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.


Easy Ultimate Editing Checklist – phase 1

Ultimate Editing Checklist

Ok. I’ve been scouring the internet for the ultimate editing checklist for editing my novel. That has proven to be harder than I thought. I wanted real concrete specifics, and I kept finding lists of generalities, which while useful were ultimately disappointing.

Even the longest, most complete checklist devoted most of the content to story arc, themes, point of view, scenes and chapters. It’s all good stuff, but it wasn’t what I was looking for.

I wanted a list, a big literal list of mistakes I should make sure I didn’t have in my manuscript. Particularly around my bane in the English language – the comma.

And I wasn’t finding it. So, I did what any hyper-driven, hyper-independent person would do – I made my own.
Is this the final version of all my efforts? Not likely. I’ll keep tweaking this as I find more things to make sure I weed out of my manuscript.

But, even without the final, final, final stamp of DONE I’m going to share it. Because it is a useful tool. It’ll improve and grow no doubt.

Will this list solve all your writing woes? Probably not but it can provide a place to start. If you have a suggestion for another item, or group of items go ahead and drop it in the comments.

Until then, happy editing.

Download The Easy Ultimate Editing Checklist

Curl

Poetry - Curl

A curl moves
in and out.
Both yea and nay
are captured
within curls.

An Analogy: the Wetsuit

When you grow up in a minefield, it seems normal.

People often find it difficult to explain, or to understand Complex PTSD. I often find myself falling into metaphor or analogy to explain the experience. The reason for using an abstraction is because in Complex PTSD the particulars from one person to another vary – greatly. I have found that trying to paint a detailed picture often results in becoming lost in the need for exactitude. It is impossible to be be ‘exact’ for everyone. Enter the analogy.

One question I have seen repeatedly about Complex PTSD is “Why am I having to deal with all this NOW? Why not when it was happening? Why 10/20/30/40 years after the fact?”

In the past I have often explained that when disfunction is your norm – you don’t see it as dysfunction.

Recently I thought this idea needed to grow. While comparing the environment to a minefield works it doesn’t go far enough. The minefield only addresses the environment, while Complex PTSD is the product of how we adapted to that environment.

Think of all those adaptations we learned or created to keep us safe as a wetsuit. See it in your mind and make it as thick or detailed as you like. Maybe you have one of those ‘survival suits’ for the North Sea, light blinking on the top and bright orange. Perhaps your wet suit is more like the body glove of neoprene we often visualize on Navy Seals and Frogmen.*

No matter how you envision your suit to look it all served one purpose – to preserve your life in a hostile environment. By ‘hostile environment’ any diver will tell you – you don’t need sharks to make the water dangerous. The water itself – everything surrounding you – is quite capable of ending you.

That is the mental state in which many of us grew up. Life itself, our most immediate environment posed an imminent threat to our survival. Perhaps there was a shark – a person(s) with the ability to harm you. Perhaps there was not – but your surroundings were as cold as Arctic waters. And some of us endured both.**

To survive we adapted. Those adaptations became the ‘wetsuit’ we wore to help us survive.

Our ‘wetsuit’ served us while we were in those dangerous places. But as we grow, age, we leave the environment(s) that caused us to make those adaptations.

When we no longer need that wetsuit because we have left the freezing water we don’t abandon it. Primarily because we are unaware of it. Those adaptations are integrated. Our ‘wetsuit’ is an intrinsic part of who we are.

Over time, out of that hostile environment, that wetsuit – our adaptations – no longer serve us. The neoprene becomes hot, binding, restrictive, and could even become more than an impairment, but a danger. ***

It is not a sudden appearance of Complex PTSD. We have carried it with us since we entered that hostile place. The reason for the sudden appearance is not because the wetsuit has changed, but because they have changed their environment and no longer need it.

Now – comes the work of peeling that sucker off. And that’s part of the reason you always have a dive buddy. It is easier to get out of the wetsuit when you have help.

At least, that’s one way to think about it.


*Note: I met one of the original ‘frogmen’, once, years ago. His stories were beyond impressive.
**Note: Just imagine a shark wearing a wooly knit jumper.
***Note: Good friend went to a Halloween party dressed as a ‘diver’ – full suit 5mm – almost cooked himself into heat stroke.

By Jove – I think I finally get it.

white clouds and blue sky

This post is probably going to sound a lot like bragging – but I promise there is a point at the end…

I am challenging myself to do ‘one big thing a day’.

Why? Because I stand in amazement at what an ordinary human can accomplish in a morning. For decades I have watched friends (not so much family) just soar through their days. They get thing, after thing, after thing done. They just crank out the minor jobs of day-to-day living.

And I stand there stunned and mystified as to how they can do it.

HOW?

Then this morning…

I was up early.

Made my bed.

Ate breakfast.

Did a little social media.

Decided that my ‘one big thing’ challenge was going to be to clean my desk off.

So I went upstairs with my plastic grocery bag of cleaning supplies – and a bag to toss garbage into – and a bag for donates. A couple of rags to do some dusting. And my cup of water.

But that turned into –

You know I could use a chair in here.

(Into the spare room) (Look! A chair we aren’t using)

Moved the chair into my office space.

