Unknown Enemy: Make Friends With This Book

A couple weeks ago, I promised you a review of Janet Sketchley’s latest: Unknown Enemy, the first book in her new Green Dory Inn mystery series. And here it is!

One of the best things about being a writer is meeting other writers. The internet can be a wonderful thing! Janet is one of those friends I’ve never met yet, though I’ve known her for several years.

I believe we were introduced through a contest. Janet, please correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you enter Heaven’s Prey in a contest run by Risen Books, my first publisher?

However I came to meet her, when I read that long-awaited debut novel of hers, it blew me away. The subject matter is more than a little jarring–a woman prays for the man who raped and murdered her niece. Seriously? Yes. Seriously. The faith premise makes you sit up and take notice. The writing is skillful. Without resorting to sensationalism, the author builds suspense until the reader’s toes curl. And of course the spiritual thread glitters throughout like solid gold. As Janet says, “Why leave faith out of our stories when it’s part of our lives?”

Those same skills are evident in this book. In fact, it’s evident that whatever she does, this lady does it well. Not only is this a good story, but the cover is perfect, and the whole thing is nicely formatted and edited. That cannot be said about many self-published books.

However, this story didn’t leave me feeling as satisfied as her previous ones. I wanted to know more about the protagonist’s backstory, and even solving the mystery as to who was terrorizing the inn  didn’t seem to answer all my questions. Oh, but wait — this is the first book in a series. That’s a good thing, because I definitely want to know more!

Thank you, Janet, for another good story–and for the promise of more to come.

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Book Reviews: It’s a Jungle Out There

file0001570123023The farther I go on this writing journey, the more complicated it seems. Even something as simple as a book review has hidden pitfalls.

For better or for worse, Amazon sells more books than anyone. In an attempt to prevent writers from buying bogus reviews (a practice that at one time was prevalent), Amazon has strict review policies.  One of their rules is that a review cannot be paid for. If you’re given a book for free, you’re supposed to state that in your review. If Amazon’s records show you purchased the book from them, they’ll give it their “Verified Purchase” seal of approval. But if you didn’t buy it there, they reserve the right to remove/refuse your review.

You’re not allowed to “swap” reviews. That is, you can’t agree with a fellow author to review one another’s books. Of course that happens all the time — being an author, I know a lot of authors, and I’ve reviewed some of their books and they’ve reviewed mine. But if Amazon gets a whiff of your relationship, they can take down a review you posted of a friend’s book.

Review me! (But don't tell Amazon I asked you to.)
Review me! (But don’t tell Amazon I asked you to.)

Though every author loves having others praise their work, getting Amazon reviews isn’t just a matter of pride. The more reviews you have, the more your book sells as people read the reviews and think, “all these readers can’t be wrong.” Also, the more reviews  you get, the more Amazon recommends that book on their site. I believe the magic is supposed to start happening once you get 10 reviews. (Which is why I’m a bit frustrated that The Last Toqeph has been stuck at 9 reviews for months now.)

And then there are the paid reviewers, like the much-vaunted Kirkus. You can spend several hundred dollars on a paid review, but all that gets you is the right to use a quote from your great Kirkus review on your promotional materials. You can’t post it to Amazon, and you can’t use it to pay your electric bill.

The fact is, I don’t put much thought or effort into book promotion. I don’t track sales (other than to record the few bucks that are automatically deposited into my checking account each month). I don’t try to figure what marketing effort brings the greatest ROI (return on investment), seeing as how nothing seems to bring much return. (But then, I don’t invest much.) I pretty much do what I can without going broke and/or knocking myself out over it, and let come what may.

For that reason, when I saw a message on one of the Goodreads authors’ forums on which I lurk, I took notice. One of these organization that produces paid reviews (“like Kirkus” is the way it was worded) was running a contest in which they would give five winners a free review. “A $300 value!” (Or whatever the quoted cost was — I don’t remember the number for sure.) I took a closer look, and, seeing no danger involved in entering, I gave it a shot and then forgot about it.

But a couple weeks later, I received notice that I’d won a free review from Entrada. Huh? Oh, yeah, I entered that contest, didn’t I? Hmmm… pretty suspicious. I never win anything. Even more suspicious? Someone else on that Goodreads forum said he entered and won. Is it a case where five people entered, so everyone won? Adding to the sense of unease, if you google Entrada in general or Entrada Reviews in particular, this organization doesn’t show up on the first page of results. (It comes up if you search for Entrada Book Reviews, but I didn’t include the word “book” when I did my initial search.)

