Speaking of Habits…

Here’s a bad habit we haven’t talked about yet:  not reviewing books we read.

I confess that I seldom do this, for these reasons:

  • If the book’s been around for a while and already has a gazillion reviews, I don’t figure it needs one more.
  • If I don’t particularly care for the book, I feel compelled by professional courtesy to keep quiet about it. This is true for authors I don’t know as well as those I do.
  • If I do like it, it probably already has enough reviews and doesn’t need one from a nobody like me.
  • Laziness. If I’m reading for pleasure, I don’t want to add the work of writing a review afterward. What, am I in school or something?

Occasionally someone will ask for a review. When that happens, I’ll usually comply, but not always. A couple of times I declined because, well… my mother always taught me if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. On one occasion, the book was so bad I couldn’t even read it.

All in all, I’m not usually eager to write reviews. But shame on me! As an author, I know how important reviews are. No, Stephen King doesn’t need my help, but small-potatoes authors like me need all the reviews we can get. Many promotional services won’t accept a title that doesn’t have a certain number of Amazon reviews. Larger numbers of reviews help improve a book’s Amazon ranking, making it more visible. And bookstores are more likely to stock a book with a higher ranking and many reviews. So you see, we authors don’t crave reviews just to stoke our egos; they’re absolutely necessary for a book’s success.

If reviewing books intimidates you, rest easy. It doesn’t have to be difficult! In most cases, there’s to required format, and reviews don’t have to be long and involved. Take Ane Mulligan’s Amazon review of Stillwaters, for example:

Where should you post your reviews? Amazon, certainly, and also Goodreads. Those are the biggies. But if you feel inclined, you can post reviews to Barnes & Noble, Booktopia, other places online where books are sold, or your own blog. But Amazon is primo.

Am I writing this post for the purpose of begging for reviews? Yes. Absolutely. I need reviews!

But I’m also resolving to start reviewing books more often myself. In fact, I recently posted a review of a nice little book I ran across not long ago, Faith Unexpected: Real stories of people who found what they never imagined.  It is exactly as the title describes, and I won’t elaborate other than to say I enjoyed the book. If you look for it on Amazon, you’ll see my review.

It’s the sort of book that would be good to give as a gift to someone who’s “on the fence” as far as following Christ is concerned. A person who’s antagonistic toward the gospel wouldn’t appreciate it, but someone who’s curious probably would.

I don’t read as much as I’d like to, but I hereby resolve to make more of an effort to review the ones I read. At least, new books. I don’t think I’ll bother reviewing old classics.

Do you post reviews on Amazon? If you haven’t yet, would you please review mine (if you’ve read any)?

Yes, I’m begging—with apologies for the lack of dignity.

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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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Friends

GlendaAbout this time last year, I was traveling by RV with my friend Susan Lawrence and her husband, Gary, 700 miles across the US to Iowa. After a brief stay with the Lawrences in their home in Carlisle outside Des Moines, I invaded the home of David and Glenda Mathes (near Pella) for another few days. I blogged about this 2 or 3 times during that period–here’s one post, for example. But that ancient history is not what I’m here to talk about today.

Glenda’s had a good year with her writing, having published two books since my visit. They’re both nonfiction, and both well worth reading! Little One Lost is a compassionate, sensitive look at early infant loss. If you or someone close to you is going through that valley, or if you minister to others who come to you for counsel about this, I highly recommend the book’s solid scriptural perspective. Her 31-day devotional, A Month of Sundays, explores the topic of resting/trusting in God. I don’t care what’s going on in your life at the moment–I recommend this one too!

For some reason, Glenda took it into her head yesterday to give me a shout-out on her blog, which gets a lot more daily hits than mine. I’d like to return the favor. But since I don’t have the reach she does, this is more like a futile wave from afar rather than a shout.

As she points out in her post, we need friends on this journey of ours. This is true whether we’re writers or not. But especially for us crazies who have this irrational penchant for trying to put things into words, we’ll never get anywhere without the support of others.

If people are going to buy our books (and isn’t that why we write them? if the work of a plumber, a carpet installer, or tax accountant is worth paying for, why not the work of a writer? and if you don’t think it’s “work,” try doing it yourself once), they need to learn about them. And one of the best ways to get the word out is to tell people about them.

So thank you, Glenda, for going out of your way to do that on my behalf!

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Jumpstarting My Week

I received a personal message this morning in my Paperback Swap Club account.

If you’re not familiar with the club, it’s an online group for readers in which members swap books. It’s free to join, but not to participate, because you have to send books through the mail. In a nutshell, here’s how it works: on the site, you post books that are laying around the house that you’d like to get rid of. When another member requests one of those books, you send it to him or her. For every book you send out, you receive one credit, which entitles you to order any book you see posted. The more books you send out, the more you can request from other members.

I joined the club before I was a published author, in part to get rid of some books. I realized right away, however, that I wasn’t accomplishing my purposes, because 1) even with the media postage rate, it costs real money to send all those books through the mail; and 2) it didn’t help my clutter problem because I replaced all the books I got rid of with different ones. Nevertheless, I’ve been sending and receiving books this way for several years now.

When The Story in the Stars was published, I posted it to the club in the hopesStars cover someone would request it, love it, and help get the word out about it. It languished on the list for months before someone finally ordered it, and I never got any feedback from the person afterward.