Went back to the spare room and moved my husband’s inversion table closer to the window. The mirror isn’t in danger now and I can get to the linen chest. And he has a window to look out of. Win-Win-Win.

Noticed the floor needed spot cleaning… grabbed a rag dumped some water on it from my cup, let it sit.

Felt like some music – had to clear my desk anyway – so set up a place for the computer and hit Pandora.

And on. And on. And on.

By lunch I had moved a set of shelves from the basement to my office. Reorganized my desk. Tamed all the cables. Danced. Made a bed for the cat on the shelves…

And I stopped dead in my tracks when I realized that I had been more than just ‘functional’. Damn, I rocked this morning.

The point to all this is I noticed WHY this morning was so productive.

I GOT OUT OF MY HEAD.

Everytime that little voice said… AUGH – I’m overwhelmed!

I would pause – and talk to myself.

“Really? We’re mopping a spot off the floor. This is a problem?”

And – that voice of being overwhelmed quieted a bit.

“OK, just this.”

Next time. AUGH – I’m overwhelmed!

“We are just brushing the dust off the shelves – nothing says we have to do anything else. Is this really a problem?”

A little quieter.

“OK, just this.”

I managed to “Ok, just this.” my way into having a bloomin’ productive morning. And it was all because I listened to that anxious little voice – responded to it – and just did one more little thing.

I’m guessing all my ‘productive’ friends don’t have that almost instant anxiety always in their heads stopping them from doing most anything.

I think/hope I have tamed mine a bit more this morning and more importantly – learned how to work around it.

I hope this helps someone else.

Divided

Siblings and Complex PTSD

I cannot describe
how deep
the wound goes.

When I lost my
brother – he was
only seven and
I was only three.

After that
we shared
the same house.

We fought
and shunned
one another.

Neither one aware
of the poison
that forced us apart.

Quiet Grace

poetry Quiet Grace

Grace walks a tip toe, and
is by nature a quiet soul, not
inclined to boastful words.

Grace speaks loudest
where no words are found,
in the embrace,
in comfort given,
in peace and even, yes,
in defense of the vulnerable.

Grace is gentle,
but never mistake
that for weakness.

Because it is only grace
that dares to walk the path
which can save us from ourselves.

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.

Bone Deep

Single candle

We were never meant to carry
The shame that goes bone-deep
for any reason,
for every reason,
for no reason.

It is not ours to keep.

The Beginning Writer: ah, humility

beginning writer writing

I am here at my desk taking big calming breaths as I look at a mountain. A figurative mountain, but still it is impressive and daunting in its size for a beginning writer.

I have to climb it.

It’s not a question of do I want to or do I not. It is a necessity. One that I hadn’t considered. Actually, I’ll admit, I thought I wouldn’t have to climb this particular mountain. Not so.

I have reached the point, which I suspect all writers come to somewhere along the way, where I have realized that although I can tell a good story, and I have a good story to tell, I still have a lot of craft to learn.

The realization is both painful and, I hope, ultimately rewarding.

I have a lot of craft to learn.

I’ll admit – it is a painful realization. It’s right up there with stepping on a lego block, or stubbing your toe on the doorjamb. It’s the kind of pain that after a long hard day makes you sit down on the floor in utter defeat.

I suspect this is one of those junctures in life where people either give up or they dig deeper. I wonder how other writers have faced this particular Rubicon. What was the moment Neil Gaiman looked at his story and said – this is rubbish? And what made him go on? Margaret Atwood? Toni Morrison?

What made each of them know that this dream – their dream – was worth the effort? They embraced that challenge even though it was, maybe, wrapped in a bitter pill.

There are moments in learning that define careers. I’ll use Chemistry as one example – because I’m a Chemist. There is one notorious class that is often referred to as ‘the weed out’ class. It’s Organic Chemistry. I have seen dozens of people decide to switch their major after failing Orgo, as it is called in the nerd world of the lab. That course has altered the trajectory of more people than I can imagine. A great many Chemistry majors become Biology majors after Orgo. I had friends who wanted to become doctors, but after failing Organic Chemistry they changed their aim.

But, a few of my friends who had failed found something in themselves that refused to let this block derail them from their future. One friend took orgo three times before he passed. I admire him immensely. He’s got grit.

The beginning writer needs grit

I’ll be honest, I never needed grit. I have been blessed with a curiosity and the ability to understand complex things. I’ve always been more abacus than human. That’s from the Complex PTSD, but I won’t take you down that rabbit hole today.

After decades I finally have a dream in my life that is ‘my dream’. It is also something that is not coming easily. So, I’m learning grit.

I’m learning to recognize the places where I lack skill. Which is a hard thing to do with the drum beat of ‘not enough’ in the back of your head. But, I have learned that in order to get where I want to be I have to fight for it. I fight my own failings, and keep moving along that learning curve. Though, not always as smoothly as I would like.

I now know that to achieve anything that is close to your heart you have to climb mountains. Sometimes they are mountains that you never saw. But, the worst mountains are those that you thought you could avoid because you were already beyond them.

It’s humbling to find yourself at the foot of one of those.

So here I am. A bit bruised, my little proto-ego having taken a solid shot to the chops. Feeling very humble and getting ready to start my journey.