book reviews

Seeing More Stars: Rating and Ranking

Recently I published a post about an apparent disconnect between quality of writing and the ratings and reviews of books on Goodreads. There were a lot of comments, including one that linked to this article on “review bombing” on the Goodreads site.

Ratings and reviews are important for authors, especially indies. But given the inconsistencies and manipulations they’re subject to, maybe they shouldn’t be.

open books, grass

The standard rating scheme found on Amazon, Goodreads, and many other sites, is the five star system, in which five stars means “excellent” and one star means “abysmal.” It’s neat and simple, and because it involves numbers, may be considered quantitative. Never mind that it’s purely subjective and may be gamed.

Calvin and Hobbes comic strip about books
Image source unknown

Ways to rate or label a book’s quality

  • Five star system.
  • Ten star system.
  • Binary system: Yes or No? Good or Bad?
  • Would you read this book again?
  • Would you recommend this book to a friend?
  • Would you recommend it to an enemy?
  • Emotional effect checklist: the book made me feel: happy, excited, scared, angry, disgusted, bored, etc.
  • No rating at all; read the reviews and make up your own mind.

The whole point of rating is to establish a value marker for a book. If you look up a title on Goodreads, you see the book’s collective star ranking below the title and author, expressed as both an image and a number, such as 4.39, 3.67, or whatever. Next to that is a “Rating details” link that shows how many readers have assigned each rating, both as a graph and numerically. It may look scientific and unarguable, but that’s deceptive when you think about where the data comes from.

open book against blue sky with white clouds

Is rating necessary or realistic for books? Is a book a “product,” like a vacuum cleaner or a t-shirt?

Maybe it depends on how readers use the information. To me, the numbers and rating profile are only a preliminary indication. I often look up reviews and ratings only after I’ve started reading a book and have formed an idea about it. At that point, I want to see what other readers think. I usually read reviews with ratings other than five stars because they go into into more detail than “I love, love, LOVE this book!” So ratings don’t have a direct bearing on whether I buy a book.

This is not true for other readers, I’m sure, and I know that ratings and reviews do have a great deal of influence on outcomes such as BookBub promotions and purchases by libraries.

Something to think about: Amazon’s ranking system is based on sales, not ratings. The star ratings are a separate thing. In theory, if enough people buy a book through Amazon it could be a Number 1 Bestseller, even if no one rates (or even reads) it.

Finally, what about those lazy (or malicious) people who give low ratings but don’t review? I notice this a lot on Goodreads. Okay, it’s way easier just to click on a star than to marshal your thoughts and put them into words, but it’s not terribly helpful for readers or authors. This is especially true of one and two star ratings. I think it’s important to specify why you think a book deserves a low rating. Are some of those reviewless 1-star ratings mean-spirited efforts to drag down the number attached to a particular book?

What about you, fellow writers and readers? What do you think of book ratings? Do you pay attention to them when selecting books to read? Would you prefer something other than the 5 stars?

Featured image from Pexels; other images from Pixabay, except as noted.

Seeing Stars–and Red

I’ve written quite a few posts in my Audrey the Contrarian persona, questioning the validity of some writing rules advice. You know what I mean–don’t use certain words, including “was,” avoid dialogue tags other than “said,” don’t write prologues, etc. and etc. I admit it–as soon as I perceive a wagging finger, my defenses go up.

gargoyle grumpy
“Sez who?”

Well, I’ve had a bit of an epiphany about this recently, in the form of a multi-author, themed box set of more than a dozen novels in ebook form. I acquired it more than a year ago but didn’t start reading it until recently.

So far, I’ve read six of the novels. All were previously published and most are parts of series. Several of them were probably #1 Bestsellers at some point. All begin with pages of the usual gushy blurbs (which I always skip). At least two of them so far are really good reads, well-written and interesting, but it’s the others I’m concerned with here.

One of these books begins with a prologue. That’s okay with me; I’m not opposed to prologues on principle. This one must have been designed to give the reader a jolt right from the start, and it did its job. But neither the characters nor the situation ever appear in the story that follows, with the exception of a single fleeting reference in the first chapter. Otherwise the story was fairly good, until it was spoiled by plot chasms, unnecessary references to events in other books in the series, and twists that failed my credibility test.

I don’t usually skim and skip when I read, but another of these books was so mushy-gushy, I ended up doing that. In the first chapter, the main character describes a person in minute detail, complete with a mini-backstory, fashion choices, and incredible devotion to said m.c. That person never appears again. The story is told in first person point of view, except for the occasional paragraph in third person. And no, those third person paragraphs are not deliberate stylistic devices, but errors. Finally, the m.c.’s personality and background are completely wrong for her profession, which severely strains the story’s credibility. Not only that, but the reader is treated to a detailed description of every emotional blip and bump the m.c. experiences.

