Honesty In Reviewing

I’m not going to lie—some books I read make me feel like I really can’t kick sand over them fast enough. Phew!

Those books never see a review from me. Why? Because I can’t waste my time reading something I’m not enjoying, for starters. But also because there’s nothing to be gained, for either me, or the writer, by my blasting their butt cheeks full of rock salt.

Part of me understands the feeling behind writing a scathing review. The shear schadenfreudian  pleasure to be had in saying what one really thinks in the most colorful and gleefully ruinous terms to a writer who has not only wasted your time with their excremental work—but had the temerity to publish it in the first place.

See…I could write a nasty review, I could!

But I’d rather spend all that energy on the books that I like. Even if I wasn’t a writer myself, and even if I didn’t have that little voice whispering to me about the karmic wheel, I still wouldn’t write a lacerating review.

Seriously, if a book is lousy, and it’s already published, why talk about it when it’s too late to do anything to make it any better?

Then there are those books that aren’t lousy; I can see they would be interesting to some, but they just don’t do it for me, for whatever reason; maybe I’ve read fifty just like it, it’s about a topic or character that I don’t want to spend time with, it’s a genre I don’t enjoy, or the language or voice is tedious, the writing is naïve—whatever.

I won’t write reviews of those either.

Even if I put the book down after 50 pages (my policy these days if it isn’t living up), if it’s plain someone else would possibly like it, then there’s no point in reading on only to write a bad review. These books are like the people we occasionally meet, with whom we simply don’t click. No reason to be a hater.

This review policy works, for me. It’s one I can live with.

Writing reviews takes time and effort, even if we only write reviews of the books we enjoyed reading.

Which brings this post around to the writers whose books are being reviewed—and how to deal.

Fact: There will be readers who don’t like your book.

Of course there will be. There were those (still are) who beat down Hemingway. There are readers who don’t like Dickens. What makes anyone think they’re going to only get reviews that are all pink frosting and sprinkles, in light of that sobering fact? What sort of monstrous ego does a writer need to possess to believe EVERYONE will love their book? Human beings hardly ever agree on things unanimously, so why believe the published path will be lined with palm fronds for our little burro to trot across? (And while we’re at it, if you follow my analogy, remember what happened to that guy.)

It’s probably wise for a writer to work on developing thick skin prior to publishing. A good place for that might be a workshop or writers’ group, where not everyone wants to put the spit wiped off our chins into gilt frames like mom.

And lastly, on this topic:

The only worthy response to a reviewer who took time out of their life to read your book, and wrote a review of your book (and didn’t call it a steaming pile of poo) is:

Thank you.

Readers and writers, what do you think? Are you in favor of doing reviews of books we didn’t enjoy? (Check out the link, if you have time:   – Reading Like a Writer, and ZOE HELLER face off on the topic in The New York Times Sunday Book Review .) Also: do you consider mentioning aspects we didn’t like about a book doing a ‘bad’ review? (I don’t. But I’d love to hear what you have to say about it.)

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry – a review


The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

“…have I got a book for you!”

This quote from The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin perfectly sums up how I feel about this book.

On the island of Alice there’s a bookstore known as Island Books, and it’s run by the recently widowed A.J. Fikry. One night, succumbing to grief and a bottle of red, he passes out while reading his first edition Tamerlane (Poe’s first novel, very rare, which Poe self-published at 18 years old—worth four hundred thousand dollars).

In the morning it’s gone—as in stolen.

Not long after something else turns up, left at his store with no explanation as to why he is the chosen one, and now he must deal with it.

“In the future, he will rethink his unlocked-door policy. It had only occurred to him that someone might steal something, not that someone might leave something.”

I don’t want to say more, for fear of spoiling the plot for readers. I read this novel with no idea what was in store for me, and believe that’s best. I will just say: I snorted, laughed, and cried, reading this novel. The plot surprises and twists, and moves along briskly. But the best part is the characters, which are tenderly rendered. A.J.’s dilemma and choices are believable and well done, and the character arc of the town cop, Officer Lambiase, left me a little in love with him. The writing is excellent, endearing and insightful into the hearts of human beings, laced with wit and informed by an observant eye for human behavior. Told in present tense omniscient, spare and pithy sentences keep the plot perking and pages turning. This is terse writing at its best; the subtle subtext proof of Zevin’s trust in her audience.

“Despite the fact that he loves books and owns a bookstore, A.J. does not particularly care for writers. He finds them to be unkempt, narcissistic, silly, and generally unpleasant people. He tries to avoid meeting the ones who’ve written books he loves for fear that they will ruin their books for him. Luckily, he does not love Daniel’s books, not even the popular first novel. As for the man? Well, he amuses A.J. to an extent. This is to say, Daniel Parish is one of A.J.’s closest friends.”

