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.

Bloodshot, Cherie Priest, Ballantine Books, ISBN 978-0345-52060-9, 359 pgs., $15.00

Raylene Pendle is a vampire and a world-renowned thief. Go figure. She does not hang out with other vampires, until she does, because she is too busy stealing priceless art and rare jewels for clients. I guess because she has a lot of time on her

cherie_priest

Image by Cherie Priest via Flickr

hands, what with being immortal and not doing any hanging out.  And, while her heart does not beat, it is soft as she allows a couple of street urchins to inhabit the vacant warehouse she owns where she stores a lot of the stuff she steals. She’s also incredibly paranoid which explains why she has chosen a low exposure vocation like grand theft. In any case, one day the urchins who live in her warehouse notify her that there is a thief in the building. She investigates and just barely manages to

kill him. Seems the thief was a parcour aficionado and who knew that this skill was a vampire neutralizer. So, while investigating the thief and how the thief came to be in her building she also gets recruited by one Ian Stott, another vampire who asks her for help. Luckily for him, Raylene is not avoiding vampires on that day and agrees to help him retrieve missing government files related to secret biological research that was done on vampires. Before you know it, Raylene is involved with a cross dresser, hanging out in gay bars, trailing after power-hungry scientists, and trying to avoid all the government agents who, apparently, have no trouble locating her whenever they want, except when it’s not convenient to the plot.

Wait, I need to take a short break and find pry my tongue out from my cheek where it has become imbedded. There, now we can move forward.

Don’t get me wrong. The book is entertaining. It’s just got a few plot holes in it. If you can manage to ignore them then you’ll do fine. Otherwise it’s going to be a tough haul for you.

The writing is fine here. Cherie Priest does a good job of developing her character and creating an interesting story to set her in. The pacing is fairly fast and the dialogue flows in a natural way even if the character motivation is a bit suspect at times. And, unlike in the human race where people can do all kinds of things with little reason, logic or motivation when we read we expect these things to be there otherwise our ability to suspend disbelief cracks.

This is the first book of a series and it’s somewhat obvious in places that Priest is setting the stage for that to happen. Maybe you see that when you read it and maybe you don’t and maybe it bothers you and maybe it doesn’t. The bottom line here is that if you like vampires and you like female protagonists and you like urban fantasy and you like a bit of crime noir thrown in you will probably enjoy this book. I managed to get from page one to page end so that says something as nowadays I am likely to fling a book across the room after 40 or 50 pages of unsatisfying prose.

In the end you need to make these decisions on your own. You can still do that, right? Go, do, enjoy.

And, if you want to buy a copy you can use the link below.

Bloodshot

Retribution Falls, Chris Wooding, Ballantine Books, ISBN 978-0-345-522511, $16.00, 461 pgs

Steampunks - models Liza James and Jared Axelr...

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Darian Frey is Captain of the Ketty Jay, an airship running the lesser ports and landings of Vardia. He and his crew all have checkered pasts–smugglers, criminals, murders, oddities–and reasons to stay away from the law, authority, and remembering. It’s a marginal living–carrying marginal cargo for marginal profit, occasional low level piracy, doing the odd job for the odd price for the odd customer–but it keeps them flying and keeps them away from the past.

Until Frey takes on what looks like a fairly simple job for a large payoff. All he has to do is ambush a ship in a desolate region of mountains and make off with the cargo. The payoff would be enough to keep him happy for the rest of his life. That he’s going to keep the payoff from his crew hardly bothers him. He figures there will be enough other plunder to keep them happy. Besides ,they’re just crew. And then it all goes horribly wrong. The ship to be ambushed has fighter protection, more and better than expected, and a shot that should have simply disabled it instead destroys it, and everyone on board. Shortly after, the Captain and crew of the Ketty Jay find themselves the most wanted individuals on the planet.

Now, Darian Frey has to use all his wits and skills, as well as those of his crew, to figure out what happened and how to get out of it. That they were set up is obvious, but the who and the why still eludes him. And it looks like the secret may lie in Retribution Falls, legendary hidden pirate town and safe refuge for all who manage to make their way there. Of course, first he has to figure out where it is and then he has to avoid getting shot out of the sky on his way there.

This book is almost classic steam punk. It’s an adventure on an unknown world where great ships ply the airways using chemical reactions and steel nerves. The characters are a hodge-podge of criminals, people caught on the wrong side of the law, circumstances gone horribly awry at the wrong time, and one or two who just have no where else to go. Essentially, the book is about two processes; figuring out the mystery of the set up and the gelling of a group of disparate individuals into a crew.

I found the book very entertaining. The universe that Chris Wooding has developed is intriguing and bigger than the book. This is a good thing. There are bits around the edges that are mentioned but never really explained which lends a credibility to the plot. The writing is sharp and to the point, the pacing is generally quick, and the characters are definitely an interesting bunch.

I recommend the book to anyone looking for a steam punk fix or just a rousing good adventure.

