Random Thoughts Raised While Reviewing

Novels in a Polish bookstore

Novels in a Polish bookstore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the focus of this blog is typically on books, occasionally things happen that seem to call out for the generation of some additional attention. For example, two weeks ago I received two packages in the mail from two different publishing companies. Both packages came on the same day and both contained books. The packages actually contained books that were frighteningly familiar. In this case western vampire novels. Even the covers looked similar. The two books in question were Blood Riders by Michael P. Spradlin and The Dead of Winter by Lee Collins. Both covers are done in blues and greys with the protagonist primary. In each case the protagonist is in a black duster and holding a large rifle. If you want to read reviews of the novels in question you can find them at SFRevu.com . I review for them as well.

Random thought jump.  So, I was reading a novel and the main scene in one of the later chapters involves the capture of a bad guy. The bad guy is tied to a chair in a room filled with members of the protagonist group, one of whom wants to shoot the bad guy in the head. The remaining members are not that different in their feelings. Then, there is an occurrence outside the room and everyone leaves.  Must have been some commotion because the bad guy who is tied to the chair is never mentioned again in the book. Guess he wasn’t that important.  Guess he’s still there, tied to that chair.  We’ll never know.

Random thought shift.  I was reading another novel and it seemed like every other page contained either a spelling or grammar error. In some cases words were repeated or there were words left after obvious changes made either by the author or an editor, while in others there were name shifts and word exclusions. If this had been a minor press, I would put it down to economics or time pressures. But this was a major publisher and a major author. Clearly the book had to have been copy edited prior to being published so it had to have passed under at least two sets of eyes–the copy editor and the author approving the copy edits–prior to publication.  This makes it very hard to explain. The occasional error, sure, that happens, but the error rate in this book had me wanting to pull my blue pencil so I could send the thing back to the publisher just to make a point. The bottom line here is that time spent identifying or figuring out errors is not time spent immersed in the story.

Random thought shift.  The last random thought I have, well, it’s not the last random thought I have but the last one that I am going to share with you here, is that I have noticed a trend on the part of publishers to not let you know whether a novel is part of a series or not. To my mind it would be helpful, prior to picking up a book, to know that it is the first in a series. It’s even worse if you pick up a book and don’t discover until you are mid way through it that it is the second or third book in a series. Now, some books don’t interconnect in such a way that this may matter. But, most series books do. I’m not sure what publishers are trying to do here. Either they are blatantly trying to fool you into buying a book that is not complete–as many first books in a series are not–or they are evidencing in one more way, that they have become sloppy and error prone.

These kinds of errors are not the kinds of behaviors we want to see from a business that claims it may be on the brink of ending. I, for one, happen to like books. Physically I mean. I don’t like reading off a screen and I don’t care that you have 1200 novels on your kindle. I have three books with me when I travel and that is usually more than enough. It is my belief that review copies will go entirely electronic in the next two years, which will spell the end of my reviewing career. I just can’t read electronic versions. Luckily, my 1200 books are on shelves where I can grab one or two whenever I need one and even if I read two a week I’ve got at least a decade’s worth sitting there.

Reviewing, Part 4: What to do if you hate the book

English: Stack of books in Gould's Book Arcade...

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It happens.  Every once in a while, maybe more often, you just don’t like the thing you are reviewing.  For me that’s mostly fiction and film, in all its forms.  But it could just as easily be a restaurant, a product, or a service.  This is one of the reasons that reviewers try to maintain a subjective distance between themselves and the entity that owns the thing being reviewed.  In the case of books we are talking authors and publishers, in film it’s actors and directors, in food it’s the chef and the owner of the establishment.  In most cases you are going to make a number of individuals unhappy so it’s best if you are not friends with them.  This can be very difficult, especially as time goes by.  So, what do you do?

An editor friend of mine, who published first a print magazine and later an electronic one, did not like negative reviews.  Not that he was worried about making people angry, because even positive reviews can do that, but because he wanted the publication to be positive rather than negative.  When I had a review of a book I did not care for I would need to find another venue for it.  Oddly enough when I reviewed film for him he was okay with my ravaging and savaging away.  The difference was that the film reviews, in this case reviews of recently released dvds, were done with a fairly heavy dose of humor–the kind of humor that is fairly self deprecating so while you were pretty sure the work being reviewed was pretty stinky you were also pretty sure that the review voice was quite a bit off as well.  For examples of this Google “Damn Alien Dvds”.