Zevin is clever, writing a book about book love for folks who adore books. Doubly so for doing it so very well.

Summary: Read this one.


Read and reviewed for She Reads.

In the Blood – a review

In the BloodLana Grange has a lot of problems, not the least of which, her mother is dead, murdered by her father, who now sits on death row. She’s a trust fund baby, but she’s been told she needs to get a job so she can find herself. The job she lands, at the recommendation of her college professor, as a sitter for an eleven year old genius who can romp her at chess, turns out to be more of a challenge than expected, but also strangely suitable. Luke has a few issues of his own, as his cowed mother, and the lock on the outside of his bedroom door attest to. But Lana isn’t entirely bothered by any of this. She was a problem kid herself, and in a weird way, she likes the challenge.

Most people don’t see me. But there are always those that do, usually mothers. They see what I am trying to hide, even if they’re not quite sure what it is they’re seeing. I can tell by the way they can’t pry their eyes away. With my innocuous, androgynous wardrobe, my slight frame, my plain face, I usually just blend. Neither boys nor girls usually give me a second look. But sometimes, the sensitive, the keenly observant…they see me.

We quickly begin to doubt that Lana, as the narrator, is being completely honest; she hints at troubling secrets and a spotty memory of events. Though she tries to blend, there’s something off about her; something not quite right. Perhaps it’s only that she was forced to watch her father dig a grave for her murdered mother out in the woods, and coerced into lying for him to the police.

Or maybe not. When Lana’s friend Beck goes missing the police have questions. She was the last person to see Beck, and this is not the first time a girl’s gone missing after last being seen with Lana.

Is the prey complicit in its own demise? Are we not seduced in some small way by the beauty, the grace, even the dangerous soul of the predator? Do we not look into its eyes and see something that entices, even hypnotizes us?

Interspersed with Lana’s first person narration are epistolary segments told by an unidentified mother with a new baby who doesn’t seem normal. And as the baby grows his behavior becomes even more odd and worrisome. The story in the diary begins to mirror what is going on in the present of the story; just who is doing what, and to whom? Who is predator, and who prey?

Steeped in the lexicon and acronyms of abnormal psychology; ADHD, OCD, manic depression, bipolar, callous-unemotional, Lisa Unger’s In the Blood will send you to Google at least once, guaranteed. An old school psychological thriller with a fresh new feel.

Revolutionary Road – Classics Review

Revolutionary RoadFrom the opening lines of Richard Yates masterpiece Revolutionary Road you know you are in the hands of a consummate story-teller. He lays out the initial issue the novel will probe right upfront: hopeful young marrieds who have settled for the “candy and ice cream colored cars” and houses of affluent Connecticut, circa 1955, strain against suburban boredom as the fires of their youthful hopes are extinguished, and they settle into the stagnation of their conventional choices. In Yates’ brilliant opening chapter all the signs point in one direction; nothing is wasted, out of place, or directionless. It perfectly embodies the theme of the story. At the same time he manages to introduce not only the doomed April Wheeler, bright hope of the evening, but her husband Frank: “the round-faced, intelligent looking young man who sat biting his fist in the last row of the audience,” and “Mrs. Helen Givings, the real estate broker.”

Unlike DiCaprio’s (slightly) more sympathetic portrayal of him in the movie, Yates’ rendering of Frank is one of a man fatally self-absorbed, and he stews in his own cowardly choices. As a reader, I expected more sympathy for him (a la the movie) but Yates is merciless and unsparing in his depiction of Frank, the character from whose viewpoint most of the novel is told; at times – such as his coldly premeditated seduction of the office receptionist – showing Frank to be almost sociopathic in his calculating selfishness.

Beginning with a quick, audacious dismantling of the Knox Business Machines Corporation [where they both work], which made her laugh, he moved out confidently onto broader fields of damnation until he had laid the punctured myth of Free Enterprise at her feet; then, just at the point where any further talk of economics might have threatened to bore her, he swept her away into cloudy realms of philosophy and brought her lightly back to earth with a wise-crack.

He continues to chat her up, then:

Through it all, though, ran a bright and skillfully woven thread that was just for Maureen; a portrait of himself as decent but disillusioned young family man, sadly and bravely at war with his environment.

Richard Yates from Wiki

Richard Yates courtesy of Wikipedia

What impressed me most wasn’t this harsh honesty, but the unerring skill with which it is executed; a genius in depicting feeling, Yates hits all the right emotional notes with the urbane ease and confidence of a well-suited man whistling along with his collar button undone and his hands in his pockets.

