thoughts about books down to a number. That’s why an actual review is helpful; it’s a place to explain the rating.

Something else that bothers me is too many of the “reviews” I write are just off-the-cuff remarks with little or no structure or planning. I think that’s how most readers write their reviews, although I sometimes see long, detailed, and serious reviews that make me think I ought to do a better job with mine. Which reminds me — a plot summary is not a review. The “blurb” or book description already provides as much of that as the reader needs and you want to avoid spoilers. So just say what you like or dislike about the book.

The hardest review to write is the less-than-enthusiastic one for a book whose author I’m acquainted with, if only through blogging. It’s like telling a friend their book is less than great. I consider some of those bloggers to be friends; the only difference is I don’t have to look them in the eye while delivering the bad news. Depending on the personalities and relationships involved, the best approach might be to send a private email rather than post a public review/rating.

What might happen if no one wrote negative reviews or never tagged books with one or two stars? Three stars might become the default “bad” rating. Come to think of it, some authors get upset at those already. And if the only reviews were positive ones, what would that say about books with no reviews? Some potential readers might dismiss them as no good, while the truth may be that those books were never read by anyone, or their readers were too lazy or preoccupied to bother posting reviews. Innocent books condemned without due process!

Maybe the “positive reviews only” practice is just a cop-out. It’s much easier to say nice things than critical ones. While it is possible to write a thoughtful, helpful, critical review, it does take more work than a positive one. If a reader is too busy/tired/distracted to write a even a positive review, they certainly aren’t going to attempt a negative but helpful one.

The best reviews, in my opinion, are nuanced. Positive but not wildly enthusiastic. Critical but not unqualified condemnations. I’ve actually been motivated to seek out and read certain books because critical reviews of them intrigued me.

Like so many other aspects of writing, book reviewing is complicated and there’s no easy formula. Nevertheless, knowing how important reviews are to authors, I will continue to write and post them.

Your turn, bloggers — what are your thoughts on reviews and ratings?

Image by olekowy from Pixabay

Reading Like a Reader Is More Fun Than Reading Like a Writer

Last week I posted about too many books and too little time. Today’s topic is the reading process itself.

Years ago, when I was young, there were two kinds of reading. The first one was obligatory reading, usually for school, later for college courses. It was done at a table or desk, with notebook and pen nearby. The second was reading for pleasure. Whether I read classics, trashy paperbacks, serious novels, children’s books, or nonfiction, I didn’t need to take notes or write book reports. This kind of reading was an escape from real life.

Now that I’m a writer, reading is complicated. Thanks to all the “how to write right” blog posts I’ve read, my brain is full of rules and admonishments, things writers should do and many they must never do. For example, overuse of dialogue tags other than “said.” I just read a book whose characters murmured, muttered, and growled way too much. Another had way too many backstory info-dumps. It’s hard to enjoy reading a book if I find myself editing it.

Writers notice things like typos and punctuation issues because they’re always fretting about them in their own writings. Casual readers looking for a diversion may ignore minor issues as long as the story (plot, characters, voice) is sufficiently compelling. That could be why some poorly written books get five star ratings and rave reviews. But readers who also write and publish have trained themselves to find misspelled words and awkwardly constructed sentences. Writers notice even minor problems, and not with delight.

So what does this tell writers? The story is more important than its vehicle, but a vehicle that sputters and stops will drive discerning readers away from the story. They are more likely to abandon it rather than get out and push.

Then there’s the matter of reviews. I know how hard it is for self-published authors to accumulate reviews. I read a lot of indie authors, so therefore feel obliged to post reviews of their books, especially the ones I enjoy. But that means I can’t just let the narrative wash over me while I’m reading. If I intend to write a decent review, I have to remember details. Sometimes I even make a few notes. This reading experience looks more like work than escape.

Reviewing like a writer — is that good or bad? Maybe the person that wrote the book would appreciate reviews containing the kind of feedback they get from a critique group or editor. But then again, maybe not. The book has been written and published, after all. At that stage, all its author wants to know is whether readers like it or not. They may not appreciate another writer telling them what characters should have been removed or which darlings needed killing.

Sometimes I wish I could switch off “writer mode” when I’m reading for pleasure. On the other hand, that’s why it’s so important for published writing to be error-free. Writers, let’s give one another a frictionless, snag-free reading experience!

So, fellow bloggers (and writers): do you notice things like typos and other violations of writing rules when you’re reading for fun? Do you take the time to review the books you read? Do you see your TBR list as a source of delight or another job?

Why I’ll Never Be Well-Read

Because there are too many books. Not only the deluge of new books pouring forth from the Big 5 publishers, small presses, and millions of indies, but all the worthwhile books produced since humans began writing. If I take the time to read a really old book (like Homer’s Iliad, for example) I feel like I’m going to miss a lot of new books. Book FOMO — how silly! Actually, I doubt that anyone can keep up with even a fraction of all the new books, or predict which ones will become classics. So I’m resigned to being spottily well-read. Half-decently read, maybe.

