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.

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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 Hollows Insider, Kim Harrison, Harper, ISBN 978-0-06-197433-5, 301 pgs, $25.99

This Witch For Hire

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Kim Harrison is nine books in on her Hollows series. The books twist on Clint Eastwood movie titles and are best classified as urban supernatural fantasy since they involve witches, werewolves, vampires, pixies, elves, and other fantastical creatures living in an alternate version of Cincinnati. The series has generated a loyal following and, I have to admit, I have enjoyed the books myself, at least up to the one before the most recent (which I have not read yet). The writing is done skillfully, the characters are well developed and interesting, and the setting is uniquely enjoyable.

Now we have this book which contains new fiction, facts, maps and a plethora of tidbits large and small about the Hollows universe. You’ll find memos from the characters to each other, newspaper articles, spell recipes, cookie recipes, case files, inside dossiers, and much, much more. For those of you who just can’t get enough then this is the book for you. And there is plenty of book to be had here. It’s hefty, illustrated and chock full of stuff.

I’m always of two minds when it comes to books like these. On the one hand it’s an artifact of overindulgence. Do you really need to see memos from one character to another or fictional security reports? It’s a bit of unhealthy obsession. On the other hand it is interesting to see just how deeply authors develop their worlds and just how much material is created to put together a work of fiction.

In the end I find these more interesting than not. I don’t think I have ever read one from cover to cover but they are fine coffee table books and interesting to skim through, stopping here and there to absorb the brief tidbit of fictional fact. In the long run I find that I would rather be reading the next novel in the series though.

Definitely recommended. If you are a fan you positively, absolutely will not be able to do without this. If you are not yet a fan you might be more interested in picking up the first novel in the series. If you’d like to buy the book just click the link below.

The Hollows Insider: New fiction, facts, maps, murders, and more in the world of Rachel Morgan

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!!

Sacrifice, Dakota Banks, EOS, ISBN 978-0-06-168732-7, $7.99, 285 pgs.,

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Maliha, also known as Marsha and the Black Ghost, is a former immortal assassin who is looking for redemption. She made a deal with a demon and now wants out. But it’s not that simple to quit working for a demon and Maliha must find a way to change the balance if she is to win her release from eternal damnation. To get all the way out, she has to save more people than she killed. Doing so will probably kill her for each life she saves costs her time–she ages, at a rate determined by a Summarian God.

Lucky for her she has the chance to save thousands if not tens of thousands when she stumbles onto the plot of a madman to release nanites into the water supply. The nanites turn any living thing that drinks the water into grey goo. To complicate matters other demon linked assassins seem to be dropping out of the sky and into her life. There’s the DEA guy who’s also a lover, the roman centurion who may also be a lover, and the crazy madman with the nanites as well (probably not going to be a lover).  This is a tough spot to be in and it may very well be curtains for Maliha and the friends who help her.

Okay, so you can probably tell from the above that this is a complicated plot. Perhaps too complicated as the action seems to push out character development. And there are quite a few characters in this book. Overall the book is kind of flat and this is due to a number of different issues. The first is the protagonist herself. She’s still got powers but not all of them. She’s also a millionaire who gives orders many times rather than does things. She drives really expensive cars, has a large staff, has access to pretty much anything she wants, and has been around for a few hundred years. In other words she is a very powerful woman with a lot of resources. The problem, then, is why does she not use her resources better? She’s also got this group of friends, or maybe groupies is a better word, who seem to serve no purpose than to occasionally get into danger and get offed. They are not all that interesting a bunch even though each has a personal history and they don’t really do much in the book except eat birthday cake and hang around. The third problem is the other immortals who suddenly just kind of appear. First of all, if there are that many of these beings floating around killing people then we’re up to our behinds in corpses. Second, some want her dead and still have their powers so why they don’t accomplish this early on is a real mystery. I don’t know, maybe you have to be really stupid to be a demon’s assassin.

The book also had a choppy flow to it. The pacing is off. The major events are somewhat flat and lacking in emotion. I just never really came to care about anything that was going on.

