Book Reviews – a word

Book Reviews

Can we talk?

I’ve been sitting on this story for a bit, but an interesting conversation on Twitter has made me think – ‘It’s time to tell it.’

So, let’s talk book reviews. There are lots of points within this topic and they all deserve attention, to some degree or another. Obviously, I can’t address them all in one post. So this post is going to focus on an experience I had that has influenced my process for reviewing books.

Here’s the story.

Once upon a time, before COVID, I was asked to review a book. This was one of my first book reviews since, well, pre-1980. I was excited. Added to that I was determined to do a ‘good job’.

You see the mistake already, right?

I failed to take into account that my definition of ‘a good job’ and the author’s definition of ‘a good job’ might not be the same. The consequences of that oversight will be made clear. But before I go running into the swamp, allow me to tell you what I did before things went all pear-shaped.

As I said, I wanted to do a ‘good job’. So, being a nerd, I researched what the publishing industry considers to be the features found in a good book review.

I even made a list so I could be thorough.

I assembled my materials. A notepad to take down impressions as I went. Made sure my pen had ink, pencils sharpened. A nice cuppa and two cats.

Then, book in hand I sat down and started to read.

I didn’t make it through the first page before I reached for my pen and paper. And, not in a good way. Oi.

But, you know. Typo. They happen. Even to the best. I was prepared to let it go. I was not going to be my father who read the NYT with an editor’s blue pencil. What he did to the local paper was just cruel… anyway moving on.

So, back to the book in hand. Long story short, it was an ugly formatting mess. Even now I can see the first paragraph of a chapter that was all in HEADING FONT. There was a wonderful assortment of errors, from simple typos, (many many simple typos), to instances of – wait a minute – weren’t we just in his head, and now we are in hers – to lacking paragraph breaks, to, too, two… oi.

Well, I ploughed my way through the formatting, cause ‘hey, maybe I just got given some pre-formatted version. I’m sure the author wouldn’t let it go out like this.’

But, then I found myself ploughing my way through the story. I was really disappointed. I had heard so many great things about this book – albeit from the author – that I was really planning to like it. No, I was planning to love it.

Before I even started to write anything review-ish I had a brief conversation with the author. I let them know of the technical errors I had run-across (waded-through[?]) And I was met with the assertion that I was wrong.

<blink>Excuse me?

Yes, I was wrong because the author assured me the person who had done the novel’s formatting had done ‘a terriffic job’. It didn’t matter that the version I had was indeed the one that was available to other reviewers.

The embarrassing part – I actually tried to make myself believe it. For a couple of minutes. I mean what if there was some really elevated literary purpose that I just didn’t recognize?

What if I was too dense to realize that intentionally reorganizing the pages was a literary device?

Yeah, that’s about the point I realized just how far I was going to rearrange my world view on the author’s behalf. But, still, technical difficulties aside, there was a story to look at, and to think about, and to write a good solid review about.

I grabbed my list of things to include and I sat down to write my review. I ignored all the technical problems. I didn’t mention them, I figured the author was just unaware and that they would fix the copy. That was not my problem.

My problem was I just didn’t connect with the characters. While the lead male had potential, I found the lead female, shrill, self-contradictory without any idea of her own motivations. Then the story was overblown and at points just nonsensical. On top of that there (their, they’re) were the speedbumps. Periodically, the flow of mythology was interrupted with modern scientific precepts, with no explanation for why. The discontinuity would jolt me out of the story Every Time.

And, still – I was trying to like this book. I was bending over backward to be ‘nice’ to the author. They were adamant that this novel was ‘gold’ because it had been edited three times.

Well, it was certainly ‘gold plate’ over something.

So, I wrote my review. And, because there was a rating system, I gave it four-stars. I was REALLY trying to be nice and give the story the benefit of the doubt.

The result – the author was livid and accused me of attempting to sabotage the sale of their work by giving it less than five stars.