A third example is a clunky sandwich of two different genres–the beginning and end are one genre, the filling in the middle the second. It doesn’t work well, but what really annoyed me was all the murmuring. Even the bad guy murmurs a typical bad guy command. “Drop the gun!” he murmured. Every time I pressed the next page button I made a bet with myself that someone would murmur on that page. And most of the time I was right. One more thing–the name of the m.c. changes between page 1 and page 2. I read those pages a couple of times, wondering what happened to X, before I realized he was actually Y.

Out of curiosity, I looked up these books on Goodreads to see what other readers might have said about them.

Guess what? All three had many 5-star ratings and rave reviews! A few reviews mentioned some of the problems I had noticed, but they were a tiny minority. It’s possible, of course, that some readers abandoned the books partway through and did not post reviews.

So now I wonder why, when we writers are told repeatedly that readers will not tolerate problems like the ones I’ve described, reviews and ratings don’t bear this out. Here are a few theories:

  1. The reviews are biased, either because the individuals who wrote them are doing the author a favour, or the reviews were paid for, or some other suspect reason.
  2. These particular readers/reviewers just happened to be exceedingly uncritical.
  3. Readers of genre fiction don’t care about many of the things writers are advised to care about.

Extrapolating from #3, I think there are two kinds of readers (well, there are probably more than two, but bear with me while I make my point). There are casual readers who just want to whiz through a story as light entertainment. As long as the plot holds together, they don’t notice details. Then there are critical readers who notice stuff like the above. In the latter group are writers, authors, and editors–in other words, the folks who write and read those blog posts telling you not to commit those sins.

So what is a writer to conclude from this?

Cynical me says don’t sweat the rewrites and proofreading. Forget the advice and bang out a plot-driven story every three months with the expected elements for your genre. Then put your real efforts into cultivating your readers and marketing. Writer me says striving to perfect my writing is a worthwhile end in itself even if no one reads it. Which makes sense, as I’m a dismal failure at marketing.

What say you, fellow writers and readers? Have you noticed this apparent disconnect between reviews and writing quality?

Words related to writing

Visualizing Your Characters and Reviewing Other Authors: Two More from WSW

Two more posts on the Writers Supporting Writers blog: Chuck Litka’s thoughts on how we picture the characters we create can be found HERE

And HERE, another video chat, this time on the benefits and pitfalls of reviewing and being reviewed by other authors.

Image by prettysleepy1 on Pixabay

She Who Comes Forth by Audrey Driscoll

I was thrilled to read this review by J.F. Kaufmann of She Who Comes Forth. Of course, I have to share it!

The Red Cliffs Chronicles

The first book I read this year left me frustrated. I was way more fortunate with my second read in 2021 – She Who Comes Forth by Audrey Driscoll.

I really enjoyed this mystery novel set in the early 1960s Egypt and was sorry to part with it, which is always a good sign – an emotional and mental relationship with a book doesn’t happen out of nowhere.

It has a thrilling plot, believable, multifaceted characters, and a delightful touch of spookiness. It also has somethingelse, and I’ll try to explain it.

I’ve been dazzled by Ancient Egypt since I was a child. You don’t need to believe in pseudo-scientific hypotheses about its origins to become fascinated with Egypt – I certainly don’t — but once you learn a little bit more about this incredible civilization, you can’t ignore the mysteries, the unknown and unexplained that surround it…

View original post 196 more words

open book against blue sky with white clouds

My Best Reads of 2020, Part 3: The Final Seven

Here are reviews of seven more books to round out my best reads for this strange year.

Death’s Detective (Malykant Mysteries #1-4) by Charlotte E. English

Book Description:
Konrad Savast is the Malykant: foremost and most secret servant of the God of Death. His job? To track down the foulest of murderers and bring them to The Malykt’s Justice. No mercy. No quarter.

My Review:
The book consists of four novella-length stories, all of which feature Konrad Savast and his friend the apothecary Irinanda Falenia. Each of the four presents a murder for which retribution must be delivered, but supernatural justice is quite different from that found in most detective stories.
The city of Ekamet, in which the stories are set, is dark, cold, and gloomy. It’s almost always snowing, raining, or blowing. Nearby is the weird Bone Forest, where Konrad has a hut on stilts. It features in every one of the stories, adding its own brand of shivery attraction. Most of the characters’ names have a Russian flavour, and there’s a nineteenth-century feel to the place, but it’s entirely fictitious.
Even though the stories are about death and strangeness, Konrad and Irinanda’s conversations are lightened with humorous banter. Their friendship is an overarching theme of the four episodes, along with the difficulties that come with the job of Malykant and how Konrad copes with them. His spirit-serpent helpers, Eetapi and Ootapi, also furnish the odd subplot as well as unexpected funny moments.
I recommend this book to readers who enjoy cozy mysteries with an additional touch of Slavic-style shivers.

