book reviews

The New Gatekeepers

I guess it had to happen. Technology opened the gate to all those writers who couldn’t get published the traditional way. Huzzah! But there are so many of us, cranking out books by the millions, that readers are overwhelmed. Most indie-published books join the blur and go unnoticed.

Except maybe the ones that get lots of reviews. Trouble is, it’s hard to get reviews, or at least the right kinds of reviews. No friends or family members. No “I’ll review yours if you review mine” arrangements. Brief comments by readers are fine; but thoughtful, thorough reviews by “official” reviewers are best of all — and almost impossible to get. Reviewers are the new gatekeepers. (As are a few advertisers, notably BookBub, which is pretty selective about which books it will promote. You need to pay them a non-trivial sum — but first you need a non-trivial number of good reviews).

You don’t have to look hard to find lists of rules and other admonishments directed at hopeful review-seeking authors. They look a lot like the submission guidelines and how-to-approach-publishers advice of the trad pub years. Some of these lists are lengthy and detailed, and a few verge on the offensive. Reading them conjures up a caricature of a desperate author approaching the enthroned reviewer, crawling on hands and knees while pushing a copy of their book along the floor with their nose. (And if your book is taken up by the reviewer, don’t even think about emailing to ask when the review might appear. Just. Don’t. Do it. Ever).

This is part of a bigger phenomenon associated with the self-pub revolution — the author as pest. It seems we’re a pretty annoying bunch: spewing out books full of typos and grammar no-nos, issuing endless “Check out my book!” tweets, approaching acquaintances with book in hand and big salesman’s grin on face, and bothering beleaguered book bloggers just like we did the beleaguered acquisitions editors of days gone by. (Remember all those tales of mail rooms crammed with unsolicited mss?) Maybe creativity generates a ferocious hunger for attention that overrides good manners. Book bloggers and reviewers have reacted predictably to the deluge of review requests by hedging themselves about with rules, just like publishers did.

But hey — at least now we writers are free to throw our books into the public arena. That’s way better than slinking back to our writing rooms to entomb the rejected manuscript in a cardboard box that once held dog food. The toughest gate has been breached. So what if there’s no sure-fire path to success? (There never was, actually). And a few of us have managed to get our books noticed, clearing the gates like so many hurdlers.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Dancing in a Minefield: Writers Reviewing Each Other

Book reviews have been on my mind lately — more than usual, that is, because book reviews are always a preoccupation of us indie authors. I’ve been thinking about reviews and reviewing because most of the books at the top of my TBR pile are actually TBR&R, meaning “to be read and reviewed.” I’ve decided this year to give priority to books by authors from my local area, which narrows the field considerably. Even so, the pile keeps growing.

It occurred to me a while ago that I rarely read books just for fun, with no intention to review or even rate them. I think that’s an occupational hazard for us authors, now more than ever.

In the Olden Days (the previous millennium), books were reviewed by special people called literary critics. Back then, writers wrote and readers read. They might talk about books with friends and recommend ones they thought particularly good, but that was just talk.

Then came ebooks, self-publishing and social media. Now everyone can be a critic of sorts. For indie authors, this has created a perilous situation. First, of course, there are Too Many Books. Then there’s the fact that some of them are by fellow writers — people we know from critique groups, writing courses, writers’ conferences or the blogosphere. People we trade jokes with, whose posts we “like” and comment on. How many of us have obtained books from these online colleagues in exchange for “an honest review?”

So what do you do when you read one of these books and can’t write an honestly positive review?

Many just don’t write the review. Some contact the writer privately to express their concerns. Others grit their teeth and try to walk the tightrope, carefully making a case for their less-than-positive comments. Critical remarks may not be too damaging, but throwing a three-or-fewer-stars rating onto a pile of four and five stars, thus lowering a book’s overall score, is guaranteed to make its author unhappy.