But, if you are going to be funny, you better really be funny.

Basically you have four choices:  You can decide to just not do the review; you can decide to do the review but leave out your opinion (cover the facts, cover the plot, cover the author); you can review in context (essentially doing the second but adding your own opinion and explaining why), or you can go full out and deal with what you thought the problems were.

Regardless of which option you choose you should be very clear about your own biases.  Perhaps you hate stories that hinge on cute animals and halfway through the book the plot hinges on a cute animal.  It’s important to know that this is the reason for your dislike.  And, if you are going to do a review you should make the statement that this is the reason. No matter what, you need to clearly state your reasons for not liking the work.

The reader of the review is going to be interested in knowing what happened between your picking up the book (surely you don’t read or watch things you know you are going to dislike, right?) and your discovering that it just wasn’t doing it for you.  Before the reader can know you need to know.  So, reviewing does require some self knowledge and insight.  And the honest reviewer has no problem sharing that insight with the reader.  Just don’t go off on a psychological tangent.  No one needs to know that your problem with cute animals stems from what your mother did to your teddy when you were seven.

How do you pull off doing a review of a thing you didn’t really care for?  I’m so glad you asked because I just so happened to have a book that I need to review that, it turns out, just didn’t work for me.  Check back in 3 or 4 days and you can see one example of how this very situation can be addressed.

Reviewing Part 3, How do you get what you review?

Black Issues Book Review

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In the first two installments I wrote about how I got into reviewing and a bit about the process I use to decide what books to review.  In a perfect world the reviewer would be able to select from the entire menu of items being reviewed.  In my case, books. It would be great if you could walk into a warehouse and select those books that you thought (or knew) you wanted to write about.  Doesn’t work that way.  It is assumed that most reviews end up reviewing things that they already have some interest in and knowledge about. In my case, I have been reading in the fantastic genres (Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror) since high school.  So, when I decided to try my hand at reviewing I naturally ended up reviewing in that arena.  Oddly enough the first review I wrote was not about a novel but about a magazine.

When I started reviewing there was no internet–or at least not enough of one to make any difference.  Fiction was published in magazines and books.  You typically got those things either through subscription or a trip to the book store.  And before any publisher would send you a review copy you had to have credits.  This means that for the first year or so, maybe longer, you were buying your own books and magazines, writing reviews, and, hopefully getting them published.  If you were incredibly lucky, like I was, you ended up with a regular column.  Once you had a few published pieces you could approach the publisher about getting review copies.

This whole process, from beginning to end, took a couple of years.  This was because the venue in which the review appeared had to be edited, printed and then mailed out.  In some cases a review took 6 to 8 months from the time you wrote and submitted it to the time it saw print.  Everything took longer.  Things are very different these days.

When I began I only got magazines and books from the editor of the magazine I was writing for. They would come like Christmas packages, boxes full of new material, that would take me three or four columns to go through.  As time went on publisher’s and editors began sending things to me directly.  At the same time I expanded into other markets, other magazines and, over time, into movies, dvds, comics, and spoken word.  At one point I wrote the longest review column of short fiction in the world.  All of this required a lot of reading, and, as I moved into larger and larger markets, subscription wise, greater attention to how old the material I was reviewing was.

Now, with the internet this is a thing of the past. I write this today and it is published today and you read it today.  The problem with the internet is that anyone can do it.  Anyone with a blog or a domain or facebook or any other social media outlet can make their opinion known.  This has, for the most part, killed reviewing as a  field of pursuit.  Sure there are still well known reviewers out there but there are just as many of them reviewing solely on Amazon.  Without the filter of an editor it becomes harder and harder to know whether or not these reviews are legitimate.  It’s also harder to use these venues as credits that get you product.

Finally, the internet has almost killed reviewing as a paying market.  There are, virtually, so many people out there who are willing to review for free that publishers and editors no longer have to pay.  The same thing is happening in the short fiction fields.  And, since no one has been able to come up with a revenue model doing either of those things for an online publication is pretty much giving your work away.  It’s a complicated time we live in as writers, where we can have our material located in venues where it can be seen by millions but where it is also obscured by all the other material that is also out there.  It’s a needle in a haystack, or, more aptly, a needle in a needle stack.  How will you ever be found?

Next time I’ll talk about good reviews versus bad reviews both in terms of what makes a good and bad review but also how a reviewer decides whether to review a book they like too much or just hate.

