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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.

Writing again

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)

Writing again

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

Writing again

Growing and Other Pains

Disclaimer: The next few posts–and I’m likely to post often over the next few weeks–will be packed with navel-gazing, thoughtful introspection, or whatever description you choose to use for self-absorbed musings. This blog is my forum for exploring how I intersect with reality, and I’ve been exploring a lot of new realities lately. I am rambling off into Me-land now, rather than objectively reporting on the world around me, but you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

I checked a lot of firsts off the life list in the past week. First solo convention visit; first time at a con started by members of the written science-fiction community rather than comics or gaming; first con based on an academic/social justice foundation, rather than a feed-the-fanbase framework … heck, it was my first solo road trip in 3 years, and the first solo trip unrelated to business for 27 years.

I survived, I learned, I wrote a lot of notes. I remembered a lot of cold truths about myself that have been buried under the debris of the familiar environment for a long time now. Did I have a good time? That’s what friends and acquaintances have been asking. It was exhilarating, it was quietly terrifying, and it was tremendously uncomfortable. I have not yet even begun to process most of the emotions and ideas I experienced and absorbed. It was incredible, and I want to go back. But a good time? Hells, no.

 ‘Good time’  does not encompass the intensity. The phrase is too weak to hold the emotional weight of stepping so far outside my comfort zone that I couldn’t even see the boundary.  I forced myself to make conversation with strangers even though I was certain that every word out of my mouth offended or annoyed them, and I attended events whose topics and presenters confirmed my belief that I am the idiotic coward I’ve always known myself to be. I sat in corners and was silently ignored by everyone around me, and I made no good impression on anyone. I left the event resonating with the truth that I am a wholesale failure of a human being.

I’m okay with that part. Success starts with failures.  Growing hurts. I was prepared for the discomfort and and I am working my way through my reactions. I want to grow and improve myself and the world around me, and throwing myself into that painful growth zone is the only way to make that happen. It’s why I want to go back again next year.

The bad part? I forget, in my rawness, that most of the people asking me if I enjoyed myself–or who phrase the query as a comment, based on my social media posts–have zero interest in the answer. People are polite. I forget that a lot, since I am not. Polite, that is. Not by temperament. By training, yes. I’m well-educated in the art of social interaction, but it was all learned by rote, as an adult, and I regularly fail to apply those lessons when I’m emotionally engaged. I forget to answer that complicated question, ‘did you have a good time’ with the simple sound bite of “Sure, it was great.”

That’s a non-growing pain, and I don’t know how to address it. I don’t want to lose what I have. I love my life, and my friends, and my routines. There’s comfort in the familiar. There’s pleasure. There’s warm acceptance. Good times and good conversations bring me a lot of contentment.

The problem is that I want joy. I want passion and fire and disagreement and growth. I want discussions and analysis and thoughtful commentary too. I”m not going to get that unless I go out and look for it. It isn’t in my familiar, in my comfortable, in my everyday.  My familiar, my everyday, my comfort circle…it’s built on kindness and polite interest, and it’s bleeding me dry.

I overanalyze. I know it. It’s a fundamental aspect of my personality.  I analyze every single damned word out of my own mouth, and I often read subtext more clearly than the words people say to me. That’s what happens when you learn socialization as an intellectual task instead of a life skill. Socrates was the first nickname I was ever given. It wasn’t a compliment.  It was based on the quote: “The unexamined life is not worth living” and it was meant as a put-down: stop thinking so much. Just enjoy life. As if the two were incompatible. They aren’t. The more I look, the more joy I find.

Alas, analysis is producing some uncomfortable results, lately. Moving forward, it seems my options for social support are going to be ‘be less but comfortable,’ or ‘be elsewhere.’ When I stretch my wings where I am now, they get stepped on. Every time I turn around, someone’s plucking out feathers to keep me grounded.

That isn’t a growing pain. It’s a destructive one. I am tolerating direct put-downs practically every single time I open my fucking mouth, as if I would make bullshit statements I couldn’t back or express opinions I hadn’t deeply thought through already—as if I just say shit for no reason and need public correction like a child. As if my knowledge and experiences are worthless. More and more often lately I’ve been backing down silently rather start pulling up facts on a cell phone and starting a fight. That wouldn’t be polite. That wouldn’t be friendly. That wouldn’t be acceptable. I hate that my defensive reflex is to get dismissive in turn. That’s only an ego band-aid, and the wounds go to the bone.

Open confrontation is always my first-choice resolution for conflict, but I have zero tolerance for absolutes. The flat statement, “Oh, no, that’s wrong” will throw me every time, and when those words are followed by, ‘and I’m not talking about it,” then I am just…boggled. The first rule is question everything, but the second is contradict no one. Discuss, disagree, oppose, yes all of that, but above all, respect. The ultimate in disrespect is to declare someone wrong and then cut off discussion.

Why am I tolerating disrespect? Why am I letting myself be battered and belittled? Why go along with a don’t-rock-the-boat mentality? Mainly because no one in my social group is comfortable with confrontation. “I’m not talking about that” is an acceptable change of subject, and it should be. Disliking conflict is a valid, real emotional response, and one often rooted in abuse. I respect it, and I understand the urge to keep the social surface smooth and the emotional keel nice and level.

 I do understand those things, but that leaves me no less bewildered and bruised when that non-confrontational discomfort parades in front of me all dressed up in confrontational clothes and hits me with confrontational statements.

I’m tolerating personal, emotional damage because overall, and in general, I’m comfortable with my circle. Shared interests and shared experiences build strong bonds.  I respect the experiences of everyone I make the effort to connect with socially, and I find different perspectives fascinating, and I don’t want to lose all that. I don’t want to lose them.

I want to grow, but God, it hurts.

Four things I learned while finding an image for this post:
1. There are a many statues of Socrates the philosopher.
2. There was also a famous soccer player named Socrates. (Google it!)
3. I like quotations more than I like pictures of statues. (Unless the statues are gargoyles.)
4. Socrates was not a gargoyle.