No one wants to be a party-pooper, but I, for one, refuse to modify my honest opinion of a piece of writing just because the writer is known to me. That kind of thing perpetuates the negative views some people still have about self-published books and their authors. It may also be why Amazon has decided to remove reviews that appear to be written by people who know the author. This is a rather crude approach, but behind it is the principle that reviews should reflect readers’ true impressions of a piece of writing, unmodified by considerations such as, “Well, it’s not the best, but hey, the author is a nice guy and writes those funny blog posts, so how about 4 stars instead of 3.”

There is a huge difference between a thoughtful critical review and a mean-spirited condemnation of a book accompanied by a one-star rating. We writers can be of help to one another by carefully reading each other’s books and writing sincere (honest) reviews, both positive and negative.

One thing that’s hard to avoid (and I’m as guilty of it as anyone) is to slip into the role of editor-after-the-fact, suggesting that the author should have deleted this scene or that character, or written more description, or less. I think this kind of thing comes from participating in critique groups or being a beta reader. In those situations we are dealing with works in progress, where such suggestions are welcomed. Reviews, on the other hand, must deal with a book as published and complete.

We writers owe it to one another to hold ourselves to a high standard when we write reviews. We know both sides of the page, as it were: we both create and consume writing. We are insiders and as such must play the reviewer’s role consciously and with care.

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.

Local Author Book Review #4: The New Fire by Ada Robinson

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The New Fire by Ada Robinson is a historical novel about a history that never happened set in a place that does not exist. But it reads as though rooted in a real place and time.

This is from the back cover:

Imagine a land blending the geography of California, the technology of medieval Spain and the theology of pagan Rome. Isolated by distance and slave-hunters, the community of Iktalan has diverged from its Hispani roots.

Ada Robinson has taken pains to craft her fictional world and its inhabitants, rendering vividly its geography, economy and cultures. The Iktalai and a related people, the Zalatai, are the native peoples of the region. The Iktalai have had more contact with the Hispani, who come from Nueva Hispania on the other side of the mountains; indeed, they have intermarried at some point. Then there are the fearsome Bakai, enemies of all three peoples, who raid coastal settlements to take prisoners and slaves, using repugnant means to subdue them.

The story plays out over a period of months, during which a treaty is negotiated between the Iktalai and the Hispani, guaranteeing protection of Iktalan from the Bakai by the Hispani army in exchange for tribute.

Woven into this tapestry is the story of Sakela, a young Iktalai woman who represents her community in the treaty negotiations and serves as a herbalist and healer. She encounters dangers and challenges, not least among them the need to overcome a personal tragedy. In the course of these adventures she meets the new Governor of Tierra Ermosa, Don Francisco Montoya, and a warrior of the Zalatai who is also her cousin.

Robinson’s prose is clear and direct, outlining with equal clarity religious ceremonies, community feasts, military operations and issues around land claims and taxation. The human stories are nearly obscured by the volume and detail of this information, especially in the opening chapters. Some readers may be discouraged by this, but persistence is rewarded by several tense situations and their resolution, only to be followed by additional complications.

The technique of creating a fictional world that engages readers by its similarity to the real one, while allowing the writer freedom to plot, has been used in several well-known novels by Guy Gavriel Kay. Robinson has accomplished something similar in this novel, with less drama and intensity, perhaps, but with admirable sincerity and thoroughness.

My rating: 8 stars out of 10.

The New Fire is available as an ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and at the iBookstore, as well as in print from Amazon. It is also part of the Greater Victoria Public Library’s Emerging Local Authors Collection.

Local Author Book Review #3: PsyBot by Nowick Gray

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The Plot: Computer programmer Joe Norton juggles a series of awkward relationships with women while working for a tech company that’s facing a merger. As if this isn’t bad enough, he experiences strange and disturbing hallucinations and nightmares, in some of which he is offered a rifle for an unknown purpose. Maybe they’re psychotic episodes. Or worse — maybe he’s somehow caught a virus from one of the computer programs he works with. Accident, conspiracy or karma? Joe struggles to make sense of it all, growing ever more flummoxed and distressed. He seeks answers from coworkers, girlfriends and a psychiatrist, embarking on a search for his “home brain.”