The Termite Queen. Volume One: The Speaking of the Dead, and Volume Two: The Wound That Has No Healing by Lorinda J. Taylor

Book Description:
In the 30th century, an off-world expedition returns to Earth with a specimen of giant termite whose behavior suggests intelligence. Kaitrin Oliva, a strong-willed and ambitious young linguistic anthropologist, is charged with finding a way to access its unique form of bioelectric communication. However, the insect dies and the team members realize too late that they have unintentionally murdered an intelligent lifeform. A second expedition is mounted with the purpose of making first contact and reparations. Griffen Gwidian, the entomologist heading the expedition, is a complex man with a dark personal secret. He falls in love with Kaitrin and against her better instincts Kaitrin responds. The result is a love story by turns turbulent and funny, passionate, tender, and troubled. Meanwhile, civil discord is brewing on the termite planet. Ultimately, the two plotlines intersect in an explosive climax, after which the team must return to Earth and try to come to terms with what they have experienced.

My Review:
I have to admit I was hesitant to read these books (even though I’ve read and enjoyed several others by this author) because they are in part about giant termites. Big bugs. How could a book featuring big bugs, however intelligent, be anything but off-putting? I’m happy to say it’s not so, and I’m glad I decided to read The Termite Queen.
This is a multi-dimensional and ambitious work. Set in the 30th century, its characters include several species of non-human intelligent life forms besides the giant termites. Even more, the author has invented languages for these life forms. These conlangs give depth and richness to the reading experience.
This may sound intimidating, but The Termite Queen is eminently readable, with clear, coherent prose and careful pacing. The scenes that include only termite characters are written rather like scenes from a play, and indeed the sub-plot involving these creatures resembles a Shakespearean drama. The primary termite characters are distinct and memorable, although their intricate names took a bit of getting used to.
Kaitrin Oliva, the linguistic anthropologist, is a sympathetic character. Her part of the story involves both her academic interests and the development of a significant personal relationship. Important background details of the future society in which the story is set are artfully conveyed in a way that enhances the reading experience.
Volume One is an absorbing read because of the clever combination of familiar human story elements with boldly original ones.
The primary focus of Volume Two is Kaitrin Oliva’s recovery from the traumatic events that conclude Volume One. This process involves revisiting many of the events of the first book from a psychological point of view. At times I felt the story bogged down in these details. but there are intriguing aspects, such as parallels between ancient Welsh mythology and the 30th century tragedy.
I re-read both books recently (October 2020) and changed my rating of Volume Two to 5 stars because I better appreciated its poignant interweaving of language, culture, storytelling, and spirituality.

Innerscape Omnibus by A.C. Flory

Book Description:
Welcome to Innerscape, a virtual reality in which anything is possible, even murder. Includes Book 1, Miira; Book 2, The Godsend; Book 3, Nabatea.

My Review:
Having greatly enjoyed Miira, Book 1 of this work, I was delighted when this omnibus edition, comprising all three books, became available earlier this year. I intended to read it slowly, savouring the strange setting and intricate plot, but that didn’t work out. In Book 2, The Godsend, the tension ratchets up to an unbearable degree. I simply had to know how things turned out for Miira, Kenneth, and Jaimie. These characters have so many strikes against them to start with that the new complications, resulting from greed, deception, and brutal self-interest on the part of those around them, are totally compelling.
The setting is Australia in the 22nd century. Climate change has altered the environment to the extent that those who can afford it live in domed communities. But the Residents of Innerscape, a select and privileged group, can travel–virtually–almost anywhere–to Paris, for example, or the ancient city of Petra, or Japan. They can also enter hyper-realistic gaming worlds. In reality, though, these individuals’ surgically altered physical selves are sealed in confinement units, kept alive by advanced technology. That means they’re totally dependent on the technology working as intended, a fact that makes them vulnerable to clever and inventive individuals pursuing hidden agendas. And there are plenty of those.
The point of view shifts from one character to another at times, but the shifts are clearly signalled and not confusing in the least. The plot moves along steadily, building on previous incidents and revelations. Along the way, the reader is treated to vivid images of places, technological wonders, and characters’ clothing and physical characteristics — enough to create thrills but not so much as to be tedious. This contrasts chillingly with brief glimpses of a dystopian world, especially the truly frightening penal system.
Altogether, these three books combine human drama with a futuristic vision that add up to an engrossing read with a satisfying and thought-provoking conclusion. I recommend them to any reader who enjoys a glimpse beyond the boundaries of present day reality.

One Night in Bridgeport by Mark Paxson

Book Description:
Jack McGee is on his way to having it all — a promising legal career, marriage to his high school sweetheart, and a happy normal life — when his boss sends him to do some legal work in Bridgeport, California. There he meets a gorgeous local girl, Lea Rogers, and he throws caution to the wind — for one night.
The next morning, Jack panics when he realizes what he’s risked and rushes home, content to leave Bridgeport, Lea, and their steamy night together buried forever. A few days later, Jack loses everything when he is arrested for rape and hauled back to Bridgeport, a small town full of secrets and intrigue and citizens determined to destroy Jack.
One Night in Bridgeport is an intriguing tale of lust and vengeance, and of one man’s desperate attempt to salvage his life.