The Black Lung Captain, Chris Wooding, Ballantine Books, ISBN 978-0-345-52250-4, 536 pgs., $16.00

English: Flag of pirate Edward England Polski:...

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This is the sequel to Wooding’s Steampunk inspired Retribution Falls.  Darian Frey, Captain of the Ketty Jay, an airship that is mostly involved in pirate activity, is basking in the glow of his previous accomplishment, ironically a non-piratical event that did service to the empire.  His disparate crew seems to be coming together, his ship needs some work but is still flying, and he’s feeling a lot better about his lot than he has in a long time.  Then he meets Grist, a fellow pirate captain who has a lead on treasure.  That the treasure is in the heart of Kurg, a region known for huge, mysterious and blood thirsty beasts is one thing.  That Kurg’s ship is ten times the size of the Ketty Jay and more heavily armed is another.  That Grist is specifically looking for him is the third.  All of these things Frey ignores because of the treasure, boredom, and a need for cash.  Grist needs a daemonist to open a door on a ship that has been found in the jungles of Krug and Frey just happens to have one on his crew.  What is found beyond that door is not what is expected and the actions that lead to the door and come afterward have far-reaching consequences for Frey and each of his crew members.  Before he knows it, Frey’s crew is falling apart; two have left, one has had her secret outed, another has come unglued because of a cat, and Frey himself feels like it’s all coming to an end—especially since a woman from Frey’s past, now the most feared pirate in the sky, has returned once again to taunt him and take everything away.

There are two things about The Black Lung Captain that make it worth reading; the universe and the characters.  Wooding has constructed a fun universe of lighter than airships, pirates, war, empire, intrigue, magic and politics that serves as a superb background for adventure.  And then he has populated it with interesting, likable and intriguing characters that are fun to hang out with.  Each of the characters is following their own storyline as well so there are multiple paths being followed from beginning to end and these paths weave in amongst themselves on and off.  And, by the end of the book there is resolution, or, at least as much resolution as you can expect in these cases where you know there is a third book in the outing so something needs to be saved for that and we don’t really begrudge Wooding’s doing so because we want there to be another book as well.

The Black Lung Captain is well written and entertaining.  Picking up this book allows you to set aside the world you inhabit and be transported to a world of Wooding’s creation.  There are fewer and fewer books out there that do this well it seems.  This book is perfect at it.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  You should definitely pick up the first book, Retribution Falls, and read it first.  Not that it contains all that much information that you will need to understand this one but more because you owe it to yourself to discover  not one but two books that are worth buying and reading.

Buy this book by clicking here: The Black Lung Captain

Black Magic Sanction (Hollows Series), Kim Harrison, Eos, ISBN 9780061138041, $7.99

Cover of "Black Magic Sanction (Rachel Mo...

Cover via Amazon

This is the eighth book in Kim Harrison‘s Hollows series. This time witch Rachel Morgan has to deal with the coven, which has shunned her and wants her imprisoned or at least lobotomized so she’s no longer a black magic problem for them. Rachel also has to deal with Trent Kalamack, elf and tycoon industrialist who wants Rachel on a short leash or incapacitated as well. And then there’s the demon who has marked her and who is showing her black magic. Add in Pixie Jenks who has his own issues to manage, Ivy who is a vampire and similarly engaged, Pierce a dead witch in another person’s body who is a black magic user and apparently on his own side, and some men from Rachel’s past who are proving much more trouble than they are worth and there’s a lot going on that Rachel has to manage.

Rachel’s plans seem to continually come to bad endings and her power over her own destiny seems small. If she’s not able to pull together many of those who are working against her then there is no way she’ll be able to get the coven to change their mind. I’ve enjoyed this series up to now. This time though the book feels overly fat, overly fluffy, and in need of a good edit. It’s hard to tell whether this is the writer going on unchecked or a change of editors
or just market forces which say bigger is better, but as I read I could not help but keep saying to myself this should be shorter. There’s a lot going on but much of it is ancillary to the main plot which could have also been tightened and made sharper in focus. The one feeling I kept coming away with was that the author didn’t have a solid plot but did have three subplots and decided to weave them all together. This is pure speculation on my part of course but that’s certainly what if feels like.

I think that there is enough here for long time fans to still enjoy. The characters that they have come to know are all present, and if the overall situation for Rachel has not significantly changed it is at least a side note which they could enjoy.

