Writing and Reading Reviews

I’ve been reviewing books for online and print magazines for a while now. Close on ten years. It’s an interesting business as I don’t consider myself qualified to give really critical reviews. I don’t have a college degree stating I am educated in the art of reading and reviewing. But, like most dedicated readers, I read a lot of books. Aside from what appeals to me, personally, I have an idea of what works and what doesn’t.

Characters don’t always need to be appealing. I’ve read to the end of a book featuring characters that drew very little sympathy from me as a reader. But they still worked because they felt real. Either they were bastards or weirdly bland or just distasteful people, but well written enough that I had an opinion. I still cared about the character and the story, even if I didn’t care for them.

I could read a book that simply followed the development of a character. A slice of life or a coming of age type thing. But most books have a plot. It’s a sort of necessary kind of feature. I can come up with a hundred analogies for why a story needs a plot, but as I mentioned before, I’m not highly educated. So, bear with me as I describe a plot as a clothesline. It’s somewhere to hang the clothes.

Not going to embellish that one, just going to move on.

I’m also not going to examine plots, or describe the elements required to make a good one. That’s not the point of this ramble. I just wanted to put down the couple of things necessary for a book to be engaging. Sounds simple, but apparently it isn’t.

As a reviewer, I see a lot of really poorly executed books. They often have great ideas, but there is no actual plot, or it’s not evident or clear or sensible. Or, the characters are lacking. They all sound the same, so that I’m not sure if it was Luke or Mark who just died and I’m certainly not reaching for the tissues because I didn’t have a good feel for who the poor bugger was. Just another voice in the dialogue.

When I write reviews, I try to come across as a reader, one who has certain expectations—particularly when I’m reading a favourite or well-known author—and one who has definite preferences. I like to point out what I really enjoyed, and if a book didn’t work for me, I try to figure out, and communicate, why. Not because I think the author will read it, but more to explain why I tossed the book or gave it five stars.

Or, simply because I though the book was amazing and I want to tell all my friends about it. Or, I was horribly disappointed and want to share that opinion.

With so many people getting their hands on ARCs, there are a lot more non-critical reviews floating around the internet. These reviews are stirring up trouble (Goodreads and their author protection policy) and sometimes they feel less objective than might seem necessary. But, the point of having a personal blog is to express your opinion, isn’t it? Being invited to leave a review offers an invitation for exactly that, too. An opinion.

I think both can be done with respect—for the material and the people responsible for publishing it.

I don’t like writing bad reviews. Regardless, I do write them. I call them unfavourable reviews and I try to avoid stating: This is the worst book I’ve ever read. First off, I probably tossed the worst book. Life’s too short to read books that don’t appeal. Secondly, even before I had a book out there, flapping innocently in the breeze of critical readership, I didn’t like telling people they couldn’t write. Everyone can write. Not everyone can write well. Even then, though, most books need editing and some editors are better than others.

So, what’s the point of this ramble? Aside from explaining how I review books (which I also talk about on my reviewing page), I wanted to share my experience of being reviewed.

It hasn’t been as harrowing as I might have imagined. I haven’t had a terrible review yet, so that helps. But the first rating I got on Goodreads was two stars, which translates to: It was okay. It stung to imagine someone thought my book was merely okay, but I didn’t beat myself up over it because I expected my story wouldn’t appeal to every reader. Of course it wouldn’t. Just like everyone doesn’t like anchovies on their pizza. We all have individual tastes.

I did wonder what it was about my story that didn’t appeal, but the reviewer did not elaborate. Probably a good thing, eh? But, if she had, I’d have read it and accepted the judgment. I wrote a book and I put it out there. I expected—wanted—people to share their opinion of it.

Should an author ever respond to a review? This is a tricky one. I know that as a reviewer, I’ve been delighted when an author has contacted me to thank me for a nice review.  I like seeing that little ‘like’ button on Goodreads light up (figuratively, of course) with their click. I hope my opinion of their book makes them feel good. As a writer and a recently published author, I understand what goes in to every book. They deserve the kudos, in my opinion, particularly if it was a good book!