My unfounded guess based on nothing in particular? It’s probably a start-up company whose internet presence and reputation in the publishing world is not yet established, and this contest is a way to get their name out there. So let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Especially since they asked for no money from me — not for entering, and not for winning.

The only thing I was asked to send them was my ebook (so the reviewer could read it), a headshot and short biography — a typical request. As I sent the book file, it occurred to me they might try to sell the book on the black market or something, but who cares? My purpose in writing it was to allow people to read it, not to make money. So even black market sales will further my purpose.

Before Pella Book signing
Pella, Iowa May 2012. Photo by Glenda Mathes

So I sent what they asked for, and they delivered what they promised. Their review of The Story in the Stars is live on their site. It’s a good review — I’m happy with it. And I can use it (or excerpts therefrom) on my Amazon author page, my Goodreads page, or on any promotional materials I create.

I’m still not sure how reputable it is for a company to charge big bucks for reviews. But since I got this one for free, I’ll try to figure out how to use it. Gotta get my money’s worth, don’t ya know.


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Three UnReviews

I’m uncomfortable writing book reviews. They seem so judgmental.

Review me!
Review me!

Yes, I want people to review my books (hint, hint), but I don’t like giving reviews myself. Is that inconsistent? Lopsided? Self-centered? Probably all of the above.  But that’s the way it is.

In this post, I’ll discuss three books I’ve read recently, but I won’t review them. My intention is merely to share my thoughts/feelings/opinions about them as a reader.

(Umm… isn’t that what a review is? Yes, but don’t confuse me with unwanted observations.)

I tend to collect recommendations of books without noting who recommended a particular title or why. If someone mentions it as being good for a specific reason, I’ll write it down. Then, if I run across it somewhere cheap or free (’cause I’m always cheap), I’ll pick it up on Kindle or print and read it when I have a chance and/or am in the mood.

Not long ago, after finishing a stint as judge in a contest for unpublished writers, I felt the need to cleanse my mind of amateur writing and ingest something crafted with a bit more skill. So I picked a book off my shelf by an author who was recommended as being among the best in the speculative genre. I don’t recall if it was the book itself that was recommended, or merely the author. But at some point, I had acquired The Knight by Gene Wolfe and set it aside for a time when I craved a good fantasy.

The book presented an immediate appeal for two reasons (three, if you count the recommendation): the attractive cover, and author Neil Gaiman’s endorsement: “Gene Wolfe is the smartest, subtlest, most dangerous writer alive today, in genre or out of it. This book [is] important and wonderful.”

I’d read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (another one of those that was recommended by I-forget-who), and I thought it was very well done. Figuring his opinion was worth something, I found the endorsement rather intriguing. Dangerous writing? Important and wonderful? It made me wonder what, in fact, was within that lovely cover.

Take note that Gaiman also said Wolfe is subtle. And he certainly must be–so much so that I failed to get anything “important” or “wonderful” about his writing. And where that “dangerous” comes from, I confess, is way over my head. Apparently I’m as dense as osmium.Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 10.08.19 AM

However, I do agree that the author knows his craft. The book is a top-notch Faerie story, complete with knights and sword fights, ogres, a dragon, a princess, elves, and intelligent animals. Yeah, it’s pretty much got it all insofar as the genre is concerned. And the writing is stellar. What I thought it lacked was purpose.

I felt no connection with the protagonist and didn’t give a whit what happened to him. I could discern no overarching theme, no illustration of fundamental truths, no believable danger to make my heart rate quicken. Yes, the protagonist was often in peril, but the outcome was never in doubt. And I had no curiosity as to how the story would end. Despite Wolfe’s writing skill, I simply didn’t care about any of it.

I cared so little, in fact, that although it’s actually a story in two parts (the whole thing is called The Wizard and the Knight, and it’s told in two volumes. The Knight is the first, and the story in concludes with The Wizard), I could hardly wait to finish the first just to be done with it. I have no interest in ever reading the second.

By the time I reached the end, I yearned to read something truly enjoyable.

A year ago or so, I thought about an old book I’d read as a kid that I loved to pieces. What I most recalled were the emotions it had aroused within the young me–an “unbearable lightness of being,” a delight that was almost painful in its intensity.

I didn’t figure I’d respond to the book the same way now, as an oldster, but I was curious to read it again to see how it did affect me. So I found it as a free download on Kindle and added it to my to-be-read shelf, where it languished for several months. Now, after finding little to please me in my recent fiction-reading adventures, I deemed it time to dust off the old friend and explore the world of the Limberlost once again.

