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.

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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

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

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

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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

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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.

Reviewing (part 1)

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I began writing reviews for two reasons–it was a way to get my writing published and keep my name out there, and it was a way to get free books. I suppose if I had known then what I know now I would have taken a different path or at least moved in different ways. The past is the past however and while you can learn from it you should also learn not to spend too much time there. I should explain that when I talk about writing I mean writing professionally. Or maybe I should capitalize it so you know when I mean Writing versus just writing. I’ve been writing since 4th grade, possibly earlier although none of those drafts exists any more. In fact the earliest piece of writing I have is from my senior year in high school–a twilight zone kind of thing with a touch of magic realism and a theme working the idea that reality is not always what it seems. I’ve played with this theme a lot over the years.

One of the issues I’ve had with Writing is that I tend to be all over the place. I’ve done poetry, fiction of all lengths, screenplays, teleplays, articles and, reviews. I started doing reviews when I was working with a much more established writer, helping him fine tune a novel and develop two screenplays. There were a couple of other long projects in there as well and I really wanted to try to take what I was learning from him and apply it to my own work. But, I found myself creatively drained by the end of the day and hard pressed to spend much more time in front of a typewriter. Reviews seemed a good fit. I was already a voracious reader, the reviews themselves were fairly short, and there was just enough room for creativity to keep it all interesting. And so it began.

Like my Writing, my reviewing has wandered all over the place. I’ve reviewed genre magazines, novels, short fiction, movies, television, computer games, and the occasional book of poetry or art. If you are interested in seeing some of the places I’ve reviewed (and there are more than a few) you can visit my website: damnaliens.com. It’s still under construction in some areas but the bibliography is fairly complete.

Nowadays, more than 20 years later, I am still writing reviews although I am a bit more selective about where I review and what I say. I still do it to keep my name out there and for the free books.

In the next episode, 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 long enough.