My Review:
This realistic legal thriller shows how it feels to be a man accused of rape. Its methodically constructed plot benefits greatly from the author’s firsthand knowledge of legal processes. Jack, the main character, although innocent of the crime with which he’s charged, is immature, often petulant, and at times downright annoying. His lawyer, Tammy Evans, is tough but sympathetic. Watching her deal with Jack and do her job, both in and out of the courtroom, was a pleasure.
The book is fast-paced, even as it shows that legal processes take a wearisomely long time. Jack makes his initial bad choice in summer, but winter arrives before his trial begins. The third person omniscient point of view shows the thoughts and actions of different characters, but at times the narrator steps away from the story to explain things to the reader. I found that helpful but a little jarring. I also appreciated the descriptions of Bridgeport (a real place) and environs.

The Inn at the Edge of Light by Michael Graeme

Book Description:
Do you think you’ve only the one life to live? Well, how about two, at the same time, or maybe more? And if you think that sounds complicated you’d be right. So, beware of dreams of the Inn at the Edge of Light in case you go to sleep in one life and wake up in another.
In the summer of ’87, Chris Marshal travels to the Western Isles of Scotland and spends the night in a remote mountain hut. There, he’s joined by an adventurous backpacker, Jen Munroe, who invites him to go with her on the trip of a lifetime, just the two of them, hiking along the old Hippy trail, all the way to India.
But Chris is shy of and afraid of this bold, confident woman, so he says no, then wakes the following morning to find her gone. It’s then he realizes going with her was actually the one thing his life actually needed, that he’s now doomed to spend the rest of it searching, for the essence of what it was he lost that day.

My Review:
This book is written in second person present tense. The person experiencing the events that make up the plot isn’t “he” or “I,” but “you.” It took me a while to get used to that, but I’m glad I kept reading. The experience was like undoing a tight knot in a string, maddening but ultimately worth the effort when the tightly twisted strands loosen and open up.
The main character is at times a young man, at others middle-aged and living in a harsh world where the social order is collapsing into chaos. The time period ranges from the 1980s to the 21st century, a near future projected from the actual present. Scenes circle from the inn of recurring dreams to episodes in Chris’s real life (referred to as “topside”). At first, it’s all pretty obscure, but eventually patterns and a sense of progress emerge.
The narrative is full of symbols and references to mythology, psychology and philosophy. Recurring images include Scotch whiskey, bottles (with and without messages), watches, cameras, keys, and a pebble. There are references to the enneagram, inner journeys, and mystical quests. Almost all the action is interior, a scrutiny of Chris’s memories, thoughts, expectations, and hopes. It’s almost claustrophobic at times, but ultimately, the knot opens to an ending that, although ambiguous, is satisfying. This is a book I will think about for a long time and probably re-read at some point.

Beneath the Lanterns by C. Litka

Book Description:
No good deed goes unpunished.
The historian Kel Cam enjoyed a pleasant life in Azera, the colorful capital of the Azere Empire. In the dark days, he taught classes at the University. In the bright days, he traveled the wide steppes to visit Blue Order communities, seeking clues about the mysterious, long dead civilization of the Elders in their libraries of ancient texts. However, when his best friend, Lefe Sol, the son of the ruler of Azere, discovers that his father has arranged his marriage to Ren Loh, the fourth daughter of the Empress of Jasmyne, Kel offers to stand by and help Lefe deal with his unexpected, and unwanted, bride-to-be. Kel soon finds himself caught up in the intrigues of empires which not only upset his well ordered life – they lay it to ruin.
Beneath the Lanterns is an old fashioned novel of adventure and travel set in an imaginary land – a land of colorful cities, sweeping steppes, and lush valleys littered with the ruins of a lost advanced civilization. It is a world of sixteen days of day light under the Yellow Lantern and sixteen days of night lit by the Blue Lantern. And across this wide and wild world under the Yellow and Blue Lanterns, Kel Cam finds that he must flee for his freedom, if not his life.

My Review:
There are really only two important characters in this book: scholar Kel Cam and the eccentric Ren Loh. Brought up by her father as one of his Imperial Lancers, Ren is dead set against the marriage her mother has arranged for her. Kel’s friendship with the prospective bridegroom gets him entangled with Ren early in the book, and the rest of the story is about how the two of them work things out while eluding the clutches of those who want to drag Ren back to the politically expedient marriage. Kel is serious and methodical; Ren is an adventurous risk-taker. To escape discovery, the two disguise themselves as caravan guards and later as pilgrims to a mystical city. More than once, Kel hopes he’s seen the last of her, but chance, and eventually loyalty, keep bringing them together. Engaging secondary characters include a dog with personality and a couple of horses.
Well, there is another noteworthy “character,” and that is the world in which the action takes place. The landscapes and urban scenes reminded me of old China, but the long days and nights under the Yellow and Blue Lanterns suggested a different world. Places called Cauldrons, of unstable ground and toxic gases, resemble volcanic features, but not exactly. Remnants of the Elder Civilization are also tantalizing, for example the building material called “poured stone” and the enormously tall Blue Lantern Tower. That’s another thing–the story is full of colour, starting with the two Lanterns. There is a White City, a Green City and communities of something called the Blue Order. I would love to learn more about this world.
As the author’s description says, this is indeed an old-fashioned adventure story, with comradeship, conflict, hard choices, and narrow escapes. It reminded me of movies like High Road to China and Romancing the Stone. I hope a sequel is in the works.