The Characters: Joe is a middle-aged guy with a pretty drab life. His reality doesn’t quite measure up to his rather modest expectations. He goes to work, eats TV dinners in front of the “UltraScreen,” changes girlfriends frequently and anxiously. To be honest, it’s pretty hard to care much about him. The other characters, seen through Joe’s eyes (since he’s the narrator) range from quirky to repellent. The most sympathetic ones are Harry, a coworker, and Giselda, the boss’s assistant, but even they are somewhat peculiar.

The Setting: Philadelphia in the fall — as described by Joe, a pretty bleak place. Gritty streets of drab brick buildings. Joe’s girlfriends’ apartments, the office where he works, the eateries he frequents. And a variety of “virtual” situations — airplanes (or airships?), transit stations in space, windowless rooms, festering jungles.

On the plus side, Gray produces good prose. He assembles well-chosen words into coherent sentences, often creating vivid images or displaying a sly humour:

Distracted from the flimsy newsprint, I rode forward carried along on a wave — no, a rising tide — of compulsion toward a greater reality, a more expansive dimension than I had known. At the same time neither joy not freedom beat in my heart. Too much instead of that dark dread, the taste of black ooze in my mouth. And I don’t mean the coffee.

Even though the plot revolves around computer programs and virtual reality, the occasional occurrences of technical language are not incomprehensible. Readers who can relate to metaprograms, branching logic and metamovers that window to lot-caches may derive more from the story than those who do not, but the latter can skim over those sections without losing the thread.

The premise of the novel is interesting and original. Unfortunately, its execution bogs down in excessive detail soon after the opening scenes. The first quarter of the book, in which the drabness of Joe’s life is contrasted with his bizarre visions, is excruciatingly slow. Finding little to charm or captivate me, I nearly bailed around page 40; only my resolve to finish the book in order to write this review kept me going. By page 100, I was intrigued. Joe was starting to engage with his problem and trying various strategies to solve it.

Sadly, this promising thread frayed out into a repetitious series of further bizarre incidents with little coherence. Reaching the end of the novel became my primary motivation again, rather than a desire to discover the reason for Joe’s weird experiences and curiosity about how things work out for him. I wasn’t willing to wallow in disembodied strangeness again and again. “Goodbye Joe, and good luck,” I thought, but since the end was in sight, I kept plugging away.

I’m happy to say that the final 20 pages brought a fairly satisfying resolution. Despite (or perhaps because of) its denseness, PsyBot is a book that gives a reader plenty to think about.

My rating: 6 out of 10 stars. In my 10-star rating system, 6 stars means “Good but unremarkable.” In the case of PsyBot, I would change this to “Potentially good but hard to engage with.”

PsyBot and other books by Nowick Gray may be obtained through his website:  http://nowickgray.com or through his author page at Smashwords:  http://smashwords.com/profile/view/nowick

And, of course, there is one copy of PsyBot available to users of the Greater Victoria Public Library as part of its Emerging Local Authors Collection.

 

Local Author Book Review #2: The White Limousine by John R. Paterson

Time travel. Second chances. A lost love and a new love. These are the compelling elements of The White Limousine, a science fiction romance by Victoria author John Paterson.

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The plot revolves around two couples: Lisa is part of a genius team that creates the world’s first working time machine, and Eddie is an adventurer who takes a job as a very special kind of chauffeur. They give Fred a chance to fix the worst mistakes of his life, the biggest of which is losing his true love, Kimberley. But things go wrong.

The white limo of the title, which reads like something designed by Elon Musk with help from James Bond’s “Q,” is the vehicle that whisks the characters from 2014 into the past. Complications arise when the limo returns empty except for bloodstains, and Lisa becomes part of her own experiment. From that point two stories unfold, one in 1950 and the other in 1985.