Because – five stars was required. That’s what drove sales. That’s what made people want to put down their (they’re, there) money for the product.

They demanded I give the book 5 stars.

So here’s the crux of this post. For me doing a ‘good job’ was writing a truthful review of my impressions of the strong points and the weak points of said novel.

For them – me doing a ‘good job’ was giving them 5 stars. Boosting sales. Driving traffic.

You see the disconnect, right?

For me, the question out of all of this was – “What type of reviewer do I want to be? Popular, honest, an author’s friend?”

I firmly believe it is not impossible to be all three. But, there are times when you have to prioritize, what is most important in your review?

For me, the answer is ‘to be balanced’. To mention the highs and the lows. To give praise where it is deserved and to point out places that need to be refined or strengthened. And, I try to do that with a bit of humor and some literary merit of my own along the way.

Oh… And I never, ever, ever give out stars.

You want to know what I think about a book… you gotta read the review, because I am not going to contribute to any algorithm that can be played. Because, while a book can be edited three times, and while it can have scores of 5-star entries, that doesn’t mean that the characters are engaging, or that the story is worth the time.

Seriously, do yourself a favor. Go, read the reviews. Particularly the reviews from established or well-respected reviewers.

5 stars – sounds impressive, but remember you can ‘gold plate’ almost anything.


The Power of the Eight

Cover_Review_PowerOfTheEight

The Power of the Eight by Suzanne Rho is one of those books that improves after the fact. If that sounds like I am damning it with faint praise – hold on – I’m not.

As I initially read the story I found it enjoyable. It’s the kind of read I like to take along with me on a lazy afternoon where I have nothing else to do.

It’s the type of story I would classify as “pastime reading”. Not too heavy, moves along well, all good things.

Now here’s where things get interesting.

As I started to write this review I spent some time reviewing the story and my reaction to it. And out of a pleasant afternoon’s diversion emerged this facet I hadn’t registered on my first read through. It’s not just a fantasy with magic and adventure and True Love, it also contains a message.

The story at its core is one of longing to belong.

The protagonist is a young woman in a remote Scottish town. In chronic pain, with a generous helping of anxiety and a past of abandonment she manages her way through life. Her life is one of grey monotony. The endless rounds of doctor appointments, trips to the therapist, chronic physical pain and frustration define her life.

It was the idea that the story held a person with a chronic illness at the center that initially caught my interest. Usually most heroes are able bodied and relatively sound of mind.

Indeed, we meet Ren (aka Renee) in her psychiatrist’s office. Our first glimpse of Ren is of a young woman dealing not only with perpetual anxiety, but also persistent physical pain.

She manages both with a sharp self-deprecating wit and pure grit. Ren is not one to wallow in self-pity or use her physical challenges as a free-pass. It is wonderful to see the myth of the helpless chronically ill person smashed. In her portrayal of Ren, Ms. Roh captures a very realistic look at the life of the chronically ill. Ren exhibits the power of most of the challenged to elevate the skills of day-to-day life to a level which the healthy might never perceive.

There is one aspect of this trope that didn’t get smashed. Pity that. I was a bit disappointed to see that the line of traveling to the alternate – magical – world cured the protagonist. One day I would like to see a protagonist fight for their health rather than having their problems – pardon the pun – magically resolve themselves.

But, I have to give the story some slack. It is a fantasy, so why not envision good health or physical perfection. Some might consider those greater blessings than discovering they had magic. So, I shouldn’t quibble about that.

However, I do have one quibble. Lulled ≠ Lolled

I suspect the misuse of the word is a typo. Or even, a case of the computer thinking it was smarter than the human. Damn you, autocorrect. I trust the error will be corrected in time.

Quibble aside –

The story draws Ren, an abandoned, isolated, wounded person into an environment where she can flourish and most importantly finally find the place where she belongs.

Everyone could benefit from spending some time in Ren’s brogues.