Almost all of these books are available in the usual place, but some of them may be acquired at the Smashwords store, which is having an end-of-year sale right now. In fact, two of these titles are permanently free at Smashwords.

Here are links to Part 1 and Part 2 of these 2020 reviews.


Tales from the Annexe: Reviews and Free Download

Tales from the Annexe has some good reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. And Berthold Gambrel has written a blog post with a thorough and detailed review. Read it here.

And since today, November 7th, is Herbert West’s birthday (20th or 134th, depending), Tales from the Annexe is available free on Amazon. Today only, until midnight Pacific Standard Time.

AMAZON: US UK CA AU 

Local Author Book Review #16: House of Crows by Edeana Malcolm

Today I’m happy to introduce a historical novel set in the place I call home, Victoria, British Columbia.

Book description:

From a work camp to their shared home with a view of the posh residences along the water’s edge, three generations of women struggle and toil against harsh realities and constant challenges to better their lot in life as they build the future of their family and, along with it, that of a burgeoning city. With two dressed in widow’s weeds and one in a maid’s uniform, their home gains the nickname ‘the House of Crows.’ Edie journeys across oceans, searching for the place where she can build a home. Lucy readies herself for the challenges of a new world, only to suffer loss after loss. Maggie slaves her days away in service to the rich, never losing hope that more awaits her. Interwoven timelines explore the earliest days of Victoria, illuminating the oft-forgotten histories of the women who laid the groundwork for the world we know today.

My review:

With its combination of historical sweep and intimate personal details, this book reminds me of Helen Hooven Santmyer’s novel …And Ladies of the Club. It brings to life the early years of the city of Victoria, British Columbia from the 1850s to the 1890s through the lives of three generations of women. The narrative is carefully structured to present each character’s life in chronological order, but at the same time braids the three together. Transitions from one point of view and time period to another are clearly labelled and not confusing.

The three main characters are distinct and memorable. Scottish immigrant Edie, embittered by a lifetime of toil and disappointment, Lucy the romantic, who finds escape and inspiration in nature, and Maggie, whose hopes for a happy future depend on finding a good husband. Their lives parallel the growth of Victoria from frontier settlement to growing town to capital city. The relations among the social, religious, and ethnic groups are shown as the story unfolds. Judicious use of Scottish pronunciation is incorporated to distinguish Edie’s voice from her daughter’s and granddaughter’s.

Although the story is about three women, the determining factor in all three lives is their husbands. The men’s strengths and weaknesses, their presence and absence, are the challenges to which the women must respond in order to survive and grow. None of these women is a rebel against the social dominance of men, but within the social restrictions of the day, each of them manages to carve her own niche.

Readers familiar or at least acquainted with Victoria and its history will greatly enjoy this book, because of frequent references to real geographical features, streets, structures, people, and events. All readers will find it easy to relate to the women’s struggles, hopes, sorrows and joys.


House of Crows is available in paperback through Amazon stores and from the publisher, Three Ocean Press.

Edeana Malcolm’s blog is called My Writing Eden.

open books, grass

My Best Reads of 2020, Part 2: More Book Reviews

Here are my thoughts on four more books I read and greatly enjoyed in the first six months of 2020.

First, books by writers from Australia, which seems to be a beehive of creativity in the 21st century.

Book cover image for The Old Woman and the Mad Horse by Cage Dunn & Rose Brimson

The Old Woman & the Mad Horse – Case File for: The Big Three Mining Investigation by Cage Dunn and Rose Brimson
The tension starts on the first page and doesn’t let up until nearly the end. Hella Solaris is an investigator for a shadowy organization opposing a mega-corporation’s efforts to gain technological domination of the earth’s population. Her intent to step back from active service in a small rural community is thwarted, first by the presence of an angry horse, and then by a criminal element who wants to drive her away, and finally, by discoveries and developments that entangle the personal with the professional.

This is a thriller of sorts, but much of the action is internal. Hella gathers information, processes information, formulates theories, has “aha” moments and “oh shit” moments, weighs priorities and calculates risks. The point of view is close third person. Very close; for most of the book the reader is inside Hella’s head, seeing what she sees—often on the screens of various electronic devices—following her thoughts, experiencing her emotions. The pace is dizzying and there are opportunities to lose the thread, especially when tech-related acronyms and initialisms abound. I ended up reading the book twice, to make sure I picked up on all the crucial details.