To get the book go here:

Retribution Falls

The Griff, a Graphic Novel, Christopher Moore and Ian Corson, William Morrow, ISBN 978-0-06-197752-7, $22.99

Map of USA with Florida highlighted

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So, Earth has been invaded.  Not by giant robots or by little gray men or by huge spaceships but by eggs.  Turns out the eggs contain alien dragon-like creatures that immediately go on a rampage of destruction.  They take out infrastructure of importance and lots of people.  Lots and lots of people.  Turns out our defenses don’t work because they are based on attacking things made of metal and not meat.  (I’m going to have to check on that since I’m pretty sure the heat seekers would still work and there are plenty of missiles that are still point and click and lots of things are made of ceramics or carbon fiber and can still be targeted and destroyed pretty easily by missiles).  In any case, they don’t work here and soon there is aught left but big, alien dragon like things and a few humans.  Two of the humans are Steve and Mo in New York.  Two others are Oscar and Liz in Florida.  The trick they have to figure out is how to survive in a world that is nearly destroyed and which is now ruled by serious predators. 

Then, suddenly, one of the ships crashes.  (Did I mention that the plot is a bit weak in places?)  No one really knows why, it just does, although we do sort of find out later.  The Griff (short for Hippogryph).  (I know, I know, if you follow this logic they should probably be called The Drag, but you see where that goes.)  So, Mo and Steve are in NY and meet up with Curt.  (They do meet other people but they tend not to last long as the Griff chew ’em up pretty fast.)  Off they go to Florida because they heard of the crashed ship.   (Look, I don’t make up the plot, I just report on it.)  So, in any case, off to Florida.  Along the way they meet a guy in a tank (who ends up just fading away after a few pages) and continue on until they get to Florida and meet up with Liz.  Oh yeah, Oscar gets eaten too.  Liz, it turns out, has imprinted a few of the Griff and soon they are merrily on their way to sneak into the new spaceship that has arrived, evidently to investigate how the old one crashed.

I won’t give any more away other than to say that this is a graphic novel, which  anyone over the age of twenty should recognize by the old name, comic book.  And, remember, comic books have never been the residence of solid plot or logic.  That being said, it does have pretty pictures and it is word light so you can finish it easily in one sitting and it’s pretty much a straight line from beginning to end so not that hard to follow either.  It is definitely entertaining which, if you are buying one of these I would think you are looking for.  I enjoyed it and if you consider it akin to a B movie then you will probably enjoy it too.  Assuming, of course, that you like B movies.  Hey what do you have to lose.  Well, $22 bucks, but you know that going in so use the information wisely.

I should also mention that Christopher Moore is known for his humor and this graphic novel is full of funny stuff (well funny if you are a fourteen year old boy or happen to have the brain of a fourteen year old boy).  I have two.  In their original jars.  Rarely used.

Sure, it’s easy to make mock but I’m built that way.  Which is to say graphic novels are built this way so you should go in expecting nothing less.

Click below to go to Amazon and buy.

The Griff: A Graphic Novel

The Native Star, M. K. Hobson, Bantam Spectra, ISBN 978-0-553-59265-8, 387 pgs., $7.99

Hecate, illustration by Stéphane Mallarmé, in ...

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I try to keep an open mind when it comes to books. In other words I have to remind myself not to judge a book by its cover, or blurb, or title, or author, or any of the other ways we tend to quickly decide we are not going to like something. I have to admit that often my initial thought was a correct one. But, just as often (statistically speaking a negative often and a positive often are equal just as often as not) I find myself on the other side, glad that I decided to pick up a book and move past the cover.

This time it’s kind of a mixed bag. I did finish the book, which certainly says a lot. I don’t finish books that I find are not capturing my interest. On the other hand I have to admit that my bias toward language kept kicking in. I have a harder time getting my brain wrapped around Victorian set novels than any others mostly due to language.

So, Native Star is the story (the continuing story) of local Witch Emily Edwards. Emily has plans for a better life but they go awry when an enchanted artifact falls into her hands during a zombie outbreak. More accurately the artifact falls into her hand, becoming part of her flesh. The artifact is part of the vein of mineral that generates magic in the world and it has selected, sort of, Emily, to put things aright.

Emily is joined by one Dreadnought Stanton, a Warlock from New York City who has a shady past and is more full of himself than any could imagine. Emily finds she must join this Warlock on a journey all over the country to try to figure out what is going on with her hand and to, hopefully, set things straight. Along the way they run across giant racoons, a native American holy woman, nefarious evildoers, double crossing scoundrels, and more different kinds of magic users than you could shake a magic hand at.  There’s also a bit of love going around.

By the end of the book most things are resolved although the getting there is a bit complex as Hobson has created a multi-layered world where magic operates under differing properties and there is no real agreement on what it is all about or how it should be controlled, if at all.

The story is actually a fairly straightforward quest tale and the book is a combination of romance, fantasy and historical drama. I think you would have to like at least two of those to really enjoy the book itself. In terms of craft, it is well done, consistent, well paced and different enough in setting and character to keep it interesting.

I find myself wavering in how best to recommend it and to whom. My best suggestion would be to read a few pages and see for yourself. There is already a sequel out.

If you’d like to pursue purchase, you can just click here:The Native Star–Buy Me Now!!