Categories of Books

  • Old, even ancient classics, called by some the “literary canon”
  • Current literary award winners: Booker, Giller, Pulitzer, etc.
  • Books “everyone’s talking about,” many of which have been made into movies
  • Obscure trad-pubbed books
  • Indie books (many of which are obscure)
  • Books that simply must be re-read

At present, I read mainly indie authors, some of whom I’ve met through blogging. I’ve discovered some wonderful authors whose books I will likely re-read. (There’s another dilemma — read old favourites again or abandon them in favour of the new and untried?) But quality does vary; despite reader reviews, there’s no guarantee that every book I pick up will be compelling and memorable. Ebooks are cheap and even free; their true cost is the time needed to read them.

There’s no hope I’ll ever be able to get through any literary canon. My plan for however many years I have left with a functioning brain is to stop worrying about being well-read and just read as many good books as I can. The trick is not to waste time on duds* of any sort, including “duty reads.” “It’s an award winner!” “It has a zillion 5-star reviews!” “The movie won an Oscar!” and “The author is a real sweetie,” aren’t reasons enough to keep reading if the first chapter or two (plus flipping ahead) don’t grab my attention or otherwise fail to entice me.

What about you, fellow bloggers? Do you make yourself read to the last page of a book even when your reading self tells you it’s a dud? And how do you pick books to read — anonymous reviews, book bloggers, word-of-mouth recommendations, or serendipity?

*Dud = any book you find repellent, boring, irrelevant, or otherwise not worth your time. A highly subjective assessment.

Help wanted with my 99-cent sale!

Kevin Brennan is giving readers a great opportunity to discover his top-notch literary fiction. Read the reviews and buy some books! I did.

WHAT THE HELL

Last week I started a summer sale on my four Amazon novels, Yesterday Road, Occasional Soulmates, Town Father, and Fascination—each available now for just 99 cents in Kindle format.

Guess how many copies have flown off the shelves: 0.

This demonstrates the limits of Twitter marketing, since that’s basically where I’m pushing the titles, but clearly people are inundated with book ads there and pretty much block them out of their minds. I know I do. Especially books with shirtless men on the covers, of which there are myriad. Remember this classic?

But because I don’t think my books are already in the hands of all the people who would enjoy them, I’m going to keep the price at 99 cents a while longer and hope that YOU—my faithful What The Hell minions—can let the readers in your life know that they can own four fab…

View original post 114 more words

open books, grass

Creating and Fulfilling Expectations: Books as Products or Works of Art

The book as product: specific word count, story arc, number and types of characters, type of ending, and a cover suited to the genre. It may help its author make a living. Or it may not.

The book as work of art: whatever gives the writer the feeling of having a hand on the lever of creation. It may or may not become a “classic.” A posthumous one.

This is what happens when I’ve been reading too many “how to do it right” posts for writers. (Snarky aside: Judging by the vast amounts of advice we need, we writers are self-indulgent, impractical airheads, fumbling our way through the real world.)

The author of a recent such post expressed acute distress (“I almost cried!”) when a writer admitted they didn’t know the target audience for their book.

OK, all you writers hiding behind your computer screens, is this you? You don’t write your novels for a defined demographic? Well, I suppose YA authors do, but what about the rest of us? I certainly don’t. I feel a ghostly reader peering over my shoulder as I write, but I don’t know anything about them except they’re reading my book and I owe them a good experience.

I write from a need to embody in written language the stories churning in my brain. That’s what makes me sit down and crank out the words, not a market survey that indicates a taste for a specific type of novel in a particular slice of the population.

“What if they find out that … ?” and “Let me tell you how it happened. There was this thing–” These are the sources of story. Not market studies.

Many indie authors see their writing and publishing as a business. Authors with contracts to traditional publishers are nudged to deliver the correct book-shaped products with cover images accurately labelling their genres. Products must be packaged to match customer needs and expectations. That’s totally fine and logical.

Trouble is, not every writer thinks of the books they write as “products,” even if they publish them using the same platforms as do businesslike, marketing-oriented indies. Today, publishing takes many forms.

As they prepare to publish, writers may find it helpful to examine their intentions and expectations. In private, in secret if necessary. Do you want to sell a million copies? Be #1 on some list? Connect with a few readers, a secret society of people like you? Achieve perfection? Become famous? Just be able to call yourself a “published author”? Produce a printed book you can hold in your hands and post pictures of on social media? Every writer fits into one of these categories, or the infinity of spaces between them.

As in other areas of life, it helps to know what you want and act accordingly, with your expectations set to “realistic.” Then you can read and absorb only the advice that’s relevant to you, and cheerfully ignore the rest.

Despite all the expert advice, there are many indies who don’t conform, whose books straddle genres, or mix them up, or don’t belong to any genre at all. What about all those off-beat or zany cover images? (Airheads, right?) From experience I can say those books aren’t all terrible and worthless. Some are excellent, but prospective readers have to be adventurous and take a chance. Think farmers’ market or craft fair, not big box store. Spend a dollar or three and maybe discover a new and wonderful reading experience.

Until the end of July you can do just that at the Smashwords Store. The Summer/Winter Sale continues until July 31st. My books may be found here.

Summer/Winter Sale at the Smashwords Store

Every July, thousands of ebooks go on sale at the Smashwords Store. Many are free. This year the store has an updated interface to make browsing easier.

Anyone can set up a free account at Smashwords to buy and download ebooks in a variety of formats, including Kindle-friendly Mobi format.

The sale runs from 12:01 a.m. Pacific Daylight Saving Time July 1st (that’s right now, folks!) to 12 midnight July 31st.

All my books are enrolled in the sale. Click here for my author profile page and titles.