I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

The Things We Keep

Cover The Things We Keep

The Things We Keep, the premier novel of Ms. Julee Balko, is a story about grief, both that which we let go and that which we keep. The thread of grieving carries the story from far before we meet Serena to the final resolution of her own pain. As the reader progresses through the layers of understanding Ms. Balko reveals how grief can poison a family.

The Things We Keep begins with one of the little absurdities that follow a death in the family. Serena is swamped, as are all survivors, with the photos and tchotchkes that carried meaning for her mother. Those items now missing the memory that made them precious become part of the sea of ‘stuff’ that accompanies death.

While alive those maddening quirks of our families are concealed in pantries – they aren’t ours to deal with. After a person’s death – suddenly all those quirks become our property and our problem. When the story opened with Serena dealing with her mother’s cans of beets I immediately understood where she was.

And seriously, what do you do with 53 cans of beets?
Or, in my case, 32 loaf pans?

Book reviews Cover The Things We Keep by Balko
The cover of The Things We Keep Book Reviews and Quote – “Family complexity told with honest simplicity.”

Death, the great equalizer, is also the great reorganizer. In the wake of death within a family, there is an inevitable reshuffling of roles, of emotions, of perceptions, and of truths.

Compounding her grief, for Serena, was the question of why? Why had there been such coldness towards her from her mother? Why had a chasm formed between them?

The loss of her mother comes with both the loss of her opportunity for resolution and a new chance for answers. Although Serena could no longer ask her mother for the reasons, death finally broke the grip of her mother’s choice to hide the truth.

The revelations tumble out as layer upon layer of false memory is peeled away. With the final exposure of the original loss which started the chain of losses throughout the family comes freedom for everyone. The heavy warping burden of grief is finally lifted and the healing of an old wound can begin.

Ms. Balko captures grief with all its facets. She portrays all of the exhausting, frustrating, maddening minefield of emotions that comprise grief, both your own and everyone else’s, with heartbreaking honesty.

The prose is clear and painfully honest. Her words were perfectly pitched for this story of difficult relations and complex family dynamics. Lines of flowery prose would have stifled the impact by dressing it in too much perfume.

As always with grief and secrets, you need to explore down to the roots before you can let go and finally heal.

The Things We Keep is, in short, a complex story told with honest simplicity.

I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Intense Transformation

Cover for Intense Transformation

This little book is rather like a HIIT workout itself. Short, intense, sometimes a challenge, but in the end, it is worth the work.

For those that are not familiar with the term, H.I.I.T. stands for High-Intensity Interval Training. Many programs over the years have followed the HIIT principles. Among them, Crossfit, P90X, Tabata, and interval training all have connections to the core idea of HIIT.

Intense Transformation
by Paul W. Matthews

I was happy to see the author spend time on the benefits outside of sheer physicality. There is a component of HIIT that includes body awareness, mindfulness, intention, and breathing. He also hits on the commensurate nature of HIIT and Yogic practice.

He emphasizes the use of mindfulness in HIIT workouts and the value of precision in movement over just throwing out a load of badly formed reps. This gave me a great deal of hope as I was reading. His emphasis on bettering your own performance is exactly where it needs to be.

Instead of the manifesto, I was kind of thinking I would see, Mr. Matthews seems well-read in the current state of sport research. He uses science to back up his writing, another feature I enjoyed.

Initially, I was afraid I was picking up a dude-bro-type training manual. While he is positive, and ever encouraging the author is also well-grounded in science, mindfulness, and practicality.

I am motivated to go dust off my kettlebell.

I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Ta Le – Book 1: Knowledge

I picked up the novel of Yessoh G.D. entitled “Ta Le” because I wanted to experience a culture that was not my own. I find myself torn about leaving this review because my background is not African and I’m wondering if I am missing something, or if I’m taking something for granted that is not applicable.

Either way, I’m going to plunge ahead and leave my honest review. I will leave it up to the reader to decide if I have encapsulated the novel with accuracy and fairness. So, let’s begin.