Hella is an interesting character, for a number of reasons. I can’t say she’s entirely likable, mainly because of her conscious and deliberate use of manipulative techniques in relating to others. She does have good reasons for this, and the two characters she ends up working with—Cam the cop and his daughter Cella—are totally relatable. There are lengthy scenes in which the three test one another’s capabilities and work on trust issues.
The climax scenes involve a showdown of sorts, full of revelations and twists. I have to say, a few points seemed a bit implausible to me, but on the whole, the book comes to a satisfying and hopeful conclusion.

Two other books by Cage Dunn worth checking out are: Diaballein and Herja, Devastation (co-authored with poet Frank Prem).

Cage Dunn’s blog may be found here


Book cover image for Vokhtah by acflory

A.C. Flory is another talented Australian writer whose books I have enjoyed greatly.

Vokhtah (The Suns of Vokhtah #1) is remarkable for the imagined world on which it’s set. Vokhtah has two suns. Its dominant life forms are the Vokh, creatures I visualized as similar to pterodactyls, and their smaller cousins and supporters, the iVokh. Most of the story is about the latter. These creatures are not human. Humans do not exist on this world, but human readers can relate to the thoughts, dilemmas, and emotions of the iVokh who are the primary actors.

The Vokh reign like feudal lords over their eyries, which are managed and maintained by the iVokh, who are divided into a variety of physical types with different abilities, including (in the case of a few) telepathy and mind control. Traders are a clan who distribute goods among the eyries, and Healers are a guild with skills and knowledge to maintain life, and end it when necessary. The interactions of the groups are governed by iron-bound protocols and traditions, complicated by secrets and enmities. Sex, especially for the Vokh, is a brutal, violent business, but outside of mating occurrences, there is no gender. The only personal pronoun is “it.”

This is not a quick, easy read. I re-read the first half of the book before writing this review to make sure I understood some of the details. The characters, even the sympathetic ones, don’t actually have names. They are designated by ranks and titles, some of which change over the course of the story. The reader is plunged into this alien world on the first page and has to figure out how things work while following the action. Some might give up in confusion, but the dilemma of the Drudge who is the first character encountered is eminently relatable. By the time that’s resolved, I was thoroughly engaged in the world and the story, keen to find out more about the strangely fascinating creatures with two hearts and inflatable wings.

The book features a constructed language (conlang), but it does not appear frequently enough to be daunting. There is a helpful glossary at the end, which also explains how the creatures vocalize. Otherwise, the prose is clear and straightforward, with description kept direct and businesslike. There is no hyperbole. Dialogue is minimal, even though the iVokh have a characteristic (and curiously attractive) way of expressing themselves.

Setting aside the alien aspects, the theme of this book is change and difference. Individual characters, and the groups to which they belong, must come up with ways to cope with situations they find unacceptable or challenging. Both the physical environment and the social structure are harsh and unforgiving. Transgressions come with a high price.
It appears this is the first book in a series, and indeed much remains unresolved at the end. I was delighted to read in the author’s blog that a second volume is forthcoming.

Flory’s Innerscape trilogy offers another fascinating reading experience. It’s set in a 22nd century world where artificial intelligence and virtual reality tech are used to create a kind of paradise. But it’s not without trouble.


Next, a book set in British Columbia.

Book cover image for Slow Curve on the Coquihalla by R.E. Donald

Slow Curve on the Coquihalla (A Hunter Rayne Highway Mystery #1) by R.E. Donald.

I like a mystery with more to it than just the whodunit. This one delivers. The main characters are fully developed and memorable, each one with quirks and distinctive characteristics, especially tough El Watson and biker dude Dan “Sorry” Sorenson. A variety of shifty, shady types add a bit of grit. There’s a lot (but not too much) info about the trucking business. And it’s set in a place I happen to know well — British Columbia’s Lower Mainland and southern interior. The changing scenery and weather are sketched in to give the reader a picture of this scenic region.

Hunter Rayne is no longer in the RCMP so must conduct his investigation into a fellow trucker’s death unofficially, calling on former colleagues for help. Sometimes his efforts take a back seat to his regrets and worries about his relationship with his daughters, who have grown up without much of his presence in their lives. Many miles are logged while he figures things out, and many encounters in bars and roadside eateries. Something I found a bit excessive was descriptions of characters’ clothing in almost every scene. On the other hand, typos and errors were not an issue, and the ebook formatting was excellent. All in all, I enjoyed riding along with Hunter.

R.E. Donald’s Goodreads page here.


For the final book this time around, we head down the west coast…

Book cover image for Occasional Soulmates by Kevin Brennan

Occasional Soulmates by Kevin Brennan.

From the book description: When the thirty-eight-year-old San Francisco doctor meets her new patient, a handsome British expat with the unlikely name of Dylan Cakebread (and an uncanny resemblance to Jude Law), she’s convinced it’s the start of her own relationship novel.