I believe this is the cover of the book I had as a kid.
I believe this is the cover of the book I had as a kid.

The book is Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter. I don’t know if I’ve ever read anything else by the author. I do know I’ll never do it again willingly. And all the warm fuzzies I carried in my heart for this book have been scraped off with the coarse sandpaper of maturity.

How was this book disappointing? Let me count the ways.

One example: the protagonist was orphaned as a baby and raised in an orphanage in Chicago. That’s in Illinois, which, in case you’re not aware (which the author apparently wasn’t), is approximately 3500 miles from Ireland. The reason I mention this is because the character spoke with a thick Irish brogue. Thick as in difficult to read. Which I could forgive, if he’d been raised in Ireland–or raised by Irish parents who never let him out of the house–or had some other excuse to talk that way. How am I supposed to believe he spoke that way because his parents did, when he never knew his parents?

That’s just one of the many glaring impossibilities in the book. Apparently those things didn’t bother readers when the author wrote it in 1904. And they certainly didn’t bother me when I read it as a child in the 1960s. But now, I can’t get past them to enjoy whatever might be worthwhile in the story. If there is anything worthwhile in the story. To my mind, it was implausible from start to finish, riddled with inconsistencies and told in an unappealing style.

So, having gotten that book out of my system once and for all, I turned to a novel that came recommended by two sources. Funny that I don’t remember who the first one was, but the most recent person to recommend it is the friend I’m working with on a nonfiction project. I’d purchased it recently at her suggestion and decided to give it a try without allowing it to sit on the shelf for months or years as I usually do.

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 10.51.20 AMYou know how, when you’ve been on your feet a long time and are weary and aching and yearning to sit down? or you’re wilting in the brutal sun and desperately need to get out of the heat? and you’re finally able to go in and rest in a cool, comfortable place, and you lean back and say, “Ahhhh….”? Well, that was my reaction to reading The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge.

The language is beautiful, and I often smiled in appreciation of the skill of it. The story is engaging and sweet without being cloying. Characters are multi-dimensional and lifelike, situations are wholly realistic, and it’s all rich with truth and purpose. My only disappointment was that it ended too soon.

That is to say, it’s everything a good novel should be. Everything I want my books to be.

And here’s the funny thing. When I went to put it on my shelf, I found I already had a copy. Apparently someone else had recommended it earlier, and I’d bought it, shelved it, and forgotten about it. Well, whoever was the first to suggest it has excellent taste.

I realize not everyone will agree with my assessment of these three books, and that’s okay. I know what I like, and can’t speak for anyone else. But if you have good taste like I do, I recommend that you grab yourself a copy of The Scent of Water and drink it in!


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A Thoughtful Review

Rabid Readers ReviewsYou may have noticed (though I doubt if you’ve given it much thought) that I haven’t been very attentive to my blog lately. I’ve been pretty much ignoring Twitter, too. Some of this is for the purpose of a test: if I neglect social media, will the world come to a screeching halt?

Surprise, surprise: the answer is no. I doubt it’s caused my book sales to fall off either, since they weren’t selling to begin with. Bottom line: it’s freed up some of my time with no dire consequences. Perhaps the experiment was worthwhile!

Whether I take up blogging and tweeting again with greater diligence remains to be seen. Meanwhile, a new review came to my attention this afternoon, and I thought I’d share it with all my fans out there in Blogdom. It’s a little different, but rather gratifying.

Don’t let me tell you what to think of it, though. Decide for yourself: Review of The Story in the Stars on Rabid Reader Reviews.

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Monday’s Musings: It’s All About Story

Back in August, I talked about how the story we write is more important than our writing style and even our message. That’s because a good tale gets a point across better than a good sermon. The reader (or hearer) doesn’t care about the finer points of the delivery if what’s being said captures the imagination.

This was confirmed, underlined, and highlighted for me last week as I read a book by an author I recently “met” on Twitter. I don’t recall how I came across his name or his writing, but something caught my eye, and I looked at his Amazon page. The title of one of his books joined forces with the cover image to shout, “Read me!”  I read the blurb and the one review that had been posted. And this fish was hooked. crooked man's mile cover

Not that I had nothing better to do, mind you. And I wasn’t exactly looking for something to read. But the story intrigued me. Being as cheap as Scrooge, I borrowed the book via Amazon Prime so I could read it for free (sorry, Eric). And since that only allows access to a book for two weeks, I bumped it up to the top of my reading list.

But I was glad I did.

