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.

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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

Thank You Mr. Shakespeare

Writers, here are some rousing words from RJ Llewellyn, channeling Shakespeare.

Writing Despite Computers and Programmes

In my previous blog (Declared a danger to public health & well being by High Priests of Akismet….sometimes you gotta love a cheap-shot). I put this out along the themes of encouraging Writers when the going gets not so much tough, but as Arid. I thought it might be worth putting out again…..

Annnd Take 2!

Sometimes I indulge in a Shakespeare play session in my DVD collection, and there are effects on my writing which insist on being displayed….

Stage directions:

A group of folk are sitting.

Enter:

The Commentator:

They Speak:  

Good-day to you my fellow Wordsmiths

Why these sombre faces?

What halts or confounds your pens?

Have you fallen out to dispute of

Those five particular sisters

Calliope of the wondrous images

Euterpe entrancing with the lyrical dance

Thalia ever humorous and irreverent

Erato sweet purveyor of heart’s feelings

Polyhymnia, solemn in her honouring of…

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Cat eyes in the dark

Seeing in the Dark

The characters in my novels and stories frequently roam around in the dark, often on some sort of nefarious business. Writing those scenes can be tough. If I want a character to see something important, I have to furnish a plausible light source. In fiction set in the present day, there are reliable flashlights and the mobile phone’s flashlight feature. Imminent battery death can supply a bit of tension to the scene.

But what about earlier eras? Much of my writing is set in the past, specifically the early to mid 20th century. I’ve spent a good deal of time checking whether a specific light source existed at a particular time. When did electric torches (otherwise known as flashlights) come into common use? Eighteen ninety-six. What about car headlights? The earliest ones were carbide lamps. Integrated all-electric lights weren’t common until the 1920s.

Sources of Light

Other light sources include torches (the kind with actual flames), camp fires, glowing lava, candles, oil lamps, gaslights, street lights, moonlight, starlight, lightning flashes, and the ability to see in the dark. (The last is not to be bestowed on a character unless they’re really special, because for humans, it’s a superpower.) Whichever mode of illumination I select, it has to fit the situation. No flashlights (or electric torches) before the late 19th century. Lightning bolts aren’t predictable and usually involve other phenomena as well. If someone is close enough to molten lava for it to show details, they may be dead. Moonlight doesn’t show colours or details all that well, so forget about characters seeing eye colours or reading maps by moonlight. Starlight sounds magical, but is even dimmer.

Matches as we know them didn’t exist until the 19th century and personal cigarette lighters until the 1930s. (The match has an exceedingly interesting history, complete with bad smells, explosions, and phosphorus poisoning, both accidental and intentional.) For even earlier settings, it would be advisable to learn about fire starting methods such as flint and steel, and containers such as fire pots for maintaining and transporting the precious results.

Other Considerations and the “Ambient Glow”

Candles and torches (the flaming kind) are fire hazards, a fact that can be useful or annoying, depending on your plot. Light can reveal one’s presence as well as help one see. It can conceal as well as reveal if it’s bright enough to blind. The writer must exercise as much caution with light in the darkness as his or her characters. Unless, of course, the action involves the supernatural. In paranormal situations, the ever-popular ambient glow (sourceless, magical light) may be invoked judiciously, as I did in key scenes of my novel She Who Comes Forth.

Utter Darkness

In other scenes, the main character of that novel must endure absolute darkness — the kind where you can’t see anything, even your own hand in front of your face. That degree of darkness is hard to come by, but it’s worth experiencing if you’re planning to write about it. In fact, before writing a scene that takes place in any kind of darkness, the best research might be to replicate the conditions and literally see what you can see (or not).

Image by Михаил Прокопенко 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.

It’s Alive! (Sort of)

Back in May, I heard a rather intriguing and disturbing story on radio. The nub of it is that researchers at Yale University were able to induce brain activity in detached heads of pigs obtained from a slaughterhouse four hours after death. They accomplished this with a technology called “BrainEx.” A system of pumps, heaters and filters perfused the dead brains with an artificial blood solution. After six hours of treatment, the brains showed cellular activity. At least one scientist commented that if the treatment had been continued, some level of consciousness may very well have been achieved .

Here is a link:
https://www.cbc.ca/radio/quirks/how-late-is-too-late-to-revive-a-brain-pig-brain-study-raises-questions-1.5119913

My first thought: Fans of Frankenstein and Herbert West will love this! My second thought: I wonder what’s in that artificial blood. What colour is it — lurid green? Or maybe purple?

Seriously, though, this experiment raises a lot of disturbing questions, about time of death, when it’s okay to “harvest” organs for transplant, about animal experiments, and when is the spark of consciousness finally extinguished. The scientists took measures to make sure the brains did not attain full consciousness and stood by with anesthesia, just in case. (That was nice of them.)

The intent is to use the results of this study to learn more about post-mortem brain cell death and how damaged cells may be repaired. But there’s always the possibility that the unscrupulous will cite the experiment to prey upon the desperate, promising a form of immortality (for a large fee, no doubt) by hooking up brains to a pump full of magic solution. (This actually reminded me of H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Whisperer in Darkness.”)

Fiction is a give and take between speculation and reality, the point where they intersect. These brain experiments may furnish material for ethicists, doctors, scientists, and for writers of speculative and horror fiction as well.

Pig Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

Weird light at sunset. Orange light due to wildfire smoke.

Extreme Gardening?

Many sports and other activities have an “extreme” version. Think ultra-marathons, free climbing, wingsuit flying, and tightrope walking over vast chasms. There’s even extreme ironing.

So what about extreme gardening? What might that look like?

  • Gardening on someone else’s land or public land, e.g. in a park or on a boulevard. The last is known as “guerrilla gardening.”
  • Stealing plants for your garden.
  • Growing dangerous plants, such as giant hogweed, poison ivy, or poison hemlock.
  • Growing a garden of weeds (bindweed, thistles, stinging nettle, Japanese knotweed).
  • Not deadheading plants like purple toadflax or rose campion, i.e., letting them seed freely.
  • Growing tropical plants in non-tropical places; or, for that matter, alpine plants in lowlands, desert plants in rainforests, etc.
  • Growing plants on a vertical surface.
  • Growing trees in your house.
  • Growing Himalayan blue poppies.
  • Engaging in marathon pruning, weeding, or digging sessions.
  • Gardening in the nude.

I’ve actually done some of these things. Guess which ones…

Poison hemlock

The consequences and dangers of the above list include: getting arrested, skin irritation, poisoning, illness, hospitalization, lawsuits, infected wounds, sore muscles, back injuries, disappointment, frustration, weariness, and death. Notably missing is the adrenaline rush which is the main point of most extreme sports. (Well, OK, there might be a small thrill in digging up a plant from a garden that isn’t yours and vanishing into the night. But see the list of consequences.)

Unfortunately for the extremist, gardening is not a sport that produces adrenaline rushes. For one thing, results are usually slow to appear. The gardener’s main reward is occasional fits of quiet awe, in which he or she stands gazing at a plant or group of plants with a happy, vacant smile on their mug.

Meconopsis sheldonii "Lingholm" (grandis) Himalayan blue poppy
Himalayan blue poppy in bloom.

Extreme ironing image created by Greg Williams in cooperation with the Wikimedia Foundation. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

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…

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