Cover of Ta Le by Yessoh
Cover of TA LE by Yessoh

We follow two main storylines in the novel. The first is a government operation involving a young analyst drawn into affairs far above his pay grade. After the assassination of an important global figure, Kobenan is tapped to help solve the mystery of this death beside the mysterious leader of the government-based S-cell. The second storyline is of Joel a young man in the city who finds his familiar world unraveling at an alarming speed. In one evening he is orphaned and his sister is spirited away by creatures he has always seen, but never understood. With this act of violence, he is swept into a world of African lore, which appears to be preparing for war.

These two stories weave together through a convoluted series of events that introduces Kobenan and Joel to the unknown world of spirits and djinn that surrounds them. Powerful beings have come into the world and they are being manipulated and sought by a powerful magician who seems bent on the destruction of the current world. A nice twist arrives at the end when we discover — sorry, just can’t do that to you.

But, suffice it to say – I didn’t see them coming. That string of sudden revelations was a pleasant surprise. Overall, I found the pacing was good and the characters have so much more to give.

Now to the part of the story where I had problems. There were moments when through the voice of the narrator the modern world could fall away. I found myself immersed in a dark night on a vast savannah with only the comforting light of a campfire, the figure of a storyteller, and the story.

These moments were wonderful and engrossing and rare. The problem I had was that they were also invariably interrupted. As a reader I found myself confronted with a harsh flip back to modern times. Don’t mistake me. This wasn’t because of the mention of suits, or ties, or watches, or SUVs. The presence of modern items was not the problem. The jolts came from a sudden trip in style or the intrusion of modern language.

When the author draws the reader into the world of lore and djinn, and the ancestors it is truly a magical transformation. I wanted to stay there. My disappointment was that in the end, my time in those wild and untamed realms was all too brief.

I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Dark Apprentice

Cover for Dark Apprentice

Wow, I really dislike Nikolai Fedorov.

I know this guy. He is the guy who smirks when they think you can’t see. He is the guy convinced of their own superiority.

From the first page to the last Nikolai, the main character, is both protagonist and antagonist in his own story. He undoes himself at every turn. And, by the end, he has learned absolutely nothing, grown not one hair, and is still the conniving creature he was at the beginning.

Some readers might argue that Nikolai did “change” by the final scene. Nope. Look again. The only change was that he moved his teacher from his mental list of adversaries to his list of allies.

That is not growth. That is merely rearranging his opinion on someone’s usefulness to him.

So, why did I stick with the novel to the end? Good question. I’ll admit – I put it down twice and walked away. I think the thing that drew me back was a simple need to finish the thing so I could get it out of my head. And, because I think I know what Nikolai is hiding under all that calculating cunning. So, back I went.

Allow me to insert a note here: My degrees are in Soviet and E. European studies. My mother is a survivor of WWII. I have spent many hours speaking with people about the sieges of Leningrad and of Stalingrad. I have a well developed idea of just how grim a childhood was in one of those, or other Nazi occupied areas of the Soviet Union.

It makes sense that Nikolai would see the world as one brutal conflict to win – at all cost. So, on one hand I despise what he is and, on the other, I can pity him.

The other major player in the story is the immortal mage Medea. She takes Nikolai as an apprentice against all her better instincts. She has his measure and yet still takes on a power seeking, lying, cheating psychopath.

Her decision is explained late in the story. My response to the revelation was — And your best solution was to teach him? Uhm. Yeah. Medea may be immortal, but I have serious problems with her judgement. This is not to say she is a paragon. She obviously still has a few problems of her own to work out.

As far as the technical side of things went, the writing was clear and the story moved along. But, the emotional depth of the characters left me wanting something more. I didn’t so much make an emotional connection with the characters as I had an emotional reaction to them.

So, would I call this my usual “brain popcorn”? No. It’s more like candy-corn, you either like it or loathe it. This is the first in a series – Will I read book #2? At this instant, I don’t know if I’m willing to allow Nikolai to take up any more of my time.

