Book reviews

Review: The Thin Places by Laura Cowan


My latest installment in a book review series loosely titled, “You Haven’t Read This Yet, but You Should.”

I’m not a fan of short stories. Reading a collection is usually worse than going out for tapas. I spend too much money to get a bunch of different items, none of them offer enough to satisfy, and I finish up the evening feeling irritated and still hungry.

Not this time. I mean, I want more, but only in the bestest of ways. I’m already looking forward to reading Music of Sacred Lakes.

I have no idea how this got onto my Kindle library, or when I put it there. That isn’t unusual. Any time I see a freebie (or someone recommends one) that looks interesting, I grab it. Eventually, I work my way down the next-to-read list to it. Sometimes I finish them, sometimes I don’t. If I like it, I write a review. If I don’t…I move on.

(Now you see why I worry about the lack of reviews for my own work? Silence is not golden. Silence is tactful condemnation.)

Anyhow. Back to the (Very Good, OMG GO BUY THIS) book at hand.

The Thin Places rocks the room.  Something about the writing reached out of the text and caught me. The stories and the way they’re told both remind me of Neil Gaiman’s early works, and that is no light comparison to make.  Magical Realism has been invoked in other reviews, so I won’t go on and on about the flow of sweet prose or the easy, unpretentious migration from real to unreal and back. The words speak for themselves.

Full disclosure: reviews of other books by the author also mention Christian fantasy and compare the author to Ted Dekker & Frank Peretti. I’ve read those authors. It’s an insult to Cowan, to compare her to them. That’s my not-so-humble, probably-going-to-hell opinion on the topic.  For all that the stories touch on the afterlife and spirituality, there is no preachy feel to the presentation and not a hint of condescension. Cowan’s spare, stripped-down style is as far above Dekker’s stilted prose as the sky is above the depths of the ocean. I honestly don’t care if this is or is not considered “Christian” fantasy. It’s good, and it’s lyrical, and it’s a delight.

Dare yourself to vault over the genre fences and take a walk on the supernatural side of the everyday. Stop to enjoy some beautiful stories along the path.

Available on Amazon here: The Thin Places

Book reviews

Review: Mine by Bryan Fields

After finishing Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, I was hungry for more good reading material. Books are the opposite of food that way. The more you read, and the better the quality of the work, the more room you have in your brain for new and incredible things.

 Ancillary Justice was so good it left me starving, but I worried that whatever I chose would sully the memories, like chasing a shot of 21 year old scotch with a glass of Bud Lite.

Nevertheless I wanted something.  I knew I was not ready to tackle another full novel, so I went prowling through my ebook library in search of a light snack. There in my new-books-downloaded section,  I found this delightful treat. It’s not a major work, nor a long one, but it’s a delicious mental palate cleanser. A nice little nosh between meals.

This tale contains many of the tropes of steampunk that evoke the usual techno-retro feel, but it also tosses some classic fantasy elements into the mix along with a hefty dose of modern sensibility. It’s a refreshing, crunchy-tasty mix. Perfect for snacking.

The title is a play on words. The theme of possession defines the plot, and a mine is the object of contentious ownership. The owner, determined to see his claim worked, refuses to compromise with an interloper who sets up shop on the site. He would rather hire an experienced gunhand to settle the issue with fire and blood than give an inch in negotiating a compromise. Chaos ensues.

I won’t tell you how it ends. Go buy it and read it. Here’s a link: Mine on Amazon

ps: “Hearts Before Diamonds,” by the same author, is another fun little steampunk-meets-full-fantasy mashup. It also has a brilliant piece of wordplay for a title, Great stuff.

Authoring Book reviews

Good Reviews are Better Than Kind Reviews

Are you afraid to leave a bad review for stories by authors you know? Most people are. When a reader knows an author personally, (or has a professional relationship with one) there’s a commendable desire to protect that bond. What friend would want to hurt someone’s chances of success? What professional would want to be disrespectful? No one wants to be rude, nasty, or mean. Better to avoid hurting feelings or worse, setting the stage for retaliatory action. As the saying goes, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.” Right?

Wrong. When it comes to leaving reviews of published works, the saying is wrong. Reviews are too important a part of the reader-writer relationship to be reduced to platitudes.

If you’ve read a published work — especially one by an unknown author– and you have a strong opinion about it, then I would say you not only have a right to review it, you have a duty to do so. A duty to fellow readers.