I think when an author responds to a poor review (one that picks the story apart rather than explains simply and respectfully why the reader didn’t like it), then they are losing perspective. They’re forgetting that not everyone likes anchovies on their pizza.

What if a review slips into slanderous territory, or becomes a personal attack? Ignore it. I’m sure it’s hard, but there’s a reason for that old adage. Things that are ignored often do just go way.

I think the thing to remember—and what I try to keep in mind—is to be respectful, no matter which side of the review you’re on.

If you made it this far, thanks for listening. I welcome your comments. Oh, and as for my own book, I’ve received some really lovely reviews. It’s been a joy to read them and nice to click that little ‘like’ button.

Review: Warm Bodies

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

R is a zombie, one of the Dead. Julie is one of the Living. When they connect, things start happening. It’s one of those relationships that really shouldn’t work, but both are sufficiently young, curious and tenacious.

R is unusually thoughtful for a dead person and the little trips into his thoughts made this book enjoyable for me. The little asides, the things he noticed and the way he interpreted the world, made him very, very endearing. Julie is less tangible as a character, but still quite real. I think beside R, anyone would come across as blatantly normal, though.

The writing also captured me. The way R expresses himself, physically and mentally, is just damned funny in places. As a zombie, there are things he cannot do. But as he is dead, it’s really not a big deal. The passages of him just existing, being himself, are some of the most enjoyable in the book. I awarded an extra star just for that.

Over all, I really liked Warm Bodies. I have a couple quibbles with the plot and there were unanswered questions at the end. I wasn’t quite sure who/what the Boneys were and why R and Julie were so special, other than the fact they just were. I didn’t understand what was happening at the end, really. I don’t think they did, either. But (the all important but), the story still works. I just needed to suspend disbelief a bit more than usual.

Review: Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse

Wastelands by John Joseph Adams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wastelands is not a door-stop of an anthology. The weight of the book did not numb my fingers or weary my arms. It is still a substantial collection, however, heavy with authors whose names are more than familiar and stories with ponderous themes. But, unlike my experiences with similar anthologies, I did not feel utterly hopeless by the end. This is a very modern collection, most published within the last twenty years, and while every tale does, indeed, explore the end of the world as we know it, there is a sense of complacency and despondency rather than outright horror. Most of the time. After some thought, I decided this theme is very appropriate to our more modern attitude toward apocalypse. There is less focus on the fiery explosion (if that’s how it happens), less a feeling of desperation (how will we stop it?) and more a sense of the inevitable. And, of course the question that produces such stories: What comes next?

With that in mind, some of the stories did acquire a sameness or blandness, but I enjoyed the majority of them and relished adding to my experience of some of my favourite authors. Rather than risk offending anyone by naming just a few of the authors as an example of what waits between the covers, though, I’ll append a full list to the bottom of my review and, here, will simply mention those I looked forward to reading: Jack McDevitt, George R. R. Martin (whose science fiction I enjoy), Tobias Buckell, Cory Doctorow and Elizabeth Bear.

The introduction by editor, John Joseph Adams, is entertaining. Adams is an editor I look for when perusing anthologies. He is always engaged by his subject and enthusiastic about the authors whose work he is presenting. Wastelands is no exception. Every story has a beginning blurb and there is a great appendix at the back of the book for further reading.

The End of the Whole Mess by Stephen King clearly illustrates Adam’s point about finding the right story to lead an anthology. A big name catches the eye and Stephen King certainly has that, even for those who don’t normally read speculative fiction. The story should also encompass or embrace the theme of the collection, which this one does. It’s about two brothers. The younger is a genius, one of those scarily intuitive kids who want to do everything and does, obsessively, in a search to find what he’s best at. During this search, he discovers a statistically peaceful place, pulls the water from the aquifer there and distills it. After this palliative for the modern condition is distributed, he discovers why that small town in Texas was so peaceful. Clue: It’s not good. This is a typical Stephen King story, which means it is good. It’s thought provoking and quite chilling. I always find his short form fiction to be his best.

