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?

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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?

 

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.