(Note: this is an example of rhetorical hyperbole. If you don’t want to write reviews, don’t. If you are uncomfortable expressing negativity, don’t. If you don’t finish a book, don’t review it. If you don’t like an author personally, don’t review their books… you get the picture, right?)

I’m only asking that you don’t misinterpret a review’s prime purpose. The focus on good versus bad obscures the point of reviewing and conflates it with another important interaction between reader and writer: critiquing.

Reviewing  isn’t about being kind or handing out warm fuzzies or being mean or rude.  Anything an author has published is up for public consumption. Reviewing is a public service. Critiquing is something else again. (Another post, someday.)

The reviewer’s role is this: to inform a prospective reader about the work. That’s all. Only one person’s needs should be considered: the reader’s. Not the writer, not even the reviewer. A review by its very nature is an opinion piece, but the essence should be objective evaluation, not a quality judgment.

I’ve been professionally recommending books for 19 years. I’ve sold plenty of books I loathe with a clear conscience for just as long.  My opinion counts, but I have no right to pass sentence on a book’s True Worth. What I hate, others may adore. A reviewer’s role is to inform.

An example: I despise Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule.  If I rated it, however, the star rating would be 3. A review would go into great detail about what I dislike. (And now I feel the urge to head over to Goodreads…no. Must. Resist. Temptation.) Anyway, my evaluation of the book’s appeal to certain readers, based on certain preferences, is 5 stars. My personal opinion is zero stars. In a review, I can explain all that. Oh, if I had a dollar for every time I sold a book after saying, “I hate this one, but if you liked XY&Z, you should give it a look…”

Tastes differ. Tolerances differ. Interests differ. Your review can be a litany of complaints, and end up  intriguing a prospective reader.  Your most-hated flavor is someone else’s favorite. Your idea of an insomnia cure is someone else’s idea of a perfect read. As long as any vitriol is wiped off before posting, you should be honest about any perceived negatives of plot, character etc. Be honest about mechanical and structural problems as well. You don’t have to dwell on them. A reader can judge the details by a glance through the free online sample or riffle through the first ten pages. Just don’t pretend they aren’t there, or expect your credibility to plummet.

What about the writer’s feelings? Hm. That’s a toughie. If you’re concerned about how a friend will respond to a review, then run it past them instead of posting it. If objections, protests, or tears flow, then call it a private critique, (another important act of selfless service on the part of readers!) offer warm fuzzies, and of course honor the friend’s wishes regarding its publication.

Still. The point to keep in mind is that a reader’s real responsibility is to other readers. First and only. Lying to the Emperor about his state of undress helps no one, least of all the Emperor (or Empress)

A side note: don’t obsess about stars. A star rating is nothing more than an artificially-colored, flavorless cherry on the rich fudge sundae of a real review. Make your points about a story in detail, using all your words. A writer who is a reader is a reviewer in the making.

Let’s wrap up this soapbox screed on a cheerful note. Bad ratings/reviews do not hurt a book’s chances nearly as much as no response at all. Obscurity is the real enemy. Bad reviews (or middle-of-the-road ones)  do not deter readers, but too many good ones can. When a title with more than 5 reviews has none under 4 stars, it raises my suspicions about the reviewer’s motives. Even the classics get panned. War & Peace has its detractors. So does Twilight. I could go on.  I won’t. That’s enough of that.

For now.

Book reviews

Review: Hearts Before Diamonds by Bryan Fields

Hearts Before Diamonds by Bryan Fields
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the latest in my “You Haven’t Read This Yet? You Should!” review series.

“Hearts Before Diamonds” impressed me, and I am not easily impressed. Easily pleased, yes, and willing to overlook flaws in the interest of expanding my reading horizons, but not impressed. I don’t often rate titles above 3 stars. (No, not even my own.)

When I do get excited, you can bet that some exacting high standards for a lot of picky details have been unexpectedly exceeded.

Intriguing premise? Check.
Clever dialogue free from jarring anachronisms or stilted phrasing? Check.
Entertaining, original tale, built with classic storytelling techniques? Check and check.
Polished, smooth writing free of spelling, grammar and usage errors? Check, check, and check.

Add those exceptional delights to a rollicking plot that blends the feel of a stiff-upper-lip British adventure novel with the tropes of a hard-boiled PI novel, sprinkle in some modern attitudes without damaging the authenticity of the setting, and you get … a GEM of a story. Pun intended. Of course.

It’s only a short story, but the world-building and the character development have more than enough strength to hold up a much larger plot. I enjoyed it from start to too-soon-reached finish, and I hope to see more of the main character soon. Bonus claps for a title and an eye-catching cover that evoke elements of the story without giving away plot.