I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Steady

Cover for Steady

Steady: A Guide to Better Mental Health Through and Beyond the Coronavirus Pandemic by Dr. Sarb Johal is one of those books I wish everyone would read.

80% of the people around the globe would find some idea or thought within these pages that would help explain the currently fluid world we find ourselves within. They would find an understanding professional who clearly lays out the current causes of anxiety at every level from personal to global.

Dr. Johal is imminently well qualified to write this touchstone for the world. He has worked with governments and international organizations, to develop psychosocial responses for over a decade. Among the crises he has helped guide populations through is the H1N1 pandemic.

He knows his stuff.

The prose is clear and approachable. The concepts are clearly presented and there is ample reference to resources for those, like myself, who are inclined to look at the nuts and bolts of research.

It is, overall, a calming and reassuring look at the changing social landscape caused by the COVID pandemic. Dr. Johal offers understanding and practical approaches to the mental stresses that it seems everyone is facing. He doesn’t offer rainbows, but he is offering umbrellas to help us make it through the current series of crises.

One thing I found of particular note is his refusal to advocate for the ‘normal’. Quite rightly Dr. Johal reminds the reader that every situation is fluid, even if it is familiar. He doesn’t give any promises, but he does make emerging from the pandemic seem possible.

— Oh, and that other 20% or so, those are the folks who live with long term trauma. And while we may know a good bit about anxiety and uncertainty, we would do well to read the book, too. Because, sometimes we need to remember that not everyone is as programmed to flourish in the shifting unknown.

(And no, I don’t know if it really is a 80/20 split – it’s a metaphor.)

I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Oathbreaker

Cover for Oathbreaker

If I was still giving my one line book reviews I would say Oathbreaker, the premier novel by author A.J. Rettger, was “Brain Popcorn.” I might even go with “Dark Brain Popcorn.” Oh, for simpler days. 

I picked up Oathbreaker because that is exactly what I thought the story would be, light, fluffy not much to chew on. I was so wrong. The novel turned out to be much more like toffee, in that there is a lot to chew on here. I still have some of it stuck to my teeth. 

The story started out pretty much what I thought it would be. A retelling of the dashing knight story. Young knight goes out into the world, slays monster, rescues maiden, happily ever after. Boom. Done. I swear I could almost hear the dice rolling in the background. 

“20!”
“That’s a crit.”
“Oh, dude. This is gonna hurt.”
“Crap.”
“Have a backup ready?”

In some ways that is exactly what I found. In other ways, not so much. 

A note on the mechanics of the novel. The writing is choppy at times and lacks a polish, but still the story moves along at a good clip. About halfway I stopped being derailed by the writing because I had enough interest in the story itself. I would like the characters to have a bit more depth. But, in reading this novel as a morality play the characters’ limits help them play the foil to the protagonist all the better. 

For the rest… I could be overthinking this. That has been known to happen. 

If you are familiar with Vonnegut’s story profiles then you’ll understand when I say that Oathbreaker definitely follows the Kafka profile. While there are no giant cockroaches to keep the reader awake, there are certainly enough monsters and incidents of the monstrous to provide some unease.

The story follows Mario Deschamps, son to a legendary knight, who dreams of following in his father’s illustrious footsteps.  The story begins on the day Mario is to be let out into the world from his education. He is a bright, shiny, newly minted Knight (pro-tem). But, before he even gets out of the gates there is an incident where Mario fails to live up to expectations. He disappoints himself and others. 

So, our newly minted knight has a chink in his armour. That’s fine – redemption is good for the soul. But – despite all his attempts to ‘do good’ we see Mario slide from one failure to another and perhaps more tellingly from small to greater and greater sins. On this quest, Mario finds companions that help, hinder, and suffer along with him. 