When Words in the Wind was released, I posted it as well, and someone requested it. A little later I realized both books were out of circulation (that is, no one had them posted), so I posted them again. This time, they both went fairly quickly. These aren’t book sales — they’re giveaways. But, like with any other author giveaway, the idea is to expand my fan base and get the word out about the series.

This morning I received a message from the person who most recently requested The Story in the Stars. Her message said: “Thank you so much for this book! It is truly one of the best books I’ve ever read. It held my interest from the first page through to the last. I posted reviews here and on Amazon. I’m looking forward to reading the next book. This is truly a hidden gem! It was indeed very happy reading! :)”

What a lovely shot in the arm! (Or elsewhere — when I was a girl, my mother used to go to the doctor to get a vitamin B-12 shot [which was not administered in the arm] when she felt run-down, and she swore it gave her pep.) It’s not like money in the bank; it’s not even a hint of money in the bank, let alone a promise. But it’s confirmation from a wholly unbiased source that I can write a good book. (Which, at this point, I’d begun to doubt.)

At a time when my marketing efforts amount to throwing time and money into a bottomless pit, when I wonder why I waste my time with this writing nonsense, and when I’m asking myself (and God) how long I’m supposed to continue on this go-nowhere treadmill, that small comment is enough to keep me going.

At least for one more day.

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Now THAT’S What I’m Talkin’ About…

Until he joined the staff of the blog then called Novel Journey/now known as Novel Rocket, I’d never heard of Athol Dickson.

But since we’d be working together (more or less), I thought it would be nice to familiarize myself with him a little. So I checked out his blog — and found a writer after my own heart. In fact, I borrowed (stole?) a quote from one of his entries and have it displayed prominently above my computer:

Let us search out the finest words deliberately, with beauty as our goal, as shepherds once searched through their flocks for lambs without a blemish.

Man, I wish I’d said that.

Since then, I’ve read three of his books. He has a new release coming in September and I’ll review it then. (Can hardly wait!) But in the meantime, I’d like to share my thoughts concerning his 2008 release from Bethany House, Winter Haven.

Winter Haven
by Athol Dickson
Released: 2008
Publisher: Bethany House
333 pages
ISBN 978-0-7642-0164-6

Vera Gamble, shy and retiring numbers-cruncher from Dallas, Texas, gets a call from a police chief on an island off the Maine coast: they’ve recovered a body, and it appears to be her brother’s.

Her autistic older brother, Siggy, walked away from home thirteen years ago, when he was a teenager, and was never seen again. How could he have washed up now, and on a desolate Maine beach? It wasn’t possible. But Vera was trapped on a treadmill of CPA work, captured by an eternal parade of scrolling numbers that held no more meaning than the endless, impersonal Texas heat. It would be cool in Maine, and there, she could catch a break from the tedium and stress of her lonely, demanding life.

Suffering from seasickness on the mail boat to the island of Winter Haven, it’s too late for the second thoughts that plague her. And upon landing, she has third thoughts as well, and fourth ones, at the reception she receives and the shock of seeing her brother’s dead face, preserved unchanged despite the years that have passed.  But when she wants to leave, the police chief won’t release the body because too many questions remain unanswered.

Ghostly apparitions, veiled threats, polite deceptions and overt rudeness run Vera through an emotional ringer and keep the reader spellbound to the last page. Dickson proves himself a true artist, painting word pictures as graphic as oils and as breathtaking as the fragrant mists that curl through the towering pines.

It’s a compelling story, beautifully written, with a conclusion that warms the bones like the breaking through of a sunbeam.

When I have a hankering for a good book, this is exactly what I’m talking about. Athol Dickson is fast working his way toward the top of my Favorite Authors list.

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Book Review: Driven

My first ever book review on this blog!

Today I’m reviewing the Young Adult novel Driven by Shellie Neumeier, published by Risen Books.

In this fast-paced story, the teenaged protagonist, Robyn, is a likeable, lifelike character. She endures school, is flustered around good-looking boys, enjoys hanging with her friends, and is particularly tight with her BFF, Em.

But Robyn’s not the typical teen; she’s a Christian, active in her youth group, and with a desire to see others come to know Christ. She and a few of her friends take it to the streets (or at least, the school flagpole), meeting each morning to pray before classes begin. This activity not only draws the ire of a local news reporter and makes school officials uncomfortable, but it also arouses the attention of the powers of darkness. These unseen entities have a mission to stop Robyn’s spiritual progress, and they don’t pull their punches.

There’s a lot to like about this story. The human characters, both kids and adults, are realistic. In an era when the focus is on fractured and dysfunctional families, Robyn’s healthy relationship with her parents is refreshing. Relevant topics are brought up and honestly explored from a scriptural perspective. Believers are neither ashamed of their faith, nor blatantly persecuted for it. The opposition is real, but it comes from the spiritual realm.

That last is the part that gives me pause. Yes, absolutely, our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the powers of darkness. But the way those entities are depicted seems cartoonish and fantastical, and, in my opinion, it clashes with the honest realism of Robyn’s story. It almost seems as if one is superimposed upon another, like a movie that combines live action and animation. Personally, I’d rather see this story told through live action and the cartoons kept in fantasyland. Nevertheless, Ms. Neumeier weaves a good tale.

At this stage in my life I’m not familiar with this age group and their reading habits, but I’d think kids would like this book, and I’d expect Christian parents would endorse it.

Driven contains 278 pages. Available in both print and e-book, the Kindle edition was released December 1, 2010 the  paperback on March 1, 2011.

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