Here are my thoughts on
The Crooked Man’s Mile
by J. Eric Laing

This is the kind of story you think about long after you’ve put it down. The sort of book you can hardly wait to get back to. When I finished it, I was sorry it was over but delighted with the way it wrapped up.

The characters vibrate with three-dimensional realism. When you meet them you say, “Hey, I know that guy!” or, “Oh, yeah, I remember her from grade school.” Even the minor characters are multi-dimensional and have believable motives; there’s not a cardboard cut-out in the bunch.

The descriptions are so clear you have no trouble envisioning the scenes. The story has such depth and resonance you have to keep reminding yourself it’s fiction.

Speaking of resonance, take the title, which sublimely suggests a combination of the child’s nursery rhyme and the traditional prayer about not judging another until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins. The man in the story is crooked in body and soul, but by walking in his shoes, the reader becomes a bit less critical of people who don’t fit the accepted standard of “normal.” All this flows easily and comfortably, worming its way into the heart without grating or sermonizing.

But here’s the thing: when I first began reading, I wanted to get out my critiquer’s pen and start slicing and dicing. Technically speaking, according to all the things we’re taught about what’s good writing and what we should avoid, this is not a particularly well-written book. There are many difficulties, ranging from wordiness, too much “telling” at the beginning to misuse of words and minor spelling and grammatical errors, and bouncing around from one time frame to another with dizzying distraction.

However. I hadn’t gotten very far into this story before all those things fell by the wayside, much as you’d shed that jacket you needed in the morning but no longer want as the day grows warm. As a writer, I still noticed the issues, but they didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story.

That was the essence of my review I posted on Amazon. But there’s more on my mind that I didn’t say there because it’s not relevant except in the world I move in (Christian fiction):

No one could call this story Christian fiction. But God, Christianity, and the church receive more than passing mention; and when these things appear, they’re portrayed with great honesty. You’ll find no gospel message here, but there are poignant examples of love, forgiveness, and redemption. The author makes no attempt to persuade the reader to consider the truth of God; however, his realistic portrayal of life confirms the truth of God, even though he makes no mention of it. No reader would find himself drawn to the gospel of Christ through reading it. In that—and only in that—I found the story lacking. But at the same time, I’m inspired.

EricThis author portrays the world honestly, neither whitewashing nor befouling the images. I’ve learned a lot over the years about the craft of writing, and I shouldn’t be lazy about employing the things I’ve been taught. But more important than skillful technique, as this book showed me, is the story itself.

J. Eric Laing could teach us all a thing or two about telling a story clearly, honestly, and with unfeigned love.

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Thursday’s Thoughts: A Higher Court

I’m thinking today about a book I read last week: A Higher Court by John L. Betcher.

It’s been about a year since I entered the world of Twitter. I swore it would never happen, but it did, giving credence to the adage Never say never.

But this isn’t about Twitter. It’s about a book written by someone I met on Twitter through the Independent Author Network, an organization of self-published and small-press authors. One of his books, A Higher Court, sounded intriguing, so several months ago I decided to buy it for my Kindle. I finally got around to reading it last week.

It’s a story about a trial attorney who’s called to serve on a jury charged with deciding a highly unusual case: Does God exist, or is it all a lie?

A couple of things drew me to this book. For one, having been a legal assistant for thirty years, I like stories about attorneys and the law; it’s something I can relate to. But mostly, of course, the issue to be decided is near and dear to me.

Mr. Betcher writes with competence and skill, and the book displayed none of the irritating technical and editorial problems that too often plague “indie” books. Most importantly, the author did an excellent job of presenting the evidence. He gave both sides equal time and equal thought. He laid it out objectively, not ridiculing any argument but allowing the jury (or, in actuality, the reader) to consider each point on its merits.

And that’s important. People tend to get worked up about this subject, and I’ve seen more than one discussion degenerate into a juvenile-minded melee of insult slinging. I’d intended to share with you just such a conversation I had on Twitter this past summer, but the other party has blocked me from his account and I’m no longer able to access his tweets on the subject.

He initially replied with scorn to a blog post I wrote about God. I no longer have his exact words, but they were derogatory. I agreed to discuss the matter provided it all remained civil. Through a series of ultra-brief back-and-forths (Twitter exchanges are limited to 140 characters, including spaces), he made a number of ill-informed and/or blatantly false statements, including but not limited to: the whole Bible has been proven wrong by every reputable expert; science has indisputably proven evolution and debunked the existence of God; all scientists are on the same page about this, with no controversy in the academic community on this score; any scientist who claims to believe in God is not really a scientist. I asked his sources for these statements, saying I’d like to learn more. His reply was, “Try reading a book. Any book. Take a college course. The proof is everywhere.” When I shared some titles I’ve found informative, he commenced to call me foul names. After I thanked him for his gracious and edifying conversation, he blocked me, which is why I can’t quote him verbatim here.

That wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed this sort of pseudo-academic diatribe, and it won’t be the last. That’s one reason I appreciated the calm discussion presented in this book. Though some of the characters expressed strong emotions, no one interrupted the flow of the conversation or prevented the witnesses from having their say (because the judge was there with his gavel at ready, maintaining order). Nor did the author try to tell the reader what to believe. Careful to differentiate between facts and conclusions, he laid out the evidence and and allowed the reader to decide what to conclude from the facts.

Nevertheless, I experienced mixed feelings while reading it. Though I very much appreciated the careful and fair-minded presentation of the evidence, I wasn’t wild about the story. The thin, unlikely plot seemed contrived, much like a clumsy easel nailed together to display a masterful painting.

Perhaps this bothered me because, as a writer, I’ve learned that story is the backbone of a work of fiction. It’s bad form to use a shaky plot as a pulpit; if we want to get a point across, we should craft a story that’s solid enough to carry it.

The flimsy story disappointed me. But I kept reading because the testimony was riveting and thought provoking.

The end, however, almost redeemed the whole thing. Without giving too away much, a character suffering brain injury thought he was hand-writing an account of the trial; but what others read was just one sentence repeated over and over, page after page: God loves you.

Whatever we think of Mr. Betcher’s story—and whatever we conclude from the evidence presented—the heavens declare the glory of God and the universe demonstrates His handiwork. No one’s forcing us to accept it, and we can’t expect to fully understand it. But nothing can change the facts. God loves us.

Thank you, Mr. Betcher, for taking the time to share this vital testimony with the world. It’s worth a serious look no matter what sort of easel it stands on.

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Monday’s Musings: Approval

Sometimes we writers (and other artistic types) are annoyingly needy when it comes to affirmation. We create a work for our own pleasure, but aren’t content to keep it to ourselves; we want to share it with others. Not so much for the enjoyment of others, but so those others can tell us how much they love it. And if they don’t love it, we’re offended.

Well, la dee da! Not everyone likes the same thing, you know. There’s no reason to take it personally if someone doesn’t happen to appreciate the way I string words together.

That’s one dimension of the writing life. Another is related: book sales.  If we write for profit (and there’s nothing wrong with earning a living), we need people to like our writing enough to pay money for it. This brings us to the necessity of marketing and promotion.

Today, I’ll focus on one small aspect of that: reviews.

I recently received four new reviews of The Story in the Stars. All four readers liked the book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the first three raves – of course! Everybody loves praise! But when I got to the fourth, my grin faded a bit. Here’s what it said:

I was conflicted while reading this novel… On one hand the book was fantastic – terrific writing and a plot that pulled me in right from the start and didn’t let go until the very end. But on the other hand, there were times where I felt that the author’s attempt to push her religious manage spoke louder than the story, and I feel was a tad heavy handed at times. I would have preferred more subtlety – more nuances. Let the reader come to the conclusion ourselves without it constantly being spoon fed to us. But fortunately I only felt this is a few places, and other than that I really thought this to be an amazing book and I can’t wait to read the next one, “Words in the Wind”!

It’s a four-star rating (which is good!), and primarily positive. But (I say with my lip protruding in a pout) it’s not all positive!

I’m not sure, precisely, what the reviewer meant by “religious manage,” but I do get the point: (s)he didn’t like the gospel message being made so plain.

I’ve gone on record as saying the story should carry the message rather than vice versa; also, that subtlety can speak louder than shouting. Did I go against my own advice with this story? The reviewer might very well have a valid objection.

But the foundational premise of the book is that when God created the heavens and the earth, He “wrote” the gospel message in the constellations for ancient man to “read.” That’s the “story in the stars” the title refers to. So the book should, I’d think, specify the message the constellations are said to proclaim.

But you can’t please everybody. I won’t try to justify myself to the reviewer, or say (s)he is wrong, or feel persecuted because of his/her objections. I’ll just say that I wrote what I wrote, realizing not everyone will like it.

The apostle Paul, who met with far more vehemence against the message than I ever will, famously said (my paraphrase), I’m not ashamed of the gospel; it’s the power of God for the salvation of all who believe it.

Not everyone will believe it. But it’s a story worth telling. I should be ashamed if the message didn’t come through!

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