My review: The most striking thing about this book is that its author is a guy. Either Mr. Brennan is a mind-reader or he had really good intel from women. I loved the girly-gossipy tone of the narration, especially the parts where Sarah and her best pal Jules dissect relationships and classify men. I appreciated the development of Sarah’s relationship with Dylan, anticipating some aspects and being surprised by others. I really liked the presentation of San Francisco and environs as a setting — scenery, streetscape, restaurants, food, wine. Lots of food and wine. The only thing that didn’t quite work for me was Sarah stepping out of the story to present it as a “relationship novel.” It didn’t spoil the story for me, but didn’t really add anything useful either. In fact, seeing that term in the first sentence sort of told me how the book would end. Not the actual ending, of course, just the nature of it. But it was still an engaging, entertaining, and ultimately compelling read.

Kevin Brennan’s blog is called WHAT THE HELL

That’s it — eight of the 30 or so books I’ve read so far in 2020. All my Goodreads reviews may be found here.

My Best Reads of 2020: Book Reviews, Part 1

It’s hard to believe 2020 is almost half done. Given how it’s gone so far, there’s a lot of room for improvement. Let’s hope it gets better. In the meantime, a good book is always helpful. I’ve read nearly 30 books this year. Here are some of the best.

Book cover image for You Beneath Your Skin by Damyanti Biswas

You Beneath Your Skin by Damyanti Biswas.
This novel of contemporary India is a clever interweaving of setting, characters, plot, and issues. The plot revolves around a series of shocking crimes against women. New Delhi in winter was a surprise to me — foggy, smoggy, and cold. The intricate plot zigs and zags from wealthy enclaves to slums, from shopping malls to back alleys. The characters are real people with flaws and fears, trying to do what is expedient and figure out what is right. Family relationships play important roles, churning up emotions and stretching endurance to the breaking point. As investigations proceed, the realities of policing and politics force choices with serious consequences. I read quickly to find out what and who, but I think a reread is needed in order to appreciate subtleties and nuances I probably missed. There are quite a few sentences and phrases in Hindi, but the meaning or at least the gist is conveyed sufficiently that I did not find this a problem; on the contrary, it was interesting to see the interplay of languages among the characters.

Damyanti’s website here.


Book cover image for The Man Who Found Birds Among the Stars, Part 7

The Man Who Found Birds Among the Stars, Part Seven: Fifth Island in the River: a biographical fiction by Lorinda J. Taylor
This is the seventh book in a very long story. It continues the excellent writing of the previous books, with the additional thrill provided by the fact that the long-planned and much-deferred mission from Earth to the stars finally takes place.
It wouldn’t make sense to start reading with Part 7 of the series, so here is my review of Part 1: Eagle Ascendant

Book cover image for The Man Who Found Birds Among the Stars, Part 1 by Lorinda J. Taylor Part 1

Combining hard science fiction with a heartfelt coming-of-age story, this is an engrossing read. Much of its appeal for me was the methodically constructed society in which it is set. By the 28th century, human beings have learned some hard lessons and mended their ways. With a democratic world government, no military forces or organized religions, and an economic system that looks like a benign form of socialism, space travel within the solar system is highly developed, carried out by an organization whose structure and culture is reminiscent of present-day navies. The main character, Robbin Nikalishin, grows up in this world, experiencing family problems, school days, friendships, and love affairs. He is drawn to a cutting-edge space exploration program based on temporal quantum theory. This fictional science sounded plausible to me, but then, my understanding of actual quantum physics is practically nil. Step by step, the story builds to a gripping climax, ending with an irresistible situation that compels one to read Part Two. I am not a real fan of the SF genre, but I can heartily recommend this book.

In fact, I heartily recommend the entire series. The terrible event that ends the first book devastates Robbin Nikalishin and the interstellar program. Parts 2 through 6 relate the many trials and tribulations endured by both before the phoenix rises again. What I love about this series is the balance between realistic human drama and plausible future technology. Readers who expect space combat in their science fiction need not look here, but those who dislike too much science with their fiction will be pleased.

An excellent review of Part 1 may be found on Berthold Gambrel’s blog.

Lorinda J. Taylor’s blog is called Ruminations of a Remembrancer.


Book cover image for The Huralon Incident by E.A. Wicklund

The Huralon Incident (Springbok Chronicles Book 1) by E.A. Wicklund
Readers who do enjoy space combat will be delighted and entertained by this book. I was surprised I enjoyed it as much as I did, given my dislike of long and detailed fight scenes of any kind.
Captain Evander McCray of the Egalitarian Stars of Elysium is a distinct and memorable personality. He’s bold, intelligent, somewhat impulsive, and totally loyal to the principles of the Navy. He has a softer side, displayed by his interest in reconstructing Earth’s fragmented history (sometimes with amusing misinterpretations), and even learning how to bake! Intelligence officer and assassin Aja Coopersmith, McCray’s lover, is also memorable, notably for a certain ruthlessness combined with a “farm girl” background and a surprising desire for a peaceful life.
Supporting characters have enough distinctive traits to be distinguishable from one another. Technology is almost a character in itself. The Q-ship ESS Springbok is a technological wonder, and its crew are equipped with “nanites” that enhance their physical capabilities and enable them to communicate nonverbally. These abilities certainly come in handy at moments of crisis. Nanotechnology does everything from shipbuilding to laundry. Artificial intelligence systems also play a major role in getting things done. And there are killer robots called Reapers.
Some of the bad guys are almost comically evil, although aspects like media manipulation and political corruption appear quite plausible.