Hearts Before Diamonds is currently 99 cents on Amazon, and it’s well worth every penny.  Gets yours here: Hearts Before Diamonds

The author’s full-length urban fantasy novel is also available for sale. Go buy them now. Seriously.

View all my reviews (on Goodreads)

Book reviews

Review: God Stalk by P. C. Hodgell

God Stalk by P.C. Hodgell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading the many other reviews for P.C. Hodgell’s writing, I’m inclined to conclude that she must be something like cilantro, or truffle oil, or hot Thai peppers. Many people love it, some people hate it, and no one stands on the middle ground of “Eh, it’s nice enough, I suppose.” I stand firmly in the love-it camp. I revisit this series once every year or two, as new novels come out, and I always start at the beginning with God Stalk.

That’s also how often I treat myself to stir-fry with hot Thai peppers. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not. With the stir-fry, I gorge on my treat until my scalp sweats from the heat, even though it leaves my tongue burned and my throat raw. Hodgell’s writing id far easier on my digestion. It isn’t without its drawbacks, but oh, the supernova explosion of flavors, colors, textures and spice! The ideas and the characters and the world are worth every wince.

You’ll love it or you’ll hate it. I urge you to try it, if you dare to immerse yourself in a world of dazzling originality, and wrap yourself in a plot of epic complexity and universal scope.

There are gods-a-plenty, more magic than the world can safely hold, immigrants and natives, a long, colorful history, a reality-destroying threat, family betrayal, scandals, rogues, thieves, a hint or two of incest…God Stalk in particular is a big glorious mishmash of ideas that you can either gobble up indiscriminately, or poke at, bemused by the tangled mess it makes on the plate.

I don’t review plot specifics. That’s why cover blurbs exist, and synopses, and wikis. What I will offer are four disclaimers:

1) If you’re a plot purist, if you expect the gun in Act 1 to get used in Act 3, you will be aggravated. If you are more concerned with the whys and hows of the storyline than the living, breathing details of the characters and their messy lives, then you may find it frustrating. The joys in this book are in the brilliance of its scenic moments and the occasional flashes of genius in its dialogue, not its cohesive presentation.

2) P.C. Hodgell writes with a deceptively simple presentation that hides a lot of stylistic quirks. I love the way she makes the words flow, but then again, I write in the same not-as-simple-as-it-looks style. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard, “It’s really rough for a hundred pages or so, and then it gets better, I guess that’s where you hit your stride.” then I could buy a steak dinner at Mortons. A bunch of Hodgell reviews say the same thing. It makes me sigh.

I find it useful to translate that criticism to mean that it may take a reader about a hundred pages to get accustomed to the author’s style and stop noticing it. Critics of Literary Fiction consider this burden to fall on the shoulders of the reader. (F’rex, no one will ever say, “Ah, Finnegan’s Wake. It was confusing for the first few chapters, but then James Joyce got his act together, so I’ll only subtract one star from the rating.) For some reason, many reviewers and readers of genre fiction conclude that it’s a flaw, rather than a feature.

3) If you have a low tolerance for metaphor, colorful description and body parts that move with their own purpose, then this book will make you twitch. That’s a recent style-critic complaint I’m seeing far more often these days, and it’s another one that makes me roll my eyes and mutter curses at my computer. People’s fingers do curl. Their knees go weak. It isn’t a sin to describe them as such. (Like anything good, the trick can be overdone. That’s a matter of taste, not rule. ANYway.) Writing should have rhythm. If adding some superfluous” words or “cliche” phrases makes the pattern hit the right beats, then I vote yes, and with enthusiasm.

4) This book is the first in a series of seven. God Stalk came out in 1983. The sequel, Dark of the Moon, came out in 1985. The next took another 9 years to be released, and a gap of 12 years passed before the fourth hit the shelves. The author’s writing changes a lot between, and in a couple of cases within books. On top of that, the plots go from murky, intricate plots to the more commercially acceptable simple storylines — although interestingly enough, they all stick to the same, ‘a year to each book’ coverage. I found the shift from book 3 to 4 a little jarring, but I got over it.

If none of these caveats put you off — and they certainly don’t deter me from my regular samplings of Hodgell’s work — if they pique your interest, or actively arouse your interest, then order up Baen Books’ omnibus editions of the first few novels, pick up your mental chopsticks and dig in.

P.S:  there are gargoyles in this book, as well as cats, frogs, thieves, and jewels.  Just in case any of those are selling points.

View all my reviews