Why I No Longer Write Book Reviews

I’ve had some folks asking me lately why I don’t write book reviews anymore. The short answer is, “I’m lazy.” The long answer has to do with sensitive authors, Goodreads bullies, and my own strange mental categorization of the books I read.

You can read elsewhere about fake reviews, Goodreads bullies who gang up on authors just for fun, and petty author reactions to reviews, so I won’t talk much about that. The truth is, I’ve had little but positive experience writing reviews here on my blog. When I included David Anthony Durham’s Acacia on my list of fantasy novels I should read, he sent me a very nice note encouraging me to finish his book. (BTW, Mr. Durham, I finished it and it was fantastic!) My readers here are awesome, and you all generally engage in polite, thoughtful discussion of what I have to say. Go us.

So the truth is, my stubborn refusal to write book reviews, even on Goodreads, is due more to my own inability to distinguish between a good book and a great book, and my reluctance to publicly say, where the author can read it, “YOUR BOOK SUCKS OMG YOU SHOULD DIE IN A FIRE.” (Not that I would say it like that.)

Really, I just love books and authors. I rarely read a book I would rate below two stars, and I’m a voracious enough reader that I’ll plow through just about anything in a few days. (And then, once I’m done, I want to READ MOAR, not spend time navel-gazing about what I just read. I’m all about the instant gratification. So sue me.) Because of my attitude toward reading and writing (YES, MORE PLEASE!), I end up wondering how to distinguish between the books I adore and the books I just really loved.

How do you compare Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which I read this summer and completely adored, with Tiffany Reisz’s The Mistress, which I just finished and could hardly stand to put down? One is a five-star book because the writing was flawless and the content practically life-changing, and one is a five-star book because I love the characters and the plot held me in its slobbery teeth for 400 pages. But even though I loved The Mistress, I just wouldn’t put it on the same shelf as The Dispossessed or Tigana or Possession or even Words of Radiance, all books whose honor I would protect with fisticuffs. And where the hell on the spectrum do Jane Austen’s books fall? How do I compare the books that are practically my Bible with anything else I’ve ever read?

I think I need a sixth star just for books that are so good, I hug them tenderly when I finish them.

 

 

Maybe I’m over-thinking it, but I really just can’t do it. I can’t distinguish between the love and REALLY SUPER LOVE.

Do you write book reviews? Do you use Goodreads? How do you rate books?

Rosemary and Rue: A Brief Review

Since I teased you on reviews and told you how worthless they can be on Wednesday, it seems appropriate to then contradict myself and give you a review to read on Friday.

Last weekend, I finished reading Seanan McGuire’s Rosemary and Rue, first book in a series about October Daye, a “changeling” half-fairy/half-human trying to get her life back on track after she loses 14 years to a full-blooded fairy’s curse.

The book’s primary plot includes a basic murder-mystery, complete with an item (possibly a MacGuffin—only time and more reading will tell) to find and then protect. Along the way, October has to deal with old lovers, possible new lovers, and a plethora of other folks from her old, pre-curse life, whom she has been avoiding since her return.

Broken down like that, the plot sounds pretty run-of the-mill, and I suppose it is. Unless I’m mistaken, this novel is McGuire’s first novel, and the plotting shows it. (Says the girl who is currently fighting plot problems on her second unpublished novel.) There are a few too-convenient saves from near-death. There’s a huge deus ex that accompanies the character for a portion of the book. And the big reveal of the murderer isn’t all that shocking, even though I found myself unable to put the book down at that point.

She also teases us with a fair number of future plot-points that the casual reader may never see: a future romance, the unsolved case of October’s enchantment, the resolve of October’s old life.

I’m making this sound pretty negative, aren’t I? That’s funny, because I truly enjoyed this book.

What’s engrossing about it isn’t quite the plot and it isn’t really the voice, which is neutral and detached at best. No, what’s engrossing is the world and October herself. This is a San Francisco where the fae walk beside us, sharing our world and mingling with it. Half-breed kids like October are forced at an early age to choose which world they want to inhabit, and that choice is always unpleasant and occasionally deadly.

October tried to continue living in both worlds. She became involved with a human and had a child with him. But she returned from her enchanted “sleep,” her old family wanted nothing to do with her. As the review that nudged me into reading the book, much of her family plot is heartbreaking and all too real.

Now, estranged from her blood family and separated by blood from her fae kin, October has to forge a new place in the world. She must accept that she cannot stand by, completely detached: life finds us all in the end.

In spite of my complaints, I highly recommend this book. This was a great start to the series, and I suspect it will only get better over the next nine(!!) novels. (FYI, six novels of the series are currently on the shelves, four are forthcoming.)

The verdict? I’ll be reading the next book, and that’s as good as you can get.

What’s a Review to You?