I think that if you are looking for an urban fantasy supernatural thriller that you can find much better. If you are a huge fan of the first book (this is the second book in the series) then there is probably enough here to keep you going. If you want to find out for yourself feel free to click here and get your own copy. Sacrifice (Mortal Path, Book 2)

Reviewing Part 2

French writer and journalist Ernest Daudet (18...

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Last time I talked a bit about how I got into reviewing and promised this time to delve a bit more into the life of a reviewer. Or, to be more accurate, my life as a reviewer. Today I’ll talk about some reviewing experiences, how I select what to review, my own review process, and some of the issues that most reviewers face if they stick with the work for any length of time.

Most reviewers understand that their reviews don’t necessarily sway people. People are already leaning in one direction or another and use reviews to confirm what they already suspect. The second way that reviews are used are to validate a person’s experience. They’ve read the book, seen the movie, eaten the meal, licked the toad and want to confirm what they went through.

Given that, being a reviewer is kind of an odd experience. People do know your name but they don’t always know from where. Writers certainly know your name once you’ve been doing this for a while and will develop a kind of love/hate relationship with you. They want you to review their work but only if it’s going to be a positive review. Publicists want to drop their books on you but know if they give you a dog, you’ll point out that it barks. Even if a review is positive, writer’s and producers, and actors and publicists and others will often grab onto one single piece of negativity and project that forward. A good example of this is a book I reviewed where I thought the publisher played a bit dirty with page count by adding in a novella at the end of what was a good, but short novel. I mentioned that I thought this was deceitful to the reader since it was mentioned nowhere on the cover or the back of the book. Well, the writer evidently took that as a personal affront and wrote to the magazine in which the review was published threatening legal action (none followed), destruction of the magazine (this also never happened), and made any number of negative personal statements about me and my writing ability. This wasn’t enough though as the writer then immediately wrote a short story about a planet where the inhabitants were so primitive that all they had to trade with other civilizations were items crafted from their own excrement. The name of this planet? Sawicki. So, the Sawicki’s were evidently a bit backward in their culture and this was the point of the whole short story. Silly writer. Needless to say I don’t feel the need to review any of that author’s work any more.

I was at a cocktail party in Manhattan and happened to be talking to the science fiction reviewer for the New York Times Review of Books. He mentioned that he hated meeting writers because he felt it might bias him towards their work if they were nice people. I suppose the opposite would be true as well although you tend not to spend much time talking to assholes so maybe not.

These are issues that reviewers must deal with–being both a part but apart from the same process you are focusing on. Not always easy. Thank goodness the pay is so phenomenal.

I’m often asked how I pick what I review. For the most part I pick only from material that I am sent. Understand that I get a lot of books. (I’m reviewing mostly books now, when I was reviewing movies I got a lot of videos and dvds). I create piles based solely on publication date. I tend not to review series books unless I am reading the series. So, I won’t review book number three if I have not read the first two. These books get culled right at the start. There are certain authors that I tend not to like. I tend not to read their books, although I will slot one in now and then just to see if my tastes, or their writing, has changed. At some point books that are not gotten to quickly enough need to be removed from the pile because their publication date has passed. It’s a true thing that I have not read a book that was not a review copy in almost ten years. In other words I don’t buy books even though I read better than one a week. Other than that I pick books probably the same way everyone picks books, by how the book looks, how the blurbs read, who the author is and what I feel like at that point in time. I have a short pile of 5 or 6 books that I select from, a secondary pile with fifteen to twenty books in it and then, the last, and biggest pile. It does take a bit of effort to get out of that last pile and, if you’re attentive, maybe in some future episode I will tell you about bathroom books.

After that it’s just read, think, write. Over, and over, and over.

As a writer I do know many of the writers that I review. As a writer I also get reviewed. Oddly enough I hate getting reviewed. I find it painful to read a review of my own work. I take it very personally. I rarely go after the reviewer though. Most writers, although many won’t admit it, are affected by reviews and comments. Most are more affected by negative than positive comments. Human nature I suppose. And, yet, it’s all part of the business so none of us can avoid it.

Next time I’ll talk a bit about how the books actually get to me, publicity departments, blurbs, finding places to write reviews for, and maybe share another experience or two with you from the reviewing life. Until then, good reading and if you feel the need to review this blog, don’t tell me about it.