Science definitely takes a back seat to romance here. Paterson offers just enough scientific-sounding information to maintain plausibility, but keeps the focus on the characters’ emotions and their relationships with one another. Underlying the story line of The White Limousine is a sincere concern with values and ethics, which manifests in a lurid subplot involving a rather bizarre church. A car chase right out of the movies concludes this episode. Even though some details strain credibility, the story is engaging enough to ride smoothly over these bumps.

I noted a few problems with editing: inconsistency with the surname of one of the principal characters and frequent instances of missing or misplaced quotation marks that make it difficult to tell who is speaking when.

It’s tempting to compare this book to Stephen King’s 11/22/63, since they share the premise that time travel is possible, and both feature characters that fall in love while visiting the mid-2oth century. King, true to form, takes the shadowed side of the road, while Paterson mostly sticks to the sunshine and takes the reader on an entertaining excursion.

My rating: 7 out of 10 stars.

The White Limousine is available at the author’s website, and one copy is in the Emerging Local Authors collection at the Greater Victoria Public Library.

 

 

Local Author Book Review #1: Clamming Up by Lee-Anne Stack

Since the recent launch of the Emerging Local Authors collection at my local library, I have decided to read some of the 174 books and write reviews of them. I’m not sure how many I’ll be able to get through, but I’ve noted at least half a dozen that seem worth checking out (literally). Expect reviews here in the next few months. This is a personal commitment!

And since I frequently find the 5-star rating system inadequate, I’ll use a ten-star system, thus: 1 = abysmal, 2 = barely readable, 3 = mediocre, 4 = not bad, 5 = OK but not great, 6 = good but unremarkable, 7 = pretty good, 8 = really good, 9 = remarkable, 10 = superlative.

Enough preliminaries!

First up is Clamming Up by Victoria author Lee-Anne Stack. Right from the get-go I’ll reveal that I was a beta-reader for this book months ago, but this review is based on my recent reading of the published book.

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Lee-Anne Stack really knows how to write a good time. Her characters, business partners Kate and Pearl, take their two-woman home reno business to Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, to do a job for a rather… memorable couple. (Here I’ll just digress for a moment to say that Tofino, along with Pacific Rim National Park and the neighbouring community of Ucuelet, are magical places. Getting there is a journey — through a mountain range, past pristine rivers and lakes and what remains of the magnificent coastal rainforest. Tofino is a quirky mix of locals and tourists, with endless beaches, surfing, resorts, restaurants, and even a hot spring in the vicinity. It’s one of my favourite places).

Kate Nia O’Malley is quite a character. She tells the story, and her narrative voice moves the plot along briskly, with considerable verve. The opening scene gets things off with a bang and they don’t slow down much until the final epilogue.

As Kate and Pearl work on the interior of a guest house — sawing, nailing, mudding, sanding and painting — romance and adventure swirl around them. Two personable guys make the scene — doctor Colin and boat owner Andrew — leading to fun times. Sitting on my couch, I vicariously went surfing, diving and clamming (of course!), and enjoyed superlative meals in a variety of situations. The book reads as fast as a screenplay; much of the narrative is carried by snappy dialogue. These women are as competent with one-liners as they are with power tools!

The mystery is fairly subtle until the last few chapters. The death of a fisherman before the book starts casts a shadow, especially over Andrew, since the dead man was his uncle. The presence of some shady (but colourful) characters adds a bit of menace. Sinister hints accumulate to the bursting point, precipitating a frantic search and the final denouement. To be quite frank, I found the resolution of the mystery a bit weak, but that didn’t matter because getting there was so much fun. The characters are distinct and memorable, and their interactions with one another are almost more important than the plot. This is a fun read, perfect for beach, bath or boat.

My rating: 8 out of 10 stars.

Clamming Up is available through Amazon in print and Kindle versions. Other ebook formats may be purchased at Smashwords and the ebook stores it distributes to. And folks who use the Greater Victoria Public Library may check out the copy there.