There’s been such a brouhaha lately (and probably one that was justified!) about paid book reviews and the general uncoolness of such a practice that I’ve been meaning to chime in for ages.

And guess what? Now that it’s September, I’m back!

So, just in case you live under are rock or aren’t tapped into the whole literary market, The New York Times stirred the pot and dragged paid book reviews back to the surface of that slimy soup we call the publishing world, spawning half a dozen different high-powered responses to the original article. The bottom line, though, is that a number of companies pay reviewers to plug books, and they often serve self-published writers such as those who use Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing.

In theory, if I were super-rich, I could not only hire an editor and a designer for my self-published work, I could also hire ‘readers’ to rave about the book. Of course, I’d also have to hire bodyguards to keep me from getting stabbed in the back by poorer, harder-working writers. But it might be worth it in the end, since reviews can influence consumer behavior.

Maybe John Wilkes Booth was just angry that he wasn’t getting the awesome review of having the president at HIS play.

Does it really matter, though?

Do you judge books by individual reviews? How did you learn about the last book that you read?

Notice that this cover didn’t go into my decision-making process, either. Yawn.

I’ll be a case study, though my behavior probably isn’t typical. The last new (to me) book I read was Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire. I chose the book not because of its 4-star rating over 163 reviews on Amazon, which, honestly, isn’t that fabulous, given the number of highly-rated urban fantasy reads out there. I chose it because Mary Robinette Kowal talked up the series on Writing Excuses and because, as a non-vampire, non-typical urban fantasy set in San Francisco, well, it’s been on my to-read radar for quite a long time.

It still took me years to read the book. And what finally pushed me into adding it to my Kindle to-read folder?

1. Positive feedback from someone I respect or whose taste I share.
I just don’t care what ‘SquirrelGirl158’ in Michigan cares about a given book. She could also enjoy skydiving and murdering people, and I’m not going to pick up either of those things, either. But if someone I know and like tells me why I would enjoy the book, I’ll listen.

2. Actual interest in the subject matter.
You can recommend that military/sci-fi/thrilled to me all you want, but I just don’t care. I’m not going to dedicate the six-plus hours I need to read a book to something that really doesn’t interest me.

3. Nothing more pressing in my mental queue.
Yup, the undefinable X-factor. Sometimes I’d really rather just reread Outlander than spend time with characters I may not care about doing things that only mildly amuse me. And this one is the real reason reviews just don’t matter that much. Think of all the fabulous books out there that I’ll never read because I’d rather do something else.

There you have it: that’s what it takes for me to read a book. Reviews are just one factor, and it’s all about the source.

What does it take to interest you in a book? How much do reviews really matter?

 

Brave: A Rave, Plus a Question and a Picture

… and I’m back! Did you miss me? I’m happy to say that this post is coming to you from the present. First, let’s give a big thanks to Liv and Emmie for their blog posts, and then let’s heave a huge sigh of relief (and a gasp of terror), because it’s time to get back to real life, complete with thoughtful blog posts and query letters.

So, the first order of business is Brave. We’re still semi-honeymooning, and we’ve spent the past two days sorting out our bank accounts and acquiring new cellphones. But my new husband did promise to take me to Brave once we got back from Mexico, and today we went.

I have to say I’ve been waiting for this movie for something like a year. An animated movie about a young girl with crazy-curly red hair, who rides a horse, shoots a bow, sings in Gaelic, and lives in Scotland?! Let’s just say, if this movie had come out when I was about 10, it would’ve ended up on my all-time favorite list. As it is, it’s maybe not in the top 10, but I still loved it.

The premise, in case you don’t know, is this: Princess Merida of the Wild Hair likes riding, shooting, and swinging a sword. She wants to run free and shape her own destiny. Her mother, however, wants Merida to behave like a good princess who speaks softly, walks gracefully, and generally acts like a lady. When her parents open the contest for suitors to win Merida’s hand, the princess refuses to accept the verdict and shoots for her own hand, thereby upsetting the peace of her family and the entire kingdom. She strikes off to make her own destiny, and wacky, touching, and beautiful antics ensue.

Sounds kind of like a hero’s journey, full of sword-fights and battles, right?

Wrong. The movie was essentially a mother-daughter story. The quest is an education in how the other sees the world, and the goal is to strike a balance between the powerful, sedate queen and the free-spirited, tomboyish princess. Merida must learn to appreciate her mother’s gifts, and Elinor must learn the joy and magic that comes from Merida’s playful approach to the world.

It’s a “taut” relationship… haha… no.

In spite of the semi-faulty advertising, it’s a beautiful story, one that almost made me cry at the Moment of Truth—and I’m not a crier.