In researching Yates, I found this essay in the Boston Review bemoaning his books being out of print in the late 1990’s, which made me very glad that someone had since rediscovered him for us, and made the movie, (as I might never have found him myself otherwise). It is awful to contemplate that a writer of this caliber could ever be lost to humanity due to the passage of time, and carelessness.

I was not bored for a second reading this novel, and from the first page read it with the sticky-fingered relish of an eight year old with stolen candy. I highly recommend it, especially to writers wishing to study subtle craft. My only caution is to those readers who are challenged by compound sentences, as Yates does not write down, and with regard to members of the Cult of the Short Sentence, will burn your idols right before your eyes.

Review and Giveaway – Sebastian’s Way

Sebastian's WayFrom the publicist: In a dark age of unending war and violence, one
young warrior opposes a mighty king to forge a new path to peace…

During the savage Frankish-Saxon wars, the moving force of his age, Karl der Grosse, King Charlemagne, fights and rules like the pagan enemies he seeks to conquer. But in the long shadow of war and genocide, a spark of enlightenment grows, and the king turns to learned men to help him lead his empire to prosperity.

One of these men is the unlikely young warrior Sebastian. Raised in an isolated fortress on the wild Saxon border, Sebastian balances his time in the training yard with hours teaching himself to read, seeking answers to the great mysteries of life during an age when such pastimes were scorned by fighting men. Sebastian’s unique combination of skills endears him to Charlemagne and to the ladies of the king’s court, though the only woman to hold his heart is forbidden to him. As the king determines to surround himself with men who can both fight and think beyond the fighting, Sebastian becomes one of the privileged few to hold the king’s ear.

But the favor of the king does not come without a cost. As Charlemagne’s vassals grapple for power, there are some who will do anything to see Sebastian fall from grace, including his ruthless cousin Konrad, whose hatred and jealousy threaten to destroy everything Sebastian holds dear. And as Sebastian increasingly finds himself at odds with the king’s brutal methods of domination and vengeance, his ingrained sense of honor and integrity lead him to the edge of treason, perilously pitting himself against the most powerful man of his age.

This fast-paced adventure story brings Charlemagne’s realm to life as the vicious Christian-pagan wars of the eighth century decide the fate of Europe. Filled with action, intrigue, and romance, Sebastian’s Way is a riveting and colorful recreation of the world of Europe’s greatest medieval monarch.

My Review:

I was eager to read Sebastian’s Way, by George Steger when it was offered, since the late 8th century during the reign of Charlemagne is a fascinating era. Told in third person, it’s a largely external read, without much internalization on the part of the characters; we get to know them primarily through their actions and dialogue, rather than what is going on inside them.

In simple, uncomplicated prose we follow the life of the hero, Sebastian, from childhood through his formative years. He is protected and guided by his bold and savvy mother, Ermengard, who is determined her son, though destined to become a warrior, will not become a mindless brute. Sebastian is mentored by Attalus, who, in a nice twist, turns out to be more than he seems.

Sebastion’s nemesis is his older cousin Konrad, a lusty and vicious warrior, and in a long-standing familial enmity, his rival for the stronghold of Fernshanz. Sebastian also inherits a blind wiseman sidekick in the form of Heimdal the hermit. Charlemagne is impressed with young Sebastian when he meets him, particularly with Sebastian’s desire to learn, and so he sends him a teacher in the form of a larger than life priest, Father Louis, who offers up a few nuggets of earthy spiritual clarity early in the novel.

The Saxon Chieftain Windukind is all you would expect from a savage, pagan foe, dressed scantily in skins and astride a rearing and dancing stallion, we first meet him as Charlemagne sends Sabastion with an expedition in search of the mysterious and illusive pagan seat of power known as Irminsul, which the king is determined to destroy.

The prose was too consistently prosaic for my reading tastes, which lean toward literary. The battle scenes lacked the grittiness that would have lent them a greater adult reader appeal, though for YA readers they are perfect: The character of Sebastian espouses high morals, and does not take killing lightly. World building was nicely woven into the narrative. Early on I was bothered by the mention of metric measurements of distances, which I believe would be an anachronism during the time period – being more likely furloughs, or leagues. But the characters are likable, the story is a fun, quick, unchallenging read, and future installments in the series promise adventure. This novel should probably be marketed as YA. I feel it would be a good addition to school libraries to be enjoyed by teens curious about the era.

I read and reviewed this novel for Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Giveaway: if you’d like to win a copy of Sebastian’s Way, The Pathfinder, please leave a comment, and include your email address. Giveaway ends February 12th. If you tweet this link, include me @Literarydaze and Amy Bruno @HFVBT, to be entered twice!

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