If you are new to the series, I would not recommend this book as the jumping in point. Go back to the first book and start there. By the time you get here you will have decided for yourself. I have the next book in the series in my read pile and I do plan to read it so take that into consideration when you read this.

Buy Black Magic Sanction by clicking here

More by Kim Harrison
The Hollows:
* Dead Witch Walking
* Every Which Way But Dead
* The Good, the Bad, and the Undead
* A Fistful of Charms
* For a Few Demons More
* White Witch, Black Curse
* Black Magic Sanction
* Pale Demon
Graphic Novels:
Blood Work
Madison Avery:
* Once Dead, Twice Shy
* Early to Death, Early to Rise
The Anthologies:
* Dates From Hell (anthology with other authors)

A Hard Day’s Knight, Simon R. Green, Ace books 978-0-441-01970-0, $25.95

The Lady of the Lake gives Excalibur to King A...

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This is the eleventh book in Simon Green’s Nightside series. John Taylor, private investigator, has just inherited the role of administrator of the Nightside. He did so by killing Walker, the previous head. The job involves keeping things in order and also dealing with anything unusual that comes up, such as the sword shaped package that was just delivered to Taylor’s door. The sword shaped package contains a sword, Excaliber to be exact, and while Taylor is not worthy to carry it, dispensation has been made for him to do so until the task is completed.

The task takes Taylor out of the Nightside and into London, the home of the Last Defenders of Camelot–the London Knights. King Arthur must be returned (first he must be found), the civil war of the elves must be stopped (before it destroys everything), and the Nightside must continue on. Taylor not only has to figure out how to find King Arthur but he has to convince everyone that he’s the guy who’s meant to do it.

Simon Green writes with a good dollop of humor, most of it dark. It keeps the plot moving and makes the story interesting. Not that a story about Excaliber, elves, and the London Knights would be uninteresting without it, but consider it like paprika, you’d know something was missing if it wasn’t there. It’s hard to keep a series going and Green has done an excellent job keeping things moving and adding new touches to the universe as he goes along. The writing is pretty crisp, the characters are fun and involved, and the story is pure entertainment.

I came to the Nightside fairly late–the series was well up and running by the time I got to it–but had no problem jumping in and catching up. Green does an excellent job of maintaining the universe but not requiring you to read every book in order to enjoy the one that’s just out. Not that he wouldn’t mind if you bought them all, just that the story does not require it. I enjoyed it, thoroughly and I look forward to the next entry in the series.
Highly recommended. A great read.

Hard Days Knight (buy it here)

Aloha From Hell, Richard Kadrey, Harper, ISBN 978-0-06-171432-0, 438 pgs., $23.99

Cover of "Sandman Slim: A Novel"

Cover of Sandman Slim: A Novel

This is the third Sandman Slim novel and it continues the story of James Stark, the human who was sent to hell, only to become the baddest, bad ass killer of demons in Pandemonium.  While you don’t need to have read the first two books, you should.  First because it helps to have all the story behind you and second because they are very good.  This time Stark needs to return to hell to find and kill Mason, the guy who sent him to hell in the first place.  Along the way Stark has a few adventures and needs to get a few things straight and manages to save a few people in the process as well, sort of a typical week for Stark in Los Angeles.

When Stark returns to hell, and getting there is quite the journey in and of itself, he has to find his former girlfriend Alice, who has been kid-napped from heaven, stir up a rebellion by releasing certain demon generals from Tartarus, then track down Mason.  And he has to do it without being recognized by the thousands of hellions who are on the look out for him.  Good think Stark has a few tricks up his sleeve and the help of a few wild cards of his own.

I really enjoyed this boo. It’s a rousing adventure with a protagonist who has a sick sense of humor and a twisted way of looking at the world.  Not that you would not expect this from someone who went to hell and spent a decade as the plaything of demons.  Kadrey has created a world full of magic and menace and tempers it all with dark comedy.  The writing is crisp, the pace at time frenetic, and the plotting is always interesting and deep.  The dialogue especially is fun to read.

There are few books out now that I immediately put to the top of my reading list.  Sandman Slim gets put there the minute it comes in the door.  Highly recommended.  Go out and get them all if you haven’t read this series yet.  And if you have been waiting for book three, it’s here so clear a few hours off your schedule and enjoy.

And, since you will want to get the book right this very instant, I have included the following link:

Aloha from Hell: A Sandman Slim Novel