If you don’t mind a small spoiler, I can tell you one of my favorite bits of the story: Throughout, hair is a metaphor for a person’s (not just a woman’s!) approach to life. Merida’s, obviously, is Botticelli-esque, beautiful and untamed, until her mother tries to force her into a new role and traps the locks in a garb that kinda makes Merida look like a corset-clad ET. Once Elinor learns her lesson and eases up on her daughter, she wears her hair long and flowing down her back: still straight, of course, but less no longer trapped in perfect, queenly ropes. The blustering king has grizzled, wild locks, and the wee demon brothers have tresses to rival their sister’s. An obnoxious, vain suitor has flowing waves that fall into his eyes, while the witch has a few rebellious hairs on her chin.

It’s not a new use of hair-as-metaphor, but I enjoyed it all the same, especially since it wasn’t kept to the women: it was much-used image, polished and given a new, cheerful face. The same could be said of the story, a timeless generational battle given a delightful fresh front.

In short, I was charmed by the whole movie. It has peerless animation, a gorgeous soundtrack, bathos, pathos, and a nice tomboy-girly core. Go see it.

So, without transition, I’m going to jump right into the question. It’s back to real life for me now, and that means paying more attention to this blog than I have in the past few months. And so, I have a question for you, dear reader:

What sort of content would you like to see here on Kristin’s Fantasies:

Remember: your input will make this blog more fun for you!

And since you’ve played along this far, here’s a photo from my wedding day:

DSCN0119

That’s me in the white dress (haha), just after our handfasting. I cannot WAIT to see our professional photos. Sigh.

In case you’re wondering, my groom is 6’2 and the officiant is 6’4. I am 5’2. Hopefully this photo illustrates why I wore the five-inch heels: I’m still short.

Freudian Friday: The Winchester Boys

Those are some good looking guys.

We’ve been on a Supernatural kick.

I did not expect to like this show. We were looking for something new to watch and Drew said, “You might like Supernatural. It’s sort of urban fantasy and sort of soap opera-y.” (I’d just given up on The Vampire Diaries and was in drama-withdrawal.)

We gave it a try, not expecting much… and, despite a few cheesy moments, we were completely hooked. The brother relationship is realistic, the paranormal stories are often freaky, and the soap opera drama is pretty minimal—and it doesn’t hurt that the cast is ridiculously attractive.

So, if you’re not a CW-watcher, here’s the scoop on Supernatural: After their mother died when they were a kid, Sam and Dean Winchester were raised by their father to be “Hunters” : sort of like all-purpose Ghost Busters who deal with ghosts, ghouls, demons, vampires, werewolves, zombies, angels, and, well, everything. Dean steals Sam away from college to hunt for their father, and they have a lot of arguments about whether or not they should take orders from the missing man who raised them to be soldiers.

The first few seasons involve the brothers’ hunt for the demon that killed their mom, and the discovery that said demon was trying to turn Sam into the Anti-Christ Demon-General. Many crazy hijinks, the death (and resurrection) of each brother, and big adventures ensue.

I’m currently in Season 5, and the focus of the plot is, well, the Apocalypse. Sam accidentally set Lucifer free, and we’ve learned that he (Sam) is Lucifer’s “Vessel” (aka “meat suit”), while Dean is the Vessel for the archangel Michael. The angels are fighting to win the Apocalypse, the demons are trying to, well, end the world, I guess, and no one cares what happens to the humans in the meantime. And the two Biggies need the Winchesters bodies to fight their big boss battle. Apparently.

Need a second to catch your breath? Okay. Here you go. Ogle away:

The Winchesters and their semi-fallen angel sidekick, Castiel.

So, we have a lot going on there. Judeo-Christian mythology obviously plays a huge part in the show, but God in all his forms seems to have left the building. He’s an absentee father whose two oldest sons (Michael and Lucifer) have been fighting over what’s important.

Ultimately, it’s a show about sibling rivalry: older, rule-abiding Dean and younger path-forging Sam, fighting over whose approach is right. Sam walks a fine line, even (SPOILER) ingesting demon blood to enhance his psychic demon-fighting powers. Dean, though (SPOILER) corrupted during his time in Hell, ultimately believes that doing what is right will save the world. Meanwhile, Angel Michael does the will of a Father he no longer knows, while Lucifer broke away from the other angels because he believed their vision—and their father’s vision!—had been clouded. (So he claims, anyway.)

It does raise a lot of important questions: Do we do as our parents tell us, or do we try to blaze our own trail? Do the ends justify the means? What role does free will have in a world where beings far more powerful than us can claim our bodies for their own purposes?

Since it’s Freudian Friday, we have to talk about the whole father-issues bit. The parallel is not hard to spot: hard-ass John Winchester putting the fight before his own sons and absentee God putting his Creation before his children. (This is all debatable, of course, and I’m not here to talk theology: this is a fictional show, people. Remember that before you get upset.) Dean and Sam, and Michael and Lucifer, are struggling to deal with their father’s choices, and, in that struggle, they have to learn how to follow their own consciences. The show’s ultimate question is how to carry the burdens our parents left us.