But in the dog-eat-dog world Mario seems to be outclassed by the bubbling menace that pervades everything. It is a world where you can’t stay innocent – much as you might try. Mario’s quest becomes a road paved with good intentions and failures. 

Mario is certainly guilty of Pride at the opening. But, he is quickly humbled by fate, at least for a little while. Anger, Lust, and Folly also make appearances. Each wreaks their particular brand of ‘evil’. But, the biggest sin isn’t seen directly. Unmentioned is Mario’s naivete, which is the most pernicious and ultimately damning sin.

In short: There is no light at the end of this tunnel. So, if you like your fantasy dark, this might be for you. Mr. Rettger has more to learn about the craft of writing, but he tells a good story.

Now, I am going to go read something a bit lighter, like the Book of Revelations.

Ground Control

Cover for Ground Control

From reading the blurbs about the story I thought I was in for a straight-forward girl meets guy, gets on a shuttle to Mars, all heck breaks loose, struggle until a happy ending.

I could not have been more wrong. While the plot does follow the basic tenets of Sci-fi and space colonization it is far more a story about inner space than outer space. 

Sarah, the story’s protagonist, resonated with me. At times that quality was appealing, at others not so much. Sarah is in many ways a woman plucked from today. Hopeful, loving, conflicted, selfish, needing and not being able to quantify or explain that need to anyone – including herself. 

While we all like to think we would rise to a challenge there is a portion of the population that operates day-to-day within confines they did not define, but which they accepted. They are spectators in their own lives. It is only when all the comforts of life are stripped away, all her securities gone that Sarah is forced to dig for her strengths to combat the danger posed to the mission and her family.

“There’s no going back.”
The phrase, included on the book’s blurb, seems to sum up a great many things about the story as well as life, in general. That simple truth is a pinpoint upon which so many people either change or stumble. The yearning for something which is gone can turn nostalgia into a trap. We are creatures made to unfold over time and Hough produces characters of fascinating origami.



I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily..

Wild Things Will Roam

Cover Wild Things Will Roam

Wild Things Will Roam, the debut novel by K.M. West, is a post-apocalyptic gore fest with a soul. The surprises don’t stop there.

The concept that the things that go bump in the night are still with us is reframed. The beasties are wearing new fangs in the wilds left behind by the destruction of our familiar order. The idea is handled so skillfully that the reader is left wondering what might already be staring back from the dark.

The story is written with a crystal clear prose that doesn’t hamper the reader’s experience. The style allows the characters to shine and the story to move forward unimpeded. In short, it was a pleasure to read. A genuine surprise is waiting in West’s fluid and graceful prose even while walking the reader through the horrors of Hell.

The horrors of Hell, it is. The landscape drawn by West is far from benign. Readers who have a history of trauma might want to bear this in mind. The story is a frightening look into what lies under the thin veneer of civilization. It explores not only the world post-disaster but also the consequences when that protection from the wild within our own nature is broken.

Cover of the novel Wild Things Will Roam

Within this brutal landscape, the story follows the struggles of a small group of people thrown together by happenstance – or is it fate?

That is the question that challenges one of the characters, Liv, throughout the story. How much of our action is self-determined versus what our circumstances lead us toward?

While Liv struggles with the concepts of something beyond the seen, others in the group offer varying levels of acceptance with the unknown. Liv’s guardian, Carian starts the novel as aware of the unseen. Lash, a protector, and guardian, takes the presence of an infinite plan for granted – perhaps he even sees it as his due. Ander, the younger brother to Lash, is so steeped in the ideas of some overarching other that he is often lost beyond the borders of reality. This causes him to act as something of a lightning rod between what is and what will.

But the question remains at the end, as we see everyone’s sense of the world has changed, is Ander led or deluded? What of his vision is true and what of it fantasy? It looks like we will have to wait for the next book in the series to find the answer.

I would consider buying the hardcover to have it on my library shelves. In a day of electronic consumption, this says more of how I feel about this work than all the analysis I can offer.