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Review: Cut & Run (Cut & Run)

Cut & Run by Madeleine Urban, Abigail Roux
(Dreamspinner Press, September 2008. Paperback, 376 pages)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As entertaining as I’d been led to expect, but this could have been a much better book. There is a decent plot and the dynamic between Ty and Zane is well portrayed. The pace hiccups, though, as the authors pay more attention to the agents trying to sort their feelings for one another and while plot conveniently waits.

I would liked to have seen shorter chapters with alternating points of view rather than the constant head hop from Ty to Zane, and some of the conversations were repetitive. It was obvious they were confused by their feelings for one another and the authors did a fair job of tying that to the action, but at times the angst overwhelmed everything else.

Ty Grady kept me reading to the end. I found him fascinating. If I pick up the next book, it would be to learn more about the man beneath the masks.

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Review: Redshirts

Redshirts by John Scalzi
(TOR, July 2012. Hardcover, 317 pages)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Damn you, John Scalzi, for making me giggle helplessly at death. A quick, fun read.


The title of John Scalzi’s new novel, Redshirts’, is as irresistible as the premise. For those not familiar with the term ‘redshirt’ the first chapter serves as a quick introduction. On his first away mission, a young ensign is unprepared and overwhelmed. Trapped on a rock and surrounded by ‘landworms’, he fires into the dirt, driving the voracious predators into a frenzy and then decides to make a break for it. He is devoured before he reaches the tunnel entrance, of course. The captain utters a few words of commiseration but the reader gets the sense the situation is all too familiar. The loss of a low-ranked crew member, new and untried, barely mars the mission. A redshirt ensign is expendable.

In fact, every away mission led by certain crew members ends in disaster…for someone else. The captain always survives, as does his chief science officer. Lieutenant Kerensky is less fortunate, he is often injured. He always recovers, however. Any accompanying ensign is at risk and even the superstitions cobbled together by the terrified crew of the Universal Union Capitol Ship ‘Intrepid’ don’t always prove true. The death of one ensign does not necessarily provide protection for the others and the greenest crew member doesn’t always count as a reliable sacrifice.

A handful of new ensigns quickly pick up the fact something is amiss. The crew scatter when the captain approaches or an away mission is planned; closets suddenly need reorganising. When picked for a mission, they bid tearful goodbyes to friends and then bicker amongst themselves over laws of averages and then they die. The new ensigns, led by Andy Dahl – whom the captain repeatedly calls ‘dill’ – hunt for answers.

In Science Fiction, all is rarely as it seems. In ‘Redshirts’, it’s really twisted. The loss of low-ranked crew members is not entirely due to incompetence, nor is it merely coincidence. Some other factor is in play and once it is proposed, it makes a horrible kind of sense. Even the crew members who chose not to believe the explanation find it difficult not to be affected by it the very idea of it. I don’t want to ruin the surprise in my review, however, so I’ll leave it to the reader to discover just what is happening on board the Intrepid.

John Scalzi writes funny books. ‘Agent To The Stars’ is one of my favourites and I can remember laughing so much I was asked to read in another room. ‘Redshirts’ is written in a similar style. Despite the body count, I giggled my way through it, soft chuckles turning to outright laughter at one particularly senseless death. Yes, I laughed when someone died. I felt bad; I liked the character and had hoped he’d make it through to the end. The novel is a quick read, I finished it in about three hours and thoroughly enjoyed myself, even though I was not as entertained by the Codas at the end of the book.

Scalzi’s wit and humour works as well in his more serious novels, but reading ‘Redshirts’ felt a bit like taking a well deserved holiday. It’s a great book, one I’ll re-read and recommend to others.

Written for and originally published at SF Crowsnest.

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