E.A. Wicklund’s Goodreads page here.


Book cover image for Underground by Will Hunt

Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet by Will Hunt
When I saw a mention of this book in someone’s blog, I had to read it, because I had recently read another book on the same subject and wanted to compare them. Both describe visits to the limestone quarries under Paris and other fascinating legal and quasi-legal adventures.
I thought Underground was a more straightforward approach to the topic of things subterranean than Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, also published in 2019. Like Macfarlane, Hunt writes about his own experiences, but uses them as starting points to look at human experiences of and attitudes toward being underground. From a theory that all life on earth originated underground, to the physiological and psychological effects of sensory deprivation, to the use of caves as sacred spaces, every chapter contains fascinating facts and intriguing observations. I’m left with the apparent paradox that to us creatures of earth’s surface, underground spaces are at the same time realms of terror and irresistible attractions.

Will Hunt’s Goodreads page here.

More reviews next week, in Part 2!

Three Books, Three Thoughts

I’m trying a new style of book review that may be less intimidating than the dreaded “book report” essay many readers are reluctant to write. Three thoughts about three books.

I read almost 50 books in 2019. These three were my favourites:

  1. The Labors of Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head: Volume 1, The War of the Stolen Mother / Lorinda J. Taylor
  2. Eternity Began Tomorrow / Kevin Brennan
  3. Annals of the Former World / John McPhee

The Labors of Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head: Volume 1, The War of the Stolen Mother / Lorinda J. Taylor

…the Champion Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head and the Remembrancer Di’fa’kro’mi set out on an epic quest to reach the sea. In the Champion’s home fortress we learn that Ki’shto’ba has a twin and that he may have been sired by the Sky-King. Later, the Companions visit a fortress that has been at war for nine years with its neighbors

Book description at Smashwords
  • The Characters. Yes, they’re termites. Giant termites living on a distant planet. Their personalities, thought processes, and emotions are similar to those of humans, which makes them relatable. But their anatomy and physiology are true to type, which is fascinating.
  • The Plot. It’s an epic quest adventure, full of unexpected hazards and tests of courage and ingenuity. Recognizing similarities to legends of the human world woven into the plot offers the reader happy surprises.
  • The Language. I’m referring to the termite language devised by the author. It’s more than a random collection of made-up words. This is a constructed language (conlang), with a structure and internal logic whose patterns are relatively easy for the reader to discern. It’s interesting in itself and enriches the fictional world and its cultures.

Eternity Began Tomorrow: a novel / Kevin Brennan

When Molly “Blazes” Bolan, a young hotshot reporter for an online news outlet, is assigned the biggest story of her career, she’s eager to run with it. Her subject, John Truthing, has built a cultish organization called “Eternity Began Tomorrow” to fight climate change, and it’s starting to snowball big time. As Blazes digs in, she’s both impressed and disturbed by Truthing, a charismatic eco-warrior with revolutionary ideas. Disturbed because his followers are mainly millennials, all hooked on a drug called Chillax and so devoted they would jump off a cliff if he asked it of them. … Blazes knows that the final story in her EBT series could destroy his movement, but she’s torn. The cause is worthy. The stakes are high. And the election of 2020 could decide the fate of life on earth.

Book description at Amazon.com
  • The Protagonist. Molly “Blazes” Bolan, journalist. She’s smart, funny, and irreverent, but vulnerable. And man, can she tell a story.
  • The Relevance. The story is happening right now. Climate change, social media, the power of charisma to change the world.
  • The Ending. You think you know where the story is going when — wham! — it takes off into unthought-of territory and punches you in the gut. And the heart.

Annals of the Former World / John McPhee

The Pulitzer Prize-winning view of the continent, across the fortieth parallel and down through 4.6 billion years. … Like the terrain it covers, Annals of the Former World tells a multilayered tale, and the reader may choose one of many paths through it. As clearly and succinctly written as it is profoundly informed, this is our finest popular survey of geology and a masterpiece of modern nonfiction.

Book description at Amazon.com
  • The Subject. Geology and geologists. McPhee travels east to west across the US along Interstate 80 in the company of geologists, relaying their expertise to the reader in a way that opens the eye and the mind.
  • The Scope. No less than several billion years, but the focus zooms in and out to human as well as geological time, covering matters such as frontier life, academic life, the oil business, the California gold rush, how geologists think, and a minute-by-minute account of the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.
  • The Writing. It’s vivid, precise, lapidary. McPhee doesn’t avoid or dumb down the language of geology, but incorporates it into his narrative in a way that that both informs and delights. Writers should read this book; even if they don’t give a damn about geology they’ll learn something about writing.

Well, fellow writers — what do you think of this attempt at giving impressions of books? Did any of these mini-reviews spark your interest?
All my reviews may be found on Goodreads.