We can’t entirely blame the fathers, though. All of these men (human, angel, devil, or otherwise) do have free will. They choose for themselves how to approach their battles, and although they may have taken birth order attitudes toward the world, they each take repeated tumbles from the posts they were raised to sit.

Phew. That’s pretty heavy stuff for what seems like a lightweight show.

What do you think, readers? How do Sam and Dean carry their father’s torch? What do you think of their attitudes and approaches to the battles they fight? Why have they fallen into traditional birth order roles, and how have they broken out of those roles?

Maybe Blind Dates ARE Overrated

This year I took part in a Valentine’s Day book blind date set-up. Today we all met back up to share our results.

The cover doesn't do much for me, either.

My “date” was Cast in Shadow by Michelle Sagara. Up front, the book looks like urban fantasy, but it’s more like a high fantasy in an urban setting. The characters fight with daggers and swords, there’s a lot of unexplained (and inexplicable magic), and dragons who manage to look like people. The story follows Kaylin, a young woman who fled a terrible past as an orphan living on the streets to become a “Hawk,” a sort of spy for her world’s Lords of Law. We discover that the murders of the children surrounding her were actually a ritual to give her some power we never fully understand…

And that’s all I’ll give away.

Honestly, I was befuddled by the whole book. It seemed to aspire to portray a world like that of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, but never felt as fully realized as Sanderson’s work. So much of the book was spent with characters denying Kaylin (and thus the reader) information that I really had no clue why I should care about any of it.

Maybe some books we should stand up.

Anyway, it got me wondering: How do we select the books we read? I require several recommendations or a recommendation from someone whose taste I trust before I’ll pick up something that doesn’t appeal to me on its own immediate merits. I’ve gotten a lot more discerning over the years, mostly because I have so many books I want to read that I can’t finish a book that just isn’t working for me.

Maybe someone who doesn’t know me at all can’t recommend a book I’ll like. Back on Valentine’s Day, I nominated Possession by A. S. Byatt for some poor soul’s blind date. I adore the book, and it’s not even fantasy. I suspect it’s beloved by only a certain subset of the population, and I further suspect that subset has all studied literary theory. Was it cruel of me to recommend a pretty heavy read to a random blog reader?

What do you think, readers? Can a completely random book set-up work for you? Ever gotten a blind recommendation you loved? How do you choose the books you read?

Review: Zoo City

Way back in 2009, when I started this blog, it was more or less intended to write about what I was reading. I got a little sidetracked with writing about writing. Oops.

Nah, I regret nothing.

I do want to write about this book, though. I just finished Zoo City, by Lauren

I have the Kindle version, so this is the first time I'm seeing the cover. How sad.

Beukes, a book that won the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke award and was nominated for umpty-odd others.

This book was intense.

I heard about it after Lauren Beukes was on Writing Excuses, talking about writing other cultures. Beukes is South African, but she’s white and Zinzi December, her protagonist, is a black young woman and semi-recovering addict living in Johannesburg.

Zoo City is urban fantasy at its best. To sum it up quickly, people who commit a crime or suffer from extreme guilt end up with a magical animal familiar and a magical talent of one sort or another. Zinzi has a sloth and a gift for finding lost things, earned when she was party to her brother’s murder. The “animalled” are a new untouchable caste, living in slums and even hiding their new partners to pass in society.

The book as a whole is a gritty, brutal read, and Zinzi is a tough girl. I asked myself repeatedly in the book, “Do I like this character?”

I’m still not sure.

She makes horrible choices, sure, but she’s working to get rid of her debt to a dealer. She also wants to help the kids she’s hired to find, even after the people who hired her pay her with counterfeit money and try to frame her for another murder. She’s resilient, and that’s something I admire.

I put off reading this book for awhile because there are numerous similarities between it and Shaken: an addict protagonist, a world of magical talents, and written in the first-person, present-tense. The similarities really end there, but I try to avoid reading things that I will inadvertently let contaminate my voice.

Beukes also did things I’ve said I want to do in fiction, but dismissed as potentially unpublishable: she included newspaper copy, academic papers, and other non-character narratives in the book to add perspective.

Damn, she’s good.

I did have a couple of complaints though. First, the book was abstract enough that at times I was bewildered. It never engrossed me because I was never fully immersed in the story. I never cared enough to keep reading past my bedtime.

Two, and this might be a personal complaint, it was so steeped in modern ephemera. Email scams, popular music, slang I couldn’t follow… It may not age well.

It also sparked another thought in me about urban fantasy generally, which I’ll write about tomorrow. Stay tuned, and pick up this book in the mean time.